WASHINGTON -- Although Syria and Iran remain on the State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism, the Bush administration has opened the way to sell sensitive American technology to the Middle Eastern countries, according to interviews and documents.
The policy, adopted last fall after consultations between the Commerce and State departments, could send an array of material with both commercial and military applications -- so-called dual-use technology -- to the two countries, although a top administration export official contends that restrictions remain tight and basically unchanged.
The previous policy of denying export licenses for sales to military customers in both countries remains in place, according to a Department of Commerce report sent to Congress. But the new policy says that licenses for sales to commercial customers in Syria and Iran will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
A detailed copy of the Department of Commerce policy, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, shows that Iran and Syria now can obtain such high-technology commodities as gravity meters and magnetometers, which can be used in missile-guidance systems. They also can buy computer-controlled machine tools, which shape metal with microscopic accuracy and can be used for military purposes.
"What the administration did with Iraq they are now doing with Syria," said Rep. Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Syria's continued harboring of terrorism is being overlooked for geopolitical reasons, whether they relate to the peace process or hostage release. I don't know."
But James M. LeMunyon, deputy assistant secretary of commerce for export administration, said the policy was equivalent to the previous restrictions and that technology with military applications remained strictly controlled, even to commercial users.
"There are plenty of civil end-users we are saying no to," Mr. LeMunyon said. "In any case, we are not taking chances."
After reviewing documents describing the policy, Peter D. Zimmerman, a senior fellow in arms control at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: "They have precisely inverted the policy. We used to assume that anything Syria or Iran wanted was for the military. Now it appears to me we are assuming it is for innocent purposes, if they say so."