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."