1986년 5월 27일, 이란 테헤란의 힐튼호텔 꼭대기 층에서 미국 백악관과 이란 정부의 관리들이 마주앉았다. 미국의 비호를 받던 팔레비 국왕이 이슬람 혁명으로 쫓겨나고, 테헤란 주재 미국대사관이 과격파 학생시위대에 점거당하면서 두 나라 간에 외교관계가 단절된지 약 7년. 엄혹한 시절이었던만큼, 이날 회동은 아무도 모르게 은밀하게 이뤄졌다. 미국 측 대표는 백악관 국가안전보장회의(NSC)의 보좌관 올리버 노스 중령, 이란 측 대표는 세예드 알리 하메네이 대통령의 젊은 외교보좌관 하산 로하니였다. 노스 중령이 테헤란을 찾은 목적은 레바논 무장조직 헤즈볼라에 인질로 붙잡힌 미국 인질 석방이었다.
노스가 이란에 내놓은 제안은 헤즈볼라에 영향력을 행사해 인질을 석방시켜주면 미국산 미사일을 주겠다는 것이었다. 이란과는 그 어떤 무기거래도 금지한 법을 무시한, 그야말로 파격적인 조건이었다. 그러나 당시 37살이었던 무명의 이란 관료 로하니는 미국이 던진 달콤한 미끼를 덥썩 물지 않았던 모양이다.포린 폴리시의 최근 기사에 따르면,협상이 진척되지 않자 애가 탄 노스 중령을 로하니는 이렇게 달랬다고 한다. "페르시아 속담에 '인내는 승리를 부른다'는 말이 있다. 인내없이 우리는 아무 것도 얻을 수없다."
협상은 큰 성과없이 흐지부지됐지만 노스 중령은 이란 정부에 미사일을 은밀히 판매했고, 그렇게 마련한 돈을 니카라과의 좌파 산디니스타 정부에 저항하는 콘트라 반군에게 보냈다. 이것이 바로 훗날 미국을 발칵 뒤집어 놓은 이란 콘트라 스캔들의 이면이다. 이 사건의 당사자였던 두명 중 한명은 '적성국' 이란에 무기를 불법으로 판매한 죄로 법정에 선 후 불명예 전역을 해야했고, 또 한쪽은 27년만에 대통령이 됐으니 아이러니하다.
<호메이니의 바로 뒷 줄에 앉아 강론을 듣는 젊은 시절의 로하니(왼쪽 두번째)>
로하니는 경력만 놓고보자면 중도파라기 보다는 정통 보수파에 가깝다. 반팔레비 시위로 수차례 체포됐던 아버지의 영향으로 학생시절부터 반정부 활동에 헌신했고, 20대 때 아야톨라 호메니이의 열렬한 추종자로서 이슬람 혁명에 투신했으며, 16년간 최고국가안보위원회 사무총장을 지낸 것을 비롯해 핵 협상 수석대표 등요직을 두루 거쳤기 때문이다. 게다가 성직자이기도 하다.
그럼에도 불구하고, 대통령에 취임한지 2개월이 채 안되는 로하니의 행보는 심상치않다. 전문가들은 로하니가 국제사회에 적극적으로 화해의 메시지를 보내고 있는 것은 파탄난 이란 경제의 심각성을 대통령 취임 후 실감했기 때문으로 분석하고 있다. 물론 그의 앞에 놓인 장애물은 한두가지가 아니다. 신정과 세속정치가 혼합된 이란의 독특한 권력체제는 물론, 이란이라면 무조건 의심부터 하고 보는 미국의 강경파도 문제이다. 이스라엘이란 거대한 장애물까지 있다. 이스라엘이 미국 상하원은 물론 언론을 통해 반이란 여론을 움직이고 있다는 것은 이미 널리 알려진 사실이다.
