Israel-Iran Arms Flow Reportedly Began in ’79 : Said to Have Included at Least 7 Shiploads of Ammunition in Addition to U.S.-Sponsored Sales

Times Staff Writer

Israeli arms dealers, with the acquiescence of the government, have maintained a nearly continuous supply of weaponry to Iran since 1979, including at least seven shiploads dispatched independently of a U.S.-sponsored Iranian arms program over the last 14 months, according to informed sources here.

However, these sources insist, the shipments consisted almost entirely of shells for artillery pieces, mortars and recoilless rifles sold to the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran during the 1970s. All this ammunition is Israeli-produced, and some is available only here, the sources add. They said that it is incapable of having any significant impact on the outcome of the Iran-Iraq War and is a mere drop in the bucket compared with the billions of dollars worth of arms being shipped to Iran and Iraq by America’s European allies.

The sources said they are increasingly concerned that because of the shipments, Israel could wind up as a scapegoat for the Reagan Administration, which is under mounting attack for approving its own clandestine weapons shipments to Iran with Israeli help.

Pleased initially that revelation of the Reagan program made Israel appear as a loyal strategic ally aiding an effort to free U.S. hostages held by pro-Iranian elements in Lebanon, Israeli policy-makers have watched with growing discomfort as Washington news reports seem increasingly to depict Jerusalem as a villain in the affair.


Charges Against Israel

Administration sources have said that Israel took advantage of what was intended as a limited Washington-sponsored program to sharply increase its own arms shipments to Iran.

Also, The Times reported Friday that according to U.S. government officials, President Reagan was not informed of, and did not approve, the August, 1985, Israeli shipment of U.S.-made weapons and spare parts to Iran that set in motion the Administration’s controversial arms-and-hostages operation.

There were conflicting reports on whether some lower-level Administration official may have given Israel an unauthorized signal to proceed.


Asked to ‘Clarify’

Indicative of the growing sensitivity of the issue here, Israel radio on Friday headlined a report from its Washington correspondent that the United States had asked Jerusalem to “clarify” its arms shipments to Iran.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry subsequently denied the report, and Israel radio backed away from its original story, saying that the request had been made before the Iranian arms controversy exploded in Washington earlier this month.

The Israeli government still refuses to comment publicly on the controversy. “My orders are not to say anything that might embarrass the American Administration,” one official said. Told that he was not being helpful, another replied, “That’s what I’m being paid for right now.”


But privately, sources believed close to government thinking on the matter seem increasingly anxious to counter any suggestion that Israel is trying to profit in Iran at U.S. expense. In that regard, they say, it is important to differentiate between those shipments of sophisticated missiles and spare parts approved under the previously secret Reagan Administration program and what they describe as modest, ongoing sales of conventional Israeli-produced weaponry to Iran.

“The State of Israel has never sold American arms or weapons containing American components without having received authorization from the U.S.,” Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told an Israeli Army Radio interviewer last week.

“As for Israeli arms sales which are unconnected to the U.S. or which are in no way related to our undertaking to the U.S., we are sovereign and we will decide to whom and when to sell,” he added.

“If we want to make this public, we will; in most cases, we will prefer not to do so. And we do not consider ourselves obligated to report to anyone in the world on this subject.”


No Coherent Policy

According to informed sources here, when Reagan Administration officials began talking to their Israeli counterparts in the spring and summer of 1985 about the possibility of shipping arms to Iran, Jerusalem had no more coherent policy toward Tehran than did Washington.

In fact, these sources say, just as Reagan was concerned about American hostages held by pro-Iranian elements in Lebanon, Israel began its arms supplies to the Ayatolla Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary regime as a form of bribery to protect Iranian Jews.

Former Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Zippori reportedly set those initial shipments in motion after the execution on May 9, 1979, of Habib Elkanian, former leader of the Jewish community in Tehran, who was accused of treason by an Iranian revolutionary court. The execution sent a chill through the remaining community of about 60,000 Iranian Jews.


Carter Went ‘off the Wall’

That stage of Israel’s arms relationship with Khomeini’s Iran ended abruptly when the CIA detected a shipment of weaponry from the Israeli port of Eilat, causing then-President Jimmy Carter to “go off the wall,” as one source here put it.

The second stage is said to have stemmed from a meeting here attended by then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, arms dealer and former Mossad intelligence agent Jacob Nimrodi and a “senior Iranian official” in 1982. It is this arms pipeline that Israeli sources, including a prominent businessman with strong ties to Iran, say has operated more or less continuously ever since despite official denials.

