Working for peace, against all odds
'Man Without a Gun'
July 23, 1999
"Man Without a Gun" is the true story of a single UN diplomat's astonishing high-wire struggle for peace in the Middle East. In more than two decades, Giandomenico Picco negotiated an end to wars in Afghanistan and between Iran and Iraq with the force of his decency and the strength of the UN. But little could prepare Picco for the danger he would face in resolving the Lebanon hostage crisis.
Washington, Damascus, Teheran
It was my third visit to the White House in as many months, and the omens were not good. In January and March, I had gone to Washington to see Brent Scowcroft, the retired air force general serving as George Bush's national security adviser and a man with a well-earned reputation as a strategic thinker. My mission was at once simple and delicate. For years, I had been telling the Iranian authorities in Teheran that the American president would reciprocate in some way, would reach out to the Islamic Republic, if they used their influence in Lebanon to win the freedom of the American hostages. Bush had used the words "Goodwill begets goodwill" in his inaugural address of January 20, 1989, and he had meant it as a signal to those who might help in Beirut. It was directed, I reminded the Iranians early and often, at them. Now it was nearly four months since Terry Anderson, the last of the American hostages in Beirut, had been freed, and the Iranians were growing restless. It was time for Washington to deliver its part of the implied quid pro quo.
Scowcroft had intimated at our first two meetings that the United States might have some difficulty living up to its "promise" of three years earlier. Even so, I held out hope that the administration would give me something I could take to the Iranians. Perhaps I was in denial: the idea that a word given would not be kept was unacceptable to me, since my credibility had been essential to the success of my work. Indeed, it had saved my life more than once. I did not even hint to Teheran that I was facing problems securing reciprocity from Washington. In retrospect, maybe I should have because Scowcroft made it official in April: the timing was not propitious; there would be no gesture toward Iran anytime soon. Was it the upcoming presidential election? Perhaps. After all, could the incumbent risk looking soft on a country that still tarred America as "the Great Satan"? Could he appear to pay off a government that had essentially taken over the U.S. Embassy in Teheran in 1979? Whatever the reasons, a three-year operation in Beirut built on a foundation of trust had suddenly turned to sand. Unwittingly -- naively, as it turned out -- I had misled an entire government.
I made one more run at Scowcroft. Iran, I learned, had approached a European company for spare parts that did not fall under the NATO embargo on trade with Teheran. Nevertheless, no NATO country would authorize such a sale without a green light from Washington. So I tried to dope out another way, something that might get us out of the bind. What if the United States simply ignored the sale? The ambassador from the European country involved could call on Scowcroft to raise the issue. Given that the spare parts were not on the blacklist, the White House would neither sanction nor reject the proposal. In other words, the ambassador would receive no official comment. White House officials could then properly say, if asked, that they had never given formal consent even as the sale went through. The Europeans, in effect, would act as the conduit for the goodwill gesture to Iran. I, in turn, would suggest to Iran that the White House had allowed that to happen, making good on George Bush's words of January 20, 1989.
Good play, unresponsive audience: Scowcroft rejected the proposal. There would be no deal. That left me with a broken promise, two German hostages still in Beirut, no clue to the fate of the missing Israeli pilot Ron Arad, and, painfully, my credibility -- the most important thing, which had enabled me to spring nine Western hostages and ninety-one Lebanese prisoners -- in tatters. Time had run out. My failure to deliver the American side of the deal with the Iranians essentially rendered me a liar, and I had to face up to the fact if I were to have any chance to reclaim my integrity, one more trip would be required. I could hardly expect the United Nations' new secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to understand or to pop for a ticket to Teheran. But this was personal now: going to Teheran was exactly what I had to do. I had to look into the eyes of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and acknowledge my inadvertent deception. Nothing less would do, not if I wanted to salvage what I could of my professional and personal credibility. Without it, I knew, I was a nonentity.
My chance came quickly. In late spring, I was in Damascus working on the release of the last two German hostages in Lebanon. I made arrangements with the Iranians to fly to Teheran on one of the many flights linking it to the Syrian capital. The two countries were close politically: Damascus was then a tourist destination for families of Iranians who had been killed in the war against Iraq, as well as a city for political pilgrims. Buses would take tourists from the Syrian capital to the border of the occupied Golan Heights to gaze down upon the enemy: Israel.
In Teheran, I met with Javad Zarif, the Iranian diplomat I had worked with for years. He knew that I had asked to see the president to deliver an important message. He also knew that I had been to the White House and was expecting information about the goodwill gesture. At about 4 p.m., Zarif took me to see Rafsanjani. We met in his private office, more spartan than the official office where I had met with him and UN Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar in years past. It was our first meeting since all the American hostages had returned home from Lebanon.
