VENICE, Italy — The seven-nation economic summit opened here Monday with President Reagan winning only mixed reactions as he pressed the allied leaders to unify behind the United States' controversial military policy in the Persian Gulf.
The President, adding his own warnings to those already issued by his aides, said he is not bluffing about possible retaliation against Iran if it installs Chinese-made missiles overlooking the vital oil shipping lanes of the gulf.
Reagan told reporters that U.S. warnings of retaliatory moves against the Iranian missiles are neither a bluff nor a threat but "a statement of fact."
"I haven't bluffed once since I've been here," the President declared.
Although Administration officials said their Persian Gulf policy is gaining support and that they expect the summit partners to eventually support it "in principle," French officials here said the policy is too "confusing" for them to know what they are being asked to support.
And a British Foreign Office spokesman said the British are interested in discussing political and diplomatic moves, not "military options."
"The British government's approach is to relax tensions, not increase them," the spokesman told reporters at a news briefing.
Meanwhile, Howard H. Baker Jr., the White House chief of staff, said at a separate briefing that Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had indicated his support in a telephone conversation with Reagan. But a Canadian official said later that Mulroney had merely said the issue should be discussed at the summit.
Baker also reported that Reagan won support for his Persian Gulf policy from Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl during bilateral sessions earlier Monday, before the summit officially opened with a working dinner.
Nakasone "volunteered to be as helpful as he could," Baker said, and Kohl "expressed, as I recall, in general terms, his support for the U.S. position in the Persian Gulf."
With the initial focus of the summit settling quickly on U.S. policy in the gulf--considered crucial because of the oil flowing through it and sensitive because it is a combat zone in the 6 1/2-year war between Iran and Iraq--the 13th annual meeting of the major industrialized democracies got under way on a controversial note.
But Reagan moved to eliminate one point of friction, disclosing that he was lifting some of the trade sanctions he imposed in April on Japan to retaliate for what the Administration considered unfair Japanese trade practices.
The formal meetings--at which economic matters are at the top of the agenda-will be held today and Wednesday. On Monday night, Reagan and the leaders of the other summit nations--Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and West Germany--gathered for a reception in the Ducal Palace, which dates to the 12th Century.
During the formalities of the arrival ceremonies, Reagan's eyes wandered to the gilded ceiling of the cavernous Sala dello Scrutinio, where carvings and paintings depict martial scenes.
Both Chief of Staff Baker and Frank C. Carlucci, Reagan's national security assistant, have repeatedly described the U.S. policy on the Persian Gulf as resulting from a determination to provide the military force necessary to keep the waterway open for transit, especially for tankers carrying oil destined mostly for Japan and Western Europe. Iran has threatened to close the gulf militarily as part of its strategy in its war with Iraq.
But the U.S. position has been complicated by several factors: the Administration's decision to permit Kuwaiti tankers to fly the American flag and receive U.S. naval protection; the delivery of more than 20 Chinese-made anti-ship Silkworm missiles to Iran, and repeated warnings by Administration officials that have raised the possibility of a preemptive strike if Iran deploys the missiles.
Additional concerns include the presence of several small Soviet warships in the gulf; the decision by the Soviets, as well as the United States, to accede to the Kuwaitis' request to escort their tankers through the dangerous gulf, and the May 17 attack on the U.S. guided-missile frigate Stark, in which the ship was struck by two missiles fired by an Iraqi jet, resulting in the deaths of 37 sailors. Iraq said the attack was an accident.
Citing most of those factors, a senior French government official told reporters that U.S. policy appears to be based on "four different elements": freedom of navigation, the attack on the frigate Stark, the presence of Soviet ships in the gulf and the possible deployment of missiles in Iran.
"American policy bounces on all these points," the official said. "It's difficult to know what is the point of balance of American policy on the gulf or to know what other countries are supposed to support. It's impossible to speak of an American position."