President Reagan's chief spokesman, acknowledging that Vice President George Bush was told last summer that the United States was dealing with Iran's most radical elements in its arms sales, said Monday that the question of whether the contacts were with moderates or radicals was not relevant to the goals of the secret weapons shipments.
"The Administration was trying to open a dialogue with elements in Iran that were prepared to work with us, with the United States. And the question of moderates and radicals is a semantic difference," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
"We were hoping for moderate in the sense of elements who were willing to work with us. But you can define moderates and radicals in hundreds of different ways, particularly in Iran," said Fitzwater, who was Bush's spokesman before becoming White House spokesman last week.
Meeting in Israel
Fitzwater acknowledged that Bush was told that the Iranian contacts were among the radical elements in the Tehran regime during a meeting in Israel with Amiram Nir, an anti-terrorism adviser to the Israeli government. Details of the session were included in a top-secret memorandum prepared by Craig L. Fuller, Bush's chief of staff and the only other person who took part.
The disclosure, made first by the Washington Post, indicated that Bush had a greater involvement in the Iran operation than had previously been known. It also went to the heart of the Administration's portrayal of the operation as an attempt to win the favor of "moderate" Iranian elements and boost their chances of gaining control after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the aging leader of the Tehran regime.
Although the vice president has maintained that Reagan believes he was dealing with only moderate elements, Fitzwater's statements demonstrated that the vice president had been informed by a source deeply familiar with various aspects of the operation that the Iranians with whom the Administration was operating were indeed radicals.
The revelation brought serious risk of political fallout for Bush, perhaps even more than for the President himself, who is in the final two years of his Administration.
As Reagan's vice president, Bush's expected presidential campaign in 1988 stands to gain or suffer as a result of the President's political standing. Thus, the stronger the vice president's connection with the politically unpopular Iran operation, the greater his liability.
When asked why Bush never corrected Reagan's description of the Iranian contacts as moderates, Fitzwater said: "Moderates was a term that we chose to use to describe any elements that would be amenable or helpful to the United States. I don't think the Nir remarks changed a thing."
Fitzwater, who accompanied Bush to the Middle East last July but did not sit in on the meeting with Nir, said the information provided by the Israeli was relayed to Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the fired National Security Council staff member who has been identified as being at the center of the sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of funds to Nicaraguan rebels.
"The appropriate official channel was to provide that information to the National Security Council, which at that time was Oliver North and John Poindexter," who was Reagan's national security adviser at the time, Fitzwater said. Poindexter resigned in November after the contras were linked to the Iran arms operation.
The White House spokesman also said Bush briefed Reagan "on several occasions" about the trip, but added: "I have no idea of any specifics" mentioned by the vice president.