Irangate: The Israel Connection

excerpted from the book

The Iran Contra Connection

Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era

by Johnathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Hunter

South End Press, 1987, paper

The Israeli Interest in Iran

... Israeli interests in non-Arab Iran became prominent as early as the 1 950s, when Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, cooperated with the CIA in establishing the Shah's secret police, SAVAK. A 1979 CIA report on Mossad notes that:

The main purpose of the Israeli relationship with Iran was the development of a pro-Israel and anti-Arab policy on the part of Iranian officials. Mossad has engaged in joint operations with SAVAK over the years since the late 1950s. Mossad aided SAVAK activities and supported the Kurds in Iraq. The Israelis also regularly transmitted to the Iranians intelligence reports on Egypt's activities in the Arab countries, trends and developments in Iraq, and Communist activities affecting Iran."

Cooperation between Israel and Iran touched many fields, including oil, trade, air transport, and various forms of technical assistance. But their most important mutual interest was in the military sphere.

Like the United States, Israel cemented its relationship with Iran by the exchange of arms for oil, which both sides kept alive through the worst of the OPEC oil embargo. The Iranian arms market was worth at least $500 million a year to Israel. The Shah bought everything from Gabriel anti-ship missiles to advanced communications equipment. In 1977, Israel arranged a $1 billion arms-for-oil deal around Operation Flower, a joint Israeli-Iranian project to build a nuclear-capable surface-to-surface missile. And like their American counterparts, certain Israelis also seem to have been part of the corrupt nexus through which top Iranian political and military leaders were enriched through arms sale commissions. "When the Israelis decide to change their policy," one top State Department official told a reporter in the mid- 1 970s, "the first place the Israeli jet touches down is Tehran. Moshe Dayan is in and out of there quite frequently."

No Israeli representative in Iran during the Shah's reign was more significant or influential than Ya'acov Nimrodi, Israel's military attaché. He reportedly helped organize and encourage the rebellion of Kurdish tribesmen against Iraq, the Shah's main political and military rival in the region. As the chief government agent for Israel's burgeoning arms industry, known as an all-purpose "fixer," Nimrodi was intimate with the Shah and his generals. "I was in partnership with the Shah," he told friends. (Among other coups, Nimrodi sold the Iranian army on the Uzi submachine gun.) And as the Mossad agent who could properly boast of having "built" SAVAK into an efficient if brutal intelligence service, he was no less intimate with the keepers of the Shah's secrets. With the arrival of the Khomeini regime, Nimrodi kept open his lines of communication as a private arms dealer who would become central to the Reagan arms-for-hostage talks.

Though Israel, along with the United States, suffered a grievous loss with the fall of the Shah, its leaders concluded that lasting geo-political interests would eventually triumph over religious ideology and produce an accommodation between Tel Aviv and Tehran. The onset of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 gave Israeli leaders a special incentive to keep their door open to the Islamic rulers in Iran: the two non-Arab countries now shared a common Arab enemy. As Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon told the Washington Post in May 1982, justifying Israeli arms sales to Tehran, "Iraq is Israel's enemy and we hope that diplomatic relations between us and Iran will be renewed as in the past." Four months later he told a Paris press conference, "Israel has a vital interest in the continuing of the war in the Persian Gulf, and in Iran's victory." Such views were not Sharon's alone; Prime Ministers Itzhak Shamir (Likud) and Shimon Peres (Labor) shared them too.

To this day, prominent Israelis still argue that strategic calculus unashamedly. Retired Gen. Aharon Yariv, former head of military intelligence, told a conference at Tel Aviv University in late 1986 that "it would be good if the Iran-Iraq war ended in a tie, but it would be even better if it continued." Otherwise, Iraq might open an "eastern front" against Israel. 19 The carnage of human life didn't figure in the equation at all. Uri Lubrani, Israel's chief representative in Iran under the Shah and Nimrodi's superior in Mossad, recently justified continued arms sales because "Khomeinism will disappear and Israel and the United States will again have influence in Iran."

