President Carter yesterday recalled the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Thomas J. Watson, for consultations, and decided on a number of other steps the administration will take in the days ahead in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

Carter's decisions were not immediately made public, but White House officials said the actions to be taken by the United States will go beyond "verbal or symbolic gestures," and they stressed the grave implications the invasion holds for overall Soviet-American relations.

"The Soviet Union must expect serious consequences from its behavior," said one White House official, adding that the president used the same words during a 2 1/2-hour National Security Council meeting yesterday at which the basic decisions on a U.S. response to the invasion were made.

Among the steps the United States will take, is to join at least a dozen countries, led by Pakistan, in formally asking today for a U.N. Security Council debate on the Soviet invasion. U.N. diplomatic sources said the council may meet on the question as early as Friday evening. [Details on Page A20].

Administration officials also strongly suggested the likelihood of postponing for the foreseeable future the Senate debate on approval of the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II with the Soviet Union.

At the United Nations, the sources said the United States is engaged in informal contacts with a large number of countries with an eye toward asking the Security Council to condemn the Soviet action in Afghanistan. They said the expectation is that between 20 and 30 other U.N. members could join the United States in requesting Security Council action.

The officials and Carter has decided to go ahead with the Security Council move even though it could complicate efforts to have the council impose economic sanctions against Iran as means of helping to secure release of the American hostages there.

On Monday, the council adopted a resolution saying it will consider sanctions if Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, currently in Iran, is unable to win the hostages freedom by next Monday. A key unanswered question in the upcoming sanctions debate is whether the Soviet Union, as a gesture toward the United States, will refrain from blocking sanctions by using its Security Council veto.

The continuing crisis in Iran was reviewed by the president and his top foreign policy and military advisers yesterday, but the focus of their attention at a series of meetings during the day was on Afghanistan.

"The president made a number of decisions this afternoon on actions to be taken in response to the Soviet invasion," White House press secretary Jody Powell announced after yesterday's NSC meeting. "These decisions involve unilateral actions and actions to be taken in conjunction with other nations.

"The president's decisions will be made public when appropriate consultations and notification have taken place. The president has directed that this process be completed without delay," Powell said.

The White House statement said the Soviet invasion, which now involves 30,000 to 40,000 Russian troops in Afghanistan, poses a "serious threat to peace."

The United States on Tuesday began consulting with its allies on retaliatory measures that could be taken against the Soviet Union. On that day, Deputy Secreatary of State Warren Christopher met with NATO ministers in Brussels. No decisions were made at the meeting, but possible actions that were discussed included organizing a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow and halting wheat sales, commercial credits and cultural exchanges with the Soviets.

Other possible actions that have been discussed in government circles include curtailment of high-level visits to the Soviet Union; additional restrictions on selling the Soviets high technology items such as computers; cancellation of regular flights to the United States by Aeroflot, the Soviet airline; a reduction in the Soviet presence in the United States from the current level of about 900 Russian officials, and cancellation or postponement of the plan to open consulates in New York and Kiev.

A more drastic measure would involve breaking diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. State Department spokesman Hodding Carter said yesterday that U.S. relations with Afghanistan's "present government are under review," but he declined to elaborate.

The recall of Watson from Moscow for "consultations" was in itself a form of protest over the invasion. State Department officials said they did not know when, if ever, a U.S. ambassador had been recalled from the Soviet Union in the past, but that the American ambassador was not recalled in 1968 when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.

A senior White House official said the decisions made by Carter yesterday do not involve U.S. military moves. He also said there are no plans present for a high-level mission to countries near Afghanistan. There has been speculation of a possible visit by Secreatry of State Cyrus R. Vance or other top administration officials to discuss additional security measures with other countries in the region.

Aside from the U.S. move at the United Nations, the most likely immediate fallout from yesterday's round of decisions appeared to involve SALT, long one of the president's chief foreign policy objectives. The White House official stressed that Carter believes the treaty is in the U.S. interest regardless of Soviet actions elsewhere in the world.

But the official said the "timing" of Senate consideration of the treaty will be affected both by the Iranian crisis and the invasion of Afghanistan, strongly suggesting the possibility of an indefinite postponement in the face of growing anti-Soviet sentiment that would appear to doom approval of the treaty for the moment.

While a wide range of retaliatory steps by the United States has been discussed in recent days, a number of them involve dipolmatic and political problems. For example, an embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union might be a generally popular move, but Carter has pledged never to use food as a political weapon. Grain embargoes are particularly sensitive subjects in agricultural states such as Iowa, where in less than three weeks the president faces his first reelection test in the Iowa precinct caucuses.