WASHINGTON — At the same time that the Reagan Administration was opening a secret arms pipeline to Iran, it was granting permission for a major defense contractor to supply helicopter parts to the Tehran government, the company has confirmed.
It was the first known instance that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime successfully tapped into U.S. commercial channels for critically needed aircraft parts.
United Technologies Corp., in a statement issued Friday from its Hartford, Conn., headquarters in response to news media inquiries, said the parts were for commercial helicopters and "the shipment does not violate any ban on shipments to Iran." Aircraft experts, however, suggested that the parts could be used to repair Iran's depleted military copter fleet.
Parts of Engines
Richard Whitmyre, manager of corporate information for the company, the nation's seventh-largest defense contractor, said one of its engine-manufacturing subsidiaries, Pratt & Whitney Canada, received an order on Sept. 11, 1985, from "Helicopter Support & Renewal Inc. of Tehran."
Whitmyre said the order was for parts for engines "presently installed on Bell 212 commercial helicopters." He would not disclose the size of the order or give other specific details but asserted, "We applied for and received permission to export these parts from both Canadian and U.S. governments."
According to one helicopter expert, the engine for this commercial helicopter--known as the PT6T-3 Twin-Pac--is similar to a "military version powering the Cobras." Cobra is the designation of a helicopter gunship manufactured by Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., which sold several hundred of the choppers to Iran's military forces before Khomeini's Muslim fundamentalist followers took power in a 1979 revolution.
"Many of the parts would be interchangeable" between the commercial and military versions, said this source, who asked to remain anonymous. He suggested that the 1985 order was part of Iran's continuing effort to keep its military helicopters aloft. "I doubt seriously the parts were needed for a helicopter to give rush-hour traffic reports in Tehran," he said.
Whitmyre and other United Technologies officials, however, turned aside questions on the parts ordered by Iran and would not discuss whether the parts shipped to Tehran could be used in military craft.
The commercial order from the Iranians came soon after President Reagan launched what he told the nation in a televised speech Thursday night was a "secret diplomatic initiative" intended to open a dialogue with Iran. This initiative, senior Administration officials confirmed Thursday, led to direct U.S. shipments of military parts to Iran this year.
Just Before Weir's Release
The Sept. 11, 1985, order date cited by the company was four days before the freeing of one American hostage in Lebanon, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, whose release has been linked to the U.S.-sanctioned delivery of spare parts to Iran by Israel. Two other American hostages have subsequently been freed after negotiations involving deliveries of U.S.-made arms and spare parts.
Last week, a Bell Helicopter spokesman in Fort Worth, Tex., said the company had received a cable from Tehran last month, ordering helicopter parts. He said his company declined to sell the parts and turned the cable over to the FBI and the U.S. Customs Service.
The two law enforcement agencies in recent years have been aggressively enforcing an arms embargo imposed after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Khomeini's militants in November, 1979.
The FBI and Customs Service investigations have resulted in more than 50 prosecutions of individuals and companies accused of violating the embargo. With the disclosure of the White House-sanctioned arms shipments, the Justice Department is now reviewing pending cases, officials said last week.