WASHINGTON — President Reagan, while publicly vowing to make no deals with terrorists, has been so concerned about the safe return of American hostages in Lebanon that he has raised the issue repeatedly with his national security advisers during the last year, a senior Administration official said Thursday.
Echoing Reagan's televised speech Thursday night, the senior official said that winning freedom for the hostages was only one of several goals of the secret U.S. diplomacy with Iran, which he said was also aimed at restoring normal relations between the two countries.
But he also acknowledged, unlike the President, that freeing the hostages was the Administration's driving motive.
The desire to improve U.S. relations with Iran had led to months of study and discussion, he said--but the Administration pressed ahead with its plans to seek more contact with the Tehran regime only after it saw a chance to free the hostages.
"It is a matter simply of priorities," the official said, speaking on condition he not be identified. "When it began to be clear who took the hostages (and) who has influence on them, we began to see that, as we looked into the hostage situation . . . there was a possibility of furthering our other objectives. And so we could work two issues at the same time."
Reagan approved shipments of U.S. arms to Iran with "all of the objectives" in mind, the official said. But he also described the President as emotionally concerned with the safety of the hostages and as frequently urging his advisers to seek ways to gain their release.
"He worries about the hostages being over there every day," the official said, briefing reporters at the White House before the President's speech.
His account of the President's constant personal concern over the fate of the hostages was the most authoritative confirmation of the role this emotional element played in the Administration's decision to launch secret negotiations with Iran.
Another Avenue Needed
As a measure of the depth of Reagan's concern over the hostages' safety, the senior official said that Reagan has raised the question of freeing the hostages in perhaps half of his daily briefing sessions with his national security adviser, John M. Poindexter.
And, while saying that disclosure of the secret negotiations "probably damages the chances of getting the other hostages out soon," the official declared: "We'll have to figure out probably, at this point, some other way to go about the problem. Because the President's not going to forget about them."
In discussing the highly secret negotiations, the official said that the arms shipments included only defensive weapons and were used "to show good faith" on the part of the United States in dealing with a regime that remains profoundly suspicious of American intentions.
Further, he said, the Iranian officials engaged in the negotiations agreed last year to halt all Iranian-sponsored terrorism against American targets--and kept the bargain.
In the most detailed official explanation yet of the 18-month-long secret negotiations, the senior aide also said that:
--Soon after the negotiations began, the Iranians demonstrated their good faith by promising to prevent further kidnapings or terrorist attacks against Americans by forces under their control--and kept the bargain for at least a year.
--The direct arms shipments were fully discussed by Reagan's senior national security staff, including relevant Cabinet members, and approved by the President himself in a national security directive signed in January, 1986. While the National Security Council staff was closely involved, he said, "it has not been an NSC 'cowboy'-run operation."
--The Administration began by sending arms to Iran through another country, which other sources have identified as Israel. But beginning earlier this year, the United States sent several arms shipments directly to Iran, without going through other countries.
--The shipments did not include parts for Iran's F-4 jet fighters, which the Administration considers to be offensive weapons. But anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missiles and radar parts may have been included. Other sources have said that the shipments included anti-tank missiles, aircraft parts and radar components.
--The CIA was also involved in the operation. But the official contended that the Administration was not legally required to notify Congress of the operation while it was going on because to do so would have endangered lives.
'A Justified Deviation'
The official said that he is confident U.S. allies in both Europe and the Arab world would understand the shipments as "a justified deviation from our public policy."
"When you're trying to accomplish something like this, you have to use unconventional methods," he said.