WASHINGTON - Pentagon hardliners pressing for regime change in Iran have held secret and unauthorized meetings in Paris with a controversial arms dealer who was a major figure in the Iran-contra scandal, according to administration officials.
The officials said at least two Pentagon officials working for Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith have held "several" meetings with Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian middleman in U.S. arms-for-hostage shipments to Iran in the mid-1980s.
The administration officials who disclosed the secret meetings to Newsday said the talks with Ghorbanifar were not authorized by the White House and appeared to be aimed at undercutting current sensitive back channel negotiations with the Iranian regime.
"They [the Pentagon officials] were talking to him [Ghorbanifar] about stuff which they weren't officially authorized to do," said a senior administration official. "It was only accidentally that certain parts of our government learned about it."
The official would not identify those "parts" of the government, but a former intelligence official confirmed they are the State Department, the CIA and the White House, itself.
The senior official and another administration source who confirmed that the meetings had taken place said that the ultimate policy objective of Feith and a group of neo-conservatives civilians inside the Pentagon is regime change in Iran.
This second official said, "United States policy officially is not regime change, overtly or covertly," but to engage Iranian officials in dialogue over contentious issues, such as Iran's nuclear weapons program, and to press the regime to extradite al-Qaida operatives.
He said that the immediate objective of the Pentagon hardliners appears to be to "antagonize Iran so that they get frustrated and then by their reactions harden U.S. policy against them."
He confirmed that Secretary of State Colin Powell complained directly to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld several days ago about Feith's policy shop conducting missions that countered U.S. policy.
A spokesman for Feith's Near East, South Asia and Special Plans office, the controversial intelligence office that sources said played a key role in the Ghorbanifar contacts, did not respond yesterday to an e-mailed inquiry about those contacts. Newsday's inquiry was e-mailed at the spokesman's request.
The senior administration official identified two of the Defense officials who met with Ghorbanifar as Harold Rhode, Feith's top Middle East specialist, and Larry Franklin, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst on loan to the undersecretary's office.
Rhode recently acted as a liaison between Feith's office, which drafted much of the administration's post-Iraq planning, and Ahmed Chalabi, a former Iraqi exile disdained by the CIA and State Department but groomed for leadership by the Pentagon.
Rhode is a protege of Michael Ledeen, a neo-conservative who was a National Security Council consultant in the mid-1980s when he introduced Ghorbanifar to Oliver North, a National Security Council aide, and others in the opening stages of the Iran-contra affair.
A former CIA officer who himself was involved in some aspects of the Iran-contra scandal said that current intelligence officers told him it was Ledeen who reopened the Ghorbanifar channel with Feith's staff.
Ledeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and an ardent advocate for regime change in Iran, would neither confirm nor deny that he arranged for the Ghorbanifar meetings. "I'm not going to comment on any private meetings with any private people," he said. "It's nobody's business."
Ghorbanifar, who is said to live in Paris, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Ledeen once described him as "one of the most honest, educated, honorable men I have ever known." But the CIA, noting he had failed four polygraph tests administered during the arms-for-hostages deals, warned its officers not to deal with him, asserting he "should be regarded as an intelligence fabricator and nuisance."
The senior administration official said he was puzzled by the resurfacing of Ghorbanifar after all these years. "It would be amazing if anybody in government hadn't learned the lessons of last time around," he said. "These guys [including Ledeen] should have learned it, 'cause they lived it."
Staff writer Craig Gordon contributed to this story.
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