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The Fall of an American Junta

Thus ended the rendezvous in Tehran. I have gone into this episode in some detail because it came closest, despite its shortcomings, to some kind of understanding between the United States and Iran. Each side could blame the other for the breakdown. Neither was negotiating at a sufficiently high level. McFarlane, himself a former national security adviser, wanted to deal with the Iranian speaker, prime minister, and president, instead of an adviser. The Americans left feeling that the Iranians did not, after all, control the fate of the hostages, whatever influence they may have had in Beirut. The Iranians needed the arms so desperately that they seemed genuinely sorry to see the Americans go abruptly. McFarlane had been sent out with such rigid instructions that he could not accept the release of only two hostages, even if he had believed that they could be produced in a matter of hours. Ghorbanifar, who had brought on much of the muddle, blamed McFarlane for the failure and accused McFarlane of wanting to get him out as the middleman.26 The trip had gone ahead with hardly any preparations at all—or else Ghorbanifar may be said to have made all the arrangements.

My own sense is that a US-Iran understanding never had a chance. Though the Americans emphasized that they wanted to achieve a long-range relationship with Iran, they saw the hostages as the obstacle that had to be cleared out of the way first. The hostages thus took precedence over any other consideration. To the Iranians, the hostages were merely a nuisance of little concern to them or else a bargaining chip. The equipment the Iranians demanded was not anywhere near enough to make a substantial difference in the war with Iraq. Spare parts and a few radars could only have been regarded as a first installment for drawing the United States into large-scale military support of Iran. Feeling themselves aggrieved by the US support of the Shah’s regime, the Iranians had convinced themselves that the United States must first buy its way back into Iran’s good graces. Mutual misunderstanding could hardly have gone further.

One more thing happened on the return flight from Tehran. When the plane carrying the disappointed Americans landed at the airport in Israel, North tried to cheer McFarlane up. According to McFarlane: “North said, well, don’t be too downhearted, that the one bright spot is that the government is availing itself of part of the money for application to Central America, as I recall, although I took it to be Nicaragua.” In this way McFarlane, who was not supposed to know, learned of the diversion. According to North, he was the third one—after Poindexter and Casey—to be told “the deepest, darkest secret of the whole activity.”


Despite the Tehran fiasco, neither side would let go, the Iranians because they wanted the Hawk spare parts and radars so desperately, the Americans because they wanted the hostages just as much. Ghorbanifar tried to persuade the Iranians that it was still possible to get the remaining spare parts and radars from the United States. Haggling went on in telephone conversations between Cave and an Iranian official, apparently an aide to the Iranian prime minister. Each side insisted that the other had to take the first step—Cave that the hostages had to be released and then the equipment delivered, the Iranian that two hostages would be released when the spares arrived and two more with the radars. In a later conversation, the Iranian offered to deliver the four hostages for all the equipment, two hostages for half. It was never clear that the Iranians could have delivered them. The telephone conversations went back and forth, without any clear resolution of the problem.

The ineffable Ghorbanifar now introduced another obstacle. He had given the Iranians a price for the spare parts in anticipation of a delivery, which was still supposed to go through him. Unfortunately, the Iranians had some sort of price list on microfiche, which showed that Ghorbanifar was asking them for an exorbitant amount. Ghorbanifar blamed the Americans and, anyway, he pleaded that he was close to being ruined financially. The Iranians complained that they were again being exploited and victimized. To his Iranian contact, Ghorbanifar sent a long letter of self-justification in which he plaintively explained that he had “encountered great difficulties and many material, spiritual, and prestige problems solely due to friendship, good intentions, honesty, belief, and trust.”27

Then, on July 26, 1986, the Reverend Lawrence Martin Jenco, head of the Beirut office of the Catholic Relief Services, who had been taken hostage in January 1985, was released. It was an evident effort to renew the connection. Other feelers were reported that month by foreign government officials visiting Tehran to the effect that Iran wanted friendlier relations with the United States. CIA Director Casey saw these signs as vindication of his faith that Ghorbanifar and the Israelis were able to get things done on behalf of the American hostages.

Casey had a special reason for being willing to pay almost any price to free the hostages, especially one of them, the CIA’s Beirut station chief, William Buckley, who had been kidnapped in March 1984. Reports of Buckley’s torture and interrogation by the hostage-takers made Casey all the more anxious to get him out. It was first announced by the “Islamic Jihad” that Buckley had been executed in October 1985; but two of the freed hostages, Reverend Jenco and David Jacobsen, thought he had probably died the previous June of pneumonia-like symptoms brought on by his weakened condition.

Iran was rewarded for the release of Reverend Jenco with the delivery on August 3, 1986, of the Hawk spare parts. As usual, Iran paid Ghorbanifar; Ghorbanifar paid Secord; Secord paid the CIA; the CIA paid the Department of Defense. Secord paid $6.5 million for the spare parts. He charged Iran $15 million. Secord’s profit was $8.3 million. 28

In this period, as in the past, Iran used the hostages as bait. The release of Reverend Jenco paid off with the delivery of the spare parts. This exchange proceeded in just the way the Iranians had sought to have it go—so many weapons for so many hostages. That the Reverend Jenco could be obtained by Iran just when a gesture of conciliation was needed made the protestations of Iran vis-à-vis the hostages very hard to accept. Iran seemed to play the game of claiming not to control the hostages in order to keep them in reserve and produce one whenever it would serve an immediate purpose. For every lucky hostage released others had to stay behind so that the game could continue.

