The first assessment of the Reagan administration's policy toward Iran has come in from a key committee in the new, Democratic-controlled Senate. It is, predictably, extremely critical.
More importantly, it signals that the White House must now reckon with a Senate that is ready to take issue with it on a broad range of foreign policy questions - and to exact a measure of revenge for the years of Republican control that produced only muted criticism of Reagan policies.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday, called to examine the foreign policy implications of arms sales to Iran and the possible diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan contras, Sen. Daniel J. Evans (R) of Washington, remarked: ``I feared that when these hearings were scheduled they would turn into what they have apparently turned into'' - a fiercely partisan contest. ``We've fired a lot of shot and shell,'' said Senator Evans. ``Both sides are responsible for it.''
To this, committee chairman Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island responded, ``Any Senator is free ... to say what he wants.''
Former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was the first witness in the first of a number of sessions, stretching over the coming months.
Mr. Vance criticized the Iran arms sales as ill-conceived, inappropriate, and bungled. He said it was ``naive in the extreme'' to turn over weapons to Iran without even securing one of the key United States objectives: the release of American hostages held in the Middle East.
Although acknowledging the need to be willing to hold discussions with Iran, which he termed a vitally strategic country, he criticized virtually every aspect of the arms sales. They undercut US credibility, he argued, since the US was at the time pressuring other countries not to provide arms to either side in the Iran-Iraq conflict.
He also said the arms sales appeared to have been conducted in a way designed to deliberately circumvent the US Congress and other elements within the administration that might have raised questions about the operation.
Vance argued that the National Security Council, which spearheaded the arms sales and oversaw the secret contacts with Iran, should never have been involved in executing foreign policy or conducting covert operations, since it lacked the authority and expertise. And he criticized the heavy involvement of ``private individuals'' - among them retired military officers - in foreign policy initiatives that seem to have had the tacit blessing of the White House.
Sen. Paul S. Trible (R) of Virginia, suggested that President Carter had, however, agreed to supply arms to Iran in 1980 to secure the release of American hostages held at the US Embassy in Tehran. Another Republican, Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, noted that three hostages were released, thus the provision of arms to Iran could be counted as ``at least a partial success.''
The Democrats were having none of that. Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D) of Nebraska argued, ``Some of my colleagues are tempted to blame this sad event on Jimmy Carter, just as they tried to blame everything else on Jimmy Carter,'' and accused Senator Trible of selectively using information about Carter's policies in a misleading manner.
Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts argued that Republicans Trible and Murkowski ``seem to be trying to put the gloss of legitimacy'' on the Reagan administration's actions in supplying arms to Iran.
Vance, who is an attorney, suggested that a number of federal laws may have broken in arranging the arms transfers.
While most of his criticism was reserved for the National Security Council, under direct questioning Vance also implicitly criticized the conduct of Secretary of State George Shultz, who has been at pains to distance himself from the controversy.
If a secretary of state finds that the president supports a policy which he personally strongly opposes, said Vance, ``then the secretary should resign.
``I think it's inappropriate for a sitting cabinet officer to criticize the president,'' he said.
Senator Pell, although avoiding polemics, was blunt in his assessment of the impact of the arms sales. ``The confidence of friends and allies in America's leadership has been shaken, and the administration's ability to advance American interests both in and outside the Gulf region may have been severely impaired,'' he said.