Travels with Bill


hen I was in the White House President Carter had charged me with finding ways to begin a dialogue with the various countries with which the US did not have diplomatic relations. In most instances, Cuba, Angola, Iraq, and South Africa, this amounted to medical diplomacy initiating various forms of medical collaboration. With Outer Mongolia we began a dialogue about wild life management. With North Korea I was unable to get them to collaborate on anything. This experience prepared me well for a number of initiatives undertaken with Congressman Bill Richardson in the mid-nineties during the Clinton administration.


Bill Richardson, then a little known congressman, first contacted me in 1995 to learn about the clandestine trip I had made to visit the opium warlord, Khun Sa, in the Shan States of Burma. A few months earlier he had met with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon (Yangon). At a time when it was hard to get anyone in the Clinton administration to pay attention to Burma, we struck up a friendship. In the meantime Bill Richardson had found himself in North Korea at a time when two US helicopter pilots were shot down and captured. He skillfully negotiated their release. Buoyed by this success he called to ask whether, because my wife, Mary King, had been, prior to the first Gulf War, executive director of the US-Iraq Business Forum, we could help him negotiate the release of two Americans, David Daliberti and Bill Barloon, who had crossed the border from Kuwait and were now in the Abu Ghuraib prison near Baghdad. Mary had also worked during and after the war for ABC television and knew most of the major leaders in the country including Saddam Hussein. I discussed the situation with Nizar Hamdoun, Iraq’s ambassador at the UN who had previously been their man in Washington and with whom we had been friends for ten years. Nizar was not optimistic, but as a personal favor to Mary and me and because I stressed Richardson’s closeness to President Bill Clinton, he agreed to float the notion in Baghdad. To our surprise, and his, a few weeks later he was authorized to enter into negotiations over the release of the two men. These discussions dragged on for three months but eventually a deal was struck. As part of the agreement the Iraqis insisted that Bill Richardson fly to Baghdad to meet with Saddam Hussein and formally ask for the prisoner release. Still somewhat dubious about Bill Richardson they also wanted the reassurance of having Mary and me accompany him. The fourth member of our team was Calvin Humphrey, staff member of the House Intelligence Committee on which Richardson served.

We flew to Amman and then drove nine hours across the desert to Baghdad (there was a no-fly zone in southern Iraq.) We met that evening with Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister and someone Mary and I had also known for several years. At ten o’clock the next morning we were driven to one of the presidential palaces and ushered past an array of guards and sentries dressed in flamboyant traditional Iraqi costumes. Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz greeted us along with eight to ten aides and security people most of whom sat in a row against the wall while the meeting took place. We sat, not at a table, but around a large carpeted area. A big man, Bill Richardson overflowed the modest chair at the start of the meeting. One arm was over the back and his legs were crossed. Suddenly Saddam got up and left the room. A nervous aide quickly explained that this was a formal audience. Bill’s lounging posture was disrespectful and unacceptable. With Richardson’s feet firmly planted on the floor Saddam returned. Bill’s charm and friendly style quickly melted whatever offense Saddam had taken. The Iraqi leader then gave an interesting and thoughtful thirty-minute review of US/Iraqi relations over the previous twenty years, coming perilously close to saying his invasion of Kuwait had been a mistake. At the crucial moment he stopped and said “Well, that’s another story.”

Part of the deal for the prisoner release was that we would visit the Saddam Hussein Children’s hospital to see the “terrible” impact of the US embargo on the sick children of Iraq. Their hope was that we would make a statement against the embargo that they could use. The hospital was indeed short of supplies and equipment and many of the children were badly malnourished. However, unlike the US embargo including food and medicine against Cuba which for thirty years had inflicted real suffering on the sick and disadvantaged of that country, a provision of the embargo against Iraq allowed for oil revenues to be used to purchase food and medicine for the people. If they were not getting it, it was because the money was being siphoned off by the regime for other purposes. We were not willing to play along with their propaganda goals.

We went to what had been the US embassy now occupied by Ryszard Krystosik, the Polish diplomat handling US affairs. He magically produced two bottles of Veuve Clichot and sent out for pizza. A few minutes later an Iraqi government car arrived and out stepped Barloon and Daliberti. They had no idea what was happening to them and had not a clue who we were. Richardson explained our role and that he was a member of Congress. “You are now free and going back to the US” he said to their astonishment. We were an interesting mix celebrating with champagne and pizza.

