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Hostage transfer hopes fade

To an offstage chorus of "Kill America . . . Death to Carter," three American clergymen held Easter services inside the captive US Embassy amid flagging hopes of even an initial breakthrough toward ending the five- month-old hostage crisis.

At the same time, Iran's Revolutioniary Council, meeting late April 6 under the gavel of President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, considered how, when, or whether to take control of the 50 Americans from their militant student captors. Council members said the group had decided to consult with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

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But Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh said the decision would be announced following these talks April 7. Initial indications from Iranian and Western analysts were that no early hostage transfer was in the cards.

Amid increasing opposition to such a move from Muslim hardliners, even the relatively moderate Mr. Bani-Sadr seemed to be toughening his position -- demanding, in effect, that President Carter recognize Iran's right to determine the fate of the embassy captives.

With the caveat that anything can happen in revolutionary Iran, one diplomat remarked, "It seems yet another potential move toward resolving the crisis has been snagged by internal politics."

Among the "internal" complications evident by Easter Sunday:

* Ayatollah Khomeini, whose word is law, appeared to be wavering on a hostage transfer he had initially supported in principle. Some Iranian sources said the Ayatollah confided to associates that he now did not favor an early transfer of control over the hostages. At the very least, the only Iranian who can unilaterally determine policy seemed unlikely to take the lead on the transfer issue.

* Key Muslim hardliners, including Revolutionary Council member Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, have been seizing on the hostage controversy as a weapon in their escalating rivalries with the President. Ayatollah Beheshti's Islamic Republican Party (IRP) came out April 5 flatly against taking control of the captives from the student militants.

* Some of the students, themselves, had indicated they are willing to hand over control of the hostages if the Revolutionary Council says so. But Iranian analysts say other, more hardline students remain opposed to this and feel confident Mr. Bani-Sadr cannot swing the support from Ayatollah Khomeini and IRP leaders needed to push through such a move.

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During the roughly eight hours the American clergymen spent inside the American Embassy, one bearded Iranian youth confided that his brother was one of the captors. "I tried for 10 days to argue against him," the young man told the Monitor. "But all the students are firm in the belief that what they are doing is right."

The three Midwestern clergymen, led by the Rev. Jack Bremmer of Kansas, are part of a group formed after the Nov. 4 embassy attack to force greater understanding between Americans and Iranians in hopes of ending the crisis.

The ministers entered the embassy compound by a back entrance shortly after noon on a crisp and cloudless Easter Sunday. A student spokesman said they had seen the hostages in separate groups but it could not be immediately confirmed that all the captives were included.

Outside, the anti-American fervor of November had waned. When the clergymen arrived, only a dozen bystanders clustered before the chained front gate of the 26-acre embassy complex. By nightfall, with the ministers still inside, the number had swollen to about 100.

They sang praise to Ayatollah Khomeini.They chanted for the death of America, President Carter, the deposed and exiled Shah whose return they seek, and the Egyptian President who has offered him "permanent" asylum.

Amid banners tattered by time and blackened by Tehran's smog, several of the demonstrators held up small handwritten signs. "US bishop should leave soon. Doesn't need them," said one ungrammatical example.

What is going on inside, one of the student gatekeepers was asked. "They are having an Easter party," he said. "They are eating, they are thanking God."

The question for Washington was how soon the hostages might be able to offer thanks for their freedom -- or at least a transfer that many diplomats feel would be a step in that direction.

Ayatollah Khomeini has made it clear a final resolution of the hostage crisis rests with Iran's still unelected parliament. The first round of voting has given the IRP a majority of the roughly 100 seats decided. Another 170 remain to be filled in a second round of balloting.

Iranian officials say the body probably will not convene before June. A hostage decision, especially if the hardline IRP again runs strongly, could then be slow, negative, or both.

Mr. Bani-Sadr, Iranian political analysts suggest, will now concentrate efforts on electing his own supporters in the second round of voting, trimming IRP strength, and getting a troubled Iran back on its feet.

But meanwhile, there are indications he is moving away from support of an early hostage transfer that could anger his hardline rivals.

The President had at first said the Revolutionary Council would be willing to assume control of the hostages if Mr. Carter agreed to refrain from anti-Iranian words or deeds until parliament convened. Later, he was quoted as saying Mr. Carter had met that condition.

But speaking to the French newspaper Le Monde April 4, Mr. Bani-Sadr seemed to take a harder line.

He said Washington had declared its "understanding" that the future parliament had been charged with deciding the hostages' fate.

Mr. Bani-Sadr apparently wanted more. "'Understand,' in English is ambiguous. It doesn't necessarily mean the United States admits the jurisdiction of our parliament" in the hostage matter, he was quoted as saying.


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