Bill Clinton's Secret Dealings with Iran
By Robert Parry
WASHINGTON -- Several times since his election in 1992,
President Clinton has sanctioned secret indirect contacts with
high-level Iranian officials, for fact-finding or to explore
areas of possible cooperation, according to sources close to the
These discreet initiatives have been part of Clinton's
circumspect policy toward Iran whose radical Islamic government
has damaged the last three American presidents. Attuned to the
political risks, Clinton has approached all dealings with Iran
cautiously. Yet, he still finds himself embroiled in an
election-year controversy because of his "green light" to an
Iranian arms supply line to Bosnia's Muslims.
Sen. Bob Dole has accused Clinton of a duplicitous policy that
permitted violations of an international arms embargo and gave
Iran a political foothold in eastern Europe. House Speaker Newt
Gingrich plans to create a special panel to investigate what he
called Clinton's "reckless policy." Gingrich warned that
"inviting Iran into Europe could have disastrous results for
But the Clinton administration has defended the policy as legal,
arguing that the President did not seek Iran's help and only
ordered a "look-the-other-way" reaction to the arms shipments.
In effect, the Clinton policy allowed Bosnia's Muslims to defend
themselves against the better-equipped Serbs and to achieve a
rough military parity. On another track, Clinton pressed
negotiations for a peace settlement to end the bloody civil war.
Acquiescence to the Iranian weapons pipeline, however, appeared
to break a Clinton policy of consistent hostility toward the
Islamic government for its alleged support of international
terrorism. But secretly, the Clinton team has countenanced
periodic contacts with Iran through non-government
intermediaries, sources said.
On several occasions, for instance, Clinton has received
information from Iran on the long-standing allegations that the
1980 Reagan-Bush campaign sabotaged then-President Carter's
attempts to free 52 American hostages held by Iranian militants.
Carter's failure to free those hostages contributed to Ronald
Reagan's landslide victory in November 1980. The hostages
finally were released minutes after Reagan took the oath of
office on Jan. 20, 1981.
Though allegations of Reagan campaign interference had come from
a variety of individuals and officials in Europe and the Middle
East, GOP leaders have emphatically denied the so-called October
Surprise charges. In Washington, the charges are normally
treated with derision by both government officials and the news
But sources involved in Clinton's Iranian contacts told The
Consortium that senior Iranian leaders from President Ali Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani's inner circle repeatedly have confirmed that
Republican operatives did negotiate with Iran behind Carter's
back. The Iranians have specifically implicated then-vice
presidential candidate George Bush and then-campaign director
William J. Casey in these initiatives, the sources said.
Although tending to believe those Iranian claims, Clinton has
demanded that Teheran supply hard evidence before he would
consider any formal action to reopen investigations into this
historical issue, the sources said. But the Iranians balked at
going beyond oral assurances that the allegations were true.
One source said the first Clinton overture to Iran on the
October Surprise subject pre-dated his Inauguration. During the
transition period after the 1992 elections, this source said an
intermediary was dispatched to ask the Iranian government about
the allegations as the incoming Democrats tried to sort through
the Reagan-Bush Middle East policies. The fact-finding
initiative reportedly had the support of several key
administration officials, including Vice President Al Gore (who
had favored a formal Senate investigation of these charges in
1991) and deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott.
Mullahs Want a Deal
The Iranians promptly confirmed the suspicions about Republican
interference in 1980, but the two sides seemed to be speaking
past each other. While the Democrats wanted information about
the history of U.S. relations with Iran, the Iranians wanted
economic concessions from the United States, especially release
of the billions of dollars in Iranian assets still frozen from
the 1979-81 hostage crisis.
"The mullahs never give anything for free," commented one source
who participated in the early Clinton-Teheran contacts.
But the new Clinton administration refused to offer any quid pro
quo. Indeed, many senior Clinton officials opposed any contacts
with Iran until Teheran renounced terrorism. So, the initial
communications dragged on inconclusively for several months
before collapsing in early March 1993.
