President Carter's repeated hints of possible U.S. military action against Iran have prompted dissension within the White House and delaying tactics on the part of U.S. allies in Europe, administration sources said yesterday.
Carter's continuing suggestions of a possible military response to the hostage crisis have also led to a demand by Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) that Congress be fully consulted, and permitted to express its advice, if the use of force is contemplated.
And from another quarter, a delegation of leaders of the United Methodist Church appealed to Carter at the White House "not to give in to those who counsel military intervention, nor to take steps which will lead eventually to war."
The delegation, representing about 10 million church members, handed Carter a statement asking him to exercise "the utmost patience and restraint" despite the widespread frustration about the continued captivity of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Tehran. There was no immediate White House response.
The most unusual development was the report of bluntly expressed reservations by senior White House staff members about the seeming drift of administration policy toward mining or blockading Iran's ports.
According to an account in yesterday's editions of the Los Angeles Times, later confirmed by White House officials, the apprehensions of presidential aides were expressed in a 45-minute meeting of the senior staff Tuesday.
Presidential speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg was quoted as expressing "an uneasy feeling that we're slipping down a slippery slope toward a military confrontation." Stuart E. Eizenstat, the senior White House domestic affairs adviser, reportedly expressed concern that U.S. military action could disrupt the worldwide flow of oil in a major fashion because of the potentially hostile reaction of other nations in the Persian Gulf area.
Neither Hertzberg nor Eisenstat would comment on the reports of the meeting, but other officials confirmed the substance of what was said.
White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan said he convened the session to provide a forum for staff members to express their views, rather than as an exercise in sociliting advice for Carter.
In response to the dissent which was expressed, including the statement by a staff member that "we may be painting ourselves into a corner" by raising the expectation of U.S. military action, Jordan said Carter has made no decision about the military options.
"The president does not have many attractive options open to him. He is well aware of the consequences of any actions he might take, more so than anyone in this room," Jordan told the staff members.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, the senior White House foreign policy adviser, is reported to have said that Carter's talk of possible military action was aimed as much at U.S. allies as it was at the Iranian authorities. Brzezinski also told the staff members, an expanded verion of a regular staff session, that "no decision has been made" about U.S. military steps.
Later Brzezinski made it known that he was "sickened" by the immediate leak to the press of the confidential discussion by more than 25 senior members of the White House staff.
Carter has repeatedly suggested in recent public statements that U.S. military action may be taken if economic and political sanctions against Iran fail to bring about release of the hostages. He told a news conference a week ago that "the only next step available that I can see would be some sort of military action" if U.S. and allied nonmilitary sanctions do not work.
Administration officials have designated mid-May as the time for a U.S. "reassessment" of the Iran situation, hinting broadly that U.S. military options are likely to be considered at that time. While refusing to make public a definite timetable, Carter said in a CBS Television interview Monday that "I don't know how much longer we can sit here and see them held captive while the situation around [them] does deteriorate."
The action of U.S. allies in the European Economic Community, which voted Tuesday to impose full economic sactions against Iran on May 17 unless "decisive progress" is made in the hostage issue, is likely to affect the timing of U.S. decision making, a senior White House official said.
As seen in White House circles, some of the European countries may have seized upon the May 17 date as a means of delaying Washington's promised mid-May "reassessment." The rationale for delay would be that the economic sanctions will be just coming into effect in mid-May, and should be given two or three months to work before more forceful U.S. action is contemplated.
The United States had preferred that the Europeans impose full economic sanctions on Iran immediately, to give the measures time to work in the coming weeks. Washington had suggested a later target date, mid-May, for political sanctions, including the termination of diplomatic relations between the U.S. allies and Iran.
While conceding that the European timetable may delay the U.S. decision making about Iran, White House officials welcomed the substance of the allied action as a "positive step" that goes beyond the previous gestures and statements of the allies.
In an official comment, White House press secretary Jody Powell said the United States is hopeful that the European nations will enact promptly any legislation that may be required to give effect to the sanctions voted Tuesday.
The White House statement went out of its way to define the U.S. interpretation of the "decisive progress" the Europeans are demanding. u"We assume [it] means release [of the hostages] from Iranian control," Powell said.
He said he would not "totally rule out" more forceful U.S. action before the European sanctions deadline of May 17.
"There has never been a specific timetable for military action or other action," Powell said. He added that nothing in the stance taken by European nations "in and of itself would alter the general course of our policy."
In addition to staff members of the White House and other executive branch departments, several members of Congress have expressed concern about the potential consequences of U.S. military action against Iran at this stage.
Senate Majority Leader Byrd said Carter had promised him early in the hostage crisis that he would be informed if any military action is being contemplated. Byrd said that to date he has received no such notification from the White House, but that "I have been concerned about the speculation" in recent days regarding military action.
"We must be consulted. We must be given an opportunity to give our advice, to make our contribution, if there is any basis to the speculation," he said. Byrd said he notified Brzezinski in the presence of several other senators last week of his insistence that Senate leaders be informed if any action involving military force is being contemplated.
Byrd said the administration has a legal obligation under the War Powers Act to consult Congress on any such action, as well as a political obligation in view of the need for congressional backing.