Sharon argued that arms shipments would help keep channels open to “moderate” or “pragmatic” elements in Iran, particularly in the military, who would one day overthrow or at least inherit the reins of power from Khomeini--a justification similar to that used by the Reagan Administration for its clandestine arms supply program.


Wishful Thinking?

However, according to Israeli sources, it has long been a matter of debate here whether such hopes are realistic.

“What we forgot, and I forgot it, too, was that the shah kept the military highly compartmentalized, and the ayatollah, when he took over, did the same thing (the late Soviet dictator Josef) Stalin did--he chopped off the heads of the military,” commented one policy-maker.

As a result, he said, Israel has generally been frustrated in its attempts to win influence with the military through arms shipments. Still, this source said, new people would periodically try again. “It’s like a sign that says ‘Wet Paint,’ ” this official said. “Everybody has to come up and stick their finger in to see if it’s really true.”


A related debate continues here over whether Iran or Iraq constitutes the greater danger to Israel. Israel’s policy from the nation’s earliest days was to cultivate relations with Tehran, which is Islamic but non-Arab, as a counter to Jerusalem’s hostile Arab neighbors.

An Eye on the Soviets

The two countries also had a common interest in stemming Soviet influence in the region. That deeper common ground will ultimately win out, according to those here who support arms shipments to Iran.

And besides, a victorious and hostile Iraq, situated within 300 miles of Israel’s eastern border with 40 battle-hardened divisions and more than 600 combat aircraft, would constitute a formidable threat, some say.


As long ago as 1982, however, Gideon Rafael, former Israeli Foreign Ministry director general, argued: “Why a fanatical Islamic regime, emerging in a defeated Iraq, allied with a ruthless Iranian dictatorship, should be a better bid for Israel defies the elementary rules of political logic. To believe that the victory of Khomeinism will lead to its overthrow by a junta of generals, bound to Israel by gratitude is, to say the least, a sign of political infantilism.”

‘A More Acute Danger’

Rafael added: “The expansion of Islamic fanaticism throughout the Middle East is at present a more acute danger to the stability of the region and the consolidation of the peace between Israel and Egypt than the intensification of Arab hostility or the extension of Soviet influence in the area. An Islamic wave will not block it, but rather promote it.”

The debate continues today. Arguing for a “reassessment of Israel’s policy in the Gulf War,” Arye Naor, who served as Cabinet secretary under former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, wrote in the Jerusalem Post last week that while it may have made sense to help Iran during the early days of the war, when it appeared that Iraq would win the conflict easily, that’s no longer the case.


Besides, Naor wrote, “A victorious Iran would be dangerous to some of our neighbors--even more dangerous than to us. This means that we and the moderate Arabs have a common enemy, and history has proved that this is the best key for opening gates between arch-enemies.”

What virtually all here agree is that Israel is best served if neither side wins the war. One source who claimed first-hand knowledge said that top Israeli officials have had at least theoretical discussions about whether they would supply Iraq with weapons. Their conclusion, this source said, was that they would, in limited quantity, if they could find a suitable intermediary.

‘No Winner’ Approach

The “no winner” approach was the key to Israeli-U.S. cooperation in what sources here described as the latest, third stage of Jerusalem’s arms-to-Iran program--the one instituted by the Reagan Administration after exploratory talks in 1985.


Sources here confirm that at least two planeloads of arms took off from here to Iran late that summer. The first, according to these sources, fell into the hands of radical Iranian Revolutionary Guards at the Tehran airport, necessitating a second shipment to the senior Iranian army officers who were the intended recipients.

It was those shipments that Reagan Administration sources now say were not approved by Reagan, who signed a secret order to waive a longstanding embargo on arms sales to Iran only on Jan. 17, 1986. Israel assisted in other U.S. shipments last spring.

7 Shiploads Delivered

In the meantime, at least seven shiploads of Israeli-produced arms were routed from Eilat to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on Danish merchant ships between August, 1985, and early this month, sources here confirmed.


While the exact value of these Israeli “Stage 2" shipments could not be learned, it appeared to be in the tens of millions of dollars worth. They reportedly consisted mainly of 155-millimeter howitzer shells, 106-millimeter recoilless rifle shells, and 120-millimeter mortar shells.

One of the Danish ships had a 450-ton capacity, and a typical shell weighs about 30 pounds. One ship could thus carry about 30,000 shells. At an average cost of $200 per shell, the value of one shipload would be $6 million. Seven shiploads would thus be worth $42 million.