WASHINGTON — President Reagan was not informed of--and did not approve--the first shipment of U.S.-made weapons and share parts that Israel delivered to Iran in August, 1985--the shipment that set in motion the Administration's controversial arms-and-hostages operation, government officials have told The Times.
To the contrary, those sources said, Reagan explicitly rejected a proposal for Israel to ship arms to Iran when it was first presented to him at a closed meeting of top White House advisers in the late summer of 1985.
But without Reagan's knowledge, such an Israeli shipment was sent to Iran. And, according to one knowledgeable government source, Israel acted after receiving an unauthorized signal to proceed from a lower-level Administration official.
An Administration spokesman, speaking on condition he not be named, Thursday denied emphatically that an unauthorized signal had been sent. But senior Israeli officials, while not directly admitting a role in any arms shipments, have stated publicly that they sent no weapons to Iran without high-level White House approval.
Release Was Persuasive
When the Israeli shipment was followed a few weeks later by the release of an American hostage, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, White House aides used the successful swap to persuade Reagan to reverse himself and approve direct arms shipments by the United States.
Thus it appears that Reagan may have been persuaded to approve the plan that produced the most damaging controversy of his six-year presidency without realizing the wheels had been set in motion by a possibly unauthorized signal to Israel that Reagan did not know about at the time and had explicitly rejected.
About four months after Weir's release by pro-Iranian terrorists in Lebanon, sources said that Reagan on Jan. 17, 1986, gave final approval for establishing the U.S.-Iran arms pipeline at a White House meeting from which the most persistent critic of such overtures to the Tehran government--Secretary of State George P. Shultz--had been deliberately excluded.
Of the four Reagan advisers present at that January meeting--national security adviser John M. Poindexter, White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, CIA Director William J. Casey and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger--only Weinberger voted against proceeding with the U.S. shipments, the sources said.
The sources, interviewed by The Times this week, had intimate knowledge of the White House negotiations. They insisted on anonymity because of the extreme sensitivity of the subject. One said that word of the unauthorized Israeli shipment, which only recently began to seep out from a tight circle of White House officials, could trigger a "revolt" within the Administration, from the State Department to the White House itself.
"This is about as serious a situation as I have ever seen," one government source said of the disclosures. "There are a lot of people--and I mean a lot of people--who hope desperately that this (news) will get out."
While it could not be definitively established whether someone in the White House gave Israel unauthorized approval for its initial arms shipment to Iran, the sources said that Israeli officials who ordered the shipment sent to Iran acted in the mistaken belief that their actions were sanctioned by Reagan himself.
Ban Vigorously Enforced
At the time the first Israeli planeload of U.S.-made arms went to Iran, on Aug. 19, 1985, the United States was vigorously enforcing a ban on weapons shipments to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's radical Islamic regime. And at that point Reagan had not yet taken his secret action to waive the embargo--a step that would not come until Jan. 17, 1986.
"The Israelis ostensibly broke it," one source said of the embargo. But "the Israelis did not ship those arms without a tip of the hat from the United States."
As recently as this past September, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told The Times in an interview that his government "is committed not to resell any American arms or even American components of Israeli-made arms without explicit U.S. permission.
"If you can give me one example through the history of our relations that Israel sold (even) a wing that was produced in the United States without American approval," he said then, "I'll eat it."
Furor May Intensify
The disclosure of the unapproved arms cargo appears certain to heighten the furor over White House foreign policy and its decision to run secret operations--including the Iranian arms shipments--through Poindexter's National Security Council.
It was unclear Thursday whether the new details of how the Administration's clandestine arms-and-hostages operation came into being were being given to all members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which were to meet with Poindexter this morning for their first full-scale briefing on the Iran affair.