What has Iran gained by holding the hostages in Tehran for almost one year? Assuming Iran's four-point list is agreed to by the White House and the hostages are released in the days or weeks ahead, the answer is that the fundamentalist revolution headed by Ayatollah Khomeini has gained, but Iran in general has suffered considerable loss.
How the Iranian revolution has benefited:
* Internal power has been consolidated. In October 1979, prior to the seizure of the United States Embassy by militants, Iran was split politically between left- and right-wing factions. Discontent was very high.
The original revolution was a combined effort of left, right, center, and mosque.
But by that October a partisan debate loomed over adoption of an Islamic constitution, with dissent led by the educated middle and upper classes under the banner of secular nationalists, leftists, and moderate prime minister Mehdi Bazargan's government.
The hostage seizure, the subsequent crisis, and the worldwide attention it precipitated effectively moved this debate to the background. The huge daily outpourings of support for the militants at the US Embassy intimidated dissent, and the Islamic republic swept to approval.
The factions that remain in Iran generally consist of hard- and soft-line variants on the Islamic-republic theme. Many communists and socialists have gone underground.
* A measure of revenge against the US has been extracted. Ayatollah Khomeini , his supporters, and many other Iranians have condemned 30 years of US involvement in Iranian affairs, especially for US support of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi's repressive regime. Shiite Iran is a revenge-minded society, which has resorted to retributive acts such as the firing squad and even occasional public stonings.
* The late Shah was cut off from whatever he might have done to regain control of the country when the militants drove a human wedge between him and his Western supporters. The hostages were international insurance. By reacting so dramatically to the admission of the Shah into the US for hospital treatment, the Iranians served warning on other nations not to aid or support the deposed monarch.
At least until most Western reporters and television cameras were expelled last summer the hostage seizure succeeded in riveting world attention on Iran, thereby insuring that Iran's affairs were known to the world. In addition, vast publicity was given to Shiite Islam and to the appearance of a nonaligned Islamic republic in the 20th century. Whether this ultimately helps or hinders Islam and/or the nonaligned nations' movement remains to be seen.
But the cost to Iran has been high, indeed, if measured by normal standards. The problem, however, is that Shiite Iran does not measure itself thus. Suffering and martyrdom are often considered blessings to Shiites. The year and a half of governmental chaos in Iran, the damage to the Iranian economy by international trade sanctions, the disruption of daily life -- all are casually tossed aside by many Iranian leaders.
An adviser to President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr recently stated that even without exporting "a drop of oil," with sufficient belt tightening, "we can survive a year."
"You must remember," a US diplomatic analyst says, "these people are suffering by our standards, not by their own."
The extent of that suffering seems apparent. Had Iran not cut itself off from regional and bigger power allies, Iraq might not have attempted so blatant an act as its invasion six weeks ago.
Even without the war, however, Iran was only drifting along economically. Its huge oil fields could produce only $13 billion in revenue the past year, one-half the relatively modest amount that Mr. Bani-Sadr had budgeted. Now, in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion, Iran's revenue-producing oil fields are either in enemy hands or badly damaged.
So dire is the situation that this oil-rich nation is rationing gasoline and home-heating fuel. Each household will receive only one-half of the amount it uses in a normal winter. Possibly more telling: Orders have been placed with India for 100,000 gaslight mantles.
With its oil revenue dwindling, Iran has attempted to draw on its reserves, but more than half of those reserves are locked up in American banks, with more than 250 lawsuits aimed at his money. Post-hostage sanctions also have blocked shipment of vital war material to iran, forcing its Army to fight with jury-rigged equipment.
The release of the hostages, if indeed it occurs, would give Iran immediate tangibles in the form of money and military parts, as well as an important moral victory in the US pledge of noninterference.
But Iran is a country still caught in revolutionary chaos, faced with an enemy army on its soil, and reeling economically as winter approaches. Release of the hostages may force Iran to take another hard look at itself.