That early dialogue was quickly replaced by tougher anti-Iranian
rhetoric. Secretary of State Warren Christopher sharply
criticized the Islamic government for its support of
international terrorism as he developed what was called the
"dual containment" policy against Iran and Iraq.
However, some officials in the Clinton administration continued
to advocate limited contacts with Iran to identify possible
areas of cooperation, such as restraining the Iranian nuclear
program or collaborating in some areas against terrorism. In
1994, the Iranians also renewed indirect contact with the
Clinton administration over the lingering historical question of
1980. Iranian officials reasserted that the October Surprise
suspicions were true, but again failed to hand over supporting
(The Clinton White House declined to respond to written
questions from The Consortium about the sources' descriptions of
the secret communications.)
Some of the deep-seated suspicions toward Iran felt by American
policymakers, including Christopher, are rooted in the bitter
experiences of presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush as they tried
to cope with the revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran in
1979 and unleashed Islamic challenges against other pro-U.S.
leaders in the strategic region. Since 1979, U.S. dealings with
Iran's radical Islamic government -- whether to punish it or
collaborate with it -- have ended badly.
When American diplomats were seized as hostages in November
1979, President Carter first sought to negotiate their release
and then launched an ill-fated military rescue attempt. In the
1980 campaign, Bush and other Republicans alleged that Carter
planned an October Surprise, a last-minute release of the
hostages for political gain. However, Carter failed to free the
hostages and lost the election.
Shortly after Reagan took office, his administration began its
own indirect relations with Iran, first acquiescing to Israeli
military shipments and eventually authorizing secret American
weapons deliveries. Some money from those shipments in 1985-86
was diverted to finance the contra rebels fighting leftist-ruled
When those clandestine arms shipments were exposed in fall 1986,
they sparked the Iran-contra scandal. In the 1988 campaign,
Vice President Bush won the White House only after fending off
allegations of his Iran-contra role by insisting that he was
"out of the loop."
Despite the sting of the Iran-contra scandal, sources said Bush
tried to develop his own secret relationship with Iran for both
political and strategic reasons. After taking office in 1989,
Bush released $560 million in frozen Iranian assets, a decision
that raised congressional eyebrows and was never fully explained.
Then, in the early 1990s, Bush's national security team
reportedly enlisted Iranian help in gaining the freedom of other
American hostages held by Islamic militants in Beirut. But the
Iranians apparently were disappointed that Bush made no
additional concessions to them. One source close to this
initiative said Bush was always nervous that his collaboration
with Iran would be exposed.
Bush remained jittery as he sought re-election in 1992. At two
news conferences, he brought up the October Surprise issue in
response to unrelated questions and demanded that he be publicly
cleared of any suspicions. A House task force complied with
Bush's demand, but other witnesses continued to link Bush to
Bush also stonewalled continued inquiries about his alleged
Iran-contra role. He extracted a commitment from Iran-contra
special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh to delay an in-depth interview
with Bush until after the 1992 election.
But on the Friday before the election, Walsh released a new
indictment of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. The
supporting documents included records disproving Bush's "out of
the loop" line. The disclosures crippled Bush's last-minute
drive to overtake Clinton, who hung on to win by five percentage
After the election, Clinton concentrated on economic issues.
But the real history of U.S. policies toward Iran and other
Middle East countries remained a mystery to many Democrats.
Because so some of the Reagan-Bush actions bordered on criminal,
the Republicans did not leave behind a complete accounting.
The absence of a reliable history led some Clinton insiders to
seek answers through the unorthodox approach of posing questions
to foreign governments in the Middle East. One of those
channels reached into the Iranian hierarchy with queries about
the origins of Reagan-Bush contacts with the Islamic government.
Now, three years later, it is ironically the Republicans' turn
to demand fact-finding about Clinton's policy toward Iran.
(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post
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