WASHINGTON — President Reagan, lamenting "misinformation" about his approval of arms shipments to Iran, decided today to deliver a nationally televised address to the nation to explain the policy shift that helped free American hostages.
Reagan, blistered by charges that swapping arms for hostages would only encourage terrorists, planned to break his silence on secret diplomatic dealings with Tehran in a 5 p.m. PST Oval Office address.
The speech was expected to portray the hostage connection as only one facet of a forward-looking strategy to improve relations with Iran.
Soviet Threat Cited
Robert C. McFarlane, former national security adviser to Reagan and the man identified by Iranian officials as a principle in the secret talks with Washington, said earlier this week that improved U.S. relations with Iran could blunt a potential Soviet threat to Middle East oil fields.
The sudden decision to bare details of covert U.S. efforts to build favor with less radical forces in Iran came as moves to use Iranian influence to secure the release of remaining American hostages in Lebanon appeared stalled.
The White House, fearing premature disclosure would jeopardize chances for two Americans believed held by the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad in Lebanon, had wanted to wait. But Reagan, bombarded by criticism for swapping arms for hostages, felt the time had come "to set the record straight," Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes said.
"Misrepresentation of motives and misrepresentation of what we've done make it imperative that the President speak," Speakes said.
Reagan, asked by reporters why he was giving the speech, shot back, "Because you've all made it necessary. . . . I've never heard such dissemination of misinformation since I've been here as has been going on in the last several days.
"Tune in tonight and I'll correct everything," he said.
Speakes said Reagan would speak "with concern for our future position in the Middle East," providing as much detail as possible "and yet maintain some semblance of safety" for the hostages in Lebanon as well as U.S. contacts in Iran.
The Oval Office forum enables Reagan, insulated from the press and public, to explain and defend actions criticized at home and abroad as abandonment of a policy to isolate and punish the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who came to power in a violent 1979 overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
Other complex questions also awaited answers, including whether Reagan had violated his vow to never bargain for the release of hostages, broken the Arms Export Act, or undercut the arms embargo thenPresident Jimmy Carter imposed against Iran after the Nov. 4, 1979, seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
There were geopolitical considerations as well: Moderate Arab leaders were said to be angry of the U.S. overtures to Iran, which they see as the larger threat to Persian Gulf stability in its bitter six-year war with Iraq.