In an abrupt change of course yesterday, the Carter administration temporarily held up the shipment of General Electric gas turbine engines ordered by the Iraqi navy.
State Department spokesman Jack Cannon said the decision was a result of the U.S. desire to remain neutral on the Iraq-Iran war. He said the sale would be reviewed after tension had been reduced in the region.
Late Wednesday, the administration said that the Iraq-Iran fighting did not effect its controversial decision to permit the shipment of eight turbines to power frigates that will be the largest ships in Iraq's navy.
The policy change came after administration officials learned that Sen. Richard Stone (D-Fla.), a leading critic of the sale, was going to use a morning TV program to make his case against shipping the engines.
"I'm very gratified that they have suspended the sale," Stone said. "I believe it would be counterproductive. It would heighten the risks to our oil supply and the risks to our hostages [in Iran]."
House and Senate conferees were to have met yesterday morning to consider a Stone-sponsored amendment that would block the sale. The Senate has passed Stone's amendment; the House has not. However, the conference was canceled because the senators were assured in an administration-arranged briefing on the Iraq-Iran war that there is no immediate threat to U.S. oil supplies.
The United States continued to consult with its allies yesterday in efforts to find ways to safeguard the West's Persian Gulf oil supplies and to bring an end to the fighting.
Because the Congress will recess next week, Stone said, the conferees will not have a chance to consider blocking the sale permanently until Congress reconvenes after the election. Before that, Stone said, there will be enough time for all the engines to be shipped.
Two of the eight jet-style engines were shipped in September, and two more were to be shipped next week. The eight engines, which cost $11.2 million, are to be installed on ships built for Iraq in Italy.
The first of the frigates will not be opertional for at least a year, but when the frigates join Iraq's fleet, they will give Iraq the potential to dominate the Strait of Hormuz, the vital channel through which all tankers carrying Persian Gulf oil pass.
Stone, Reps. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.), Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.) and other opponents of the sale have argued that Iraq should be denied the engines because it supports international terrorism.
The administration denied that there was any connection between Stone's scheduled appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America" and its change of mind.
After tentatively scheduling Stone as its guest, "Good Morning America" called the White House to invite someone from the administration to defend the sale on the air or provide a comment to rebut Stone. The White House declined. The program decided Stone alone would not be "a viable segment," according to Peter Heller, a spokesman for the program, so the senator was told late Wednesday evening that he would not appear.
Stone said he had no quarrel with ABC's decision, but he found it interesting that a press inquiry had trigered a change of policy.
The sale was approved initially last January, but after congressional protest, the sale was delayed and reviewed by the State Department. The approval was confirmed in August. Some administration officials said it was important to the preservation of friendly relations with Italy, where the frigates are being built.
The administration blocked a sale of five Boeing jets to Iraq after Iraqi diplomats were accused of involvement in terrorist incidents in West Berlin and Austria last July.
"The U.S. should not be supplying equipment with military use to Iraq," Stone said. "It is a country which supports international terroism and instigated the present fighting with Iran, which is a threat to the stability of the region and to international oil supplies.
"This sale should never have been approved in the first place and it should be permanently revoked now."
The high-level military-civilian briefing for senators yesterday stressed that there is no immediate energy problem as a result of the Iraq-Iran war.
However, the threat that the war could widen and interfere with the oil supplies to the West led senators to call for a faster build-up of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) said, "We must fill the reserve as soon as is prudently possible."
In a Senate speech, Jackson called for the United States and its allies to develop a joint policy toward the Middle East fighting and the problems of maintaining adequate oil supplies.