WASHINGTON — Former presidential adviser Robert C. McFarlane said today arms shipments to Iran turned out to be "a mistake" and took responsibility for the failure to anticipate harsh public and diplomatic reaction to the secret operation.
McFarlane, who initiated the overtures to Iran as White House national security adviser, issued a statement in which he admitted making a "serious error in judgment for which I accept full responsibility."
McFarlane, who resigned last December, sought to elaborate on a Washington Post interview in which he portrayed the decision to use arms sales to improve relations with Iran and seek release of American hostages from Lebanon as an error.
President Reagan dispatched McFarlane to Iran in May to sound out Iranian factions on improved relations, ending the Iran-Iraq war, quelling Iranian sponsorship of terrorism and seeking the safe return of the American hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.
'It Was a Mistake'
"I think that it was sensible policy to determine whether we could have a political dialogue with reformist people in Iran," McFarlane told the Post. "I think it was a mistake to introduce any element of arms transfers into it."
In his written statement, McFarlane said he believed at the outset it was in U.S. interests to make contact with Iranians who favored improved relations with the West. At the time, he said, it also was clear "such talks with us would place these people in a position of extreme vulnerability."
As the talks matured, he said, "I could understand the need for these elements to broaden their constituency"--apparently to include the military and other Iranian officials--and "strengthen them" by providing "modest levels of defensive military equipment."
"While today, I can draw a distinction between the need to strengthen reform-oriented Iranians and the unacceptable trading of arms for hostages," he said, "it is apparent that as events have become public, this distinction is not accepted by the American people.
Public Perception Cited
"That understandable public perception governs the political process in our country. Thus, however well-meaning and defensible our purposes were, to the extent that the introduction of arms transfers into the process has led to understandable turmoil that can have a very damaging effect on the ability of our country to lead, it was a mistake.
"As a senior adviser to the President, I should have anticipated this potential outcome; the failure to do so represents a serious error in judgment for which I accept full responsibility."