WASHINGTON — Congressional rejection of the Reagan Administration's proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia may have sent "the wrong signal at a critical time" and could be responsible for intensified attacks by Iran on Saudi ships in the Persian Gulf, the White House charged Monday.
In the last eight days, two Saudi oil tankers have been attacked by Iranian aircraft, and the White House said in a statement that the Administration is "deeply concerned" about the air strikes. It hinted that the White House is prepared to take military action to uphold "the principle of freedom of navigation" and allow the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.
"We are concerned that the recent action of Congress in rejecting an arms sale may have created the misperception that the U.S. commitment to freedom of navigation in the gulf and Saudi self-defense has diminished," the White House said. "Any such view would be gravely mistaken."
Congress rejected President Reagan's proposed arms sale as he wound up a trip to Tokyo for an economic conference with the leaders of six other major industrial democracies. The Senate action was particularly significant--it was the first time that body has moved to block a foreign arms sale supported by the President.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said that Reagan will lobby hard to switch enough votes in the Senate to ensure that his expected veto is not overridden and that the $354-million sale is kept alive.
Some people on Capitol Hill have charged that Reagan did not take an active enough role in pushing the measure. But Monday's White House statement indicated that Reagan is now fully engaged and will argue that halting the arms sale would signal a weakening of U.S. resolve that could embolden Iran.
"If they continue to use arguments like that, it's going to make their task more difficult," said Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), an opponent of the sale. Cranston said the Iranians know that the Saudis already have weapons enough to defend themselves against such attacks.
He predicted that it will be difficult for Reagan to persuade nine senators to switch their votes without a dramatic change of circumstances in the Middle East. Republican leaders in the Senate said privately that they share this assessment.
The proposed arms package is considered controversial primarily because it would include shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The Saudis already have such weapons, but opponents argue that adding to the stockpile would increase the danger that the missiles might fall into the hands of terrorists.
Although additional Stingers would not be delivered until 1989 and therefore have no immediate bearing on Saudi defenses, Speakes said it is "a question of perceptions of U.S. resolve to support its friends in the region."
He charged Iran with "a continuing harassment of shipping in the area" and said he wanted to "specifically prevent any miscalculation" about the Administration's intentions.
The unspoken analogy was the Administration's determination in March to test its right of passage in the Gulf of Sidra after threats from Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.
The Administration believes that continued support to such moderate Arab nations as Saudi Arabia is essential to maintain a semblance of stability in the Middle East. But opponents of the arms sales have assailed recent Saudi statements backing Libya and continued Saudi support of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Speakes defended Saudi Arabia on both counts. He described as mild the comments made by Saudi Arabia after the April 15 U.S. air raid on targets in Libya, which Washington has accused of supporting terrorism. And he suggested that Saudi Arabia's financial support of the PLO "be viewed in the context of their overall support for Arab causes." He said that all Saudi contributions go to "the mainline PLO" and not to any of its radical offshoots.