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http://www3.haaretz.co.il/eng/scripts/article.asp?id=62568&mador=1&datee=12/02/99

Thursday, December 2, 1999

Background Door is still shut on Irangate

By Ronen Bergman

After the 1979 Iranian revolution, and especially after the Iran-Iraq war, Israel sold Iran enormous quantities of weapons. The Soltam company led the way in those sales, as Iranian artillery continued, as in the good old days of the Shah, to fire shells produced on the company's Yokne'am production line. The trade was conducted through various liaisons in Israel and abroad and through the camouflage of third parties and shipping documents that identified the weapons as if they had come from Europe. Iranian merchants whom the Israelis dealt knew where the weapons were coming from, but no Iranian security institution knew.

Some of the agents of the revolution indeed believed that they were able to hold their own against Iraq through the aid of those very European countries. Most of the sales remain secret to the present day, due, among other things, to the obstinate battle by Yechiel Chorev, head of the Defense Ministry's unit for ministry security, to keep them completely under wraps.

Only a small portion of the transactions have surfaced, two cases in particular: the Irangate affair that was exposed in a Lebanese newspaper and later publicized with great fanfare; and the Manbar affair, over which the security establishment is still attempting to deny having known that the equipment from Israeli factories was being turned over to the ayatollahs in Iran.

At the outset of the Irangate affair, Iran was suffering greatly from weapon shortages in its war with Iraq and its arms buyers were combing the world, calling out to anyone who would answer. The United States was simultaneously seeking a way to the heart of the Tehran regime, both in order to strengthen the moderates within it and, even more so, to free the American hostages then being held in Lebanon. Congress, however, had imposed sanctions on Tehran that banned the sale of military equipment.

Congress had also banned the sale of arms to the Nicaraguan contras, but certain members of the National Security Council and White House thought that they had found one Israeli stone with which to kill both birds: Sell Israeli weapons to the Iranians and transfer the funds to the contras while also sidling up to Tehran and freeing the hostages. It looked great on paper.

In 1985, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir decided to get involved, but to leave the Mossad out of the loop by relying on Yaakov Nimrodi and Al Schwimmer as unofficial liaisons. At the same time, Foreign Ministry Director-General David Kimche received authorization from NSC chairman Robert McFarlane that the actions were approved by President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Schultz.

The first shipment included 504 TOW antitank missiles from Israeli stores. The second contained 18 Hawk antiaircraft missiles, but they were later revealed to be defective. There was bitterness in Israel over Nimrodi and Schwimmer's handling of the deal, and the Americans also seem to have been suspicious of Nimrodi. Ha'aretz revealed secret documents two years ago proving that U.S. intelligence had trailed Nimrodi and tapped his phone. Both Nimrodi and Schwimmer were replaced by Peres' terrorism adviser, Amiram Nir, but Nimrodi complained that he was being undermined.

When the affair broke, investigations were conducted in the United States and Israel, causing a number of heads to roll. The Israeli commission found that $2 million in funds was missing from the deals and, among others, Nimrodi was questioned over the deals he struck.

Although Nimrodi's name was cleared, the destination of the missing funds was never discovered. Nir perished in a mysterious plane crash over Mexico, and many other questions have never been answered. A number of businessmen involved in the affair claim that many important details in the affair have yet to be revealed.

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved


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