White House backed sale of technology to Iran, Syria

July 23, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, repeating what Democrats charged was the same mistake made with Iraq, has over the last year approved the sale to Iran and Syria of $187 million worth of equipment with possible military applications, according to figures released yesterday by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The "dual use" technology -- equipment meant for civilian use but capable of being converted to military applications -- included sophisticated photographic equipment for the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission and tractors and digital computer equipment for Iran.

"We should not reward terrorist countries such as Iran and Syria with access to sophisticated U.S. technology," said Rep. Howard L. Berman, a California Democrat.

Calling the administration's prewar policy of aiding Iraq "a catastrophic failure," Mr. Berman noted that Syria and Iran remain on the State Department's list of nations that support terrorism.

It is "inconceivable that the president still believes we can influence their behavior by trying to build a closer economic relationship with them," he said.

The committee voted 13-2 to release a confidential list of the sales approved by the Department of Commerce. It showed that between Aug. 1, 1991, and Feb. 19, 1992, the department approved 48 transfers totaling $180 million worth of dual-use technology to Iran and seven transfers valued at $3 million to Syria.

They included computers, tractors, trucks and communications equipment to Iran and aircraft, navigational equipment and other air safety devices to Syria. Most sales apparently were made to oil-industry interests. The names of the American companies that applied for the export licenses were not released.

James LeMunyon, the top administration official responsible for approving dual-use transfers, took sharp issue with the Democrats' conclusions and their characterization of the sales as a secret shift in policy toward Syria and Iran.

Mr. LeMunyon, acting assistant secretary of commerce for export administration, told the committee that most applications to sell advanced technology to those two countries were still routinely refused and that far fewer sales were authorized in 1991 and 1992 than in 1990.

The administration approved 28 applications for Syria in 1990, he said, compared with 12 such approvals in 1991 and five for the first six months of fiscal year 1992.

"That's not exactly opening the floodgates," Mr. LeMunyon said.

He said the number of transfers to Iran declined from more than 130 in 1990 to 88 last year and 41 in the first six months of 1992.

Republicans on the committee dismissed arguments by Democrats that the disclosure of the transfers was in the national interest. They accused Berman and the committee chairman, Dante B. Fascell, a Florida Democrat, of playing election-year politics by releasing the confidential Commerce Department data to embarrass President Bush.

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