Part of the deal we had worked out with the Iraqis was that the White House would put out a press release generally expressing gratitude for the release of the two prisoners. Bill and I carefully wrote out the text of the release embodying various key elements and phrases we had agreed to. We read it over the phone to the White House. Within hours a statement was put out to the media that differed sharply from what we had drafted. It was more contentious and provocative without the key (and frankly quite benign) phrases we had agreed with the Iraqis. Richardson angrily called the White House to complain that they under cut him and made it seem he was not a man of his word. “What do you care. You already have the prisoners” was the response. I was astonished that the Clinton White House was willing to let the word of the US mean so little. For no possible benefit we had created a self-inflicted wound by sending the message-America can not be trusted to honor an agreement. This was and is something particularly sensitive in the Arab world where a man’s word is his bond.

With the word out we found the news media had descended on our hotel. We all ate a celebratory dinner paid for by Ryszard Krystosik with a large paper bag of Iraq’s inflated currency. At 5:00am we set out back across the desert hoping to beat the worst of the desert heat. In Amman we had an audience with King Hussein and Queen Noor so that Richardson could brief them on our mission. The king had been trying through his own channels to secure the prisoners release and we learned from him that there had been a third effort by Jimmy Carter working with other major figures in the Arab world. That night Mary and I had dinner at a local restaurant with Queen Noor who seemed happy to escape the rigid protocol of the Palace and relax with fellow Washingtonians. Bill Richardson flew back to Washington with the prisoners. He invited us to go with him so we could participate in his report to President Clinton but we preferred to stay out of the limelight.


Later in the year Richardson started talking to me about the possibility of getting political prisoners released in Cuba. He had clearly discovered that freeing prisoners was a sure-fire way to get publicity, create an image of foreign policy expertise, and raise himself above the anonymous herd in the Congress. He was always very careful to say to any foreign leaders that he was speaking only for himself and not for the administration, but at the same time leave them in no doubt about his close personal relationship with President Clinton. He was also able to use his position on the House Intelligence Committee as a rationale for his activities. He was very eager to make his overseas trips as fast as possible, usually over a weekend, so he missed as few Congressional votes as possible. On one occasion I asked him what his constituents in New Mexico felt about his international forays that had little direct bearing on their interests. He quoted an old man who was representative of his supporters “Don’t fuck with my pick up truck or my gun. Other than that you can do whatever you want.” He always voted against gun control and any legislation that might raise gas prices.

Bill Richardson had never been to Cuba, but I had more than twenty years of involvement there including writing a relatively successful biography of Fidel Castro. I talked to Ambassador Fernando Remirez, then the head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. He was quite disparaging about Bill Richardson’s desire to get some political prisoners released. He said they were tired of US politicians using the prisoner issue as a publicity stunt. “We release prisoners to them, they offer to do things in return and once they are back in the States they do nothing,” he said citing in particular a disappointing experience with Senator Ted Kennedy. I stressed Bill’s close relationship with Clinton and we left it that he would pass on my message to Havana.

A few weeks later I received a message from Ambassador Remirez that President Fidel Castro was coming to the UN to make a speech. The night before there would be a reception at the Cuban embassy at the UN. If Bill Richardson came to the reception, I was told, Fidel would take him off into a side room for a brief discussion. That is how it worked out and Bill made the most of it. At his charming best, Richardson impressed Castro with his fluent command of Spanish, and his youthful accomplishments as a baseball pitcher (something they had in common). Castro said he could not promise anything with regard to a prisoner release but invited Bill to visit him Havana.

A few weeks later Richardson went to Havana carrying a beautiful Navajo pot from New Mexico as a gift for the Cuban leader. The meetings went well. Bill and Fidel went to a baseball game together. The key issue between the US and Cuba at that moment was the so-called Brothers to the Rescue. This Florida based anti-Castro group had been flying small planes in provocative raids into Cuban air space and dropping propaganda leaflets on the Havana population. Any foreign fliers violating US air space and dropping anti-government leaflets in the same way on Miami would long since have been blown out of the sky. In many respects the Cubans had shown extraordinary restraint, instead using every formal and informal diplomatic channel they could to get the flights curbed. This included asking a delegation of retired US admirals and generals to carry a message back to President Clinton asking him to stop the flights.

