President Reagan's televised denial of secret dealings with Iran in exchange for help in freeing American hostages was in fact a carefully camouflaged and shocking public confession.
If what he told the American public last evening was the same thing that he told selected members of Congress the day before, it is small wonder that Congress remains unpersuaded and unhappy over the episode that has damaged the credibility of America's position on negotiating with terrorists.
And a reading of the fine print of the President's gamble that he could dispel concern simply adds personal credibility problems to those of the United States.
The President opened by declaring that charges that the United States has shipped weapons to Iran as ransom payment for the release of American hostages were "utterly false." But they seemed far less false when he got to details.
As had been reported, he sent Robert C. McFarlane to Tehran on a "secret mission" to open a dialogue with Iranian officials designed to improve relations. Although he lumped reports that Congress was circumvented during the White House adventure under the general heading of false rumors, he could not entirely get around the fact that Congress had indeed been left in the dark. Members, presumably of intelligence committees on Capitol Hill, "are being" fully informed, he said, but there was no mention of the recent past.
As for weapons, the President said, he had indeed authorized the shipment of a small number of defensive weapons--barely enough to fill a single cargo plane and only as a signal to Iran of this country's serious intent in establishing better relations for the future. He did not mention reports that indirect shipments were made with the help of Israel. Yet, only hours before, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin had refused to confirm or deny Israeli participation, but had said pointedly: "If a very friendly nation turns to us with certain requests in order to help free its hostages, we will certainly try and help it."
Even the denial that a delivery of any number of weapons involved an agreement that hostages would be released ended as an indirect acknowledgement.
Of course, the President said, the United States required a reciprocal show of good intentions from Iran, a demonstration that it would renounce terrorism, and it was suggested that it could do so by using its influence in Lebanon to secure the release of all hostages held in that war-torn country.
Most of the President's address focused on the wisdom of maintaining the best relations possible under the circumstances with a nation as strategically located as Iran. But that has always been important and has never been at issue. What is at issue is dealing in the shadows in ways that make the nation's strongest allies wonder whether its leaders know what they are doing in foreign policy. On that issue the President's denial must simply confirm their worst fears.