The Reagan administration, after months of delay, has decided to present to Congress today its controversial Middle East arms transfer study -- the basis for a request for major new arms sales to Jordan and Saudi Arabia that is expected in September.
Congressional sources said the administration was sending William Schneider Jr., undersecretary of state for security assistance, and Lt. Gen. Philip C. Gast, head of the Pentagon's Defense Security Assistance Agency, to formally present the study this afternoon to a closed session of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
No Senate hearing has been scheduled.
House and Senate aides expressed irritation over the administration's timing for the release of the study, just nine days before Congress goes into recess, and at a time when it is extremely busy with conference committee meetings on major bills.
The arms transfer study is separate from, but a necessary prelude to, any administration arms sales requests for Jordan and Saudi Arabia. These requests are now expected to come in early September and to spark another major battle between the White House and Congress like the one in 1980-81 over the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia.
Senate and House leaders had earlier warned the administration against proposing any new sales of sophisticated weapons to the two Middle East countries. Such sales are strongly opposed in both bodies until there is concrete evidence that Jordan's King Hussein is ready to start direct negotiations with Israel.
In the Senate, 73 senators have signed a nonbinding resolution sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Heinz (R-Pa.) opposing the sale of any advanced weapons to Jordan so long as Hussein "continues to oppose the Camp David peace process and purchases arms from the Soviet Union."
The foreign aid bill passed by the House contains an amendment barring the sale of advanced aircraft, new air defenses or other advanced weapons unless the president certifies to Congress that Jordan "is publicly committed to the recognition of Israel and to prompt entry into direct peace negotiations with Israel."
The administration has under consideration an arms package for Jordan of either F16 or F20 fighter aircraft, improved mobile Hawk ground-to-air missile batteries, air transport planes and tanks. The total amount has not been set but could reach $750 million.
Saudi Arabia has expressed a wish to purchase 40 to 60 more F15s and additional equipment for its existing force of 60 of these jets, including multiple ejection bomb racks, additional fuel tanks and 2,000 more Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The Saudis are also expected to ask for more shoulder-fired Stinger ground-to-air missiles and possibly M1 tanks.
The decision to forward the Middle East arms transfer study to Congress now was reportedly taken at a meeting last week between Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane and Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead. Secretary of State George P. Shultz was on a tour of Asia at the time but was understood to have supported the decision.
The study was first requested in a letter to Shultz Feb. 1 from Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who asked the administration to explain how major new arms sales would advance U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East and how they would affect the peace process and Israel's security.
The study is reported to include a "threat analysis" of the danger posed to Israel by potential arms sales to Arab countries, and a similar examination of the threats to Jordan, mainly from Syria, and to Saudi Arabia, primarily from Iran and the Soviet Union.
The administration is hoping that before Congress acts on new arms sales requests there will be tangible progress toward new Mideast peace talks, beginning with a meeting between U.S. officials and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.