U.S.-Iran: 20 Years of Secrets

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December 13, 1999 | In August, President Clinton sent a secret letter to Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi, seeking Iran's help in solving a fatal bomb attack against a U.S. military compound in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

If Iran cooperated, Clinton held out hope of better relations between Washington and Teheran, two capitals at odds for two decades, since Iranian radicals seized the U.S. embassy in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. [WP, Sept. 29, 1999]

Yet, while Clinton asks Iran about the 1996 bombing, he reportedly resisted earlier Iranian proffers of evidence about Republican complicity in prolonging the kidnapping of the 52 American hostages in 1980, as part of a scheme to ensure Ronald Reagan's election.

On at least two occasions after Clinton's victory in 1992, Iranian emissaries told Clinton insiders that Iran was willing to turn over evidence about secret Republican contacts with Islamic radicals close to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, according to sources involved in those overtures.

But on both occasions -- once as early as the Clinton transition period in late 1992 and again in 1994 -- Clinton spurned the offers, the sources said. He apparently feared the contacts could open him to charges of playing politics.

The Iranian overtures in 1992 and 1994, however, did not stand alone. Since 1980, other well-placed Iranian officials have indicated publicly that the Reagan-Bush campaign made clandestine contacts with Iran during the Reagan-vs.-Carter election campaign.

Iranian leaders alleging GOP contacts have included the late Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, Defense Minister Ahmad Madani and President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. [For details, see Robert Parry's Trick or Treason.]

The 1994 approach represented another high-level contact, reportedly coming from Kamal Kharrazi, who was then Iranian representative to the United Nations and who is now foreign minister in the Khatemi administration.

Though Clinton let those opportunities slip away, a mass of new October Surprise evidence has grown since Clinton's election in 1992. This evidence includes:

  • Testimony from French intelligence chief Alexandre deMarenches's biographer that deMarenches admitted setting up meetings between Reagan's campaign chief William Casey and Iranian radicals in Paris in October 1980.

In December 1992, biographer David Andelman told a House task force that deMarenches described the GOP-Iranian meetings, but kept the information out of his memoirs to protect the Reagan-Bush legacy.

The House task force judged Andelman's testimony "credible" and noted that it was corroborated by two other French intelligence officials. But the House task force still concluded that the allegations of Iran-Republican meetings in Paris were baseless. [For an explanation of the task force's circuitous logic, see Trick or Treason.]

  • A letter from former Iranian President Bani-Sadr detailing Iran's internal battles fought over the Republican hostage-delay initiative.

Bani-Sadr told the task force that he learned of the GOP plan after a meeting in Madrid on July 2, 1980, involving Khomeini's nephew, Reza Passendideh; Iranian banker Cyrus Hashemi, who had close ties to Casey's business network; and GOP lawyer Stanley Pottinger.

"Passendideh told me that if I do not accept this proposal, they [the Republicans] would make the same offer to my rivals," Bani-Sadr wrote on Dec. 17, 1992. Passindideh "further said that they [the Republicans] have enormous influence in the CIA � Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination."

Bani-Sadr claimed that he resisted the GOP scheme but that the plan was accepted by the Khomeini faction. [For details on Bani-Sadr's letter, see iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1997.]

Despite Bani-Sadr's details, the House task force judged that he had "mistakenly misled" himself into believing "that Khomeini representatives met with Reagan campaign officials."

  • A secret report from the Russian government in January 1993, outlining what Moscow's intelligence files contained about the GOP hostage initiative. The report, prepared by Sergei Stepashin (who later became Russia's prime minister), cited three meetings between Casey and Iranians in Europe during 1980.

The Stepashin report implicated President Reagan, Vice President George Bush, Casey and CIA official Robert Gates.

The House task force offered no public explanation -- or even mention -- of the Stepashin report. [For the text, see iF Magazine, July-Aug. 1999.]

  • An offer from the German government to the Clinton administration to share October Surprise material discovered in the files of the East German intelligence service, the Stasi.

A source involved in the discussions said the Clinton administration shrugged off the offer with the attitude of "who wants to get into this?"

  • An admission from Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to Jimmy Carter that Republicans had sought Arafat's help in their scheme to delay the hostage release. [For details, see Diplomatic History, Fall 1996.]

Arafat's admission in early 1996 was corroborated by longtime Palestinian spokesman Bassam Abu Sharif and a Middle Eastern diplomat, Mustafa Zein, who reportedly served as middleman for the Republican approach to Arafat.

  • Zein's account of his work for the Republicans, contained in a sealed appendix to a lawsuit, "Zein vs. the United States," which is now before the U.S. Court of Claims in Washington.

The appendix was scheduled to be unsealed in August, but Clinton's Justice Department objected, a move that continues to keep the information secret from the American people.

  • New corroboration of Israeli intelligence official Ari Ben-Menashe's claim that he possessed sensitive information and was not the "impostor" or "low-level translator" that the Israeli government called him.

In sworn testimony to Congress, Ben-Menashe asserted that Bush and Gates took part in the October Surprise operation. According to Ben-Menashe, senior Israeli officials assisted the Republican scheme because they viewed Carter as a threat to continued Israeli control of the West Bank. [See iF Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1999]

  • New details from a key Iranian, Jamshid Hashemi, who says Casey was helping Teheran transfer money in late 1979. Casey, then a private lawyer, "was the man who was actually putting all these things together," Hashemi said in an interview. [For details, see iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1997]

Jamshid Hashemi, the elder brother of the late Cyrus Hashemi, also said House Republicans pressured him in 1992 to recant his testimony. Instead, Jamshid Hashemi reiterated his account of hostage discussions between Casey and radical mullah Mehdi Karrubi in Madrid, Spain, in summer 1980.

While Washington's conventional wisdom has moved little on the October Surprise case -- still dismissing the allegations as a kooky "conspiracy theory" -- some historians treat the suspicions almost as fact.

In his 1997 Carter biography, Jimmy Carter, writer Peter Bourne reported that Casey "had established his own channels to Teheran through relationships in the French intelligence community."

Bourne described these Europeans as "professional operatives who ... were cold-bloodedly involved in breaking of governments through clandestine deals" and "who could keep secrets even if it meant perjuring themselves."

Bourne also cited a motive for CIA officers to join the plot. "Carter was widely disliked," Bourne wrote, "while Casey and Reagan's vice presidential nominee, George Bush, were considered members of the club."

As for Bush, a possible motive was his loyalty to CIA personnel whom he saw as unfairly maligned. Bush's strong feelings poured out in 1997 when he spoke at the CIA's 50th anniversary.

Bush, who was CIA director in 1976, recalled that "I came here when the agency was under fire" from "nasty press coverage, the out-of-control hearings back on Capitol Hill."

Yet, Bush said he found "dedicated public servants who never got recognition, never got to sit at the head of the table, never got credit for tremendously significant accomplishments. � Patriots who simply wanted to serve this greatest nation on the face of the Earth."

Bush called congressional investigators "crusading zealots [who] treated everyone who they encountered like renegades at best, criminals at worst."

Bush bemoaned how "many educational institutions across the country, still caught up in some post-Vietnam trauma, never came to our defense when our recruiters were insulted and demeaned and in some cases bodily thrown off of campus."

While not direct evidence that Bush joined an intelligence coup against President Carter in 1980, the intensity of Bush's feelings could explain why he might have seen a Republican victory as vital to protect his CIA friends.

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