WASHINGTON — President Reagan is remaining silent in the face of increasing pressure from leading Republicans to say that the sale of arms to Iran was a mistake and has not yet taken part in White House efforts to piece together an official version of how the controversial program operated and went awry.
Aides insist Reagan will take part "as needed" in compiling the official account of the program and will address the question of "mistakes" in his State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 27. But other sources suggest the President has tried to distance himself from the controversy both because he finds it painful and because he is recovering more slowly than expected from his prostate operation.
Several persons who have seen him recently say the President, who will turn 76 on Feb. 6, is mending more slowly than the White House has told the public. They add that Reagan continues to feel deeply hurt by polls showing that most Americans do not believe his statements that he had no knowledge of the diversion of millions of dollars from the Iranian arms sale to the Nicaraguan contras.
'A Rocky Recovery'
"He is really hurt by the credibility question," said one senior Reagan adviser, who refused to be identified. "It's taken the starch out of his sails, the bounce out of his step. And that was a tough operation for a man his age and he's having a rocky recovery."
Former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, who has been contacted frequently by Reagan and his aides for advice on handling the controversy, said the polls on the President's credibility "hit him hard."
"He sees those numbers on the relatively small number of people who believe him and it just tears him up," Baker said.
Whatever the reason for distancing himself from the most severe crisis of his presidency, Reagan--more than seven weeks after the diversion of funds was disclosed--has yet to be questioned by aides or others in the Administration who have been given the job of compiling the official version.
'Involved as Needed'
"The President, you know, will be involved in this process as needed," Rusty Brashear, a deputy White House press secretary, said. Brashear said, "to say that he is totally uninvolved is not fair, because he will be involved once we have our process complete and the President is anxiously awaiting that."
Another White House official, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said Reagan intends to discuss the Iranian arms sales program in his State of the Union address "and will admit mistakes. What else can you do?"
Reagan "seemed to like" a first draft on the speech that conceded errors were made, the official said, but added: "The problem is that if Iran is going to pull him down, it's going to pull him down, speech or no speech."
Brashear told reporters the President is not considering apologizing to the American public for the Iranian arms sale, a course urged by several Republicans, including two staunch supporters, Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire and Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois.
'I Will Take the Blame'
Rudman, ranking Republican on the Senate select panel that will investigate the scandal, said Thursday that "people really want to hear from him in a more direct way. The President should say: 'I'm the President and I will take the blame for this.' "
Another Republican, Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that looked into the Iranian arms affair before two select committees of the Senate and House took over the investigation, told reporters that Reagan should assume "full responsibility" for the controversy.
Cohen said that regardless of whether Reagan approved all of the arms sales, as former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane has testified, or whether he approved only the transfer of arms made after his Jan. 17, 1986, "finding" authorizing the sale of arms, it was the President's program.
"Who wanted this program?" Cohen declared. "Ultimately it was the President. Whether he approved the arms sale in advance or retroactively, by January it was his program."
A Steadfast Defense
Even though some of his own aides have urged that the President admit the program was a mistake, Reagan has steadfastly defended it. The closest he has come to admitting error was in a Dec. 6 radio address when he said that "the execution of these policies was flawed, and mistakes were made."
As Reagan has recuperated from his Jan. 5 prostate surgery, he has kept a limited work schedule. According to aides, he spent several hours each morning and afternoon in the Oval Office this week but his appointments have been limited to senior aides, including Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and Frank C. Carlucci, his new national security adviser.
The White House distributed to reporters a written statement from David M. Abshire, Reagan's newly appointed coordinator of White House information on the controversy, which said: "The President is continuing to follow closely the efforts to compile all the facts regarding the Iran issue currently under investigation."
Abshire noted he had met with Reagan on Monday and said he will meet with him "on a regular basis."
Abshire has been assigned an office on the fourth floor of the Old Executive Office Building, across a private street from the White House and well away from the White House west wing, where the Oval Office is located.
Neither Abshire nor the presidential commission headed by former Sen. John Tower, which has been assigned the job of studying the operations of the National Security Council, has been given details from the President, and Reagan's single meeting with the Tower group has been "in an introductory capacity," Brashear said.