One other consideration, rarely articulated, also swayed successive Israeli leaders: money. According to Gary Sick, an expert on Iran who served on the NSC under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, "Israel acknowledged that arms sales were good business. One out of 10 Israeli workers is employed in arms-related production; military items constitute more than a quarter of Israel's industrial exports." The distinguished Israeli defense correspondent Ze'ev Schiff states that Israel's pro-lran policy has been "guided by a ravenous hunger for profit rather than by strategic considerations..."

This hunger was all the more acute in view of severe unemployment that hit the Israeli arms industry in 1979 after the Iran market shriveled. Nimrodi, the Mossad-agent-turned-arms-dealer, recalled that when he reported to the Israeli government on the millions of dollars to be had from arms sales to Khomeini's Iran, "people's eyes lit up here. They have been laying people off in the defense industry, and this meant jobs."

The Arms Channel Opens

Israel lost no time supplying the new Khomeini regime with small quantities of arms, even after the seizure of the U.S. embassy. The first sales included spare parts for U.S.-made F-4 Phantom jets; a later deal in October 1980 included parts for U.S.-made tanks. Israel informed Washington, only "after the fact, when they were far down the line and right into the middle of the thing," according to a former State Department official. To Begin's ex post facto request for approval, "the answer was instant, unequivocal and negative," writes Gary Sick, the Iran expert on Carter's NSC.

The White House was in fact aghast to find that its embargo had been flatly violated. "We learned much to our dismay," Brzezinski noted later, "that the Israelis had been secretly supplying American spare parts to the Iranians without much concern for the negative impact this was having on our leverage with the Iranians on the hostage issue." Secretary of State Edmund Muskie demanded that Israel cease its shipments; Prime Minister Begin promised to comply. In fact, however, the supply line stayed open without Washington's approval, carrying tank parts and ammunition.

Why didn't the administration crack down? One reason is simply that no president since Eisenhower has ever really punished Israel for acting against U.S. interests. Prime Minister Begin bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, invaded Lebanon, annexed the Golan heights and speeded up the settlement of the occupied West Bank much to the Reagan administration's embarrassment, but considerations of military strategy and Israel's political clout in Congress always gave the client state the upper hand.

Moreover, the administration could rarely prove what it suspected. Israel did its best to disguise these shipments by using layers of foreign brokers to cloak their source. Notes Ha'aretz correspondent Yo'av Karny "The cloak of secrecy that surrounds Israeli arms exports is so tight that one can compare it to the technique for smuggling hard drugs." When caught in the act, Israeli officials maintained they were simply selling domestic arms, not embargoed U.S. weapons. "Whenever we would get word of shipments," one American official explained, "the State Department would raise the issue with Israel, and we would get the standard lecture and promises that there were no U.S. weapons involved."

That standard lecture was clearly false, though Washington may have lacked usable evidence to prove it. U.S.-made weapons were very much for sale. On 24 July 1981, Israeli arms dealer Ya'acov Nimrodi-later to play a vital role in the arms-for-hostages negotiations-apparently signed a deal with Iran's Ministry of National Defense to sell $135,842,000 worth of arms, including Lance missiles, Copperhead shells and Hawk missiles. A sale of such magnitude must have had Israeli government acquiescence. Nimrodi's close personal friend Ariel Sharon, a wartime comrade from the 1948 struggle, likely kept tabs on, if he did not direct, the private dealer's sales with Iran.

Sometime the same year, David Kimche, director general of Israel's foreign ministry, apparently approached Secretary of State Alexander Haig and his counselor Robert McFarlane to discuss proposed Israeli shipments of $10 million to $15 million in spare parts to "moderates" in Iran. Kimche may have been referring to a contract to supply 360 tons of tank spares and ammunition-worth about $28 million, twice his estimate-to Iran by air via Cyprus. But Haig denies that he ever approved any such shipments, a claim strengthened by the admission of Israeli officials that they went ahead based only on Haig's alleged failure to disapprove. In any case, the shipments in question paled beside what Nimrodi was then arranging.

