Washington — The controversy over the secret sale of arms to Iran will force the Reagan administration to tone down its rhetoric and adopt a more pragmatic approach to battling international terrorism during President Reagan's final two years in office, experts say. They note that despite damage to United States credibility overseas, steps can be taken to prevent the Iran-contra affair from undermining international progress in the fight against terrorism. In particular, experts stress the need to maintain the current level of cooperation with Western European and other security and intelligence services.
But they say the Iran episode has hurt America's standing as a leader in counterterrorist efforts, particularly US attempts to persuade West European leaders to embrace Washington's hard-line policies on terrorism.
``I think our European allies may be somewhat sympathetic and somewhat relieved,'' says Brian Jenkins, a terrorism specialist at the Rand Corporation. ``All of them have in the past made their deals with terrorists or their state sponsors,'' he says, adding, ``It would be somewhat hypocritical for [the Europeans] to harshly criticize us for having done the same thing.''
West European leaders have often been irked at what they viewed as the Reagan administration's high-profile, hard-line, moralistic approach to counterterrorism. That approach was embodied in frequent public proclamations that the US would never make concessions, pay ransom, or ``deal'' with terrorists. Administration officials unsuccessfully urged US allies to make similar sweeping declarations.
Now, with recent press reports detailing apparent US double-dealing with secret arms sales to Iran and the soliciting of US private-sector funding for ransom payments, administration officials appear to have been duplicitous in publicly promoting one counterterrorism policy while secretly pursuing a contradictory policy.
Terrorism specialists say the administration painted itself into a corner with its broad, hard-line statements. ``Had the French been caught doing this, no one would have made much about it, because they do not make such declaratory policies,'' says William Quandt, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution.
``We have taken a much more moralistic stand on terrorism - that we will never negotiate, that we will never pay ransom. So it is particularly hard for those who signed on to the rhetoric to understand that we [the US] did what we said we would never do,'' Mr. Quandt says.
``By constantly harping on this nonconcessionary policy ... we get struck down as tin soldiers,'' says Robert Kupperman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
``We need a policy of some toughness, with hard-line positions. But don't announce them, because you may have to eat your words someday,'' Mr. Kupperman says. ``Policies are to be broken when they need to be. One doesn't live by a past doctrine that is immutable.''
Terrorism specialists say that similar problems associated with tough talk by US leaders arose earlier in the Reagan administration after public pledges were made of swift retribution for terrorist attacks. In contrast to its earlier promises, when the administration was actually faced with a string of terrorist hijackings, bombings, and attacks on Americans overseas, the White House appeared indecisive and weak.
Government officials lacked the intelligence data necessary to assess blame quickly and identify a viable target for military retaliation.
Behind the scenes at the White House, however, a midlevel aide at the National Security Council, Lt. Col. Oliver North, was hard at work trying to resolve the discrepancy between the administration's macho self-image and its apparent inability to get results.
Colonel North planned the US invasion of Grenada, the midair interception of the Achille Lauro hijackers, and last spring's US bombing raids on Libya.
At the same time, it is now known, North was also covertly selling arms to Iran and contacting wealthy Texan H.Ross Perot to assemble a secret, $2 million ransom payment in an effort to gain the release of US hostages being held by pro-Iranian Shiites in Lebanon.
In the view of some analysts the most critical damage to US credibility in the Iran-contra affair relates to possible changes in Iranian, Syrian, and Libyan perceptions of US resolve to battle terrorism.
Marius Deeb of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University says inconsistencies in US policy might well cause leaders of Iranian allies Syria and Libya to conclude: ``If my ally [Iran] is getting [American] arms, then the United States is not serious about countering terrorism.'' He stresses: ``The United States should pursue consistent policies where it shows that it will not deal with state sponsors of terrorism'' and should focus on bolstering its moderate allies in the region.