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Offering Arms for Hostages: An Insider Recalls Another Deal That Soured

November 16, 1986|ALTON FRYE | Alton Frye is Washington director of the Council on Foreign Relations

It was another time, and the victims bore other names. But the deal was the same: arms for hostages.

Within weeks after war erupted between Iran and Iraq in September, 1980, Tehran was growing desperate for military supplies. The Iranian military had already been thrown into disarray by the political turmoil following the departure of the shah. Known for their close contact with the American military establishment, Iranian officers were finding it difficult to overcome the suspicions of the ayatollahs and the revolutionary guards. The sharp decline in Iran's military capacities, together with the debilitating factionalism of its post-shah politics, had proved too great a temptation for Baghdad. Iraq invaded, and one of history's horror stories began to unfold.

Iran's desperate need for spare parts and other supplies injected a new element into the protracted negotiations to free the 52 Americans then held hostage in Tehran. Signals of a possible "arms-for-hostages" trade came through on several channels.

One of them involved an Iranian national who had served as an agent in earlier sales of F-14 aircraft to the shah's government. Apparently acting on behalf of Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the man sought unsuccessfully to make contact directly with senior officials of the Carter Administration. A few days after the war began he turned to Mitchell Rogovin, an American attorney with whom the Iranian had dealt previously. At that point the situation became a volatile mixture of international intrigue and domestic politics--for Rogovin was serving as general counsel in Rep. John B. Anderson's presidential campaign.

Rogovin immediately came to me as the campaign's director of policy planning. The accident of Rogovin's prior acquaintance with the Iranian intermediary presented us with an extraordinary dilemma. To involve the candidate in negotiations regarding the hostages, directly or indirectly, was too dicey to contemplate. Yet if the overture had any substance at all, it had to be brought to President Carter's attention. With Anderson's approval we met with Harold Saunders, the assistant secretary of state handling the hostage crisis.

Saunders heard us out and asked the right questions. How could we be sure the agent represented those for whom he claimed to speak? Previous maneuvers to release the hostages had collapsed when contacts in Iran proved incapable of carrying out their commitments. Did this man speak for authorities who could actually deliver the Americans to freedom? Rogovin and I took no position on the merits of the proposed exchange, but we undertook to determine if the approach was valid and reliable.

When we resumed discussions with the Iranian, we pressed for credible evidence that he was authorized to act and that those he represented were in a position to bargain. On the first point, he resolved the question conclusively by communicating with Tehran and producing a detailed inventory of the materiel requested. A lengthy computer print-out provided parts numbers and specifications in such detail that they could only have come from the Iranian air force. Most of the equipment was for F-4 and F-14 aircraft, the mainstays of the Iranian force. The Iranians also wanted Phoenix missiles, the most sophisticated weaponry for the F-14s. We conveyed the parts list to Saunders for review within the government.

On Oct. 5, CIA Director Stansfield Turner briefed Anderson on the war situation and indicated that it would be difficult for the United States to provide Iran anything so potent as the Phoenix missiles. But we inferred that supplying some materiel might not be out of the question.

Meanwhile, we probed for a better sense of the agent's ability to guarantee results if the United States were willing to meet the request. A series of exchanges, interrupted for communications with Tehran, produced a straightforward offer to fly the hostages to Pakistan or another mutually agreeable location, where the Iranians would pick up a planeload of the most urgently needed supplies. But there was an even more forthcoming offer. To demonstrate their good faith, the Iranians would release Bruce Laingen, the American charge d'affaires, in advance of any deliveries. Rogovin and I reported these developments to the State Department.

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