Israeli wheeler-dealers also eyed strategy

 

Miami Herald Washington Bureau

One is a Mossad spy turned diplomat who brilliantly expounds Israeli foreign policy in the clipped English of his native London. Another is a pudgy Iranian-born Israeli arms merchant with a taste for fat Havana cigars.

A third is a Connecticut-born engineer who founded Israel's booming aircraft industry and turned to arms dealing after retirement. And the last is a young war correspondent who rose through politics to become counterterrorism coordinator for five Israeli intelligence services.

Together, they braided the intricate cord that established U.S. contacts with the ayatollahs' Iran and made it possible for President Reagan to ship tons of American weapons to Tehran. The outcome has plunged Washington into its most searing scandal since Watergate.

Scores of question marks still swirl around their activities: Did they sell Israeli arms to Iran, separately from the Reagan initiative? Did they pocket some of the juicy profits from the U.S. sales? Were they aware that an American official was secretly slipping some profits to Nicaraguan rebels?

The facts known about their activities tell a story of lofty geopolitical strategy mixed with pragmatic foreign policy and hard-driven arms deals negotiated amid the opulence of some of Europe's best five-star hotels.

The facts also provide important information about how the Iranian arms shipments began, what the motivation of U.S. officials might have been for dealing with the Iranian regime, and how Israel, trying to help an ally for humanitarian reasons, became involved in a scandal that could affect congressional support for this Mideast country.

MOSSAD VETERAN

When in 1980 David Kimche became director general of the Foreign Ministry, the ministry's No. 2 man, he was already a strong advocate of making an extra effort to maintain the best relations possible with non-Arab nations that shared borders with Israel's Arab enemies.

Kimche, then 52, had just ended 20 years with the Mossad, Israel's CIA, where his last position had been deputy commander in charge of Africa. From that post, he had watched the non-Arab nations to the south of Egypt, Libya and Algeria. Now his vision broadened to include nations to the north and east.

He is said to have strongly supported Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon as a way of propping up Lebanon's Maronite Christian rulers. He improved Israeli relations with Turkey, which shares a border with Syria. And from the beginning, he lobbied for an overture toward Persian Iran, on Arab Iraq's eastern frontier.

Many people believe that Kimche was the prime mover behind Israel's policy since late 1980 of secretly selling weapons to Iran for its stalemated war with Arab Iraq. The total price tag has been put at a low of $500 million and a high of $5 billion.

According to news reports, Kimche, a London-born Ph.D. in Middle East affairs, tried in 1981 to enlist U.S. officials in his efforts. Kimche proposed that the United States try to re- establish contacts with moderates in Iran. The United States had broken relations after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Moslem fanatics in November 1979.

The conservative army that had served Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi before his ouster in the 1979 revolution still was largely in place, Kimche argued, and should be helped so that it could topple Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or get in line to succeed the aged leader when he died.

ORDER FROM PERES

The United States rejected Kimche's overture. But the idea was revived in early 1985, when, according to a published report in Israel that is viewed as the official Israeli version, Washington requested Israeli help to win the release of William Buckley, the CIA's chief in Beirut, who had been kidnapped in March, 1984 by pro-Iranian gunmen. Israel was to weave the contacts between the Reagan administration and Tehran.

That March, Shimon Peres, who was then prime minister, ordered Kimche to serve as one end of the U.S.-Iran bridge, finding out what the Americans were willing to do and passing on Iranian demands. Peres handed the Iranian side of the deal to two close friends in the arms trade: Adolph "Al" Schwimmer and Yaacov Nimrodi.

Schwimmer, 69, an engineer born in Bridgeport, Conn., moved to Israel in the late 1940s and founded the government-owned Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) in 1953. He had become fast friends with Peres, who was then a young deputy defense minister desperately trying to build an Israeli military industry for the country's defense against its Arab neighbors.

Schwimmer retired in the mid-1970s to go into private arms- dealing, especially of IAI products. Peres picked him for the Iranian assignment apparently because of his knowledge of U.S. aircraft parts. Tehran's squadrons of U.S. fighters and bombers had languished on the ground since a 1979 U.S. arms embargo and jet spare parts were most likely to be Tehran's demand in return for its "friendship."

