Irangate: The Israel Connection
excerpted from the book
The Iran Contra Connection
Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan
by Johnathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and
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
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
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
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
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
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
* 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
* 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
* 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
* 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
Iran Contra Connection