NEW YORK — Although the Iran of 1972 under the shah was very different from the Iran of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1986, the underlying impulse and the policy instruments adopted by the United States in both cases were remarkably similar.
In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon offered the shah essentially unlimited access to U.S. military equipment. He agreed, in collaboration with Israel, to lend military support and training to the Kurds in their battle against Iraq, thereby weakening Iraq's ability to threaten both Iran and Israel. In return he asked for access to intelligence sites to monitor Soviet activities and help safeguard U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. Nixon summed it up in two words, looking across the table at the shah at the end of their meetings, "Protect me."
In 1985-86, the United States was seeking different forms of protection--from international terrorism and for the lives of U.S. hostages in Lebanon. But President Ronald Reagan and a small circle of advisers were prepared, as were their predecessors in 1972, to use arms sales and military support as an inducement to a strategic relationship with Iran that would enhance U.S. intelligence, thwart Soviet influence and safeguard U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf.
The new story began in late 1982 when a Soviet diplomat and intelligence operative in Tehran, Vladimir Kuzichkin, defected to British intelligence. Kuzichkin was spirited out of Iran to London with a substantial collection of documents detailing Soviet covert activities inside Iran. He was debriefed by both the British and the Central Intelligence Agency and then, in a classic double cross, his revelations were fed back to the intelligence services of the revolutionaries in Tehran.
Shortly thereafter, the Soviet-dominated Tudeh (Masses) Party in Iran was closed down, its top leadership was arrested, several hundred Iranians were taken into custody and 18 Soviet diplomats were summarily expelled. Within a period of several months, much of the subterranean network that the Soviets had painstakingly developed in Iran was in dissarray. This incident demonstrated to Western intelligence officials that, despite Iran's deep hostility, cooperation on matters of fundamental security was still possible.
The Israeli connection was a key factor in shaping Administration choices on Iran. Israel had for years displayed an aggressive interest in pursuing arms sales to Iran. That was dramatized to me in early 1980 when I was on the National Security Council staff. At that time, American hostages were still prisoners in Tehran and the United States was attempting to impose a worldwide embargo on arms shipments to Iran. I was astonished to see a cable from Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin notifying us that his country had shipped at least one planeload of Israeli-manufactured parts for F-4 fighter planes to Iran and was seeking U.S. approval to proceed with more. The answer was instant, unequivocal and negative.
As far as I know, Israeli arms shipments ceased until the hostages were released in January, 1981. But after the hostages came home, Israeli officials again sought U.S. approval to sell arms to Iran.
Israel's interests in supplying arms to Iran were not difficult to discern. First, Israel wanted to maintain some leverage that might help protect the large Jewish community in Iran. Second, Israel had traditionally attempted to keep Iraq tied down on its eastern border, facing away from Israel. Third, Israel retained important intelligence assets in Iran after the revolution. Finally, Israel acknowledged that arms sales were good business; military items constitute more than a quarter of Israel's industrial exports.
Iran, meanwhile, from the earliest days of the 1979 revolution, had been engaged in a bitterly contested power struggle, as Khomeini attempted to consolidate his own vision of a theocratic state. The difficulties were candidly described in 1986 by the powerful speaker of Parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani, when he said "there are at present two relatively powerful factions in our country with differences of view on how the country should be run . . . . They may in fact be regarded as two parties without names."
By late 1984, the pragmatists in one of those nameless parties were becoming increasingly interested in developing ties with the outside world. Iran was also concerned about the Soviet Union, which was beginning to make seriously threatening noises through its clandestine Persian-language broadcasting station, the so-called National Voice of Iran.
While clandestine Soviet radio was brandishing the stick of counterrevolution, officials in Moscow were dangling the carrot of technical assistance and businesslike relations. In May, the Iranian prime minister was able to say that Iran had "outstanding relations" with the Soviet Union.