This Day in Jewish History |

1988: Israeli Mastermind Behind Iran-Contra Dies in Plane Crash

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Amiram Nir, counter-terrorism adviser who helped orchestrate the whole "Iran-Contra" deal - in which America secretly sold weapons to Iran, which it had embargoed; the money from Iran would go to  the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Amiram NirCredit: Wikimedia Commons

On November 30, 1988, a single-engine Cessna plane crashed in Michoacan state in Mexico, west of Mexico City, killing two and injuring two. One of the dead was the man who had chartered the plane, using the name Patrick Weber. In fact, he was Amiram Nir, the former special adviser to Israel’s prime minister on counter-terrorism. He was also one of the masterminds behind the so-called Iran-Contra deal that had made headlines two years earlier.

Amiram Nir was born on December 8, 1950, and grew up in Ramat Gan, the sone of Yitzhak and Miram Nisker, Holocaust survivors who had arrived in Palestine in 1947.

He served as a tank commander in the Israel Defense Forces, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. Later, he worked as a military correspondent for Army Radio, and for Yedioth Ahronoth and for Israel Television news.

In the early 1980s, Nir began working for the Labor Party, and in 1984, when Labor chairman Shimon Peres became prime minister in a unity government with Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir, he appointed Nir his adviser on counter-terrorism, a position in which he continued after Shamir took over from Peres.

The Iran-Contra deal was meant to provide Iran, which by 1985 was in the fifth year of a seemingly endless war with Iraq, with much-needed weapons. The supplier of the weapons was to be the U.S., but since it had imposed an arms embargo on Iran, Israel took on the role of middleman.

For the U.S., the goal was to try to repair its relationship with Iran, which had been completely severed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the subsequent takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran that fall. Specifically, the U.S. hoped to get freed the seven Americans being held by Islamist organizations in Lebanon.

For Israel, the deal offered the possibility of proving its indispensability to the United States, and hopefully to improve the two countries’ strategic relationship.

Meeting with Rohani?

It remains unclear to this day who dreamed up the idea of transferring the revenues paid to Israel by Iran to anti-Communist forces in Central America working to bring down the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. That too was illegal, since Congress had voted to prohibit the Reagan administration from supporting the Contras, as the forces operating against Daniel Ortega forces were called.

Nir was the government’s liaison to the Americans, a role that, Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman reported in 2008, included briefing Vice-President George H.W. Bush on the plan in Jerusalem in July 1985, though later, when running for president, Bush denied having had any knowledge of Iran-Contra at the time.

Iranian Revolution in Shahyad SquareCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Two years ago, Israel TV Channel 10 reported something more startling: In August 1986, Nir met in Paris with Hassan Rohani, then the deputy speaker of the Iranian Majlis, today the country’s president. Posing as an American official, Nir, who secretly recorded the conversation, talked with Rohani about what could be done to improve U.S.-Iranian relations and strengthen the moderates in Iran.

Iran-Contra was exposed on November 3, 1986, when the Iranians leaked news of the transactions to the Arabic-language press. As the story unfolded, the Americans claimed that it was Amiram Nir who had proposed using the money from the sales to finance the Contras, something he vehemently denied.

Define 'avocado'

But Nir never had his opportunity to tell his side publicly. Israeli authorities would not allow him to speak with American investigators. By the following March, a frustrated Nir resigned from his official position, and soon opened an office for arms trading in London.

It is strange, therefore, that after Nir’s death, in Mexico, on this day in 1988, official sources in Israel and Mexico reported that he was there to negotiate an export deal with a large avocado distributor.

Nir is said to have died when the plane crashed – in clear weather – on the way back to Mexico City. However, the young woman accompanying him, Adriana Stanton, who was injured when the plane went down, claimed that she saw him alive and well on the ground after the crash, indicating that he was killed later. Stanton’s role and relationship with Nir have never been clarified.

A garden named after Amiram Nir, in Ramat GanCredit: Avishai Teicher, Wikimedia Commons