The United States can deliver military spare parts to Iran without appearing to "tilt" away from its professed neutrality in the Iraqi-Iranian war if it combines such a move with adroit public and private diplomacy.
This is the view of a number of observers of the Middle East as the spare parts issue looms as part of a potential settlement of the hostage question.
President Carter and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie already have laid the groundwork, through recent public statements, for the possible shipment of such spare parts to Iran as part of a settlement.
The spare parts, purchased long before the outbreak of war between Iraq and Iran, are part of the Iranian assets that the US froze following the seizure of the American hostages in Tehran a year ago. Iran is calling for an "unfreezing" of the assets. Some observers consider this one of the most sensitive of issues now at stake in possible negotiations with Iran, because delivery of the spare parts might appear to place the US on the side of Iran against Iraq, a country that currently has the support of "moderate" Arab friends of the US, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
But diplomatic probing has indicated that while they would be unhappy with US delivery of spare parts to Iran, the Saudis would accept this, according to one source close to Saudi thinking, as "one of those unavoidable things." What would be more important in the Saudi view, apparently, would be the need no to extend a "one shot" arrangement over spare parts into any continuous flow of American arms to Iran. But the Saudis also are likely to become even more insistent, as a result of even a one-shot arrangement, about their own need for bomb racks fro their American-supplied F-15 fighter planes.
President Carter recently ruled out the sale of the bomb racks to Saudis Arabia in what was widely regarded as a statement aimed at winning Jewish support for the Nov. 4 presidential election. the Saudis responded with an uncharacteristically blunt statement of their own, saying that if the request for bomb racks went unanswered after the election, Saudi Arabia would consider "all other possible sources to obtain the necessary means to defend itself." An unnamed high Saudi source in Riyadh, the capital, was quoted as saying that nobody has a monopoly on relations and friendship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In addition to recognizing the possibility that spare parts will become a part of a hostage release, some US officials see a need to bolster Iran for strategic reasons. They fear that the disintegration of Iran, under Iraqi assault, might work to the advantage of the neighboring Soviet Union. But this consideration is little talked about in public. The Soviets, for their part, do not apparently agree. They seem to think that if Iran falls apart under Iraqi pressure, a new regime that included military men might take power in Iran and act against Soviet interests. The Soviets seem to have no great confidence that Iranian communists have the ability to profit at this point from a disintegrating Iran. And, in the view of some foregin affairs specialists, the Soviets are too preoccupied with Poland and Afghanistan to be making a move of their own against Iran. Thus the US and the Soviet Union might eventually find themselves in the strange position of both leaning, for their own separate reasons, in favor of bolstering Iran.
It is not entirely clear in Washington, in the meantime, how badly Iran needs military spare parts at this point. Some sources think the Iranians are much more in need of food and kerosene and the cash assets that are tied up in the US as a result of the hostage seizure.
Secretary Muskie, in an appearance on the ABC television program "Issues and Answers" Nov. 2, said there has been a "divided view in Iran about the spare parts. Some [Iranians] rejected the notion that they should accept spare parts that they need from the great 'Satan' . . . . There are others who think they should."
But the secretary noted that what is involved is not the opening of a new military supply line to Iran. He added that wihthholding the spare parts months before war put Iran in a "vulnerable position with respect to Iraq. if the issue arises, a US response should be placed in that context," he said.
President Carter, in his debate with Ronald Reagan Oct. 28, declared that if the hostages are released safely, the US would deliver those items that Iran owns -- i.e., that have been bought and paid for -- and that would obviously include the more than $200 million in spare parts.
Some experts think that the issue of spare parts and other military equipment will "get lost in the shuffle" in the US, at least, if the hostages are released. Much more difficult to negotiate than the spare parts issue, some argue, will be the legal issues arising from the conditions that Iran has set for a hostages release.
Muskie, making an unscheduled appearance at a State Department news briefing nov. 3, said that while there has been progress toward release of the hostages, "much remains to be done" and that the recent developments "should be viewed a initial steps in a process which will require time, patience, and diplomacy."