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Iran arms deals not likely to damage US-Israel ties. Key question is which country urged the sales

Relations between the United States and Israel are not expected to suffer as a result of the widening probe of secret efforts to send US arms to Iran and funds to the Nicaraguan contras. Israeli officials are concerned that the Reagan administration may try to make Israel a scapegoat in the affair. But disclosures of the administration's own involvement in the Iran-contra operation and reports that other nations have secretly violated the US arms embargo against Iran are expected to blunt the impact of growing criticism of Israel's role in the covert White House effort.

In the absence of new evidence linking Israel or Israeli citizens to arms profiteering, analysts say, it is unlikely this latest rough spot in relations between the two longtime friends will inflict any permanent damage.

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``Given the information we have now, I would not see any real impact on relations,'' says one State Department official.

The probe of the Iran-contra affair has led to disclosures of a secret Israeli policy of shipping US arms and spare parts to Iran, both with and without US authorization. The evidence suggests that such shipments have taken place throughout the six-year Iran-Iraq war.

As early as May 1982, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon confirmed that Israel was shipping arms to Iran. Later that year, then-Israeli ambassador to the US Moshe Arens said in a Boston Globe interview that Israel had made shipments of US spare parts to Iran. He stressed that the shipments were made in coordination with the US government ``at almost the highest levels.''

In 1981, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig gave the Israelis secret approval to ship US arms to Iran, according to a recent Washington Post report. Such permission would have been in violation of the US embargo against Iran, and of US legal restrictions on re-export of US arms and spare parts to third countries. Mr. Haig has denied granting the permission.

Israeli officials have justified arms shipments, in part, as a means of cultivating ties with moderates in Iran.

The same rationale was offered by American officials as justification for US involvement in secret arms shipments to Iran via Israel in 1985 and 1986.

One key unanswered question in the current Iran-contra controversy is whether the decision to send arms to Iran in 1985 and 1986 was made as a result of Israeli urging or whether US officials persuaded the Israelis to participate.

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``Some Israeli like [former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry David] Kimche may have taken the initial steps,'' speculates Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national-security adviser. ``But there may have been a strong temptation on the US side to move in that direction as well, and the two intersected and fed each other.''

There are also suggestions that the United States felt compelled to take over the secret arms shipments after disclosures that private Israeli arms dealers had angered Iran by sending obsolete arms in shipments that were intended to bring about the the release of American hostages.

Another major issue is whether the Israeli government was directly involved in funneling profits from the Iranian arms deals into a secret Swiss bank account reportedly used to support rebel groups operating in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Israel has denied involvement. But statements made by President Reagan and Attorney General Edwin Meese suggest otherwise.

One Israeli source says his country does not fear any ``apocalyptical developments'' as a result of the Iran-contra affair, such as a move in Congress to trim the nearly $4 billion in US aid that annually goes to Israel.

``Relations are too elaborate, strong, and interdependent to collapse because of an incident like this,'' says Avner Yaniv, a professor of government at the University of Haifa and visiting professor at Georgetown University.

But Professor Yaniv says many Israelis are concerned that reports of a sustained Israeli arms relationship with Iran could be used to sow seeds of discord between the two countries.

``The real concern is that Israel's name could become entangled with too many bad businesses,'' Yaniv says. ``It creates the impression of something devious, ruthless, ambitious.''

The other danger seen by Israeli officials is that as pressure over the Iran operation increases, Reagan administration officials could be tempted to deflect criticism away from themselves and toward Israel. If that happens, the result could be a cycle of recrimination that could hurt both countries.

The possibilities of what one Middle East expert calls a ``family feud'' were hinted at Tuesday when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir rejected US charges that Israel helped to channel money to the contras.

``I think there is some nervousness. There are a lot of factual questions that need to be answered,'' concedes one aide on Capitol Hill, commenting on congressional reaction to Israel's involvement in selling arms to Iran.

But this source agrees it is unlikely that congressional misgivings will translate into moves to distance the US from Israel, which for years has been the US's principal strategic partner in the Middle East.

Other analysts note that the US-Israeli relationship has weathered a number of other recent crises that potentially were far more damaging. They cite, for instance, the case of Jonathan Jay Pollard, an analyst for the US Navy who pleaded guilty last June to passing classified information to Israeli intelligence agents.

The Israeli press has sought to downplay Israel's role in the Iran-contra affair. Articles published in Israel have argued that an estimated $50 million-to-$100 million in arms sales over several years have had a minimal effect on the Iran-Iraq war.

Israeli sources also emphasize that other countries have sold arms to Iran, in violation of the US embargo.

``Everyone from China to Saudi Arabia to Brazil has been trying to gain from the miseries of the Iran-Iraq war,'' says Avner Yaniv.

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