The Carter administration yesterday set out a series of conditions, it said must be met if a promised visit by neutral observers to the American hostages in Iran is to accomplish "a humanitarian objective."
The conditions, outlined by White House press secretary Jody Powell, include demands that the observers talk to each of the hostages and report publicly on their conditions, and that visits by the neutral observers take place "regularly and frequently until the hostages are released."
Powell added that such visits should be made by "qualified, internationally recognized, impartial and neutral observers" and that the visitors should include a physician.
The White House spokesman was responding to a radio report from Tehran that Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had given permission for neutral observers to visit the hostages.
Powell said if the conditions are met the United States would consider it "a step forward." Otherwise, he warned, visits to the hostages would amount to little more than "another cynical attempt to divert international attention" from the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the plight of the hostages.
Powell's prepared statement setting forth the conditions was designed to keep up the pressure on Iranian authorities in an intense propaganda struggle that centers on the treatment of the hostages.
For the last several weeks, administration officials have steadily denounced the treatment of the hostages, charging that the Americans have been subjected to sophisticated interrogation techniques while being held in "inhuman conditions" since their seizure Nov. 4. The administration's objective has been to force access to the hostages by neutral observers, and thus perhaps achieve better treatment for them, and to keep world attention focused on the human drama in the hope that this will eventually lead to their release.
Iranian authorities have denied the U.S. charges and complained bitterly of "American propaganda." But the report that Khomeini is now willing to allow outside observers to see the hostages suggested that Iran is feeling the pressure of world opinion on the issue of their treatment.
However, administration officials are clearly wary of Iranian intentions, fearing that a visit to the hostages could be staged to assuage world opinion without obtaining sufficient information on their individual conditions.
Some of the 50 hostages reportedly have been moved from the U.S. Embassy. Powell said that the administration has not been able to verify those reports, and that its overall information on the hostages is "very imperfect at best."
Meanwhile, President Carter received new support for his handling of the Iranian crisis from his predecessor, Gerald R. Ford.
"I have fully supported the president's various actions in handling the Iranian situation," Ford told reporters yesterday after meeting with Carter at the White House.
Ford, on one of his periodic trips to Washington, was invited to the White House as he had been in the past, to consult with Carter. The former president said he was "very anxious to get the full story from the president and I was pleased by what I heard."
Ford also defended Carter's decision to admit Iran's deposed leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to the United States for medical treatment, and indirectly criticized Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mas.) for his denunciation of the shah's regime.
"I believe the shah should have been admitted under the circumstances," Ford said. "You don't abandon a friend who has been supportive of seven presidents, who has been supportive of the United States over a period of better than a quarter of a century."
Ford added that "those who are critical of the presdient for admitting the shah, I think, are off on the wrong track."
Asked about the Kennedy-Carter race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Ford said Kennedy's "mistakes, his poorly organized campaign, plus the president's handling of the Iranian crisis make it a neck and neck ball game with lots of fireworks between now and the Democratic convention."
Earlier yesterday, the president met with Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, who told him that the International Court of Justice in The Hague could rule as early as today on a U.S. demand for the release of the hostages. The court, which has no power to enforce its rulings, has been asked to call for immediate release of all the hostates, return of the embassy and consular offices in Tehran to U.S. jurisdiction, and humane treatment for all Americans in Iran.
At the State Department yesterday, spokesman Thomas Reston reacted coolly to Khomeini's call for an international tribunal to hear evidence of alleged U.S. crimes against Iran. Although Khomeini's call omitted previous demands that the hostages attend the tribunal, Reston said this was not a softening of the Iranina position.
"Nothing should be allowed to delay the release of all the hostages," he said.