In August 1986, in the midst of what would become the Iran-Contra Affair, an Israeli adviser to the prime minister, working undercover as a US envoy, met with Hasan Rouhani, the current president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rouhani, in discussing ways to facilitate the release of seven US hostages then being held in Lebanon, gave the Israeli the following advice: “First and foremost, you have to be firm with [Iranian leader Ayatollah] Khomeini. Stand strongly before him… If you don’t bare sharp teeth before Khomeini, you’re going to have troubles all over the world. [But] if you threaten him with military force, he’ll kiss your hand and run.”
The conversation between the late Amiram Nir, who was working as prime minister Shimon Peres’s adviser on counterterror, and Rouhani was brokered by Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar and conducted in a Paris hotel. Nir wore a wire. In May 1994, some five-and-a-half years after Nir’s mysterious death, Yedioth Ahronoth military correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai published the details of the meeting, which recently resurfaced on the Israeli website Fresh.
Then, as now, Rouhani was depicted by president Ronald Reagan’s administration as a moderate element within Iran — an individual with whom the US could do business. And there was plenty of business to be done.
Iran was at war with Iraq, and losing. Tehran needed arms. The US needed its citizens freed from Hezbollah captivity in Lebanon, and it sought, despite public presidential pronouncements to the contrary, an inside track to the regime, particularly in light of Khomeini’s failing health. A US-led arms embargo known as Operation Staunch, however, barred the US from overtly dealing with Iran.
Enter Israel: The US would send missiles to Iran via Israel, which viewed Iraq as a more natural enemy at the time, and Iran, in turn, would deliver the seven US citizens back to the Americans. That was the plan, and it may have worked, had certain elements on the National Security Council staff not decided to funnel the money back to the anti-communist Nicaraguan forces known as the Contras — Congress had passed a law in 1982 barring US funding for actions designed to overthrow the government of Nicaragua — and had the Iranians actually kept their word.
Instead, over the course of more than a year, the US shipped over 500 TOW missiles via Israel to Europe and from there to Iran, along with 150 Hawk surface-to-air missiles and 200 air-to-air Sidewinders, and received little of what was promised in return. Khomeini’s Iran delivered $3.6 million but, absent a credible military threat, and perhaps wary of engagement with the Americans, the regime held on to its strategic asset at the time — most of the humans in its possession — and a former member of the Republican Guard, later executed by the regime, leaked the story to the Lebanese press.
The meeting between Rouhani and Nir took place on August 30, 1986, less than three months before the story was broken in a Lebanese newspaper. Rouhani was deputy chairman of the Majlis at the time and the right-hand man of the de facto commander of the war, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — a future president of Iran and “the former major-domo of political clerics.” Rouhani, fluent in English, spoke in Farsi with Nir, who was equipped with a US identity and spoke in the name of the White House.
The arms dealer, Ghorbanifar, began in English: “I’ve explained to Dr. Rouhani that you are from the White House, a special envoy to the Middle East, and he is happy to meet with you,” he said.
The conversation, Ben-Yishai wrote, was recorded on a small receiver that Nir had taped to his abdomen.
The two men exchanged pleasantries, with Nir thanking Rouhani “in the name of my superiors” for his political positions and his intellectual prowess and Rouhani apologizing for his limited English and the necessity of a translator. “Please. I ask of you. Treat this meeting as a private meeting. Very private,” Rouhani continued. “I do not speak in the name of my government. This meeting opposes all logic. But since I believe in Ghorbanifar, I agreed to come and I hope it will help.”
Substantively, Rouhani said he felt “uncomfortable” in the face of Khomeini’s speech earlier that same day, in which the Supreme Leader had said that all who did not abide by his unwavering anti-American line should be butchered. “But you Americans are at fault. You sit off to the side and see what happens between us and the Iraqis and do not lift a finger to help us. You will not get a thing from Iran so long as there is no movement on your part and you [do not] supply us with what is needed,” Rouhani said.
