The Reagan Administration on Saturday insisted that China is supplying anti-ship HY-2 Silkworm missiles to Iran, notwithstanding Beijing's denial that it is doing so. President Reagan's national security adviser said that Iran already has more than 20 of the weapons, with more due to be delivered by China.
At the same time, Frank C. Carlucci, Reagan's assistant for national security affairs, warned Iran against attacking American ships, which he said would defend themselves. But he refused to indicate whether the United States is considering a preemptive strike to disable or destroy the missiles.
Carlucci delivered the message in a conversation with reporters while standing in a Vatican courtyard after the President met with Pope John Paul II.
'Concern for Peace'
At the end of the 53-minute meeting, Reagan told the Pope that he joined "with the Holy See in our concern for a world of peace, where armaments are reduced. . . ."
The presidential adviser's remarks on the missiles were the most expansive on-the-record comments made by a senior Administration official since the weapons became a focus of concern in the tense, oil-rich Persian Gulf region.
According to the Reagan Administration, the missiles are expected to be deployed by Iran near the Strait of Hormuz. With a range believed to be 50 miles, they are capable of hitting any target in the strait, which is about 30 miles wide at its narrowest point.
The Strait of Hormuz, a curved passageway at the southern end of the gulf, connects with the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and, eventually, the Indian Ocean. It is the outlet through which much of the crude oil bound for refineries in Western Europe and Japan must pass on the trip from northern gulf ports to open water.
Both the Reagan Administration and the Jimmy Carter Administration have viewed it as a vital waterway. Reagan, like Carter before him, has vowed to keep it open.
Threat by Iran
Iran, at war with Iraq for nearly seven years, has threatened to close the strait militarily to block passage by tankers carrying oil from Iraq's allies in the gulf region to international purchasers and by cargo vessels carrying weapons and other supplies to Iraq.
Kuwait, an ally of Iraq, is arranging to register 11 of its tankers under the U.S. flag to gain the protection of the U.S. Navy as the vessels ply the strait and the gulf.
Sens. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), who recently returned from a tour of the region, have said that among the options under consideration by the United States for dealing with the Silkworm missiles is a pre-emptive strike to put them out of commission. Such a raid could be carried out by air, much as the United States struck ground-to-air missiles sites in Libya in March, 1986, several weeks before the April 15 bombing raid on targets in Tripoli and Benghazi.
Carlucci, standing in the Cortile San Damaso, an elaborate courtyard outside the papal apartments, refused to discuss the possible approaches that the Administration could follow.
Refuses to Speculate
"I don't think it does any good for anybody to speculate on military options at this point," he said.
He added: "We are not threatening anybody in the gulf. What we are doing is escorting U.S. flag vessels. We do not think it would behoove anybody to attack our vessels. They are prepared to defend themselves."
According to Administration officials, the Kuwaiti ships, operating as U.S. vessels, are not expected to begin transit in the volatile region until later this month, with U.S. Navy escorts.
Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the escort operation would not pose a high risk but that "there are no absolute guarantees that such an operation will be casualty-free."
On May 17, the U.S. guided-missile frigate Stark was hit by two French-made Exocet missiles fired by an Iraqi jet. The attack, which Iraq said was a mistake, took the lives of 37 sailors.
Carlucci had said on Air Force One as Reagan flew to Italy on Wednesday that the United States had raised with the Chinese the issue of the sale of the Silkworm missiles.
At the Vatican, Carlucci said that in response to the Administration's protest, the Chinese denied that they were shipping the missiles to Iran.
Asked what he thought of the response, Carlucci said, "They are coming from China."
The national security adviser said the 20 missiles are "getting operational" but that he did not know when they would actually achieve working status.
Reagan is in Italy to attend the annual economic summit conference of the world's seven major industrialized democracies in Venice, beginning Monday.
As Reagan flew to Rome from Venice on Saturday morning, White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. was asked whether a preemptive strike on the Silkworm batteries was planned.
"It's called the Orkin strategy," he joked, referring to the exterminating firm.