The White House, facing the collapse of its hopes for transfer of the American hostages in Tehran to Iranian government control, warned obliquely yesterday that President Carter might go ahead with his threat to increase economic and political sanctions against Iran.
In the wake of reports that Iran's Revolutionary Council still was dissatisfied with U.S. responses to Iranian demands, White House press secretary Jody Powell appeared before reporters to state tersely:
"Let me say that the American position has been clearly stated. We hope that the authorities in Iran will carefully consider that position and the full implications of that position before making a final decision."
Asked what he meant by "the full implications" of the U.S. position, Powell refused to elaborate, but called attention to Carter's statements Wednesday after Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr announced that his government would take custody of the hostages from their militant captors.
At the time, Carter called Bani-Sadr's move "a postive step" and said he would defer imposing additional sanctions against Iran. But Carter also said he would "monitor the situation very closely" and added that the sanctions option could be picked up again if the Iranians did not move ahead.
Powell refused to give any indication of when Carter, who flew to Camp David yesterday for the Easter weekend, might make his next move in the exchange that has been going on between Washington and Tehran since last weekend.
The spokesman, noting that Washington has not yet received any "definitive communications" from Tehran about the Revoluntionary Council's position, left the clear impression that Carter is playing for time in hopes that the apparent failure of the hostage transfer deal can be reversed in the next day or so.
In referring to "a final decision" by the Iranians, Powell noted Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh's statement in Iran that the Revolutionary Council would meet again Saturday. sHowever, some reports from Tehran said it was not clear that a meeting actually will take place -- a situation that could force Carter into making a decision about sanctions before the weekend is over.
In the meantime, U.S. officials seemed clearly confused about whether the latest problems on the Iranian side actually stemmed from a demand for greater clarification of the U.S. position or whether that demand was being used as a pretext to mask divisions among feuding factions on the Revolutionary Council.
The haggling about "clarification" began Tuesday night when Bani-Sadr said Carter's statements earlier that day were an inadequate response to Iranian calls for the United States to cease "all provocations and propaganda" against Iran as the price for the hostage turnover.
U.S. officials, aware that Bani-Sadr was engaged in some delicate maneuvering to try and outflank the militants, said privately that they wanted to cooperate. But they added that Carter could not make a commitment to refrain from talking publicly about the plight of the hostages until May or June when the new Iranian parliament is supposed to decide the hostages' fate.
In an effort to meet Bani-Sadr's demand, Carter had Powell issue a statement Wednesday saying that the United States would "continue to be restrained in our words and actions so long as real progress is made in resolving this crisis. . . ."
To reinforce that effort, a message was sent to Bani-Sadr Wednesday saying that the United States had noted Iran's intention to have its parliament decide the disposition of the hostage question.
Yet, although both Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh publicly expressed satisfaction with these U.S. gestures, yesterday's meeting of the Revolutionary Council ended without a decision on taking over the hostages. Instead, Ghotbzadeh was reported to have said that still more clarification was needed.
In the face of repeated questions about whether the United States will make any new mollifying gestures, Powell declined to answer directly. Instead, he replied with such responses as ". . . the American position has been clearly stated," and "we believe it speaks for itself," and "I have no way of knowing precisely what they mean when they say they need additional clarification."
He said further private communications were exchanged between Washington and Tehran yesterday. However, he refused to discuss what was contained in these messages except to repeat his assertion, first made Wednesday, that nothing was being said privately to contradict Carter's public statements about the U.S. position.
Although Powell said the press and public would have to make their own interpretations of his remarks for the time being, the implication was that the Carter administration feels it has gone as far as it can in trying to satisfy the Iranian demands and now waiting only to be absolutely certain that the deal has collapsed before making a new move.
The spokesman said he knew of no plans for Carter's top foreign policy and national security advisers to go to Camp David to discuss the situation with the president. He added, though, that Carter would be keeping in close touch with developments, and he declined to say whether the president will stay at Camp David through the weekend.