WASHINGTON — The stunning revelation Tuesday that funds from the Administration's Iranian arms deals were improperly diverted to the Nicaraguan rebels appeared likely to broaden, not end, what has become the worst crisis of the Reagan presidency.
One former White House official said that, ironically, the President was lucky to have found overt wrongdoing among two aides--national security adviser John M. Poindexter and Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North of the National Security Council staff.
"It is harder to fire people if they were carrying out the President's policy than for laundering money for the contras through the Israelis," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a senior national security official in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
But narrow arguments over the legality of diverting funds to the anti-Sandinistas and circumventing the U.S. arms export embargo may now occupy center stage for only a time. Ultimately, they will not divert attention from the broader disarray within the Administration, in the view of political and foreign policy analysts.
Indeed, the President seems to have placed a new problem in front of himself without putting the old ones behind him.
Reagan admitted that he "was not fully informed" on the Iranian money that went to the Nicaraguan rebels, known as contras. And the fact that, six years into his term, he has ordered "a comprehensive review of the role and procedures of the National Security Council staff in the conduct of foreign and national security" is an extraordinary reflection of his apparent neglect of that most important body and its functions.
His promise that "implementation of all future foreign and national security policy initiatives will proceed only in accordance with my authorization" raised the possibility that other initiatives occurred without his approval. It also raised more fundamental doubts about his ability to formulate foreign policy in the last two years of his presidency.
The situation outlined Tuesday made it appear that "the President does not know what is going on in the basement of the White House," Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said.
Others May Be Involved
And there were indications Tuesday that not everyone was prepared to accept even this explanation. House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said it "defies credulity" that a lieutenant colonel "could be making foreign policy for the United States. Surely someone else had to be involved in discussing it. . . . There undoubtedly will be additional disclosures. We'll get to the bottom of this."
Furthermore, the continuing controversy is reviving Congress' old doubts about the Administration's policy toward Central America. Some of the recent funding for the contras will be in jeopardy when it is reviewed in February. Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "I suspect it will be a cold day in Washington before any more money goes to Nicaragua."
After a daylong battering on the Hill, a State Department official directly involved in running the contra aid program declared Tuesday, "It's gone."
May Stall Arms Control
And the Soviet Union now certainly will postpone any concessionary move in the nuclear arms control talks until the dust settles, if it had any such move in mind. In any event, the Administration is now in no position to capitalize on a concession, one State Department official said Tuesday.
Among the other problems the Administration faces:
--Relations between the President and Secretary of State George P. Shultz are probably forever scarred by Shultz's open dissociation from Reagan's Iran policy. Uncertain, too, are the future effectiveness and tenure of White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan.
--Reagan has badly damaged his credibility on the conduct of foreign policy. His popularity rating plunged 10 percentage points with the Iran arms disclosure, and it is likely to drop further with the new controversy, which puts him in the awkward position of admitting ignorance of an important matter known to his national security adviser.
--Democrats in Congress are certain to capitalize on the latest disclosure to oppose Reagan on a wide range of policy matters, from defense and arms control to wholly domestic issues, in the final two years of his Administration.
Shultz may be remaining in office now mainly because he and the President agree that the crisis would grow worse if the secretary of state resigned in the middle of it. For dedicated conservatives, Shultz has crippled himself by his almost disloyal stand on the Iran arms shipments once they became known.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, speaking on television from the White House podium, nearly invited Shultz's resignation when he said Cabinet officers should "stand shoulder to shoulder with the President . . . or get out."
State Department Boosted