State Department officials say they have some reason to be cautiously optimistic about the latest exchanges between the United States and Iran. It is clear, one official said, that the Iranian "moderates" want to get on with the transfer of the American hostages in Tehran from the militants to Iranian government control -- and soon.
One high-ranking official said that as a result the US was likely to hold off for 24 hours an announcement it had planned for March 31 concerning the imposition of new economic sanctions against Iran.
Expectations of an imminent development in the US-Iranian crisis were raised March 31 when President Bani-Sadr met with three leaders of the militant students occupying the US Embassy.
President Carter, in the meantime, convened a National Security Council meeting to consider this and other aspects of the Iranian situation.
Administration officials continued at the same time to insist that the Iranians had fabricated parts of a message the Iranians allege came from President Carter.
The President, the officials say, did not admit, as the Iranians allege, to mistake having been made by the US in Iran. Iran has insisted on some form of US apology for past mistakes before the hostages can be released.
There was some speculation in Washington that the Iranian government had described the purported Carter message as conciliatory in an effort to persuade the militants to go along with a transfer of the hostages.
Administration officials acknowledged that the US had sent two messages to Iran in recent days, through Swiss intermediaries. But they said that the messages were sternly worded, rather than conciliatory, and warned of American plans for new punitive measures against Iran.
Unfortunately for President Carter's domestic political fortunes, however, the confusion surrounding these developments has once again brought his credibility into question. The credibility problem has been created in part by the apparently conflicting signals that have been given out in recent days by Jody Powell, the White House press secretary.
On March 29, Mr. Powell said that "the President has sent no message to Khomeini Period." On March 30, he declared that there had been "no messages such as the one" described by Iran. But he acknowledged that there had been some kind of a Swiss-delivered message from the US to Iran.
A leading Republican presidential candidate, George Bush, said subsequently that reports from Tehran suggested that President Carter had allowed himself to engage in a damaging "self-humiliation and apology" vis-a-vis Iran.
An administration official said, meanwhile, that if the Iranians decline to move to release the hostages, further economic sanctions against Iran might prove "useful." Military action, he said, might only result first in the deaths of some of the hostages and second in internal chaos in Iran, which would benefit no one but the Soviet Union.
Most of the economic sanctions reported to be under consideration by the administration fall into the category of symbolic, however. The administration is said to be thinking, for example, of announcing an embargo on all trade with Iran except for food and medicine. But there has been little trade between the US and Iran for several months now.
The administration is also said to be considering a further reduction in the size of the Iranian diplomatic mission to the United States. But the US had already ordered a drastic cut in the mission last December.
An administration official indicated that any optimism over the attitude of the Iranian "moderates" toward the hostages must be tempered by the fact that there continue to be "three centers of power in Iran": Ayatollah Khomeini, the "moderates" in the government such as President Bani-Sadr, and the militants holding the embassy.
Several weeks ago, when it appeared that the hostages were about to be transferred away from the embassy, the Ayatollah, in effect, upheld the militants in their refusal either to comply with such a transfer or to permit the United Nations commission of inquiry then visiting Tehran even to see the hostages.
President Bani-Sadr is reported to be insisting that before the hostages can be released, the US must (1) admit through some kind of apology to its past interference in Iranian affairs, (2) promise that it will no longer intervene in Iranian affairs, and (3) not block attempts to bring the Shah and his wealth back to Iran.
President Carter has, in public statements, ruled out any apology, but he has indicated he would be willing to issue a statement of concern about past events.