President Reagan's news conference statement that the United States would not permit Saudi Arabia to go the way of Iran was described by aides yesterday as the expression of his long-held and deeply felt views rather than the result of a new round of policymaking about U.S. commitments in the Persian Gulf.
White House officials said Reagan had made virtually the same statement on several occasions in recent weeks in meetings with congressional leaders. An official who participated in the presidential campaign said Reagan has been saying just about the same thing for 18 months.
One presidential aide said Reagan had said the same thing in informal discussion with senior foreign policy operatives of the administration, if not in formal meetings of the National Security Council.
However, an official familiar with Reagan administration studies of policy toward the Persian Gulf said there had been little consideration of U.S. involvement in a Saudi Arabian uprising because officials "don't think it will happen."
Reagan, in Thursday's news conference, was asked about the danger that Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes could fall into the wrong hands if the Saudi monarchy should fall as did the shah of Iran.
"Saudi Arabia we will not permit to be an Iran," Reagan responded. Under questioning about how he would prevent such a collapse, the president refused to discuss specifics, but said that in view of the vital importance of Saudi energy, "There's no way that we could stand by and see that taken over by anyone that would shut off that oil."
If taken as a U.S. guarantee of internal Saudi stability, Reagan's statement would seem to go well beyond "the Carter doctrine" stated by the then-president to Congress on Jan. 23, 1980.
Jimmy Carter said then that an attempt by "any outside force" to gain control of the Persian Gulf region would be repelled "by any means necessary, including military force." During the presidential campaign, Reagan criticized Carter for making the statement, saying the United States lacked the forces to back it up.
White House and State Department spokesmen portrayed Reagan's remarks as a reiteration of long-standing U.S. commitments to the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia and an expression of Reagan's "very strong" view rather than as a new doctrine or commitment.
A senior member of Congress who inquired at the White House was told that this was a "vintage Reagan" statement made without much prior consideration because the president was upset about the political troubles of the AWACS.
Several officials described Reagan's views as arising from a belief that the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi resulted from the Carter administration's failure to support him strongly. Reagan alluded to this in his news conference, saying, "I think the United States has to take some responsibility" in Iran for "some very short-sighted policies."
Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee late Thursday, said Reagan was saying "he would take a great many more and a great many firmer steps" to assist Saudi Arabia in case of internal trouble than was done in Iran. Asked what steps he had in mind, Weinberger replied, "It is so hypothetical that it is hard to say."
Yesterday the White House was quick to describe Saudi Arabia as "a stable country" and to say that the United States has no intention of intervening in its internal affairs.
In the opinion of some government experts on the Middle East, talk of U.S. intervention in Saudi Arabia is not likely to be welcome there, and U.S. intervention in Saudi internal affairs might well do more harm than good.
According to a senior official of another Persian Gulf oil state, who asked not to be quoted by name, "If it were to happen from within, there is nothing you can do about it."
The official went on to say that the possible rejection of the Saudi AWACS sale is "precipitating a situation you're trying to avoid internally." He added, "The whole credibility of Saudi leadership is being undercut in its own environment."
Another Mideast visitor to Washington, Iraqi Foreign Minister Saadoun Hammadi, said that "being moderate and a friend of the United States can itself be a source of danger" to states in the region because of the strong U.S. support for Israel.
Hammadi, in a luncheon address yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute, charged that Iraq is "sure" that arms, ammunition and spare parts of American manufacture are being flown from Israel to Iran for use in the Iran-Iraq war.