WASHINGTON — President Reagan on Wednesday took personal responsibility for the Administration's secret shipment of arms to Iran and insisted that the highly controversial operation had not been a mistake.
"I decided to proceed, and the responsibility for the decision and the operation is mine and mine alone," Reagan told his first televised news conference in more than three months. "I don't think it has been a fiasco," he said.
Reagan, defending the highly secret operation in the face of bipartisan congressional criticism and widespread public skepticism, argued that it had been a partial success--winning freedom for three American hostages held in Lebanon and establishing contact with Iranian elements that may play an important role in the future of that strategically placed country.
"I don't feel that I have anything to defend about at all," he said. "With the circumstances the way they were, the decision I made I still believe was the correct decision, and I believe that we achieved some portion of our goals."
The President acknowledged that several top advisers had opposed the sale of arms to Iran but said, "I deeply believe in the correctness of my decision.
"I was convinced then and I am convinced now," he said, "that while the risks were great, so too was the potential reward."
Reagan aides hoped that the press conference would help silence criticism that has threatened to cast a shadow over the last two years of his presidency, but his performance brought unusually harsh criticism from key leaders in the new Congress and renewed expressions of doubt from at least one senior Republican.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), one of the most influential members of Congress on national security matters and a conservative who frequently has supported Reagan policies, said: "I think the problem has gotten worse this evening. . . . We have a foreign policy that is in serious disarray now."
And Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) criticized Reagan's justification for keeping the operation secret from congressional leaders. "I suspect the President does not understand the law with regard to informing Congress," he said.
Emphasis on Arms Transfers
In his news conference, which was devoted almost entirely to the arms shipments issue, Reagan:
--Pledged that the United States would ship no more weapons to Iran. "To eliminate the widespread but mistaken perception that we have been exchanging arms for hostages, I have directed that no further sales of arms of any kind be sent to Iran," he said.
--Said that Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who had publicly criticized the secret Iranian operation and indicated that he might resign, "has made it plain he will stay as long as I want him, and I want him."
--Contended that other hostages in Lebanon would have been released if the Administration's efforts had not become known. "If there had not been so much publicity, we would have had two more that we were expecting," he said, blaming the initial disclosure on elements in Iran hostile to the U.S. overtures.
--Argued that the President has authority to waive legal requirements for the timely reporting of such operations to Congress "if, in his belief national security can be served." But he said he has directed that all information relating to the operation now be made available to the appropriate members of Congress.
--Declared that "we did not condone, and do not condone, the shipment of arms from other countries (to Iran)." Immediately after the press conference, however, the White House issued a "clarification" conceding that the United States has condoned arms shipments from one other nation to Iran.
--Confirmed that he had issued "a waiver of our own embargo," saying he acted "to try and establish a relationship with a country that is of great strategic importance to peace and everything else in the Middle East; at the same time also to strike a blow against terrorism and to get our hostages back."
Iran's Good Faith
Reagan insisted that Iran had demonstrated its good faith in its dealings with the United States by securing the release of three American hostages in Lebanon over the last 14 months, just as the United States used the arms shipments to demonstrate its good will.
"However," he said, "to eliminate the widespread but mistaken perception that we have been exchanging arms for hostages, I have directed that no further sales of arms of any kind be sent to Iran. I have further directed that all information relating to our initiative be provided the appropriate members of Congress."
Reagan, unusually somber throughout the press conference, reacted sharply when a reporter suggested that his credibility had been severely damaged by the Iranian operation and asked whether he thought he could repair it.
"Well, I imagine I'm the only one around who wants to repair it, and I didn't . . . have anything to do with damaging it," he declared.