Nimrodi, a balding, rotund Israeli in his early 60s who lives in London, was picked for his connections: Iranian-born and fluent in Persian, he was a military attache in Tehran in the 1960s and later went into private business, selling the shah billions worth of weapons in the 1970s.

There are reports that Nimrodi is a former Mossad agent and allegations -- he denies them -- that he had sold Israeli weapons to Khomeini and U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels. He and Schwimmer had been partners in a number of international arms deals.

ANTI-TANK MISSILES

Within days of receiving the Peres assignment, Nimrodi reportedly contacted an old friend, Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. A week later, Khashoggi took him to a posh Geneva hotel to meet with Manucher Ghorbanifar, once an officer in the shah's SAVAK secret police and then a London-based assistant to Iranian Prime Minister Hussein Mussavi.

Nimrodi and Schwimmer worked for months mediating the negotiations between the Iranians and the American envoys -- National Security Council Director Robert McFarlane, his deputy, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, and McFarlane's successor, Adm. John Poindexter -- and arranging the shipment of U.S.-made weapons from Israel to Tehran.

The first agreement was concluded in September, 1985. Israel sent Iran 500 U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles. Iran paid Nimrodi $5 million. Nimrodi gave the Israeli government $3.5 million, kept the rest as payment for expenses for that and a previous shipment that had been arranged but never carried out. It is still not clear whether the United States replenished Israel's TOW supplies.

That same month, hostage Benjamin Weir was released by his Lebanese captors.

In the next three months, the Iranians requested 80 batteries of U.S.-made Improved Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. Instead, the Israelis sent 18 batteries of older Hawks.

Some versions of the story say that Nimrodi and Schwimmer tried to cheat the Iranians. Others say that it was the Israeli Defense Ministry that attempted the switch. Still others say the Americans were responsible, but used the misstep to sideline Nimrodi and Schwimmer and to open a direct U.S. back-channel to Tehran.

FORMER CORRESPONDENT

Whatever the reason, the Iranians were angry, and in December 1985 Peres effectively replaced the two arms merchants with Amiram Nir, who until then had known little of the Iranian arms deal despite his job as Peres's counterterrorism adviser, a job that put him in charge of coordinating the activities of Israel's five intelligence services in the war against terrorism.

Nir, 36, ruggedly handsome, was an odd choice for the counterterrorism job. To the dismay of Israel's intelligence directors, he had spent only three years in the army, had no counterterrorism experience and had worked 10 years as a military correspondent for Israeli television.

But Nir was close to Peres, one of the young, bright aides who are known here as "Peres' Boys." When Peres was inaugurated in 1984, Nir was initially touted as chief administrative secretary to the prime minister, a job he scorned.

"That's a job in the rear guard, behind the lines. I like to be on the front lines, on the firing lines, " he was quoted as saying at the time. In fact, Nir was wounded three times covering Israel's wars. He lost an eye in a car crash, yet Israeli journalists still write that he lost it in battle.

Nir's replacement of Nimrodi and Schwimmer indeed put him on the front lines.

Nir became the Israeli contact with North, who wound up in day-to-day charge of the arms sales to Iran after McFarlane resigned and was replaced by Poindexter. Nir set up at least one meeting between himself and Ghorbanifar without informing either Schwimmer or Nimrodi.

'STRAIGHT TO PRESIDENT'

The chemistry between Nir and North must have been outstanding. Here were two young, aggressive, counter-terrorism officers, criticized by some factions at home yet secretly wheeling and dealing with the Khomeini regime with the approval of Reagan and Peres.

Nir and North talked frequently, and early this year, Nir met with Khashoggi and Ghorbanifar. According to an account published Friday in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Nir told them "From here I'm going straight to the President of the United States."

In May, Israel shipped at least 2,000 TOW missiles to Iran. In July, the Rev. Lawrence Jenco was released by his Lebanese captors.

Nir has declined public comment on the affair, but has reportedly told Israeli investigators that he was not aware that North was diverting profits from the Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguans, in possible violation of a U.S. congressional ban on American aid to the contras.

That is one of the key questions that American investigators will have to answer as they go about the task of unraveling the maze of U.S.-Israeli-Iranian contacts involved in what has come to be known as "Irangate."

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