iran/contra: israel pulled the strings

Iran Divided & the ‘October Suprise’ (lightly edited)
Robert Parry, Consortium News, Jun 24 2009

Iran’s current political divisions can be traced back to a controversy nearly three decades ago when Iran faced war with Iraq and became entwined with US and Israeli political maneuvers that set all three countries on a dangerous course that continues to this day. Iran is experiencing a revival of the internal rivalries born in the judgments made in 1980 and later that decade about how and whether to deal with the Little Satan (Israel) and the Great Satan (the US). Mousavi, along with his current allies Rafsanjani and Karoubi, was part of the group that favored secret contacts with the US and Israel to get the military supplies needed to fight the war with Iraq. Khamenei was more the ideological purist in the early 1980s, apparently opposing the unorthodox strategy that involved going behind Carter’s back to gain promises of weapons from Israel and the future Reagan administration. Khamenei appears to have favored a more straightforward arrangement with the Carter administration.

In 1980, the internal Iranian divisions played out against a dramatic backdrop. Iranian radicals still held the 52 hostages seized at the US Embassy in Tehran; Carter had imposed an arms embargo while seeking the hostages’ release, and he was struggling to fend off a strong campaign challenge from Reagan. Meanwhile, Begin was furious at Carter for pushing him into the Camp David peace deal with Sadat that required Israel returning the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for normalized relations. Begin also was upset at Carter’s perceived failure to protect the Shah of Iran, who had been an Israeli strategic ally. Begin was worried, too, about the growing influence of Iraq as it massed troops along the Iranian border. Determined to help Iran counter Iraq, and hopeful about rebuilding at least covert ties to Tehran, Begin’s government cleared the first small shipments of US military supplies to Iran in spring 1980, including 300 tires for Iran’s US-manufactured jet fighters. Soon, Carter learned about the covert shipments and lodged an angry complaint. Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell told me in an interview:

There had been a rather tense discussion between Carter and Begin in the spring of 1980 in which the President made clear that the Israelis had to stop that, and that we knew that they were doing it, and that we would not allow it to continue, at least not allow it to continue privately and without the knowledge of the American people. And it stopped.

Questioned by congressional investigators a dozen years later, Carter said he felt that by Apr 1980, “Israel cast their lot with Reagan,” according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of a congressional investigation conducted in 1992. Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his possible reelection in 1980 to a “lingering concern among Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.” Brzezinski also recognized the Israeli hostility. Brzezinski said the Carter White House was well aware that the Begin government had “an obvious preference for a Reagan victory.” Begin’s alarm about a possible Carter second term was described too by David Kimche, who wrote in 1991 that Begin’s government believed that Carter was overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and was conspiring with Arabs to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank:

Begin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington. They had, moreover, the apparent blessing of the two presidents, Carter and Sadat, for this bizarre and clumsy attempt at collusion designed to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Extensive evidence now exists that Begin’s preference for a Reagan victory led Israelis to join in a covert operation with Republicans to contact Iranian leaders behind Carter’s back and delay release of the 52 American hostages until after Reagan defeated Carter in Nov 1980. That controversy, known as the ‘October Surprise’, and its sequel, the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-1980s, involved clandestine ties between some leading figures in today’s Iran crisis and US and Israeli officials who supplied Iran with missiles and other weaponry for its war with Iraq. The Iran-Iraq conflict began simmering in spring 1980 and broke into full-scale war in Sep 1980.

Khamenei, who was then an influential aide to Khomeini, appears to have been part of a contingent exploring ways to resolve the hostage dispute with Carter. According to Army Col. Charles Wesley Scott, who was one of the 52 hostages, Khamenei visited him on May 1 1980 at the old US consulate in Tabriz to ask whether milder demands from Iran to the Carter administration might lead to a resolution of the hostage impasse and allow the resumption of US military supplies, Gary Sick reported. Scott, noting that he had been out of touch with his government during his five months of captivity before adding that he doubted the Carter administration would be eager to resume military shipments quickly, said he told Khamenei:

You’re asking the wrong man. Frankly, my guess is that it will be a long time before you’ll get any cooperation on spare parts from America, after what you’ve done and continue to do to us.