When Bill raised the question of a prisoner release Castro said that his top priority at that moment was the Brothers to the Rescue over-flights. If he was as close to President Clinton as he said, Castro told Richardson, he should go back to Washington and get an assurance from Clinton that the flights would be stopped. If they were then Castro said Richardson could come back in a month and two political prisoners would be released to him. I did not accompany Richardson to his meeting a few days later with Clinton, but he told me Clinton had agreed with the idea of stopping the flights and in his presence had called Secretary of Transportation, Federico Pena. The FAA was under Pena and they would be responsible for the action that needed to be taken. What happened in the chain of command beyond that point I do not know.

A little over a month later and early in the new year Bill Richardson went back to Havana. where he assured Castro that Clinton had ordered the flights stopped or at least had totally disowned any responsibility for their fate on behalf of the US government. Jose Antonio Arbisu, a former Cuban ambassador in Washington later told me that following Richardson’s visit Castro, at a cabinet meeting informed his colleagues that he had assurances at the “highest level” that the US government disavowed any support for the Brothers to the Rescue and they were entirely on their own. Should they return and violate Cuban air space, he said, the defense forces should take any appropriate action. True to his word Castro released three political prisoners (Carmen Julia Arias Iglesias, Luis Grave de Peralta and Eduardo Ramon Prida) to Richardson, but they were such unknowns that the event received little or no media coverage even in Miami.

A few weeks later the Brothers to the Rescue flew back to Cuba on Saturday afternoon, February 24th, 1996. Fidel Castro and Ricardo Alarcon both of whom might have imposed some restraint were in the countryside and not immediately available. So the standing orders were applied and the planes were shot down. It was later argued that this happened outside Cuban airspace, although it was clear the planes had been in Cuban airspace and were probably fleeing from the approaching fighter planes. The shooting down caused an uproar in Washington with Clinton expressing outrage but saying nothing about the message he had allowed Richardson to carry back to Havana.

Shortly thereafter I accompanied a group of Americans representing the Arca Foundation on a trip to Havana. We were among the first Americans to go to Cuba after the shoot-down and a Roberto Dominguez, a senior representative of the Cuban Foreign Ministry lost little time in expressing to me his government’s displeasure with Richardson’s role. Fidel they told me was fuming and saying Clinton was a man whose word meant nothing. They felt he had not been honest with them. I explained that Richardson had met with Clinton and he in turn had talked to Pena. But, of course, Clinton acted after the event as though he had not been involved.

During this period a reporter, Carl Nagin, was working on a piece about Richardson. It eventually ran in the New Yorker Magazine on January 26th 1998 entitled “Annals of Diplomacy.” Richardson was not happy about the article because it clearly stated that he had been involved in a quid pro quo arrangement to secure the release of the prisoners, something he always sought to hide in part because he was not an official emissary of the administration. I also believed he did not like the suggestion that without my involvement he could not have accomplished anything in either Iraq or Cuba. He was always someone who wanted exclusive credit. Subsequently the New Yorker Magazine, reporting on the funeral of former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau cited a conversation between then prime minister Jean Chretien and Fidel Castro. Chretien asked Castro what was the true story on the shooting down of the Brother’s to the Rescue planes and Castro replied that the most accurate account was that in the January 28th, 1998 issue of the New Yorker.

A trivial but interesting foot note to the Cuba saga has to do with “Winston Churchill” Romeo and Juliet cigars. On my subsequent trips to Cuba Richardson asked me to buy him boxes of these long fat cigars favored by Winston Churchill. He had told me that he and Clinton enjoyed smoking cigars together and I was sure he shared the Winston Churchills I brought from Cuba with the President. In fact, I told him I did not mind him doing that but he should extract some commitment to lift or modify the embargo in return. When the Monica Lewinsky story broke with its graphic description of cigars being used for other than smoking I was pretty sure which cigars were involved. Some months later I was telling this to the Cuban ambassador, Dagoberto Rodriguez, and he said “Oh, I can confirm that.” He went on to say that at the height of the Lewinsky episode an acquaintance in the White House called him and said “Watch the evening news tonight there will be something of great interest to you.” He thought it would be a major pronouncement on Cuba policy but it was the revelation of the cigar story.