There were few pleasantries. I looked straight into the president's eyes, which is considered somewhat impolite in Eastern cultures, and said in English that I had come to Teheran with news of broken promises. I explained that although the hostage operation had been based on the assumption that a goodwill gesture from America would be offered, I had been informed by Washington that no reciprocity would be forthcoming.
At first, Zarif declined to translate the bad news. When he hesitated, I told him to put my words into Farsi. "You want me to say this?" Zarif couldn't quite believe it. "Do you understand what you are saying?" "Yes," I said, "I want you to tell the president of Iran that I lied to him, although unknowingly. The principle is more important to me than the consequences." Rafsanjani followed our exchange, bemused and curious, since he did not speak or understand English. Finally, he seemed almost embarrassed by the obvious tension between his two guests.
Eventually I said, "If you don't translate, I'll sit on the floor." It had just popped into my mind, something that would make the point to Zarif and increase his uneasiness. Zarif finally agreed, and I repeated my message sentence by sentence so that he would translate word for word and would not summarize.
Rafsanjani looked at me, then paused, giving himself time to collect his thoughts before responding. I had no idea what would come next, but the difficult part for me was over. I had spoken the truth.
"My government has had always good relations with you," he began. "We have known you for a long time. We have assisted you in Lebanon out of respect for the United Nations secretary-general. We have taken many political risks in our cooperation with you. Not everybody was in favor of such cooperation. Nevertheless, we went ahead. Since we engaged in this effort we have listened carefully to what you told us, including all the various assurances. You understand, Mr. Picco, that you are putting me in a very difficult position. In fact, it may be a very difficult position for both of us."
I understood him loud and clear. Rafsanjani was Iran's most pragmatic political leader, and he must have played a valuable chip convincing those in Teheran who opposed him that helping in Beirut would pay off in an American goodwill gesture. Now he had just been told the bet was worthless.
"The first thing I could do here is to decide never to let you leave Teheran," Rafsanjani said. The potential menace was clear. "I came to do what I had to do," I told him. "To me, my job is done. I understand that you will have to do yours."
I waited for the translation and kept looking at his face for any reaction or any hint of what would happen next. I thought about Evin prison, the infamous place where the shah's secret police had tortured its opponents and where the Islamic Revolution had incarcerated many others. Yet I had no regrets. I actually felt relieved because I did not have to make any more decisions. It was now up to others or to the Almighty. It was almost ironic that, having played a part in putting an end to the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, having survived the scrutiny of the Islamic Jihad in Beirut, having spent more hours with a hood over my head than I care to remember, I could now end up in a Teheran prison.
The translation complete, Rafsanjani was ready. "I am sad to hear that this is the reason you came," he said, Zarif translating the Farsi into English. "The relationship we have had goes back for years. I think it is best if you leave Teheran very, very quickly. The news of what you have told me will travel fast to other quarters, and they may decide not to let you go."
It was time for the last retreat. Rafsanjani and I shook hands very politely, neither of us smiling. Leaving his private office, I heard no noise and no voices. I cannot say if that was because there were none or simply because I was in a different dimension, numb to the immediate reality. "You are mad to come here and say these things," Zarif scolded on the way out. He was very worried about the domestic consequences for Iran's president. My troubles might be over, but Rafsanjani's and those of other Iranian officials who had spent political capital to help free the Beirut hostages were just beginning.
As we were going to the airport, I reflected on the city that had been so central to my professional life for so long. Between 1982 and 1992, I had been to Iran more often than I had been to Italy, my home country. My activities in Afghanistan had an Iranian connection, my work in Iraq was part of the war with Iran, and my last operation for the United Nations, securing the release of the Western hostages from Beirut, had been done together with Iran. There is no doubt in my mind that I survived the dangers of Beirut because of Teheran's cooperation and assistance.
In the end it had come to this. I was angry then, not at Scowcroft, a true professional and the greatest strategist I have ever met, and not at President Bush, whose political predicament I understood and whose Middle East policy had been on many occasions quite courageous, wise, and good for America. Further, I was fully aware I had created new problems in Iran for President Rafsanjani. What made me mad was the fact that the foreign policy of any country can fall victim to domestic politics, that other lives in Lebanon might hang in the balance, and that I could do very little about it. My only consolation -- and it wasn't much -- was that I had taken for granted early on that governments could change positions and leave us out in the cold. That was why the hostage deal had been made principally on a quid pro quo that had depended only on myself and the UN secretary-general. It was probably the reason why I was still alive and free and most of the Western hostages had gone home.
I would continue my work for another month, helping to free two German hostages held in Beirut and finishing up some odds and ends at UN headquarters in New York. But as Zarif and I headed for the airport, I could hear the sound of a door closing. My life at the United Nations, my time as one of Pérez de Cuéllar's unarmed commandos, was over.
Copyright © 1999 by Giandomenico Picco.
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