The State Department said yesterday it is "at the point of decision" on replying to Iran's terms for freeing the 52 American hostages, but department officials later backtracked and said it would be "misleading" to assume that the U.S. response is imminent.
The confusion was touched off when department spokesman John Trattner used the term "at the point of decision" to describe the status of U.S. efforts to meet the Iranian conditions in a way that will end the year-old ordeal.
Subsequently, though, department officials said Trattner had been given "poorly drafted guidance" that left the impression of greater movement on the hostage situation than is the case. Trattner later edited his remark by asserting it would be more correct to say the United States is "about to decide how to respond" to the four conditions set last Sunday by the Iranian parliament, the Majlis.
Sources familiar with the administration's internal decision-making process agreed that Trattner's elaboration of his earlier remark was an accurate description of where the situation stands.
According to these sources, since the official version of the Iranian terms was received here Monday, administration officials have been analyzing it minutely and attempting to gain some guidance about how to interpret it from Algerian Ambassador Redha Malek whom Iran has designated as its intermediary.
The sources added that the officials now are at the point of starting to formulate a detailed U.S. response to be submitted to President Carter and his senior foreign policy advisers for their consideration. Although the timing is uncertain, the sources said the hope is to have the proposal ready for Carter by early next week. If he approves the proposal, it will be transmitted to Tehran through the Algerians.
Although Malek had several discussions this week with Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Trattner cautioned: "We are not in a dialogue [with Iran] in the sense that dialogue is normally understood to mean." He conceded, "I would not assume nothing has flowed in either direction." But he also stressed that "we are not in a regular, constant communication with them at this point."
The sources elaborated privately by saying the United States still does not have a clear idea of whether Algeria will be an active or passive intermediary -- whether its role will be confined solely to carrying messages between the two sides or whether it will have some discretion to negotiate on Iran's behalf. According to the sources, the talks with Malek have left U.S. officials with the impression that the Algerians are uncertain at this point about what role Tehran wants them to play.
As Trattner said, "It is not a simple [case of] you get a letter in the mail and you sit down and write an answer and drop it in the letter box the next morning. It's the welfare and lives of 52 people."
For that reason, he added, procedures must be established so that when the U.S. response is transmitted to Iran there will be no misunderstandings about its meaning. That, he stressed, "requires very careful preparation," and he intimated that as much emphasis is being placed on establishing clear-cut procedures for communicating with Iran as on the contents of the American response.
The Iranian conditions are a U.S. pledge not to interfere in Iran's affairs, the release of Iranian assets frozen in this country, the dropping of all U.S. claims against Iran, and the return to Iran of the wealth of the late shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
These last two points -- concerning U.S. claims and the late shah's wealth -- involve some difficult legal problems that might be beyond the power of the executive branch to solve. However, the sources said, when the U.S. response is formulated, the intention is to address all four Iranian conditions as fully as possible in the hope that Iranian leaders will consider the reply satisfactory.
Still, the sources cautioned, at this stage no one knows whether the U.S. response, when it does go forward, will be deemed adequate enough by the Iranians to induce them to release the hostages, or whether some further negotiating and refining of the American reply will be required.