US turns blind eye to Iran arms for Bosnia

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The Independent Online
Washington is turning a blind eye to Iran's efforts to to provide military support for the Bosnian Muslims, according to well- placed Iranian sources.

The sources, close to the government and the opposition in Tehran, claim that elements in President Bill Clinton's administration have made it clear America would not interfere with Iran's attempts to circumvent the international arms embargo on Bosnia. The claims, denied by United States officials, come amid US newspaper reports that Iran has sent arms and men to Bosnia.

An article in the conservative Washington Times yesterday, quoting US intelligence sources, who refer to a document compiled by an unspecified Western European secret service, said that Tehran had recently sent 400 Revolutionary Guards to organise Bosnian Muslims terror groups that would attack the Serbs.

Iran denies it is sending soldiers or weapons to Bosnia and insists that it respects the UN resolution placing all the republics in former Yugoslavia under an arms embargo. But there is little doubt that Iran, which has stepped up its engagement in the Balkans recently - opening an embassy in Sarajevo, signing a dollars 120m ( pounds 80m) ship-building deal with Croatia and forming a 'tripartite economic co-operation commission' with Bosnia and Croatia - would like to give the impression that Washington supports its efforts.

While refusing to comment directly on whether Washington has given a nod and a wink to Tehran over arms shipments to Bosnia, an Iranian diplomat in London said: 'Of all the 40 or so UN resolutions passed about Bosnia, the only one we can see being enforced is the arms embargo. We do not think this is correct and we believe there is agreement with this view in the American administration.'

It is no secret that many people in the Clinton adminstration, including the President himself, privately back lifting the embargo, but refuse to break ranks with America's European allies. They oppose the move on the grounds that it would spread the war beyond the borders of Bosnia.

However, Washington's muted response to the reports of Iran's growing influence raises questions over the possibility of the US dovetailing with Tehran over Balkan policy. Speculation that Washington was deliberately overlooking illegal Iranian arms shipments surfaced last month, after an Iranian air force transport plane landed at Zagreb airport and unloaded suspiciously heavy boxes marked 'humanitarian aid' and 'no smoking'.

When a report in the Washington Post a few weeks later quoted Bosnian sources as saying that the plane was carrying 60 tons of explosives and materials to make weapons, Britain and Russian demanded an explanation at a UN Security Council meeting, and again at a Security Council sanctions committee meeting.

The US State Department only addressed the matter when questioned by reporters at a daily briefing on 13 May. A Department spokesmen, David Johnson, would not confirm or deny the Washington Post report, but reiterated US support for the UN resolution. In the same breath he talked about America favouring lifting the embargo, although not unilaterally.

This strongly contrasted with the US's reaction in September 1992, when an similiar Iranian plane landed in Zagreb loaded with machine-guns, munitions and military personnel. Then the Americans not only blew the whistle on the plane, but forced a reluctant Croatian government, which at the time was allied to the Bosnian Muslims, to intercept the plane and turn it back.

Referring to last month's incident in Zagreb, a senior Western diplomat said: 'Personally I don't know whether the Iranian 747 was carrying arms. But if it was, for Iran to have pulled off a stunt like that, the Americans would have had to have looked the other way.'

A senior US diplomat said that he believed the plane was almost certainly carrying weapons. 'You can be sure that everytime an Iranian plane lands in Croatia it is not carrying lolipops,' he said. Nevertheless, the diplomat was at a loss to explain why neither Washington nor the US embassy in Zagreb had reacted.

Part of the problem is that there is no enforcement of the arms embargo. UN forces in the former Yugoslavia say that it is not their mandate to search planes or ships for illegal weapons.

'What is suspicious is that planes can fly into Zagreb without undergoing any independent checks. It is done completely on the honour system. It depends completely on the honesty of the country where they plane was loaded to make sure that no guns are being shipped and then its up to the Croatian customs people to match what's on the manifest with what's in the cargo hold,' one UN official said.

What looks like conspiracy may well be the result of an inconsistent US policy on Bosnia. 'It is not US policy to let Iran act as an American arms agent, this plane just slipped through the cracks. This is an administration where literally the left hand does not know that the right hand is doing,' one Washington insider said.