Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Italian job

Thursday's Wall Street Journal (subs. req'd) has an impressive story about a man who comes with the billing "the Iranian Ahmad Chalabi" -- which is not a compliment (it would be if it appeared as a WSJ editorial). The man in question is Manucher Ghorbanifar, who's had opaque connections to the Iranian government since he left the country following the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Since then, he has figured repeatedly in mishaps in American-Iranian relations. He was the middleman in the Iran-Contra scandal, having been introduced to Reagan's White House by the neocon Michael Ledeen (noted recently playing up the Iranian role in Iraqi Sunni terrorism). That scandal blotted his copybook in US eyes but as in other areas, 9/11 changed everything and he was soon back in business:

Michael Ledeen ... -- says he received a call from Mr. Ghorbanifar. He offered assistance safeguarding American forces that had moved into Afghanistan, which borders Iran. Mr. Ledeen says Mr. Ghorbanifar told him he had Iranian contacts with intelligence on Iran's terrorist infrastructure inside Afghanistan and on Tehran's plans to use it.

Mr. Ledeen says he was skeptical that the White House would sanction a meeting with Mr. Ghorbanifar because of his history. He says he suggested the meeting anyway to Stephen J. Hadley, then deputy national security adviser in the White House. The White House signed off on a Rome meeting, which Mr. Ledeen says surprised him. Mr. Hadley said it was worthwhile if it could save American lives, Mr. Leeden recalls. The State Department, CIA and other agencies approved the mission, according to Mr. Ledeen and a former Pentagon official involved in the meeting. Mr. Hadley, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

The Pentagon sent two Iran experts, Lawrence Franklin and Harold Rhode, to meet Mr. Ghorbanifar and other Iranians in Rome, according to two people who helped set up the meeting. Mr. Ledeen and representatives of Italy's military intelligence unit, Sismi, also attended. Mr. Ghorbanifar requested that no one from the CIA be present, says the former Pentagon official.

Mr. Ledeen declines to discuss what Mr. Ghorbanifar said at the meeting, as does a White House spokesman. Mr. Rhode held at least one more meeting with Mr. Ghorbanifar in Europe in 2003, according to the former Pentagon official. Mr. Rhode and a Pentagon spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for Mr. Franklin, who was convicted last year for passing classified information on Iran to pro-Israel lobbyists, says his client is barred from talking to the media.

A more tangled web of Middle Eastern interests would be hard to imagine. But things got a bit too hot after the meeting became public, so Ghorbanifar went to Plan B -- channels of communication to Congress rather than the White House. And again there was a market:

Starting in 2003, he and Mr. Mahdavi, the former Iranian minister [and his confidant], held a string of meetings in Europe with members of Congress, including Mr. [Curt] Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican who had taken a keen interest in Iranian threats to American interests, according to congressional and intelligence officials.

Mr. Weldon's subsequent book was a wide-ranging indictment of Iran's alleged role in terrorism, and criticized the CIA for allegedly failing to act. In the book, Mr. Weldon cited as his primary source an Iranian exile he calls "Ali," whom he said served as a conduit for information from senior officials inside Iran. This source, wrote Mr. Weldon, is a "trusted associate" of Mr. Ghorbanifar, though Mr. Weldon said he was independent. In an interview, Mr. Weldon declined to identify Ali, and said it was "abhorrent" that anyone would leak information about his sources.

In a telephone interview in Paris, Mr. Mahdavi said he's Ali, and that he worked closely with Mr. Weldon on the book. He said much of the information he provided came from Mr. Ghorbanifar. Mr. Mahdavi said his identity was supposed to be kept secret, but that Mr. Weldon had included material in the book that helped identify him. The Washington-based magazine, "American Prospect," last year named Mr. Mahdavi as "Ali."

None of the concrete information about Iranian plots in Weldon's book has checked out. In fact what's most interesting about this extended episode is the tantalising circumstantial evidence it offers for a different issue: the still unresolved question of who provided the information that Saddam Hussein sought to buy uranium from Niger. It is known that the story travelled via Italy, with possible links to other European intelligence agencies, to the White House. Given the hatred between Iran and Saddam and Ghorbanifar's weirdly symbiotic relationship with the Iranian government, it would seem that Iran had motives, means, and opportunity to get the information to a place where it would be acted upon.

UPDATE 28 July: There's now a surge in stories about Ledeen's possible connection to the Niger claim; a Rolling Stone feature and a proxy response by Ledeen, via fellow National Review-ers. The latter refer heavily to the WSJ story above.

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