WASHINGTON -- Robert McFarlane, the special envoy at the focus of secret U.S. contacts with Iran, maintains that no 'extortion situation' for release of American hostages led the administration to deal in military supplies.
McFarlane, interviewed by two networks Thursday following President Reagan's nationally televised speech on the matter, acknowledged he met secretly with Iranian officials but echoed the president in denying any negotiations with terrorists for the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon.
'We went to exhaustive efforts to confirm the standing and good faith basically of the people with whom we were dealing,' McFarlane said in an ABC News 'Nightline' interview.
'We made it emphatically clear ... that we would not tolerate the continuation of terrorism against the United States,' he told NBC.
McFarlane, who said the first contacts in the Iranian link came before he resigned as Reagan's national security adviser in December 1985, also insisted the dealings in which the administration delivered military supplies to Iran would not lead other nations to take American hostages in hopes of a bargain.
During the 18-month undercover program, three hostages have been freed by their pro-Iranian kidnappers in Lebanon. Five other captives are believed to remain in Beirut, with a sixth, William Buckley, reported killed last year.
Pressed by ABC on parallels between Reagan's negotiations with Iran and those that proved fruitless for President Jimmy Carter in 1979 -- and fatal to his presidency, McFarlane said Reagan is 'very conscious' of potential trickery.
'It is inevitable that people draw that conclusion,' he said, 'because of the fact that they haven't been able to imagine that there is a different kind of person in Iran' than anti-Western followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Echoing Reagan's argument, however, that the secret contacts have continued in the hopes of improving relations with a post-Khomeini regime, McFarlane asserted that 'those we have been dealing with have been people that see the error of terrorism and have demonstrated an ability to terminate it.'
'One can never be certain, but the people that we have dealt with have made very credible demonstrations of the fact that they have not been associated with this,' he said. 'The fact that they have gone to considerable risks ... make clear that we are not dealing with an extortion situation here.
'However, at the same time, they do have to be able to demonstrate in some fashion to people who ultimately they must have as supporters that they have influence,' he said, depicting the arms shipments as a token of U.S. faith.
McFarlane said he made only one trip to Tehran -- in May -- and suggested the contacts were kept secret so long not because of U.S. concern so much as because the unnamed Iranians were politically risked by the 'very sensitive steps.'
Administration officials said Thursday that McFarlane was chosen as Reagan's secret envoy because of the president's trust in him and his ability to duck the Washington limelight. He was described by officials as a key go-between but one whose exploits were not as dramatic as some reports suggested.
McFarlane pointedly disputed the reports, first leaked by Iranian officials, that he appeared in Tehran with an incognito delegation carrying fake Irish passports, a Bible signed by Reagan and a cake in the shape of a key.
Defending the journey as 'well arranged' because of a previous session with intermediaries in London, he told both networks, 'I don't operate that way,' and said there was 'definitely no need' for disguise.
McFarlane, a retired Marine colonel, acknowledged he was accompanied to Tehran by Lt. Col. Oliver North, a top-level administration official with involvement in many undercover U.S. operations, and an interpreter.
McFarlane said the delegation did not encounter trouble in Tehran and agreed to travel into the Iranian capital with minimum security because it would have been too difficult for the Iranian contacts to travel abroad unnoticed.