White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan has been sent to Panama by President Carter to mediate a dispute between Panamanian authorities and a team of American doctors about medical treatment and facilities for the deposed shah of Iran, administration officials said yesterday.
The dispute centers on the doctors' assertion that the shah, who is believed to have cancer, needs lifesaving surgery in a better hospital than Panama's government can provide, according to sources.
Jordan was dispatched to Panama on Thursday. The administration mediation effort also apparently involves White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, who was absent yesterday from a briefing for athletes on the president's plan to boycott the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Cutler's office would confirm only that he was out of town.
Jordan and Cutler both played key roles in persuading the Panamanian government to provide refuge for the shah when it was thought that moving the deposed Iranian leader out of the United States might lead to the release of the American hostages in Iran.
Four American doctors, including famed Houston surgeon Michael DeBakey, saw the shah at Panama City's Paitilla Hospital last weekend.
According to reports, at least several of the four have told the State Department he ought to have surgery in a large center in the United States or elsewhere, or at least in Gorgas Hospital, the American military facility in the Canal Zone.
Whether DeBakey took this position was not clear. Through a spokesman, he said merely, "I never said that."
By one report, the American doctors unanimously reported that both Paitilla Hospital and another nearby lacked either the support personnel or the equipment to give the shah the best chance to survive.
The Americans also reportedly spoke of the Panamanians' refusal to accept help in operating to remove the shah's inflamed and swollen spleen that, in American doctors' opinion, probably is cancerous.
DeBakey, sources said, told Panamanian doctors he would not have flown to Panama if he had known he would not be permitted to operate, or to have his own support team.
Health Minister Jorge Modrano on Thursday repeated his verdict that "we would not under any circumstances permit a foreign team of physicians to come to Panama and operate," because of a rule that only Panamanian residents can practice medicine.
Panama's real reason is fear of the left wing, some sources in Washington and Panama said. The leftists opposed the shah's admission. They would be expected to argue, if Americans take over the operating table, that their government is indeed America's stooge.
If the shah goes to Gorgas Hospital in the Canal Zone, said some Panamanians, he may not be allowed back into Panama territory.
A State Department spokesman would say only that any comment on the situation was "up to Dr. DeBakey." The Carter administration wants the shah to stay in Panama as long as American hostages are held in Iran.
Panamanian medical sources denied any rift or lack of cooperation with visiting Americans.
Among the hospitals represented in the American delegation is New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, where the shah was a patient from late October to early December.
"We agreed that the American doctors could serve as consultants in the operating room," Dr. Juan Luis Corr ea, medical director of Paitilla Hospital and one of Panama's leading physicains, said in an interview.
"Dr. DeBakey was very cordial and said he would come back, perhaps, if he was needed. And everyone agreed that the hospital lacked neither the human resources nor the technical facilities to do the surgery.
"The operation is not a very easy thing but it is not an insurmountable problem."
The American and Panamanian physicians concurred in a statement saying the operation was being delayed until the shah was in better health. He has variously been reported to have pneumonia or bronchitis or a cold.
"It is true," Dr. Correa said, "that the immediate reason for the delay was medical."
But the larger reason that the shah still has his diseased spleen is that "he is who he is," Correa added. "Any citizen of Canada or the United States in Panama would have been operated on several weeks ago without any problem," he said, "and by now be well at home."