Behind the Headlines a Controversial Case

Attorneys for some of 17 defendants including four Israelis charged here with conspiracy to illegally sell American weapons to Iran have made motions to dismiss the charges on grounds of entrapment, lack of jurisdiction for the case in New York and prejudicial pretrial publicity.

A hearing on the motion before a federal judge in the Manhattan U.S. District Court was scheduled to begin late Monday. After hearing from the defense and prosecution, the court will decide whether to dismiss the charges.

An affidavit filed late month in support of this motion by Paul Grand, one of the attorneys representing Sam Evans who is the alleged middleman in the conspiracy, contends that high-ranking Administration, State Department and Pentagon officials considered and eventually approved covert arms sales of American military hardware to Iran, using some of the defendants as agents.

Grand also alleges that U.S. Customs agents and a government informant in the case pressured the defendants to use illegal means to obtain the weapons for Iran, while the defendants insisted on using legal means.

CLAIMS MADE ABOUT U.S. OFFICIALS

Grand’s affidavit, based on some 200 tapes the government recorded with the help of the informant and numerous interviews with defendants in the case, claims that Vice President George Bush, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Marine Corps commandant Gen. P.X. Kelley and unnamed State Department and Pentagon officials were in contact directly with several of the defendants and were involved in an active debate over changing U.S. government policy to begin covert arms sales to Iran on a quiet level.

Grand and other defense attorneys received access to copies of the government tapes as part of the discovery process in criminal cases. In his affidavit, Grand quotes from taped conversations between the defendants and the government informant in which the defendants say they met with Bush’s aides in West Germany to discuss an arms deal with the Iranians and that Bush had given “the green light.”

The affidavit also cites press reports in which an unnamed White House official acknowledged “a secret tilt toward Iran after six years of mutual hostility,” within the Reagan Administration. This official reportedly stated the U.S. hopes to solidify relations with “reasonable” leaders in Teheran and “regularize” the arms flow from the U.S. directly to Iran instead of going through middlemen, one of which was identified as Israel.

ISSUE OF LEGALITY

The weapons allegedly under negotiation included F-4 and F-5 fighter jets, C-130 transport planes, thousands of TOW missiles, Hawk missiles, Sidewinders, Sparrow guided missiles and Skyhawk aircraft.

According to the indictment, the weapons were already in the possession of Israel and three unnamed countries and the defendants were conspiring to resell the arms without obtaining the proper licenses for resale from the State Department. The State Department is the ultimate authority for approving foreign military aid.

Under the U.S. ban imposed on selling American arms to Iran, those licenses called end user certificates could not be obtained legally. Both the Israeli defendants and their attorneys claim the Israeli government was aware of the alleged negotiations. Since 1979, a number of reports of Israeli sales of American-made spare parts and weapons have surfaced in the press. Israel has steadfastly denied the allegations and press reports.

American government officials responded to the allegations in the affidavit with consistently firm denials of any involvement of U.S. officials or government agencies in approving the covert sale of American weapons to Iran.

51 COUNTS OF CONSPIRACY

The indictment issued in April charged 17 defendants with 51 counts of conspiracy to resell some $2.5 billion of American weapons earmarked for Israel and three other unspecified countries to Iran. Other charges included mail and wire fraud.

Three Israelis and one American resident of Israel are among the 17 defendants charged in the conspiracy. The four are out on bond a waiting their trial scheduled for late November in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The case broke with the arrest of Evans, an American, and the four Israelis upon their arrival in Bermuda on April 29. They believed they were going to sign the contracts for the arms deal.

But in cooperation with the U.S. government, the Bermudian government had placed the five on a Stop List and upon their arrival they were arrested for illegal entry. One month later, the Bermudian government extradited the five to the U.S.

AFFIDAVIT CLAIMS STING OPERATION

The U.S. Customs Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Justice Department built their case on what Grand’s affidavit claims was an elaborate sting operation conducted with the cooperation of a former Iranian arms procurement agent, Cyrus Hashemi, who was indicted in the U.S. in 1984 for selling American-made weapons to Iran.

Hashemi, who posed as an arms buyer for the Iranian government, agreed to record various meetings and phone conversations with the defendants as part of a cooperation agreement made with the government in which he would not stand trial immediately for 1984 indictment.

Hashemi, the government’s key witness, died of acute leukemia in a London hospital in July After an official investigation into the cause of death, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan concluded that Hashemi died of “apparently natural circumstances,” indicating that there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding his death between the indictment and the trial.

The government’s case now relies almost entirely on some 200 tapes of phone conversations and meetings between Hashemi and the defendants.

Grand used excerpts from the tapes in his affidavit to show that Hashemi attempted at every step of the negotiations to encourage the defendants to obtain American arms illegally. The excerpts show that the defendants insisted on exhausting all the legal channels for obtaining the arms with legitimate American approval. The excerpts also show that the defendants were convinced that U.S. officials were going to give that approval.

In the tapes, Hashemi also turned down several of the defendants’ offers to sell Iran non-American weaponry, including French Mirage jets.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

NEXT STORY