For some time Bill Richardson had been saying to me “There are people in my district who want me to go to Bangladesh.” An organization called Results which lobbied Congress to fund micro-credit projects in the Third World had an active chapter in New Mexico. I was very familiar with Results and knew that the model they advocated was the Grameen bank in Bangladesh founded by Mohamed Younis. The Bangladesh ambassador in Washington, Humayen Kabir, was someone I had known well for more than 20 years since he first came to Washington as their number two person in the embassy. He had also been his country’s ambassador in Tehran during the period of the hostage taking at the US embassy. He and I had worked by phone to try to secure the release of the hostages, because he had a good relationship with the students holding them. We were not successful, but it did strengthen our personal relationship. Subsequently he had come to spend a weekend with Mary and me in Wales. He did a four year stint as his country’s ambassador to the UN and returned to Washington as his country’s top diplomat.

In the fall of 1995 I arranged for Humayan Kabir to meet with me and Bill Richardson to discuss a possible trip to Bangladesh. In the meantime Bill had been contacted by the parents of a young woman from Texas, Eliadeh McCord (Lia), who was serving a life sentence in Bangladesh after being caught with seven pounds of heroin. (She was nineteen when convicted and had already served four years.) Securing her release became a top priority for him. The people from Results had wanted him to take an entire Congressional delegation which I strongly opposed in terms of Bill Richardson’s own personal interests. I wanted him to be the exclusive focus of the leaders in Bangladesh. In early 1996 Richardson made a brief initial trip to Dhaka. While the government was willing to release the young woman, they were reluctant to do so without a formal request from the State Department. They in turn, because of the scale and nature of her crime, did not want to make such a request. Bill did, however, establish good relations with the prime minister Khaled Zia, leader of the Bangladesh National Party and the opposition Awami League leader, Sheikh Hosina.

There had been a longstanding and bitter conflict between these two women. Shortly before Bill’s trip Khaled Zia had called for elections and the Awami League, claiming they would be fixed, urged their supporters to boycott it. Only 7 % of the electorate turned out to vote. A state of incipient civil war was emerging with escalating emotional demonstrations against the government. Both leaders told Bill that they were desperate for a resolution to the conflict but only on their own terms. Although a career foreign service officer, Kabir’s long-time political loyalties were to the Awami League so was he was happy to see Prime Minister Zia replaced by Sheikh Hosina. The leadership (military, judiciary etc) in Bangladesh felt that the crisis in the country and the conflict between the two women could only be resolved by outside mediation. Bill Richardson was acceptable in that role to all parties. However, Bill (as he always stressed ) was not acting as part of the Clinton administration and it was essential that the leadership in Bangladesh formally invite him to come and play a mediating role. Kabir eager to see Prime Minister Zia out was willing to orchestrate such an invitation. Bill was invited to return, but to maintain some degree of secrecy we asserted in public that he was returning there to continue his efforts to secure the release of the heroin smuggler.




At a long late night meeting at Ambassador Kabir’s residence we planned a strategy in which Bill would try to convince Prime Minister Zia that she should resign and turn over the country to an interim government under the country’s president who would call for new elections. It depended on Mrs Zia’s strong, but erroneous conviction, that in any free and fair elections she would be the inevitable winner. As sweeteners Bill was also to offer the promise of an official visit to Washington including a meeting with President Clinton, and attendance at the National Prayer Breakfast, which Kabir, who considered her very vain, said she had asked him to try to arrange for her. So sure was she that she would be returned to power, Kabir assured us, she would be asking also for a meeting with the Pentagon to discuss the purchase of F 15 fighter jets.

Two quick trips were involved in which Bill skillfully got both women to sign on to the idea of an interim government and new elections. (As a Democratic whip in the House of Representatives Bill could not afford to miss votes in the House. He therefore often left Washington on a Thursday and sometimes even on a Friday, flew to the other side of the world, and rushed back to be in his office again by Monday morning.) I do not know how much Bill assured Mrs Zia, in order to get her to resign, that she would be easily re-elected. She had, however, largely lost control of the country and had little to lose. When the election was held Sheikh Hosina won a convincing victory. Bill, during the course of the earlier negotiations, extracted from her a commitment that if she won the election the heroin smuggler, Eliadeh McCord, would be released to him. He understood that the American public had little interest in the political machinations and “regime change” we had been involved in, but a picture with the released American prisoner would get him publicity all over the US. The plan nearly fell apart at the last minute. When he rushed their right after the election to have Eliadeh McCord turned over to him, the US ambassador and other embassy staff attempted to have her turned over to them which would have denied him the credit he deserved not to mention the lost publicity.

