U.S. Didn’t Anticipate Wider Iran Bosnia Role
In the fall of 1994, only a few months after President Clinton gave a green light to Iranian arms shipments to Bosnia, U.S. intelligence analysts noticed an unwelcome new development: small teams of Iranian military advisors had arrived in the largely Muslim republic to teach Bosnian units how to use their new weapons.
The military trainers were only part of a larger trend: a concerted escalation of Tehran’s influence in one of Europe’s few Muslim countries, intelligence officials said. In those same months, Iran’s foreign minister arrived in Sarajevo with a check for $1 million and promises of more aid. Bosnian officials visited Tehran and announced plans for expanded economic and cultural ties. And deep inside Bosnia’s government, Iranian advisors secretly helped create an internal security agency to keep watch on domestic opponents.
The Clinton administration was powerless to stop the trend. U.S. officials admit that they gave little thought in 1994 to the likelihood that Iran’s military and political presence in Bosnia would grow as an indirect result of the arms pipeline.
Top administration officials did not focus on the problem “until the prospect of U.S. troops going in was there” in 1995, a senior official said. “That’s when we really focused on this in an intense way.” By then, Bosnia was host to as many as 2,000 Islamic guerrillas and military advisors, including a team of Iranians that was running what NATO officials described as a “terrorist training school.”
Today, administration officials say the Iranian presence in Bosnia is one of the biggest problems facing American troops on the ground and U.S. support for the republic in a larger sense. The Bosnian government says it is phasing out its military relationship with Iran, in obedience to the Dayton peace accords. But U.S. officials complain that Iranian advisors are still in the country. Congress has held up funding for a U.S. program to equip and train the Bosnian army with Western weapons until the Iranians are gone.
Meanwhile, Iran has just opened an elegant new embassy in Sarajevo and is about to open an Islamic Cultural Center in the city’s commercial center, complete with posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini glaring across the street at an equally new Benetton clothing store.
Like it or not, Iran is in Bosnia to stay--and the secret arms pipeline that the Clinton administration reluctantly accepted in 1994 appears to have been a significant step along the way.
It is clear the pipeline made Iran “a principal source of supply, and that this had consequences,” a senior official said Monday. “But this was the best of our options.”
Clinton’s decision to allow Iranian arms shipments to Bosnia was made in unusual secrecy--and apparent haste. At the time, the Bosnian Muslim town of Gorazde was besieged by Serb forces, the Bosnian government was pleading for arms and Congress was debating the idea of forcing the administration to break the United Nations arms embargo in the former Yugoslav federation--a move Clinton feared would lead to an open rupture between the United States and its traditional European allies, Britain and France.
The decision point came when the president of Croatia asked if the United States would object to Iranian arms shipments moving through Croatian territory to neighboring Bosnia. The question moved quickly up the U.S. chain of command to Clinton’s national security advisor, Anthony Lake, and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. At the time, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was traveling in the Middle East. Lake and Talbott recommended that the U.S. ambassador in Croatia tell the Croatian president that he had “no instructions” about arms shipments--diplomatic language meaning the United States would not object. Clinton quickly agreed.
One official said there was some discussion at lower levels about helping Iran expand its influence in Bosnia. “Were long papers written on this? No,” he said. “Was the issue discussed? Yes it was, at least at the State Department. . . . " The official added: “We chose the course we did, in full recognition that this could give [Iran] an enhanced standing in Bosnia.”
But other senior officials said they did not recall the issue of Iranian influence coming up. And the quick, informal way the decision was made eliminated the opportunity for debate throughout the administration’s national security apparatus. Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were all informed only after Clinton made his decision, officials said. Christopher was informed right before Lake went to the president.
The consequences of the decision were almost immediate. Within days, an Iran Air 747 landed in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and unloaded a cargo that reportedly included 60 tons of explosives and other raw materials for weapons production. Bosnian military officials soon reported that they had received antitank missiles and ammunition.
The following week, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited Sarajevo, promised $1 million in economic aid and won praise from Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, who said: “While we cannot tell all the details now, we must understand that our fight for freedom . . . would be less successful without Iran and its aid.”
