President Carter said yesterday that he has received reports that Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wants the American hostages held in Tehran until after the November presidential election in the United States.
Without elaboration, the president said: "I have had several reports lately that he [Khomeini] says the hostages would not be released until after this election year is over in the United States."
Carter contrasted this to the attitudes of Iran's president, Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, and its foreign minister, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who he said want the hostages released "to repair what is happening in Iran to their country."
The president did not say how or when he received the reports, and he was not asked his reaction to them. But at a news conference Thursday, he said that waiting as long as July for an end to the crisis would be an excessive delay.
In the interview yesterday, Carter reiterated that he will not apologize to Iran for past U.S. involvement in that country. "To bring our nation to its knees for a false apology is something I will never do," he said.
He also expressed concern for the hostages because the Iranian government has not repudiated the most recent threats from the militants to kill them.
The president made the remarks in an interview with Westinghouse Broadcasting reporters, one in a series of interviews he granted to news outlets in Pennsylvania, where the next presidential primary election is scheduled Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, a White House official said Carter's recent decision to impose a new series of punitive measures against Iran was based on a conclusion that "no other course" is available to the United States and a history of Iranian intransigence that has softened only in the face of American threats to retaliate.
This justification for the actions the president ordered last week and the additional steps he announced Thursday was provided to reporters yesterday by a senior White House official on condition that he not be identified by name.
The official's comments were intended as an overall defense of Carter's handling of the Iranian crisis and as a reiteration of his threat to order military measures next if the new U.S. actions do not resolve the crisis.
"The president's patience is running out," the official said.
According to this White House version of the president's thinking, Carter concluded earlier this month -- after Iranian government authorities for the second time broke a promise to take control of the American hostages from their captors and eventually to free them -- that the United States must resume imposing measures to pressure Iran.
Since then, the United States has sharply escalated its pressure on Iran, beginning with the April 7 break in diplomatic relations and imposition of new economic sanctions, and the president's announcement Thursday of additional steps, such as the ban on Iranian imports and on almost all financial transactions with Iran.
Moreover, at his news conference Thursday, Carter for the first time explicitly threatened to order military action to resolve the crisis if these latest steps do not result in release of the hostages soon.
In that event, he said, "The only next step available that I can see would be some sort of military action, which is the prerogative and the right of the United States under these circumstances."
By setting forth his intentions in the coming weeks, the president clearly hopes to increase the pressure on U.S. allies to join fully in the American effort to free the hostages by nonmilitary means.
The allies, reluctant to take drastic economic and diplomatic steps against Iran, are also highly fearful of the consequences of any U.S. military moves in the Persian Gulf region.
But Carter has now publicly suggested that he is committed to a process and timetable leading toward U.S. military action by this summer. At the same time, as the White House official acknowledged yesterday, "very little is certain" about how the Iranians will react to this process of increasing pressure by the United States and its allies, or to the ultimate threat of a military move.
But after more than five months of frustration and what the administration views as a record of broken promises by Iranian authorities, he said the president believes "there is no other course open to us."
"We were forced to conclude that continuing deferral and delay in the imposition of sanctions would be responded to by nothing more than broken promises and shattered hopes for the families of the hostages," the official said.
Moreover, the official suggested that the current strategy of increasing pressure on Iran is based on a hope that this will produce a positive Iranian response just as, according to this version, earlier pressures produced two promises by Iran to free the hostages.
The first such promise, according to the official, came in conjunction with the U.N. special commission's visit to Iran to investigate the alleged crimes of the deposed shah. This mission to Iran in late February followed by a month the election as Iran's president of Bani-Sadr, who is known to support a peaceful resolution of the hostages.
According to the official, however, Iran's willingness to negotiate the hostages' release -- first expressed in January -- resulted in part from the sanctions the United States imposed shortly after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy Nov. 4.
The U.N. mission collapsed in the face of opposition from Khomeini and the militants holding the hostages.
At that point, according to the official, Carter decided not to impose new sanctions immediately, but to try negotiations a second time. Faced with renewed threats to impose the sanctions, the official said, the Iranians again promised a hostage transfer and release, leading to the president's April 1 statement of "a positive step" in the crisis. But once again, the official charged, the Iranians broke their promise.
The official said he could not predict the U.S. reaction if the new steps the president has ordered produce a similar, third promise. But he said, "Obviously, we will be considerably more skeptical of Iranian assurances, based on the experience of the last five months."