The big question on the minds of diplomats and political analysts here in the Iranian capital is whether the US hostage crisis will be resolved before or immediately after the inauguration of President-elect Ronald Reagan.
"Politically, things are sailing beautifully," say diplomats involved in attempts to solve the crisis in United States-Iranian relations.
"But," they add, "when the Algerian negotiating team and the Iranians get down to the financial and legal nitty-gritty, serious hitches still exist."
For the past week, the Algerians and Iranians have been struggling with words in what diplomats call "a concerted effort to help the Iranians comprehend the US reply to the conditions for release of the hostages."
Now that the Shah is dead, the Algerians are understood to have argued, the United States is offering Iran the best deal it can get.
Although the hostage commission set up in Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai's office appears to be convinced of American good intentions, it finds it difficult to grasp that certain elements of the conditions are legally, at the least, extremely difficult to fulfill. Diplomats in Tehran, however, take encouragement from the "good job" being done by the Speaker of the Iranian Majlis (parliament), Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani.
"The government will act according to the decision of the Majlis," he told a press conference Nov. 17. He added, "There will be no need for referring the question of the hostages back to the Majlis," indicating his preference for a quick decision by the Rajai government.
Diplomats in Tehran, meanwhile, debate among themselves whether Iran's fundamentalists want a quick decision before or after the inauguration of President-elect Reagan. Those believing that Iran wishes to resolve the hostage issue soon argue that:
* Iran wants to deal with Mr. Reagan starting next January with a clean slate. Iranian officials were satisfied with a message from President Carter Nov. 6 emphasizing that he remained American chief executive until Jan. 20.
* Iran sees as beneficial a resolution of the hostage crisis during the interim because it will bind both the outgoing Carter administration and the incoming Reagan government.
Those believing that the issue will be resolved only after Mr. Reagan has been inaugurated feel that Iran will wish "to impress the new President by giving him the hostages as a gift."
They point to the relatively moderate (by Iranian standards) reaction here to the Reagan victory. Jumhurri Islami, the fundamentalist Islamic Republican Party's daily newspaper, noted Nov. 6:
"Reagan is one of the stubborn opponents of the policy of softness and flexibility toward Iran. . . . However, we believe that warmongering and domination-seeking policies and counterrevolutionary moves of imperialism against the repressed nations of the world are not characteristics confined to Reagan only. . . . The future will show us that Reagan's presidency may be more useful for the Islamic revolution. . . ."
Even with the present rate of progress toward solving the hostage issue, diplomats expect a release either around Christmas or toward the end of January. For the time being, Iran appears to be throwing the ball back into the American court.
Diplomats say that "logistical preparations" have been made for the departure from Tehran of the Algerian negotiating team. They are expected to carry with them an Iranian request for "clarification" of the US reply to Iran's conditions for the release of the hostages.