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Meetings With Iran-Contra Arms Dealer Confirmed

By Bradley Graham and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 9, 2003; Page A01

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged yesterday that Pentagon officials met secretly with a discredited expatriate Iranian arms merchant who figured prominently in the Iran-contra scandal of the mid-1980s, characterizing the contact as an unexceptional effort to gain possibly useful information.

While Rumsfeld said that the contact occurred more than a year ago and that nothing came of it, his aides scrambled during the day to piece together more details amid other reports that Rumsfeld's account may have been incomplete.

Last night, a senior defense official disclosed that another meeting with the Iranian arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, occurred in June in Paris. The official said that, while the first contact, in late 2001, had been formally sanctioned by the U.S. government in response to an Iranian government offer to provide information relevant to the war on terrorism, the second one resulted from "an unplanned, unscheduled encounter."

A senior administration official said, however, that Pentagon staff members held one or two other meetings with Ghorbanifar last year in Italy. The sessions so troubled Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the official said, that he complained to Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser.

Powell maintained that the Pentagon activities were unauthorized and undermined U.S. policy toward Iran by taking place outside the terms defined by Bush and his top advisers. The White House instructed the Pentagon to halt meetings that do not conform to policy decisions, said the official, who requested anonymity.

The Defense Department personnel who met with Ghorbanifar came from the policy directorate. Sources identified them as Harold Rhode, a specialist on Iran and Iraq who recently served in Baghdad as the Pentagon liaison to Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, and Larry Franklin, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst.

State Department officials were surprised by news of the latest meeting with Ghorbanifar. Tension runs deep in the Bush administration between State and the Pentagon, which under Rumsfeld has aspired to a powerful role in foreign policy. The two agencies have sparred repeatedly over strategy toward Iran and Iraq.

The United States does not have formal relations with Iran, although a small number of sanctioned meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials have taken place, most notably to address U.S. war plans in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Bush administration has struggled to develop a coherent and consistent approach to Iran. In his State of the Union address last year, Bush characterized Iran as being part of an axis of evil, along with Iraq and North Korea, and administration officials have repeatedly accused Iran of supporting terrorist groups and of seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. While broad agreement exists within the administration favoring changes in Iran's Islamic government, officials differ on how to accomplish them.

More than two years after the administration began drafting a national security presidential directive on Iran, the policy document remains unfinished. While the State Department favors increased dialogue and engagement with potential reformers inside Iran, prominent Pentagon civilians believe the policy should be more aggressive, including measures to destabilize the existing government in Tehran.

The Iran-contra scandal erupted over a decision by the Reagan administration to sell weapons to Iran in an effort to win the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon. The proceeds of the arms sales were illegally funneled to contra fighters opposing Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.

Ghorbanifar was enlisted in the effort, helping to arrange the delivery by Israel of 508 TOW antitank missiles to Iran. The White House had drafted him as an intermediary despite warnings from the CIA that he was a cheat and had failed lie-detector tests.

The intelligence agency had instructed its operatives not to do business with him.

News of the Pentagon's contact with Ghorbanifar was first reported yesterday by Newsday, and Rumsfeld was asked about the story when he emerged with Bush from a meeting at the president's ranch in Crawford, Tex.

Saying he had just been told of the Newsday article by a senior aide and by Rice, Rumsfeld acknowledged that "one or two" Pentagon officials "were approached by some people who had information about Iranians that wanted to provide information to the United States government."

He said that a meeting took place "more than a year ago" and that the information received was circulated to various federal departments and agencies but did not lead to anything.

"That is to say, as I understand it, there wasn't anything there that was of substance or of value that needed to be pursued further," he said.

Asked if the Pentagon contact was intended to circumvent official U.S. exchanges with Iran, Rumsfeld replied: "Oh, absolutely not. I mean, everyone in the interagency process, I'm told, was apprised of it, and it went nowhere. It was just -- this happens, of course, frequently, that in -- people come in, offering suggestions or information or possible contacts, and sometimes they're pursued. Obviously, if it looks as though something might be interesting, it's pursued. If it isn't, it isn't."

Standing by Rumsfeld's side, Bush was asked if the meeting was a good idea and if his administration wants a change in government. "We support the aspirations of those who desire freedom in Iran," the president said, then took a question on a different subject.

According to the account given later by the senior Pentagon official, the contact in 2001 occurred after Iranian officials passed word to the administration that they had information that might be useful in the global war on terrorism. Two Pentagon officials met with the Iranians in several sessions over a three-day period in Italy. Ghorbanifar attended these meetings, "but he was not the individual who had approached the United States or the one with the information," the official said.

What his role was, however, the official did not know.

The official said the June meeting involved one of the two Pentagon representatives who had been present at the 2001 meeting, but he declined to say which one.

Staff writer Dana Priest contributed to this report.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company