The Reagan Administration, after insisting for months that it had been dealing only with moderate factions in Iran, acknowledged today it is hard to pin an accurate label on the group with which it established contacts.
"The question of moderates and radicals is a semantic difference in terms," said presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "We were hoping for moderates in the sense of elements who were willing to work with us, but you can define moderates and radicals in hundreds of different ways, particularly in Iran."
The Administration's earlier assertions about dealing with moderates were called into question by the disclosure of a secret memo showing that an Israeli official told Vice President George Bush the contacts actually were with radicals.
The memo, prepared by a Bush aide and first reported in Sunday's Washington Post, states that Israeli Amiram Nir "reviewed what had been learned, which was essentially that the radical group was the group that could deliver."
At a briefing for reporters, Fitzwater was ambiguous about whether the Administration will continue to use the term "moderates" in describing its Iranian contacts.
"I'm not going to rule in or out any term," he said. "We'll probably use it, probably, maybe not use it."
He said the whole issue over describing the group "doesn't change a thing. The initial reason for the dialogue was to try to establish a relationship with some elements favorable to the United States. Call them moderates, call them whatever."
The memo, written by Craig L. Fuller, Bush's chief of staff, vividly contradicts repeated assertions by President Reagan that the contacts and weapons sales were exclusively with moderate elements of the Tehran government.
"We are dealing with the most radical elements. . . . " Nir told Bush, according to the memo. "They can deliver . . . that's for sure. . . . We've learned they can deliver and the moderates can't."