WHY? The question about the rationale for the US arms shipments to Iran persists even after the administration decided to ``go public.'' President Reagan, his previous and present national-security advisers, and other top officials have given reasons. But it was at an early-morning press breakfast with the President's chief of staff, Donald Regan, that it became clear that the President's preoccupation with the hostages was the underlying motivation. ``Every single morning the President asked about efforts to free the hostages,'' Mr. Regan said.
Regan never abandoned the administration's theme: that the arms swap was primarily in exchange for Iran's ``working against terrorism'' and to establish a relationship with a nation that is vital in Western and international commerce and that borders the USSR.
But when the thrust of the questions continued to show skepticism over the ``establishment-of-a-relationship'' theme, instead finding the release of hostages a more credible explanation, Regan said:
``Well, you are entitled to your own opinion on this. But I ask you: What's a human life worth? It's a big joke as to what we are doing. We are being scorned for this. But again, what's a human life worth?'' He paused.
``If you are taken, if one of your relatives is taken, what would you have us do? Sit at the head of government of the United States and say, `Look, we won't even talk to you about those hostages'?
``The President is a man of compassion. ... You have all of the families saying, `Please, Mr. President, you have to do something.' We're branded as being callous. We don't give a darn about these hostages. ... But when you try to do something to get the hostages out, then immediately: `Ah, you are swapping human flesh. You are indulging in some sort of nefarious practice.' I ask you, `Think it through. What would you have us do in our position?'''
Regan was asked, ``Doesn't that suggest a little preoccupation with six people when the foreign policy of the United States was involved?''
``That's a [very] good thing that we have a President that has that in mind. You can rest assured that if you were ever taken hostage that this government's behind you. ... The question just came up here, `Jack [Jack Nelson, Los Angeles Times bureau chief], if they did take you hostage, would I go to bat for you?''' (Laughter.)
A journalist asked if the President and his advisers had considered the damage that would come from disclosure of the secret operation. ``Yes,'' Regan replied. ``But it is one of the risks you take. If you don't take risks, you can never have a bold foreign policy. You would have a foreign policy that was strictly defensive and run by Senate or House committees. I submit that a strong executive branch and a strong chief executive could not allow that to happen.''
Several questions centered on why the President would change his policy on not dealing with terrorist countries. ``In this case,'' said Regan, ``the President decided to bend his policy in a minimal amount in order to achieve a greater objective. ... For us a relationship [with Iran] is a necessity. To get that relationship started, we did something unusual. Illegal, no; unusual, yes. Will it affect the outcome of the [Iran-Iraq] war in any way? Will it be destroying our neutrality? No.'' But to reporters assessing Regan's performance as they left the breakfast, the important divulgence, intended or not, was that the underlying motive for the decision to explore a relationship with Iran was a perceived opportunity to get the hostages out.
In relating an extended and persistent Reagan administration effort to win the release of the hostages over the past months, Regan said: ``All of these channels, maybe a dozen or more, have been thoroughly explored in order to see whether any of them would lead us to the hostages. ... At times, we thought we were on the verge of success; and then, for one reason or another, an effort did not prove fruitful.''
Regan never gave up on his thesis - that establishing a relationship with Iran was the main reason for the operation. But he left the impression that this was a compassionate President who, if he erred in bending his foreign policy, had done it for deeply human reasons.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.