Washington — It wasn't the United States. It wasn't Israel. It was Iran that made the first move in what became the Iran-contra affair, according to a participant in the affair's initial phases. ``Realist'' elements in Tehran first broached the possibility of a renewed relationship with the US to Israeli intermediaries, says Michael Ledeen, a former consultant to the National Security Council (NSC). ``It was an Iranian initiative. We were responding to it,'' Mr. Ledeen said at a breakfast meeting for reporters.
The real crime in the affair is that to this day no one in the US government has any idea why the overture was made, or if it was genuine, Ledeen adds.
``Were these people with whom we met serious? Can you change the nature of Iranian policies? We are not in a position today to answer basic questions about Iran and strategic possibilities for American foreign policy,'' he says.
Michael Ledeen was one of the few well-known participants in Iran-contra dealings who did not testify in public before special congressional investigating committees. A deposition he gave in private to committee lawyers will be released sometime next month.
A consummate Washington insider, Ledeen has at various times over the last decade been a journalist, author, government official, and consultant. He is famous for his high-ranking foreign friends. Former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres are close personal associates; he is said to be particularly well-connected with Israeli military and intelligence circles.
Ledeen was the intermediary who, when working for the NSC, first presented to the US government the idea of opening some sort of secret communication with Tehran. He was also the first American to make contact in this regard with Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian businessman who served as the channel to Iranian officials during much of the affair.
Eventually Ledeen became a figure of suspicion for some of the White House officials who knew of the initiative. Memos turned up by the Tower Commission showed that Lt. Col. Oliver North thought Ledeen might be secretly cooperating with Mr. Ghorbanifar because of some ``financial arrangement.''
This is a charge that Ledeen has strenuously denied since it first surfaced. Asked if he ever benefited from the Iran-contra deals he says flatly ``no.'' His role, for the most part, was simply that of a ``message carrier,'' he says.
However, Ledeen is perhaps the only person on the US side of the affair to defend Ghorbanifar, a shadowy figure that former NSC head Robert McFarlane and others have called a liar and an opportunist. ``Ghorbanifar is a complex person,'' says Ledeen, who calls him a friend.
Colonel North thought that Ghorbanifar was an Israeli intelligence agent. Ledeen says that when he first met him that he, too, thought Ghorbanifar was an agent - but a Soviet one. ``I thought he was KGB. I was full of the darkest suspicions,'' he says.
But these suspicions eventually moderated as it became clear that the Iranian businessman could really deliver what he said he could deliver - access to top officials in Tehran.
For all that Mr. McFarlane and others complained about him, Ghorbanifar was a constant presence in the Iran-contra affair almost to the end, Ledeen points out.
When Ghorbanifar was shuffled off the side, and the US began trying to deal with Iran through a second channel, those new dealings were exposed. Ledeen feels there is a relationship in these events - that Ghorbanifar had a hand in leaking the story. The US made a mistake in throwing away a middleman who knew so much, says the ex-NSC consultant.
Ledeen also claims the second channel was a mistake in that it also angered Iranian officials who had been involved in the deal but were now shut out. The second channel focused on only one faction of what Ledeen prefers to call Iranian ``realists,'' not ``moderates.''
In the end, the Iranian initiative turned out to have been ``a frightful mistake,'' according to Ledeen. The chance to explore the possibilities for a new political relationship with Iran were simply ground underfoot in the White House race to trade arms for hostages, he says.
McFarlane has rebutted Ledeen's statements that he was always against using arms as the currency for dealings with Iran. It was Ledeen, said McFarlane in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, who consistently presented ``the most outrageous Iranian demands for arms.''
Though Ledeen was not aware at the time that funds from the arms sales were being diverted to aid the Nicaraguan contras, he now sees this as a major force distorting the Iran side of the initiative.
``I am certain that at one point we ended up continuing to trade arms for hostages, just to keep money flowing to Central America,'' he says.