Growing domestic strains within this country appear to be pushing Iran's fundamentalist leaders to look for ways to end both the hostage impasses and the Gulf war.
The fundamentalists once hoped that they could strike back against Iraq with weapons expected to flow in after release of the American hostages. Today such hopes have faded.
Instead it is clear that the fundamentalists miscalculated their ability to persuade the United States, in effect, to trade the hostages for renewed military supplies. And, at the same time, the Europeans have emphasized they will not funnel weaponry into the region while the war grinds on.
Hence the new and more modest hope here is that ending the hostages' long captivity will ease the country's severe economic strains; that a hostage release would pave the way for an inflow of nonmilitary goods and credits and sidetrack today's rising resentment against the "mullah-cracy."
Hence, in turn, the fundamentalists are carefully keeping their options open on mediation both with the United States and with Iraq. Well-informed diplomats here point out that:
1. Iran has not given an outright rejection to the US reply to Iran's conditions for release of the hostages. Instead, a special commission in Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai's office has been studying the US reply for the past five days.
2. At the same time, Iran has shown revived interest in attempts by the United Nations, the nonaligned nations, and the Islamic states to bring both sides in the Gulf war to the negotiating table.
On the hostage issue, Iran's demands for cancellation of all US claims against it and for the return of the wealth of the former Shah are the "sticky issues," according to diplomatic sources. But prominent Iranian officials seem to be searching for a possible compromise.
The US, for example, is understood here to be willing to release only $5 billion of the $8.5 billion assets now frozen in American banks. And, according to one senior diplomat, an Algerian negotiator is trying to explain to Iran that "even if President Carter releases at 8:00 tonight Iran's frozen assets, valued at $8.5 billion, US courts will have $3.5 billion impounded by five past 8 the same evening."
Regarding the return of the Shah's wealth, the US is said to reject any effort to strip the Shah's close relations of their possessions. The US reportedly is ready to help retrieve the former Shah's own wealth but points out , according to diplomatic sources, that it is difficult to determine what "has been stolen from the Iranian people and what rightfully belonged to the former Iranian monarch."
Questioned by this reporter, Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, who with the exception of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is Iran's most politically powerful spiritual leader, indicated Nov. 6 that Iran is aware of the legal difficulties in fulfilling its conditions.
"If they [the US] can explain all the difficulties, that can be a good beginning to develop a solution," Ayatollah Beheshti said. "But," he added, "I am not sure that the [US] answer has been enough to make all points clear."
Beheshti confirmed that the ultimate decision will have to be taken by the Majlis. "If they are convinced that one or two of the conditions are impossible to fulfill legally, parliament should decide."
Diplomats believe that the issue will indeed revert to parliament, "but that it is so complicated that the Iranians need time to digest the whole thing." They point out, however, that "the real decision" is not made in the Majlis but within the Islamic Republican Party (IRP).
Uproar about the arrest of Iran's former foreign minister, Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, Nov. 7 has made the IRP acutely aware of the effects of the growing strain of the war effort on the population -- and increasing resentment against the "mullah-cracy." Mr. Ghotbzadeh's first public appearance after his release turned into a massive protest in the Tehran bazaar Nov. 15 against the IRP's dominant role in Iranian politics.
Shortages of essential goods and the rationing of sugar and gasoline have caused a sharp rise in prices. Iranians tell stories of incidents with mullahs controlling the rationing at Tehran's filling stations.
Iran's fundamentalist clergy now hopes to relieve the pressures by resolving the hostage issue and paving the way for a flow of nonmilitary goods and credit to Iran.
By the same token, Iran is keeping its options open for a political solution to the Gulf war. "Without decreasing our military efforts we are now more open to political solutions," a close aide to President Bani-Sadr told the Monitor Nov. 16, indicating a major change in Iranian attitudes.
Iran's Foreign Ministry last week asked the Secretary-General of the Conference of Islamic Countries, Habib Chatti, to go ahead with plans for a six-nation goodwill mission to Iran and Iraq. Former Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme is expected Nov. 17 in Tehran to "investigate [on behalf of UN Secretary- General Kurt Waldhem] the prospects of peace." Cuba's Foreign Minister Isidoro Malmierca was expected late Nov. 16 back in Tehran from Baghdad.
The Cuban official is said to carry with him an Iraqi reply to a nonaligned five-point plan for calling for:
* A cease-fire and withdrawal of Iraqi troops.
* Adherence and implementation of the 1975 Algiers Agreement.
* Establishment of a joint committee to oversee navigation in the Shatt al Arab waterway.
* Noninterference in the internal affairs of both countries.
* An end to the propaganda warfare.
Iran's Islamic leadership avoided since the overthrow of the Shah any acknowledgement of the Algiers Agreement, which calls for the return of approximately 400 square kilometers of Iranian territory in Iraq. Iran, aides to President Bani-Sadr now claim, is ready to return this territory should Iraq withdraw to the borders before the eruption of the Gulf war. But Iran still refuses to sit with Iraq at the negotiating table as long as Iraqi troops remain on the Iranian soil.
Diplomats and political analysts in Tehran, conceding that Iraq's President Saddam Hussein had long called for a cease-fire and negotiations, find it hard to believe that Iran's interpretation of the Cuban plan will be acceptable to Iraq. This, they say, could work in favor of keeping up the internal pressure for a quick resolution of the hostage crisis. Said one Iranian government official: "They [the fundamentalists] are now desperate for a solution. It is their only way out."