Copyright 1986 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
November 13, 1986
HEADLINE: ISRAEL'S ROLE IN IRAN DEAL SEEN BOLSTERING ITS IMAGE AS U.S. FRIEND, ALLY
BYLINE: By DAN FISHER, Times Staff Writer
Disclosure of a secret U.S.-Israeli arms pipeline to Iran, which has stirred a political uproar in Washington, has so far resulted in no more than raised eyebrows here, even though it touches on some of the same policy questions that have been raised in connection with Israel's attitude toward terrorism. If anything, sources here suggest privately, Israel's cooperation with the effort to release American hostages held by pro-Iranian Shia Muslims in Lebanon only helps bolster its image as a friend and strategic ally of the United States. Further, these sources say, while the estimated $40 million worth of weapons and replacement parts funneled through Israel to Iran under the program will have little impact on the course of the Iran-Iraq War, it means an important boost for the Israeli defense budget, which has suffered its deepest cuts in history. And the program could still help Israel learn the fate of seven of its soldiers missing in Lebanon, at least some of whom are believed to be alive and in pro-Iranian hands.
After a bitterly controversial prisoner exchange 18 months ago, in which Israel released 1,150 Palestinian and Lebanese guerrillas in exchange for three of its captured soldiers, analysts here say the country's leaders may prefer an arms-for-prisoners exchange if such a trade is possible. Publicly, Israeli officials have either refused to comment on reports about the Iranian arms pipeline or issued carefully worded denials that they have anything to do with it.
"Israel is not supplying arms to Iran," Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told reporters Tuesday. "Israel is not dealing in the supply of arms to Iran." However, informed sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while it is not clear whether the flow of arms to Iran is continuing, Israel did take part in the effort earlier. Interviewed on NBC-TV's "Today" show Wednesday while on a Washington visit, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was asked if Israel is involved in U.S. dealings with Iran to win freedom for the five remaining U.S. hostages. He replied, "I'm not saying what was done," then added: "I think that many governments, yours and ours, are using ingenuity to bring to safety and freedom many individuals."
U.S. government sources told The Times that the pipeline was opened in 1985 and that it led to the release of three American hostages, most recently David P. Jacobsen, director of the American University Hospital in Beirut, who was freed Nov. 2. Disclosure of the arms-for-hostages arrangement has raised a political storm in Washington as well as far-reaching questions about American policy on terrorism, the Middle East and other issues. But the reaction here has been much more subdued.
'Some Explaining to Do'
"The (Israeli) government has some explaining to do," the English-language Jerusalem Post said Tuesday in an editorial noting that the reports of the U.S.-Israeli arms pipeline to Iran coincided with the European Communities' decision to impose sanctions on Syria for its role in a plot to plant explosives aboard an El Al Israel Airlines jetliner in London. The headline on the editorial asked, rhetorically, "Europe Acts but We Connive?" The Post also noted that Israel has criticized France for considering a major arms sale to Syria in the wake of the El Al incident and added: "In the meantime, the U.S. and Israel have done precisely what they tell France would be a crime for it to do -- sell lethal arms to a terrorist-sponsoring state. . . . The worldwide struggle against terrorism has taken a severe beating, and the U.S. and Israel have both put themselves in an invidious position." Two days earlier, the independent Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv commented: "If the reports are indeed correct, someone must explain to the American people, and also to Israelis, why the most steadfast parties -- President Reagan and Israel -- are ultimately agreeing to hold negotiations with a terrorist state like Iran. Why are bombs dropped on (Libyan leader) Moammar Kadafi while talks are conducted with (Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini? . . . An authoritative and official clarification on the situation is now required, and if Washington is unwilling to supply it, Jerusalem need not act the same way."
Exception, Not Rule
But even such mild criticism has been the exception rather than the rule. "The main difference is that we got a request from the President (Reagan)," said an Israeli source close to official thinking. "This is almost like getting the Torah from Sinai. I don't know of any (Israeli) prime minister . . . even (Israel's founding father, David) Ben-Gurion, who should have told the President, 'No!' " A senior government official, who emphasized that he would not confirm reports of the arms pipeline, said: "We are very close allies of the United States. And as such, you help us and, when we can, we help you." Another source with knowledge of the plan went further, saying: "In a way this is very good for Israel. You know, we've been getting blamed for selling arms to Iran for more than five years, but now, in this case at least, everyone knows we did it because the United States wanted us to."
Sea, Airport Facilities
The full extent of Israeli involvement in the arms-for-U.S.-hostages arrangement may never be known. But Israel reportedly supplied much of the weaponry and parts shipped to Iran as well as the use of its still-extensive contacts in Iran to cement the deal, and the use of its sea and airport facilities to transfer the equipment. Iran paid for some of the military supplies, and the United States footed the bill for the rest, either with cash or new equipment to replace what was sent to Tehran, according to another Israeli source. He dismissed reports that an Israeli middleman at one point returned a $10-million check from Iran meant as payment for one arms shipment. This source emphasized that the money was important because of deep cuts in Israel's defense budget over the past two years. "Forty million dollars means 1,000 career officers who can keep their jobs for another year," he said. Israel sees a continuation of the Iran-Iraq War as being in its interest, on the theory that as long as the two nations are fighting each other, they will have no resources for fighting the Jewish state. Seen as Greater Threat In the long term, however, Israeli strategic doctrine is that a victorious and fundamentalist Iran is a greater threat than a victorious and secular Iraq, because of the vulnerability of the entire region to Tehran's Islamic revolutionary fervor. What Israel is apparently banking on, however, is that as welcome as the arms and spare parts may be to Iran, they cannot tip the balance in the war. As another Israeli analyst put it, they allow Jerusalem to score points with what it sees as more pro-Western elements who might take power after the departure of Khomeini, who is 86 years old, without any real threat to Israeli interests if they do not.
Issue of Missing Soldiers
There has been no public mention here of Israel's missing soldiers in connection with the Iranian arms program, but court records in a federal arms smuggling case in New York disclosed that Israeli officials early this year sought Iranian help in learning the fate of four soldiers who disappeared in Lebanon. Three of the four, Zecharya Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, have been missing since a tank battle near Sultan Yaakoub on June 11, 1982; the fourth, Samir Asad, was reported captured near Sidon in April, 1983. Since those four names were turned over last January to a cousin of the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani, three more Israeli soldiers, two of them badly wounded, have been captured in Lebanon.
Copyright 1986 The Times Mirror Company