President Carter is willing for the United States to make some expression of concern about developments that have marked its relations with Iran as part of an arrangement to free the American hostages in Tehran.
The president, who spent part of yesterday monitoring the latest developments in Iran, will under no circumstances apologize to Iranian authorities for the role the United States has played in that country over the years.
But his willingness to consider an expression of concern is the closest the administration has come to meeting the demand of Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr that the United States express "self-criticism" for its role in past Iranian events before the hostages are freed.
Carter does not know whether such an expression of concern would satisfy the Iranian demand. He is convinced that the hostages will eventually be freed, but when and in what condition remain unknown to him.
The president's views on Iran and other topics, including the economy and the controversy about his disavowal of the U.N. vote censuring Israel, were made known yesterday at the White House. On other issues, Carter:
Retains confidence in Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance despite what the administration has described as a communications foulup in the State Department that led to the embarrassing U.N. episode. The president recognizes that the incident has caused him political damage, and is most concerned that Israel, Egypt and the American people understand that there has been no change in U.S. policy on the Middle East.
Is prepared to debate a Republican opponent in the fall presidential campaign, but sees no prospect of debating his chief Democratic rival for the nomination, Sen. Edward M. Dennedy (D-Mass.).
Believes that when Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) dropped out of the race last week, the GOP lost one of its potentially strongest nominees.
Will not campaign actively until the hostages are freed. However, in the president's view, this posture, which he has held to since the Nov. 4 takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, does not preclude him from traveling outside of Washington in connection with his official duties.
President did not specify what kind of expression of concern the United States is willing to make in connection with the crisis in Iran. When he was asked at a news conference last month whether he regretted the role the United States played in returning the shah of Iran to power in 1953, he called the subject "ancient history," and declined to discuss it.
Bani-Sadr has laid down three conditions for the freeing of the hostages. One is that the United States pledge never again to interfere in Iran's internal affairs, which Carter has publicly done.
The second is that the United States accept Iran's right to to seek the return of the deposed shah, which, according to officials, can be worked out.
The real stumbling block has been the Iranian demand for selfcriticism by the United States, which the president approached yesterday in suggesting that an expression of concern is as far as he is willing to go.
In retrospect, Carter says he has no regrets about his handling of the Iranian crisis, saying he believes nothing could have been done differently, or better. He says he does not believe the United States was hoodwinked by the Iranians when it agreed to support U.N. commission in Iran to investigate Iranian grievannces.
But the president is concerned about the condition of the hostages, and does not know whether any of them has been harmed.
Carter's views on Iran were made known only an hour after the hostages were scheduled to be surrendered into the hands of Iranian government officials by the militants who hold the U.S. Embassy. The last-minute collapse of that arrangment was viewed at the White House as part of the continuing state of confusion that has marked the 4 month old crisis.
U.S. officials have been concerned since Wednesday, when the militants first said they would release the hostages, that the power struggle between the militants and the Revolutionary Council was not over and that the militants would make a last-ditch effort to mobilize mass demonstrations supporting their continued control over the hostages.
As of last night the officials said, Washington had no clear idea of how the internal Iranian struggle would be resolved. In the end, they added, the outcome is almost certain to turn on whether Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, is willing to abandon his stance and make clear to the militants, probably through a public statement, that they must turn over their captives.
U.S. officials say they believe the pressures Khomeini is known to have put on the militants last week resulted from fears that the U.N. commission was on the verge of leaving Iran in anger over its inability to obtain access to the hostages and would charge publicly that Iran had broken its word to the commission members.
The five members, four of whom are from Third-World countries, are regarded as basically sympathetic to Iran, and criticism from them would be very damaging to Iran's cause in the outside world. As a result, U.S. sources said, the moderates on the Revolutionary Council are understood to have used that argument to persuade Khomeini to send word privately to the militants that they had to turn over the hostages.
But, the sources added, Washington knew as early as Thursday that the militants were attempting to organize massive street demonstrations in their support as a means of forcing Khomeini to retreat.
As of late yesterday, the sources added, that tactic appeared to have succeeded in stalling the turnover, at least temporarily, by pushing Khomeini back into a posture of refusing to make known his position publicly.
But, they said, he can temporize only so long in deciding which side to take, and the clear hope here last night was that he eventually will come down on the side of the moderates seeking to move the crisis to a resolution.
Carter's view of the controversy over the U.N. vote censuring Israel is that it was an honest mistake for which he, as the government's chief executive, must bear the ultimate responsibility.
The U.N. Security Council resolution censured Israel for establishing settlements in occupied Arab territories and called for the settlements to be dismantled. The United States voted for the resolution, but at the same time disassociated itself from the demand for dismantlement.
But last Monday, two days after the vote, the White House disavowed the resolution, saying that, because of a communications foulup, Carter had not known that the resolution also dealth with the status of Jerusalem.
In the president's view, he had no choice but to disavow the resolution because it violated an understanding reached at the Camp David Middle East summit conference to have the status of Jerusalem settled by the negotiations, keeping it free of controversy at the United Nations.
In ordering support for the resolution, it was his intention only to signal Israel of continued U.S. opposition to establishment of settlements in the occupied territories.
Carter's recollection of the events surrounding the U.N. episode goes like this:
On Feb. 29, the day before the vote, he instructed Vance to have the U.S. Ambassador Donlad F. McHenry vote for the resolution if all references in it to Jerusalem were removed.
Two days after the vote, Carter was informed by Vice President Mondale that references to Jerusalem had remained in the resolution and that both Israeli Ambassador Ephriam Evron and Sol M. Linowitz, the U.S. ambassador to the Middle East peace negotiations, had warned that this could endanger the peace process. It was only then that the president read the full text of the resolution.
Later that same day, Carter informed Evron that a disavowal statement would be issued that night. Ervon did not suggest what the disavowal should say.
The president is clearly concerned over the damage the episode has done to the Middle East peace process and his own political standing, returning repeatedly to the theme that U.S. policy in the Middle East has not changed.
But he is also somewhat comforted by recalling that he was severly criticized during the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations but was able to see that process through to its conclusion.