North Korea

Three months after the elections in Bangladesh that made her prime minister Sheikh Hosina came to New York to represent her government at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. Bill Richardson hosted a small dinner for her and members of her family. At the end of the dinner he said “Do you want to go with me to meet with the North Koreans. They like to meet at night.” The North Koreans were exceptionally cautious about meeting with and much less trusting anyone from the US. However, because of Bill’s early experience securing the release of the two US helicopter pilots he enjoyed an exceptional degree of trust with the North Korean foreign ministry. I was also aware that a 27 year-old young man of mixed Asian-American origin, Evan Hunziker, had, a few weeks earlier, crossed into North Korea from China and was now in prison there accused of being a spy. The North Koreans were, in effect, demanding ransom for him. Bill’s mission that night was to convince them to release the young man to his custody.

As we walked to the Manhattan apartment that served as the residence of the North Korean ambassador to the UN I urged Bill not to rush into the issue of the prisoner release. While he could totally charm people and was a shrewd negotiator he could also be a bit of a bull in a china shop when it came to cultural sensitivities. Lets chat and make small talk for half an hour then softly raise the issue of the prisoner, I suggested. When we arrived, in addition to the ambassador and a member of his staff, the senior National Security Advisor of the North Korean government was waiting for us. Also present was a Korean-American, Dr K.A. Namkung, who enjoyed the trust of the North Koreans and had been a key link to them for Bill Richardson. Bill produced cigars that he passed out to everyone. We smoked and talked for a while and finally Bill said tentatively, “I understand you have this young US citizen who crossed your border.” “He’s crazy” the National Security Advisor replied “You want him, you can have him.” It emerged that the young man was severely disturbed and the North Koreans did not know what to do with him. Giving him to Bill Richardson was a happy solution for them and it was a clear we could have raised the issue the moment we walked into the apartment.

A week later Bill flew to Pyongyang and Evan Hunziker was turned over to his custody. The young man said he wanted to go to Seattle to spend Thanksgiving with his family. After a few days there he moved into a motel and three weeks later he sadly committed suicide. The whole event, however, served to solidify Bill’s relationship with the North Koreans and he became one of the few public figures in the US they trusted. He would make several subsequent visits there even serving as a diplomatic conduit during the Bush administration.

Peru, the United Arab Emirates, and Kenya

During this period we had brief and often abortive encounters with several other countries.

A woman from New York named Lori Berenson was arrested in Lima, Peru on November 30th, 1995. The 25 year-old journalist-activist was charged under Peru’s anti-terrorism laws with being a leader of a guerilla organization the MRTA. Initially convicted by a hooded military tribunal the conviction was subsequently overturned and she was retried, under a new government, by a civilian court. She was again sentenced to twenty years in prison. There was an activist group set up in the US to lobby for her release and Bill Richardson talked to her parents. In many ways she was an ideal candidate for his attention. However, the State Department obsessed with fear of left-wing movements in Latin America and the Peruvian government which resented any US government interference in their country were distinctly unhelpful. Bill was eager to go to Peru, but he could not do so without an invitation from the government or a re-cooked deal for her release. I was serving at the time on the board of the Hunger Project with Javier Perez de Cuellar, former Secretary General of the United Nations. He was then running for the presidency of Peru. He agreed to try to secure her release and said that if he was elected I could count on his help. Sadly his candidacy went down hill and he lost. As the race was somewhat acrimonious he felt there was no way he could seek any favors from his opponent who had defeated him. Lori Berenson is still in prison now serving her seventeenth year. Somehow she has managed to get pregnant and is expecting her first child at age 39 years.

The McDonnell Douglas Corporation was in the middle of 1995 eager to sell 40-80 F-15 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. Their president Harry Stonecipher had been pursuing a conventional strategy through the State and Defense Departments but wanted to get an extra leg up on his competitors. He came to Bill Richardson to see if, based on his growing reputation for international free-lancing, he could help. Richardson in turn asked me what I could do. I had a friend, Odeh Aburdene, a Palestinian-American who was involved in investment banking in the Middle-East. Odeh knew most of the leading political leaders in the region, including members of the royal families. The ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed had three sons Khalifa, the crown prince, Mohamed and Sultan. Sultan the youngest had as his primary responsibility relations with the other Arab countries of the Middle East, but in 1995 Sheikh Zayed sent him as the country’s representative to the UN General Assembly, instructing him to continue on from New York to make his first visit to Washington. This was a signal to outsiders that the aging leader was planning an enhanced role for his youngest son. My friend, Odeh, who knew His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed al-Nahyan (his full name) well convinced him to meet with me and Bill Richardson. We met at the Willard Hotel in Washington for an hour. While he listened the matter of the F-15 sale was not resolved. He did, however, invite the two of us to come to visit him in the UAE even offering to pay my way (as I had no budget and was not being paid anything for what I was doing for Bill Richardson). Subsequently Bill did visit him on the way back from a trip to Kenya. The sale of the fighter planes was eventually made. What effect if any Bill’s involvement had I do not know.

