The Back Story on Iran's Clashes
Iranian parliamentarians presented an ugly scene on Tuesday with raucous chants calling for the executions of two opposition leaders – and the U.S. news media was quick to denounce the Iranian government – but there is a complex history that Americans aren’t getting.
Who, after all, are former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former House Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, the two opposition leaders who continue to insist that the 2009 election giving President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term was rigged or stolen?
Are Mousavi and Karrubi the noble “democrats” as they are portrayed in the U.S. press or are they brazen political operatives seeking to claim through disruption in the streets what they could not achieve at the ballot box? As disturbing as the scene in the Iranian parliament was, are there explanations for this unappealing fury?
And what about the U.S. news media, from Left to Right? Are American journalists displaying their bias against Ahmadinejad in a replay of their behavior before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when many liberal commentators supported the war against the “evil” Saddam Hussein?
In a February 2003 article entitled “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club,” Bill Keller, the current executive editor of the New York Times, boasted that his pro-invasion contingent included “op-ed regulars at this newspaper [the New York Times] and The Washington Post, the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek.”
With such a star-studded supporting cast, is it any wonder why President George W. Bush thought he could launch an invasion of Iraq in violation of international law, a war of choice that would leave hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and millions injured or dispossessed?
So, before another dangerous propaganda bandwagon gets rolling – with Keller now joined by MSNBC’s “progressive” voices like Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews – perhaps some context is in order.
First, it is long past time to admit that – whether Americans like it or not – the unsavory Ahmadinejad won the 2009 election. Yes, the Iranian electoral system is badly flawed, with Islamic religious leaders restricting voter choices.
But the U.S. system is far from perfect, too, with a two-party system that requires presidential candidates to raise obscene amounts of money to become “credible” in the primaries and to compete in the general election. Then, there is the Electoral College which is weighted in favor of small-population states and which sometimes lets the loser win, i.e. Election 2000.
So, while the loutish Ahmadinejad is understandably disdained by the West and by many of Iran’s better-educated voters, he retains a strong following among the nation’s poor and the religious conservatives whose votes apparently reelected him by a substantial margin.
Though widely ignored by the major American news media, a study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found little evidence to support allegations of fraud or to conclude that most Iranians view Ahmadinejad as illegitimate.
PIPA analyzed multiple polls of the Iranian public from three different sources, including some before the June 12, 2009, election and some afterwards. The study found that in all the polls, a majority said they planned to vote for Ahmadinejad or had voted for him. The numbers ranged from 52 to 57 percent just before the election to 55 to 66 percent after the election.
"These findings do not prove that there were no irregularities in the election process,” said Steven Kull, director of PIPA. “But they do not support the belief that a majority rejected Ahmadinejad."
An analysis by former U.S. national security officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett reached a similar conclusion. They found that the “personal political agendas” of American commentators caused them to side with the anti-Ahmadinejad protesters who sought to overturn the election results. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How US Media Botched Iran’s Election.”]
Among those biased American journalists on assignment in Iran in 2009 was Times executive editor Keller, one of the liberal “hawks” on Iraq. He coauthored a “news analysis” that opened with an old joke about Ahmadinejad looking into a mirror and saying “male lice to the right, female lice to the left,” disparaging both his Islamic conservatism and his rise from the street.
[Keller recently used the New York Times magazine to disparage WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, as ex-FBI official Coleen Rowley has noted.]
The reason why Ahmadinejad apparently did win the 2009 election was that his support was concentrated among the urban and rural poor who benefited from government food giveaways and jobs programs and who tend to listen more to conservative clerics in the mosques.
Mousavi, who came in second in the election, seemed to acknowledge this point when he released his supposed proof of the rigged election, accusing Ahmadinejad of buying votes by providing food and higher wages for the poor. At some Mousavi rallies, his supporters reportedly would chant “death to the potatoes!” in a joking reference to Ahmadinejad’s food distributions.
Yet, while passing out food and raising pay may be a sign of “machine politics,” such tactics are not normally associated with election fraud. In the United States, they are usually called the “power of incumbency.”