However, Khamenei’s outreach to a captive US military officer, outlining terms that became the basis of a near settlement of the crisis with the Carter administration in Sep 1980, suggests that Khamenei favored a more traditional approach toward resolving the hostage crisis than the parallel channel that soon involved the Israelis and the Republicans. In that narrow sense at least, Khamenei was allied with Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the sitting Iranian president in 1980 who also has said he opposed dealing with Israel and the Republicans behind Carter’s back. In a little-noticed letter to the US Congress dated Dec 17 1992, Bani-Sadr said he first learned of the Republican hostage initiative in Jul 1980. Bani-Sadr said a nephew of Khomeini returned from a meeting with an Iranian banker, Cyrus Hashemi, who had led the Carter administration to believe he was helping broker a hostage release but who had close ties to Reagan’s campaign chief William Casey and to Casey’s business associate, John Shaheen. Bani-Sadr said the message from the Khomeini emissary was clear: the Reagan campaign was in league with pro-Republican elements of the CIA in an effort to undermine Carter and wanted Iran’s help. Bani-Sadr said:

He told me that if I do not accept this proposal they would make the same offer to my rivals. They have enormous influence in the CIA. Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination.

Bani-Sadr said he resisted the GOP scheme, but the plan ultimately was accepted by Khomeini, who appears to have made up his mind around the time of Iraq’s invasion in mid-Sep 1980. Khomeini’s approval meant the end of the initiative that Khamenei had outlined to Col. Scott, which was being pursued with Carter’s representatives in West Germany before Iraq launched its attack. Khomeini’s blessing allowed Rafsanjani, Karoubi and later Mousavi to proceed with secret contacts that involved emissaries from the Reagan camp and the Israeli government. The Republican-Israeli-Iranian agreement appears to have been sealed through a series of meetings that culminated in discussions in Paris arranged by Alexandre de Marenches and allegedly involving Casey, Bush Sr., Robert Gates and other US and Israeli representatives on one side, and Karoubi and a team of Iranian representatives on the other. Bush, Gates and Karoubi all have denied participating in the meeting, but de Marenches admitted arranging the Paris conclave to former NYT correspondent David Andelman. Andelman said de Marenches ordered that the secret meeting be kept out of his memoir because the story could otherwise damage the reputation of his friends, Casey and Bush. At the time, in 1991, Bush was running for re-election as president. Andelman’s sworn testimony in Dec 1992 to a House task force assigned to examine the October Surprise controversy buttressed longstanding claims from international intelligence operatives about a Paris meeting involving Casey and Bush.

Besides the testimony from intelligence operatives including Ari Ben-Menashe, there was contemporaneous knowledge of the alleged Bush-to-Paris trip by Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean, who said a well-placed Republican source told him in mid-Oct 1980 about Bush’s secret trip to Paris to meet with Iranians on the US hostage issue. Maclean passed on that information to State Department official David Henderson, who recalled the date as Oct 18 1980. Since Maclean had never written a story about the leak and Henderson didn’t mention it until Congress started its cursory October Surprise investigation in 1991, the Maclean-Henderson conversation had been locked in a kind of historical amber. One could not accuse Maclean of concocting the Bush-to-Paris allegation for some ulterior motive, since he hadn’t used it in 1980, nor had he volunteered it a decade later. He only confirmed it when approached by a researcher working with me and in a subsequent videotaped interview with me. Also, alibis concocted for Casey and Bush, supposedly to prove they could not have traveled to the alleged overseas meetings, either collapsed under close scrutiny or had serious holes.

