WASHINGTON — President Reagan today tried to quiet reports of a deal with Iran for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, saying disclosures of the contacts between Tehran and Washington "are making it more difficult for us" to win the release of the three Americans still held captive.
The Los Angeles Times and other newspapers reported that the United States won the release of three hostages in Lebanon by helping to arrange the shipment by Israel to Iran of aircraft spare parts and equipment needed to keep the Iranian war machine running. (Story, Page 10.)
The United States has embargoed all arms sales to Iran since 1979.
Earlier this week, Iran said it had expelled former White House national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane and four other Americans on a secret mission to mend U.S.-Iranian relations.
At the White House, spokesman Peter Roussel said, "The United States has systematically urged Third World countries not to sell arms to Iran as the only effective way to bring Iran quickly to accept mediation and negotiation (in the Iran-Iraq war)."
Reagan and Roussel refused to comment on the authenticity of the reports but said the disclosures could jeopardize efforts on behalf of the hostages.
Replying to a question during a bill-signing ceremony, Reagan said, "No comment, but could I suggest and appeal to all of you with regard to this, that the speculation, the commenting and all . . . to us has no foundation, that all of that is making it more difficult for us in our effort to get the other hostages free."
Later, spokesman Albert R. Brashear refused to identify which story or stories Reagan had in mind when he said it had "no foundation."
Dan Howard, another White House spokesman, said that "what has generally been referred to as an arms embargo with regard to Iran . . . is a very technical business. . . . There are several bits and pieces to this, all of them very technical. I think it's a very technical business."
At a briefing for reporters, Roussel refused repeatedly to discuss whether the United States played any role in supplying arms to Iran or had looked the other way while other countries did.
He said at one point that in terms of the arms embargo, the U.S. made no distinction between arms and spare parts. Later, he changed his answer to "no comment."
"Because there are American hostages still being held in the Middle East, this Administration will not respond to any questions about any steps we might be taking to secure the release," Roussel said.
Recalling Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite's warning on Wednesday that speculative stories make it more difficult for him to secure the hostages' release and, at the same time, endanger his life, Roussel said, "I would urge all of you to be very cautious in what you put forward as fact."
The Times reported today that the arms shipments were approved personally by the President and have angered both Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.