An assistant to Lt. Col. Oliver L. North has testified that North's Iranian contacts were discussing as late as last Nov. 19 what the Iranians called American "promises" to help win release of 17 Shiite terrorists held prisoner in Kuwait, according to testimony released yesterday.

North's aide, Marine Lt. Col. Robert L. Earl, told the Iran-contra committees that North received a message from the Iranians right after President Reagan's news conference of Nov. 19 that said "you must act on your promises" before another meeting would be held to discuss release of additional American hostages, according to testimony released yesterday by the Iran-contra committees.

"They ask for news about the Kuwaiti 17," Earl said, reading from his Nov. 19, 1986, notes about the message during a closed session of the committees held May 30. Earl provided the first documentation of the actual communications from Iran that came into the White House after the arms sales had been exposed last November.

An Annapolis graduate and former Rhodes Scholar, Earl testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution. His testimony indicates that the idea of trading more arms to the Iranians to win the release of hostages was still alive in the White House and in the minds of its secret Iranian contacts two weeks after the secret arms sales were exposed, and after Reagan had given both a speech to the nation and a news conference trying to explain the affair.

The "Kuwaiti 17" were Lebanese Shiite terrorists held in Kuwaiti prisons whose release had been the kidnapers' main demand since the first Americans were seized in 1984 by pro-Iranian extremists in Lebanon.

The stated U.S. policy up to that point had been to refuse to put any pressure on Kuwait to release their prisoners. However, in the secret negotiations with the Iranians beginning in October 1986, North and his colleagues had agreed to a nine-point program which included coming up with a plan to free the Kuwaiti prisoners.

North's boss, then-national security adviser John M. Poindexter, testified that Reagan had approved a negotiating document hammered out with the Iranians that referred to working out a plan for release of the 17 prisoners. But other senior officials, most emphatically Secretary of State George P. Shultz, testified that Reagan never authorized such discussion and opposed the idea vigorously.

North had met secretly with the Iranians in Geneva on Nov. 8, after the first published stories created an uproar about the covert arms-for-hostages dealings. He had hoped that two more Americans would be released as a result of that meeting, but none was freed.

"Because of the furor in the press associated with this," Earl said, "if it came to fruition and hostages were to be released, that clearly was some of the best proof of the value of the {clandestine U.S.-Iran} channels."

In mid-December, after Shultz learned of North's dealings involving the Kuwaiti prisoners, he went directly to the president and demanded the meetings with the Iranians be ended. The president looked like he was "kicked in the stomach" when informed of the meetings, Shultz testified last month.

The chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who are also members of the Iran-contra panels, have traced the Reagan administration's current determination to support Kuwait in the Persian Gulf to the White House dealings with Iran in 1985 and 1986. Both have suggested that the administration feels a need to reassure Kuwait of U.S. steadfastness.

In their Nov. 19 message after Reagan's news conference, the Iranians said, "Washington is responsible for the difficulties" that had arisen because "we have never given any specifics about buying and selling of arms," according Earl's notes.

The Iranians also said that they would put off discussion of providing a captured Soviet T72 tank to the Americans as they had promised at the previous meeting with North and said they did not like talk of "moderates and Israelis" in the context of the arms sales.

"You must tell the editors of the press that they should write less about Iran because the press is read in Tehran and that isn't good. It makes the road tougher," Earl said, still reading from his notes on the Iranian message.

The Iranian who sent the message -- referred to in the Iran-contra hearings as "the second channel," and who is a relative of the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Hojatoleslam Hashemi Rafsanjani -- also said he hoped that "the guys in the White House are keeping things under control," a phrase that caused Senate chief counsel Arthur L. Liman to interject: "There's a man with a sense of humor."

In a message sent earlier that day, according to Earl, the Iranians told North they wanted to be informed "in advance of adverse press" and that if William J. Casey, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, discusses the Iran program he should "avoid operational detail."

"This is the Iranian suggestion, if you will," Earl said, agreeing with Liman that "they didn't want their cover blown."

In the same message the Iranian said his side wanted a "meeting with {Vice President} Bush and an Iranian official" to discuss the end of the Iran-Iraq war, something North testified to the committees was under consideration at the time he left the White House.

In other material released yesterday:Earl testified that North told him last Nov. 21, when he learned the Justice Department was coming to inspect his Iran files, that he was going to become a scapegoat to protect the Reagan administration.

"I asked what was going on," Earl testified, "and he said something . . . something to the effect that 'It's time for North to be the scapegoat, Ollie has been designated the scapegoat' or something like that."

Among reasons North cited, Earl said, was that Casey's "briefing of the Congress hadn't gone well, and there were discrepancies or more questions raised than answered." Earl's testimony about North's "scapegoat" statement was previously disclosed by the committees. That same day, Nov. 21, Earl brought his files to North, who was preparing material for the Justice Department review. Earl told the committees he expected North to destroy the files under a plan they had put into operation to protect those involved in the operation. In May 1986, at the same time that North was participating in the U.S. mission to Tehran that was expected to free all the American hostages with the delivery of U.S. military equipment, he also was working another release program through the Drug Enforcement Agency that involved paying $1 million ransom that had been raised from Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, Earl said.

At one point, according to Earl, "this whole process had so affected him {North} that he had even conceived a plan that he could get money from Ross Perot for the contras by having him deposit some money ostensibly for hostages but that it would go to the contras." Earl provided the White House explanation for why North and Casey used Iranian middleman Manucher Ghorbanifar despite objections by CIA experts and others, who believed he was a liar. "Everyone recognized that Ghorbanifar was untrustworthy, that he was making up stuff and looking out for his own interests, which were probably to make an enormous profit," he said. But in 1986, he was "the only channel available, that at least it worked . . . through him to get to the Iranian leadership," Earl said. Earl also described how North told him of his Nov. 23 interview with Attorney General Edwin Meese III and of being confronted with the so-called diversion memo, which mentioned that $12 million from a U.S.-Iran arms sale would be spent to aid the contras. After Meese finished questioning North, the former White House aide told Earl he asked Meese, "Since you didn't mention my rights or warn me of my rights, does this count?"

Several months earlier, before the May trip to Iran, Earl said, North told him about using proceeds from the arms sales to aid the contras because the two were working up a price list that included a 370 percent markup on the U.S. military parts.

"I thought it was a rather innovative sting on the ayatollah {Khomeini}," Earl said, "in a way to make this whole hostage negotiation business, which no one felt very comfortable with . . . . A way to take a negative and turn it to advantage for the country with some pluses coming out of a bad situation."