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Bush Sr.'s Iraq-Iran Secrets

By Robert Parry
May 25, 2004

Before the Iraq War spins further out of control, former President George H.W. Bush should sit down his son, George W. Bush, and level with him about the real history of U.S. relations with Iraq, Iran and Israel’s Likud Party – even if the father has to admit to illegal and unethical conduct in the process.

The latest Iraq embarrassment – allegations that the longtime U.S. favorite Ahmed Chalabi and the intelligence chief for Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress were Iranian spies – derives from the younger Bush’s continuing failure to see the Middle East as it is, not how he might like it to be. While Bush junior crafts hopeful nation-building plans, he doesn’t seem to have the foggiest notion who the players are, where their true allegiances may lie or why these conflicting interests could undermine U.S. policy.

These are relationships that the senior George Bush knows well because he was there as they took shape over the past quarter century. But he also has spent almost as much time covering up the facts. Now, like the Marlon Brando character in “The Godfather” explaining Corleone family secrets to son Michael, elder Bush needs to tell junior Bush about these hard facts. Otherwise, junior will continue to stumble through the political mine fields of the Middle East, not knowing where the bombs are buried, who to trust or what their past connections to U.S. adversaries may have been.

For instance, Bush should have suspected that Chalabi, an Iraqi Shiite who has lived most of his life in exile, might have been in league with Iranian leaders with whom he met often. They share a background in the Shiite sect of Islam – and a burning hatred toward Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government. Saddam suppressed Iraqi Shiites and battled Iran in a bloody eight-year war starting in 1980. It has long been Iran’s goal to see a friendly Shiite-controlled government in Iraq. Chalabi, in turn, needs a political base of support that promises more durability than Washington.

Israeli Interests

As Chalabi’s operation fed anti-Saddam propaganda into the U.S. decision-making machinery, Bush also should have been alert to the Israeli role in opening doors for Chalabi in Washington. One intelligence source told me that Israel’s Likud government had quietly promoted Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress with Washington’s influential neoconservatives. That would help explain why the neoconservatives, who share an ideological alliance with the conservative Likud, would embrace and defend Chalabi even as the CIA and the State Department denounced him as a con man.

The idea of Israel promoting an Iranian agent also is not far-fetched if one understands the history. The elder Bush could tell his son about the long-standing strategic ties that have existed between Israel and Iran, both before and after the Islamic revolution of 1979. It was Menachem Begin’s Likud Party that rebuilt the covert intelligence relationship in 1980. Since then, it has been maintained through thick and thin, despite Iran’s public anti-Israeli rhetoric.

Israeli governments have long made a high priority out of forging alliances with countries like Iran on the periphery of the Arab world to divert Arab antipathy that otherwise could be concentrated on Israel. Plus, Israel and Iran had an important enemy in common: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Both Israel and Iran had a lot to gain by convincing the United States to remove their hated adversary.

The elder George Bush also understands the rise of the neocons, a movement that took shape in the late 1970s and helped the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980. Many of the neocons were disaffected Democrats who favored a harder line against the Soviet Union (which many conservatives argued was then in the ascendancy) and in support of Israel (at a time when U.S. diplomats were pushing Israel toward a land for peace swap with the Palestinians).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the neoconservatives have replaced their anti-Soviet hard-line with demands for confronting other emerging U.S. adversaries, such as China, while still pushing for U.S. policies in the Middle East that parallel those of Israel’s Likud. Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War and his decision not to eliminate Saddam Hussein, the elder Bush has been on the outs with the neocons, who see him as someone with overly close ties to the Arab oil states, especially Saudi Arabia.

So, the neoconservatives, who now hold key positions in the White House and the Pentagon, might well have been receptive to the information that Chalabi’s INC was selling since it served an anti-Saddam cause favored by them and by Israel. It’s less clear whether the younger Bush was deceived by the manufactured evidence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or simply saw his own political agenda served by it.

Either way, it’s obvious that the younger George Bush lacks his father’s detailed understanding of how these complex relationships fit together. Before becoming President, George W. Bush’s only direct contact with the troubled region came in 1998 on a trip highlighted by a helicopter flight with Israel’s Ariel Sharon over the Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza. Recalling the scene later, Bush remarked, “Looked real bad down there. I don't see much we can do over there at this point. I think it's time to pull out of that situation.” [See Ron Suskind’s Price of Loyalty.]

Severed Ties

By contrast, the elder Bush has a deep reservoir of knowledge about the Middle East and the interlocking relationships. He served as CIA director in 1976 at a time when Israeli intelligence had close ties to the Shah’s secret services in Iran. With the Islamic revolution in 1979, those ties were severed, but were quickly repaired.

Though the government of radical Islamic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was denouncing both the U.S. and Israel (Big Satan and Little Satan), Iran also needed access to U.S. military equipment to keep the Shah’s American-supplied army and air force functioning. Even during the U.S.-Iranian crisis over the holding of 52 U.S. hostages in 1980, Menachem Begin’s Likud government arranged shipments of tires for Iranian air force jets.