'협상의 달인''셰이크 외교관'으로 불리는 로하니가 국내외의 저항을 물리치고 과연 이란의 변화를 이끌어낼 수있을까. 온갖 난관이 예상되는 그의 최대 무기는 결국 이란 국민이다. 지난 6월 대선에서 유권자들은 로하니에게 50.86%의 표를 몰아줬다. 아래로부터의 개혁 요구가 이란 사회는 물론 중동과 국제사회에 어떤 변화를 몰고 올지 기대된다
포린폴리시의 기사는 '로하니가 올리 노스를 만났을 때'이다.
기사의 톤은 로하니에 대해 그리 긍정적이지 않다. 27년전 올리버 노스를 만난 로하니가 협상테이블에서 미국의 무기에만 매달리는 바람에 제대로 이뤄지지 않았다는 것이다. 결국 로하니가 현재 미국 등 국제사회에 유화 제스처를 쏟아내고 있지만, 결코 만만치 않은 인물이며 진정성도 의심해봐야 한다는 이야기이다.
80년대 중반 국내 언론에도 연일 대대적으로 보도됐던 이란 콘트라 스캔들은 1986년 11월 레바논의 한 신문사의 특종 보도로 전세계에 알려지게 됐다. 이 사건의 전면에는 올리버 노스가 있었지만,사실 그 핵심에는 레이건의 국가안보담당 보좌관 존 포인덱스터와 로버트 맥팔레인 NSC 의장 등 레이건 정권의 핵심인물들이 포진해있었다. 의회는 물론 미국 국민들은 정부가 이란과 불법 무기거래를 하고, 그 돈으로 콘트라 반군을 지원했다는 사실에 충격을 받았으면서도 청문회에 출두해 당당한 자세를 나타낸 올리버 노스 중령에게 매료되는 이중성을 나타냈다. 그의 매력적인 여비서 폰 홀도 대단한 화제가 되기도 했다.
포린 폴리시 기사에는 나와있지 않지만, 타워 청문회를 통해 레이건 정부가 이미 1985년부터 이란에 미사일 등 무기를 판매해왔다는 사실이 밝혀졌다. 따라서 이 기사에서 언급된 1986년 5월 27일 로하니와 노스의 회동 이전에도 양국간에는 무기거래를 위한 협상과 거래가 이뤄져왔던 것으로 보인다.
When Rouhani Met Ollie North … and strung the White House along to get more weapons.
Hasan Rouhani, a 37-year-old senior foreign affairs advisor in the Iranian government, and his country's future president, sat with a delegation of White House officials on the top floor of what was once the Hilton hotel in Tehran. It was May 27, 1986, and Rouhani had come to secretly broker a deal with the Americans, at great political and personal risk.
The U.S. team's ostensible purpose was to persuade Iranian leaders to assist in the release of American hostages held in Lebanon, something Rouhani was willing to do in exchange for the United States selling missiles and weapons systems to Iran. But the group, which consisted of senior National Security Council staffers, including a then little-known Marine lieutenant colonel named Oliver North, had a second and arguably more ambitious goal: to forge a new political alliance with moderate Iranian leaders, such as Rouhani and his bosses, the men who ran the country.
In those meetings, the man to whom U.S. officials are now turning as the best hope for a rapprochement with Iran, after more than three decades of hostilities, showed himself to be a shrewd negotiator, ready to usher in a new era of openness. But he was also willing to subvert that broader goal and string the Americans along to get what he wanted -- more weapons. If there is a window into how Rouhani thinks today and how he will approach negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, it may be those few days in May he spent in high-stakes talks with the Americans over hostages and the countries' shared futures.
Rouhani knew that helping to free the hostages held by Hezbollah, the terrorist group with which Iran held some influence, was a top priority for President Ronald Reagan. The U.S. president had personally committed to the families that he'd do whatever it took to rescue their loved ones. A televised homecoming would be a political triumph for Reagan.
"By solving this problem we strengthen you in the White House," Rouhani told North and his colleagues. "As we promised, we will make every effort."
But it would not come without cost. Rouhani and his cohort, a group of lower-level functionaries in the regime, kept turning the conversation back to the subject of weapons. The Americans had pledged to have a plane full of missile parts on its way to Tehran within 10 hours of the hostages' release. The Iranians wanted the missiles first. When it was clear that wouldn't happen, they offered to help secure the release of two hostages and said that after further negotiations they'd try for two more.