Generally speaking, Mousavi had the backing of the urban middle class and the well-educated, especially in the more cosmopolitan capital of Tehran where universities became a center for protests against Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad’s policies – and his offensive comments about the Holocaust – have created hardships for this voting bloc, which has found it hard to travel and do business in the face of Western sanctions and restrictions.
Beyond repudiating Ahmadinejad’s obnoxious behavior, reducing the power of the mullahs may be a worthy goal, too. Having spent time in Iran in the early 1990s and witnessing the constraints on women’s rights, I personally share that sentiment. But it is hypocritical for U.S. pundits to talk about protests seeking to overturn the choice of a voting majority as “pro-democracy.”
A Troubling History
There is also the question of whether Mousavi and Karrubi are true reformers or simply represent a split in Iran’s power structure.
While prime minister in the 1980s, Mousavi presided over some of the Islamic Republic’s most brutal purges. In 1990, when I interviewed Karrubi in Tehran, he was considered a conservative cleric connected – along with his brother Hassan – to arms-trafficking and other corruption.
Mousavi and the Karrubis – along with their billionaire ally, ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – were part of the group that favored secret contacts with the United States and Israel to get military supplies for fighting the eight-year war with Iraq. Even as hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers died, the war was a lucrative business opportunity for the well-connected.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s current spiritual leader and the key supporter of President Ahmadinejad, was more the ideological purist, apparently opposing the strategy in 1980 that involved going behind President Jimmy Carter’s back to gain promises of weapons from Israel and the future Reagan administration.
Khamenei appears to have favored a straightforward arrangement with the Carter administration for settling the dispute over 52 American hostages seized by Iranian radicals in 1979 and held through the U.S. election in 1980.
In retaliation for the hostage-taking, President Carter had frozen Iran's assets, imposed an arms embargo and attempted a failed rescue mission in April 1980. Carter also was struggling to fend off a strong campaign challenge from Republican Ronald Reagan.
Meanwhile, in Israel, Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin was furious at Carter for having pushed Israel into the Camp David peace deal with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that required Israel to return the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for normalized relations. Begin feared worse from a Carter second term, with more pressure for permitting a Palestinian state on the West Bank.
Begin also was upset at Carter’s perceived failure to protect the Shah of Iran, who had been an Israeli strategic ally. Begin was worried, too, about Iraq with its powerful army massing near oil-rich Iranian territory.
Determined to help Iran counter Iraq – and hopeful about rebuilding at least covert ties to Tehran – Begin’s government cleared the first small shipments of U.S. military supplies to Iran in spring 1980, including 300 tires for Iran’s U.S.-manufactured jet fighters. Soon, Carter learned about the covert shipments and lodged an angry complaint.
“There had been a rather tense discussion between President Carter and Prime Minister Begin in the spring of 1980 in which the President made clear that the Israelis had to stop that, and that we knew that they were doing it, and that we would not allow it to continue, at least not allow it to continue privately and without the knowledge of the American people,” Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell told me in an interview.
“And it stopped,” Powell said. At least, it stopped temporarily.
‘Too Friendly with Arabs’
Questioned by congressional investigators a dozen years later, Carter said he felt that by April 1980, “Israel cast their lot with Reagan,” according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of a congressional investigation conducted in 1992.
Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his possible reelection in 1980 to a “lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.”
Begin’s alarm about a possible Carter second term was described, too, by Israeli intelligence and foreign affairs official David Kimche in his 1991 book, The Last Option. Kimche wrote that Begin’s government believed that Carter was overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and was conspiring with Arabs to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.
“Begin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington,” Kimche wrote. “They had, moreover, the apparent blessing of the two presidents, Carter and Sadat, for this bizarre and clumsy attempt at collusion designed to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Extensive evidence now exists that Begin’s preference for a Reagan victory led Israelis to join in a covert operation with Republicans to contact Iranian leaders behind Carter’s back and delay release of the 52 American hostages until after Reagan defeated Carter in November 1980.