In November 1981, Israeli Defense Minister Sharon visited Washington, shopping for approval of similar arms sales. His U S. counterpart Caspar Weinberger, flatly turned him down. Sharon then went to Haig, hoping for acquiescence from the State Department. Again, McFarlane handled many of the discussions with Sharon and Kimche; this time Haig unequivocally opposed any violation of the embargo.

In numerous discussions with Israeli officials thereafter, administration decision makers flatly refused requests for permits to ship U.S. arms to Iran, and strenuously discouraged Israel from sending its own weapons to the radical Khomeini regime. Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger at one point summoned the Israeli ambassador to protest his country's continued sales-only to be assured that they had been stopped. And officials who ran Operation Staunch, the project to block Iran's access to the world arms market, were never discouraged from extending their efforts to Israeli-linked deals.

Yet as in 1979-80, Israel pursued its policy anyway, in flat violation of its arms re-export agreements with the Pentagon. In a May 1982 interview with the Washington Post, Sharon claimed that Israeli shipments had been cleared "with our American colleagues" months earlier and that details of all the shipments were supplied to the administration. Later that year, Israel's ambassador Moshe Arens declared that Israel's arms sales were cleared at "almost the highest levels" in Washington, "inconsequential" in size, and designed to undermine the Khomeini regime. Both times the State Department flatly contradicted the Israelis' claims. At least Sharon and Arens were more credible than Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who declared after the Irangate scandal broke in 1986 that "Israel's policy is not to sell arms to Iran."

All the standard propaganda themes and practices were in place. Israel would continue seeking approval for arms sales on the basis of their potential political leverage, but would ship arms willy-nilly while falsely claiming Washington's sanction.

And those shipments would continue to be enormous in size, estimated by experts at the Jaffee Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv at $500 million in value from 1980-83. Other arms market experts have put the total value at more than S500 million a year, including aircraft parts, artillery and ammunition.

Anecdotes abound in the world press relating to Israeli sales to Iran:

* In March 1982, the New York Times cited documents indicating that Israel had supplied half or more of all arms reaching Tehran in the previous 18 months, amounting to at least $100 million in sales.

* Foreign intelligence sources told Aerospace Daily in August 1982 that Israel's support was "crucial" to keeping Iran's air force flying against Iraq.

* An alleged former CIA agent reportedly visited Israel in 1982, met with the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and head of military intelligence, and "struck a deal with them involving the transfer of weapons and equipment, captured by Israel during the Lebanon war, to Iran."

* Israeli sources told Newsweek that "they sold the Iranians much of the light weaponry and ammunition that the Israeli army had captured during its invasion of Lebanon; subsequently, they sold overhauled jet engines, spare parts for American-made M-48 tanks, ammunition and other hardware-S100 million worth in 1983 alone."

* Newsweek also reported that after an Iranian defector landed his F-4 Phantom jet in Saudi Arabia in 1984, intelligence experts determined that many of its parts had originally been sold to Israel, and had then been re-exported to Tehran in violation of U.S. Iaw.

* In 1984 and early 1985, a single one of Israel's many European brokers, based in Sweden, reportedly shipped hundreds of tons of TNT and other explosives to Iran, often by way of Argentina, worth 500 million kroner.

* The Milan weekly Panorama reported that Israel had sold the Khomeini regime 45,000 Uzi submachine guns, antitank missile launchers, missiles, howitzers and aircraft replacement parts. "A large part of the booty from the PLO during the 1982 Lebanon campaign wound up in Tehran," the magazine claimed.

* Manila newspapers have reported since the Irangate scandal broke that former armed forces chief of staff Gen. Fabian Ver, a crony of Ferdinand Marcos, supplied phony end user certificates to allow Israeli intermediaries to divert U.S. arms to Iran in 1984.

The Iran Contra Connection

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