TEL AVIV (Apr. 23)
Officials of the Foreign Ministry and the defense establishment categorically denied Wednesday that Israel was in any way involved in a conspiracy to sell $2 billion worth of American arms to Iran, following the arrest by U.S. authorities Tuesday of a retired Israel Defense Force general alleged to be one of the plotters.
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Avraham Baram, 52, an IDF veteran of 30 years’ service, was one of 17 men of six nationalities who were placed under arrest or had warrants issued against them in New York and Bermuda. Baram and four of the men were arrested in Bermuda where they allegedly flew to make final arrangements for the arms deal.
Also named in the plot were two other Israelis. Guri Eisenberg, 31, and Israel Eisenberg, 55, and a man who may be Israeli, identified only as Hebroni. Others seized or wanted on charges announced Tuesday by Federal Prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani are of U.S., British, French, West German and Greek nationality.
Giuliani, the Chief U.S. Prosecutor for New York, said, however, that there is “no suggestion of involvement by the Israeli government” in the aborted arms deal which he described as “mind-boggling in scope.”
The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment. But a spokesman for the Israel Embassy in Washington stated flatly that “the government of Israel has no connection or involvement with this matter.” He described Baram as long retired from the IDF.
Menahem Meron, Director General of the Defense Ministry, called in the U.S. Charge d’Affaires Wednesday morning after what he called an intensive investigation. He informed the American official that no link, direct or indirect, could be found suggesting that Israel was involved in the alleged plot.
According to Giuliani and U.S. Customs officials, the accused men conspired to sell Iran several hundred F-4 and F-5 jet fighters, 15,000 TOW air-to-air missiles and scores of ranks as well as helicopters, long-range artillery and C-130 military transport planes. They said the weapons were to be delivered in Greek ships and were presently stored in Israel and several other countries.
ISRAELI INVOLVEMENT DESCRIBED AS ‘LUDICROUS’
The implication that the plot involved the sale by Israel of combat aircraft and other weapons it acquired from the U.S. was described as “ludicrous” by well informed sources here. The sources noted that the U.S. knows exactly how many American-built aircraft are in Israel’s possession and about any that might be removed from the Israel Air Force order of battle. Moreover, Israel does not sell F-4s, has no F-5s and does not sell TOW missiles.
Even if Israel had sought to sell weapons to Iran, a country it regards as one of its most fanatical foes, it would hardly do so in the U.S., through an IDF reserves general, the sources said. Israel has admitted selling Iran spare parts prior to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, and did so apparently with the knowledge and approval of the U.S.
Israel Radio described Gen. Baram Wednesday as a twice-decorated officer cited for bravery. But he retired under a cloud for allegedly giving unauthorized weapons to civilians.
Last year Baram received permission from the Defense Ministry to act as a private consultant on military supplies and know-how. But he was precluded from dealing in arms or even negotiating arms deals without special permission.
Baram’s arrest focussed attention on the problem of senior IDF officers who have become arms dealers after retiring from active service. There is no legal way for Israel to control their activities abroad even if they sully the country’s reputation.
The number of officers engaged in these activities has increased of late because they have had difficulty finding suitable civilian jobs. If they are unable to obtain licenses in Israel to deal in weapons, they become middlemen abroad, sources here said.
If Baram and the others arrested Tuesday are found guilty of the charges, each faces a maximum prison term of five years and a fine of $250,000. The U.S. has embargoed arms sales to Iran since the seizure of hostages at the American Embassy in Teheran in November, 1979. Even if no embargo exists, the State Department must approve arms sales to a foreign country.
Iran, engaged for nearly six years in a war with Iraq, is known to be paying premium prices in cash for weapons of all types. Sources in the U.S. speculated Wednesday that the alleged conspirators may have been playing a confidence game with Iran to obtain cash for weapons they did not possess and could not deliver.