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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 1986, Page 2

Special Report

Israeli Arms Sales to Iran

By Jane Hunter

In September, when the Israeli government radio accused Iranian troops of training Lebanese Shiite guerrillas for attacks on the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army, and said that Iranians themselves might also have been among those who attacked Israeli positions in Lebanon, the US media reported those charges in great detail. None found the time or space, however, to note how ironic it was for Israel to complain about Iranian military activities.

Iran might have been hard put to continue its costly six-year-old war with Iraq—not to mention simultaneously stirring up followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Lebanon—if Israel had not been willing to sell the Khomeini government great quantities of the weapons Iran desperately needed to keep its army in the field. That is only one of the anomalies of Israel's booming arms trade. US law and US policy also come in for some stretching and twisting.

Over the course of the Gulf war, Iran's quest for weapons has become legendary, with many countries and hordes of private arms dealers eager to conclude arms deals and reap the premium commissions Iran offers. Israel, with standing access to the same models of US-made arms upon which the Shah based Iran's arsenal, and with its desire to build up an indigenous arms industry, has led the pack. The London Observer estimated that Israel's arms sales to Iran total $500 million annually.

Before 1979, when Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi held power, Iran was the world's biggest buyer of Israeli arms. The Islamic fundamentalist government which succeeded the Shah militantly damned Zionism up and down and hung a prominent Iranian Jew for "spying for Israel." In 1980, however, when the Iraq-Iran war began, Iranian representatives met in Paris with Israel's deputy defense minister and worked out a "Jews for arms" deal. Iran permitted Jews to emigrate and Israel sold Iran ammunition and spare parts for Chieftain tanks and US-made F-4 Phantom aircraft. Channeled through a private Israeli arms dealer, this particular agreement appropriately ended in 1984, when Iran was slow in paying its bills.

Although secrecy is the first principle in the netherworld of arms trading, details of several subsequent major Israeli arms sales to Iran have come to light. In 1981, Ya'acov Nimrodi, an intimate of leaders across the Israeli political spectrum, sold the Iranian defense ministry $135,842,000 worth of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, 155 mm. mortars, ammunition, and other weapons through his Tel Aviv-based company, International Desalination Equipment, Ltd. From 1955 to 1979 Nimrodi had been Israel's military attache in Tehran.

On July 24, 1984, Radio Luxembourg reported that Nimrodi had met in Zurich with the deputy defense minister and the top intelligence officer of Iran and with Rif'at al-Assad, the brother of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Swiss government sources said that the meeting resulted in a deal to ship 40 truckloads of weapons a day from Israel to Iran, via Syria and Turkey.

On September 15, 1985, a DC-8 cargo plane returning from Iran and supposedly bound for Malaga, Spain, made an emergency landing in Tel Aviv. Investigation revealed that the plane— recently acquired from an obscure Miami firm by a shadowy Brussels-based "Nigerian" company—had been flying Hawk missiles from the US to Iran via Israel. A Boeing 707 registered to the company had been carrying loads of 1,250 TOW missiles from Israel to Iran via Malaga.

At about the same time the London Observer reported that a ship carrying 25,000 tons of Israeli material was making a rush delivery, sailing directly to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas rather than first going to Zaire where the Iranian buyers would inspect the cargo.

In May, 1986, West German authorities foiled an $81 million ammunition deal and uncovered a tank deal in the process. Charged in the case were an Israeli and a former Israeli citizen. The West German weekly Stern said a telex from the state-owned Israeli Military Industries dated April 1 indicated official Israeli involvement.

In June of this year a Swedish businessman was reported to have acted as intermediary for Israeli sales of explosives to Iran. The shipments went from Israel to Iran via Argentina. In September, 1986, United Press International reported that the Danish Sailor's Union had logs and records to prove that since May a Danish freighter had taken four 900-ton shipments from the Israeli port of Eilat to Bandar Abbas in Iran. The union was certain the arms were US-made.