Israel took the risk of offending President Jimmy Carter over the tire sale because Israel viewed its relationship with Iran as a national security priority. Israeli concern about the regional balance of power also deepened when Iraq attacked Iran in September 1980 (allegedly with the encouragement of the Carter administration). Israel had a strong stake in preventing an Iraqi victory in the oil-rich border area  because it could have made the ambitious Saddam Hussein a dominant force. [For details, see Robert Parry's Trick or Treason.]

The Begin government also believed that President Carter was overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and was conspiring to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. “Begin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington,” wrote senior Israeli intelligence official David Kimche in The Last Option.

“They had, moreover, the apparent blessing of the two presidents, Carter and [Egyptian President Anwar] 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,” Kimche continued. “This plan – prepared behind Israel’s back and without her knowledge – must rank as a unique attempt in United States’s diplomatic history of short-changing a friend and ally by deceit and manipulation.”

Begin’s Likud government particularly dreaded the prospect of a second Carter term. “Unbeknownst to the Israeli negotiators, the Egyptians held an ace up their sleeves, and they were waiting to play it,” Kimche wrote. “The card was President Carter’s tacit agreement that after the American presidential elections in November 1980, when Carter expected to be re-elected for a second term, he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby.”

Bush Allegations

Another Israeli intelligence officer, Ari Ben-Menashe, said these combined pressures on Begin led the Likud leader to throw in his lot with the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 by helping to arrange meetings between Iranian leaders and senior Republicans. Ben-Menashe has asserted that George H.W. Bush personally participated in a key meeting in October 1980 in Paris, a claim that Bush denied at two press conferences in 1992 but was never questioned about in a formal government investigation.

Since then, additional evidence has emerged linking the senior Bush to the clandestine Republican contacts with Iran during the 1980 campaign. Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean said he was informed by a well-placed Republican Party source in mid-October 1980 that Bush was heading to Paris for a meeting with Iranians about the hostage crisis.

David Andelman, a former New York Times correspondent who was assisting French intelligence chief Alexandre deMarenches on his memoirs, said deMarenches described arranging meetings between Republicans and Iranians in Paris but insisted that be left out of the book for fear it would hurt his friend, George H.W. Bush.

After checking its intelligence files at the request of the U.S. Congress, the Russian government submitted an extraordinary report in January 1993 that identified the senior George Bush as one of several Republicans who negotiated with the Iranians in Paris during the 1980 campaign. The congressional task force that had requested the Russian report as part of its “October Surprise” investigation never made the report public or even disclosed that it existed.

I discovered the Russian document in a storage box left behind by the task force, which – by the time the Russian report arrived – had already decided to “debunk” the allegations of a Republican-Iranian hostage deal. The task force cleared Bush without ever questioning him. [For more on the Russian report, see Consortiumnews.com’s “October Surprise X-Files.”]

Later in 1993, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who followed Begin to power in Israel, became another voice endorsing the allegations of a Republican-Iranian “October Surprise” deal in 1980. When asked whether there had been a Republican “October Surprise” operation, Shamir responded, “Of course, it was.” The 52 American hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, just as Ronald Reagan was beginning his inaugural address.

Though the allegations of a Republican-Iranian deal have remained in doubt, investigations into the controversy confirmed that Israel did resume military shipments to Iran in 1981 with the knowledge of Reagan-Bush officials who permitted the secret deliveries to go forward. By the mid-1980s, the Reagan-Bush administration was playing both sides of the Iran-Iraq war, funneling financial and some military support to Iraq while also selling missiles to Iran, both through third countries, such as Israel, and directly from U.S. stockpiles.

Some of that intrigue was exposed during the Iran-Contra and Iraqgate scandals, but the senior Bush succeeded in curtailing the investigations, leaving many questions unanswered. [For more details, see Robert Parry’s Trick or Treason.]

Rise of the Neoconservatives

The election of President Reagan and Vice President Bush in 1980 also coincided with the emergence of a political movement known as neoconservatism. Many neoconservatives had been liberals or even leftists but broke with the Democratic Party in the 1970s to favor a more aggressive policy toward the Soviet Union. The neoconservatives also wanted a more staunchly pro-Israeli position in the Middle East.

The Reagan-Bush administration rewarded the neoconservatives for their support in the 1980 campaign with their first taste of executive power, giving them credentials that would prove crucial more than two decades later in their ability to push through the Iraq War.

Elliot Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz became assistant secretaries of state in the Reagan-Bush administration. Abrams now handles Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, and Wolfowitz was an architect of the Iraq policy as deputy secretary of defense. One of Wolfowitz’s proteges from the Reagan-Bush era, I. Lewis Libby Jr., is now Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and a leading hawk on Iraq. Another Iraq policy architect, Richard Perle, was an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan. Perle’s former counsel, Douglas Feith, is now under secretary of defense for policy where he strongly promoted the invasion of Iraq.