And still neither side would let go.

The next encounter with Iranians was the finale. It came to be called the “Second Channel,” as distinguished from the earlier meetings in February and May 1986. One difference was that the First Channel had been Ghorbanifar’s work; the second was that of his compatriot and rival, Hakim.

Ever since Ghorbanifar had failed to deliver at Frankfurt and Tehran, Secord and Hakim had been scheming to show that they could do better. They agree, in their testimony, that it was Secord’s idea to look for another channel of communication through Hakim’s old Iranian connections. About all we know is that Hakim made contact with a young Iranian who was the nephew of a high Iranian official (according to some speculation, Speaker Rafsanjani). He is also described as an Iranian officer senior in rank to but younger than Lieutenant Colonel North.

In any case, Secord and Hakim held a meeting with him in Brussels in August 1986. They talked about “normalizing” US-Iran relations, supplying arms to Iran, and freeing the hostages. The meeting went so well that Secord reported his success to North and it was decided to bring the young Iranian to the United States for more discussion.

North seems to have been euphoric at the meetings with him in Washington on September 19 and 20. “The Relative,” as the Tower Commission report calls him, appeared to be the long-awaited Iranian connection. He said he had been authorized by top Iranian ministers to come to the United States to confer with the highest US government officials. He was accompanied by two other Iranians, one of whom was believed to be a government official. North informed Poindexter that we “appear to be in contact with the highest levels of the Iranian government.”

The Americans at the meetings were North, the CIA’s George Cave, and Secord. North took “the Relative” on a tour of the White House to impress him with our domestic tradition, as if it might rub off on the Iranian. When they got to the Oval Office, North was filled with so much camaraderie that he made a joke at Casey’s expense.29 “The Relative” made a concrete proposal for the formation of a joint commission of four US and four Iranian members to meet in secret for the purpose of drawing up a program to improve US-Iran relations. Nothing was done about this; for the most part, the usual subjects were discussed—the Soviet threat, the Iran-Iraq war, arms, hostages—without any definite decision other than to hold more meetings. The Americans had never been more optimistic. Even Poindexter was jubilant.30 The happiest of all was Hakim; he was in and Ghorbanifar was finally out.

A second meeting took place in Frankfurt on October 6, 1986. The Americans present were North, Cave, Secord, and Hakim. The Iranians were “the Relative,” an assumed intelligence official, and one of those present at the Tehran meeting with McFarlane. There was an exchange of gifts: a Koran for the Americans, a Bible inscribed by President Reagan for the Iranians.31

Now occurred one of the most bizarre turns in the entire story.

North came with a seven-point program that in effect provided for an exchange of more arms for more hostages. He offered to deliver five hundred more TOWs and the remainder of the Hawk parts for the release of all the hostages in Lebanon. For John Pattis, an American engineer working for a US firm in Iran, who was accused of spying and held for the past two months, he was willing to throw in 1,500 more TOWs.

The best was yet to come. North was so anxious to please the Iranians that he told them one cock-and-bull story after another, all designed to show them that Iran and the United States saw eye to eye on the Iran-Iraq war. North regaled them with tales of imaginary conversations he had held with President Reagan at Camp David. According to one of his stories, the President had said that he wanted an end to the war on terms acceptable to Iran. In another, the President had blamed Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi strong man, for the war and had agreed with Ayatollah Khomeini that Hussein “must go.” In addition, North assured the Iranians that the United States was committed to their defense if they were attacked by the Soviet Union. North later admitted that he had “exaggerated my connection with the President of the United States” and that other statements of his had been “blatantly false.” He did not seem to think there was anything wrong with carrying on presumably serious negotiations in such style.

  1. 26

    This account is based on the full documentation in the Tower report, pp. B-96–121, to which the congressional hearings added little.

  2. 27

    Tower report, pp. B-127–135.

  3. 28

    Joint hearings, May 8, 1987 (Secord).

  4. 29

    Hakim went along as translator and later described the scene: “Yes, we—we went also—we did not actually walk into the Oval Office, the doors were open, there was a little barrier—a rope barrier in front there, but we showed him the rooms. And Colonel North, by this time, was also impressed by this gentleman, and he was feeling—after many months of frustration—he was feeling upbeat. And it is interesting to know that while we were passing by one of the corridors—stepping down the stairs—we came across a picture hanging on the wall. It portrayed a table and sort of like a conference table, and there were dogs sitting around the table, and I remember there was—one of the dogs was taking a little nap, and Ollie was feeling very upbeat and he asked me to translate for our guest that this represented our cabinet, and that was—Mr. Casey was taking a nap. That broke the ice” (Joint hearings, June 4, 1987).

  5. 30

    Poindexter to McFarlane, October 3, 1986: “They are playing our line back to us. They are worried about Soviets, Afghanistan and their economy. They realize the hostages are [an] obstacle, etc.” (Tower report, p. B-185).

  6. 31

    North specified an inscription in the Bible by the President with a reference to Abraham “who is viewed by Moslems, Jews, and Christians as the progenitor of all the world’s nations” (Tower report, p. B-162). The President dutifully wrote: “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the nations shall be blessed by you”’ (Galatians 3:8).

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