WASHINGTON — The Iran arms-and-hostages deal, ballooning into the most serious crisis of Ronald Reagan's presidency, has prompted some of Reagan's longtime California confidants to urge a major shake-up in the Administration--apparently beginning with the departure of Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and national security adviser John M. Poindexter.
The shake-up proposal, if adopted by the President, would also involve the replacement of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who opposed the Iran operation privately and repudiated it publicly after it was exposed.
A White House spokesman could not be reached for comment Saturday, and Reagan, insisting at his news conference last Wednesday that he was "not firing anybody," said he wanted Shultz to remain and that there had been no talk of a possible resignation.
'Changes Are Imminent'
On Saturday, however, one longtime California associate declared flatly, "Changes are imminent, and the shake-up will involve the White House as well as the Cabinet."
"A lot of the President's old supporters are worried that bad staffing is jeopardizing his programs and it will take a pretty heavy shift in course--management-wise, not policy-wise--to correct it," said the associate, who declined to be identified.
And another member of the old California circle, while refusing to discuss the nature of his conversations with the President, confirmed that Reagan has been conferring with his longtime associates.
Among Reagan's old California colleagues who regularly advise him are political consultant Stuart Spencer, businessman Holmes Tuttle, former Atty. Gen. William French Smith and William P. Clark, who has been an all-around trouble-shooter for Reagan, serving him when he was California's governor and filling three posts in his Administration here--including that of national security adviser.
At Heart of Presidency
The Iranian operation, coming on the heels of a string of other controversies over the Administration's handling of sensitive foreign policy problems, has raised questions that go to the heart of the presidency--questions on the credibility of the nation's Chief Executive and his capacity to direct the government he heads.
Questions About Control
Revelations last week suggested that Reagan might not have been fully informed from the outset about the full details of his Administration's dealings with Iran over arms and hostages. And the possibility that lower-level officials could have sidestepped the President in managing such an explosive foreign policy issue raises questions about Reagan's control over his foreign policy apparatus.
Moreover, the Iran furor has divided and distracted the Administration at a time when some of the President's most cherished policies face increasingly critical attention from a Congress that is now entirely controlled by the Democrats.
'It Is All-Consuming'
"It is all-consuming," lamented one senior Administration official, "and until we find a way to get this behind us, some very important initiatives--items on the President's agenda--can't be addressed. It will affect everything across the board--especially in foreign affairs--from Congress's reception of the defense budget to our Central America programs, to Afghanistan and arms control."
In discussing the changes being urged on the President, one of his old associates said Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger was being recommended to replace Shultz. Weinberger also opposed the Iran operation inside the Administration's councils but, unlike Shultz, has not distanced himself from it during the present public controversy.
Drew Lewis, who served as secretary of transportation during Reagan's first term and now is chairman and chief executive officer of Union Pacific, was being put forward as the possible replacement for Chief of Staff Regan.
Retiring Nevada Republican Sen. Paul Laxalt and CIA Director William J. Casey also support the changes recommended by the group, one of its members said.
'His Most Difficult Time'
"The President's going through his most difficult time. He's been poorly served by the staff," said the Reagan confidant.
He singled out former national security adviser Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane, who originated the plan for the operation and was a key player in implementing it, as one who "poorly served" the President.
"Bud got on a slippery slope, and things went from bad to worse," he said. "Now there's a lot of finger-pointing, not unlike when a conspiracy breaks."
The confidant said he understands that Reagan privately criticized Shultz for distancing himself from the Iran operation during a Nov. 16 appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation" program.
'Biting His Lip'
A senior White House aide said he did not know whether Reagan expressed criticism of Shultz, but he said "the talk at the White House was that the President had been biting his lip" during the broadcast.