With President Carter personally taking the lead, the United States sought yesterday to stake out a position of strict neutrality in the fighting between Iran and Iraq.
"We are not taking a position in support of either Iran or Iraq," Carter said as he arrived in Los Angeles on a campaign swing. "Our only hope is that the two nations can resolve the situation peacefully. We'll do everything we can to contribute to that peaceful resolution."
U.S. officials privately worried that despite the administration's assertions of neutrality, the conflict could create new obstacles in the effort to free the American hostages in Iran.
The president was mildly hopeful that the fighting could have a positive effect on the hostages' fate. "I can't predict to you a rapid movement toward release of our hostages," he said in reply to a question from the audience at a high school in Torrance, Calif. But he said the conflict could convince Iran's leaders that they need friends "and therefore induce them to release the hostages."
But other administration officials fear that the fighting could interfere with recent encouraging signs that Iran's revolutionary leaders are positioning themselves to resolve the 10-month deadlock over the hostages.
Specifically, U.S. officilas are worried that the hostilities could derail plans for the Iranian parliament to consider the hostage issue and force another long delay in coming to grips with the fate of the captives.
There also is concern here that Iranian hard-line factions, which oppose the idea of freeing the hostages, might seize on the conflict as a pretext for charging that the United States somehow is involved on the Iraqi side.
Finally, although U.S. officials still do not have a clear gauge of the extent of the fighting and whether it is likely to escalate, administration policymakers are worried about the conflict erupting into widespread violence in the strategic Persian Gulf region with its vital oil supplies.
The administration is understood to have made a calculated decision to try to avoid angering either side by keeping as low a profile as possible -- one emphasizing U.S. noninvolvement and hopes for a peaceful resolution.
That line, laid down by Carter in Los Angeles, was echoed publicly by other officials yesterday up and down the foreign policy chain of command.
Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, carefully refrained from making any direct reference in his speech to the dispute between Iran and Iraq, even though much of his address was devoted to developments in the Persian Gulf area.
However, Muskie confined his comments on Iran largely to reiterating before the international forum the points he made in a recent letter to Iran's new prime minister, Mohammed Ali Rajai. Specifically, Muskie repeated the administration's offer to settle Iran's grievances against the United States "on a basis of mutual respect and equality" if the hostages are freed.
Although the secretary gave no sign of yielding to Iranian demands that the United States apologize for its past actions in Iran, he said that in exchange for releasing the hostages the United States would drop its sanctions against Iran and "do our part in resolving fairly the issues between us. . . ."
Talking with reporters later, Muskie did discuss the outbreak of fighting and its possible effects on the hostages. He said that "to the extent the situation becomes less stable, [it] becomes less predictable, and my concern rises."
Muskie added that the Iranian-Iraqi conflict "would be a logical subject for the agenda" when he meets Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko in New York Thursday. The Soviet Union is Iraq's major arms supplier, and in his General Assembly speech yesterday, Muskie strongly criticized the Soviet Union as a major source of the tension in the Persian Gulf region because of its invasion of Afghanistan.
The tack taken by Carter and Muskie was elaborated on by State Department spokesman Jack Cannon, who spent the greater part of yesterday's daily news briefing emphasizing U.S. determination not to become involved in the border dispute and stressing the U.S. view that the hostages plight is a totally seperate issue.
"We have said repeatedly that we believe the return of the hostages is in the interests of Iran and the United States," Cannon said. "We hope they will see that as their earliest concern."
He also denied charges coming out of Iran that Iraq is "an American puppet" and, in what appeared to be and indirect call for the Soviet Union not to become invovled, expressed hope "that no other powers will involve themselves in the dispute."
In terms of the military aspects of the situation, U.S. officials said it was difficult not to get a clear picture of the extent and nature of the fighting.
"The first step is to get all the facts," Muskie said. "We have to undertake to determine if this is an incident or a broader and more serious situation."
At the Defense Department, officials said that, based on the limited intelligence available, the conflict appeared to be serious but not yet beyond the point of no return.
Although Pentagon sources said they had information that Iraq is moving tanks, artillery and armored cars toward the disputed border area, they added that neither side appeared to be setting up the kind of supply lines necessary to sustain a protracted, full-scale war.
In respect to the possible impact of the fighting on world oil supplies, Deputy Energy Secretary John Sawhill told a Senate subcommittee yesterday that the United States and other western countries are better able to deal with an oil cutoff from Iran and Iraq than they were a few years ago.
Sawhill cited as key factors the current high level of world oil stocks and global production now running 2.5 million barrels a day above demand. Since the onset of the hostage crisis, the United States has stopped importing any oil from Iran, and it receives almost none from Iraq, whose principal customers are in Europe.
According to the figures cited by Sawhill in his testimony, Iraq is producing about 3 million barrels of oil a day and Iran 500,000 barrels a day. p