WASHINGTON -- Soon after taking office in 1981, the Reagan administration secretly and abruptly changed U.S. policy and allowed Israel to sell several billion dollars' worth of U.S.-made arms, spare parts and ammunition to the Iranian government, according to former senior Reagan administration officials and Israeli officials.
The flow of arms began only a few months after the American hostages seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 were released on Inauguration Day in 1981.
The United States authorized Israel to make the sales to Iran for a period that by different accounts ran from six to 18 months. But the United States watched them continue after the reported authorization was rescinded, even as the Reagan administration aggressively promoted a public campaign, known as Operation Staunch, to stop worldwide transfers of military goods to Iran.
Occasional published reports since 1981 have linked Israel to the sale of some U.S.-made arms and spare parts to Iran in the early 1980s, but no U.S. government authority for those sales has been publicly demonstrated before now.
The change in policy came before the Iranian-sponsored seizure of U.S. hostages in Lebanon began in 1982 and preceded the White House trading of arms for hostages in the Iran-contra affair.
In the early 1980s, Iran was in dire need of arms and spare parts for its U.S.-made arsenal to defend itself against Iraq, which had attacked it in September 1980. Israel was interested in keeping the war between Iran and Iraq going to ensure that these two potential enemies remained preoccupied with each other.
No U.S. rationale for permitting covert arms sales to Iran could be established. Disclosure of the Reagan administration's agreement with Israel comes as Congress prepares to begin investigations into continuing allegations that Reagan campaign officials made a deal with the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the fall of 1980.
In the months before the presidential election, partisans on each side expressed concern that the other would carry out some last-minute deal to free the embassy hostages -- or delay their freedom -- for political gain. To both camps that became known as the "October surprise."
In recent months attention has been focused on an "October surprise" scenario holding that the Reagan team made a deal with the Iranians to delay the release of the hostages until after the election.
A New York Times inquiry over the past three months involving interviews with more than 100 present and former government officials, arms dealers, intelligence agents and others with direct knowledge of aspects of the operation found no link between the Israeli arms sales to Iran in the early 1980s and "October surprise" allegations.
The inquiry did show that Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel worked out an agreement in 1981 under which the United States would review and approve Iranian requests to Israel for U.S.-made spare parts and other equipment on a case-by-case basis.
The administration rescinded that agreement in the spring of 1982, senior U.S. and Israeli officials recalled, after Mr. Haig and his aides concluded that Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was selling U.S.-made materiel without Washington's permission.
Asked for comment, Sherwood Goldberg, a longtime adviser to Mr. Haig, issued the following statement: "At no time did Alexander Haig authorize shipment of U.S. equipment from Israel to Iran, and any inference to the contrary is categorically wrong."
But Maj. Gen. Avraham Tamir, a high-ranking Israeli Defense Ministry official in 1981 who later served as director-general of the Foreign Ministry, remembered the arms dealings.
"Every month we gave a list of American weapons and American spare parts we'd like to sell to Iran," he said in a telephone interview last week.
As General Tamir recalled it, the "oral agreement" remained in effect for at least 18 months, and in that time typed lists of requests were given to Samuel W. Lewis, who was then U.S. ambassador to Israel.
"In the years 1981 and 1982, weapons with U.S. components were sold to Iran based on an understanding with Secretary Haig," General Tamir said. "Then it was stopped. And then arms traders from around the world -- some were Israelis, Americans, English -- continued to sell."
He added that those continued sales of American-made arms to Iran totaled billions of dollars.
A former senior U.S. diplomat confirmed General Tamir's account, with several modifications.
In the beginning of 1981, he said, "there was an agreement that Haig reached that they could send certain spare parts" to Iran after a review in Washington.
"Sharon violated it, and Haig backed away," the former official said. "It was a sore point in the administration."
The former official also said the agreement lasted no longer than six months before the United States canceled it.
But even after the official agreement was broken off, U.S. officials said, the administration made no effort to curb what became a steadily increasing flow of U.S.-made arms from Israel to Iran.
"We were getting literally daily reports of Israeli sales to Iran," a former high-level Reagan administration intelligence official said. "It was so routine I didn't think twice about it. It was pretty clear that all the key players knew."
The Reagan administration continued to replenish Israel's stockpile of U.S.-made weapons.
At the height of the program, former Israeli officials said, the Israeli government covertly chartered a large number of cargo ships, registered in Denmark and Liberia. They carried arms between the ports of Eilat in Israel and Bandar Abbas in Iran.
Chartered aircraft from Argentina, Ireland and the United States were also used to fly U.S.-made arms to Israel and, in some cases, directly to Tehran.
According to former Israeli government officials, some flights carrying U.S. arms for Iran originated from a covert air base near Tucson, Ariz., known as Marana Air Park.
For years, the CIA has used Marana for secret arms shipments. In the mid-1980s, CIA operatives and others used the field for the secret program to resupply the Nicaraguan rebels during the years that Congress had barred aid to the contras.
Ari Ben Menashe, a former Israeli intelligence operative, said that Israel had also established an undercover office in New York City to direct the covert purchases of U.S.-made military equipment for resale to Iran.
Among the weapons bought, other officials said, were some of the most advanced arms in the U.S. arsenal, including Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, Lance surface-to-surface missiles, TOW anti-tank missiles and armor-piercing shells. Under U.S. law, Israel was not permitted to resell weapons of this sort without approval from Washington.