Frustrated but determined, Jordan's King Hussein is making what may be a final effort to breathe life into his Middle East peace initiative. But even as he meets with President Reagan today, a major battle is brewing between Congress and the administration over United States arms sales to Jordan. If Congress blocks the sales, this will probably spell the demise of the King's bid to bring about a negotiated settlement on the West Bank, diplomatic observers say.
There is also growing concern that, by forcing the Jordanian ruler to look elsewhere for defensive weapons -- perhaps even Moscow -- Congress may help undermine US strategic interests in the Middle East. The Jordan arms controversy comes against the backdrop of other recent developments pointing to an erosion of US influence in the region:
Saudi Arabia has decided to buy 72 Tornado combat planes from Britain rather than face an enervating political fight in Washington over purchase of 40 US-made F-15s -- as it had to over the sale of AWACS planes in 1981.
Oman has announced it will establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The US maintains a vital military presence in that Gulf state, and the move is seen as a setback for Washington.
These factors may be one reason that President Reagan, on the eve of the King's visit, finally asked Congress to approve up to $1.9 billion in advanced fighter planes and other weaponry for Jordan. The arms sale is billed mostly as a show of support for Hussein's efforts to achieve a peace settlement with Israel.
For his part, Hussein, responding to administration urgings, has taken a significant step to satisfy the lawmakers' requirement that arms sales be linked to a firm commitment to begin direct talks with Israel. He told the United Nations last week:
``We are prepared to negotiate, under appropriate auspices, with the government of Israel, promptly and directly, under the basic tenets of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.'' These resolutions, calling for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory in return for secure borders, are deemed fundamental to any peace negotiation.
The President, however, still faces a tough fight on Capitol Hill. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says Hussein still has not done enough to meet congressional conditions. And pro-Israeli groups are lobbying hard to block the arms sales -- pressures that will be hard for lawmakers to resist with the 1986 elections coming up.
The American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the dominant lobbying group, has said that until Hussein takes ``an irrevocable step toward peace, it is certainly not the time to sell him lethal military equipment.''
Middle East experts say the implications of the Saudi move have yet to be fully understood by members of Congress who habitually back the pro-Israel position of opposing such sales.
For instance, more than half of the planes being supplied by Britain are attack bombers. They will also be based at Tabuk, the Saudi base closest to Israel. The American planes would have been based where they had limited attack capability.
``The implications for the US are disastrous,'' says Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on the Middle East military balance. ``I don't believe there's any serious possibility that Saudi Arabia will attack Israel. But we have ended up with a situation where Britain is selling 72 aircraft, 48 of which have limited air-defense capability and are designed for long-range attack missions.''
``AIPAC has done more damage to Israel in the last three months in terms of the political and military consequences than is imaginable,'' says Mr. Cordesman.
It is estimated that loss of the Saudi sale could cost the US up to $12 billion in exports, training, and spare parts. Concern is also expressed that compatability between the US and Saudi air forces will be diminished.
Administration officials and independent experts say that King Hussein critically needs the $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion in weapons that the US would supply over a period of five years.
Jordan, for instance, has 103 aging combat aircraft as compared with 650 for Syria and 640 for Israel. It also has 14 Hawk surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers compared with 130 units for Syria and 45 for Israel. Jordan's SAMs, moreover, are fixed units and therefore vulnerable to attack.
Among the arms sought by Jordan are 40 F-15 or F-20 advanced fighters; 12 mobile improved Hawk surface-to-air missile batteries with support equipment; 72 Stinger shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and 36 reloads; and 300 AIM-9P4 infrared air-to-air missiles. Total cost would be between $1.5 billion and $1.9 billion, depending on which aircraft Jordan chooses. Deliveries would not begin for about four years.
Controversy over the sales could linger for some time. Even if the President wins the battle and Congress authorizes the sales, lawmakers could refuse to appropriate funds for whatever financing is required.
Approval, however, would give the administration time to push forward the peace process and try to make some progress.
Diplomatic experts say it is difficult for Hussein to go forward with the process without showing there is a balance in US ties to Israel and Jordan.
But the whole issue of arms is now embroiled in domestic politics. Republican legislators clearly are worried that if they support the sales, this could hurt GOP chances for keeping control of the Senate. Democrats, in turn, see an opportunity to score gains by a firm pro-Israel position.