President Clinton tacitly approved large-scale shipments of Iranian arms to Bosnia from early 1994, despite the United Nations arms embargo, and in defiance of his administration's own policy of isolating Iran as a fomentor of international terrorism and sworn enemy of the United States.
The charges were set out yesterday in a long front-page article in the Los Angeles Times, detailing a scheme which even at the time was strongly suspected by US allies, including Britain and France. In a carefully worded reaction, the White House said the US had all along observed "the letter of the law and the requirements of the UN Security Council resolution." But officials privately acknowledged that Washington was aware of the shipments. "Were we in a position to stop them? Not really. And was there sympathy for Bosnia here? The answer is, yes."
According to the newspaper, quoting US sources, an arms supply route was mooted by President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia early in 1994, after previous shipments of Iranian arms to Bosnia had been blocked in September 1992 following strenuous objections from the Bush Administration.
In early 1994, after the deal to set up a Muslim-Croat Bosnian federation, Mr Tudjman is said to have approached two senior US diplomats, Peter Galbraith, Ambassador to Croatia, and Charles Redman, then Washington's special envoy to the Balkans. They said that the US would not protest - in diplomatic parlance that they had "no instructions" on the matter of Iranian arms shipments. President Clinton reportedly was "directly" involved.
Thus deliveries began, continuing until January this year, after the implementation of the Dayton peace accords. With the tacit US approval, the LA Times said, the operation "grew into a large and well organized airlift operating through Turkey and Croatia, supplying thousands of tons of small arms, mortars, anti-tank-weapons and other light equipment".
The deliveries may moreover have had a crucial influence beyond Bosnia itself. The Croatian government siphoned off up to 30 per cent of the arms, using them to help drive Croatian Serbs out of the Krajina region in 1995 - changing the balance of the conflict.
And that is not the only irony. In previous US Government covert operations - above all Iran-Contra - the CIA was almost always among the villains. This time, if the LA Times account is correct, the intelligence agency blew the whistle on the operation.
Kept out of the initial secret, the agency inevitably detected the airlift. The CIA passed the findings on to the White House, but a special intelligence oversight review cleared the Administration of any wrongdoing.
Furthermore, the Clinton White House was turning a blind eye to a major violation of the UN arms embargo - and one which European governments including Britain and France had also quickly detected and complained about - at the very moment it was desperately fending off powerful pressure in Congress for the embargo to be scrapped.
Even though the Bosnian conflict is theoretically over, the Iranian connection still causes problems. According to US officials, Iran is maintaining "a significant presence" in Bosnia. "There are rogue elements, which could pose a threat to our forces, and this is why we want an end to the link," said one, warning that the Iranian connection could derail the upcoming donor conference on the reconstruction of Bosnia.Reuse content