Though the precise details of the October Surprise case remain hazy, it is a historic fact that Carter failed to resolve the hostage crisis before losing in a surprising landslide to Reagan and that the hostages were not released until Reagan and Bush had been sworn in on Jan 20 1981. It also is clear that US military supplies were soon moving to Iran via Israeli middlemen with the approval of the new Reagan administration. Nicholas Veliotes, Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, said he first discovered the secret arms pipeline to Iran when an Israeli weapons flight was shot down over the Soviet Union on Jul 18 1981, after straying off course on its third mission to deliver US military supplies from Israel to Iran via Larnaca, Cyprus. In checking out the Israeli flight, Veliotes came to believe that the Reagan-Bush camp’s dealings with Iran dated back to before the 1980 election. Veliotes said:

It was clear to me after my conversations with people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran some American-origin military equipment. It seems to have started in earnest in the period probably prior to the election of 1980, as the Israelis had identified who would become the new players in the national security area in the Reagan administration, and I understand some contacts were made at that time.

Besides tapping into stockpiles of US-made weaponry, the Israelis also arranged shipments from third countries, including Poland, according to Ben-Menashe. Since representatives of Likud had initiated the arms-middleman role for Iran, the profits flowed into coffers that the right-wing party controlled, a situation that created envy inside the rival Labor Party, especially after it gained a share of power in the 1984 elections, Ben-Menashe said. In this analysis, Labor’s desire to open its own arms channel to Iran laid the groundwork for the Iran-Contra scandal, as the Peres government tapped into the emerging neoconservative network inside the Reagan administration on one hand and began making contacts to Iran’s leadership on the other. Robert McFarlane worked with Peres’s aide Amiram Nir and Michael Ledeen in spring 1985 to make contact with the Iranians. Ledeen’s chief intermediary to Iran was Manucher Ghorbanifar, who was held in disdain by the CIA as a fabricator but claimed he represented high-ranking Iranians who favored improved relations with the US and were eager for US weapons. Ghorbanifar’s chief contact, as identified in official Iran-Contra records, was Mohsen Kangarlu, who worked as an aide to Mousavi, according to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman. However, Ghorbanifar’s real backer inside Iran appears to have been Mousavi himself. According to a Time magazine article from Jan 1987, Ghorbanifar “became a trusted friend and kitchen adviser to Mousavi.” In Nov 1985, at a key moment in the scandal as one of the early missile shipments via Israel went awry, Ghorbanifar conveyed Mousavi’s anger to the White House. According to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh:

On or about Nov 25 1985, Ledeen received a frantic phone call from Ghorbanifar, asking him to relay a message from the prime minister of Iran to President Reagan regarding the shipment of the wrong type of HAWKs. Ledeen said the message essentially was ‘we’ve been holding up our part of the bargain, and here you people are now cheating us and tricking us and deceiving us and you had better correct this situation right away.’

Earlier in the process, Ghorbanifar had dangled the possibility of McFarlane meeting with high-level Iranian officials, including Mousavi and Rafsanjani. Another one of Ghorbanifar’s Iranian contacts was Hassan Karoubi, the brother of Mehdi Karoubi. Hassan Karoubi met with Ghorbanifar and Ledeen in Geneva in late Oct 1985 regarding missile shipments in exchange for Iranian help in getting a group of US hostages freed in Lebanon, according to Walsh. As Ben-Menashe describes the maneuvering in Tehran, the basic split in the Iranian leadership put Khamenei on the ideologically purist side of rejecting US-Israeli military help, and Rafsanjani, Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi in favor of exploiting those openings in a pragmatic way to better fight the war with Iraq. The key decider during this period, as in the October Surprise phase, was Khomeini, who agreed with the pragmatists on the need to get as much materiel from the US and the Israelis as possible, Ben-Menashe said. He added that Rafsanjani and most other senior Iranian officials were satisfied dealing with the original (Likud) Israeli channel, and were offended by the Reagan administration’s double game of tilting toward Iraq with military and intelligence support while also offering weapons deals to Iran via the second (Labor) channel. He also said the Iranians were especially thankful in 1985-86 when the Likud channel secured SCUD missiles from Poland so Iran could respond to SCUD attacks that Iraq had launched against Iranian cities, adding:

After that, I got access to the highest authorities.

