The White House last night accused the government of Iran of failing to keep its promises to the United Nations commission in Tehran, whose work has been "suspended" because of failure to see the American hostages.
Gloomy Carter administration officials, shaken by this latest bitter surprise from Tehran, said a new assessment of American strategy and tactics in the four-month-long hostage crisis is under way.
A return to a tougher line with Iran is likely, according to official sources, but there was no indication of whether the United States would go beyond economic and political pressures to military measures, which have been mentioned at times in the past.
Both U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim and White House officials were careful to leave the door open to a possible resumption of the U.N. commission's work if there is a change in policy or power relationships in Iran.
Waldheim appeared to be more optimistic than were Washington officials. He said in New York last night that the commission will return for consultations at the United Nations and go back to Tehran "as soon as some clarifications are made."
Waldheim announced that, under current circumstances, the commission will not submit any report of its findings. Iran has hoped for such an official recognition of its grievances, but the panel's findings were to be made public in exchange for yet unfulfilled concessions regarding the American hostages.
U.N. sources said Iran had agreed in writing to transfer the hostages from the militants at the U.S. Embassy to government control as part of the original "package" deal with Waldheim, Washington Post special correspondent Michael J. Berlin reported from New York. Thus the failure to transfer control, and the filure to permit the visits, were factors in the commission's decision that its work could not go forward now, according to this account.
A senior White House official said last night that new actions by the United States are unlikely before the first round of parliamentary voting in Iran Friday.
The administration reportedly is eager to maximize whatever chance there is for internal pressure and international disappointment to have an effect within Iran. As of last night, there seemed to be tentative agreement that Washington should not shift to a new posture precipitately.
After a day of urgent talks involving President Carter, his top foreign policy advisers and congressional leaders, the White House issued a sharply critical statement about Iran's failure to arrange a meeting of the U.N. commission with all the American hostages.
At a briefing for reporters, an official said such a meeting with the hostages had been "clearly understood" by all parties in advance. "As a result of this commitment not being fulfilled, a serious question has arisen about the ability of the Iranian government to function as a government and to fulfill commitments that it makes," the official said.
Leaders of Congress, after a 40-minute briefing by the president and other senior officials, emerged from the White House counseling patientce and declining to state a definite view of their own about what course of action the United States should follow.
Several of the lawmakers expressed keen disappointment at the developments in Iran, and those who spoke to reporters were critical of the Iranian government's inability to act.
It was still unclear to Washington officials what lay behind the latest edict by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini undermining the position of the Revolutionary Council, the existing governmental center in Iran. Khomeini is reported to be suffering from circulatory disorders, but there was every indication here that he was functioning fully as the key decision-maker.
There was some hope, however that the governmental authorities in Iran would not be satisfied with ignominious defeat in their power struggle with the militant students holding the hostages. Having undertaken the confrontation with the students, some elements of the Revolutionary Council may wish to see it through despite Khomeini's intervention, according to an official source.
Nevertheless, the inability of President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr and Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh to make good on the commitments to the U.N. commission was a grave setback to the Carter administration's plans. The Iranian leaders' failure to perform, despite what is generally thought to be sincere resolve and good intentions, casts a shadow over the future of the U.N. commission, which has been the principal mechanism through which Washington has sought in recent weeks to bring about release of the hostages.
Even more serious, the seeming impotence of the governmental authority in Iran is a major blow to the prospect of a negotiated solution of any sort. This was implicit in the White House statement questioning the Iranian government's ability "to function as a government and to fulfill commitments that it makes."
The breakdown of the U.N. commission's efforts came on the heels of the severe blow inflicted on the credibility of the administration last week by Carter's disavowal of a U.S. vote on a U.N. resolution criticizing Israel.
Efforts to explain that policy U-turn have met with widespread public disbelief and charges that the administration is weak and confused in its conduct of foreign policy. If Carter's response to the latest Iranian rebuff is perceived as vacillating or inadequate, sources said, he could be open to assault from his political foes, especially those on the right, such as the Republican presidential front-runner, Ronald Reagan.
The U.N. commission, on which so many hopes were placed, came into being after the crisis with Iran had gone through many twists and turns.
The United States, finding itself unable to conduct negotiations with the divided Iranian power structure, initially took a hard-line approach. Officials warned that failure to release the hostages could lead to harsh reprisals, including such military actions as a naval blockade.
Although these military options were never brought into play, the United States attempted to impose an international economic embargo against Iran. But a U.N. Security Council resolution mandating an embargo for all U.N. members was vetoed by the Soviet Union.
After the Soviet Union's Dec. 27 invasion of Iran's neighbor, Afghanistan, the Carter administration shifted gears on the grounds that the crisis had broadened from a U.S.-Iranian confrontation to a U.S.-Soviet struggle for influence in the Persian Gulf region, with its vital oil supplies.
Moving into a conciliatory stance, the United States sought to argue that Iran's real enemy was the Soviet Union and that Iranian self-interest called for ending the confrontation over the hostages. From that point on, the thrust of U.S. policy was to seek a negotiated settlement under U.N. auspices.
That move seemed to be bearing fruit when Bani-Sadr, a moderate on the hostage question, was elected Iran's president in late January. Under prodding by Bani-Sadr, the Revolutionary Council finally accepted the idea of a U.N. commission, and its membership and mandate were worked out under Waldheim's mediation.
But when the commission went to Iran, hopes for its success began to plummet. Khomeini, who had been sidelined with heart trouble during the negotiations on the commission, announced that the hostages' fate would be decided by Iran's new parliament, which is not expected to meet before April.
The commission also found itself unable to get access to the hostages, and last week was on the verge of leaving Iran. At the last minute, though, the militants, under pressure from Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh and the Revolutionary Council, ostensibly agreed to hand the captives over to the council.
When the time for the turnover came, however, the militants, backed by street demonstrations, balked and threw the situation into a weekend of confusion.