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Iran debate: free hostages before or after US poll?

Opinion in Iran seems to the subtly shifting. In the past, President Carter was viewed as the Iran's great enemy -- the man who confronted Ayatollah Khomeini and launched the abortive rescue operation.

Today, with one eye on the possibility of a Reagan win in the American presidential election and with the other on Russian troops just over the border in Afghanistan, some leading Iranians appear to be moderating their opinions.

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These Iranians are beginning to suggest that it could be in their own country's interest to resolve the hostage issue as soon as possible. Hence the faint hopes aroused in Washington over the past couple of weeks.

These hopes were fueled most recently by the US State Department's public acceptance of Iranian President Bani-Sadr's proposal to revive an inquiry into alleged US crimes against Iran during the Shah's reign. State Department spokesman George Sherman Sept. 17 confirmed the US position that such an international inquiry would be acceptable, provided it was conducted "in the context of the release of the American hostages."

Among those who have shifted their position on the hostages during the past three weeks reportedly is Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, chief of the Islamic Republican Party, which dominates the Iranian Majlis (parliament).

Ayatollah Beheshti's party has benefited most from the hostage crisis, and apparently the party now feels it has little more to gain from holding them indefinitely.

The majlis originally was expected to take up the issue about the third week of July, but infighting on the appointment of a prime minister and the Cabinet delayed the debate for about eight weeks.

It probably is no coincidence, however, that the Iranians have brought the issue into the limelight just about the time the United States election campaign is beginning to heat up. For the past six months, if not longer, there have been consistent indications that Iran's mullah-led regime had intended to hold the hostages long enough to influence the US elections.

But while last spring the intention appeared to be to use the hostage issue to ensure that President Carter was not reelected, the signs recently have been that the Iranian leadership may be having second thoughts about this.

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In short, they are not so sure that Republican candidate Ronald Reagan would be the kind of American president they would like to see in power either. A remark made by Mr. Reagan a few weeks ago indicating that he would solve the hostage issue in 24 hours if elected has not been lost on the Iranians.

It has been interpreted to mean that the Republican, if elected, would launch some kind of military action against Iran. This, the Iranian leaders believe, would be directed not merely at freeing the hostages, but also at toppling the regime itself and replacing it by a pro-American one.

Mr. Reagan, at any rate, is seen as being far more brash than Mr. Carter, and the strong anti-Carter campaign launched in Iran since the beginning of the hostage crisis consequently has been toned down recently.

No Iranian political figure has been indiscreet enough to express his preference openly for Carter against Reagan, but most deputies in the Iranian parliament are shrewd enough to realize that an early dicision to release the hostages would be to Mr. Carter's benefit in the election.

If the issue is allowed to stretch out until after Nov. 4, Mr. Reagan would reap the benefits, according to this logic.

These and other sensitive questions revolving around the hostage crisis have to be discussed thoroughly and frankly among the Majlis deputies. Perhaps because of this, parliament decided Sept. 16 that the issue would first be examined by a parliamentary subcommittee, which would submit or report on its findings to the lower house.

Almost certain to be taken up in the subcommittee's discussion is recent news media speculation of a possible US military buildup in the Middle East to counterbalance Soviet divisions now based in Afghanistan or along the borders with Iran. Chief of Staff Gen. Valiallah Fallahi has told interviewers that Iran was directly threatened by this buildup.

Other Iranian analysts have visualized American forces actually landing in Iran, using the hostage issue as a full justification. The Majlis subcommittee is likely to find that releasing the hostages and thereby getting rid of them as an excuse for US intervention would be the best way of dealing with the situation.

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