1996 Congressional Hearings
Intelligence and Security

Clinton Administration and Arms shipments from Iran to Bosnia

Strobe Talbott
Deputy Secretary of State

May 23, 1996

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

Mr. Chairman, I welcome this opportunity to discuss with you and your colleagues an episode in the spring of 1994, when the Croatian government asked our view on whether it should transship third-country arms to Bosnia, and our administration decided neither to oppose nor to approve the transshipment. It was the right decision, and it contributed to peace in Bosnia.

Let me first establish the context in which we considered the Croatian request. In April 1994, the Bosnian government seemed to be on its last legs. Gorazde was nearly overrun, its defenders virtually out of bullets. Sarajevo and other enclaves were surrounded. They were at the mercy of Serb forces, who used the cutoff of electricity, water and food as a weapon of war. The Bosnian Serbs held 70 percent of the national territory. More than half the national population had been uprooted from their homes.

The major powers were seriously divided over how to deal with the crisis. The United States advocated a two-part strategy: 1) lifting a U.N. arms embargo that we considered unwise and unfair, principally because it discriminated against the Bosnians as the principal victims of the war, and 2) more vigorous use of NATO airpower to deter the Serb attacks on safe areas. Our European Allies, who had troops on the ground as part of UNPROFOR, resisted both lift and strike because they feared that their forces would suffer in the resulting escalation of violence.

The only bright spot in an otherwise bleak diplomatic and military picture was the conclusion in March of the Washington Accords, which established the Bosnian Federation. The federation brought to an end a terrible war between Bosnian Muslims and Croats and offered the first glimmer of hope that a single, multiethnic state might emerge after the war. This fragile new federation, brokered by the United States and backed by Croatia, also represented the first shift in the strategic balance against the Serbs.

Only weeks after the federation agreement was signed, we became aware that the beleaguered Bosnian government was pressing its new Croatian allies for help in staving off a military defeat. Bosnia had many friends in the Islamic world who were willing to send arms -- and who in fact had been sending arms since the beginning of the conflict in 1992. The only way to bring weapons into Bosnia in large numbers was through Croatia.

This, Mr. Chairman, was the backdrop for the question posed to us by the Croatians in late April.

In deciding how to respond, we had a limited number of choices. We chose what we thought then and think now was the best option: to have our ambassador tell the Croatians that he had "no instructions" -- a diplomatic way of saying that we neither approved of nor objected to what they wore proposing.

We knew that there were downsides to a "no-instructions" decision, the most significant being that, if the Croatians permitted the transshipments to go forward, the largest supplier of arms would likely be Iran. But after careful consideration, we decided that the consequences of any other answer would be worse.

If we had said yes -- that is, if we had explicitly, affirmatively approved the transshipment -- it would have put us in the position of actively and unilaterally supporting a violation of the arms embargo. The public disclosure of such a posture would have caused severe strains with our allies who had troops on the ground in Bosnia as part of UNPROFOR. This could have triggered the precipitous withdrawal of UNPROFOR; and that, in turn, would have required a substantial U.S. troop deployment as part of a potentially dangerous and costly NATO extraction effort.

If we had answered no, explicitly disapproving of the transshipments -- and if the Croatian government had acted accordingly, i.e., by shutting down the arms to the Bosnians -- we would have exacerbated the already desperate military situation of the Bosnians and very likely doomed the federation of Moslems and Croats.

I realize, Mr. Chairman, that many members of the Senate felt that there was a fourth option: to lift the arms embargo unilaterally and openly arm the Bosnians. We were convinced at the time, and remain convinced now, that unilateral lift would have been a disaster. It would have put the United States in direct violation of a binding U.N. Security Council Resolution. It would have encouraged others to pick and choose the resolutions they would abide by, such as sanctions against Saddam Hussein. We also would have precipitated the withdrawal of UNPROFOR, requiring the deployment of U.S. troops. Taken together, this chain of events would have touched off the worst crisis in the history of the alliance.

Some believe, incorrectly, that our decision opened the way to Iranian influence in Bosnia. In fact, the Iranians had been there since 1992. By April of 1994, there were hundreds of Iranian mujahadeen and Revolutionary Guards in Bosnia. So the Croatian government's question was not an invitation to open a door to the Iranians.

That door was already open. Had we tried to slam it shut, we might very well have also, as a consequence, shut down the relationship that we developed between Croatia and the federation. And that result could have -- I believe almost certainly would have -- kept us from ever getting to Dayton.

It was Dayton that gave us a chance to get the Iranians out of Bosnia. We insisted on and achieved, in the Dayton Accords, a commitment to the removal of all foreign forces from Bosnia. While we remain concerned by any remaining Iranian influence in Bosnia and continue to insist that foreign forces leave the country, very substantial progress has been made on the issue, largely through determined American leadership.

Much has also been said about Congress being kept in the dark about the decision. I would point out that Congress knew about the Iranian shipments more or less at the same time and in much the same detail as we did in the executive branch. I would also stress that our answer to the Croatians on the transshipment of arms to Bosnia was consistent with the mood and exhortations of the Congress. This body, the U.S. Senate, made clear on numerous occasions that it opposed the U.N. embargo for the same reason we did: because it discriminated against the Bosnians. Indeed, starting in June, less than three months after our reply to the Croatians, Congress began moving to cut off funds for U.S. enforcement of the embargo. In that legislation, the Congress, which was well aware of the Iranian connection, made no exception for Iran -- and for the same reason that we did not object to the shipment of Iranian arms in April; keeping the Bosnians alive militarily and the federation alive politically was more important than keeping the Iranians out of Bosnia. Only when there was peace could we get them out, and that's exactly what we've done.

So, Mr. Chairman, to conclude:

In the wake of our April `94 answer to the Croatians and, I would contend, partly as a consequence of it -- the following happened:

-- The Bosnian armed forces held on and began to counterattack.

-- The federation survived to become a cornerstone of the Dayton Agreements.

-- We averted a crisis in the alliance.

-- UNPROFOR remained in place, providing humanitarian supplies and helping the Bosnians through another brutal winter.

We bought time for a combination of American diplomacy, NATO airpower, and Croatian and Bosnian military victories to reach an historic peace agreement under U.S. leadership at Dayton. The United States is leading an international effort to arm Bosnia today. The Iranian presence there is down to a handful and is increasingly marginalized.

In short, a tough decision turned out to be the right decision.

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