In the words of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, the origins of the Iran-contra affair can be traced to Israel, which he said "suckered" the United States into the initial arms sales to Iran in 1985. Other Cabinet officers and Iran-contra committee members have offered similar views, saying that Israel's agenda pulled the United States into an initiative that ran counter to American interests.

This image of the United States as unwitting and easily manipulated by Israel doesn't square with the available evidence.

That evidence shows that some Reagan administration officials have been aware since early 1981 that Israel was trying to establish a relationship with the revolutionary Iranian government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, according to interviews here and in Israel, as well as an examination of documents obtained in Israel, testimony and exhibits from the Iran-contra hearings and previous press reports.

At the same time, the record is ambiguous as to exactly what the U.S. government did when Israeli officials sought permission or endorsement on several occasions from U.S. officials who might be sympathetic with the policy, which included occasional arms shipments. At times, according to various Israeli and American sources, the response was vigorous objection; other times, implicit approval.

"I think there were mixed signals," said an Israeli official who is knowledgeable about the development of his country's Iran policy. "Let's say we tried to pay more attention to the positive signals . . . . I can't produce a document. I can't produce a letter . . . . It was not the green light. Not the red light. It was the yellow one."

The House-Senate Iran-contra investigating committees made no concerted effort during 11 weeks of public testimony this summer to illuminate Israel's role, although witnesses were asked about their knowledge of discussions with Israeli officials. This troubled some panel members, particularly Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho), who argued that the committees were protecting Israel, an important U.S. ally, at the expense of developing a full record.

It is clear, however, that the 1985 Israeli proposal that led to direct U.S. involvement in two Israeli shipments in the fall of 1985 -- the first attempts to deal arms for U.S. hostages being held in Lebanon -- was merely the latest in a series of requests.

In 1981 and 1982, for example, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon repeatedly pressed the State Department for permission to sell some of its stock of U.S.-made arms to Iran's military. Israel didn't need permission to sell its own arms, but it is against American laws for a buyer of U.S. weapons to sell them to a third country without administration approval.

A U.S. official familiar with the request said Sharon emphasized the wisdom of gaining influence with moderate Iranian military officers. "{His} thesis was, we'll cozy up to some of these army generals because they're the ones that'll knock off these madmen."

At one point in 1981, Sharon met with Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and won approval for the sale of $10 million to $15 million in U.S-made spare parts and fighter plane tires, The Washington Post reported last November. When other U.S. officials subsequently protested such sales, Israeli officials would say, "Al Haig said it was okay," Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger told the Iran-contra committees. Haig has denied giving any approval.

In 1982, Uri Lubrani, Israel's envoy to Iran before the shah fell in 1979, met with mid-level officials at the Central Intelligence Agency to get support for Israel's agenda. Recalling the meeting, Lubrani said that the CIA officials were "very polite" but thought that the idea was "totally off the beam."

Occasionally, U.S. officials got a glimpse of dissent in the Israeli government over the policy.

Nicholas A. Veliotes, then an assistant secretary of state with responsibility for the Middle East, said a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official sought him out during a trip to Jerusalem in 1982 and complained about Israel's weapons sales to Iran.

The official pressed Veliotes to use his influence with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, saying, " 'For God sakes, would you please make the case directly to the prime minister why this is so much out of our interests,' " Veliotes recalled.

After it was revealed that the Reagan administration engaged in its own arms sales to Iran and that Israel had laid the groundwork, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence tried to find out how the initiative was linked to Israel's earlier sales, which had been rumored but rarely discussed publicly.

The committee's final report said that former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, who first met with Israeli officials in mid-1985 about the possibility of a joint U.S.-Israel initiative, said he was never informed about Israel's previous sales.

According to the committee's report, McFarlane, who was Haig's counselor at the State Department in 1981, said last December that "if he had known that the Israelis had previously shipped arms to Iran it would have made him less responsive to later Israeli proposals to resume shipments."

A staff member of the Iran-contra committees suggested that the panel should have traced Israel's role back to its beginnings, as it did the story of the administration's support for the Nicaraguan contras. "You can't understand the story . . . the potential trade for hostages, the potential moderate openings and our potential interest in it, unless you can understand the origins of the policy and Israel's interests in it," the staff member said.Israel and the Shah

Israel's relationship with Iran goes back to the early 1950s, when the new and vulnerable Jewish state decided to reach out beyond its hostile Arab neighbors.

