Iran's hard-line clerics seem once again to have outfoxed the country's moderate President, but that could ultimately turn out to be good news for the American hostages.
A lot of Iranian revolutionary "ifs" remain. The militant students actually holding the 52 captives, in what has become Tehran tradition, denied July 24 a Middle East newspaper report that the Americans would be freed at the mid-August end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
But it has been clear almost since the day last November when the militants stormed the US Embassy that the captors were not going to wind down the crisis on their own initiative. The initiative would have to come from supreme Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, or from a politician powerful enough to gain undisputed hold of government with at least tacit approval from the Ayatollah.
Only the most optimistic of Western analysts still argues that President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, however much he wants the captive Americans sent home, can tell his powerful fundamentalist rivals in Iran's parliament what to do.Ayatollah Khomeini repeatedly has said parliament would decide the fate of the hostages.
But Tehran diplomats have long suspected there may be a "second-best" scenario for the Americans' release; that if President Bani-Sadr can't win Iran's power struggle, maybe the clerical politicians can.
Their leader, Islamic Republican Party founder Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, has blown hot and cold on the hostage issue. The fact that he took a tougher line after Mr. Bani-Sadr's landslide victory in January's presidential election is seen as an indication that Ayatollah Beheshti may be using the US captives as a tool in the country's power struggle.
"If so," one Tehran diplomat has suggested privately, "the tool could be discarded should Ayatollah Behesti win the power struggle convincingly. In fact , I would suspect Ayatollah Beheshti might even want to resolve the hostage crisis so his rivals could not, in turn, use it against him."
The latest sparring between Mr. Bani-Sadr and Ayatollah Beheshti, over the naming of a prime minister who must be endorsed by parliament, seems to suggest an IRP victory may be coming closer.
The open question is when, or whether, Mr. Bani-Sadr might in effect surrender or agree to rule according to IRP terms.The consensus guess among Western analysts is that the politically handcuffed President will not give up just yet, but that he is wearing down in much the same fashion as Mehdi Bazargan , the moderate named prime minister by Ayatollah Khomeini after Iran's revolution. Mr. Bazargan threw up his hands and resigned days after the seizure of the US Embassy.
Reports from Tehran on the shadow boxing between President Bani-Sadr and Ayatollah Beheshti over the naming of a new prime minister indeed appear to indicate the President is becoming increasingly discouraged.
In what seemed a desperate maneuver to dodge IRP obstacles to naming one of his own trusted cohorts to the prime ministry, President Bani-Sadr is said to have suggested at one point that Ayatollah Khomeini's son, Ahmad, take the post.
Informed Iranian sources have told the Monitor that the younger Khomeini, although sharing his father's commitment to militant Islam, has become increasingly angry over Ayatollah Beheshti's less-than-subtle bid to undermine Iran's elected President.
Mr. Bani-Sadr's maneuver ran around. Ayatollah Khomeini is said to have vetoed his son's nomination on the grounds that Khomeini and family should not descend to the arena of day-to-day politics.
Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranian analysts say, both likes and trusts the President , but to invest Mr. Bani-Sadr with real power would necessarily mean humiliating the clerical politicians. Tehran analysts suspect the Ayatollah is emotionally incapable of this.