Why Secret 1986 U.S.-Iran “Arms for Hostages” Negotiations Failed

Much has been written about “Irangate.” There was extensive press coverage of the original revelations. Then there was televised coverage of the congressional hearings on the affair. If that was not enough, there also was press coverage of the trials. Now, with Col. Oliver North the Republican Party senatorial candidate in the state of Virginia, the whole affair may be revisited by the media with even less accuracy than before.

This is not to say that nothing worthwhile has appeared in print. Theodore Draper’s book, A Very Thin Line, is a good factual account of what transpired. There is another book by Samuel Segev, The Iranian Triangle, which goes into great detail about Israel’s extensive role in the Iran-Contra affair, both in providing logistical support and lobbying senior members of the American government to take advantage of a “strategic opening” to Iran.

Vol. 2, No. 2 of the Iranian periodical Mehregan contains an excellent article about Irangate’s effect on the religious hierarchy of the Iranian government, particularly on how and why it changed the succession to the late Ayatollah Khomeini. There has been no similar attention in the American coverage to how the Iranians and Americans directly involved were affected by the affair.

As a member of the American team that arrived in Tehran on May 26, 1986, it is clear to me now that the major problems we encountered stemmed from the lack of prior preparation by both sides. Because there had been only limited advance contact with one Iranian official, we had to rely on Manuchehr Ghorbanifar as our principal advance go-between with the Iranian government. He would subsequently be referred to during the hearings as “the first channel.”

Regardless of his honesty or lack thereof, to his credit he had proposed that Colonel North and I accompany him to Tehran in April to handle preliminary negotiations with Iranian officials and draw up a jointly agreed agenda for a subsequent meeting.

As the Iran specialist and interpreter, I enthusiastically endorsed this idea, since prior misunderstandings on either side could prevent successful negotiations. However, Admiral John Poindexter, the White House national security adviser, ruled out a preliminary trip on the grounds that it was too dangerous.

Neither Colonel North nor I were able to understand why it was too dangerous for the two of us to fly unobtrusively to Tehran, but it was all right subsequently for a party of six to fly to Tehran in a chartered jet. However, with the preliminary trip ruled out, we were forced to finalize arrangements at a May 7 meeting with Ghorbanifar in London.

These arrangements were relayed by telephone to Ghorbanifar’s primary contact in Tehran, a senior official in the Iranian prime minister’s office. This official guaranteed the safety of the American team and was provided the aircraft’s registration information.

The Iranian negotiating team had not believed we would actually come to Tehran.

Our American delegation arrived in Tehran at 9 a.m. on May 25. It was headed by former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, and included Colonel North, Howard Teicher of the National Security Council staff, Amiram Nir, who was the Israeli representative, a communications officer and myself.

There were problems from the beginning. McFarlane and North felt they could only stay three or four days before people in Washington would start asking questions about their whereabouts. Given the Iranian predilection for protracted negotiations, four days was far too little time to accomplish anything significant.

The initial meeting with the four-member Iranian team commenced during the afternoon of May 25 with the Iranian spokesman enumerating American sins. The American response was to insist that what is past is past.

On the following day, although Ghorbanifar had emphasized to the American team that everything had been arranged, two problems emerged. The first was that Ghorbanifar had made some very extravagant promises to his contact in the prime minister’s office with regard to America’s willingness to sell arms in exchange for the release of hostages. Second, he had jacked up the price of the promised Hawk spares to $24.5 million. This was very high, and caused serious headaches later.

At one point that evening, while standing on the balcony of my room, I heard two members of the Iranian team in the next room arguing over how to proceed. When I asked Ghorbanifar about this, he revealed that all the political factions in Iran were represented on the Iranian team. This was to insure not only that each faction took part, but also that it assumed responsibility for keeping the negotiations secret.

Another complication was that, inorder to protect himself, Ghorbanifar had informed the Iranian team that AmiramNir was an Israeli. Subsequently, in dealings with the so-called “second channel,” the Iranians insisted there be no “Israeli footprints.”

An Ultimatum

Late in the evening of May 27, McFarlane gave the Iranian side an ultimatum. If the hostages were released before early morning, he would order the rest of the Hawk spares flown in. If not, the American party would break off the negotiations and depart Tehran.

On the morning of May 28, as we prepared to leave, the Iranians told McFarlane that they needed more time to secure the hostages’ release. They proposed that Colonel North and I stay behind in Tehran. They would guarantee our safety. McFarlane rejected this proposal and we left the hotel for the airport.

However, when we left the hotel we were taken over back roads to Shah Reza Avenue. From there we were taken to Mehrabad Airport and entered it on the military side. The pilot explained that he had been instructed to taxi the plane from the civilian to the military side of the airport.