Re-selling without permission arms acquired from the US and the sale of US weapons to Iran are both prohibited by US law. In separate incidents involving sales negotiated within the US, federal authorities have arrested two Israeli military reservists and a Yugoslav-American, Paul Cutter. Cutter, who has connections to Israeli Minister of Trade and Industry Ariel Sharon, and who also told co-workers he was authorized to sell arms Israel captured in Lebanon in 1982, has been convicted and jailed. The Israeli government disassociated itself from these men.

Now, however, a federal "sting" operation has cracked the biggest arms deal yet. US Customs Service agents drew retired Israeli army general Avraham Bar-Am and 12 co-conspirators (three of them Israelis) into a carefully-laid trap last April, Tapes made by the Customs Service reveal Israeli government involvement in a $2.6 billion conspiracy to sell US-made arms to Iran through third countries.

On recordings made available to the Chicago Tribune, Samuel Evans, a London-based American lawyer who coordinated two separate conspiracies to offer sophisticated aircraft, missiles, and ordnance to Iran, is heard to say that he would be discussing the deal with Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and that the authority for the transaction went "right through to (Prime Minister) Peres."

The case is particularly serious because federal authorities presented evidence in their indictment that the deal included phony re-export certificates attesting that Israel was re-selling surplus arms to Turkey, which is legal, rather than to Iran, which is not.

General Bar-Am claimed from his jail cell that he had an Israeli government license to sell arms. Denying any involvement, Israeli officials insisted that the license was only to prospect for sales, one of a thousand distributed to former military officers. The Israelis have worked hard to bolster this contention. In late September Defense Minister Rabin called a press conference to say the permit process would be changed to avoid the appearance of government approval. But an earlier statement by Ya'acov Nimrodi that such sales are government-authorized and that permits come from a special department in the Israeli Defense Ministry and are difficult to get contradicts Rabin—as have many reports over the years that it is common Israeli practice to sell arms through fronts and agents.

The US government has avoided dealing head-on in public with the Israeli government over this issue. When the Bermuda conspirators were arrested it was reported that the Israeli ambassador was called in for a stern warning. It is unlikely, however, that prosecutors will focus on the Israeli government's role when the Bermuda conspirators stand trial in New York this November.

Over the last six years Washington has several times expressed its disapproval of arms sales to Iran. During the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, Israel was specifically asked to stop deliveries while Iran was holding US hostages and it is possible that Israel complied. At an October I luncheon he hosted, Secretary of State George Shultz assured diplomats from the Arab states of the Gulf that Israel had told US officials it had stopped selling arms to Iran in 1983. Shultz, in fact, accused the Soviet Union of not clamping down on sales by its allies to Iran!

During the Reagan administration US policy has swung through various levels of support for Iraq. Israel's often-stated policy on the Gulf war is to keep it going as long as possible because the dreadful carnage ties up the combatants and prevents either from attacking Israel.

In 1983, then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon blurted out duringa US speaking engagement that Israel sold arms to Iran because it regarded Iraq as the greater enemy, and that the sales had been thoroughly discussed with US officials. US officials acknowledged such discussions but denied that Israel had US permission."

Last spring what turned out to be an Israeli disinformation campaign propounded the notion that the US had asked Israel to sell arms to Iran. The tapes in the Bar-Am case are said to suggest that the US was considering shifting its support to Iran while the conspiracy-sting was being hatched.

This kind of last-ditch Israeli government defense, probably supported by pro-Israel political obscurantists in Washington, has almost certainly been used before. When it was revealed that Israel was shipping arms to the Soviet-supported government of Ethiopia to fight Western-assisted resistance movements, and arms to the Argentine junta during the Malvinas-Falklands war, Israeli disinformationists in Washington sought to argue that Israeli actions which directly contravened stated US government objectives were really part of a "double game" somehow coordinated with Washington. This time, arrests by the US government of Israeli "players" have left no doubt that the US interest is to halt, not abet, Israeli arms sales to America's enemies.

Jane Hunter is the editor and publisher of Israeli Foreign Affairs, P.O. Box 19580, Sacramento, CA 95819.