JERUSALEM — An emissary from then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres told the Reagan Administration during a review of the Iranian arms initiative in early 1986 that Israel was ready to release at least some of its Shia Muslim prisoners in order to help gain freedom for American hostages held by pro-Iranian Shias in Lebanon, informed Israeli sources said Tuesday.
The sources, who have access to restricted security information, said the offer was made by Peres' adviser on counterterrorism, Amiram Nir, at a meeting on or about Jan. 2, 1986, with Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, who was then the White House national security adviser, and his deputy, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
They said the offer was a key factor in reviving an initiative that less than a month earlier had appeared to be at an end.
The disclosure appeared to supply what has been an important missing piece of the Iranian arms puzzle. It has been said that Nir's trip to Washington at Peres' behest in early 1986 marked the turning point at which the Iranian arms affair moved into a second and more ambitious stage.
In the first stage, from August to December of 1985, the Israeli government operated through middlemen, with Washington's blessing, to ship American-made arms to Iran in the hope of achieving a new political opening with Tehran and winning freedom for the American hostages.
When Poindexter's predecessor, Robert C. McFarlane, failed at an angry meeting with Iranian representatives in London, on Dec. 8, 1985, to agree on terms for the release of what were then the last five American hostages in Lebanon, the initiative appeared to be at an end.
But a few days after Nir's January visit, President Reagan signed a White House "finding" that began the second stage of the program. The middlemen were largely taken out of the picture, and weapons were shipped directly from the United States to Iran, with Israeli logistical support.
What had never been satisfactorily explained is what new information or offer Nir had carried on his trip that might have convinced skeptics that it was worthwhile to give the initiative another chance.
The proposal to add Israel's Shia prisoners to the equation provided what one source here called "additional incentive" that might make the renewed effort successful where its predecessor had failed.
Asked about the offer involving prisoners, a spokesman for Peres said Tuesday, "I cannot comment in any way." Nir also refused to comment.
The Shia guerrillas were captured in southern Lebanon, where Israel and its ally, the South Lebanon Army militia, maintain a "security zone" extending six to 10 miles north of the border.
A senior Israeli military source said about 200 Shia prisoners were being held a year ago, about the same number as at present. Most of the Shias, then as now, were imprisoned at a South Lebanon Army facility at Khiam in southern Lebanon, the source said, adding: "We take into Israel only those who are detained directly by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces)."
350 Held, Shias Say
Lebanese Shia sources have said about 350 of their men are being held by Israel or its Lebanese militia allies.
It is not clear whether Israel was prepared to release all the Shia prisoners or only part of them to get the American hostages released.
The prisoner release offer would also help explain why Nir joined North, McFarlane and other Americans on a secret visit to Tehran on May 28, 1986, a visit that ultimately became the key to exposure of the initiative.
Israeli officials had said previously that Nir went along to pursue a separate "Israeli agenda."
A draft of a still-unpublished Senate Intelligence Committee report on the affair says McFarlane went to Tehran believing that in exchange for the arms on board his plane, the rest of the American hostages would be released. But, according to sources who have read the document, it says that in addition to freedom for the Shia prisoners and American arms, the Iranians demanded a complete Israeli military withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
Three months before the ill-fated Tehran mission, two Israeli soldiers from among the estimated 1,000 that patrol the security zone were wounded and captured by pro-Iranian guerrillas in Lebanon. A third was captured last September, giving Israel added incentive to make a deal with the Iranians.
The Senate document says Peres by last September was arguing that the hostages represented a hurdle that had to be crossed before the United States and Israel could hope for any broader political and strategic understanding with Iran.
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