WASHINGTON — President Reagan, seeking to regain the offensive in diplomatic jockeying over Central American peace negotiations, plans to announce this week that he will ask Congress for new military aid to the Nicaraguan contras unless the Managua government agrees to hold elections well before those scheduled for 1990.
The new demand, a major escalation in the Administration's campaign to influence the regional peace plan signed by the five Central American governments, will be unveiled by Reagan in a speech Wednesday before the Organization of American States, according to State Department sources.
Reagan will list other conditions in his speech, including demands that the Nicaraguan government release 2,300 political prisoners, negotiate a cease-fire with the contras, evict all Cuban and Soviet military advisers and allow contra sympathizers to run for elective office, the sources said.
Nicaraguan officials, while refusing to comment on all of Reagan's requests, responded that they have no intention of holding early elections and criticized the White House for attempting to meddle in their country's internal affairs.
The President's new conditions are officially aimed at the Sandinista government and leaders of neighboring states, whom the White House has accused of negotiating a "fatally flawed" peace plan. But the chief target of Reagan's new initiative appears to be congressional Democrats, who have strongly opposed the Administration's announced intention of requesting $270 million in new aid for the contras.
"We are finally taking the offensive," said a State Department official, describing the strategy behind Reagan's new demands. "This will force Democrats who want to oppose us to say, 'No, we don't want elections in Nicaragua.' That's not going to play very well. The American people think elections are a good thing."
Asked if the new demands will be rejected by the Sandinistas, the official, who declined to be named, added: "Sure. We knew that when we decided to insist on it. And when they reject elections, that isn't going to play very well in the United States."
Democratic leaders reacted angrily to the President's new initiative, first reported in Sunday's New York Times, charging that Reagan is trying to subvert the Central American peace process and predicting that his new demands will not intimidate opponents of contra aid.
"If we want the Central American peace process to work, it must be something desired by and supported by the Central Americans. . . . We cannot dictate the terms of internal government to the nations in our hemisphere," said House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who sponsored a short-lived regional peace plan with Reagan two months ago.
The Speaker also blasted the apparent political strategy behind Reagan's demands, saying: "I think (White House officials) have gravely miscalculated the mood of Congress. Peace is an important objective which deserves to be pursued for its own sake, not as an instrument to batter one's domestic political opposition."
In announcing their new conditions, Administration officials are also trying to regain diplomatic momentum in the wake of the Central American peace plan. That agreement, signed by the presidents of the five Central American nations Aug. 7 in Guatemala, took the Administration by surprise. Reagan's statements are the first new proposals he has made on the issue since he and Wright unveiled their plan Aug. 5.
Reagan's new conditions go well beyond the Central American peace plan, which is based on an initiative from President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica. It calls for cease-fires in all of the region's armed conflicts to take effect by Nov. 7. Also under the plan, free elections would be held according to existing schedules in each country. The Nicaraguan constitution calls for presidential elections in 1990, with municipal elections next year.
The Central American plan also rules out U.S. military aid to the contras but does not specifically address outside military assistance to Nicaragua. Although the plan calls for cease-fires and for each government to take "all necessary steps" to achieve them, it does not specifically require the Managua government to negotiate with the contras.
It is also unclear whether the peace plan would permit contras to run for office in Nicaragua. Finally, the regional plan does not specifically deal with the issue of political prisoners.
Reagan's speech before the Organization of American States, a Washington-based group whose member states include the United States and all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean except Cuba, will "formalize" positions that the Administration has been articulating for some time, a senior White House official said.
However, some of the President's staunchest supporters in Congress welcomed the new initiatives as a clarification of his Central American policies. Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) said Reagan's demand for prompt Nicaraguan elections "is the right thing to do. We can't choose the government for them, but we can insist that it be chosen."
Wallop said "there has been an inconsistency on the part of the Administration" toward the Sandinista regime. He noted that White House officials "have been trying to pretend that their purpose wasn't to change it (Nicaragua) to a democratic government."
The senator added, however, that it is "very premature" to guess whether Reagan's new proposals will affect a congressional vote on future contra aid.