WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration's reported offer to ease the U.S. arms embargo on Iran if the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stops supporting terrorism would represent a subtle softening of the ban, which was first imposed when militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran seven years ago.
Until this week, U.S. officials had said that a major reason for their efforts to stop foreign arms sales to Iran was to deny Khomeini any chance of victory in his lengthy war with neighboring Iraq.
But on Tuesday, in the wake of the release of an American citizen held hostage by pro-Iranian terrorists in Lebanon, officials said that the embargo could be eased if the remaining five captives are freed and the Tehran regime ends its support of international terrorism.
A Bible and a Cake
And the unannounced shift in the Administration's position came amid reports that former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane had made a secret visit to Tehran in September carrying word of the new policy--along with a Bible that had been personally autographed by President Reagan and a cake baked in the shape of a key.
Administration officials Wednesday continued to avoid public discussion of the apparent policy shift, the McFarlane mission--or the puzzle of the gifts that Iranian officials said he took with him--but it is clear that the United States has decided to use its arms embargo against Iran as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the remaining American hostages in Lebanon.
"As long as Iran advocates the use of terrorism, the U.S. arms embargo will continue," White House spokesman Larry Speakes said.
He added that the United States still favors a negotiated settlement to the Iran-Iraq War "where there are no winners or losers." But he carefully did not link that issue to the arms ban, and he refused when reporters asked him to do so on Wednesday.
Asked whether the Administration believes Iran has reduced its support for terrorism, Speakes replied: "There has been no manifestation of a definitive change."
Speakes and other Administration spokesmen reaffirmed Wednesday that the embargo would not be lifted until Iran ends its support of terrorism, but the officials would not discuss the issue further, saying that additional comment could jeopardize negotiations for the release of the remaining hostages.
No Comment on Negotiations
"There are lives at stake here," White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan said. "Opportunities can be lost by premature disclosure. . . . We don't want to talk about how we negotiated, with whom we negotiated or how we managed to get those people out.
"As time passes I get less optimistic about the immediacy of the process," Regan added in an interview on Cable News Network. "That doesn't mean we are not going to continue in many different channels our attempts to get these men out."
In the indirect language of diplomacy, Speakes and Regan appear to be sending two signals to Iran: first, that the United States is willing to negotiate with the Tehran regime over its concerns and, second, that Iran's access to U.S.-made weapons depends directly on its policy on terrorism.
"Negotiation means many things to many people," Regan said. "Are we giving in to demands? No. But are we willing to talk and discuss and things of that nature? Yes."
Shultz Supports Ban
Secretary of State George P. Shultz, speaking to reporters en route to a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze in Vienna, said Wednesday he is opposed to any easing of the embargo.
"That's what I believe," Shultz said in a comment which seemed to hint at a possible disagreement within the Administration.
The most likely U.S. move under consideration, if an agreement with Iran is reached, would not be to resume supplying Iran directly with weapons, but to stop blocking other countries from selling U.S.-made spare parts to Tehran, one official said.
Iran has long wanted to buy U.S.-made spare parts for its air force and other armed forces to carry on its war with neighboring Iraq. The United States supplied Iran's arms needs under the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by Khomeini's Islamic revolution in 1979.
Embargo Imposed in 1981
After the revolution, the administration of President Jimmy Carter initially continued arms sales to Iran but halted them when Khomeini's followers seized the U.S. Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 14 months. The Reagan Administration reaffirmed the arms embargo after the hostages came home in January, 1981, formally placing Iran on the list of countries that support terrorism and are thus banned from buying U.S. weapons.
At first, the embargo was unevenly enforced, and Iran successfully bought many of the spare parts it needed from U.S. allies who also use American-made weapons. But, in 1984, after the tide of the Persian Gulf War began to turn in Iran's favor, the Administration began cracking down on other countries that supplied arms to Tehran.