Last week, the question in Washington was whether Secretary of State George Shultz would quit in protest over the Reagan administration's policy of swapping arms for hostages with Iran. This week, the tables have turned. Faced with growing criticism of his hesitant support for a besieged President Reagan, signs are increasing that Mr. Shultz could be fired.
``I don't think he's going to last the week,'' says a Republican staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ``He's been disloyal to Reagan. His job is to support the President whether he agrees with the President or not.''
Asked yesterday if he were planning a major staff shake-up, President Reagan told reporters, ``I'm not commenting either way.''
Shultz came under fire last weekend from congressional Republicans and political friends of the President after seeking to dissociate himself publicly from a secret 18-month operation to improve relations with Iran. Shultz objected to a plan to use shipments of arms to Iran in return for Iran's help in securing the release of American hostages held in Lebanon.
Mr. Shultz's exact role in the ill-starred Iran initiative has been clouded by contradictory statements from key administration officials.
Top State Department aides acknowledge that Shultz was party to policy discussions held last year regarding US overtures to Iran. But they insist that the secretary learned only two weeks ago of the presidential ``finding'' that set the Iran operation in motion.
In closed testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee Friday, Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey reported that every key Reagan foreign-policy adviser knew of and concurred with the plan authorized in the Jan. 17, 1986 finding.
Last week Shultz told reporters that he was only ``sporadically'' informed of the Iran operation. But State Department spokesmen later acknowledged that Shultz had participated in at least two ``full-scale discussions'' about the operation. The change followed a statement by former national-security adviser Robert C. McFarlane that Shultz had been informed ``repeatedly and often about every item that went on in this enterprise.''
According to recent news reports, a group of key California supporters of the President, with the apparent backing of First Lady Nancy Reagan, has called for the removal of Shultz, White House chief of staff Donald Regan and national-security adviser John Poindexter.
``It is significant that [Shultz] missed an opportunity to move into a posture of clearly helping to bail the White House out before last weekend,'' a State Department official says.
This official contrasts the responses of Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to public disclosures of the Iran initiative. Although he also opposed the Iran operation, Secretary Weinberger last week issued a strong statement of support for President Reagan. If Shultz had followed suit, speculates this official, ``the issue would have been put to rest.''
In an interview on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' on Sunday, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger criticized Shultz for his failure to support the President. Mr. Kissinger said, ``It is the duty of the secretary of state to get along with the President, not of the President to get along with the secretary of state.''
Another former secretary of state yesterday said that the Iran episode, by sharpening antagonism between the White House and Congress, could result in the ``crippling'' of executive authority over foreign policy.
In comments to reporters over breakfast, Alexander Haig also said his own experience as secretary of state illustrates the dangers of having fragmented authority in the area of foreign policy. Mr. Haig resigned in 1982, charging that his authority had been undercut by the President's closest advisers.