WASHINGTON - President Clinton secretly gave a green light to covert Iranian arms shipments into Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994 despite a United Nations arms embargo that the United States was pledged to uphold, according to senior administration officials and other sources.
Two top U.S. diplomats, acting on instructions from the White House and the State Department, told Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in early 1994 that the United States would not object to the creation of an arms pipeline that would channel the weapons through Croatia and into Bosnia for the Muslim forces fighting in the bloody civil war.
According to the U.S. sources, Tudjman raised the idea of the secret shipments and asked what the American response would be. At the time, the United States was publicly committed to the arms embargo, and its allies in Europe were concerned that a weapons influx would escalate the conflict and lead to revenge attacks against their peacekeeping troops in the region.
But after consultations with national-security adviser Anthony Lake and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the two U.S. diplomats, Charles Redman and Peter Galbraith, relayed to Tudjman that there would be no U.S. protest to the smuggling operation.
Specifically, the U.S. officials were told to say they had "no instructions" concerning Iranian arms shipments - a diplomatic way of saying the United States would not object.
Clinton directly participated in the decision, a senior administration official said.
Thus opened a new chapter in the U.S. policy toward Bosnia, one that has remained secret until now, and that has had important consequences both for the combatants in the long-running war and for the other nations, including the United States, attempting to deal with it.
After the decision, Tudjman was free to allow the Iranians to launch large-scale arms transfers through Croatia. That effort continued until January of this year, even after 20,000 American troops began to be deployed as peacekeepers in Bosnia, administration officials said.
The weapons helped fortify the badly outgunned Muslim force, as well as the Croatians who took a large cut of the shipments, until they were able to fight a better-armed Bosnian Serb army to a standstill.
The support also increased Iran's links with the Bosnians, which continue ominously to this day. Some Islamic fighters slipped in with the weapons and established operations.
Meanwhile, U.S. government officials not in on the secret policy shift were left in confusion. With its spy satellites trained on the region, the CIA discovered the smuggling and came to wonder whether certain State Department and National Security Council officials were running an illegal covert operation, reminiscent of the Iran-contra affair, sources said.
Then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey took the evidence to the White House, prompting a top-secret, six-month investigation by the Intelligence Oversight Board, the small White House panel responsible for probing wrongdoing in the intelligence community. It delivered a secret verdict of no law violations.
Elsewhere, speculation and grumbling spread, particularly in Europe, that the United States was somehow violating the embargo and reneging on its pledge to uphold it. The White House repeatedly denied facilitating arms shipments to the Bosnian Muslims but never acknowledged its real role.
Clinton-administration officials insist that the decision on the arms shipments was justified. The United States was always sympathetic to the Muslims, who bore the brunt of Serbian territorial aggression, and amenable to easing their plight short of violating the embargo.
At the time the White House was giving the green light to the Iranian arms shipments, the Clinton administration was putting pressure on its allies to isolate Iran globally as a supporter of terrorism and calling on them to participate in trade and economic sanctions.
With the tacit U.S. approval, U.S. officials said, the arms pipeline 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 Croatian government took a large cut - an estimated 30 percent - for its cooperation, U.S. officials said. The weapons not only helped the ill-equipped Bosnian-Muslim army to stay in the field despite the U.N. embargo, but also aided the Croatian military in the months leading up to its 1995 invasion of the Croatian region of Krajina and its subsequent defeat of Serb forces there, administration officials acknowledged.
The Iranian link that grew with the shipments is now an obstacle to the implementation of the 4-month-old peace accords, acknowledged U.S. officials, who are relying on that plan to bring about a permanent end to the conflict. The Clinton administration has demanded repeatedly that the Bosnian government expel the Iranian military advisers who helped the Muslim government when the West would not, and Bosnia is dragging its feet on complying.
In fact, at the time Clinton was fighting strenuously to defeat congressional efforts to unilaterally lift the U.N. arms embargo so that the Muslims could be armed openly and allowed to defend themselves.
But the Clinton administration asserted that the negative effects were too great and that it would abide by the embargo.
By November 1994, Clinton, under pressure from Congress to lift the embargo, publicly announced that the U.S. would no longer enforce the arms ban. He did not mention that that had been the secret policy for months, or that it was a carefully orchestrated element of an ongoing Iranian arms-smuggling operation.