Encouraged by what U.S. officials think are signals that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is not pushing for an immediate confrontation with the Bakhtiar government now that he is back in Iran, the Carter administration turned the other cheek to Khomeini yesterday.
Publicly, the administration refused to respond to the stinging attacks on the United States uttered by Khomeini in Tehran. "I am not in a position to interpret what the ayatollah said," State Deparmtne spokesman Hodding Carter told reporters.
Privately, administration analysts interpreted the ayatollah's statements as necessary political rhetoric to dominate the highly emotional welcome that he got at the end of his 14-year exile.
"As unpalatable as it was for us, he would have weakened his position by doing anything less," one analyst said.
More importantly, U.S. officials said there were strong indications that the agreement that led to Khomeini's return was part of a broader understanding involving Khomeini's forces, the military and Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar.
The understanding reportedly calls for Khomeini to delay an attempt to install an Islamic Council to replace Bakhtiar's government. The delay would enable the ayatollah's political allies to engage in negotiations with Bakhtiar and the Iranian army.
"If we get through the next severald days there may be a chance," a senior administration policymaker said. "This is a very sensitive testing period to see if Bakhtiar, and the negotiating process, can sustain the new presence of Khomeini."
Other U.S. officials said the administration has reason to hope that the negotiations will lead to an arrangement in which Khomeini becomes his country's "ultimate moral arbiter" rather than a political power.
His political allies in the National Front opposition would do the bargaining with Bakhtiar and represent Khomeini's forces in any new constitutional government that emerges fromt the negotiations, these officials said.
These assessments represented another turn of the policy wheel on Iran for the Carter administration, which until late December was totally committed to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who left the country three weeks ago.
Administration officials depicted the ayatollah during that period as a religious fanatic intent on destroying western influence in Iran. Without mentioning him by name, President Carter publicly rebuked Khomeini in November for issuing calls for bloodshed and the downfall of the shah.
Implicit inthe public and private comments of administration officials yesterday was the belief that Khomeini must now be dealt with as a pragmatic political figure whose strategy has proved to be more far-sighted at each stage of the Iranian crisis over the past year then have the strategies of his opponents.
U.S. officials already have begun to think about the shape of an Iranian government that Khomeini would not directly control but which would necessarily be responsive to his wishes as a national referee or court of last appeal on religious and moral issues.
Their comments indicate that it would be a government the Carter administration could live with, even if unhappily.
Such a government would sharply reduce the number of Americans advising the iranian military, working in Iran's oil fields and living in the country. American influence would be greatly reduced, the officials acknowledge.
Khomeini's attacks on the United States yesterday are strong indications that he will push for a greatly reduced American role, the officials said.
But his failure to name an Islamic Council upon arriving in Tehran and his acceptance of security arrangements provided by the Iranian military that was part of a helicopter ride from the airport suggest that he is not pushing for an immediate confrontation that could lead to a bloodbath, according to the view of these officials.
Stressing that the United States was concerned about the safety of the 5,000 or more U.S. CITIZENS STILL IN Iran, Hodding Carter said that nothing he could say about Iran would be helpful to the situation.
Asked about a tape recording played on CBS television Wednesday night that purported to record the shah's voice ordering his generals and palace guard to launch a civil war in Iran, Carter said the government had no reason to believe the tape was autentic.
Other U.S. officials said that they had not been able to confirm that the meeting at which the tape was supposed to have been made had taken place, as described by Iranian opposition figures who gave copies of the tape to at least six news organizations, including The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, a stalemate continued at the Iranian embassy in Washington yesterday. Diplomats who walked out Wednesday to protest what they described as a takeover by the Mbassy's military staff started talks with the military but failed to make progress in ending the dispute, both sides said.