Washington — High US officials who hope to avert a transatlantic crisis over the Soviet natural gas pipeline face major roadblocks within the Reagan administration itself.
''A genuine difference of opinion exists,'' said a senior official, ''over what the President's sanctions are supposed to achieve.''
He referred to President Reagan's ban on the sale of American equipment or technology to help build the 3,600-mile Yamal pipeline designed to carry Siberian natural gas to markets in Western Europe.
Mr. Reagan himself says the sanctions were imposed to pressure Soviet leaders into relaxing martial law and other forms of repression in Poland.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, leader of the hawkish faction within the administration, goes further. He claims that completion of the Yamal pipeline would strengthen the Soviet economy and allow Moscow to spend more money on arms.
But other top officials see a greater danger to the alliance from the open clash now developing between the United States and four major European allies over Reagan's sanctions.
Sharing this concern, said a high administration official, are Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, and William E. Brock , top White House trade representative.
This group, said the source, is trying above all to avoid the US becoming involved in legal battles with the governments of its close allies.
One avenue being explored is to limit the sanctions to individual companies that violate the ban, thus demonstrating Reagan's firmness, but trying to avoid a direct confrontation at the government-to-government level.
This would leave room for further diplomatic moves, perhaps by a high-level US delegation sent to Europe specifically to discuss the pipeline issue.
Another group with qualms about the sanctions policy is the US business community. A number of American businessmen - usually Reagan's allies - feel very strongly that the policy is wrong, partly because it undermines the reliability of US firms as suppliers.
''There is significant concern among our members,'' said Jerry J. Jasinowski, senior vice-president and chief economist of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), ''that the pipeline decision will have a chilling effect on the reliability of the US as a trading partner.''
Many large exporters, said Mr. Jasinowski, deplore the use of trade sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy. Secretary of State Shultz himself, as head of the giant Bechtel Corporation before he took office, ridiculed the notion that foreign trade could be turned on and off like a light switch.
Coming down the road are a number of cases similar to that of Dresser-France, the French subsidiary of Dresser Industries of Dallas, which is manufacturing 21 US-licensed compressors for the Soviet pipeline. European firms in Britain, West Germany, and Italy are also ready to make deliveries on equipment ordered by the Soviets.
Early next week a Soviet freighter is due at Glasgow, to load six pipeline turbines manufactured by John Brown Engineering Ltd., a British firm.
The turbines contain rotors made by General Electric, which fall beneath President Reagan's ban. GE, in fact, holds the patents for much of the disputed technology which the White House would withhold from Moscow.
Within a few days, in other words, the Reagan administration will face a decision on John Brown, which has been ordered by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government to fulfill the turbine contract.
Only a broad US-European agreement, not yet in sight, would appear able to prevent allied trust and confidence from being nibbled away by a succession of separate sanctions cases, as time goes on. Britain, France, West Germany, and Italy say they will fulfill their pipeline contracts, although these include equipment manufactured in Europe under US license.
Such a transfer of American technology was forbidden by President Reagan on June 18, when he broadened his sanctions to include foreign subsidiaries of US firms and foreign companies manufacturing equipment for the pipeline under US license.
Dresser-France is the first company to feel Reagan's wrath. The first three of its compressors left Le Havre for the Soviet Union Thursday.
Dresser-France, under a sanctions ruling announced by the US Department of Commerce the same day, no longer may buy goods or services from United States suppliers, whether intended for the Soviet pipeline or not. Also under the same sanctions is the French firm Creusot-Loire, described by Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige as a prime contractor for the Soviet gas pipeline.
The sanctions do not apply to Dresser Industries of Dallas - parent company of Dresser-France - which is free as before to apply for export licenses for goods to be shipped overseas. No longer, however, may Dresser of Dallas export equipment to its French subsidiary, as long as the sanctions apply.
This solution appears to satisfy Reagan's determination to enforce his ban, without causing an immediate head-on collision between the governments of the US and France.
''The President is not looking for a brutal confrontation,'' one White House official told the Monitor, ''but he intends to pursue his policy. He feels very strongly about this.''