JERUSALEM, OCT. 28 -- Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said today that the United States had been manipulated by Iraq into attacking Iran in the Persian Gulf war, and indicated that Israel has not changed its own longstanding tilt toward Iran.
While denying that he was directly criticizing U.S. policy in the gulf, Rabin contrasted American involvement on the side of Iraq with the policy of the Soviet Union, which he said had now "become the only superpower that can talk to both parties in the war, while the United States cannot do it."
His comments, made in English at a press conference for foreign journalists, marked the first time that a senior Israeli official has publicly made critical remarks about the growing U.S. role in the seven-year-old Iran-Iraq conflict. They reflected the longtime hostility between Israel and Iraq, a hostility that also led Israel to secretly sell arms to Tehran and to propose to Washington the weapons-for-hostages exchange that led to the Iran-contra scandal in the United States.
Rabin also said his government would resist any attempt by the United States to cut its military aid to Israel as part of efforts to reduce the federal budget deficit in response to the stock market crash. He said Israel would hold the Reagan administration to its written pledge to supply the full $1.8 billion for each of the next two years.
The issue became an emotional one this week after the Israeli press reported U.S. Office of Management and Budget estimates that Israel might lose up to $140 million in military and economic assistance under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction act -- a prospect that Israeli leaders, faced with economic fallout from the canceled, multibillion-dollar Lavi warplane project, have heatedly denounced.
Rabin said Baghdad had succeeded in "globalizing the tanker war" by attacking Iranian oil storage installations and ships and goading Tehran into retaliating against civilian oil tankers. The result was the involvement of American and European naval vessels in the conflict, he said.
"None of those fleets that came to the Persian Gulf protect the Iranian right of free navigation, which is under attack by the Iraqis," said Rabin. "They protect only the right to navigation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the oil princes on the western side of the gulf that might be attacked by the Iranians in response to the Iraqi attacks."
Israel has long favored Iran, a policy that dates to the early days of the Jewish state when prime minister David Ben-Gurion advocated support for non-Arab nations on the periphery of the Middle East as a counterbalance to Israel's hostile Arab neighbors. The hostility toward Israel of the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has led some analysts to argue that the policy should be scrapped.
But Rabin made clear today that Israel's defense establishment still favors Iran and sees the gulf war as a blessing for Israel. For one thing, he said, the war had removed Iraq, which has sent soldiers to fight in most Arab-Israeli conflicts, as a factor and made it far harder for nations such as Syria to contemplate war with Israel.
"Iran today is a bitter enemy of Israel in its philosophy. I believe that as long as Khomeini is in power there is no hope for any change," Rabin acknowledged. "But at the same time, allow me to say that for 28 of 37 years Iran was a friend of Israel. If it could work for 28 years . . . why couldn't it once this crazy idea of Shiite fundamentalism is gone?"
Israel receives $3 billion a year in U.S. funds -- $1.8 billion in military assistance and $1.2 billion in economic aid -- and officials here have stressed that the United States has not asked the Israeli government to contemplate a reduction. But U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering told reporters that "it is possible because of our budget deficit problem that the issue will come up."
Rabin reportedly is particularly angered by the possibility of cuts, because he had supported the successful but politically risky campaign to scrap the Lavi partly at the behest of Washington.
In return, he said, Israel had received written commitments from Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger that military aid levels would remain untouched for the next two years.