Nearly two decades after luring the United States and Israel into selling arms to Iran's ayatollahs in exchange for the release of hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, in a deal that became known as Irangate or the Iran-Contra affair, Michael Ledeen and Manouchehr Ghorbanifar are back in the spotlight, starring in a new political and intelligence scandal.
This time, however, they are involved not only in an attempt to go behind the backs of the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency and to persuade the Bush Administration to establish secret contacts with the Iranian regime but are also suspected of being manipulated, unwitting, by Iranian intelligence. A new report by the U.S. Senate suggests that Iranian intelligence used Ledeen and Ghorbanifar to feed disinformation to neoconservatives in the administration of President George W. Bush in a bid to encourage a U.S. invasion of Iraq in order to defeat Saddam Hussein, Iran's arch-enemy.
The new affair is another chapter in the book of Bush administration intrigues, plots and conspiracies, all aimed at fabricating evidence to justify its decision to invade Iraq. The report, by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, focuses on secret contacts in Rome in 2001-2003.
Participating in the contacts were Ledeen; Ghorbanifar; a few unnamed Iranian exiles connected to the Revolutionary Guards; and senior Pentagon officials Larry Franklin and Harold Rood, who were at the time associated with the neocons. The existence of the meetings was recently exposed by investigative reporters in the U.S., but the Senate report is giving them a new significance.
The report states, among other things, that the Iranian exiles may have been sent by Iranian intelligence "to access and influence the highest levels of the United States government."
Today Ledeen is a businessman and consultant. He was a policy and national security adviser to a number of U.S. administrations and is considered a well-connected expert on Italy.
These connections enabled him to arrange the meetings in Rome, which were also attended by SISMI, Italy's military intelligence agency at the time.
Ghorbanifar is a former officer in SAVAK, the Shah's notorious security service. He fled Iran after the February 1979 Islamic Revolution and became a businessman and arms dealer with a dubious reputation. He maintained his ties to Iran's intelligence agency, now under the control of the ayatollahs.
In 1984-1986 Ledeen and Ghorbanifar became the main figures in Irangate. Ledeen, in his role as an external consultant to the National Security Council, persuaded the administration of president Ronal Reagan to change its policy and to hold secret talks with Iran.
At the same time period Ledeen visited Israel and convinced officials including director general of the Foreign Ministry, David Kimche, to open similar back channels to Tehran. Ghorbanifar, using his contacts with businessman Jackob Nimrodi, further contributed to the effort to lead the government of Shimon Peres to work with Iran. Despite the Mossad's rejection of the idea, because of Ghorbanifar dubious character and unreliability, Jerusalem agreed to sell arms to Tehran, first via Nimrodi and his partner Al Schwimmer and later through Amiram Nir, Peres' adviser on terrorism. In return for the arms, Iran persuaded Hezbollah to release American hostages. Iran also paid Israel tens of millions of dollars.
Some of the money disappeared. Israel, for its part, after paying commissions to the arms dealers, deposited the money into secret accounts handled by senior Washington officials such as then national security adviser such as Colonel Oliver North. The Reagan administration used the funds to buy arms for the Nicaraguan rebels, the Contras. The entire operation was carried out, in a violation of U.S. law, without informing Congress and while keeping the CIA in the dark.
Exposure of the affair led to major judicial investigations within the U.S. The CIA also issued a confidential directive to its agents to stay away from Ghorbanifar, who it called "not credible."
But 15 years later, as if nothing had happened, Ledeen and Ghorbanifar again managed to change U.S. foreign policy. They persuaded then deputy national security adviser, Stephen Hadley (who is now the national security adviser) as well as senior Pentagon officials (Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz) to arrange meeting between officials from the Pentagon's Iranian desk and Iranian exiles who purportedly had ties to Iran's highest echelon. Once again, the CIA was left out of the picture. When Ghorbanifar met in the 1980s with Mossad officials he presented them with a sheet of paper on which he had written his recipe for a relatively simple "regime change" in Iran.
This time, at the meeting in a Rome bar, he did not have a prepared page in his pocket. Instead, he sketched a similar idea on a napkin. This time, fortunately, Israel has no direct connection to the incident, apart from the fact that during this period Franklin visited Israel several times, meeting with defense officials to exchange assessments of the situation in Iran.
A few years ago Franklin was indicted on charges of giving information relating to Iraq and Iran to two officials from the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby.
The two are soon to be tried on charges of disclosing classified information about Iran and Iraq to Israel. Franklin is to be the key witness for the prosecution.
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