Rouhani did believe in the broader mission. "You did a great job coming here, given the state of relations between us," Rouhani told the Americans. He thought they could start to work together, though it would be slow going. "I would be surprised if little problems did not come up. There is a Persian saying: Patience will bring you victory -- they are old friend. Without patience, we won't reach anything. Politicians must understand this."
But the bartering over missiles frustrated the Americans. North had handled all the logistics for the meeting and was overseeing the arms sales. But the higher strategy was led by Reagan's former national security advisor, Robert "Bud" McFarlane. Freeing the hostages was a priority, but McFarlane worried that it threatened the chances of what he called the "new political development" with Iran's moderates.
McFarlane hoped that Rouhani was the key to success. A prior day of negotiations with the lower-level officials had revealed them to be a bunch of amateurs. The Iranians had shown up an hour late at the airport to greet McFarlane and his team, who were traveling under false identities to keep the mission a secret. When they finally started talking at the hotel, the Iranians were by turns hospitable and paranoid. In one minute they were welcoming the Americans with pledges of "goodwill" between their countries. In the next, they were accusing the Americans of reneging on their agreement to send a fresh round of missile parts to Tehran.
"At bottom, they really are rug merchants," McFarlane told National Security Advisor John Poindexter in a cable later that night. The Americans needed to "get beyond their level [of authority] if we are to do any serious business here."
McFarlane's hopes were answered the next day when Rouhani showed up. "As it turned out this man was a cut above the bush leaguers we had been dealing with," wrote McFarlane, who, when he was still serving in the White House, had helped set up the initial arms-for-hostages exchange.
"We are ready to listen in all areas," Rouhani told his guests. "Though we knew we won't agree in every area, we will agree on some subjects."
The account of the negotiations is contained in a near-verbatim transcript written by a National Security Council (NSC) staffer who was part of the U.S. delegation. It was published in the Tower Commission report, which later investigated the arms sales.
The transcript shows that Iran's leaders were afraid they'd be deposed if more hard-line elements in the regime or the public at large discovered they were meeting with the Americans. Howard Teicher, the NSC staffer who wrote the account of the meeting, told Foreign Policy that Rouhani used a pseudonym to protect himself in case the details of the discussion leaked. In the Tower report, Rouhani appears only as "senior foreign affairs adviser."
"Our relations are dark. They are very bad," Rouhani told his guests. "Maybe you don't like to hear it, but I must be outspoken. The Iranians are bitter." He urged caution. "As a government, we don't want to be crushed tomorrow. We want to stay in power and solve these problems between us." Rouhani reminded the Americans that many of his countrymen called the United States "the Great Satan."
Many still do. Today, Rouhani finds himself once again extending a hand to American leaders but also keeping them at arm's length. Reportedly, the Iranians called off a possible encounter between Rouhani and President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting this week for fear of how the photo-op would go over back in Tehran.
"They still cannot overcome their more immediate problem of how to talk with us and stay alive," McFarlane wrote in 1986. "But from the tenor of [Rouhani's] … statements, conviction, and knowledgeable expression of what is possible in the way of a stable cooperative relationship, I believe we have finally reached a component Iranian official -- and that's good."
The Americans and the Iranians bonded most strongly over their mutual foe, the Soviet Union. Although the USSR had formally recognized Iran's revolutionary government in 1979, the relationship turned toxic when the Soviets began supplying arms to Iran's archenemy, Iraq. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had also judged the communist regime incompatible with Islam.
Teicher gave Rouhani a summary of the Soviet military threat to Iran -- the number of divisions that were able to strike the country, the frequency of cross-border strikes from Afghanistan into Iran. North said the Soviets would try to expose the secret talks between Rouhani and the White House, and he suggested that the two sides install a secure communications line. (Unbeknownst to Iran, the Reagan administration was running its own secret interactions with Iraq. The Americans knew Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian troops but did nothing to alert Tehran. This subject was apparently never discussed in the meetings.)
