The shah of Iran's desperate effort to halt turmoil in his country by turning to military rule won strong support from the White House yesterday, but failed to halt spreading doubt among administration policy specialists that the shah can ultimately survive the crisis.
In separate but related moves, President Carter held an urgent session on Iran with senior foreign policy advisers and other Cabinet-level officials interested in Iran, and the White House approved a statement of strong support for the military government as the only way open to the Iranian ruler to continue his policies of "liberalization."
The meeting of the special Presidential Review Committee on Iran in the White House came one day after the formation of a staff level working group on Iran at the State Department signaled an escalation of official U.S. concern about the shah's fate and its impact on American interests in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
In a statement that U.S. officials said was cleared by the White House and was intended to show that the administration's support for the shah is not wavering despite the resignation of the civilian government over the weekend. State Department spokeswoman Jill A. Schuker told reporters:
"The Shah has emphasized that military rule is only temporary and he intends as rapidly as possible to move the country toward free elections and a new civilian-directed government." She described the setting up of military rule to restore order as "a parallel move" to the brief opening up of the political process that the shah had permitted before public protests touched off wide spread violence and antigovernment strikes.
In private, some officials dealing with the Iran crisis were more upbeat, saying that the move by the shah to restore order was long overdue and could not give the moody, often indecisive Iranian ruler a chance to ride out the storm.
"It was a good day," one official said, referring to yesterday's relative calm. "a few more may enable us to put things back together."
But this and similar estimates from other officials who acknowledged they were trying to put the best face on a still dangerous situation all pointed to a rapid change in perception in official Washington of the shah's chances to survive. Only a few weeks ago, policy analysts couched their remarks in terms of the possible trouble the protests could create for an apparently invulnerable shah. Now, even the optimists depict him as battling against mounting odds for survival.
"The military government is about the last card the shah has to play," one more pessimistic official said. "He doesn't know what to do next, and neither do we. It will be a miracle if he is still around to hold the elections he has promised" in June 1979.
The net effect of a day of intense activity and discussions on Iran in official Washington was to underline that while perceptions of Iran may have shifted rapidly, policy has not. Even officials who feel that the shah's days may be numbered are not seriously arguing that the administration can do anything to separate itself at this moment from a ruler whom the United States has supported without reservation for 25 years.
A White House aide confirmed that the president held a special high-level meeting on Iran yesterday but declined to name the participants. Carter was briefed on Iran periodically over the weekend and yesterday by national security affairs adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
In a series of statements last week, the administration openly sought to bolster the shah against his domestic opposition. On Friday, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance told a news conference that the administration's specific support of the shah's move to resolve the crisis was two-pronged.
"We fully support the efforts of the shah to restore order while continuing his program of liberalization," Vance said.
The turmoil and resulting military rule have eliminated all of the new civil liberties the shah had granted, except the promise of elections next year. The statement issued at the State Department yesterday leaned heavily on that promise in maintaining that the establishing of the military government should be seen as part of the process of liberalization.
"The shah moved to appoint a military government under his authority when it became apparent that another civilian government could not be formed to restore the public order essential to moving toward elections," Schuker said, adding that the shah had "no alternative" to military rule after unnamed opposition leaders turned down offers from the shah to join in a coalition civilian government.
Opposition leaders have refused to take part in a new government under the shah, and continue to demand his ouster. The statement about their share in bringing a military government to power reflected the administration's determination to demonstrate that the opposition cannot hope to gain an effective veto over the shah's ability to form governments, U.S. officials said.
"Even those who think the shah is finished recognize that it is too late for us to try to establish distance from him," said another policy analyst. "We have to stay with him, and rely on diplomatic tools, to make sure our friends are supporting him too."