In May 1985, the White House secretly approved an Israeli request to send Iran a one-time shipment of artillery shells or artillery pieces to begin what eventually grew into the Iran-contra affair, according to testimony released yesterday by the House-Senate investigating committees.

In closed-door testimony that was declassified yesterday, former National Security Council consultant Michael A. Ledeen related that then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in a May 1985 meeting, told him of Iran's request for the military equipment but that "Peres would not do this unless he had explicit American approval for it."

At the time, U.S. policy, under Operation Staunch, was to discourage the sale of arms to Iran in hopes of getting that country to agree to end the Iran-Iraq war.

Within a week, Ledeen told the committees, then-national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane told him "to inform the Israelis that that was okay, but just that one shipment and nothing else."

Two months later, however, according to Ledeen's account, another Israeli representing Peres talked to him about a suggestion that U.S.-made TOW missiles could be sold to Iran as part of a plan to release U.S. hostages held in Lebanon and establish a new relationship between Tehran and Washington.

By October, Ledeen testified, the Israelis were discussing with him the possible use of profits from the sales to pay an Iranian official who wanted to change the government. He said the Iranian middleman in the deal, Manucher Ghorbanifar, had paid the official $300,000 from his share of the first arms sales.

In addition, the official, whom Ledeen described as wanting to change the Iranian regime by parliamentary means, asked for small arms, automatic rifles and possibly silencers so that he could "protect him and his allies against the possibility of violence from people whom he expected to be defeating in his political maneuvers."

Later that month, Ledeen said, the Israeli gave him a Swiss bank account number to be used to handle these expenses.

Ledeen's testimony, given to the committees in four days of closed-door questioning, provided other new details on how the Iran arms initiative began.

The disclosures include Ledeen's recollection that McFarlane told him twice that President Reagan had approved the initial Israeli shipments of U.S.-made TOWs before they were sent. Reagan told the Tower review board that he could not remember when he approved the deal and his former chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, has testified that the president did not learn of the shipments until after they had occurred and the Rev. Benjamin Weir, a hostage, was released.

Ledeen insisted to the committee that after the initial arms shipment, he opposed the idea of arms for hostages but could not get other officials to back that stance. He said then-CIA director William J. Casey told him in December 1985 that although he agreed it was important to work to change the Tehran government, "we have to do the hostage matter first."

In other portions of the testimony released yesterday, Ledeen said:Lt. Col. Oliver L. North told him last Nov. 21, after the Iran arms sales had become public, that the Justice Department was "investigating the possibility of an illegal sale of Hawk missiles to Iran in November 1985," and that Ledeen should get a lawyer. North, he said, also said a Justice official had told him to get a lawyer, but it was not Attorney General Edwin Meese III, as other witnesses had alleged. North also told him a different version of how he learned last Nov. 25 that he had been fired from the National Security Council staff. North said he had resigned on Nov. 24, and the next morning went to a meeting with the president, Meese, Regan and North's boss, then-Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, the president's national security adviser, to answer their questions on what should be done next. According to North, the president told him that "he, Ollie, would hear from them."

"The next thing he knew," Ledeen said North told him, "someone called him to urge him to turn on the television set because the president had just announced that Ollie had been fired."

Committee sources said yesterday that North did not see Reagan on Nov. 25 and said the story North told to Ledeen was an example of what they called the former aide's penchant to exaggerate. Ledeen said he developed a great admiration for Ghorbanifar, despite the CIA's view that he was untrustworthy. Ledeen had Ghorbanifar to dinner at his house several times, including an October 1985 dinner with New York businessman Roy Furmark. He described Furmark as a partner with Ghorbanifar in oil ventures.

A year later, Furmark warned Casey that Canadian financiers who had not received their money from the Iran arms deals were threatening to expose the Iran-contra operation. Ledeen said he "encouraged {Furmark} to relax, that my understanding was, people were trying to address his problem" -- that Furmark, Ghorbanifar and Saudi businessman Adnan Kashoggi were owed $10 million.

Senate committee associate counsel Charles Kerr asked Ledeen if he was aware that Furmark had received a payment of "something in excess of $80,000" as a commission on the arms transactions; the former NSC consultant said, "No, I am still not aware of it."

Ledeen also said that he did know Ghorbanifar was having money problems at the time and he said that during the fall, his consulting firm, ISI, had purchased three rugs from the Iranian at a cost of $3,000. After McFarlane resigned, he never could get in to see Poindexter when the latter became national security adviser. Casey, however, was always available, Ledeen said, testifying that with the late CIA director, he promoted a Ghorbanifar idea to fool Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi into paying for the faked assassination of an anti-Gadhafi expatriate -- although the CIA never agreed to the operation.

"We were severely limited by law as to what sorts of things one can do," Ledeen told the committees. "We were in this paradoxical situation where it's illegal to assassinate an individual, but it's okay to bomb a city, which I have always found to be a crazy approach to the subject of counterterrorism."

Ledeen's testimony contradicted others in some key points. For example, he said his first trip to Israel in May 1985 was approved by McFarlane and paid for by the NSC. McFarlane testified that Ledeen had gone without official sanction.

The main contribution of Ledeen's testimony, however, was in how the Iran arms sales began.

He told how he met with David Kimche, director of the Israeli foreign ministry, on Aug. 20, 1985, to work out codes for use in delivery of hostages after the first 100 TOWs were delivered.

He then recounted that when no hostages appeared, another meeting was held in Paris on Sept. 4, where Ghorbanifar said the weapons had fallen into the hands of the wrong forces and a second shipment, this time 400 TOWs, would have to be sent before any release.

"We decided," Ledeen testified, "well, okay, they didn't like our first gesture; we will give you another gesture." Weir was released after the second shipment; the project did not stop until it was exposed 14 months later.