Military officers, such as retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, have blamed the Bush administration’s neoconservatives for many of the mistakes in judgment that have led to the deaths of almost 800 U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Zinni, who was Bush’s Middle East envoy, said the overly optimistic assumptions about the invasion’s aftermath amounted to “at minimum, true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility; at worst, lying, incompetence, and corruption,” according to his book, written with Tom Clancy, entitled Battle Ready.

In an interview with CBS News’s “60 Minutes” on May 23, Zinni also questioned the administration’s insistence on staying the course in Iraq. “The course is headed over Niagara Falls,” Zinni said.

Chalabi’s Disinformation?

Many of the overly optimistic assumptions behind the war, as well as much of the supposed evidence of Iraqi WMD stockpiles, came from Chalabi and his associates. After the invasion, U.S. forces discovered that much of the information was bogus.

Initially, many observers suspected that Chalabi had promoted the false information either to make money or to get the U.S. to install him in power in Iraq. But the new allegations suggest that Chalabi also may have been a stalking horse for Iranian leaders seeking to get the United States to do what Iran couldn’t do: remove Saddam Hussein from power.

On May 21, Chalabi’s Baghdad home was raided by U.S.-backed Iraqi police as part of an investigation into suspicions that INC officials had passed sensitive intelligence about U.S. troop positions to Iran. A warrant also was issued for the arrest of Aras Habib, Chalabi’s top intelligence adviser, on a variety of charges. Appearing on U.S. news programs, Chalabi has denied the “smear” and blamed CIA Director George Tenet for spreading the allegations.

Investigative journalist Knut Royce of Newsday reported on May 22 that “the Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that a U.S.-funded arm of Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress has been used for years by Iranian intelligence to pass disinformation to the United States and to collect highly sensitive American secrets, according to intelligence sources.”

Royce quoted an intelligence source as saying “Iranian intelligence has been manipulating the United States through Chalabi by furnishing through his Information Collection Program information to provoke the United States into getting rid of Saddam Hussein.” The source also said the program, which was supported by $340,000 a month from the Defense Department, passed on classified U.S. documents to Iran. The DIA’s findings were based on a review of thousands of internal documents, Royce reported.

Patrick Lang, former director of the DIA’s Middle East branch, said he learned from his associates that Chalabi’s supplying of evidence about Iraq’s WMD was essentially an Iranian intelligence scam, “one of the most sophisticated and successful intelligence operations in history,” according to Royce’s article. [Newsday, May 22, 2004]

As recently as four months ago, Chalabi was so well regarded by the Bush administration that he was given a spot of honor at Bush’s State of the Union speech, behind First Lady Laura Bush.

New Embarrassment

The prospect that the U.S. was lured into a disastrous war in Iraq as part of an intelligence scheme hatched in Tehran would be another humiliation for the Bush administration. The image of the United States paying millions of dollars to Chalabi’s operation to buy bogus information from Iranian intelligence follows on the heels of the international opprobrium over the photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.

But the alleged Iranian intelligence trap could only have been sprung because key Bush advisers were inclined to believe the bogus information in the first place, since it fit their own agendas. In addition, Bush lacked the sophistication and the knowledge to bring adequate skepticism to what he was hearing, assuming that he wanted to. Though his father has that depth of understanding, the younger Bush says he hasn’t sought out his father’s counsel on Iraq. Nor is advice from his father’s top confidants welcome.

When the elder Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft weighed in on Aug. 15, 2002, with a Wall Street Journal opinion piece warning against an invasion of Iraq, the younger Bush’s NSC adviser Condoleezza Rice reportedly gave Scowcroft a tongue-lashing. He subsequently stayed out of the debate. “Neither Scowcroft nor Bush senior wanted to injure the son’s self-confidence,” wrote Bob Woodward in Plan of Attack.

When questioned about getting his father’s advice, the younger George Bush sounds almost petulant. “I can’t remember a moment where I said to myself, maybe he can help me make the decision,” Bush told Woodward.

Bush said he couldn’t remember any specifics about conversations he may have had with his father about the conflict. “I’m not trying to be evasive,” Bush said. “I don’t remember. I could ask him and see if he remembers something. But how do you ask a person, What does it feel like to send somebody in and them lose life? Remember, I’ve already done so, for starters, in Afghanistan. …

“You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.”

Though Bush’s biological father may not have that grander authority, the senior Bush would have the details about who did what to whom in the Middle East during the 12 years of Republican rule from 1981 to 1993. Very little of that information can be found in the history books or even in the classified government files, since much of what was done, if recorded, could have opened the participants to scandal or criminal prosecution. Some of the secret transactions involved illegal arms sales, while other acts may have undercut President Carter’s hostage negotiations in 1980, behavior that could be construed as close to treason.

The full stories reside only in the minds of the principal players. The senior Bush is one who could fill his son in on the facts.

In the 1980s, while with the Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. He is currently working on a book about the secret political history of the two George Bushes.

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