WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration has told Iran that it could ease the seven-year embargo on U.S.-made weaponry if the remaining American hostages in Beirut are freed and the Tehran regime ends its support of international terrorism, Administration officials said Tuesday.
The officials said that offer was a key element in the secret negotiations that led to the release of U.S. hostage David P. Jacobsen on Sunday and could lead to the early release of at least two more Americans held in Beirut by the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad organization.
U.S. officials have refused to divulge any details about the negotiations, fearing that such disclosures could jeopardize the lives of the remaining captives.
A senior Iranian official, however, said Tuesday that a U.S. delegation headed by Robert C. McFarlane, President Reagan's former national security adviser, visited Tehran secretly in a bid to enlist the country's help in freeing the hostages.
The official, Speaker of Parliament Hashemi Rafsanjani, also offered Iran's help in seeking the release of the remaining American and French hostages, provided that the United States and France agree to settle financial claims and unblock the shipments of arms bought by Iran before the Islamic revolution.
At the same time, Rafsanjani--who is regarded as a relative moderate among leaders of Ayatollah Khoemeni's revolutionary government--sought to protect his flank against attacks by more radical elements by declaring that while McFarlane brought a message from Reagan seeking improved relations, the U.S. envoy and his aides were put under house arrest in their hotel for five days and then expelled from Iran.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes, responding to reports that some U.S. arms shipments may already have gone to Iran, told reporters, "As long as Iran advocates the use of terrorism, the U.S. embargo will continue."
But other U.S. officials, speaking on condition that they not be identified, noted that the reverse is also true: If Iran halts its aid to terrorism, the United States could stop blocking the export of American-made weapons to Tehran.
Rafsanjani said McFarlane went to Iran in September to discuss such a deal, arriving with four associates aboard a cargo plane full of weapons--and carrying a Bible autographed by President Reagan.
Admitted Other Contacts
McFarlane and Speakes refused to comment on that account on Tuesday. On Monday, responding to a report that he had visited Iran in October, McFarlane told the Washington Post only that he was not in Tehran "last month" and refused any other comment on the matter.
U.S. officials have previously acknowledged secret contacts with Iran in hopes of gaining the release of American hostages, but never before has it been known that easing the arms embargo was under active discussion in the negotiations. The United States imposed the ban on the sale of American-made military equipment to Iran after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, and took 66 hostages, eventually holding 52 of them for 14 months.
Now, however, Iran desperately needs U.S.-made spare parts for its air force and other armed services to carry on its five-year-old war withe neighboring Iraq. The United States supplied Iran's arms needs under the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by the militant Islamic followers of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.
"The Iranians have made it clear that they would like to see us reduce our efforts to cut off their supplies of (U.S.-made) weapons and spare parts," one official said. "They have consistently said that the first step in any improvement of relations would be the release of arms."
Effect on Hostages Uncertain
He said the most likely U.S. move, if any agreement is reached, would not be to resume supplying Iran directly with weapons but to stop blocking other countries from selling their U.S.-made spare parts to the Tehran regime.
It was uncertain whether the gradual disclosure of the secret U.S.-Iranian negotiations would jeopardize the chances of freeing the remaining American hostages in Iran.
"Any Iranian leader that has had contact with any American official will be on the defensive," one U.S. aide said. "We assume that Rafsanjani spoke in an attempt to preempt any attack."
Rafsanjani, often identified as a relative moderate within the Islamic regime and who is believed to be a possible successor to Khomeini, is involved in political turmoil that underscores the sensitivity of the negotiations. While maintaining that Iran must seek to improve relations with the United States to obtain arms necessary to sustain its war with Iraq, Rafsanjani must not appear to be weakening his country's resolve in dealing with the Americans.
U.S. officials said Iranian officials such as Rafsanjani risk political attack from radical factions in Tehran if they attempt to move Khomeini's regime away from its sponsorship of terrorism.