WASHINGTON -- The United States and Iran engaged in long-distance diplomacy Thursday over the fate of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, with an Iranian newspaper suggesting that the two nations use Pakistan as an intermediary and U.S. officials calling the report a "positive" development.

Having moved through a stage of initial contacts, both countries appeared to be publicly sounding out each other, trying to establish the ground rules for negotiations.

Bush Administration officials reiterated that the United States would be willing to enter into direct talks with Iran if that nation indicated an interest in doing so and designated an authoritative emissary.

But "we're nowhere near that" now, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said. For the time being, any negotiations between the two nations appear likely to be indirect, conducted through a third party.

Prospects May Improve

The prospects for such negotiations may advance as a result of several expected events next week:

-- On Monday, Iran's foreign minister plans to meet in Damascus, Syria, with leaders of the militant Shiite groups that hold U.S. and other foreign hostages in Lebanon. A similar meeting in Damascus last week led to the lifting of a death threat against American hostage Joseph J. Cicippio, U.S. analysts believe.

-- Later in the week, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's new president, is expected to announce his Cabinet, and U.S. analysts expect the announcement to provide indications of the balance of power between hard-liners and pragmatists in the new Iranian regime.

-- And on Wednesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Sahabzada Yaqub Khan plans to meet in Tehran with Iranian leaders and is expected to discuss the hostage issue.

The Yaqub Khan meeting could be significant because Pakistan is one of the few nations to have good relations with both the United States and Iran. The Pakistani diplomat, who travels frequently to Iran to discuss regional issues, was in Washington last week and met Tuesday with Vice President Dan Quayle, who asked him to aid U.S. efforts to secure the hostages' return.

The Tehran Times, a newspaper with close ties to Rafsanjani, said in an editorial Thursday that unnamed "political observers . . . believe that in the next few days, we should expect certain moves toward mediation." The editorial went on to say that the observers "give the best chance" to Yaqub Khan as a mediator.

U.S. officials, apparently caught by surprise by the editorial, scrambled through much of the day to develop a hopeful but cautious response.

"That may turn out to be what happens," said one senior Administration official, asked if Pakistan would become the central mediator. "We're not at the stage we can call it yet."

'Trial Balloon'

"It's a trial balloon the Iranians are floating," said a senior U.S. diplomatic source in the region. "My guess is that it's going to be a long and complicated effort, and it's probably going to involve the totality of Iran-U.S. relations. It's not going to be easy for the Iranians, after building up the image of the (United States as) Great Satan, to turn around overnight."

"We are being very careful," noted Fitzwater. "There're a lot of unknowns."

The suggestion of Pakistani mediation is "positive," Fitzwater added, "but I wouldn't deal so much with the specifics of it as I would with the general attitude that it seems to indicate an openness to discussion."

U.S. caution stems from several factors.

First, officials remain uncertain exactly what signals the Iranians intend to send and how authoritative those signals are. Assuming that the Iranian newspaper's editorial is a signal from Rafsanjani, officials were surprised that the new Iranian leader would move so quickly and so publicly. The idea of an opening to the United States, they noted, continues to generate strong opposition from some Iranian factions.