Guatemala will have to go farther toward improving its human rights record before it will be eligible for American military aid beyond the limited amount just announced, according to a high-ranking State Department official.
But Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, says the Reagan administration is ''quite encouraged'' by what it describes as initial steps taken by Guatamala's President Efrain Rios Montt to improve that record.
The main argument made by Mr. Abrams and other officials is that since he came to power last March, General Rios Montt has reduced the killings of unarmed civilians in the countryside, and that the Guatemalan leader is taking the first steps toward bringing about new elections in his Central American nation.
The State Department annnounced on Jan. 8 that as a result of human rights improvements, the United States has decided to permit the cash sale to Guatemala of previously requested helicopter spare parts, radios, and other military items amounting to $6.4 million. It would constitute the first such sale to Guatemala since the late 1970s, when military sales were banned because of the Guatemalan regime's record of repression.
The Guatemalan government has had the reputation of being one of the worst human ights violators in the hemisphere.
With 7 million people, Guatemala is the most populous and wealthy of the six Central American nations. Its strategic location next to Mexico has added to its importance in the eyes of American policymakers. But until early last year at least, it appeared that the brutality of Guatemala's military regime under Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia was driving more and more members of the country's traditionally conservative Indian population to join the leftist-led guerrilla forces which have been fighting the government. The Indians, descendants of the ancient Mayans, make up more than half of the population of Guatemala.
But Reagan administration officials now profess to see a major change in Guatemala following the coup which brought General Rios Montt to power less than a year ago. Some human rights groups such as Amnesty International dispute this finding. But administration officials say these groups' information may be several months out of date.
In an interview, Mr. Abrams said the main points to consider were whether assassinations and disappearances had decreased in Guatemala, how the army is behaving, and whether the country is moving toward democracy. On all these points, he said, there was progress. Rios Montt is expected in March to announce a date for constituent assembly elections.
Under the Lucas Garcia government, Abrams said, the war against guerrillas ''frequently turned out to be the war against the populace.''
But under Rios Montt, he said, ''There are many fewer abuses than there used to be.''
''Our strong view is that Rios Montt is trying to practice what he preaches and that the behavior of the army has improved,'' said Abrams. ''The human rights problem has obviously not been eliminated, but it's better.
''Rios Montt is succeeding in conveying the message that the army is there to protect the populace, not to view it as an enemy.
''So we are quite encouraged by these initial steps,'' said Abrams.
''Now, there's a long way to go. Not only does he have to announce a constituent assembly date, he also has to have an election. Not only does he have to make progress with respect to human rights violations by the army, he has got to make much more progress.
''But our sense is that he really is committed to make this kind of progress and . . . that we should support that progress,'' Abrams added.
The assistant secretary said that the resumption of military sales to Guatemala should be viewed as ''encouragement'' to the new regime there to make further progress.
Abrams said there has been no decision to provide any further arms shipments to Guatemala, and that ''it's all going to depend on a case-by-case basis on what is asked for, on what their record is, and on how they are using what we give them.''
Asked about interviews with Guatemalan refugees reaching Mexico who have spoken of massacres by the Guatemalan army, Abrams acknowledged that some massacres may have occurred. But he suggested that the interviews had occurred before changes under Rios Montt took effect.
''There are certainly refugees in Mexico whose towns suffered massacres by the military, but our sense is that this kind of gross behavior by the military is very substantially reduced under Rios Montt,'' the assistant secretary said.