In Kenya the government of Daniel Arap Moi had imprisoned a man named Koigi wa Wamwere. Koigi, as he was generally known, was a journalist, politician and human rights activist. He had been imprisoned several times and for two years had lived in exile in Norway. In early 1995 the Moi government sentenced him to a four year term on a trumped up charge of “robbery and violence.” Bill Richardson had, through the US State Department, sought an audience with Moi to argue for Koigi’s release but had been turned down. Over the years I had worked on several initiatives with Patrick Orr, a London-based, partner in the public relations firm of Rait-Orr and Associates. Patrick’s largest client for a number of years had been the government of Kenya. In that capacity he worked closely with the Kenyan foreign minister, Sally Kosgei, who had previously been the High Commissioner in London. She was able, as a favor to Patrick and myself, to convince President Moi to meet with Bill. The meeting occurred shortly before Christmas, 1995 and Bill returned to the States to say that he had pressed Moi on both the release of Koigi and human rights issue in general. He said Moi had promised him he would release Koigi. Sally Kosgei, who had been in the meeting reported to Patrick and myself, that that was absolutely not the case. That in fact Moi had said he could do nothing until Koigi had completed the appeals process through the courts which might take a year after which he would consider releasing him. In notes I made at the time I suggested that in this instance Bill was far less interested in getting publicity in the media than he was in impressing President Clinton with his ability to negotiate successfully with someone like Moi. Throughout the next year Bill had me stay in contact with Patrick Orr and Sally Kosgei to convey the message that whenever Moi might be ready to release Koigi, he, Bill, be allowed to come to Kenya, ostensibly to thank Moi and the Kenyan government for the release, but really so he could be in the limelight and claim some of the credit (at least in the US media.) Eventually, in December of 1996. Moi released Koigi on humanitarian grounds due to illness and he returned to Oslo. I do not believe that, in this instance, Bill Richardson’s intervention was, in any way, a factor in the release.


Potentially the most significant issue that Bill Richardson and I dealt with had to do with Iran. From an early stage in our relationship he talked to me about wanting to be the first US elected official to go to Tehran since the hostage crisis of 1979 when diplomatic ties were severed. The Iranians were hard to contact because they had no embassy in Washington and their ambassador at the UN, Kamal Karrazi was almost entirely unresponsive to any efforts by Americans to engage with him. On one of his trips through London I had Bill Richardson meet with a friend, Baroness Emma Nicholson. Emma, a member of the British House of Lords and the European parliament came from a wealthy background, and had personally funded a several refugee camps for the marsh Arabs along the Iraq/Iran border. She had as a result good relations in Tehran. I asked her if following her meeting with Bill she would put in a good word on his behalf there. The key, however, was again Ambassador Humayan Kabir. He had known Karrazi when he was the Bangladesh ambassador in Tehran, and as a fellow Muslim dilpomat it was easy for him to intercede on my behalf. As a result of his efforts Karrazi invited me to lunch at his residence in New York. In the meantime, in addition to wanting to be the first member of Congress to go to Tehran since 1979, Bill was now interested in getting Iranian help to secure the release of an Israeli pilot, Ron Arad. Ron Arad had been shot down over Southern Lebanon in 1986 and was known to have survived. Initially captured by the Shi’ite militia, Amal led by Nabil Berri he was taken to Beirut where he was photographed and he wrote two letters that were delivered to his parents. An effort was made to exchange him for two prisoners being held by the Israeli’s. Those negotiations failed and he was given or sold to Hezbollah. The trail then became murky with rumors that Arad was turned over to elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard advising Hezbollah and even that he had been taken to Tehran. After 1988 nothing definitive was heard from him or about him. The Israelis, however, continued to argue that he was alive and demanded his release. Bill and I knew that before coming to the UN Karrazi had been the person in the government with the responsibility for dealing with Hezbollah. If anyone knew the truth he did. Bill, of course, saw that it would be an enormous coup for him if he was the one to secure Arad’s release.

