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White House Says Bush Knew Caller Might Be Imposter

March 9, 1990 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush knew a caller claiming to be Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani might be an impostor but spoke with him ″on the off chance″ it might signal a breakthrough for U.S. hostages, the White House said today.

″The president’s feeling was: what if it’s real? I want the American people to know, and the families of the hostages to know that I am willing to check out every possibility,″ said presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.

Fitzwater conceded that the phone conversation that occurred last month was an embarrassment since it turned to be a hoax. But, he added, ″This phone call is just another reminder of the fact that we will pursue every lead we can get.″

He also said the episode reflects the frustration the administration faces in its efforts to find ways to press for the release of the eight U.S. and 10 other Western hostages being held in Lebanon.

Fitzwater said the administration still does not know who initiated the hoax and could not rule out the possibility that it originated within a faction of the Iranian government.

Bush brushed off reporters’ questions about the phone call during an event in the Rose Garden, declaring: ″Said it all.″ It apparently was a reference to statements by Fitzwater and other administration officials.

Meanwhile, Rafsanjani said in a sermon broadcast on Tehran radio that ″Iran’s stature in the world is so high that the strongest power in the world, and the greatest power on Earth, is striving to find an opening with your executive leader even through telephone wires.″

″Can it be that such a global power, with all its intelligence capabilities, talks to a person it cannot identify?″ he asked. ″This is a strange occurrence.″

″This shows the United States very much needs to talk to Iran, but, with God’s grace, it is deprived of this blessing,″ he said.

″Now we must wait for explanations and witness another Irangate in the making, God willing,″ Rafsanjani said, referring to the ill-fated effort by the Reagan administration to trade arms for the release of hostages.

Fitzwater, asked about Rafsanjani’s statement, said it ″reflects the difficulty of the situation: One day we hear moderate points of view, the next day we hear antagonistic ones.″

″So our position remains steadfast: we want to do everything we can to get the hostages out. The president will talk to anyone, any time,″ Fitzwater said.

He and other White House officials said the bizarre chain of events began when a man identifying himself as an Iranian government official called the White House to say Rafsanjani wanted to talk to Bush about U.S. hostages held in Lebanon.

Fitzwater said today that, in view of the ″unorthodox manner″ Iran has used for communicating with the West in the past, ″any communication from the leadership of Iran has to be treated differently.″

″This call came in. It was suspicious in origin,″ Fitzwater said.

Officials said there were two calls - the initial one and a second one during which Bush talked with the impostor.

Fitzwater said Bush was ″willing to make this call on the off-chance that it might be real.″ Fitzwater later was vague on whether the second call was placed or received by the White House, saying he didn’t want to get into such details.

The initial call came to national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, White House aides said.

The episode was first reported Thursday by CBS News.

Eight Americans, including Terry Anderson, the chief Middle East correspondent of The Associated Press, and 10 other Westerners are being held hostage in Lebanon.

The Bush administration contends Rafsanjani’s government has influence with those holding the hostages.

The disclosure of the hoax came amid a flurry of recent reports on hostage- related developments. However, U.S. officials have said they are unable to cite any actual movement toward freeing the hostages.

Although he was tricked once, Bush would do the same thing again if he thought it would help win the release of the hostages, his spokesman said.

″If a call came through at some future point that we believed was real, he would take it,″ Fitzwater said. ″The president has made it known he’s willing to talk to Iran at any time. And the ball is in their court. So it’s up to them to signal a willingness to talk.″

Fitzwater said the administration has let Rafsanjani know ″through diplomatic channels as well as publicly, that we’re willing to talk whenever they’re ready. And they have come back and said, ‘we’re not ready’.″

Fitzwater declined to go into details of Bush’s conversation with the unknown caller.

CBS said the president ″repeated U.S. policy that goodwill will beget goodwill but there could be no quid pro quo for U.S. hostages,″ CBS said.