Whatever its other repercussions at home and abroad, in Iran the saga of the U.S. hostages first and foremost fueled a slow-motion power struggle inside the Islamic revolution.
Long after the gesticulating Tehran crowds stopped obliging the world's television cameras with their shouts outside the occupied U.S. Embassy, the hostages serves as ammunition to eliminate one political group after another in a classic example of revolution devouring its children.
As the months dragged on -- and the Islamic revolution's increasingly erratic behaviour excaped rational analysis -- its prestige and influence in the Third World declined. Tehran's pickly pronouncements to friend and foe alike all but isolated Iran, even when Iraq attacked its territory in September.
Iran's fundamentalists, meanwhile, took their time in pushing aside enemies and potential enemies, often using the hostages as tools. In the end, it appears that the tough talk of President-elect Ronald Reagan and the deadline set by the outgoing Carter administration provided a convenient backdrop for ending what had become an issue that was no longer so useful domestically.
All but obscured in the initial November 1979 outburst of anti-American tirades in Tehran was the crucial fact that within days the fundamentalist militants who occupied the embassy had counted their first victims. Out went Prime Minister Mehdi Bazaragan and his provisional government, brought down by a coalition united only in opposition to his desire to limit the revolution and return the country to an even keel.
In retrospect, the eventual victors were visible to the naked eye then. For the militants in the embassy were ideologically in thrall to the fundamentalist clergy who first gained Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's unshakable confidence in their quest for power.
But Iran's revolutionary politics are those of indirection, procrastination and indecisiveness. Thus, the fundamentalists of the Islamic republican Party eliminated their rivals over the months while the hostages languished.
At first allied with such Western-trained, longtime exiles as President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr and Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh -- who themselves used the hostages in their own intramural rivalry -- the fundamentalists followed up their coup against Bazargan by doing in the so-called liberals and reformists close to the ousted prime minister.
Aided by detailed documents pilfered from a paper-heavy U.S. Embassy, the radicals were able to drive middle-of-the-road reformers who had any record of contact with the United States out of politics -- and often out of the country for fear of their lives.
Bani-Sadr's election as president just a year ago provided the fundamentalists' only serious setback. They learned their lesson. Never again did they give Bani-Sadr, Ghotbzadeh or other laymen an opening.
Thus did they frustrate various efforts to negotiate the hostages' release last spring. Subsequently, they used the Islamic Republican Party's over-whelming legislative election victory to isolate Bani-Sadr's presidential team.
The outbreak of the war with Iraq briefly raised Bani-Sadr's hopes that his front-line identification with a hastily rehabilitated Army could right his political career. But these tactics failed.
Gradually, the hostages fell into limbo. They had become at that moment irrelevant to the Iranian power struggle. Bani-Sadr took no part in resolving the conflict. No longer a source of stirring up popular frenzy, the hostage issue even failed to provide the prod required to awaken a war-threatened government.
Steeped in martyrdom, cannily able to export a million barrels a day of oil to pay for the war according to recent reports, the fundamentalists felt no pressing need to settle the issue. They were unmoved even by the promise of lifting sanctions applied by the United States and its European and Japanese allies in retaliation for the hostage-taking.
But the war remains unfinished and the revolution is far from over even if the fundamentalist clergy has maneuvered itself to profit from the eventual disappearance of an increasingly frail Khomeini.
Revolutionary -- and now wartime -- exhortations in favor of austerity, abandonment of Western consumerism and a return to Islamic purity only partly mask the fundamentalists' gravest failing and vulnerability: their singular mismanagement of the economy and administration.
Perhaps only to keep up their courage, the mullahs' critics dwell on growing anticlerical sentiments among everyday Iranians and predict upheavals after Khomeini is no longer around to protect the fundamentalists with his untarnished halo of infallibility.
Few major revolutions have run their course without periods of turbulence and instability. In addition, two years after its triumph over the monarchy, Iran's revolution seemingly has had little luck in exporting its brand of Islam. Perhaps overcomplacently, the Arab oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf have learned to live with Khomeini's threats. Indeed the smaller states are not entirely unhappy that such fears helped panic Iraq into a stalemate war with Iran.
Elsewhere, whatever secret pleasure many Third World states undoubtedly took at the humiliation of the American superpower was undercut by Tehran's lesson-giving proclivities.
The hostage-taking itself was all but universally condemned.Even Libya, Syria and Algeria, which along with North Korea have remained friendly and helpful during the war with Iraq, joined that chorus.
What remains of the revolution's appeal?
Compromised along with his own career was Bani-Sadr's dream of escaping the influence of both super-powers. However reluctantly and unevenly, America's allies applied the economic sanctions the Carter administration felt obliged to invoke to punish the hostage seizure.
How Iran will choose to deal with these industrial nations remains to be seen now that the sanctions are probably going to be lifted. Self-sufficiency, small is beautiful, less is more -- the original hallmarks of the Islamic revolution -- may have been lost in the long power struggle. Perhaps the war with Iraq, if Tehran avoids final defeat, may recharge those revolutionary batteries and yet bring that aspect of Iran's experiment to fruition.
A more likely fate, however, is that such ideals have fallen victim to all-too-familiar revolutionary rhetoric.
The anti-impreialism that provided the cement among nations of a newly independent Third World after World War II is now part of history. The 1956 Bandung Conference that was the seminal Third World gathering seems dated and a reading of what China, India or Egypt said there and what they say today would make embarrassing reading.
The Iranian revolution once held out the promise of new directions for a Third World not yet come to terms with the disturbing heritage of post-1945 decolonization. Only the most uncritical would make that claim today.