The Consortium

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 process.

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 America."

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.

Secret Contacts

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 media.

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 documentary evidence.

(The Clinton White House declined to respond to written questions from The Consortium about the sources' descriptions of the secret communications.)

Hard Feelings

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 Nicaragua.

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 that story.

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 points.

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

Return to Other Stories Index

Return to Main Archive Index Page

Return to Consortium Main Menu.