It was an elegant lunch but a most difficult meeting. I tried to carry the conversation, but Karrazi, infinitely cautious if not suspicious, answered each topic I raised with a brief sentence of a few words. He was quite skeptical about entering into any discussions with Bill Richardson or any other representative of the US. There were long silences. Gradually we both relaxed and I raised the issue of Ron Arad. He told me that Ron Arad was dead. He was being held by Hezbollah in a house in Southern Lebanon that was unknowingly attacked by the Israeli air force. Arad, he said, was killed either in the attack itself or shot trying to escape during the confusion following the hit on the house. The Israeli’s knew that he said but were trying to claim he was still alive for propaganda purposes. I found Karrazi’s account quite convincing. As our relationship warmed towards the end of the lunch I was in reach of my primary goal which was to get him to agree to another lunch including Bill Richardson. For that, he said, he would need permission from Tehran.

Eventually he received that permission. The second lunch was more relaxed and comfortable, partly because of Bill’s ebullient style.The possibility of Bill visiting Iran was clearly on the table. Karrazi was willing, at least tentatively, to discussing the details of what Bill would want to do in Tehran. I worried that Bill’s insistence on meeting not just government officials but also the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Komeini was going to create problems. The lunch ended on a cordial note and an agreement that Karrazi would put forward Bill’s plans for a visit to his government. We also knew that the government was very factionalized and that there would be an element strongly opposed to letting him come. Over the next several weeks a dialogue with Karrozi took place and we further refined the plans for the trip.

The matter of Ron Arad remained uncertain so I urged Bill to make a trip to Israel so he could try to get a definitive answer to the question of whether he was alive from the Israeli intelligence services. There was no point in going to Tehran and demanding their help in getting his release if he was truly dead. On his return from Israel, Bill was evasive arguing the need to protect sensitive security sources. (He was on the House Intelligence committee. I at that point had no security clearance.)

I was pursuing another course. Through Palestinian connections I had met a man named Samih Zein who was the Vice President of a company, Technology Research International Based in California. A Palestinian American he also had strong ties in Lebanon including owning two radio stations in the Southern part of the country. Samih Zein offered to host Bill and myself in Lebanon. He said he could arrange for us to meet the Secretary General of Hezbollah, the religious leader Sheikh Fadlallah, Nabil Berri, head of the Amal militia that had originally captured Ron Arad, and the Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri. He also said he would then take us to Southern Lebanon to meet with the various faction leaders from whom the exact story on the fate of Ron Arad could certainly be obtained. If nothing else it would certainly show the Israelis that we were on the case. We were forced to delay the trip because the discussions I had with Samih Zein came in mid-October 1996 right before the US presidential elections and Bill Richardson own race for re-election.

In all of these ventures it was clear that Bill Richardson had two audiences. One was the American public and the news media. The other was Bill Clinton. He was very eager to impress the President as an effective player in international affairs. Shortly after Clinton was re-elected he secured the release of three Red Cross workers in Sudan. This he did working with the White House to maximize there awareness of what he was doing. I was not involved at all. He wanted to parlay these informal diplomatic activities, especially in Iraq and Cuba, into a major appointment in the second Clinton term. He discussed with me his hope that he would be made Secretary of State counting on help in that regard from Vice President Al Gore. I told him that I thought it quite unrealistic to hope to be appointed Secretary of State, but that UN ambassador was far more within his grasp and he should invest his effort there. And that is how it worked out.

The moment he was publicly nominated for the UN position he felt he could no longer speak directly with any of the representatives of other countries with whom we had dealt. He asked me to notify them all of that fact and say that he looked forward to dealing with them as an official representative of the Clinton administration once he was confirmed in his new job.

I visited Ambassadors Kabir and Remirez in Washington and took the train to New York to talk Karrazi. He was very understanding, but in some ways. I think, rather sorry that were not going to be able to have Bill make the historic trip to Tehran. As I was leaving the embassy he presented me with a large box wrapped in elegant red wrapping. I carried it around New York in the bitter cold for the rest of the day. Even back in Washington assuming it was a piece of Iranian handicraft or something equally mundane I did not open it for several days. When I did it turned out to be the largest container of caviar I had ever seen. Ambassador Kamal Karrazi left shortly there after to become the Iranian Foreign Minister.

© Peter G. Bourne - 2009