In the first phase of the Iran-contra affair, the Iran and the Nicaraguan-contra covert operations moved along separate tracks. They came together in January 1986 because the same staff member of the National Security Council, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, had been put in active charge of both of them, and because he had seized on the “neat idea” of using profits made in the Iran arms deals to support the contras. Except for this coincidence, however, the two activities still continued to go their separate ways.
American clandestine support for the contras was an old story by 1986. The new point of interest was the evasion of the Boland Amendment by solicitation of contributions from private donors and “third countries.” The complicity of North and even President Reagan in these solicitations was just barely qualified by the care they took not to ask for or accept the money directly.
Of greater interest in the development of the junta was the change that took place in the dealings with Iran to accomplish an assortment of aims—among them the release of the hostages in Lebanon and a new US-Iran strategic relationship. Throughout 1985, the Americans had worked through Israeli intermediaries—David Kimche, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry; Amiram Nir, usually described as Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s antiterrorist expert; Adolph Schwimmer, a special adviser to Peres; and Yaacov Nimrodi, a former Israeli defense attaché in Iran, the latter two now Israeli arms dealers—and above all with the Iranian go-between Manucher Ghorbanifar. In the early stage of the affair, an NSC consultant on terrorism, Michael Ledeen, had been used to make contact with the Israeli government and Ghorbanifar. By the end of 1985, the results achieved by these intermediaries were so disappointing that a decision was made to change the procedure.
As a result, the American side determined to deal directly with such Iranians as were represented to be “moderate” or “pragmatic” elements desirous of restoring friendly relations with the West in general and the United States in particular. It was understood on both sides that arms deals were essential, though the Americans still had visions of using arms to support an anti-Khomeini movement and help it to gain power.
The direct American approach brought a critical new dimension to the affair. Heretofore the CIA had stayed out of any direct contact with the arms deals; Israel had sent US-made arms to Iran out of its own stocks with the understanding that they would be replaced. The Israelis still preferred to continue with this method, but now the CIA intervened. For the first time it dropped its guard and stepped into the next arms deal.
One feature of the new modus operandi was that it was designed to cut out some of the past intermediaries, Ledeen, Schwimmer, and Nimrodi, who were suspected, rightly or wrongly, of “a secret business arrangement” with Ghorbanifar. In the simplified arrangement, the Israelis were represented by the more official Nir and Kimche, the …