"Both sides are still groping for a channel with which they can both be comfortable," said a senior Administration official. The United States has relied on Japanese and Swiss envoys as the main conduits for official communication, while using the Algerians as middlemen in both Lebanon and Iran.
The official said the Iranians have relayed messages through the Algerians and other governments that he would not identify. He said there is strong speculation that Algeria may become the leading channel for mediation, a role it also played during the 1979-81 hostage crisis in Tehran. The official said Algeria probably would be the second choice of both the United States and Iran and therefore an acceptable compromise.
Despite the encouraging developments, a high-ranking U.S. diplomatic official was guarded in his assessment. "The Iranians, as they have in the past, have used different channels to send different messages," the official said. Some of the messages "are encouraging, others less so."
So far, the official noted, there has been no single, authoritative message from Iran on which the U.S. government could rely.
In the absence of a direct channel to Iran, officials are wary of being whipsawed by purported middlemen, each bearing a different set of demands. Officials also worry that if the United States appears too eager to open talks, Iran's government and the Shiite militants in Lebanon may begin to escalate their demands.
So far, for example, the captors in their public statements have called for release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. In the past, however, some of the same groups have demanded release of Shiite prisoners held in Kuwait since a series of bombings in 1983. And the faction that held Higgins in the past has called for the release of Mohammed Ali Hamadi, who was convicted earlier this year of involvement in the 1985 hijacking of a TWA jetliner.
"We've gotten burned when we jumped at words in the past," a senior Administration official said. "This time . . . we'll have to be patient and consistent, which we haven't always been."
Bush, after spending considerable time on the phone last week calling world leaders asking for their help, is now leaving diplomatic efforts to the State Department.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang, Norman Kempster and Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.