Israel plays down role in Iran affair

Israeli officials are expressing satisfaction that so far Israel's role in the Reagan administration's secret contacts with Iran has received little attention from the press or angry congressmen. Privately, Israeli officials, visiting New York over the weekend with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, voiced concern that some press reports have credited Israel with conceiving the scheme to supply spare parts to Iran.

The officials do not deny the reports, but they are anxious that Israel not be blamed for influencing the United States' pursuit of an initiative now widely condemned as having damaged America's credibility with its European allies and moderate Arab states.

During his week-long visit that ended Saturday, Mr. Peres repeatedly stressed that any Israeli involvement in the Reagan administration's overtures to Tehran was motivated purely by a desire to help the US free American hostages held in Lebanon. (Reagan's method of dealing with Iran draws fire at home. Story, Page 3.)

The official line seeks to emphasize Israel's role as willing helper to the US, and to play down any benefits to Israel from gaining US approval for delivering arms to Iran. Such benefits, Israeli officials concede, could have been substantial, both economically and geostrategically.

Several officials expressed surprise and regret that President Reagan, in explaining the Iran affair, said arms deliveries were made for strategic reasons, in hopes of boosting ``moderate'' elements in the revolutionary Iranian regime.

``To say that all this was for strategic purposes, even if it was, is a bad idea because it kills the very strategic benefits you were seeking to gain by discrediting the moderates,'' one Israeli source said. ``The President should simply have said that this was a humanitarian issue, that the exchange of arms for hostages was necessary to secure the release of the Americans.''

The officials admit that Israel has long believed that both Israel and the US have compelling strategic interests in reestablishing some level of relations with Iran.

Israeli leaders have argued that Iran, sitting astride the Persian Gulf, is too important to ignore. In a 1985 book, Aaron Klieman, a Tel Aviv University political scientist, argued that the origins of extensive secret relations, begun with Iran by Israel in the 1950s, ``had been positive and rested upon permanent geopolitical foundations.''

Israel's goals in developing a working relationship with Iran's former Shah, Mr. Klieman said, included ``resisting Soviet encroachment in the area, frustrating Iraqi expansionism, checking radical terrorism ... and bolstering moderate Arab regimes like those in Egypt and Jordan.''

These goals paralleled those of the US until the Shah's 1979 overthrow and the advent of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalist regime.

Under anti-Zionist Khomeini, it initially appeared that Israel had no hope of maintaining ties with Tehran. But the Iran-Iraq war, which erupted in 1980, forced Iran to search for arms and spare parts wherever it could find them. And it gave Israel new reasons for wanting to supply them. Israeli analysts say the continuation of the Gulf war serves Israeli interests by distracting attention of Arab states from Israel. Also it ties down Iraq, long considered by Israel to be one of its most dangerous foes in the region.

But Israel's interests in maintaining contacts with Iran ran into opposition from the US, Klieman said in an interview this week. The US had an official policy of neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war, although in recent years it was seen to be tilting toward Iraq as the threat from Iran was perceived to be growing.

``There was a lot of tension between 1982 and 1984,'' Klieman said. Reagan administration pressure on Israel to stop weapons supplies to Iran grew so great, Israeli officials say, that in 1984, then-Prime Minister Peres stopped them.

Israeli officials do not deny that the Reagan adminstration's about face in 1985, in supplying arms to Iran, allowed Israel to resume a policy it always believed to be in its strategic intersts. They say that the prevailing view remains that Israel should maintain contacts with the Iranian military establishment and other elements with a view to improving relations after the Ayatollah Khomeini leaves the scene.

From that perspective, winning American backing for supplying spare parts to Iran was a diplomatic coup. Arms were seen as a low-risk investment with a possibily large payoff, the officials say.

Klieman writes in his book that conservative estimates put annual trade between Israel and Iran in the final years before the Shah's overthrow at roughly $200 million. When Khomeini came to power and severed contacts with Israel, the contraction in Israel's defense industries was so severe that hundreds of people were laid off. Restoration of some ties with Iran offered Israel economic, in addition to strategic, benefits.

The reasons for seeking US approval and participation in renewing contacts with Iran could boomerang badly, Israeli analysts agree, now that the secret relations have been revealed and denounced across the US political spectrum. Rather than enhancing Israel's regional strategic interests, they say, the Iranian arms delivery may end up damaging Israel's overriding interest in appearing as a strategic asset to the US.

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