President Clinton’s former chief negotiator in the Balkans told Congress on Tuesday that senior administration officials recognized the dangers of an increased Iranian presence in Bosnia but decided to give a green light to Iranian arms shipments in 1994 because it was the “least bad of a lot of lousy choices.”
“Policy sometimes requires you to make difficult choices--this was a difficult choice,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former assistant secretary of state who brokered last year’s Dayton peace accord for Bosnia.
“We were very aware of the risks and we didn’t like them. . . . This was bitterly debated within the administration and it was a tough call,” Holbrooke told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But the Clinton administration ultimately decided that Washington first should make sure that the Bosnians were armed, then worry about Iranian influence, he added.
“When the patient is on life-support systems, you make sure that the oxygen gets through to the patient first, then you worry about the source of the oxygen,” Holbrooke said.
In the end, Holbrooke argued, Iranian arms shipments helped the Bosnian Muslim government withstand Serbian aggression until U.S.-brokered peace negotiations brought an end to the war. “Thank God the decision was made” to give the green light to the Iranian arms pipeline, he said. “In retrospect, I still think [the decision] was absolutely correct.”
Holbrooke added that the administration thought of its secret Iranian arms policy as analogous to the Western alliance with the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler’s Germany during World War II.
“The one [comparison] that came to mind here was Winston Churchill’s famous comments about why Britain made common cause with Stalin against Hitler,” he said. “I don’t want to put this up into that same level of history but it was a legitimate decision for Churchill and he knew full well the consequences.”
Holbrooke suggested that the administration’s decision to allow Iran to ship the arms continues to haunt U.S. peace efforts and that it was a central reason he insisted on a withdrawal of Islamic foreign soldiers from Bosnia as part of the Dayton accords late last year.
“As soon as the cease-fire was in place, as soon as we got to Dayton, we dealt with it.”
The increased influence that Tehran obtained in Bosnia and Croatia as a result of its arms supplies is one of the most controversial aspects of the policy and has been sharply criticized by former Bush administration officials and a number of lawmakers.
The Clinton administration is being pressed to explain how this could have been warranted, as well as why officials declined to tell Congress.
Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, pressed Holbrooke to acknowledge that the administration had made a serious error in failing to disclose the arms policy to Congress.
“I regret notification did not meet your standards in this case,” said Holbrooke, who left the State Department in February. “I believe Congress should have” been notified, he said.
At the time Clinton made his decision to give tacit approval to the arms shipments in April 1994, Holbrooke was not involved in the United States’ Bosnia policy. When he took over as chief U.S. negotiator in September 1994, Iranian arms were already flowing to Bosnia along a U.S.-sanctioned covert pipeline through Croatia.
But just as he was moving to his new job, Holbrooke met with then-Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic in New York to discuss arms shipments for Bosnia, Holbrooke said. Silajdzic asked him if the United States could help Bosnia develop alternative sources of arms from other nations besides Iran.
Holbrooke said that he tentatively explored having the U.S. encourage friendly Islamic nations to arm the Bosnians and asked State Department attorneys to draft a legal opinion. He said that he thought Silajdzic’s request “was worth an affirmative response.”
In the end, however, Holbrooke’s plans were short-circuited by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who decided that the administration should not do anything to directly encourage or aid arms shipments from third countries.
Christopher saw that as taking a step further toward direct U.S. involvement than was represented by the administration’s earlier decision to simply turn a blind eye to Iranian arms shipments.