President Carter is expected to respond today or tomorrow to the Iranian government's failure to take custody of the American hostages in Tehran by imposing the economic and political sanctions he deferred last week in anticipation of the transfer taking place.
Carter cut short by several hours his weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains, and summoned his foreign policy advisers to a White House meeting this morning. He had been scheduled to return this afternoon.
U.S. officials said yesterday the only thing that could prevent Carter from moving ahead with the sanctions would be for Iran's Revolutionary Council to act within the next few hours to remove the hostages from control of their militant captors.
Reports from Tehran yesterday said the council had made "a final decision" about whether to take custody of the hostages but was not ready to reveal what action it plans.
However, U.S. officials, who have all but given up hope that the council is prepared to force a showdown with the militants, said Carter is unwilling to go through a repetition of the humiliations to which the Iranians subjected him last week and will not accept any Iranian promises that appear to be further delaying tactics.
The officials, who declined to be identified, said a proposed sanctions package will be ready for the president's review upon his return here.
Under current administration planning, the officials added, the sanctions probably will be stronger than those Carter originally had threatened to impose unless the Iranians took action by March 31.
Carter put that deadline aside after Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr announced last Tuesday that the hostages would be transferred. However, the apparent deal collapsed when the council pronounced itself dissatisfied with Carter's responses to Bani-sadr's counterdemand that the United States refrain from "hostile actions or propaganda" until the new Iranian parliament decides the fate of the hostages in late May or June.
Although U.S. officials stressed that the sanctions package is being revised to make it stronger, they said Carter will continue to rule out a resort to such military measures as a naval blockade of Iran.
That meant that any tougher measures probably will be confined to political gestures such as increasing the number of Iranian diplomats expected to be ordered out of the United States or perhaps expelling all Iranian diplomats here.
The centerpiece of the sanctions package was expected to be the decreeing of a formal trade embargo covering all commodities expect the export to Iran of food and medicine. Because these involve humanitarian considerations, it is unlikely that Cater would include drugs or foodstuffs in any trade ban.
Even the ostensibly sweeping trade embargo actually will be little more than symbolic, because almost all trade between the two countries was interrupted early in the crisis when Carter barred the importation of Iranian oil and froze the Iranian government's assets in this country.
The Commerce Department's latest figures show that in February U.S. exports to Iran had a value of less than $4 million and imports from Iran amounted to $37 million, almost all of that amount from oil purchased before November and then stored in Caribbean terminals.
Most administration officials have not been enthusiastic about formalizing the trade embargo because they fear it might undermine Iranian moderates like Bani-Sadr, who wants to end the hostage crisis partly because of concern about its effects on the Iranian economy.
Conversely, the leftists and rightwing Islamic militants who oppose Bani-Sadr have shown little concern about the impact of an embargo and are likely to use it to rally anti-American sentiment in Iran.
However, U.S. officials said Iran's continued rebuffs of Carter's attempts to be conciliatory and the increasing restiveness of the American public over failure to break the impasse that began Nov. 4, 1979, have left the president no choice other than to proceed with sanctions.
U.S. officials also denied reports from Tehran that a so-called "crisis commission" composed of non-Iranian diplomats, lawyers and jurists, whose formation was announced Saturday, has the "approval" of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance.
The officials said the United States is "aware" of the commission, but has had no role in its formation, has given it no authorization to act on behalf of the Carter administration and does not even clearly understand what the commission is supposed to do.
The officials added that the commission appears to have been set up at Bani-Sadr's instigation in hopes that it can mediate between the different factions contending for power within Iran and bring them into some kind of consensus about what to do with the hostages.