The Carter administration is preparing to respond to Iran's week-old conditions for release of the 52 American hostages with specific proposals for meeting the spirit if not the letter of the Iranian demands, informed officials said yesterday.
The U.S. response, which has been under study by a team of high-level officials from several departments, has not yet been submitted to President Carter, according to the sources. The hope and expectation is that Carter will approve the response early this eek for transmission to the Tehran authorities through Algerian diplomats, the intermediaries chosen by Iran.
American officials said they are uncertain whether Iran will accept the plans that the United States will propose, but some of the best-informed officials expressed the belief that there is a substantial chance of acceptance.
The complex internal political situation in Tehran, however, was further clouded yesterday by news of the arrest of former foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh in the latest chapter of the recurrent infighting between modernist and clerical forces.
Washington sources said Ghotbzadeh has been on only the fringes of recent decision-making about the hostages in Tehran, and for this reason his arrest is not likely to have much of a direct impact on the situation. But if Ghotbzadeh's arrest signals the outbreak of a more active phase of the struggle between political factions in Tehran, the sources said, this renewed instability in Iran could make a positive reply to the American response more difficult.
The Iranian conditions, first outlined in broad terms by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini last Sept. 12, are: a pledge by the United States not to intervene in Iranian affairs; the return of the fortune of the late shah and his family; the release of the assets frozen by Carter after the hostages were seized, and cancellation of U.S. claims against Iran.
The Iranian parliament, or Majlis, adopted the four conditions as the country's official demand last Sunday, but in the process it added considerable detail that made them more difficult for the U.s. govenment to meet.
Carter and his senior foreign policy advisers, meeting in the White House last Sunday, decided not to provide an immediate response on the eve of the U.S. election as demanded by Tehran. Instead the United States waited for an official version of the Iranian conditions. This was transmitted to U.S. officials Monday afternoon by the Algerian ambassador in Washington. uRedha Malek, in one of five visits last week by that official to the State Department.
Because of what is described as ambiguities, inconsistencies and misunderstandings of the president's legal authority and political position, the Iranian conditions, even in the authorized official version, presented a formidable problem for Washington policy-makers. According to official sources, nothing was received through private channels later in the week that clarified the Majlis conditions, although policy-makers noted remarks by senior Iranian officials in telephone interviews with The Washington Post that seemed to amplify the Irian requirements.
For much of last week a team of officials from the White House, State, Treasury and Justice departments concentrated on ways to meet the broad requirements of the four Iranian conditions. The idea is to present Iran with a fullblown American plan for accomplishing the apparent objectives of Khomeini and the Majlis, consistent with the legal and political constraints on the U.S. government, even though the procedures suggested my depart in some instances from those suggested in the official communication from Tehran.
If the prevailing authorities in Tehran have decided that the hostage holding should be ended in the Iranian national interest, the U.S. proposals will provide them with an ample rationale for doing so, in the view of Washinton policy-makers. But if there is still a dispute in Tehran about whether the hostages should be released, or if hard-liners insist on American fulfillment to the letter of the Majlis conditions in their most stringent interpretation, the U.S. proposals are likely to be insufficient.
The position of President-elect Ronald Reagan in all this is a potentially complicating factor, but at the moment Reagan and his team are taking a cautious back seat to the Carter administration. Sources in the Reagan camp said the president-elect is not likely to become involved in Carter's maneuvering with Iran by volunteering his views.
Sources close to Reagan expressed the belief that Carter might well check with Reagan before providing detailed answers to the Iranian conditions. But in this case, the sources said the initiative will have to come from Carter.