President Carter has agreed to sell Jordan 100 advanced U.S. tanks, equipped with night-vision sights, and to consider the sale of an additional 100 tanks at a later date, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Plans for the sale became known as Jordan's King Hussein completed a three-day visit here that was marked by cordial talks with Carter but saw no change in Hussein's refusal to join the U.S.-backed Camp David effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Administration officials insisted, though, that the tank sale had been agreed upon in advance of Hussein's visit and did not represent a blandishment held out by Carter in an effort to make Hussein more cooperative with the Camp David process.
Instead, the officials said, the decision, which was made tentatively in April, resulted from a U.S. judgement that sale of the tanks will not disturb the military balance in the Middle East or pose a threat to Israel's security.
In addition, some sources said, since recent strains in U.S.-Jordanian relations have eroded the traditional U.S. role as Jordan's principal arms supplier, the proposed sale is viewed within the administration as a gesture that will helh the United States to recoup some of its influence with Hussein and his armed forces.
But, despite administration efforts to play down the significance of the tank deal, it seem certain to draw opposition from Israel, which already is alarmed that the United States might accede to a Saudi Arabian demand for weapons and equipment that would increase the offensive power of F15 jet fighters it is buying from the United States.
Defense Secretary Harold Brown will meet the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan, in Geneva next Thursday to discuss the Saudi requests. The confluence of that issue with the Jordanian tank deal could mobilize an attempt by Israel's supporters in Congress to block the sale to Jordan.
The 100 M60A3 tanks have an estimated value of $160 million. Under existing law, a military equipment sale of that magnitude can be halted if both houses of Congress adopt an identical resolution opposing it.
Israeli sources said yesterday that no decision has been made yet about whether to risk Israel's friends in Congress to fight the tank sale. But, the sources added, Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron, who has a previously scheduled lucheon meeting today with Harold Saunders, assistant secretary of state for Mideast affairs, has been instructed to inform Saunders officially of Israel's "strong and serious concern" about the deal with Jordan.
U.S. officials said the administration already has consulted informally with key members of Congress about the tank sale and, having received tentative signs of congressional assent to the deal, plans to send the reguisite formal notice of intent to sell the tanks up to Capitol Hill within the next week.
The officials also confirmed that if the deal goes through without being blocked by Congress, Jordan intends to ask for an additional 100 tanks, which also would be equipped with special night vision and heat-seeking, target-location features.
However, the officials insisted, the administration has committed itself only to discussing the possibility of selling these additional tanks. They added that no decision to sell a second batch of 100 tanks to Jordan will be made without consulting Congress first.
The tank sale caps an on-again, off-again series of negotiations that began in the early 1970s with a U.S. promise to help Jordan modernize its tank corps but that bogged down last year. The trouble was partly a result of Hussein's opposition to the U.S.-mediated Egyptian-Israeli peace talks and partly of U.S. reluctance at the time to provide the night-sighting devices and the number of tanks sought by the jordanians.
Finally, Hussein opted to accept a competing offer by Britain to sell Jordan a reported 250 British Chieftain tanks. U.S. officials said yesterday that the British machines will be the main tank weapon of the Jordanian forces, that the 100 U.S. tanks will be supplemental to the Chieftains and that the combined total of U.S. and British tanks will not lift the strength of the Jordanian forces above a mutually agreed level of 16 mechanized brigades.
In addition, the officials said, the administration had changed its mind about giving Jordan the night-sighting devices because the same equipment now is being provided to the Israeli, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian armed forces and making it available to Jordan as well would not, in the opinion of U.S. strategists, affect the Mideast arms balance.
Hussein, who late yesterday entered Walter Reed Army Hospital for a checkup, gave a luncheon speech to the National Press Club in which he made clear that his talks with Carter had failed to move him from his contention that any Mideast peace must recognize the right of Palestinian self determination and include the participation of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Appealing to "the silent majority" of Americans to back policies that will move the United States away from "partisan support of Israeli expansionism" and "enslavement" of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied Arab territories, Hussein warned that the United States is in danger of losing all support in the Arab world.
Unless the Unites States changes course, he asserted, it will incur "the unjustified alienations of an essentially friendly people, the radicalization of moderates among them, the possible disruption of the normal exchange of interests in the major areas of trade, energy and culture."