WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration, while getting involved in an arms-for-hostages deal through a middleman in late 1985, declined to talk directly to a high-ranking Iranian official who was seeking U.S. support for the peaceful ouster of that country's radical regime, according to testimony released Monday by the Iran- contra committees.
The Administration's lost opportunity was disclosed to the committees by Michael Ledeen, a private consultant who helped make the early arrangements for the Iranian arms sale. Ledeen testified privately in closed session on four separate occasions, and the committees released nearly 600 pages of transcripts from those interviews Monday.
Ledeen's story provides further evidence that Administration officials were more concerned with freeing the hostages than with opening a new relationship with that strategically important country. He describes this obsession with freeing the hostages as "a mistake" that "turned the whole idea of what to do with Iran backwards, inside out."
He said the senior Iranian official, whom he did not identify by name, was introduced to him in the fall of 1985 by Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian businessman who acted as middleman in the early arms-for-hostage deals. Unlike Ghorbanifar, however, the unnamed official had no interest in trading weapons for hostages.
"The senior Iranian official told us that he believed it possible to, in essence, change the nature of the Iranian regime through peaceful, parliamentary methods--that this change in personnel would lead to a dramatic change in the policies of the country, including abandonment of terror and the abandonment of the policy of trying to violently export radical (terrorism), and to better relations with the Western world in general and with the United States in particular," Ledeen said.
In an interview Monday, Ledeen said that the senior Iranian official to whom he referred still holds a top-level position in the Tehran government. He added that the Reagan Administration also failed to contact several other lower-level Iranian officials who were seeking similar support from the United States.
In exchange for U.S. support, he told the committee, the Iranian official wanted nothing more from the United States than small arms to protect himself and some secure communications equipment to maintain contacts with U.S. officials. Ledeen said he later learned that Ghorbanifar gave the official $300,000 but did not know how the money was spent.
Not only did the Iranian official express no interest in obtaining missiles from the United States, he expressed "considerable opposition" to the sale of U.S. arms to the Iranian government, Ledeen said.
"He was quite angry about that because that had, in fact, strengthened his opponents," Ledeen said. "It has strengthened the very people that it was necessary to remove if we were going to transform the Iranian government into something more reasonable."
When Ledeen complained to the late CIA Director William J. Casey that the Iranian initiative had disintegrated into a straight arms-for-hostages deal, he said Casey agreed with that assessment.
"However," he added, Casey "felt that there were internal Administration reasons or 'the politics in Washington,' as he put it, that it was necessary to do the hostages first and get that out of the way and then pursue the other matter."
Ledeen offered the panels a more favorable portrayal of Ghorbanifar, who has been called a liar by the CIA and was described by former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane as "despicable."
He said that Ghorbanifar failed a CIA lie-detector test in early 1986 because the agency violated its promises to administer it in a "low-key, non-hostile environment"--failing, for example, to provide a seasoned interpreter who spoke Ghorbanifar's native tongue, Farsi. And he quoted then-White House aide Oliver L. North as saying that the CIA would "make sure that Mr. Ghorbanifar does not pass this polygraph, no matter what he says."
Ledeen also adamantly disputed reports that he himself profited from his role in the arms sales.
On other subjects, he said:
--Ghorbanifar once proposed staging a "mock assassination" of the exiled Libyan leader opposing Moammar Kadafi, who is seen as a force behind terrorism against the United States. According to the plan, the purported assassins would then persuade Kadafi to demonstrate his gratitude by disclosing the identities of his contacts in Western Europe. Weeks later, the supposedly slain leader would reappear at a "surprise party" designed to embarrass Kadafi.
Ledeen said that he and North thought it was a good idea.
--North advised Ledeen in mid-November, 1986, that he should get himself a lawyer because of his role in the Iranian arms sale. This conversation reportedly occurred at a time when North insists he had no idea the affair would lead to possible criminal charges.
An Iranian firing squad executed the clergyman responsible for revealing a secret trip to Tehran by U.S. officials. Page 12.