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Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2000 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Philip Terzian

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P.S. Don't tell Congress! -- IT ONLY TOOK two weeks, but someone on network television finally got around to asking Al Gore about the secret Iran arms deal. No, not the one that got Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. in such trouble in the late 1980s, but the Clinton administration's secret deal, which seems to have contributed to Iran's nuclear weapons program. It's an interesting story.

It begins in 1992, when then-Senators Gore, D-Tenn. and John McCain, R-Ariz, co-sponsored legislation -- the Iran-Iraq Nonproliferation Act -- that imposes sanctions on countries that sell advanced weapons to regimes that the State Department classifies as patrons of terrorism, such as Iran. At the time, Senator Gore was particularly eloquent in his concern that, in the post-Cold War world, the newest dangers faced by the West include "rogue states" supplied with sophisticated, perhaps even nuclear, weaponry. To be sure, the definition of a rogue state can be elastic; but the Iran of today, struggling between a reformist civil government and a clerical dictatorship, is different from the Iran of the 1990s, sponsor of terror in its region, and around the world.

Still, Al Gore was only a senator in 1992 when he joined forces with John McCain. By the mid-90s he was vice president, specializing in (among other things) U.S. relations with Russia. In his dealings with the Yeltsin government, Gore had cultivated an especially close relationship with Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian prime minister, and a prominent member of the Kremlin kleptocracy. To be sure, Mr. Gore might not have been aware of Chernomyrdin's larcenous tendencies; but Chernomyrdin got an accurate sense of Al Gore.

And so, in 1995, he entered into a secret agreement, negotiated by Gore, hat would allow Russia to continue selling advanced weaponry to Iran, without triggering American sanctions, until the end of 1999. Part of the deal, apparently, was that Congress would not be told about this circumvention of the law, and it was not. And with good reason: If Congress had learned that the Gore-McCain law was being violated -- and not only by Gore, of all people, but in ways that strengthened Iran, of all places -- the subsequent scandal could have been explosive.

Of course, the gods are not to be mocked. It turns out that not only did the Clinton-Gore administration violate the law by sanctioning secret Russian arms sales to Iran, but that the Russians have declined to abide by the deal. The clandestine sales of diesel submarines, torpedoes, anti-ship mines, tanks and armored personnel carriers were supposed to stop by the end of 1999. But the bazaar remains open, and Gore, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her deputy, Strobe Talbott, have repeatedly complained (in vain) to the Putin government. This must be especially galling for Talbott, a former Time magazine writer, who is regarded as the resident authority on Russia, and was clearly not included in the Gore-Chernomyrdin embrace.

As it happens, Congress never did learn about the secret Russian arms deal until The New York Times broke the story on Oct. 13, and four days later The Washington Times revealed that an element of the agreement -- spelled out in an extraordinary "Dear Al" letter from Chernomyrdin -- was that details should "not ... be conveyed to third parties, including the U.S. Congress." Obviously, the only thing that irritates Congress more than executive misconduct is the knowledge that it has been consistently misled. And so, in a series of closed-door meetings this past week, Congress asked the Clinton-Gore administration to tell the truth.

What do you suppose happened? Not only did the administration decline to reveal the contents of the deal, it refused access to an exchange of letters between hernomyrdin and Madeleine Albright on the subject, and would not even furnish a list of the weaponry sold to Iran. To make matters worse, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., trying to be helpful, told reporters that he, at least, had been briefed about the deal in 1995. Assuming that Mr. Hamilton is correct, and certain members of Congress were informed, that means the administration pointedly excluded Republicans -- who, by 1995, controlled both houses of Congress.

None of this has proved to be of much interest to the TV networks, almost all of whom have ignored the story, until the co-host of "Good Morning America" (ABC) reluctantly passed along a viewer question to Al Gore: "Did you allow Russian weapon sales to iran to continue in defiance of the law you personally co-sponsored?" Gore's response was predictable: Of course, he had done nothing wrong, and by the way, the weapons Russia secretly sold to Iran were not covered by the Gore-McCain sanctions. Not true, declares Senator McCain, Gore's co-author: "If the administration has acquiesced in the sales, then I believe they have violated both the intent and the letter of the law."

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Philip Terzian