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Rome denies involvement with Iran coup plot

June 12, 2008

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published on FT: June 12 2008

Italy’s centre-right government has rejected allegations contained in a US Senate report that Italian and Pentagon officials held secret meetings in Rome in 2001 and heard proposals from Iranian dissidents to overthrow the regime in Tehran.

One of the ideas, outlined on the back of a napkin by a discredited Iranian arms dealer, allegedly involved a request for an initial $5m in “seed money” and a plan to cause traffic chaos in Tehran “that would create anxiety, work stoppages and other disruptive measures”.

Rome’s official denial of involvement in the alleged coup proposals was issued just hours after President George W. Bush arrived in Rome with tougher sanctions against Iran at the top of his agenda in talks with Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister.

Describing Iran as a “friendly country” and warning of the danger of possible retaliation, Mr Berlusconi’s office rejected allegations that the previous Berlusconi government or Italian military intelligence had been involved in any “hostile actions” against Iran in 2001.

Analysts suggested that revelations of alleged Italian involvement in such discussions at a time when the Berlusconi government was enjoying close political and commercial relations with Iran are likely to be embarrassing for Rome, but would not disrupt Mr Bush’s swansong tour.

The 50-page report by the Senate’s Select Intelligence Committee, released last week, has prompted Rome’s prosecutors to open an investigation. An Italian parliamentary committee on national security, headed by Francesco Rutelli of the opposition Democratic party, has also requested a response from Admiral Bruno Branciforte, head of military intelligence.

The Senate investigation focused on meetings held in Rome in December 2001 organised by Michael Ledeen, a Washington neo-conservative active in promoting regime change in Iraq and Iran.

The Senate confirmed reports that two Pentagon officials were brought to meet Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer who had been involved in the Iran-Contra arms scandal under then president Ronald Reagan. He had been discredited by the Central Intelligence Agency which was not told of the Rome meeting in advance.

The Senate report said Mr Ledeen arranged the meeting with the help of his contacts in Italy and that a member of a “foreign government intelligence service” was involved. It has been widely reported in the US and Italy that Nicolo Pollari, then head of Italian military intelligence, was the official concerned, and that Mr Ledeen also met the then Italian defence minister, Antonio Martino.

Mr Ledeen told the committee that the Italian government provided a “secure location” for the meeting and an interpreter.

Mr Ghorbanifar, joined by Iranians said to be former and serving officials, discussed alleged Iranian plots against US troops in Afghanistan, caches of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction smuggled into Iran, “growth of anti-regime sentiment” in Iran and other intelligence issues.

Larry Franklin, one of the Pentagon officials, told the Senate inquiry that during one late-night discussion in a bar Mr Ghorbanifar, a long time friend of Mr Ledeen, “pressed his own agenda for regime change” and “laid out his plan on a napkin” involving “simultaneous disruption of traffic at key intersections leading to Tehran”.

Mr Franklin was indicted in 2005 for passing classified information on Iran policy to employees of Aipac, a major pro-Israel lobby group in Washington. General Pollari is on trial for his alleged role in the CIA kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in Milan in 2003.

A February 2002 memo from then US assistant secretary of defence Peter Rodman detailing the Rome talks referred to an unnamed foreign government’s proposed support as well as foreign corporate funding for information collection and other activities in Iran.

An official memo also referred to “contracts that would assure oil and gas sales in the event of regime change” and multi-million dollar business deals that the foreign government had arranged for two of the Iranian interlocutors.

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