That controversy, known as the “October Surprise” case, and its sequel, the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-1980s, involved clandestine ties between some leading figures in today’s Iranian disputes and U.S. and Israeli officials who supplied Iran with missiles and other weaponry for its war with Iraq.
In 1980, Khamenei, who was then an influential aide to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, appears to have been part of a contingent exploring ways to resolve the hostage dispute with Carter.
According to Army Col. Charles Wesley Scott, one of the 52 hostages, Khamenei visited him on May 1, 1980, at the old U.S. consulate in Tabriz to ask whether milder demands from Iran to the Carter administration might lead to a resolution of the hostage impasse and allow the resumption of U.S. military supplies, former National Security Council aide Gary Sick reported in his book October Surprise.
“You’re asking the wrong man,” Scott replied, noting that he had been out of touch with his government during his five months of captivity before adding that he doubted the Carter administration would be eager to resume military shipments quickly.
“Frankly, my guess is that it will be a long time before you’ll get any cooperation on spare parts from America, after what you’ve done and continue to do to us,” Scott said he told Khamenei.
However, Khamenei’s outreach to a captive U.S. military officer – outlining terms that became the basis of a near settlement of the crisis with the Carter administration in September 1980 – suggests that Khamenei favored a more traditional approach toward resolving the hostage crisis than the parallel channel that soon involved the Israelis and the Republicans.
In that narrow sense at least, Khamenei was allied with Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the sitting Iranian president in 1980 who also has said he opposed dealing with Israel and the Republicans behind President Carter’s back. In a little-noticed letter to the U.S. Congress, dated Dec. 17, 1992, Bani-Sadr said he first learned of the Republican hostage initiative in July 1980.
Bani-Sadr said a nephew of Ayatollah Khomeini returned from a meeting with an Iranian banker, Cyrus Hashemi, who had led the Carter administration to believe he was helping broker a hostage release but who also had close ties to Reagan’s campaign chief William Casey and to Casey’s business associate, John Shaheen.
Bani-Sadr said the message from the Khomeini emissary was clear: the Reagan campaign was in league with pro-Republican elements of the CIA in an effort to undermine Carter and wanted Iran’s help. Bani-Sadr said the emissary “told me that if I do not accept this proposal they [the Republicans] would make the same offer to my rivals.”
The emissary added that the Republicans “have enormous influence in the CIA,” Bani-Sadr wrote. “Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination.”
Bani-Sadr said he resisted the GOP scheme, but the plan ultimately was accepted by Ayatollah Khomeini, who appears to have made up his mind around the time of Iraq’s invasion in mid-September 1980.
Khomeini’s approval meant the end of the initiative that Khamenei had outlined to Col. Scott, which was being pursued with Carter’s representatives in West Germany before Iraq launched its attack. Khomeini’s blessing allowed Rafsanjani, Karrubi and later Mousavi to proceed with secret contacts that involved emissaries from the Reagan camp and the Israeli government.
The Republican-Israeli-Iranian agreement appears to have been sealed at a series of meetings that culminated in discussions in Paris arranged by the right-wing chief of French intelligence Alexandre deMarenches and allegedly involving Casey, vice presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, CIA officer Robert Gates and other U.S. and Israeli representatives on one side and cleric Mehdi Karrubi and a team of Iranian representatives on the other.
Bush, Gates and Karrubi all have denied participating in the meeting (Karrubi did so in an interview with me in Tehran in 1990). But deMarenches admitted arranging the Paris conclave to his biographer, former New York Times correspondent David Andelman.
Andelman said deMarenches ordered that the secret meeting be kept out of his memoir because the story could otherwise damage the reputation of his friends, William Casey and George H.W. Bush. At the time of Andelman’s work crafting deMarenches’s memoir in 1991, Bush was running for re-election as President of the United States.
Andelman’s sworn testimony in December 1992 to a House task force assigned to examine the October Surprise controversy buttressed longstanding claims from international intelligence operatives about a Paris meeting involving Casey and Bush.
