ALTHOUGH the fate of Western hostages in Lebanon has been overshadowed by the Gulf crisis, that crisis may improve the long-term prospects for a hostage release, analysts say. Most of the 13 missing Westerners in Lebanon are believed to have been abducted by Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim groups. Western diplomats in Beirut believe, therefore, that Tehran is the key to a solution of the hostage problem. These diplomats are encouraged by indications that the Iranians want to use the Gulf crisis as a means of enhancing their image in the West.
The observers note that a mood of considerable satisfaction exists in Tehran, now that the long-running dispute with Iraq is settled and thousands of prisoners-of-war are returning home. The latest developments, Gulf experts say, will strengthen the hand of President Hashemi Rafsanjani and other Iranian leaders who favor a pragmatic approach to foreign policy. They are said to believe that this is the best way to attract badly needed foreign investment to rebuild the Iranian economy, which was shattered by Iran's war with Iraq.
Syria also has a role to play in any hostage release because of the presence of its Army in Lebanon. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad is also hoping to win new friends in the West. ``It's quite a change,'' a diplomat in Beirut notes, ``when you get President Bush calling up President Assad and you see Syrian troops in line with Americans in Saudi Arabia.''
The Syrian-Iranian alliance has been strengthened by the current crisis. In talks in Tehran last week, Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam and his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Habibi, agreed to ``adopt a joint strategy,'' and predicted a ``more positive and constructive approach'' to future relations.
Since each country shares the aim of improving ties with the West, diplomats in Beirut and Nicosia say, they may well decide that a ``joint strategy'' aimed at freeing Western hostages would be the quickest way of winning new friends.
Another, and less certain, clue to the fate of the hostages lies in Kuwait. In 1984, a Kuwaiti court jailed 17 Lebanese and Iraqi Shiites who had been convicted of carrying out a series of bomb attacks against government and Western targets in the emirate. Shiite groups in Lebanon began kidnapping foreigners precisely to secure the release of the ``Kuwait 17,'' as they became known.
Over the years, two of the 17 were released. The fate of the remaining 15 is uncertain following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. It is known, however, that Iraq has released scores of Kuwaiti prisoners. One former detainee who subsequently left Kuwait reportedly said he saw the 15 being put into cars and taken away.
This report is backed by a Western intelligence expert in the Middle East. ``The original 17 were all members of Al-Dawa, an anti-Iraqi Shiite group,'' he says. ``My understanding is that when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, the remaining 15 were whisked back to Baghdad.''
What has happened to them since is not clear. But senior Arab officials in the Gulf believe their fate is tied up with Iraq's desire to improve its relations with Iran. Last week, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein accepted all Tehran's conditions for ending the Gulf war dispute.
``If Saddam was prepared to drop overnight all the principles over which he waged war for eight years,'' one Gulf official says, ``handing over the 15 [Shiites] would surely be no problem.''
If the Iranians could deliver the former prisoners to their Shiite allies in Lebanon, the argument goes, the kidnappers would have achieved their goal and would release their hostages.
Although there is a considerable element of conjecture in this line of thought, newspapers in Lebanon have come to similar conclusions. The daily Al-Safir, which has close links with Syria, last week predicted that all the hostages would be freed before the end of this year.
However, Arab and Western analysts in the Middle East say they think that such a time-frame is too short and that nothing will become clear until the Gulf crisis is resolved. They add that the deployment of United States troops in Saudi Arabia has complicated the picture by antagonizing large sections of the Muslim - and especially Shiite - community in the Middle East.
``Releasing the American hostages now would be a reward to the Americans for their invasion of the Gulf,'' says Hussein Musavi, leader of the pro-Iranian Lebanese group Islamic Amal.
A British diplomat in Beirut agrees that an early release of hostages is unlikely. ``There is certainly no sign of anything at the moment, and I don't think one can expect anything when all the major players are concentrating on the Gulf,'' he says.
But diplomats in Beirut and Nicosia who are closely involved in the hostage issue believe that the Gulf crisis might, in the end, improve the chances for a hostage release. ``There are some important changes in the climate in the region - there is a little bit of optimism,'' says one diplomat.