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Gulf war may improve climate for Iran to free US hostages

The coincidence of Iran's stubborn stalling of the Iraqi invasion of its territory and the closing weeks of the United States presidential campaign has revived speculation about an early resolution of the nearly year-long detention of the 52 American hostages in Iran.

Officials within the Carter administration discourage such speculation. They know all too well that premature disclosure of anything in the works in as sensitive a situation as either Iran's internal politics or US-Iranian relations could destroy whatever was being cautiously put together.

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White House National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, interviewed on public television Oct. 15, disclaimed knowledge of anything concrete on which to base speculation about a break in the hostage crisis "in the next two or three weeks." That time frame had been quoted in a Washington Post dispatch earlier in the day.

Yet it is possible to discern signals from both sides that could be interpreted as an edging toward the climate needed for getting the hostages freed.

From an early date, there has been a body of opinion in Iran, identified with President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, in favor of freeing the hostages because their continued detention was a roadblock to his country's freedom of maneuver in international diplomacy. But from the start there have been, and remain, two impediments to Mr. Bani-Sadr getting his way:

1. Despite his election by popular vote to high office, the persistent power struggle at the top in Iran has consistently robbed Mr. Bani-Sadr of the authority to issue orders and have them obeyed.

2. The hostages have not been, and still are not, in the custody of the government of Iran but are held by militants professing to be followers of Imam Khomeini's line. It is they who have had the guns, and until now nobody in Tehran has dared to challenge them head on and follow through.

The armed attack from Iraq -- which, incidentally, has a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union -- has increased pressures on Iranian thinking at least to temper anti-US revolutionary attitudes that have been the stock in trade since the ouster of the Shah.

In an interview on US public television last week, the head of the Iranian delegation to the United Nations, Shamsi Ali Ardakani, made the point -- almost invitingly, it seemed, to his American audience -- that the US was as aware as the Iranians of who was on Iran's northern border. He named no names, but everybody knows that it is the Soviet Union.

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Implicit in Mr. Ardakani's statement was a wish that the US at least tilt toward Iran in the current Gulf war between Iraq and Iran. Complete neutrality seems unfair to the Iranians because they see themselves, correctly, as the party to the dispute that is the victim of armed attack.

Almost in the same breath, Mr. Ardakani raised the possibility of the freeing of the hostages -- provided Ayatollah Khomeini's conditions are met. (These include a US apology and the freeing of Iranian assets in the US.)

In his subsequent public television interview, Mr. Brzezinski also had a point to make, which he presumably hoped (in his case) would reach the Iranians: that the maintenance of Iran's territorial integrity is in the national interest of the US.

This is about as far as a US government official can go, given the persistent sensitivity of American public opinion on the hostage issue. But if the Iranians ponder Mr. Brzezinski's statement, they will see that it puts a distance between the US and Iraq in so far s Iraq might be thinking of either breaking up Iran by detacing its Arab-populated Khuzestan Province or any silver of Iranian territory.

An immediate question is whether hard-line Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai, due in New York to speak Oct. 17 in the UN Security Council debate on the Gulf war, will have any contacts with American officials while in the US. Mr. Brzezinski says the Carter administration is willing to speak to anybody from Iran on the hostage question.

Mr. Rajai, because of his hard-line record, is perhaps in a better position than Mr. Basni-Sadr to conclude a deal on the hostages and get it to stick. But there is no indication so far that this might be Mr. Rajai's intention.

Yet Mr. Rajai's very coming to the UN is proof of Iran's decision, presumably concurred in by him, to try to break out of the international isolation to which the hostage crisis has contributed.

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