WASHINGTON — President Reagan will clear the way this week for the United States to begin delivering five sophisticated AWACS radar surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, White House officials said Sunday.
Apparently passing the last hurdle for an $8.5-billion arms deal approved five years ago, the President will formally certify that steps have been taken to protect the highly secret technology of the planes once they are turned over to Saudi Arabian flight crews.
To meet another congressionally imposed condition, the President also will declare that the Saudis have provided "substantial assistance" to peace efforts in the Middle East.
Congressional sources said they now expect the first of the planes to be transferred to the Saudis later this month, with the four others to follow by the end of next year.
Cranston Still Opposed
An aide to Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who led the bitter fight to block the sale in 1981, said Cranston does not plan to renew the battle, although he remains opposed to the deal and believes that the Saudis have failed to comply with the conditions Reagan promised they would meet.
Because of the AWACS planes' ability to detect and track attacking planes as far away as 200 miles and direct fighter planes to intercept them, opponents of the sale feared that the deal posed a threat to Israel and placed some of the United States' most sophisticated military technology at risk.
Despite continuing opposition, however, congressional sources said Sunday that they see little chance of the planes' delivery being blocked.
To stop the deliveries from taking place, Congress would have to pass a new law forbidding them. Should that happen, the United States would have to return about $3.2 billion already paid by the Saudis and perhaps face the prospect of paying damages as well.
Congressional sources, declining to be identified by name, said the atmosphere at the moment is not conducive to another fight over an arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
Just 10 days ago, the Senate came within one vote of blocking a $265-million sale of Harpoon and Sidewinder missiles to the Saudis. This came after congressional opposition caused the Administration to back away from a contemplated multibillion-dollar sale and to trim the package to $354 million before it was even submitted for lawmakers' approval.
Administration officials contend that going ahead with the AWACS (airborne warning and control system) delivery will serve to improve relations with the Saudis after the rebuff.
Cranston, among others, was said to believe that opponents of arms sales to the Saudis had been able to make their case during the debate on the missile deal, a debate in which they succeeded beyond their earlier expectations.
"At the moment there is not an obvious leader of the opposition," a congressional staff member said. "Somebody has to step up and take the leadership. In any case, it would be very difficult because the President will make enough of a case that the Republicans will all have something to hang their hats on."
Israel Lobby Undecided
A congressional source who asked for anonymity said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobby that spearheaded the opposition to the AWACS sale in 1981, has not decided whether to press for a measure that would bring the issue back to a vote again.
Tom Dine, executive director of the lobbying group, said its board of directors plans a special meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the AWACS issue.
Five years ago, the AWACS sale, which also included 62 advanced F-15 jet fighters and eight aerial tankers in the package, triggered one of the first major foreign policy confrontations between the Reagan Administration and the Congress.
The House rejected the deal by a vote of 301 to 111, but the Senate approved it 52 to 48. The sale thus went through, since disapproval by both houses was necessary to stop it.
Right of Inspection
The narrow Senate approval came after Reagan promised that before the planes were delivered, he would complete a detailed security agreement with the Saudis. Specifically, he said, the agreement would give the United States the right to inspect the Saudis' AWACS operations and share in information gathered by the planes, prohibit citizens of third countries from having access to the planes and assure that the aircraft would be operated only within the boundaries of Saudi Arabia.
Reagan also said he would complete the deal only after giving Congress notice that "the sale contributes directly to the stability and security of the area, enhances the atmosphere and prospects for progress toward peace and that initiatives toward peaceful resolution of disputes in the region have either been successfully completed or that significant progress toward the goal has been accomplished with the substantial assistance of Saudi Arabia."
Last year, Cranston succeeded in having Reagan's assurance written into a legal requirement in the foreign aid bill.