The Reagan administration is sticking to its story that Nicaragua is receiving a number of Soviet tanks -- despite strong denials from Nicaragua and raised eyebrows in other quarters.
Evidence of these tank shipments appears to be far less conclusive than evidence supporting the administration's assertion in February that Cuban and Soviet arms were being supplied to El Salvador.
Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra flatly denied the reports of the shipments June 2, saying they are "totally unfounded."
Diplomatic sources in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, play down the whole business. "Washington appears to be making something out of nothing," said one Western diplomat.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., talking with newsmen June 2, indicated that he is deeply concerned about a Nicaraguan military buildup. Some Defense Department spokesmen suggest that Moscow also may have sent or will be sending Russian jet fighters to Nicaragua.
"We do not see any threats from the local area that would justify that level of manpower," Secretary Haig said. "Nor do we visualize their requirement for the sophisticated level of armaments that we see have already arrived and which we understand are programmed to arrive." But he made no specific reference to tanks reportedly delivered by the Soviet Union.
State and Defense Department sources insist their evidence of Soviet tank shipments to Nicaragua is strong and that more tanks may be on the way from Cuba. State Department sources suggest that tanks may have arrived in Nicaragua "under the cover of darkness," just as Soviet and Cuban arms shipments to El Salvador earlier this year were sent at night through Nicaragua.
Ironically, all of this comes on the heels of Undersecretary of State Walter J. Stoessel Jr.'s comment June 1 that Cuba was sending only minimal amounts of weaponry to El Salvador and other Central American nations.
Behind the confusion over what is going on in Nicaragua appears to be an administration concern that events are still very fluid in Central America and could easily get out of hand.
Still the question remains: Are the tanks there? Efforts to prove their presence have been unavailing.
"What we are dealing with is raw intelligence information that needs to be sifted and sorted," said one intelligence official. "It could prove true, but we need more time to develop this before we can be sure." Despite uncertainty, the administration apparently does not want to appear weak on the issue.
Flushed with the success it had in nearly halting the flow of Soviet and Cuban arms to the Salvadoran guerrillas earlier this year, the administration feels it can slow or halt arms shipments, including tanks to Nicaragua, by putting the whole issue to the open glare of publicity.
This time it may be harder, since so far the evidence presented has been less conclusive than that presented in connection with the Salvadoran situation. The Reagan administration "had better proof and more [proof] to substantiate its allegations" of arms shipments to El Salvador, says a Western diplomatic source in Managua. "The proof that Nicaragua was serving as a conduit for these arms was so substantial that the Nicaraguans quietly admitted their role in the arms flow and said little publicly. This time the Nicaraguans are flatly denying the tank story."