WASHINGTON — Atlantic allies France and Portugal, along with other European countries and Israel, shipped arms to Iran with U.S. knowledge--and sometimes acquiescence--during President Reagan's secret negotiations with factions in the Tehran regime, officials said Wednesday.
As a result, Iran has received far more weapons for its war with Iraq than the single cargo plane-sized supply that the President has cited in defending the decision to break his own arms embargo, the officials said.
And this fall, for the first time in years, Iran's air force shot down an Iraqi fighter with a sophisticated, U.S.-made, $1.1-million Phoenix missile. This "kill," along with other improvements in Iran's combat ability, appears to have discouraged Iraq from further attacks on the Iranian oil terminal of Kharg Island, which is a key to Tehran's economic ability to sustain its war effort.
Use of the Phoenix is a startling development in an Iranian air defense regarded until recently as toothless, in the view of some government and private analysts. Iraqi jets, for example, launched 120 air attacks against the Kharg Island terminal alone from September, 1985, to October, 1985, and nearly knocked out the entire complex in a series of devastating raids in August and September of this year.
But an Iraqi source said that the country has mounted only one sortie since early October, and that attack apparently resulted in the loss of at least one French-made Mirage jet.
The precise effect of the arms shipments on Iran's performance in the war is a central element in the controversy over the affair because U.S. interests--and the interests of this country's allies--could be profoundly affected by an Iranian triumph. The impact of such a victory could spill out over the entire Middle East.
The official American policy, reiterated by Reagan in his press conference Wednesday night, is that the war should be settled by negotiations and that Iran is the chief obstacle to such negotiations.
Further, Reagan and other Administration officials have asserted that the arms shipments that the United States allowed to reach Iran during their 18-month-long attempt to free American hostages were too insignificant to affect the course of the Persian Gulf War.
"We didn't add to any offensive power on the part of Iran," Reagan said Wednesday evening, adding: "We did not condone and do not condone the shipment of arms from other countries."
Initially, senior Administration officials insisted that the secret arms program, run by Reagan's National Security Council over the objections of Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, sent only a handful of U.S. and Israeli arms shipments to Iran's armed forces.
'Green Light' for Others
But several officials said Wednesday that the U.S. decision to allow a handful of shipments through the embargo quickly became a "green light" for other countries to funnel arms to the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"There were lots of different arms deals," said one senior official who helped oversee the embargo effort. "Some were straight commercial deals. Some were the Israelis'. And a few were directly from the United States.
"Some were allowed to get through in the interest of the negotiations with Iran. Some we knew about and failed to stop. And some we tried to stop, but couldn't," this official said.
Israel has been the largest Western source of weapons for Iran, shipping F-4 fighter plane parts and other sophisticated gear in a supply line that has been open almost constantly since 1980, several officials said.
But two sources said that France and Portugal also have been "actively" selling arms to Iran--including artillery and ammunition, according to one official.
Commercial military sales have also slipped through the embargo from Switzerland, Austria, West Germany and Britain, one source said. In some of those cases, however, the deals were for equipment that could be used for either civilian or military uses.
The Iranians' use of the Phoenix missile in the Mideast conflict, apparently for the first time in several years, was reported in U.S. intelligence analyses of the war circulated inside the government this month.
Tehran radio and the New China News Agency, Peking's official news agency, reported on Oct. 15-16 that an Iranian F-14 fighter had downed an Iraqi Mirage F-1 jet about 25 miles west of Kharg Island and that the pilot had drowned.
The Iraqis later acknowledged that a plane was lost in a raid on Kharg, and one report said that the pilot of the Iraqi jet was eaten by sharks.
The Iraqis have fared better elsewhere, wiping out much of the Iranians' fleet of C-130 cargo planes in a single autumn sortie. But the New China News Agency reported in mid-October that the Iranian air force is "now more active than ever before, though it possesses only about 100 warplanes."