Rouhani then took a step back and explained that this was the official line, the one he had to parrot. “It should be clear to you that what I have just said is what Rafsanjani demands that I say. If I don’t do so — I’ll be crushed.” He explained that he was surrounded by guards and that the most extreme clerics, such as Khomeini’s son Ahmad, were leading the country. “You need to know who you are dealing with,” he cautioned. Then he added: “All of the moderates in my country are walking along a thin rope. We can’t come meet with you every week. Or even every month. We are prepared for true cooperation with you. But first you must help us promote the true Islam within our country, and for that we need money and your help to end the war [with Iraq].”
Nir thanked Rouhani for his candor and assured him that, while only two people in the US knew of the meeting, and no others would learn of it, there was a great openness and curiosity about Iran in the US and that the administration sought to help the moderates help themselves. “Tell us what you need and we’ll see what can be done.”
Rouhani launched into an explanation about the nature of Ruhollah Khomeini’s rule. “If we analyze Khomeini’s character, we will see that if someone strong stands opposite him, he will retreat 100 steps; and if he is strong and someone weak faces him, he will advance 100 steps. Unfortunately, you have taken a mistaken approach. You have been soft to him. Had you been tougher, your hand would be on top. You did not display strength.”
Nir assured him that in Lebanon the US would play hardball and resist the Khomeini line.
“That’s good,” Rouhani said. “They [the Ayatollahs and the Iran Republican Guard Corps] two days ago sent $3 million to Lebanon and we in Iran don’t have money to pay for the cost of living and our own security. They gathered all of the Lebanese mullahs in Baalbek and made promises and decided to turn Lebanon into an Islamic republic. What nonsense!! I tried to stop it and didn’t succeed. If you don’t bare sharp teeth before Khomeini, you’ll have trouble all over the world.”
Nir asked where and how the US should display its strength. Rouhani replied: “If, for instance, you said to him [Khomeini], ‘You must release all of the hostages in Lebanon within five days. If not — we’ll deal you a military blow and you will be responsible for the results,’ do it, show that you are strong, and you will see the results.”
Nir adhered to the US line, saying that while he represented a superpower he feared that severe action could force Iran into the arms of the Russians. Rouhani advised him to “use Muslim propaganda against Khomeini with the help of Turkey and Pakistan.”
At that point, Nir excused himself, went to the bathroom, and flipped over the tape.
Ben-Yishai wrote that the two went on to speak for more than an hour and clearly enjoyed a good rapport. As they stood up to leave, Nir asked Rouhani how to help those in Iran who believe “that Iran’s future is linked to the West.”
Rouhani said “a book could be written about that,” but advised that the best option was for him to return to Tehran and talk to those surrounding Ayatollah Hosein-Ali Montazeri and get back to Nir with a message. Montazeri, then the front-runner to inherit the position of supreme leader from Khomeini, was critical of the Iran-Iraq War and a strong supporter of a more equitable and democratic Shiite state. Rouhani sought to promote his candidacy, Ben-Yishai wrote, and that was at the heart of the meeting.
On November 3, 1986, two Lebanese papers broke the story of the arms deal. Montazeri, whose writing and rhetoric fueled the Green Revolution in 2009, was forced aside despite his superior religious authority, and the reins of power were later put in the hands of Ali Khamenei, a more extreme cleric, who still rules Iran today.
On November 30, 1988, Amiram Nir boarded a one-engine Cessna T-210 on a flight from Uruapan, Mexico, to Mexico City. He was said to have been in the country on avocado business. The plane went down in the mountains, on a clear day, and Nir was pronounced dead. Much speculation has revolved around the possibility of foul play in that death, as Nir could personally attest to the fact that very senior US officials knew the details of the Iran-Contra Affair. Adriana Stanton, Nir’s traveling partner, who also boarded the plane under an alias, told Channel 10’s HaMakor program in 2009 that she saw Nir alive and well after the crash.
A former journalist and battalion commander in the armored corps, Nir is buried in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv.