WASHINGTON — President Reagan has left in place a sensitive CIA covert operation designed to increase U.S. influence in Iran despite his decision not to sell more arms to the Iranians, Washington sources said.
Several sources in the Administration and on Capitol Hill said last week that although the continuing covert Iran operation is diplomatically risky, the President and some of his senior White House staff see it as a bold initiative that has yielded positive results--the release of three American hostages--and has a chance to achieve other foreign policy aims, according to official sources.
One source said Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has not been able to determine the identities of the CIA contacts within his government or has for some reason sanctioned their dealing with the United States. Two U.S. sources raised the possibility that the Iranians have engaged in an elaborate "sting" operation to obtain arms and embarrass the United States.
The covert action authorized by Reagan's Jan. 17 secret intelligence "finding," which gives the CIA authority to interfere in the affairs of a foreign government, is an extension of one initiated by Israel. According to senior Reagan Administration officials, it is not a paramilitary support plan and is not intended to seek the overthrow of Khomeini but is designed to gather intelligence and shape the behavior of Khomeini's regime and that of his successor.