Iran-Contra: Who Leaked Ronald Reagan’s 1985-1986 Arms-for-Hostages Deals?
Malcolm Byrne is the author most recently of “Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power” (U. Press of Kansas, 2014)
Twenty-eight years ago, on November 4, 1986, The New York Times published a story – based largely on a Lebanese press account – that blew the lid off one of the more bizarre U.S. foreign policy initiatives of modern times.[i] The day before, on November 3, a Lebanese magazine had reported that the Ronald Reagan administration had been enmeshed in secret negotiations with Iran over the fate of American hostages being held by forces in Lebanon (see Document 1). What’s more, the administration had reportedly sent an envoy, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, to Tehran for talks. The revelations came as a particular shock to American readers because the State Department had identified Iran as a sponsor of international terrorism and for years the president had emphatically forsworn bargaining with terrorists.
The Lebanese magazine – Ash-Shiraa, not widely known outside the Arab world – broke the story but the Times made it a world headline. Despite a sprinkling of errors in the original account, and notwithstanding administration attempts to deny or deflect it, the basic picture was accurate. Unbeknownst to everyone involved (even the Times did not lead with the McFarlane revelation), it would help spark the biggest U.S. political scandal of the Reagan era – albeit one that has now largely been forgotten almost three decades later.
Most of the important details about the U.S.-Iran arms deals are now known, but a few small mysteries remain. One of them is who leaked the original story.
The Mehdi Hashemi Story
For most of the last 28 years, the general consensus has been that the perpetrators were supporters of a notorious Iranian radical named Mehdi Hashemi. In fact, the Ash-Shiraa article itself describes Hashemi, including his background and politics, in some detail. He was related by marriage to the family of Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the designated heir to supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and enjoyed a degree of support from his revered patron (although Montazeri had at one time denounced the views of his own son with whom Hashemi had been closely tied). By most accounts, Hashemi, who headed an office charged with promoting the Islamic revolution abroad, approached his mission with fanatical zeal and treated anyone not as deeply committed with contempt – including senior officials in the Islamic Republic such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then Speaker of the Parliament and deemed a pragmatist, who turned out to be a central figure in the deals with the United States.
Sometime in the fall of 1986, Iranian authorities arrested Hashemi on several counts including for allegedly shipping weapons to Saudi Arabia during the Hajj. His supporters tried to obtain his freedom, as did Ayatollah Montazeri. They circulated large numbers of leaflets in the capital describing the highly sensitive deals with the Americans, as a way to influence popular opinion against Rafsanjani and others who had presumably ordered Hashemi’s incarceration. There was no way to keep the operation secret for long. In late October, the Americans who took part in the covert initiative were warned by their Iranian counterparts that there would be trouble (see Document 2).
The prediction came true sooner than expected. As the publisher and editor of Ash-Shiraa himself told an Associated Press reporter, just four days before his magazine was due to go to press two Iranians traveled to Beirut to meet with him and to tell him their story in person. Later, other observers reached the conclusion that Hashemi’s supporters had been behind the leak.[ii]
A CIA Theory
But apparently not everyone agreed. In 1989, some three years after the Ash-Shiraa scoop, a CIA employee (presumably, although his/her identity has been excised) wrote an article for a classified in-house agency publication called Studies in Intelligence that reached a very different conclusion (see Document 3). Sometime in 2014 (the declassification stamp reads “Approved for Release” as of July 29, 2014), the CIA released the main contents of the article to the public. Citing what appears to be a single source, although it may be more than one – identifications have been excised – the author advances the theory that the true source of the leak was in fact the Syrian regime.
There are several problems with this admittedly informal analysis produced for the intelligence community as a whole rather than as a formal work-product intended for a confined group of analysts or policy-makers. For one thing, it relies virtually entirely on the account of (apparently) one informant, who in turn seems to have talked to more than one Syrian source, and ignores or minimizes other evidence that was available at the time. For instance, the author makes the odd statement that reporting was first received on the subject of the leak only in June 1987. He or she may mean specifically that the CIA received reporting directly from the field, but there were certainly press reports available well earlier, notably an Associated Press interview with Ash-Shiraa’s publisher.[iii]
The CIA article goes on to relay a variety of possible motives for the Syrians’ supposed decision to leak the story. One of them relates to the kidnapping of Syria’s chargé d’affaires in Tehran in the fall of 1986, Iyad Mahmud, something Ash-Shiraa also mentioned. But while the Lebanese story took the trouble to present different accounts of the kidnapping (those offered by both Iranian authorities and by Mehdi Hashemi’s supporters), the CIA article provides only the one viewpoint. It goes on to hypothesize that the unfortunate Mahmud, evidently an intelligence officer not just a diplomat, had somehow found out about the US-Iran deals and was abducted and reportedly beaten in order to intimidate him into silence. The Syrian regime, according to this theory, then had the story printed to punish Iran for mistreating their envoy.
