New supplies of arms to Iran, reportedly brokered by the United States, are unlikely to change the military balance in the Iran-Iraq war or do permanent damage to US relations with friendly Arab states. But analysts say revelations of a Reagan administration attempt to swap military equipment for Iran's help in gaining the release of American hostages in Lebanon has left the US embarrassed, its policy toward the Persian Gulf confused, and its credibility in the Arab world weakened.
Moreover, by ruffling Syrian sensibilities, news of direct US-Iranian dealings may have indirectly thrown a monkey wrench into a deal to secure the release of the remaining US hostages.
``To be honest, I don't see major long-term implications here in terms of US relations with Iraq,'' one senior Arab diplomat said. He was referring to reports that former US national-security adviser Robert C. McFarlane paid a secret visit to Tehran in September to discuss the alleged arms-for-hostages deal. ``But when it comes to American credibility in the region, I believe it has been damaged.''
``In the short term it could be a severe blow to the US effort at rapprochement with the Iraqi government,'' says Ron Cathell, an expert on Arabian Peninsula matters. ``Over the long term, the Iraqis will just have to wait and see whether the McFarlane trip signifies a change in US policy or merely an anomaly created by the need to get the hostages out. It may be that right now the US is just trying to butter both sides of the bread.''
The US severed diplomatic ties with Iraq after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, then restored them in 1984. US officials say hopes that renewed relations would lead to greater Iraqi support for the Middle East peace process have not been realized. But fearing the consequences of an Iranian victory, the US has tilted toward Iraq in the Gulf war.
News reports yesterday said Mr. McFarlane's September meeting in Tehran plus others held during the past year in Iran and Europe led to arms shipments from Israel that coincided with the release of three American hostages, the Rev. Lawrence Jenco, the Rev. Benjamin Wier, and David P. Jacobsen. Mr. Jacobsen was released last Sunday.
Various sources say freedom was imminent for two remaining hostages until Syria, piqued at not being credited by the US for its help in securing Jacobsen's release, revealed the US-Iranian talks, leading Iranian officials to back away from the arrangement.
The Beirut magazine that first disclosed the McFarlane trip said the emissary traveled to Iran with a shipment of spare parts for US-made tanks and warplanes needed to shore up that nation's critically damaged air defense system. US sources say no US arms were part of the deal but that the US agreed not to discourage shipments of arms to Iran from other countries.
Reagan administration officials have still declined to comment officially on reports of the McFarlane trip.
News that the US may have facilitated arms shipments to Iran came as a major surprise here and abroad, in part because of an eight-year US arms embargo against Iran and because of steady US efforts to convince friends and allies to follow suit.
``We are actively trying to encourage governments with which we have good relations not to sell arms to Iran,'' a US official told the Monitor last week. ``Our goal is to deny Iran the ability to press the war.''
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger told a small group of reporters yesterday that the US still believes that sending arms to Iran could prolongue the Iran-Iraq war, at great cost in human lives and possible risk to moderate Middle East states friendly to US interests.
``It would be very much against our interests for Iran to win that war,'' Secretary Weinberger said, adding that an Iranian victory ``would be very destabilizing in the region.''
Experts say the modest amounts of parts and ammunition that may have reached Iran in exchange for its help in resolving the hostage crisis are probably not enough to affect the balance of military power.