The Reagan administration, in what would be a reversal of United States antiterrorist policy, appears to be seeking a limited accommodation with Iran. The motive is to secure Iran's help in gaining the release of six American hostages still being held by pro-Iranian Muslim fundamentalists in Lebanon.
There are conflicting reports as to whether Reagan's former national-security adviser Robert C. McFarlane recently traveled to Iran to discuss trading military spare parts for American hostages.
What seems clear is that some official overture has been made. This could involve spare parts for US-made tanks, warplanes, and radar systems sold to Iran during the Shah's rule and now used by Iran in its war against Iraq.
It could also involve some American help in driving up world oil prices, which Iran needs to revive its war-torn economy.
US spokesmen yesterday again sidestepped questions regarding two recent reports from the Middle East that Mr. McFarlane and four other Americans posing as airplane crewmen traveled to Iran in September to proffer a hostage deal to Iran. US officials say any comment now might jeopardize negotiations over the fate of the hostages.
But the unwillingness of McFarlane and US spokesmen to deny the story has fed speculation that the US may be backing away from its longstanding policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
``In terms of short-term domestic politics it looks great if you get the hostages out and no one knows what deal has been made,'' says Christine Helms of the Brookings Institution. ``But the problem is the long term, since [a deal] sends the signal that terrorism does pay.''
Reports of the McFarlane visit yesterday produced new charges of internal disagreements over antiterrorism policy within the Reagan administration. Some officials at the State and Defense Departments are said to worry that the White House's preoccupation with getting the hostages free may be putting larger US interests in the Middle East at risk.
Of particular concern is that any United States agreement to sell Iran US-made spare parts or arms - or to acquiesce in such sales from third countries - could adversely affect the course of the six-year Iran-Iraq war.
Administration officials have stated repeatedly that arms sales to Iran could prolong the war at an enormous cost in human lives or, worse, give Iran a victory that would threaten the stability of moderate Persian Gulf and Middle East states friendly to US interests.
US Secretary of State George Shultz said the US should not abandon its eight-year embargo against arms sales to Iran. But in a statement Monday, White House spokesman Larry Speakes hinted at a change in US policy by saying that that future US arms sales to Iran would be contingent only on Iran's willingness to renounce terrorism.
``It's easy to understand the administration's anxiety over the hostages,'' says one former State Department official. ``But if what has been done sacrifices a policy that's protected our interests in the region, then that judgment becomes questionable.''
Another private analyst worries: ``By taking actions that could prolong the war, the US could be risking hundreds of thousands of lives to save 15 hostages. Over the longer term it could open the Pandora's box of Muslim extremism all over the Middle East.''
According to news reports, the McFarlane visit is the latest in a series of recent secret meeting between US and Iranian officials.
In a speech delivered Tuesday marking the seventh anniversary of the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran's Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani said McFarlane and four other Americans, who carried a Bible signed by President Reagan as a gift for Ayatollah Khomeini and a key-shaped cake symbolizing the hope for improved relations, were put under house arrest for five days, then expelled before being allowed to meet with any top Iranian officials.
Experts speculate that the timing of the reported McFarlane visit is probably tied to a power struggle between extremists and moderates in Iran. The feuding emerged into public view three weeks ago with the arrest of several associates of Ayatollah Khomeini's heir apparent, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Analysts say US officials may have sought to use the McFarlane visit to exploit what was perceived to be an opportune moment to establish ties with the moderates and to win possible support for US efforts to free the American hostages in Lebanon.
``A joint willingness to start a dialogue is extremely positive,'' says Shireen Hunter, an expert on Persian Gulf affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``Having this access to moderates is the only chance we have to prepare the way for the day when Khomeini disappears from the scene.''
But other analysts worry that any US approaches to moderates in Iran could, in a country where anti-US feeling still runs high, prove to be counterproductive.