TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ President Hashemi Rafsanjani urged the United States Wednesday to press Israel and Kuwait to release Moslem prisoners in exchange for help in gaining freedom for the 16 Western captives in Lebanon.

Rafsanjani also indicated Iran might soon begin direct peace talks with Iraq to formally end the Persian Gulf war.

''The irresponsible, arrogant attitude of the United States has created further difficulties'' in resolving the hostage crisis, Rafsanjani told a news conference for 200 foreign and local journalists.

Iran and the pro-Iranian groups holding the hostages in Lebanon have often demanded the United States press Israel to free 350 Moslems it holds in Israel and in a strip of land it controls in southern Lebanon. But it was the first time in some months that an Iranian leader referred to 15 Shiite Moslems, most of Iranian origin, jailed in Kuwait since 1984 for car bombings in Kuwait directed against the U.S. and French embassies.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher said he had not seen Rafsanjani's remarks but that U.S. policy is to urge the ''immediate, safe and unconditional release of all hostages.''

At Tehran's bidding, two American educators, Robert Polhill and Frank Reed, were released in April. Iran has said Washington should make a goodwill gesture in return. President Bush has said he won't deal with Iran to secure further hostage releases.

''An appropriate response was expected after the Lebanese unconditionally set free the hostages - release of hostages in Kuwait and Israel,'' Rafsanjani said.

''Why don't you help increase the necessary public pressure on those governments to release these hostages, so that the Western hostages can be freed in return?'' he asked the journalists.

''If the United States is serious about wanting relations with Iran in the future, it must begin to act, because talking is not enough,'' Rafsanjani said.

Polhill and Reed were the first U.S. captives to be released in 3 1/2 years. Six Americans are among the Westerners still held in Lebanon. The longest-held is Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press. He was abducted in March 1985.

The other hostages are four Britons, two West Germans, two Swiss, an Italian and an Irishman.

Referring to Iran's death threats against British author Salman Rushdie, Rafsanjani said ties with London could be resumed if Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher condemns Rushdie's book ''The Satanic Verses.'' Ties between the nations were severed following the 1989 call for Moslems to execute Rushdie.

Rafsanjani said, however, that there was no question of lifting the death sentence on Rushdie, who Iran says defamed Islam in his book.

Rafsanjani said Iran's policy was ''to help secure the release of all the hostages, whether they be Western, Lebanese or Iranian. We continued ... to hold on to this policy.''

The Iranian president reiterated his country's claim that four Iranians - two diplomats, a journalist and a driver - who were kidnapped by the Christian Lebanese Forces militia in 1982 are still alive.

''We have learned officially from a government, and from reliable sources in east Beirut, that the Iranian hostages are alive,'' Rafsanjani said. ''The special envoy of a certain government has informed us.''

He did not identify the country.

The Bush administration recently provided Iran with information, through the Swiss government, which Washington said indicated the four men were dead.

Speaking about the gulf war, Rafsanjani said President Saddam Hussein of Iraq recently sent two letters to the Iranian leadership suggesting the two leaders meet for talks on a permanent settlement to the conflict, which ended in a cease-fire in August 1988.

''We have not given a negative reply to Iraq's proposal calling for a meeting of the two heads of state,'' Rafsanjani said.

''But issues must be sorted out in preliminary negotiations at expert level and in consultations with the United Nations secretary-general to guarantee the success of such a meeting, if there is going to be one.''

Hostilities between Iran and Iraq were halted under U.N. Security Council Resolution, but talks to turn the truce into a peace settlement have been stalemated ever since.