Besides the testimony from intelligence operatives, there was contemporaneous knowledge of the alleged Bush-to-Paris trip by Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean, son of author Norman Maclean who wrote the novel, A River Runs Through It.
John Maclean said a well-placed Republican source told him in mid-October 1980 that Bush was undertaking a secret trip to Paris to meet with Iranians on the U.S. hostage issue. Maclean passed on that information to State Department official David Henderson, who recalled the date as Oct. 18, 1980.
Maclean never wrote a story about the leak, nor did he volunteer it a decade later when Congress began a cursory investigation of the controversy. He only confirmed it after I learned of Henderson’s recollection and interviewed Maclean for a PBS Frontline documentary.
Also, alibis concocted for Casey and Bush – supposedly to prove they could not have traveled to the alleged overseas meetings – either collapsed under close scrutiny or had serious holes. [For details on the October Surprise case, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Though some details of the October Surprise case remain hazy, it is a historic fact that Carter failed to resolve the hostage crisis, which gave momentum to a late-developing landslide for Reagan. The hostages were released only after Reagan and Bush were sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981.
It also is clear that U.S. military supplies were soon moving to Iran via Israeli middlemen with the approval of the new Reagan administration.
In a PBS interview, Nicholas Veliotes, Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, said he first discovered the secret arms pipeline to Iran when an Israeli weapons flight was shot down over the Soviet Union on July 18, 1981, after straying off course on its third mission to deliver U.S. military supplies from Israel to Iran via Larnaca, Cyprus.
“It was clear to me after my conversations with people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran some American-origin military equipment,” Veliotes said.
In checking out the Israeli flight, Veliotes came to believe that the Reagan-Bush camp’s dealings with Iran 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.”
In the early 1980s, the key players inside Iran also experienced a shakeup. Bani-Sadr was ousted in 1981 and fled for his life, replaced as president by Khamenei; Mousavi was named prime minister; Rafsanjani consolidated his financial and political power as speaker of the Majlis; and Mehdi Karrubi became a powerful figure in Iran’s military-and-foreign-policy establishment.
Besides tapping into stockpiles of U.S.-made weaponry, the Israelis arranged shipments from other third countries, including Poland, according to Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe, who described his work on the arms pipeline in his 1992 book, Profits of War.
Since representatives of Likud had initiated the arms-middleman role for Iran, the tens of billions of dollars in profits flowed into coffers that the right-wing party controlled, with some of that money diverted to finance West Bank settlements further cementing Likud’s political power, Ben-Menashe said.
The lucrative arms deals created envy inside the rival Labor Party especially after it gained a share of power in the 1984 elections, Ben-Menashe said.
The Iran-Contra Case
In this analysis, Labor’s desire to open its own arms channel to Iran laid the groundwork for the Iran-Contra scandal, as the government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres tapped into the emerging neoconservative network inside the Reagan administration on one hand and began making contacts with Iran’s leadership on the other.
Reagan’s National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, who had close ties to the Israeli leadership, worked with Peres’s aide Amiram Nir and neocon intellectual (and National Security Council consultant) Michael Ledeen in spring 1985 to arrange these connections to Iran.
Ledeen’s chief intermediary was a businessman named Manucher Ghorbanifar, who was held in disdain by the CIA as a fabricator but claimed he represented high-ranking Iranians who favored improved relations with the United States – and who were eager for American weapons.
Ghorbanifar’s chief contact, as identified in official Iran-Contra records, was Mohsen Kangarlu, who worked as an aide to Prime Minister Mousavi, according to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman in his 2008 book, The Secret War with Iran.
However, Ghorbanifar’s real backer inside Iran appears to have been Mousavi himself. According to a Time magazine article, Ghorbanifar “became a trusted friend and kitchen adviser to Mir Hussein Mousavi, Prime Minister in the Khomeini government.”
In November 1985, at a key moment in the Iran-Contra scandal – as one of the early missile shipments via Israel went awry – Ghorbanifar conveyed Mousavi’s anger to the White House.
