President Reagan, moving to complete his controversial sale of AWACS jets to Saudi Arabia, sent a letter to Congress on Wednesday asserting that the Saudis have been a forceful advocate of peace in the Middle East and that they have met "all conditions" necessary to allow delivery of the sophisticated radar surveillance aircraft beginning later this month.
Supporters of Israel on Capitol Hill are expected to stage a vociferous protest, but it is unlikely that they will be able to prevent the transfer. Under the conditions of the sale set forth in October, 1981, Reagan does not need congressional permission to proceed.
Earlier this month, Reagan prevailed by only one vote in a hotly contested Senate debate over the sale of $265 million worth of missiles to Saudi Arabia. This time, however, it appears that the Administration will be spared another major political confrontation.
Officials for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group that led the opposition to the sale of the airborne warning and control system planes, indicated that they do not intend to renew their efforts to halt the transaction. The sale was approved after a bruising political fight.
But directors of the lobbying group issued a statement Wednesday urging Congress "to exercise its oversight function to ensure that all the terms . . . are carried out."
The group also called for firm assurances that the sophisticated technology "is secure and that it will be used in the best interest of the United States"--and it asked specifically that it not be used in "a manner hostile to Israel."
In his statement of certification to Congress, Reagan said that a detailed plan for the security of all surveillance equipment has been agreed to by the United States and Saudi Arabia. It includes both on-site inspection by the United States and a pledge to share "continuously and completely" the information acquired by the AWACS planes, he said.
U.S. Permission Required
In addition, it prohibits the use of the planes outside Saudi Arabia without the United States' permission.
"By contributing to the self-defense of these countries, we are diminishing the likelihood of direct intervention by U.S. forces in defense of vital Western interests," Reagan concluded in his letter, citing the Saudis' "obvious lack of aggressive intent" and their use of the aircraft in ensuring free passage of critical shipping lanes.
The more controversial aspects of Reagan's certification concerned his assertions that Saudi Arabia has made "substantial" contributions to the region's peace process and that it has taken "practical actions to oppose terrorism regardless of its origins."
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who recently led the unsuccessful effort to block the missile sale, strongly disputed Reagan's claim that the Saudis have helped further the peace process. He charged instead that they have "bankrolled" terrorists in the region, have shunned Egypt for signing its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and still refuse to conduct business with companies that deal with Israel.
"Actions speak louder than words, and the words of the President's certification have a very hollow ring," Cranston said. "The Administration has proved itself very adept at certifying the uncertifiable."
At the same time, opponents of the sale acknowledged that they have no plans to introduce legislation to block the transfer--a move that would likely fail.
The first plane is due to be shipped June 30, with four additional aircraft scheduled for delivery before March, 1987. The cost of the package is $3.5 billion, which includes a three-year supply of spare parts, plus training and technical support provided by U.S. personnel.
The Saudis have paid for the package in full, a fact that White House officials expect to help keep opposition to a minimum. "It's basically un-American and unfair to tell an ally they can't have something they've already paid for," said one official, requesting anonymity.
Reagan's three-page letter to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) also stressed the threat of the continuing Iran-Iraq War to U.S. interests in the Middle East. He said that American AWACS planes have proven their ability over the last five years to detect approaching Iranian aircraft well before they would be detected by ground-based radar. Saudi Arabia has been using five AWACS planes that belong to the United States.
Times staff writers Rudy Abramson and Sara Fritz contributed to this story.