Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his team appeared resigned today to stay and negotiate down to the wire for the release of the U.S. hostages in Tehran amid heightened skepticism that they would be freed before the Reagan administration is sworn in.
Christopher's Boeing 707 Air Force jetliner sits immobile at Algiers Airport as commercial airliners come and go.
The U.S. team had let it to be known Saturday that they hoped to leave here today to return to Washington in time for Secretary of State Edmund Muskie's farewell dinner at the State Department. They have since abandoned all hope of getting back by then.
Despite high level of activity around the U.S. Embassy compound on the heights over-looking the Bay of Algiers, the indications are that the negotiating team had nothing but small bones to chew on today.
A statement by Christopher made public in Washington that there were still serious problems unresolved seemed to be an expression of frustration that the American team has been reduced to passing messages back and forth about relatively minor procedural matters.
All such statements about the state of the talks are made in Washington, not here. Reporters in Algiers generally are given little information about the way the talks are conducted.
As reporters arrived outside the embassy at 8:30 a.m. today, there appeared to be intense activity, with lights blazing from the offices the Christopher group has been using. Two members of the U.S. team were seen carrying papers to the Algerian Foreign Ministry, apparently the response to questions from Tehran.
By lunchtime, however, the urgency seemed to have dissipated. Algerian Foreign Minister Mohammed Benyahia invited Christopher to a three-hour lunch at one of Algiers' better restaurants, and the impression given around the embassy was that it had been a relaxed, almost social occasion rather than the kind of working lunch that would have taken place in the privacy of the ministry.
Some observers even concluded that the two men had run out of serious topics relating to the hostages that they could usefully discuss today. Early in the evening, embassy officials told the television crews standing out in the penetrating rain in the courtyard that the day's activities were over and that unlike other night's this week, it was safe to go home.
A statement in Tehran by Iranian negotiator Ahmed Azizi that "it seems that the date of the release of the hostages is approaching" since the Algerian government had announced its formal acceptance of a U.S. commitment to return Iran's frozen assets and to take steps to recover the late shah's fortune was greeted here with puzzlement.
Algerian officials said they did not understand what Azizi was saying and that Algeria has not made and will not make any announcements. The officials refused to get into any discussion of the substance of the negotiations.
In an indication from their side, however, that they are not optimistic about a settlement before Ronald Reagan's inauguration, Algerian officials repeated an offer first made yesterday to keep acting as the intermediary after Jan. 20.
Algerian Foreign Ministry spokesman Baba Ali said it was "certainly" possible that the hostages might first be flown to Algiers, but neither side has asked for that and no such arrangments have been made.
There are strong indications here that neither the Americans nor the Algerians want the hostages flown here, but that neither would be astonished if the Iranians were to find some reason for insisting on that as a way of underlining Algeria's responsibility to see to it that Iran gets the money the United States has pledged to release.
Christopher called on Algerian President Chadli Benjedid yesterday to thank him for the quality of the Algerian diplomatic work and its discertain and impartiality.
The Christopher team's presence here is justified from the U.S. viewpoint as a tremendous saving in time communicating back and forth. On minor and procedural issues, the Christopher team is understood to have given the Algerian intermediaries immediate answers, simply informing Washington about what has been said.
All those involved in the talks have maintained consistently that, contrary to the impression the press gives of a dramatic diplomatic slalom, the negotiations have been a slow, deliberate process ever since the Algerians became the exclusive intermediaries in November.
While an Algerian official conceded that the pace had accelerated during the last few days, the emphasis is on step-by-step progress. If there were no time constraints, one insider said, the logical outcome would be an agreement someday. But, he added, that kind of time may no longer be available. "Guard against optimism" is the slogan that is constantly offered here to the press.