These included a personal meeting with Mousavi at which Ben-Menashe said he learned that Mousavi knew the history of the Israeli-arranged shipments in the October Surprise deal of 1980. He quoted Mousavi as saying:

We did everything you guys wanted. We got rid of the Democrats. We did everything we could, but the Americans aren’t delivering, they are dealing with the Iraqis.

In that account, the Iranian leadership in 1980 viewed its agreement to delay the release of the US Embassy hostages not primarily as a favor to the Republicans, but to the Israelis, who were considered the key for Iran to get the necessary military supplies for its war with Iraq.


  1. miscellany101
    Posted June 28, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    This is how I interpret this. Khamanei, the man now in charge is a straight shooter who will deal with America if it’s in the interests if his country, Iran, whereas Musavi and Rafsanjani are more dubious, shall we say. Also the latter two maintained relations with what some would call their enemy, Israel whereas Khamanei didn’t. If, while simplistic, that’s a decent assessment of what’s going on is there any wonder why some Iranians are saying the civil unrest in their country today is motivated by foreign interests?

  2. Posted June 29, 2009 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    Have you read Jane Hunter’s excellent “Israeli Foreign Policy”?

  3. niqnaq
    Posted June 29, 2009 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    Nope. I shall take a look for it. I often find it difficult to decide which is the head of the snake and which is the tail, so I need to read more about this precise issue — to be exact, US foreign policy — in order to decide on the basis of something more objective than the mere matter of US domestic political culture (which is what people usually use as evidence).

  4. Posted March 12, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the informative article. Do you know where I can find the quote that Ben-Menashi attributes to Mousavi: “We did everything you guys wanted. We got rid of the Democrats. We did everything we could, but the Americans aren’t delivering, they are dealing with the Iraqis.” Thanks!

  5. niqnaq
    Posted March 12, 2011 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    I think all the quotes are from his book, Profits of War: Inside the Secret US-Israeli Arms Network, Sheridan Square Press, 1992. I wouldn’t take him too seriously, I think he fabricates a lot. According to his Wikipedia page, he is widely seen as unreliable. He is after all a defector, whether one happens to dislike the regime he defected from or not. Craig Unger wrote in an article called “The Trouble with Ari,” which appeared in The Village Voice in Jul 1992, unfortunately not online:

    Ari has put five or six dozen journalists from all over the world through roughly the same paces. His seduction begins with a display of his mastery of the trade craft of the legendary Israeli intelligence services. A roll of quarters handy for furtive phone calls, he navigates the back channels that tie the spooks at Langley to their counterparts in Tel Aviv. His astute analysis and mind-boggling revelations can stir even the most jaded old hand of the Middle East. But trust him at your own risk. Listen to him, trust him, print his story verbatim, then sit around and watch your career go up in flames.

    You can read some lengthy extracts from Ben Menashe’s “revelations” here and here. I think you will end up feeling that a lot of what he says is fantasy.

  6. Posted March 12, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Thanks! So do you doubt that such a meeting even took place?

  7. niqnaq
    Posted March 12, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I don’t have any way of knowing. I can only speculate about Ben Menashe himself; I see him, like other defectors, as forced to earn his own living in his new home (in Canada) either by selling attractive stories to the intelligence services, or to the public. Either way, his main imperative would be to make himself sound like the ultimate insider.

  8. Posted March 12, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you for all the information! You have a wonderful blog, I will check more posts. Is there any way to just search for posts on ‘Iran’?

  9. niqnaq
    Posted March 12, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    There is an internal search engine near the bottom of the right-hand column.

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