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U.S. Credibility Damaged in Region, Arab Allies Say

November 13, 1986|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Disclosures that the Reagan Administration secretly has been supplying Iran with arms to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon have shocked pro-American Arab regimes and undermined U.S. credibility in the Middle East, according to Arab officials and Western diplomats.

To Arab governments, the disclosures are particularly troubling in view of reports that Iran is preparing to launch a major offensive with the aim of finally defeating Iraq in their six-year-old war.

Iraq is supported, financially and materially, by such pro-American Arab countries as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt, which view Iran's role in spreading Islamic fundamentalism and revolution throughout the region as a threat to the stability of their regimes.

Balance of Power

An Iranian victory would have enormous implications for the regional balance of power between secularists and fundamentalists and moderates and radicals. An Iranian victory, if perceived to have come about with U.S. help, could also have a negative impact on relations between the United States and its allies in the Arab world, analysts said.

"People here can understand and appreciate the dilemma of the hostage situation at the White House, but what you are doing undermines the trust that (friendly Arab governments) place in you," Mahfouz Ansari, editor of the semiofficial Egyptian newspaper Al Gomhouria, said in an interview.

"In helping Iran to win the war, you are helping to effect a change in the regional balance. You are sowing the seeds of future conflict. You are poisoning the ground."

While newspaper editorials in Egypt, Jordan and Persian Gulf nations have condemned the arms shipments, Arab governments so far have refrained from expressing their displeasure in public. Some Western diplomats attribute this reticence to respect for the delicacy of a situation in which the lives of several Americans still held hostage in Lebanon could be at stake.

But diplomatic sources said that, in private, the governments of Iraq's Arab allies are deeply angered--and in several cases have summoned the U.S. ambassadors in their capitals to testily tell them so.

"The Egyptians," one diplomat said, "are absolutely aghast." The Jordanians, another diplomat said, "are hopping mad."

Editorial criticism, which as a rule in the Arab world reflects official thinking, has been more candid.

A 'Duplicitous' Policy

The Jordan Times, describing U.S. policy toward the Iran-Iraq War as "duplicitous," said the Reagan Administration "has not only dishonored its commitments to Iraq, the rest of the Arabs and the international community, it also has been fueling the flames of war in the (Persian) Gulf and thus bears a heavy responsibility for the loss of thousands of lives and material destruction" on both sides.

Columnist Mahmoud Mourad, writing in the semiofficial Cairo daily Al Akhbar, commented: "President Reagan won his first presidential election by smearing the reputation of his predecessor (Jimmy) Carter, accusing him of weakness in the Iran hostage crisis. But what Reagan did recently is a thousand times worse than what Carter did. . . . America has tried to save a few Americans by sacrificing thousands of Iraqis."

Another columnist, Mustafa Amin, wrote: "We cannot fight terrorism with two faces, a face that threatens and a face that begs. President Reagan's action is an encouragement to terrorism. It is a signal to Iran that terrorism pays."

Puzzled by Silence

Such editorial outbursts notwithstanding, several diplomats said they were puzzled by the silence so far of countries more closely involved in the Iran-Iraq War--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and especially Iraq itself, where there has been less of a public uproar over the arms disclosures than there has been in Washington.

One diplomatic analyst said he thinks that Iraq's relative silence may stem from calculations that disclosure of U.S. support for the Iranian war effort will further erode what is already said to be low morale in Iraq.

"This is the sort of development that has the potential to undermine Iraqi confidence in the regime of (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein," one Western diplomat said. "When you've got what you believe to be a supporter giving arms to the enemy, it's not much cause for comfort."

The Moral Implications

Another reason for the silence, other analysts suggested, is that at least one aspect of the affair--the moral implications of preaching one policy in public while practicing something quite different in private--is not as disturbing to Arab regimes as it is to legislators in Washington and government officials in Western Europe.

The fact that Reagan "contradicts what he says (in public) may be an enormous issue in the United States and Europe, but it is no crime in the Middle Eastern context," said Mohammed Sid Ahmed, a prominent Egyptian columnist and political analyst.

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