To be fair, the CIA author disagrees with some of the source’s views, and goes on to provide his/her own personal conclusion, supported by a lengthy argument that takes up the bulk of the three-page article. Syria’s motive? To deflect world attention from two high-profile trials in Europe that were focusing an unwelcome spotlight on Damascus’s backing of international terrorism. The author further declares the effort a “sizable success,” judging that, “by damaging the credibility of the US counterterrorist effort, Damascus made it unlikely that Western diplomatic and economic sanctions against Syria would last for long.”
Even if, as s/he acknowledges, the Syrians could not have predicted the scale of the scandal they had supposedly exposed, this judgment leaps too easily from cause to effect. The West’s relations with the Hafez Assad regime were influenced in a variety of ways by Damascus’s multifaceted role in the region that included, ironically, its potential for helping to resolve hostage cases – as occurred with the TWA hijacking of June 1985, for example.
Other skewed conclusions and outright mistakes detract even more from the CIA article. A case in point is the analysis that the Ash-Shiraa story had a pronounced impact on Iran. Here, the author inverts cause and effect, noting incorrectly that Hashemi was arrested in November (it was no later than the last week of October) and postulating that the timing of the arrest, which purportedly followed publication of the story, was “hardly a coincidence.”
Other Minor Enigmas
Several other small puzzles make this episode all the more interesting. One is whether another murky figure may have had a role – Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, Iran’s ambassador to Syria in the early-to-mid 1980s and a key liaison with Hezbollah. Like Mehdi Hashemi, he would presumably have been well informed about the actions and viewpoints of the Lebanese hostage-takers who were to a degree his protégés, and furthermore to be sympathetic to their complaints that senior individuals in authority in Tehran were regularly pressuring them to turn over the hostages for the sake of Iran’s interests (i.e., to barter them for American-made missiles to use in the war with Iraq) more than for their own. Mohtashemi also surfaces in at least one journalist’s assessment as a suspect in Mahmud’s kidnapping – an act that represents another mystery in this story.[iv]
A more likely player than Mohtashemi, even though he may have been unwitting, was none other than Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian middleman and bête noire of the arms deals. Although he denied it later, the evidence is stark that he kept Ayatollah Montazeri informed of the contacts between Tehran and Washington through at least two letters written in July 1986.[v] The question is whether this was how Mehdi Hashemi found out about the deals.
Another minor puzzler is why Hashemi was arrested. (He was executed in September 1987.) Was it because he tried to expose the covert deals with the United States (and Israel), as Ervand Abrahamian and others believe?[vi] Or was it, as official Iranian publications claim, because of his radical misconduct and law-breaking? What seems clear is that Hashemi was defiantly (and violently) promoting the export of Iran’s revolution at a time when most of the country’s rulers preferred to transition to a more stable system and a set of policies designed to dismantle the wall of isolation separating the regime from much of the world.
This last point contains an insight as relevant today as in the 1980s: that Iran since the revolution has always had political actors in its midst representing a fairly broad range of views, and that sometimes even the country’s central authorities have found it hard to constrain the most radical of those elements. The episode is also a reminder of how complex and opaque the region’s dynamics and political relationships remain to outside observers – posing a continuing challenge for the Obama administration and its successors in Iran as well as in Syria and Lebanon.
[i] Ihsan A. Hijazi, “Hostage’s Release Is Linked to Shift in Iranian Policy,” The New York Times, November 4, 1986.
[ii] Among other accounts, see Gary Sick, “Iran’s Quest for Superpower Status,” Foreign Affairs, Spring 1987, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/42020/gary-g-sick/irans-quest-for-superpower-status.
[iii] Associated Press, “The White House Crisis: ‘It’s the Scoop of the Year’; Newsman Tells of Leak from Khomeini’s Heir,” The New York Times, December 7, 1986.
[iv] Robert Fisk, “Ties that Bind the Hostages: Robert Fisk Reports from Beirut on the Shadowy Connections that Link Factions and Nations in the Middle Eastern Captives Crisis,” The Independent, August 30, 1989.
[v] Montazeri’s memoirs (in Farsi) implicate Ghorbanifar (www.amontazeri.com) in this respect. See the discussion in James Buchan, Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences, (John Murray, 2012), especially note 21 on p. 384. See also Stephen Engelberg, “From an Iranian Middleman, His Side of the Story,” The New York Times, June 23, 1987.
[vi] Ervand Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran (University of California Press, 1999), pp. 162-67.