Robert McFarlane, Ronald Reagan's third National Security Advisor. (Official portrait)
Just six months after Iran freed 52 Americans hostages in 1981, senior Reagan administration officials secretly endorsed third-party weapons sales to Iran, a move to align U.S. policy with Israeli desires to sell arms to the Islamic republic then at war with Iraq, according to documents recently released by the National Archives.
This Israeli arms pipeline to Iran already was functioning at the time of the policy shift on July 21, 1981. Three days earlier, on July 18, an Argentine plane strayed off course and crashed (or was shot down) inside the Soviet Union exposing Israel's secret arms shipments to Iran, which apparently had been going on for months.
After the plane went down, Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East Nicholas Veliotes tried to get to the bottom of the mysterious weapons flight. "According to the [flight] documents," Veliotes said later in an interview with PBS Frontline, "this was chartered by Israel and it was carrying American military equipment to Iran...
"And it was clear to me after my conversations with people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could trans-ship to Iran some American-origin military equipment. Now this was not a covert operation in the classic sense, for which probably you could get a legal justification for it. As it stood, I believe it was the initiative of a few people [who] gave the Israelis the go-ahead. The net result was a violation of American law."
The reason that the Israeli weapons shipments violated U.S. law was that no formal notification had been given to Congress about the trans-shipment of U.S. military equipment as required by the Arms Export Control Act.
But the Reagan administration was in a bind about notifying Congress and thus the American people about approving arms shipments to Iran so soon after the hostage crisis. The news would have infuriated many Americans and stoked suspicions that the Republicans had cut a deal with Iran to hold the hostages until Carter was defeated.
In checking out the Israeli flight, Veliotes also came to believe that the arrangement between Ronald Reagan's camp and Israel regarding Iran and weapons dated back to before the 1980 election.
"It seems to have started in earnest in the period probably prior to the election of 1980, as the Israelis had identified who would become the new players in the national security area in the Reagan administration," Veliotes said. "And I understand some contacts were made at that time."
Veliotes: "Between Israelis and these new players."
In subsequent interviews, Veliotes said he was referring to "new players" who came into government with President Reagan, now known as the neoconservatives, including Robert McFarlane, counselor to Secretary of State Alexander Haig, and Paul Wolfowitz, the State Department's director of policy planning. According to the newly released documents, McFarlane and Wolfowitz were collaborating with Israel through a clandestine channel.
One memo from Wolfowitz to McFarlane -- regarding the Israeli channel on Iran -- noted that "for this dialogue to be fruitful it must remain restricted to an extraordinarily small number of people."
Though this secret conduit between the neocons and Israel may have originated before Election 1980, it continued, with some fits and starts, for years finally merging with what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair of 1985-86. In that scandal, Reagan secretly authorized the sale of U.S. anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Iran through Israel.
The documents -- declassified by National Archives personnel at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California -- suggest that the Iran-Contra machinations were an outgrowth of these earlier U.S. contacts with Israel regarding arms sales to Iran dating back to 1980-81.
McFarlane's personal involvement in these activities threaded through the years of these clandestine operations, beginning with pre-election maneuverings with Iran in fall 1980 when its radical government was holding those 52 U.S. hostages and thus dooming President Jimmy Carter's reelection hopes.
McFarlane participated in a mysterious meeting with an Iranian emissary at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, a contact that has never been coherently explained by McFarlane or two other Republican participants, Richard V. Allen (who later became Reagan's national security advisor) and Laurence Silberman (who was later appointed as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington). [For details, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]