Iran was seen as a potential ally. The two countries shared an intense hatred of Iraq, a distrust of Egypt and the other Arab nations, and loyalty to the United States. Richard M. Helms, U.S. ambassador to Iran from 1973-76, said Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi once told him: "Neither Israel nor Iran wants to be alone in a sea of Arabs."

The shah kept the alliance unofficial for fear of offending his Arab neighbors. Israel had a "mission" rather than an official embassy. It was headed by an "envoy" rather than an ambassador.

Isser Harel, head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, developed the relationship with the shah. The Israelis flattered the shah by likening him to a modern-day Cyrus, the ancient Persian king revered by Jews for allowing the exiled Jewish people to return to Jerusalem in 538 B.C. "The connection was very romantic, and I would say of great importance at the time," Harel said. "He wanted to play the part."

As the relationship matured, Iran received military help from Israel and Israel obtained a dependable supply of oil. Israel also came to Iran's aid after a devastating earthquake in the early 1960s, rebuilding one stricken area into a major agricultural production center, according to Arie Lova Eliav, who led the Israeli team.

Key Israeli figures in the 1985 arms shipments to Iran, including David Kimche and Yaacov Nimrodi, served in Iran during the shah's reign. Kimche was Mossad station chief and Nimrodi was the mission's military attache and helped train Iran's military intelligence corps.

When Khomeini took power in February 1979, he immediately broke all ties with Israel and welcomed Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat on a state visit. They embraced before cheering crowds, with Arafat shouting, "Today Iran, tomorrow Palestine." The Israelis stationed there were forced to go underground until they could be evacuated.

The seizure of 53 American hostages in Tehran in November 1979 overshadowed Israel's problems, but in Israel, the loss of Iran was deeply felt. Iran was perhaps Israel's closest ally after the United States; it had stood by Israel through three wars and an oil embargo, and was home to tens of thousands of Iranian Jews. The Iranian revolution seemed only a temporary distraction.

"At the time the feeling was, we will go back to Iran, or get Iran back, and Khomeini will not stand forever," said David Menashri, head of the Iran program at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

Itzhak Segev, the last Israeli military attache to serve in Iran, has two photographs. One depicts him with a group of Iranian generals, his closest contacts in Iran. The other, published in a newspaper, shows the same men, lying in the morgue after their executions.

Ezer Weizman, Israel's former defense minister, said: "The shock was political. The shock was regional. The shock was market-wise and defense-wise . . . . And the shock was losing friends."Israel and the United States

The U.S. hostage crisis was 11 months old when President Jimmy Carter learned that Israel had sold F4 fighter tires to Iran after Khomeini took power. Carter was "beside himself," said a knowledgable U.S. official, ordering Samuel Lewis, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, to tell Prime Minister Begin "the facts of life."

Begin, who claimed to be unaware of the shipments, agreed to halt them. He made clear, however, that he saw the hostage crisis as a temporary problem that should not get in the way of a broader attempt to open new channels to Iran, particularly because Khomeini was seen as a short-lived phenomenon.

Lubrani said, "The Americans lost their cool . . . . The United States was so completely obsessed with the fate of these {hostages} that the importance of Iran {for} the future became completely blurred."

In December 1980, after Carter lost his bid for reelection, Israel quietly sounded out the incoming Reagan administration officials.

Menachem Meron, then Israel's military attache here, went to Morris Amitay, a leading pro-Israeli lobbyist. Amitay recalled their conversation:

"Do you know Dick {Richard V.} Allen?" Meron asked, referring to Ronald Reagan's soon-to-be national security adviser.

"I know Dick Allen very well," Amitay said.

"We're interested in knowing the attitude of the new administration if we were to ship some spare parts to Iran. Could you find out?"

Amitay said he raised the question with Allen, who said, "Tell your friend you told me about it and I heard what you said."

To Amitay, it was "a wink and a nod." He told Meron, "If you ask me what this means, to me it's a go-ahead -- an amber light."

