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U.S. Says Israel Bought Iranian Oil, Won’t Comment on Link to Hostages

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The State Department has confirmed reports that Israel recently bought large shipments of oil from Iran, but it would not comment Tuesday on media reports that the purchase was part of an oil-for-hostages deal.

NBC News reported Monday evening that Israel had paid Iran $36 million for two million barrels of oil delivered to Eilat in November.

In addition, the network said, Israel offered to free “hundreds of Shi’ite prisoners,” including Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, whom Israeli commandos seized from his home in southern Lebanon in July.

“In exchange, Israel would get back its POWs and other Western hostages could be freed,” NBC reported.

The NBC report said that the United States “had given its blessing to the Israeli initiative.”

When questioned about this Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler would not comment directly. But she said that U.S. hostage policy has not changed.

“We will not make deals for hostages, nor will we reward terrorists,” she said, adding, “Israel is well aware of our policy.”

Tutwiler confirmed that “Israel informed us a month ago, after the fact, that it had concluded a deal with Iran for purchase of Iranian oil.”

State Department officials said they were unaware of the history of U.S.-Israeli diplomatic exchanges on the subject. But one official said that if Israel informed the United States after the fact, then the United States could not have given any blessing.

MILITARY SPARE PARTS MENTIONED

“It sounds like the old Iran-Contra affair,” said one official. “Did Israel do it on its own, or did the United States suggest it?”

Asked if Israel sought U.S. approval in advance, Tutwiler said, “Foreign countries do not seek U.S. approval for all purchases from a third country.”

An Israeli Embassy official here said Israel does not discuss energy matters with the press.

And in Jerusalem, Israeli officials refused to comment on the NBC report, which also spoke of the possibility that Israel would sell military spare parts to Iran.

NBC said that Israel, “recognizing Iran’s desperation,” sent defense specialist Uri Lubrani to a series of secret meetings in Switzerland with Iranian officials.

Tutwiler did not confirm any Iranian interest in Israeli spare parts, but noted, “U.S. law prohibits the transfer of U.S.-origin equipment without U.S. approval. Israel is well aware of this requirement and has told us they will abide by it.”

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