Rouhani was glad to have the tactical information about Soviet forces. And he was eager to get more U.S. weapons to counter the military threat to his country. He indicated that "mujahideen" fighters training in Iran were already attacking Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
But even in their shared animosity for the communists, the strains of mistrust were evident. Iran felt existentially threatened, and Rouhani didn't think the Americans fully appreciated that. They needed to do more to help Iran defend itself, with U.S. weapons.
"I am sorry to be so harsh," Rouhani said. "But I need to be frank and candid to overcome differences.… I am happy to hear you believe in an independent sovereign Iran. We are hopeful that all American moves will be to support this dialogue. But we feel the whole world is trying to weaken us. We feel and see the Russian danger much more than you. You see the threat with high technology [apparently a reference to nuclear missiles]. We feel it, touch it, see it. It is not easy to sleep next to an elephant that you have wounded."
For all the distance between the two sides, though, Rouhani looked for ways to bring them closer together. He pledged that he'd continue pressing for the release of hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon.
This is what the Americans had wanted, but they didn't want to lose the diplomatic momentum. North wanted McFarlane to talk face to face with Iran's speaker, prime minister, and president. Rouhani said it was far too soon for that.
"Can a secret meeting be arranged with McFarlane and your leaders?" North asked.
"You can be sure that this will be conveyed," Rouhani said, adding that after the U.S. hostages were free and the military equipment had been delivered, "there will need to be more positive steps." Later, he added, "We have to prepare the people for such a change. Step by step. We need to prepare the nation. Meetings between U.S. and Iranian leaders will take place in this context. If you are serious about solving problems, I am sure official trips and high-level meetings will take place."
Those meetings never came to pass. McFarlane spoke privately with Rouhani the next day. "It was a useful meeting on the whole," he cabled back to Poindexter. "I made it clear that regarding Iran we sought a relationship based upon mutual respect for each other's sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence."
But it had become clear that both sides were talking past each other over the sequence of events that had to happen before the hostages could be finally released. The Iranians made contact with the hostage-takers, but now they were making extraordinary demands, including the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. McFarlane saw immediate release of the hostages as unconditional. Whoever may have told Rouhani otherwise had been mistaken.
"My judgment is that we are in a state of great upset," McFarlane told Poindexter, "schizophrenic over their wish to get more from the deal but sobered to the fact that their interlocutors may have misled them."
Later that night, McFarlane and Rouhani again met privately. The talks fell apart. "McFarlane concludes they're just stringing us along," Teicher wrote in his notes.
Rouhani left and returned the next morning. "You are not keeping the agreement," McFarlane said. "We are leaving."
The Americans headed for the airport. As they boarded their plane, an Iranian official pleaded with them, "Why are you leaving?"
McFarlane said the Iranians had failed to honor their commitment. "This lack of trust will endure for a long time. An important opportunity was lost here."
The plane left Tehran shortly before 9 a.m.
North could see that McFarlane felt defeated. He wanted to bolster McFarlane's spirits. So when the plane landed in Tel Aviv to refuel, North told McFarlane a secret: All was not lost. The prior arms sale to Iran had resulted in an unexpected profit. North and his colleagues at the White House had secretly diverted the money to the Contra guerrilla forces in Nicaragua, who were fighting to overthrow the socialist government.
McFarlane would later tell investigators his first reaction upon hearing what North had done: "Oh shit."
Congress had repeatedly tried to block the flow of money to the Contras and had passed a law barring the intelligence community from sending any funds. What North had just described, and what McFarlane was hearing for the first time, was the covert scheme that would become known as the Iran-Contra Affair. It resulted in felony indictments against North, Poindexter, and other administration officials, and it threatened Reagan with impeachment. McFarlane pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges associated with the scandal.
The affair dashed any hopes for a new dawn with Iran. But even if it had never become public, the gap of trust between the two sides was probably too great to bridge. It can be measured to this day. When Secretary of State John Kerry meets with his Iranian counterpart in New York this week to discuss Iran's nuclear program, it will be the first face-to-face discussions between senior leaders of both countries since that meeting in Tehran, 27 years ago.