Clinton hit by row over Iranian arms

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The Independent Online
Senior Clinton administration foreign policy makers are likely to be hauled over the coals on Capitol Hill this summer, after charges they may have misled Congress and broken the law in consenting to the shipment of Iranian arms to Bosnia during the war, in violation of the then UN embargo.

The row surfaced last week when the Los Angeles Times published a detailed account, not seriously challenged by White House or the State Department, of the operation, lasting from early 1994 until the beginning of this year, channelled through Croatia with a blessing from the White House that was kept secret from US diplomats and even the CIA.

Seizing an election-year stick with which to beat Mr Clinton, some Republicans claim the affair was a Democratic equivalent of Iran/Contra, the White House-run covert operation whose revelation in late 1986 almost wrecked Ronald Reagan's presidency.

That appears an exaggeration; the White House has insisted its tacit approval of the arms for Bosnia was in keeping with the "letter of the law" on the UN embargo, and as far as is known, no US money, aircraft or arms were involved in the airlift of weapons, in stark contrast to Iran-Contra.

The embarrassment for the Clinton administration is still considerable. It was condoning a breach of the embargo at the very moment it was frantically defending it before a Congress bent on lifting the ban.

Compounding that hypocrisy is the fact that Iran is a sworn foe of the US, at the top of Washington's black list of states which sponsor terrorism. Having connived at Iran's role in delivering the arms, Washington is now complaining about a continuing Iranian presence in Bosnia, warning it could imperil reconstruction efforts.

None of these inconsistencies may add up to crimes against Congress and the Constitution. But there is more than enough material to provide a field day for the investigative committee, which Bob Dole, the majority leader and likely Republican opponent of Mr Clinton in November says will be a "top priority" when the Senate reconvenes on 15 April.

Assuming such a committee is set up, the summer of 1996 could provide a re-run of 1987 when senior Clinton policy-makers will be grilled live on national television, like their counterparts in the Reagan administration nine years ago.

Reports of a similar deal in France were denied yesterday by the government. The foreign and defence ministers deniedan arms deal had been done to secure the freedom of two French pilots, captured by the Bosnian Serbs last August.

They were responding to a report on French television that France bought weapons for the Bosnian Serbs in an agreement brokered and carried out by Russia.

The two pilots were released after 104 days in captivity, shortly before the Bosnian peace accord was signed in Paris, in December. All parties to their release then denied that a deal had been done. There were, however, persistent reports of a package involving arms supplies or a promise of immunity from prosecution for Bosnian Serb leaders who were suspected of war crimes.

The television report said money was transferred secretly from France to Russia to pay for the weapons, which were then supplied by the Russians. It offered no specific new evidence, beyond identifying the Russian intermediary, Vladimir Kulich, as a former KGB agent. It also showed a clip of President Jacques Chirac paying special tribute to Russia's contribution during his speech at the Bosnia peace signing.

On the French side, the agreement under which the pilots were freed involved a long-time Elysee negotiator, Jean-Charles Marchiani, who was the go-between after an Air France airliner was hijacked by Algerian terrorists in 1994.

nSarajevo - Bosnian Serb officials handed over files on 16 suspected war criminals but failed to meet all requirements on the release of prisoners of war, the top civilian administrator in Bosnia said yesterday. The statement from the office of the UN High Representative, Carl Bildt, did not say whether the Bosnian Serbs would be banned from a crucial donors meeting in Brussels starting on Friday, which could cut them off from reconstruction funds.