When reporters asked Christopher about reports of an Iranian arms shipment, the secretary of state replied: “I suppose it’s only inevitable--not desirable, but inevitable--that there will be some leakage.” Still, he added: “The United States expects compliance with the embargo.”
There were more arms shipments during 1994 and 1995, and Iran’s embrace of Bosnia went further. More Iranian officials visited Sarajevo, and more Bosnian officials visited Tehran. The two countries signed a series of economic cooperation agreements. And, in secret, Iranian military and intelligence advisors began arriving in Bosnia and working to improve the embattled country’s security apparatus.
Western intelligence agencies detected several hundred militant Muslim guerrillas from Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries in Bosnia as early as 1992, officials said, including several “Afghanis,” veterans of the CIA-funded war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But these were largely ragtag volunteers, with no readily apparent command and control from Iran or anywhere else.
In 1994, however, a different kind of Iranian was showing up in Bosnia, officials said: military and civilian advisors who appeared to have been sent by the Tehran government on well-defined missions. Some were military trainers who taught the Bosnians how to use the wire-guided antitank missiles Iran was shipping, one source said. Others helped with logistics and with weapons factories, according to the Bosnian government.
Some of those advisors may even have flown into Croatia on the Iranian arms flights, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Still others helped train a secret intelligence agency inside Bosnia’s Interior Ministry, which runs the country’s police and internal security, NATO officials in Bosnia said. That unit stayed in Bosnia until February, when NATO troops discovered what officials called a “terrorist training school” in Podgovrelica, north of Sarajevo.
At the base, NATO forces found bomb devices planted in shampoo bottles and children’s toys, and a training video that showed how to ambush a car on a highway and kill its passengers. The forces arrested eight Bosnians and three Iranians, who claimed diplomatic immunity and quickly flew out of the country.
U.S. officials said it is still not clear how many Iranian advisors were in Bosnia by 1995. Their overall estimate of about 2,000 includes all “foreign forces,” including non-Iranian Muslim volunteers.
But they acknowledge that for most of 1994 and 1995, the administration undertook no serious effort to warn the Bosnian government against its deepening relationship with the Tehran regime.
“We knew there was some kind of presence being established,” a State Department official said. “Were we ever in a position to say: ‘You’ve got to be careful of these guys?’ We didn’t have anything to offer them . . . we didn’t have much leverage.”
“I don’t believe we were actively seeking to persuade the Bosnians to break all ties with Iran at the time, simply because it wasn’t realistic,” another official agreed.
Indeed, officials said, U.S. intelligence agencies produced only occasional information about the Iranian presence--until last year, when NATO and the Defense Department were galvanized by the prospect that U.S. troops might be sent into Bosnia as peacekeepers, only to face potentially hostile Islamic guerrillas on the ground.
“IFOR [the NATO peacekeeping force] was concerned, and rightfully so, about who these guys were and what anti-American activities they might undertake,” the State Department official said.
Beginning in the fall of 1995, U.S. officials began pressing the Bosnian government to send the Iranians home, promising Western weapons and training in their place.
But the Bosnians have been reluctant. Most of the Iranians have left, but U.S. officials say some are still in the country. The Iranian-trained internal security force is still operating. Some Iranian-run military training camps were still open as recently as last month. “They’ve gone to ground,” a Western official in Bosnia said, “but they have not ceased their work.”
After initially denying the camps’ existence, Izetbegovic, under U.S. pressure, promised to close them. The camps, he said, were “our big mistake in violation of what we signed.” And he dispatched Prime Minister Hasan Muratovic to Tehran, ostensibly to work out the details of a new, nonmilitary relationship.
“Iran during the war has shown itself as a true friend,” Izetbegovic said last month. “But . . . when we speak about allies, we have to have [both] America and the Islamic world on our side. . . . That is possible and that should be our policy.”
The Clinton administration remains unconvinced. “Iran is an outlaw state, a sponsor of terrorism,” State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said last month. “The Bosnians may believe that Iran was helpful at some point during their war. Iran cannot help them now. . . . We would encourage the Bosnian government to drop this notion that somehow any relationship with Iran can be positive to them.”
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Sarajevo and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this story.