President Reagan withdrew a proposed $360-million sale of sophisticated anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia Thursday in the face of overwhelming congressional opposition sparked by concern for Israel and unhappiness with both the Saudis and the Administration.
The decision followed a similar pullback three weeks ago, when the Administration delayed plans to sell up to $500-million worth of F-15 fighter jets to the Saudis. Congressional opposition at that time stemmed largely from anger about the Saudi air force's failure to intercept the Iraqi jet that attacked a Navy frigate, the Stark, in the Persian Gulf May 17, killing 37 American sailors. But senators said opposition to the missile sale was broader.
The Administration announced that it was dropping the sale of 1,600 Maverick missiles shortly before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was scheduled to vote on a resolution to block the deal.
Plans to Resubmit Proposal
President Reagan, in a statement issued from the economic summit in Venice, said he regretted having to withdraw the proposed sale and planned to consult with lawmakers and resubmit the proposal after he returns to Washington tonight.
The action, "precipitated by Congress, sends exactly the wrong signal" to Saudi Arabia, "our staunchest ally in the (Persian) Gulf in resisting Soviet efforts to establish a presence in the Middle East," the President complained.
The sponsors of the resolution blocking the deal, Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), had predicted lopsided approval of the measure and said there were sufficient votes in the full Senate and House to override any presidential veto.
Pleased by Decision
"The Administration hasn't made very many wise decisions lately, but they made a good one today when they backed off from a bad idea," Cranston said.
Allying himself with the liberal Cranston in what he dryly called "the widest political wingspread in history," conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) agreed that "the Administration is reacting wisely to the arithmetic staring them in the face on this question."
The Administration, which informed Congress May 29 of its intention to sell the Maverick missiles and related services and equipment, could have proceeded with the sale June 28 unless Congress passed a law prohibiting it.
The Administration contends that the Saudis need the air-to-ground missiles, which have an improved infrared guidance system and are designed primarily as anti-tank weapons, to protect against attacks primarily from Iran.
Cranston objected that the missiles would threaten Israel--"our only certain friend and democracy in the region"--and both he and Helms complained that Saudi Arabia had resisted efforts to reach a Middle East peace agreement.
Sen. Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.), a supporter of the sale, said he thought that the attack on the Stark had "poisoned the atmosphere," inciting congressional opposition to the deal. However, Packwood and Cranston claimed that it had minimal effect.
Evans also criticized the strong influence of pro-Israel groups on Congress and lamented the many confrontations between Congress and Presidents Reagan and Jimmy Carter over arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
"This is a hell of a way to run foreign policy," Evans declared in calling for closer consultation between the two branches of government.
Administration officials said the President hopes that, by consulting with lawmakers, he will be able to win enough support to push the sale through. In his statement, Reagan made a point of saying he was withdrawing the proposal only "temporarily . . . because of strong congressional opposition." He pledged to "undertake additional consultations with Congress and resubmit the necessary notifications at the earliest possible date."
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas said he believed the incident "should be a lesson, that I hope will be learned, that sometimes it pays to consult (with Congress) ahead of time."
Richard W. Murphy, assistant secretary of state in charge of Middle East policy, said that being forced to drop planned arms sales would have a costly impact on U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors.
"It raises questions about our credibility and our reliability," he told the House Armed Services Committee at a hearing.
Murphy also denied charges that the missiles pose a threat to Israel, and he said that Saudi Arabia has been unjustly accused over its response to the Stark incident.
"The fact is the Saudis performed their assigned mission," which was to defend the U.S. AWACS surveillance plane in the area, Murphy said. "We've never asked the Saudis to defend our ships."