Iran's revolutionary government has expressed satisfaction with President Carter's public offer of cooperation, and has suggested in initial diplomatic contacts that it is interested in "a stable relationship," the State Department indicated yesterday.
Contacts at various levels of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan's emerging government yesterday have led the State Department to believe that the president's offer at a news conference Monday "was well-received in Tehran by those who represent the new government," department spokesman Hodding Carter said.
U.S. officials said privately that the contacts had contributed to an easing of official concern here about the safety of the estimated 7,000 Americans still in Iran. Contingency planning for a forced evacuation was being handled less urgently, the officials said.
The administration also has decided to run the risk that sophisticated F14 Tomcat fighters and Phoenix missiles might fall into Soviet hands as a result of the revolutionary takeover in Iran, U.S. officials indicated.
That risk presents a lesser threat to longterm U.S. interests than do alternatives considered and at least tacitly rejected by the administration, including the recapture or destruction of the 78 Grumman warplanes owned by the Iranian Air Force, the officials said.
The administration appears to be uncertain who controls the air force at this point, but officials say they believe that all of the electronic guidance and command "black boxes" that would be the major intelligence targets for the Soviets have been removed and are in secure locations.
Immobile intelligence-gathering equipment in northern Iran, along the Soviet border, will be destroyed if it appears in danger of being compromised, however, according to reliable reports.
Comments from CIA officials at a secret congressional hearing last month suggested that at least two and perhaps three intelligence-gathering facilities in Iran are used to monitor Soviet ballistic missile launchings and to collect electronic intelligence on Soviet air and land military movements.
The main target of a "scorchedearth" approach would be 200-foot tall radar dishes built into the sides of mountains near the Soviet border, according to sources. The sites reportedly have large supplies of thermite, a mixture of powdered aluminum and iron oxide that burns at a temperature of 4,000 degrees and within controllable perimeters.
Loss of the Iranian sites will not seriously affect U.S. ability to monitor Soviet missile tests, since that function can be carried out from U.S. intelligence bases due to be roepened in Turkey this year. There appears to be no quick substitute, however, for the electronic intelligence-gathering operations, officials said.
One intelligence station has been dismantled and is ready to be flown out of the country if it appears to be in danger, CIA officials have confirmed. Highly sensitive components of the other stations have already been moved out, according to sources.
Responding to questions on the F14, Hodding Carter suggested that the administration was confident that the new government "has as much interest in the security of this materiel as we do," and does not want the aircraft "to fall into unfriendly hands."
The administration's major concern is that capture of the "black box" would enable the Soviets to develop countermeasures to the F14's high-performance capability.
For the second consecutive day, Carter was unable to tell reporters whether the United States still considers Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to be the legal head of state in Iran. The shah went into apparent exile in Morocco last month.
At one point, Hodding Carter said he expected that any members of the shah's family in the United States would receive Secret Service protection accorded to families of heads of foreign states. But the thrust of his comments on the working relationship that the U.S. embassy is establishing with the government appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini suggested that the administration finally considers the shah's rule to be ended.
Carter said that formal relations had not been established with the Bazargan government. A U.S. official who asked not to be identified added that direct conversations between the government and U.S. Ambassador William H. Sullivan would signal the beginning of full relations.