When Amitay's account was first published in The New York Times last November, Allen recalled the conversation but denied signaling any approval. Allen repeated that denial in an interview Friday with The Washington Post.

Once Reagan took office, Sharon raised the issue with Haig. Some reports said Haig gave permission while other reports said he merely did not object; Israel proceeded as if the approval were clear-cut. Said one informed U.S. official: "Sharon behaved, acted as if he had U.S. approval. There were some shipments made."Going Forward

In 1981 and 1982, Israel sold arms directly to Iran and -- for purposes of deniability -- often used private dealers and third-country intermediaries, according to sources and documents relating to the shipments.

One important channel was through Portuguese arms dealer Jose Joaquim Morail Zoio, who told Washington Post correspondent Karen DeYoung in Lisbon that he talked to Begin in 1980 about starting an arms trade with Iran and, by 1981, Israeli and Iranian agents were meeting in his office to arrange the deals.

Israel allegedly disguised sales of some "low-visibility" parts and spares by ordering materiel from the United States in excess of its needs and shipping the remainder to Iran, one U.S. intelligence source said. Israel has always denied making any such shipments without U.S. permission.

One of Iran's major deals with Israel was a reported $200 million transaction involving shipments that began in July 1981. It was publicized after a plane carrying some of the arms crashed, but the shipments resumed later by sea. While Israel never confirmed its role, two Israeli sources said the transaction was coordinated by the government.

According to a document, the buyer for Iran was Sadegh Tabatabai, a relative of Iranian Parlimentary Speaker Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. A Portuguese intermediary, George Pinhol, provided the Israeli Defense Ministry a letter signed by Tabatabai dated April 7, 1981, attesting that "the goods ordered with you are for the sole use of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran."Defending the Policy

From time to time during the past six years, top Israeli officials have said publicly that the Reagan administration was informed about their Iran agenda.

Moshe Arens, the ambassador to the United States, told the Boston Globe in 1982 that Israel had received permission from "almost the highest levels" of the U.S. government for some of its shipments. Sharon told The Post in 1982 that, "We discussed this months ago with our American colleagues . . . . We said that notwithstanding the tyranny of Khomeini, which we all hate, we have to leave a small window open to this country . . . . "

The agenda also was discussed in a 1982 BBC program which brought together Nimrodi, Kimche, and Sharon, all of whom had slightly different views of how best to handle Iran.

On the program, which has received virtually no attention in the American press, Nimrodi charged that America and Europe had forgotten Iran, and called for a western-supported "coup to overthrow this regime . . . . It's not an easy job now, but it's not too late."

Kimche described Israel's close ties to the shah's military and said Iran's "biggest problem today" is a shortage of "spare parts and . . . American weapons." He also supported "an army takeover."

After the broadcast, according to two Israeli sources, Nimrodi was contacted by Iranian exiles in Europe who were allied with the shah's son seeking Israeli assistance in a coup attempt. Nimrodi went to Sharon, a close friend, who is said to have supported the idea. However, it was rejected by the government.

Not everyone in Israel agreed with the Iran policy, but dissenters had little influence, according to David Menashri, one of Israeli's leading experts on Iran who is frequently consulted by the Israeli government.

When the Iran-Iraq war escalated in 1982, Menashri said, the Israeli Foreign Ministry sought his advice. Menashri said he told the official that Israel should consider supporting its longtime foe, Iraq, because he saw Khomeini as more of a threat to Israel's interests.

The Foreign Ministry official was taken aback and "was staring at me as though I was crazy," Menashri said. "I understood what he meant. Simply, it {was} impossible even to raise the issue" because Begin and Sharon were committed to opening a channel to the Khomeini regime.

Weizman, the former defense minister, said he opposed Israel's Iran policy after leaving the government in 1980. "I think that the whole concept was wrong on both sides -- America and Israel -- and I said so," he said. Weizman, who now serves as cabinet minister without portfolio, said, "I have divorced myself as much as possible from the intricacies of the whole sick game."

Some Israelis now feel that the Reagan administration's decision to approve the 1985 arms shipments was a belated recognition that Israel's agenda in Iran was the right one after all. Nimrodi, who was a key figure in the 1985 shipments, said in an interview at his home in Savyon: "We did the right thing. We brought Iran to America, believe me, we brought them."