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Panels Probing Mysterious Death of Iran Affair Figure

June 13, 1987|WILLIAM C. REMPEL | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Congressional committees probing the Iran- contra scandal are investigating the mysterious death in London last summer of Iranian weapons dealer Cyrus Hashemi, who had sought unsuccessfully to become a key middleman in the arms-for-hostages trade, The Times has learned.

Also, sources say, a U.S. government informant who had worked with Hashemi claims that Customs Service officials told him the arms dealer may have been "bumped off" by government agents to protect the then-secret Iran initiative. Documents filed in federal court here this week support the accounts by these sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

According to sources in Washington and London, a Senate investigator has made two trips to England to meet with government and medical authorities familiar with the Hashemi case.

Hashemi, a rival for roles ultimately assumed by Adnan Khashoggi and Manucher Ghorbanifar in the Iran operation, died suddenly on July 21, 1986, three months before the secret arms deals were disclosed. Officially, death was attributed to a rare and virulent form of leukemia that was diagnosed only two days before Hashemi died.

Since then, persistent questions have been raised about the accuracy of those autopsy results and whether chemical or radiation injections or sprays could have caused similar symptoms.

"There are lots of sophisticated methods (of assassination) these days," a committee source said. "Given all the circumstances, we'd be ignoring our responsibility if we didn't follow up what is, at the very least, a mysterious death of an important link" in the Iran arms affair.

At the time of his death, the 47-year-old Hashemi was acting as a confidential customs informant in a $2.5-billion "sting" operation that led to the arrests of a retired Israeli general and two Khashoggi business associates. Their case is still pending.

A customs official, although expressing skepticism about suggestions of exotic foul play in the death, conceded this week: "A mystery writer couldn't have done better."

Offered Hostage Help

Hashemi first emerged as a controversial character in early attempts at clandestine relations between the United States and the revolutionary government of Iran. In 1980, after 52 hostages were seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Hashemi offered to help negotiate for their release.

"He claimed to be a cousin of Hashemi Rafsanjani (now leader of the Iranian Parliament)," recalled Lloyd Cutler, legal counsel to President Jimmy Carter at the time. "We met with him in New York, but nothing important came of it."

However, Hashemi did open contacts with officials in Tehran and went on to use those contacts to sell U.S. arms to Iran in 1981 and 1982. He and two of his brothers were indicted in 1984 for their roles in those transactions. One went to jail, but Cyrus and and the other brother fled to England, contending that the sales were part of their effort to open channels necessary to help get hostages released.

Boasted of U.S. Gratitude

Until Hashemi became a fugitive, he had boasted to friends and associates that the American government was so grateful for his help in the hostage negotiations that he was the White House choice to succeed the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the head of Iran's government.

Hashemi was barred thereafter from returning to the United States, where his son attended school and where he said he had millions of dollars in real estate investments. But he apparently found, in the American hostages held in Lebanon, a new opportunity to improve his strained relations with the U.S. government.

In June, 1985, Hashemi sent a message to William J. Casey, director of the CIA, offering to help obtain the release of hostages in exchange for his indictment's being dropped.

That message was relayed at a turning point in the Iran dealings. It was sent through a mutual friend of Casey, from Hamburg, West Germany, where Hashemi had gone to introduce a joint-venture partner, Khashoggi, to Iranian businessman Ghorbanifar. Hashemi proposed that the three men could work together on a number of business deals--including a plan to sell arms to Iran with official U.S. approval.

In a series of communications through John Shaheen, long-time friend and business associate of Casey, Hashemi told the CIA chief that he had contacts in the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

Change in Iranian Policy

Those contacts, Hashemi said, were willing to help gain the release of U.S. hostages and to consider a change in Iranian policy toward the United States in exchange for the freedom of pro-Iranian prisoners held by Kuwait, the sale of anti-tank missiles and the dismissal of Hashemi's indictment.

According to previously classified White House documents summarized by federal prosecutors in New York last week, U.S. officials refused to meet immediately with Hashemi or to drop the charges, but they did request that officials of an unnamed third country meet with him and his Iranian contacts.

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