United States officials are said to be cautiously interested in a plan being sponsored by Costa Rica to end the six-year Nicaraguan conflict and increase regional stability in Central America. The plan reportedly includes mobilizing European and Latin American nations to put pressure on Nicaragua to sit down at the bargaining table.
On Wednesday, a contingent of State Department officials led by Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, traveled to Miami to hear details of the peace initiative from Costa Rica's foreign minister, Rodrigo Madrigal Nieto.
US special envoy Philip C. Habib will travel to Central America next week to sound out leaders there on the Costa Rican proposal.
Some administration officials view the Costa Rican plan as a means of heading off proposals of the Contadora group, made up of Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela, about which the US has serious reservations.
Reagan officials are also said to believe that rejection by Nicaragua of any peace plan would strengthen the administration's case when it goes back to Congress for more military aid for the contras next spring.
But analysts say it is not clear that the Costa Rican plan, details of which have not been disclosed, will carry the peace process substantially beyond proposals sponsored by the the Contadora group.
``If we're not talking about opening the system to allow more opportunities for the opposition, then what's changed?'' asks Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
A more basic problem is that with the future of US aid to the contras now in doubt because of the Iran-contra affair, Nicaragua may have little incentive to come to the bargaining table.
The meeting came as optimistic contra leaders, in a Miami press conference Wednesday, predicted military advances as a result of $100 million in new US aid.
A State Department spokesman insists that the US will support any peace initiative leading to a ``genuine democratic outcome'' in Nicaragua.
But experts say major obstacles lie in the path of a diplomatic solution to Nicaraguan conflict.
For one thing, State Department officials say a diplomatic solution can come about only through direct talks between Nicaragua and the contras. So far Nicaragua has refused to negotiate with the rebels.
``The conflict is not between Nicaragua and the contras but between Nicaragua and the US,'' says a Nicaraguan diplomat in Washington. ``The contra war is financed and directed by the US. To resolve the outstanding problems, we have to talk with the US and not the contras.''
But Mr. Abrams told foreign journalists yesterday in a television interview sponsored by the US Information Agency: ``The day [the Sandinistas] sit down with the resistance forces, we sit down with the Sandinistas.''
Moreover, US officials say, despite moves for negotiations in Central America, it is unlikely the Sandinista government will go along while their forces hold the military advantage and while the outlook for new contra aid remains clouded.
``If I were the Sandinistas, I think I would wait right now'' to see whether Congress approves more aid, Abrams said in a recent interview in his office. He says the Sandinistas will be interested in negotiations only when ``they begin to feel the pain'' of contra military successes.
In his televised interview yesterday, Abrams added that the only negotiations can succeed is ``through the military pressures the contras can put on the Sandinista regime. That's the next step.''
Prospects for a negotiated end to the Nicaraguan war could also be retarded by the problems associated with verifying compliance with any plan involving the cessation of fighting and the suspension of outside aid.
Nicaragua, which relies heavily on Cuban and Soviet supplies and advisers, has consistently rejected measures calling for international verification and enforcement.
Representatives of nations supporting the Contadora peace process, together with top United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS) officials, will travel to Nicaragua later this month to pursue their own peace initiative.
Reagan officials have criticized the Contadora plan because of loose verification arrangements and because it does not require sweeping democratic reforms in Nicaragua.
The US has called for a special meeting of the OAS Permanent Council to determine why the organization has thrown its support behind the Contadora initiative.
``What concerns us always is the pressure to reach an agreement, as if it didn't matter what the agreement said,'' Abrams said yesterday, commenting on the Contadora plan.