WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats today said President Reagan's secret overtures to Iran indicate an "amateurish" foreign policy that makes him appear willing to trade arms for hostages while eroding U.S. credibility with its allies.
Reagan, who told the American people in a televised address Thursday night that small quantities of defensive weapons have been sent to Iran as part of the diplomatic initiative, said the contacts are aimed at bridging differences between Washington and Tehran and bringing peace to the Middle East.
The President insisted today that he did not make any deals to free hostages and said the release of some American held in Lebanon was "a bonus" of secret White House contacts with Iran.
But as Reagan continued to defend his Iran policy today, criticism of it mounted on Capitol Hill.
"It seems to have been operated out of the basement of the White House . . . the State Department cut out, the Defense Department cut out, almost in an amateurish way," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said in an interview on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America."
Sen. Joseph R. Biden, the second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the address "vainly underscored how amateurish this thing has been."
'Policy That Went Awry'
"The President seemed very uncomfortable with the explanation he was giving, in my view." the Delaware Democrat said in an interview with the "CBS Morning News." "It seems as though the President just underscored the fact that this is a policy that somehow went awry."
Retiring House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said he is convinced the Iran initiative was linked to the possibility of reaping a publicity windfall immediately before the Nov. 4 election.
"I still feel strongly as a White House watcher that the most important thing to them was, the heck with policy, let's get these hostages home before the elections, it will help us," O'Neill said.
Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) said Reagan's actions "are certainly morally wrong. . . . He has damaged his credibility everywhere, and if the American people buy this one, God help us."
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said, "The more we learn, the clearer it becomes that the Administration has been duped by our enemies and duplicitous with our allies--and with the American people."
Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) was critical of Reagan's decision to send weapons. "Personally, I think they should have chosen some other means, like medical supplies," he told a news conference.
In Iran, President Ali Khamenei denied that any "diplomatic talks" with the United States had taken place and said U.S. envoy Robert C. McFarlane spoke only with intelligence officials during his secret mission to Tehran in May.
Reagan said the two nations had been negotiating for 18 months in a bid to improve relations. Khamenei, quoted by Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency in a dispatch monitored in Nicosia, Cyprus, dismissed Reagan's claims of negotiations as "mere lies."
May Publish Tapes
"Only a number of Iran's information (intelligence) officers had talked with them to obtain information. This is not called diplomatic talks," Khamenei was quoted as saying.
He said Iran has tapes of some of the talks and may publish transcripts.
Washington's allies steered clear of direct criticism of President Reagan today for sending arms to Iran, but Britain and Italy said any such deals are no way to obtain the release of hostages.
British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, without referring directly to Reagan's statement, told the House of Commons: "In our view, concessions lead to more, not less, hostage-taking."