WASHINGTON — Secretary of State George P. Shultz, shifting his focus from the deteriorating Middle East peace process, flies today to Guatemala, where he hopes to rally the fractious leaders of Central America to denounce the Nicaraguan government.
"I hate to spend all my time discussing communiques, because there's a lot of work to do, things that people should be taking action on," Shultz said after learning that Guatemala and Costa Rica are withdrawing their support for a U.S.-coordinated joint statement that was to be sharply critical of Managua.
The declaration, described by Reagan Administration officials as "a virtual declaration of war" on the Sandinista regime, was to have been issued this afternoon in Guatemala by Shultz and the foreign ministers of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Shultz's Central American trip comes against the backdrop of new developments in the Middle East, where Shultz has shuttled repeatedly to promote a settlement of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors over the future of territories occupied by Israel. Following moves by Jordan's King Hussein on Saturday to reduce his role in the Palestinian peace process, Shultz warned that Hussein "has to be a partner . . . if there is going to be peace between Israel and its neighbors."
On Iran, Shultz said the United States is prepared to hold direct talks with a "responsible official" when Iran makes peace with Iraq, forswears hostage-taking and ceases to link the freedom of hostages with a U.S. decision to release frozen Iranian financial assets. At the same time, he denied that any direct U.S.-Iran negotiations are under way.
In a wide-ranging interview on CBS' "Face the Nation," Shultz praised the Reagan Administration's role in promoting "unusual diplomatic fluidity . . . in all parts of the world." Pointing particularly to the prospects for an end to the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, Shultz hinted that the development may lead to the "rearrangement of the diplomatic status of many countries."
But on the eve of an 11-day visit to Central and South America, the fluidity of Central American politics has been a source of frustration to Shultz, according to Administration officials. In the wake of Congress' refusal last February to provide new military aid to the armed opponents of the Nicaraguan government, Shultz has spearheaded the Reagan Administration's efforts to promote a settlement by stepping up support for Central American diplomatic initiatives.
Today's meeting of foreign ministers in Guatemala was to have been the centerpiece of that new strategy. Reagan Administration officials hoped that a strong statement of denunciation by Nicaragua's neighbors would increase pressure on the Sandinista government to make concessions to its domestic political opponents.
After six days of shuttle diplomacy in the region, Shultz's special envoy, Morris Busby, had in hand a strongly worded "collaborative draft" that would provide, in one Administration official's words, "something that all of us can hang future actions on."
But by last Friday, Presidents Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo of Guatemala and Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica were threatening to withdraw their support of the draft communique, which included harsh criticism of both Nicaragua and its principal arms supplier, the Soviet Union.
"Mostly it was written by the Central American foreign ministers," said Shultz. "We're not trying to ram anything down anybody's throat," he added.
But "having drafted it, they are not so sure they want to issue it," Shultz said.
Shultz's diplomatic reaction notwithstanding, the Central American about-face touched off a round of finger-pointing within the Reagan Administration, where many Central American experts are hopeful that Congress will vote to renew military aid to the anti-Sandinista Contras as early as this week.
'Gutting the Draft'
"The Guatemalans are gutting the whole draft," one Administration official complained. "The entire part that was a 'virtual declaration of war' was drafted by the Guatemalans and Cerezo went back on it," the official added.
The official added that Costa Rica's Arias "seems to be afraid that this whole process is eclipsing his role" as an arbiter of peace in Central America. In the 11th-hour negotiations over the draft statement, Arias has tried to soften criticism of Nicaragua and the Soviet Union for their continuing arms relationship.
But Senate lawmakers, who may vote on a $47-million Contra aid package as early as this week, laid some of the blame in Washington, where Congress and the Reagan Administration have been locked in a battle of wills over Central American policy.
"If . . . you're president of a neighboring country (to Nicaragua) and . . . you stick your neck out, condemn the Sandinistas, are you going to turn around the next day and see the United States is nowhere to be seen? That's one of the reasons they're so hesitant, because they don't know where we're going next," said Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) on NBC's "Meet the Press."