"On or about November 25, 1985, Ledeen received a frantic phone call from Ghorbanifar, asking him to relay a message from the prime minister of Iran to President Reagan regarding the shipment of the wrong type of HAWKs,” according to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s Final Report.
“Ledeen said the message essentially was ‘we've been holding up our part of the bargain, and here you people are now cheating us and tricking us and deceiving us and you had better correct this situation right away.’”
Earlier in the process, Ghorbanifar had dangled the possibility of McFarlane meeting with high-level Iranian officials, including Mousavi and Rafsanjani.
Another of Ghorbanifar’s Iranian contacts was Hassan Karrubi, the brother of Mehdi Karrubi. Hassan Karrubi met with Ghorbanifar and Ledeen in Geneva in late October 1985 regarding missile shipments in exchange for Iranian help in getting a group of U.S. hostages freed in Lebanon, Walsh’s report said.
A Split Leadership
As Ben-Menashe describes the maneuvering in Tehran, the basic split in the Iranian leadership put then-President Khamenei on the ideologically purist side of rejecting U.S.-Israeli military help and Rafsanjani, Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi in favor of exploiting those openings in a pragmatic way to better fight the war with Iraq -- and to make lots of money.
The key decider during this period – as in the October Surprise phase – was Ayatollah Khomeini, who agreed with the pragmatists on the need to get as much materiel from the Americans and the Israelis as possible, Ben-Menashe told me in an interview from his home in Canada.
Ben-Menashe said Rafsanjani and most other senior Iranian officials were satisfied dealing with the original (Likud) Israeli channel. They also were offended by the Reagan administration’s double game in the 1980s of tilting toward Iraq with military and intelligence support while also offering weapons deals to Iran via the second (Labor) channel.
The ex-Israeli intelligence officer said the Iranians were especially thankful in 1985-86 when the Likud channel secured SCUD missiles from Poland so Iran could respond to SCUD attacks that Iraq had launched against Iranian cities.
“After that (transaction), I got access to the highest authorities” in Iran, Ben-Menashe said, including a personal meeting with Mousavi at which Ben-Menashe said he learned that Mousavi knew the history of the Israeli-arranged shipments in the October Surprise deal of 1980.
Ben-Menashe quoted Mousavi as saying, “we did everything you guys [the Likud] wanted. We got rid of the Democrats. We did everything we could, but the Americans aren’t delivering [and] they are dealing with the Iraqis.”
According to that account, the Iranian leadership in 1980 viewed its agreement to delay release of the U.S. Embassy hostages not primarily as a favor to the Republicans, but to the Israelis who were considered the key for Iran to get the necessary military supplies for its war with Iraq.
Today, many of the same Iranian players are back in the limelight amid a new fight for power. And there have been signs that today’s Supreme Leader Khamenei has tried to reconcile with his old revolutionary comrades who broke with the government after the 2009 election.
As protests sought to reverse the election results, some in Ahmadinejad’s camp accused the triumvirate of Rafsanjani, Mousavi and Karrubi of fronting for foreign powers, such as Israel and the United States, with the goal of subverting Iran’s religious/political system and bringing about "regime change." There were calls for their trials as traitors.
However, Khamenei intervened to block legal action, according to a Washington Post article on Wednesday, which reported that he offered Mousavi and Karrubi “a path to redemption if they admitted their mistakes and endorsed Iran’s Islamist system.”
However, given their support for a new round of protests following the Egyptian revolt and after the angry reaction from the parliamentarians on Tuesday, Mousavi and Karrubi appear to have reopened the old rifts.
“The efforts of the supreme leader [Khamenei] were focused on trying to bring Mousavi and Karrubi back into the folds of the revolution,” Kazem Jalali, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission at the Majlis, told the Fars news agency.
“But these persons have purged themselves from the system,” Jalali said. “The parliament demands the strongest punishment for Mousavi and Karrubi.”
Though the U.S. news media may present this confrontation in the black-and-white shades of a morality play, it is truly a drama with no pure heroes – and with a complex back story that encompasses more than three decades of international intrigue and betrayal.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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