While the others boarded the plane, I talked to two members of the Iranian team, one of whom showed up subsequently as a member of the second channel. I asked him if part of the problem was that the Iranians had not done any preparation for our coming. He conceded that the senior levels of the government only began dealing with our presence after we arrived. Both men hoped that the channel could be kept open. It was agreed that we would remain in touch via Mr. Ghorbanifar.

If the trip to Tehran had one positive result, it was to demonstrate to the Iranians that the United States was at least prepared to talk. This was the consideration that motivated the Iranians to seek the release of a hostage, even though our mission was aborted. Ghorbanifar also was active in urging the Iranians to release a hostage, as he had a financial interest in the dialogue continuing. At the end of July, Father Lawrence Janko was released.

In mid-September, the Iranian in charge of the second channel paid a secret visit to Washington, DC. The American view was that these meetings denoted progress. The Iranian side made some proposals with the aim of gradually improving Iranian-American relations. This led to subsequent meetings in Frankfurt on Oct. 8 and 9 and in Mainz, Germany at the end of October. The Mainz meeting led to the release of David Jacobsen, and the sale and delivery to Iran of 500 TOW missiles.

At the Mainz meeting, however, the second channel warned us that in mid-October a memorandum had been circulated in Tehran exposing the trip of our team to Tehran five months earlier. We were told that Ayatollah Montazeri’s son-in-law, Mehdi Hashemi, was responsible. He also had arranged to have the story surface in a newspaper published in Baalbek, Lebanon, but this had not been picked up by other media.

The second channel was concerned because it seemed certain the secret contacts would be exposed in the near future. In fact, the trip was exposed only days later in the Nov. 3 issue of the Lebanese news magazine Ash Shiraa.

Nevertheless, there was a meeting with one of the members of the second channel in Geneva on Nov. 8, 1986. The Iranians were hopeful that after a couple of months, when things had died down, we could resume the dialogue even if the U.S. was unable to continue arms shipments.

As it turned out, the Iranians underestimated the negative reaction in the United States to knowledge of the initiative. When the Contra connection also surfaced, any further dialogue became impossible.

A final meeting was held on Dec. 14 in Frankfurt. The Iranians were represented by two members of the second channel and the United States by Ambassador Charles Dunbar and me. Prior to this meeting, responsibility for the Iran initiative had been transferred from the National Security Council to the Department of State. The respective positions taken by both sides at the December meeting effectively ended the Iran initiative. There was a final phone call in mid-January which did nothing but close this communication channel between the two governments.

There was a broad consensus in Iran for improving relations with the United States.

What may be of more lasting significance than these details of the actual meetings constituting the Iran part of the Iran-Contra scandal is what they revealed about policy-making and the political forces at work in Revolutionary Iran. In 1982 Professor Rouhollah Ramazani edited a collection of essays on the then political conditions in Iran. This collection was subtitled, “In Search of a Consensus.”

It was clear at the time that within the Iranian government the necessary broad consensus on what Iran’s basic policies should be did not exist. In a democracy like the United States there may be contending parties and policies, but there is a general agreement that once a policy is adopted everyone should work to implement it. This certainly was not the case in 1986 in Iran, where it was a radical splinter group that revealed the initiative.

When the second channel arrived in Washington in September, 1986, one of the proposals it brought was for formation of a commission to meet in secret to discuss ways gradually to improve relations. The Iranians already had selected four senior officials for their side, including representatives of all factions. The Iranian second channel told us that the fact that all factions would be represented on the Iranian side demonstrated that there was a broad consensus in Iran for improving relations with the United States.

In fact, the surfacing by the radical faction of the contacts with the United States created additional political tension between that radical faction and other Iranian political factions. It took active intervention by Ayatollah Khomeini himself to end the crisis.

The lack of a political consensus continued to bedevil Iranian politics after Iran-Contra. At the time of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini on June 3, 1989, it was still such a problem that the executive branch had difficulty getting the Majlis to approve policies it proposed. In his final years, Khomeini constantly scolded the politicians in his speeches for their inability to agree on anything.

This problem continues today among Khomeini’s successors. Besides this factional infighting, the question of secular influence and religious authority deeply divides the Iranian government.

This current problem arises from the last revision of Iran’s constitution. To control executive power and not create a new shah, executive authority was divided between the president and the office of the supreme leader. The problem is that any Irani president can only serve for eight years. The supreme leader, Khamenei, assumes office for life.

George Cave, a retired U.S. government official, was interpreter and political adviser to the Robert McFarlane mission to Tehran in May 1986. Revelation of this mission to trade arms for hostages set off the Iran-Contra scandal that cast a shadow over President Ronald Reagan’s final two years in office.

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