The White House has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to produce a worldwide study of Moslem religious movements in the wake of the Islamic revolt that helped drive the shah of Iran from his country this week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was told yesterday.
Administration officials disclosed at a closed-door committee hearing that Zbigniew Brzezinski, the president's national security adviser, ordered the study. These officials emphasized that the existence of the request was considered highly sensitive by the administration, because of the growing political impact of Moslem fundamentalism in many areas of the world.
The Carter administration is being charged in Congress and elsewhere with a major intelligence failure in discounting the strength and importance of the Iranian protest, which was spearheaded by Moslem religious leaders.
In other testimony at the hearing, the State Department's top Middle East expert, Assistant Secretary Harold H. Saunders, was reported by participants to have voiced what is believed to be the administration's first direct criticism of Saudi Arabia for not supporting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's effort to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Under questioning from the committee chairman, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), Saunders reportedly said that the administration was dissatisfied with an ambiguous attitude in the Saudi royal family toward Sadat and voiced hope that it would change.
After being told of the summary of Saunders' statement obtained by The Washington Post, Church said: "I would hope the administration is beginning to take the blinders off. We have tiptoed around Saudi Arabia long enough."
At the same time, the administration is pushing ahead with plans for a visit here next month by Saudi Crown Prince Fahd, who led the Saudi delegation to the Baghdad Arab summit in November. The Egyptian media have portrayed Sadat as feeling "betrayed" by Fahd's performance at Baghdad.
State Department spokesman Tom Reston said yesterday that a standing invitation for a visit by Fahd exists but no definite date has been set.
Members of the Senate committee echoed a concern raised Thursday in a House International Relations subcommittee. The potential loss of two Central Intelligence Agency listening stations in northern Iran that monitor Soviet ballistic missile tests, they said, could harm the administration's chances of Senate approval for a strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) with Moscow.
The head of the CIA's analysis division, Robert R. Bowie, confirmed at the House hearing that one of the stations has been dismantled, but said the other is still functioning, according to subcommittee members. Loss of both stations would "lower confidence" in U.S. intelligence on Soviet missile launches, Bowie said, but would not be a crucial loss since the information obtained by the stations was already being gathered by other means.
The Senate and House panels concentrated much of their questioning on the reported failure of the CIA and U.S. diplomats in Iran to make contact with members of the shah's political and religious opposition because of the monarch's sensitivities.
In testifying before the House subcommittee Wednesday, Saunders said that restrictions on contact with the Iranian opposition would have come from the U.S. ambassadors in Tehran and not from the State Department. He acknowledged, however, that "there were relatively few contacts with religious elements" in Iran.
Brzezinski is reportedly determined not to allow the political impact of Moslem fundamentalism in such potential crisis points as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt and the Philippines to go unreported in the future. He has formally directed the intelligence community to produce an in-depth study of this phenomenon.
The leading symbol of opposition to the shah throughout the past year of protests has been the exiled religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He is now seen as representing the major threat to the government of Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar that the shah installed before leaving Iran "on vacation" Tuesday.
Saunders and Undersecretary of State David Newsom made more explicit at yesterday's hearing than they have in public the administration's evident decision to try to shore up Bakhtiar's government but not to become so identified with it that Khomeini's followers will seek revenge against the United States if the ayotollah eventually wins the power struggle.
The administration's position "seemed realistic," Church said. "They seem prepared to roll with the punches and hope that our influence can contribute to the emergence of a government prepared to follow a reasonably moderate course in its relations with the West and its neighbors." Another source who heard the presentation said the administration has decided "to go with the flow of events."
Asked about the report of the White House ordering an intelligence study of Moslem fundamentalism, Church said that after "the intelligence failure" in Iran, "I have to wonder if we are competent to manage an intelligence gathering program on anything."
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Iranian embassy in Washington said that Iran's new foreign minister, Ahmed Mir Fendereski, cabled the embassy yesterday with a denial of statements made in Tehran and here that Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi has resigned.
The telegram confirmed Zahedi in his post, according to the spokesman, who said that Zahedi had left Washington yesterday without telling his staff where he was going.
Zahedi has been in Texas and California for much of this week visiting members of the shah's family and preparing for the Iranian monarch's expected arrival in California next week. The shah remained in Egypt yesterday.