Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie yesterday appeared to reject Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Rajai's call for removal of American radar planes from the Persian Gulf while seeking to reassure Iran that the planes are there solely for defensive purposes.
Interviewed on the television program "Issues and Answers" (ABC, WJLA), Muskie put on a delicate diplomatic juggling act in responding to Rajai's suggestion Saturday that the United States could encourage Iran to release the American hostages by withdrawing the planes and by preventing Jordan from aiding Iraq in its war against Iran.
The secretary said he did not believe Rajai was setting a new "condition" for release of the hostages but instead was stating a "concern" about U.S. intentions in respect to the Iran-Iraq war.
He then went on to say that the radar reconnaissance planes (known as AWACS for airborne warning and control system planes) had been sent to Saudi Arabia at that country's request to help it defend "its territorial integrity" by gathering information "for purely defensive purposes." He also denied that Saudi Arabia, despite its ties to Iraq as a fellow Arab country, was passing information collected by the AWACS planes to the Iraqis.
As to Jordan, which has proclaimed its sympathy for Iraq and which is allowing shipment of supplies for Iraq through its territory, Muskie said the United States has made clear to the Jordanians its view that all countries should desist from any actions that help prolong the war. But, he added, Jordan "is a sovereign country and has to make its own decisions" about how to deal with the combatants in the month-old war.
In response to questions on other subjects, Muskie referred to the turmoil in Poland by cautioning the government and workers there "not to be insensitive to the Russian reaction" as they attempt to work out methods of greater internal freedom that could clash with Moscow's views on acceptable communist orthodoxy.
Muskie noted that the Soviets so far have been restrained in dealing with the Polish situation, but he appeared to be expressing a fear that the Polish workers might go too far in their demands and precipitate a situation that would compel Moscow to intervene in ways that would cause a major crisis for East-West relations.
"I think the Polish people ought not to be insensitive to pressures from outside, not only from the Soviet Union but from other countries in the East European bloc," Muskie said.
He also defended the manner in which he has been speaking out lately to call attention to the different approaches pursued by President Carter and his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, toward ratification of the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II).
In a speech last Thursday, Muskie separated the future of the treaty from continued Soviet presence in Afghanistan more explicitly than senior administration spokesmen had done in the past. On Saturday, President Carter said in an interview that he will seek Senate approval of the treaty "at the earliest possible moment" after the Nov. 4 election even if Soviet forces remain in Afghanistan.
These moves have caused speculation that the administration is focusing on the SALT treaty as part of its political strategy of portraying Reagan as a Cold War hawk whose ideas could lead the United States into war.
Asked whether the administration was trying to exploit SALT for partisan purposes, Muskie said: "I am determined not so much to make it a political issue as I am to make it a substantive issue which will attract the attention of the American people . . . . I think it is terribly important that we focus on this issue, that the American people focus on it, and I can't think of a better time for them to do so than in the presidential campaign when they are more alert to issues of this kind."
For that reason, Muskie said, he considers it important to underscore that Carter regards the treaty as an important way to lessen the risk of nuclear war and costly arms races, while Reagan, in Muskie's description, wants to both renegotiate the treaty and establish American superiority in the field of nuclear armaments.
"If that's the case," Muskie said, "there will never be an arms control treaty because I can't conceive of either the United States or the Soviet Union accepting a treaty which freezes itself in a position of nuclear inferiority and freezes the other into a position of nuclear superiority."
Muskie's main aim in the interview seemed to be addressing the points about the AWACS planes and Jordan raised by Rajai during a news conference at the United Nations Saturday. In addition to his attempt to be reassuring and conciliatory toward Iran, Muskie cautioned the American public not to let its expectations be raised unduly by Rajai's statement that the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, may act soon to dispose of the hostage issue.
"We've heard statements like that so many times over the recent weeks that we've learned not to raise our expectations," Muskie said. "I hope it does act soon and there are some indications that it may."
Agreement with the administration's apparent decision not to withdraw the AWACS planes from Saudi Arabis came from the Reagan camp yesterday. Reagan's chief foreign policy adviser, Richard V. Allen, said on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC) that pulling out the planes could have "unfortunate consequences." Former president Gerald Ford, appearing on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM) said withdrawal of the planes "would to some extent be a capitulation."