Hostage Breakthrough

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All day Friday, the White House tried to tread a narrow line between the obvious U.S. joy at signs of substantial progress and the still prevalent fears that something might yet go awry. Said Press Secretary Jody Powell in response to the barrage of inquiries: "It is certainly everyone's hope there will be an agreement, but it is not a certainty. We do not have an agreement yet. Once they see our response, if they agree with it, we will have an agreement." Conceded a senior White House official: "The outstanding issues are not questions of principle. Those have been resolved."

Hopes for a quick agreement faded after the U.S. text reached Iran on Saturday morning. Prime Minister Raja'i canceled a scheduled press conference and a meeting with foreign ambassadors without explanation. He and Iran's top hostage negotiators then sent a request for clarifications, apparently on the money question, through the Algerians to Christopher. The Iranians seemed to be dissatisfied with the limited movement of cash and gold made by the U.S. Still, no insurmountable obstacles were raised anew by Iran. At the White House, Powell declared: "I am not aware of anything that changes the relative mix of optimism and pessimism."

With negotiations at such a delicate stage, the Carter Administration was outraged to find that the Soviet Union was trying to stir up new trouble for the U.S. with Iran. Powell and State Department Spokesman Trattner berated the Kremlin over a charge in the official Soviet newspaper Pravda that the U.S. was getting ready to use military force in Iran. On instructions from President Carter, Muskie took the unusual step of summoning Soviet Ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin for a scolding, terming the newspaper account "scurrilous propaganda" and warning that it could have "lasting effects on U.S.Soviet relations." Speaking for Carter, Powell called the Soviet meddling "a despicable manner of behavior."

Meanwhile, the plans for carrying the Americans out of Tehran were being completed. In Tehran, where there has long been considerable public hostility toward the hostages, officials planned to move the Americans to the airport during the night, when there would be little traffic or crowds along the highways. The Algerian airliner, perhaps escorted by U.S. fighter planes, would take them to Algiers, thus confirming the Americans' release and setting the exchange of money into motion. Two U.S. C-9A Nightingale hospital planes from Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany would then pick up the ex-hostages in Algiers for the roughly two-hour flight to Frankfurt, near the U.S. Air Force's 235-bed hospital in Wiesbaden, West Germany, America's best military hospital in Europe. Said a surgeon there: "Officially, we still don't even know if the hostages will be coming here. Unofficially, a wing is reserved, beds are made, fresh flowers are ordered, and we're expecting 52 new patients any day now."

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