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U.S. OKd Iranian Arms for Bosnia, Officials Say

Balkans: Despite his public opposition to lifting embargo, Clinton reportedly let shipments go through.

April 05, 1996|JAMES RISEN and DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Clinton secretly gave a green light to covert Iranian arms shipments into Bosnia in 1994 despite a United Nations arms embargo that the United States was pledged to uphold and the administration's own policy of isolating Tehran globally as a supporter of terrorism, according to senior administration officials and other sources.

Two top U.S. diplomats, acting on instructions from the White House and the State Department, told Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in early 1994 that the United States would not object to the creation of an arms pipeline that would channel the weapons through Croatia and into Bosnia-Herzegovina for the forces of the Muslim-led government fighting in the bloody civil war.

According to the U.S. sources, Tudjman raised the idea of the secret shipments and asked what the American response would be. At the time, the U.S. was publicly committed to the arms embargo, and America's allies in Europe were concerned that a weapons influx would escalate the conflict and lead to revenge attacks against their peacekeeping troops in the region.

But after consultations with National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the two U.S. diplomats--Charles Redman and Peter W. Galbraith--relayed to Tudjman that there would be no U.S. protest over the smuggling operation.

Specifically, the U.S. officials were told to say they had "no instructions" concerning Iranian arms shipments--a diplomatic way of saying America would not object. Clinton directly participated in the decision, a senior administration official said.

Thus opened a new chapter in U.S. policy toward Bosnia, one that has remained secret until now and has had important consequences both for the combatants in the long-running war and for the nations, including the United States, attempting to deal with it.

After the decision, Tudjman was free to allow the Iranians to launch large-scale arms transfers through Croatia. The operation continued until January of this year, even after nearly 20,000 American troops began to be deployed as peacekeepers in Bosnia, Clinton administration officials said. The weapons helped fortify the badly outgunned forces of the Muslim-led government as well as the Croatians, who took a large cut of the shipments, until they were able to fight a better-armed Bosnian Serb army to a standstill.

The support also increased Iran's links with the Bosnians, which continue ominously to this day. Some Islamic fighters slipped in with the weapons and established operations.

Meanwhile, U.S. government officials not in on the secret policy shift were left in confusion. With its spy satellites trained on the region, the Central Intelligence Agency discovered the smuggling and came to wonder whether certain State Department and National Security Council officials were running an illegal covert operation reminiscent of the Iran-Contra affair, sources said.

Then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey took the evidence to the White House, prompting a top-secret six-month investigation by the Intelligence Oversight Board, the small White House panel responsible for probing wrongdoing in the intelligence community. It delivered a secret verdict that determined no laws were violated. Elsewhere, speculation and grumbling spread, particularly in Europe, that the United States was somehow violating the embargo and reneging on its pledge to uphold it. The White House repeatedly denied facilitating arms shipments to the Muslim-led government but never acknowledged its real role.

"This case is very, very sensitive and very highly classified," former White House counsel Abner Mikva, who formally referred the case to the Intelligence Oversight Board in 1994, said in an interview.

Administration officials insist that the decision on the arms shipments was justified. The United States was always sympathetic to the Muslims, who bore the brunt of Serbian territorial aggression, and amenable to easing their plight short of violating the embargo.

"The policy throughout this administration up until the expiration of the arms embargo [the ban on small arms ended in March] was that we fully abided by the terms of the arms embargo, and we did nothing to violate it or circumvent it," said a senior administration official who was authorized to discuss the matter after The Times learned of it.

"That being said, when the issue did arise, when we were approached by the Croatians as to whether we would object if they acquiesced to Iranian shipments, we took the position that we would take no position in response," the official said.

Nevertheless, the secret arrangement has left the administration in an awkward position. Among its allies and political critics, it could be open to charges of duplicity or lack of candor on a major foreign policy issue.

Iran's Influence

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