Jordan's King Hussein has informed U.S. officials that he expects to turn to the Soviet Union for arms later this year following unsuccessful efforts to arrange weapons purchases here.
That prospect is said to concern U.S. diplomats who have tried unsuccessfully to help the Jordanians buy air defenses and other armaments from France, Britain or Austria following the collapse of an American deal last spring, according to U.S. officials.
Reuter reported that French Defense Minister Charles Hernu arrived in Amman, Jordan, Saturday night, resuming a visit cut short last month by France's accord with Libya on withdrawing troops from Chad. French Embassy officials said Hernu was expected to continue discussions with Jordan's military commander in chief, Gen. Sharif Zeid bin Shaker, on a French offer to supply arms to Jordan.
Hussein reportedly has said credit terms are an important factor in his decision to go to Moscow.
"There are only two stores in town that offer credit terms, and that's the United States and the Soviets," said one U.S. official. "Everything else is pretty much a cash-and-carry deal. That's money up front, and that's money they don't have."
The Reagan administration had proposed to sell Jordan Stinger antiaircraft missiles and to spend $220 million to create a Jordanian mobile strike force for the Persian Gulf. But Hussein rejected the plan in March after it encountered intense opposition from the American Jewish community and supporters of Israel on Capitol Hill.
Since then, the Jordanian monarch has said the Middle East policy of the United States is so tilted toward Israel that it precludes any role of evenhanded broker with Arab moderates. "There are only two stores in town that offer credit terms, and that's the United States and the Soviets." U.S. official
Officials here say the king has been more subdued in private and has sought to reassure them that it was "not in anger, but in sorrow" that he was turning to the Soviets. He has said the pending arms deal did not mean Jordan would succumb to Soviet influence or change its moderate posture in Middle East politics.
U.S. officials say the king's restoration of diplomatic relations with Egypt was in part an effort to signal that intent.
But clearly any significant Soviet inroads in the Middle East are unwelcome in Washington. After the administration refused Kuwait Stinger missiles this summer, the Persian Gulf state went to Moscow and arranged a reported $325 million arms deal. The Soviet Union has bestowed an array of missile systems, tanks and aircraft on Syria, its strongest ally in the Middle East, during the past two years.
Administration officials assume that Jordan will seek to buy surface-to-air missiles from the Soviets and perhaps warplanes. Jordan bought arms from the Soviets three years ago, but officials expect a far larger purchase this time. In their discussions with the Europeans about weapons, the Jordanians were talking about arms worth "hundreds of millions of dollars," a U.S. official said.
The Soviet Union traditionally has offered attractive terms for weapons purchases, according to U.S. officials. Interest costs on military loans are low and often include a long grace period before payments have to be made.
For Jordan, such arrangements are essential. With few resources, the desert kingdom relies heavily on aid from oil states and from the remittances of its citizens working around the gulf. The producers there, facing financial problems since the oil glut, are now contributing only about half of the annual $1.2 billion they have promised Jordan.
Hussein originally had intended to go to the Soviet Union this month but now has postponed the trip until later this year, the officials say. His senior military officials were there in late summer following a visit by a high-level Soviet delegation to Jordan.
The king is described as being concerned about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the area and new threats from his old nemeses, Syria and Libya, since Jordan's resumption of relations with Egypt. Syria recently said Hussein risked assassination over the move.
Reuter reported the following from Amman:
On his last visit Hernu told reporters France and Jordan had set up a joint military committee to study Jordan's arms requirements. It already has 35 French-built Mirage fighters.
Shaker visited the Soviet Union in August. Austria's and Ireland's defense ministers visited Amman last week, while British Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine is expected here next week.