WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders, arguing that President Reagan's credibility was undermined by his secret dealings with Tehran, insisted Thursday that U.S. arms shipped to Iran were offensive and militarily significant--not defensive and "minuscule" as Reagan has claimed.
Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the Democrat's chief spokesman on military matters and the soon-to-be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the President's current efforts to justify the arms shipments--combined with his earlier confusion over what was discussed at his summit meeting in Iceland with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev last month--have caused Americans as well as allied leaders to question the truth of what he tells them.
"There has been damage to the President's credibility in the last 30 to 40 days," said Nunn. "And when the President's credibility goes down, either at home or abroad, it's bad for the country, it's bad for the Democratic Party, it's bad for the Republican Party, it's bad for the American people. . . ."
Urged to Admit Error
Like many other Democrats who spoke out on Thursday during the Senate's post-election organizational meetings, Nunn called on Reagan to admit the error of his ways by declaring: "We made a mistake and we're going to correct that mistake."
While the President has insisted that he did not err in ordering the arms shipments to Iran, even his Republican supporters in Congress were quick to disagree. Both Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who has served as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for two years, called the operation a "mistake."
House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said of Reagan: "Some people can say, 'I made a mistake,' but it's hard for him to do that."
But Dole argued that the incident has not undercut Reagan's authority and popularity, and he cautioned Democrats that repeated criticism of the President would only generate sympathy for him. "If the Democrats overdo it, they are going to create a backlash in favor of the President," he said.
Assertions by Nunn
The most serious criticism of the President's policy came from Nunn, who outlined a number of specific ways in which he said Reagan had misled the American people during his televised press conference on Wednesday night on the Iranian arms shipments. He asserted:
--The President misrepresented the amount of arms sent to Iran by calling the shipments "minuscule."
Nunn argued that, not only was the number of weapons "substantial," but also the U.S. shipments had opened a flood gate of arms from other countries as well. He noted that Reagan himself had acknowledged sending at least 1,000 anti-tank weapons to Iran, or enough to equip three light divisions (more than 30,000 men) in the United States.
"You have to understand that there are other countries that are on the verge and have been wanting to send shipments of weapons to Iran for a good many months--even years--because of profit more than anything else, and we may very well have given the green light for very large arms shipments by other countries," said Nunn.
Wright said he was told by John M. Poindexter, the national security adviser, that the number of anti-tank weapons shipped to Iran was 2,008--more than twice the number cited by Reagan. He said the shipment also included battery assemblies for 235 Hawk anti-aircraft missiles.
--The President erroneously claimed that he sent only defensive weapons to Iran.
"It's true, they can be used defensively also, but it depends on the context," said Nunn. "In the context of that war in the Middle East right now (between Iran and Iraq) it seems to me all weapons are offensive in nature."
--Reagan underestimated the importance of the U.S. arms to the strategic balance in the Persian Gulf. "You have to understand that there is a psychological balance as well as a military balance, and I think that we already have begun to shift that psychological balance and I think it's adverse to our interests in the Middle East," Nunn said.
--The President did not "understand or grasp the significance" of third-country shipments to Iran.
He noted that Reagan denied several times during his Wednesday press conference that the United States ever condoned arms shipments by other nations to Iran and that his aides were forced to correct his comments with a statement after the news conference because U.S. officials already have admitted approving shipments by Israel.
--The President's contention that he did not swap arms for U.S. hostages "is contrary to the information I have received and it's contrary to the overwhelming evidence." Reagan has asserted that, although three hostages were freed as a result of the shipments, the arms were intended primarily as a show of good faith to moderates whom the United States was cultivating in Iran.