JERUSALEM — Israeli arms dealers, with the acquiescence of the government, have maintained a nearly continuous supply of weaponry to Iran since 1979, including at least seven shiploads dispatched independently of a U.S.-sponsored Iranian arms program over the last 14 months, according to informed sources here.
However, these sources insist, the shipments consisted almost entirely of shells for artillery pieces, mortars and recoilless rifles sold to the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran during the 1970s. All this ammunition is Israeli-produced, and some is available only here, the sources add. They said that it is incapable of having any significant impact on the outcome of the Iran-Iraq War and is a mere drop in the bucket compared with the billions of dollars worth of arms being shipped to Iran and Iraq by America's European allies.
The sources said they are increasingly concerned that because of the shipments, Israel could wind up as a scapegoat for the Reagan Administration, which is under mounting attack for approving its own clandestine weapons shipments to Iran with Israeli help.
Pleased initially that revelation of the Reagan program made Israel appear as a loyal strategic ally aiding an effort to free U.S. hostages held by pro-Iranian elements in Lebanon, Israeli policy-makers have watched with growing discomfort as Washington news reports seem increasingly to depict Jerusalem as a villain in the affair.
Charges Against Israel
Administration sources have said that Israel took advantage of what was intended as a limited Washington-sponsored program to sharply increase its own arms shipments to Iran.
Also, The Times reported Friday that according to U.S. government officials, President Reagan was not informed of, and did not approve, the August, 1985, Israeli shipment of U.S.-made weapons and spare parts to Iran that set in motion the Administration's controversial arms-and-hostages operation.
There were conflicting reports on whether some lower-level Administration official may have given Israel an unauthorized signal to proceed.
Asked to 'Clarify'
Indicative of the growing sensitivity of the issue here, Israel radio on Friday headlined a report from its Washington correspondent that the United States had asked Jerusalem to "clarify" its arms shipments to Iran.
Israel's Foreign Ministry subsequently denied the report, and Israel radio backed away from its original story, saying that the request had been made before the Iranian arms controversy exploded in Washington earlier this month.
The Israeli government still refuses to comment publicly on the controversy. "My orders are not to say anything that might embarrass the American Administration," one official said. Told that he was not being helpful, another replied, "That's what I'm being paid for right now."
But privately, sources believed close to government thinking on the matter seem increasingly anxious to counter any suggestion that Israel is trying to profit in Iran at U.S. expense. In that regard, they say, it is important to differentiate between those shipments of sophisticated missiles and spare parts approved under the previously secret Reagan Administration program and what they describe as modest, ongoing sales of conventional Israeli-produced weaponry to Iran.
"The State of Israel has never sold American arms or weapons containing American components without having received authorization from the U.S.," Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told an Israeli Army Radio interviewer last week.
"As for Israeli arms sales which are unconnected to the U.S. or which are in no way related to our undertaking to the U.S., we are sovereign and we will decide to whom and when to sell," he added.
"If we want to make this public, we will; in most cases, we will prefer not to do so. And we do not consider ourselves obligated to report to anyone in the world on this subject."
No Coherent Policy
According to informed sources here, when Reagan Administration officials began talking to their Israeli counterparts in the spring and summer of 1985 about the possibility of shipping arms to Iran, Jerusalem had no more coherent policy toward Tehran than did Washington.
In fact, these sources say, just as Reagan was concerned about American hostages held by pro-Iranian elements in Lebanon, Israel began its arms supplies to the Ayatolla Ruhollah Khomeini's revolutionary regime as a form of bribery to protect Iranian Jews.
Former Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Zippori reportedly set those initial shipments in motion after the execution on May 9, 1979, of Habib Elkanian, former leader of the Jewish community in Tehran, who was accused of treason by an Iranian revolutionary court. The execution sent a chill through the remaining community of about 60,000 Iranian Jews.
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