Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher indirectly cautioned Iran yesterday that the current Carter administration offers for settlement of hostage-related issues will not necessarily be carried over into a Reagan administration.
Christopher's message in Algiers to Algerian diplomats, who are the chosen intermediaries of Iran, was made known in Washington by State Department officials.
Noting that much work has gone into the elaborate proposals of the outgoing administration for meeting Iran's conditions within the framework of U.S. law and national policy, Christopher reportedly predicted at least a lull in the U.S. side of the dialogue if the matter is carried over to the incoming administration.
Christopher added, according to the State Department report, that he cannot predict what course the Reagan administration will take after the necessary pause for study of the situation.
The U.S. official's stance, in a 3 1/2 hour meeting centering on details of Washington's position on Iran's conditions, was an implicit warning that the terms now available to Iran might not be after Jan. 20. By making this point, Washington policy-makers hope to encourage Iran to settle without delay, and to discourage any idea that the current terms could be used as the foundation for concessions from the Reagan administration.
State Department spokesman John Trattner, speaking here, denied that Christopher's message to Iran warned explicitly that the Reagan administration might be less flexible on meeting Iran's conditions than the Carter administration is willing to be. The Washington Post reported yesterday, on the basis of statements from a highly placed U.S. source, that this was among the points Christopher was prepared to make.
The presidential transition poses new hurdles in the painstaking maneuvering to bring about release of the 52 Americans, who have been held captive 13 months. However, the problems have been diminished and the opportunities for the United States enhanced by the cautiously supportive positions taken so far by President-elect Ronald Reagan.
On Sept. 13, the day after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced the four Iranian conditions for return of the Americans, Reagan, in an unusual prepared statement, said the United States, under the circumstances, "can and should agree" to three of them -- the unfreezing of Iranian assets held by the United States, cancellation of claims against Iran and nonintervention in Iran's internal affairs.
Reagan said the fourth condition, the return to Iran of the property of the late shah, could not be met without due process of law.
Reagan pledged then that "if elected I will observe the terms of an agreement" made with Iran. He warned, however, that Iran should not think it might obtain better terms than the four points by waiting until after the November election.
A senior foreign policy adviser to Reagan said yesterday that the president-elect has given no commitment about his course of action if a U.S.-Iran agreement is not reached before his inauguration. In such a case, Reagan would have to "wait and see" what to do, this adviser said, adding that Reagan has not been contacted by Iran about the matter.
Regardless of his preferences, political reality in the United States makes it unlikely that after Jan. 20 Reagan could go beyond the offers made by the Carter administration without being critized for going too far. Thus the Carter and Reagan administrations, at the moment, are offering Iran a relatively unified position, and the prospect of delay and doubt if the current offers are scorned.
Christopher and his team of high level officials are to continue their discussions today with the Algerian intermediaries in Algiers, the State Department said. The U.S. team may leave for Washington as early as tonight, officials said.