Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), for years the nemesis of the White House on relations with the Soviet Union, yesterday lauded the direction in which President Carter is headed "at this time."

Jackson holds commanding positions in the Senate on nuclear weapons strategy and on energy policy. He was the prime challenger of former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger on U.S.-Soviet detente and on strategic arms limitation talks (SALT), to the delight of the hawks.

But he said in an interview yesterday, "I am very pleased" with the President's positions so far.

There has been speculation at the White House and elsewhere that, as a Democrat, Jackson was likely to be in a more cooperative position with a Democratic administration. But there was no certainty of that, given Jackson's natural affinity for staking out a role as challenger of the White House, and his "reservations" on the President's arms control nominee, Paul C. Warnke.

Jackson said yesterday that a breakfast meeting with the President last Friday set this pattern:

"I intend to work with President Carter, and he wants to work with me, and he so indicated . . . But when I feel very deeply about something, I'm going to disagree. I think that's my role. I think that's what our system is all about."

Jackson hailed the President's views, expressed at his news conference Tuesday, in human rights in the Soviet Union and on nuclear weapons negotiations with the Kremlin.

There was almost the tone of a professor passing favorable judgment on a student in some of Jackson's remarks.

Although there was "a little wobbling at first" by the Carter administration. Jackson said, he is "very pleased with the way this administration is moving" - with the qualification, "thus far" - "on the issue of human rights . . . the central theme in any meaningful foreign policy."

During the Kissinger years, Jackson led a drive that tied Kissinger's policy in knots over what he assailed as Kissinger's failure to "stand up to the Russians" on human rights, and on SALT.

Jackson said that in Friday's talk with the President, he found him "extremely knowledgeable" on nuclear matters; "I am very pleased with his in-depth understanding of what the fundamental issues are . . ."

He commended the President's proposal to the Soviet Union to seek a SALT accord that would set aside temporarily the dispute over Soviet Backfire bombers and American long-range cruise missiles; Carter's call on the Russians to join in banning mobile missiles, and the Carter drive for reducing overall nuclear arms levels.

The Carter approach, Jackson said, could dovetail with his own criticism of the nuclear arms levels agreed to by Kissinger and former President Ford at Vladivostok in 1974. Jackson wants to start with a freeze that would bar modernization of 700 of the 2,400 intercontinental weapons for each side, the level set at Vladivostok.