The Reagan administration plans to propose major new arms sales to Jordan and Saudi Arabia that promise to trigger another acrimonious battle in Congress over Middle East policy.
White House and State Department spokesmen yesterday confirmed the administration's intent to submit the requests to sell jet fighters and missiles shortly, and officials told Senate staff aides to expect the proposals in "the next 10 days or two weeks."
The administration's decision comes despite a warning Wednesday from Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to Secretary of State George P. Shultz that a fight over the proposed sales would be "counterproductive," with little hope for approval of the Jordanian arms package.
Lugar asked Shultz to advise President Reagan "not to expend political capital" on the controversial issue of arms sales given the other contentious problems facing the administration in Congress this fall, according to a Senate aide.
"Why shoot yourself in the foot?" Lugar reportedly told Shultz.
The arms controversy came amid the disclosure yesterday that the administration is considering a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, which would include at least one delegate widely regarded as a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Story on Page A28.
That possibility and the proposed arms sales, both of which provoked sharp protests from Israel, reflect administration concern that the Middle East peace process is stalled and needs prodding.
Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), cosponsor of a resolution supported by 72 other senators who oppose any new arms sales to Jordan, said through an aide that he would urge the administration to drop the arms request. Otherwise, the aide added, the senator has "no choice but to oppose them and reject the sale."
A White House official, however, said the administration was anxious to go ahead with the arms requests because of previous commitments to King Hussein of Jordan and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and a desire to act before Congress adjourns in late November. Congress requires a 50-day notification period by the administration before any major arms sale is concluded.
The United States has "security commitments to close friends" it must live up to, the White House official said, adding that "security is inextricably linked to forward movement in the peace process."
Despite the lack of significant progress in administration efforts to get direct Jordanian-Israeli peace talks under way, the official insisted that "nothing is dead, nothing has failed" and that "there has been progress and it continues to move forward."
U.S. officials and other sources said the administration was planning to submit separate arms sales requests for the two Mideast Arab countries. The package for Saudi Arabia reportedly includes additional Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and Stinger ground-to-air missiles, M1 tanks and armored vehicles. It excludes, for the present, the 40 additional F15 fighters and "smart" bombs the Saudis have also asked for.
For Jordan, the package is believed to include two squadrons of F20 or F16 fighter jets, advanced mobile surface-to-air I-Hawk missiles, armored vehicles and TOW anti-tank missiles.
The total cost of the two arms packages was not immediately known. But one source estimated the request for Jordan alone would probably exceed $1 billion, with the administration seeking congressional approval for credits to finance roughly $750 million and Saudi Arabia picking up the remainder of the Jordanian tab.
Congress, in recent amendments and resolutions, has made clear its opposition to any sale of sophisticated arms, especially to Jordan, unless Hussein clearly demonstrates readiness to begin direct talks with Israel.
Amendments to the new foreign aid bill, signed into law Aug. 8, and a $250 million supplemental aid package for Jordan approved in June specifically bar the sale of advanced U.S. weapons to Jordan unless Reagan certifies to Congress that Hussein is "publicly committed to the recognition of Israel and to negotiate promptly and directly with Israel."
Israeli Ambassador Meir Rosenne met yesterday with Undersecretary of State Michael H. Armacost and reportedly reiterated Israel's "very strong objections" to the proposed Saudi and Jordanian arms sales, asserting that they would alter the Middle East arms balance and place heavy new financial demands on his economically hard-pressed country.
Two U.S. officials, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James A. Placke and Lt. Gen. Philip C. Gast, head of the Pentagon's Defense Security Assistance Agency, yesterday briefed Senate staff aides on the administration's Mideast arms transfer study, which is intended to clear the way for the submission to Congress of the sales proposals.
The two officials presented a 29-page abridged version of the document, entitled "Administration Study: U.S. Security Assistance for the Middle East/Persian Gulf." They also read from another 17-page State Department briefing report that, among other things, divulged a Saudi willingness to allow U.S. forces to use Saudi bases in case of Soviet "aggression" or an extreme crisis in the Persian Gulf.
Despite the Saudi commitment, a Senate staff aide said there is no written agreement that the United States could count on. "Of course, if they are going down the tubes, they would want us to come in," he added.
The House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Mideast is scheduled to receive a second closed session briefing from administration officials next Tuesday on the state of the peace process and the arms transfer study. Gast and William Schneider Jr., undersecretary of state for security assistance, first briefed the subcommittee on the study on July 24.