High-level Panamanian authorities today described the sudden flight of the deposed shah of Iran as a desperate and mistaken act triggered by false reports that Panama was preparing either to arrest the former monarch or to allow him to die in a local hospital.
Those reports were fed to former shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi here in recent weeks by "agents" of prominent Americans intent on embarrassing the Carter administration, according to these sources, who are close to Panama's ruler, Gen. Omar Torrijos.
Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger and banker David Rockefeller were named by these sources as having played key roles, through intermediaries, in persuading the former shah to leave Panama for Egypt before formal extradition hearings scheduled to have begun today. Rockefeller and Kissinger have strongly denied having any role in the former shah's decision.
The Panamanian version of the past several weeks leading up to the shah's departure is a tangled story of intrigue, manipulation by outsiders and good intentions by Torrijos and his aides.They are portrayed as having mounted a frenzied last-minute negotiating effort that included a promise to Iran to "do somthing to make sure the shah stayed here" if Iran could offer a "spectacular" concession relating to the U.S. hostages in Tehran.
That effort failed, even though White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan sought to bolster it by speaking on the telephone from Panama to Iranian Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, according to these sources. White House press secretary Jody Powell said in Washington last night that he had no indication that Jordan had spoken with any Iranian official during his weekend trip to Panama.
Jordan and other U.S. officials arrived here last Thursday night hoping to persuade the former shah to stay in Panama and to reassure him that the best arrangements had been made here for an urgently needed operation to remove his spleen.
These Panamanian officials assert that fears that Pahlavi "would talk" and "ruin careers in America" lay behind the urgent suggestions to him to accept President Anwar Sadat's longstanding invitation to go to Egypt.
The Panamanian officials insisted that no economic or political pressure was exerted on them to allow Pahlavi to leave, as Iranian newspapers charged today. They maintained that without a substantive move on Iran's part to improve the hostage situation, they had no choice but to live up to previous public statements that he was free to leave Panama if he chose.
"We would have had no basis for detaining him in terms of domestic support here," one high-level source said. "We could not have done otherwise and retained any public faith."
The Panamanian version of events, and particularly the accusations against Kissinger, parallel in many details accounts given to reporters in Tehran over the weekend by Iranian officials aware of Torrijos' telephone discussions with Tehran. This version emphasizes the Panamanian effort to use Pahlavi's decision to leave as a bargaining chip to resolve the hostage crisis.
In conversations initiated by Iran's Ghotbzadeh and by President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr Saturday, the sources said, the Iranian government was given 24 hours ending noon Sunday to take over custody of the hostages from militants holding them in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
When Iranian officials called back at 1 p.m. Sunday, the sources said, they were told the time limit was up and that Pahlavi already was on his way to the airport. The sources said the Iranians then asked to speak personally with Jordan, who was at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Panama, Ambler Moss.
The call was transferred to Jordan, they said, and Iran asked for nine more hours to transfer the hostages to a military hospital in Tehran. Jordan -- according to Panamanian sources -- spoke directly with Ghotbzadeh and told him that Pahlavi's departure could not be postponed.
Jordan could not be reached for comment, the White House press office said last night. Powell expressed skepticism about the assertion of a direct telephone contact, but said he did not have sufficient immediate information for a formal denial.
The Panamanian version emphasizes the role played in the drama surrounding the shah's departure yesterday by Dr. Benjamin Kean, the New York surgeon who treated the shah during his hospitalization at Cornell Medical Center last November. The center is heavily endowed by the Rockefeller family.
Kean and others maintained then that the shah's cancer could not be treated in Mexico and arranged his entry into the United States.
That entry triggered the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran Nov. 4.
Mexico then refused to allow the shah to return there, and Torrijos stepped forward to allow the former monarch to settle in Panama.
"It was not a life or death situation," the senior Panamanian source maintained. "It was Kean who was in charge of organizing the whole thing, and he did it in such a way as to create problems for the shah's return to Mexico. He said the conditions there were terrible, that there was no one there who was competent to perform the operation, and he discredited the Mexicans to the point where it was clear there would be a reaction to the shah going back there."
In lengthy interviews today, the Panamanian sources said Kean "provoked the same series of events" and the same strong reaction to his manner in dealing with the local authorities here.
In a telephone interview from New York, Kean denied that he had publicly compared the Mexican and Panamanian treatment of Pahlavi. He would not comment on reports that privately he had expressed concern to the shah about the adequacy of facilities in Panama for the spleen operation.
["I have never criticized Panama for anything," Kean said. "I fully expected the operation to be performed in Panama. My only effort was to try to defuse the situation there and make the operation possible."]
The Panamanian sources said that when Kean arrived two weeks ago to examine the shah, he indicated he wanted Houston surgeon Michael DeBakey to perform the spleenectomy.
The sources said Kean was told DeBakey's team would be welcomed.
The Panamanians said Kean and representatives of the shah asked authorities not to release information about the operation for "security reasons."
When Kean returned to New York, however, the Panamanians charged, he met with Robert Armao, a Rockefeller associate who had acted as the shah's spokesman, and other Rockefeller and Kissinger representatives.
"All of a sudden, Kean issued a statement . . . the same kind he made about Mexico . . . that there weren't any doctors here who could perform the operation, and no facilities," a Panamanian source said. "It was a surprise, and it was offensive."
In New York, Kean vehemently denied that he had discussed the shah's stay in Panama with Rockefeller or with Kissinger. "I have never met or had any form of contact with Dr. Kissinger," he said.
[Kean emphasized that he asked Armao to release a statement on his visit to Panama to try "to smooth and facilitate" the preparation for surgery in Panama. He noted that his statement had been limited to a brief description of the shah's medical condition and the need for an operation. "It is totally unfair to suggest that I criticized anyone in that statement," he said.]
Reports of Kean's statement, however, apparently reinforced Torrijos' suspicions of a Rockefeller plot, and the Panamanian strongman has quoted it to associates as part of an attack on Panama's ability to treat the shah.
Two weeks of confusion ensued, with revelations that the United States did not want to permit the shah to be operated on at the U.S. military hospital here and reports that Panama would not grant DeBakey a temporary license to operate.
The Panamanians maintain that the decision to discourage a possible request to admit the shah to Gorgas Military Hospital was made by the United States and had nothing to do with them. They said their public refusal to let DeBakey operate -- following their private agreement with Kean to license him -- was merely a smokescreen to assuage insulted domestic sensibilities. They said they remained willing throughout this period to reach a compromise that would allow DeBakey to perform the surgery. p
Meanwhile, the Panamanians said, Jordan arrived Thursday with information from "U.S. intelligence sources" that the shah had been in contact with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and had accepted an invitation to move to that country.
On Friday, they said, that information was officially confirmed in a telephone call from the wife of the Egyptian ambassador to Washington, Ashraf Ghorbal, to Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Bzrezinski. a
Panamanian officials here said the operation was scheduled for April 6 at 3 a.m. by DeBakey and his team.
But by the time White House legal counsel Lloyd Cutler flew to Contadora to talk with the shah Friday night the Panamanians said, "the shah's had already been made."
"He was afraid," the Panamanians maintained. Despite a series of visits "from [Panamanian president Aristides] Royo, from Torrijos, and near constant telephone calls" from both "trying again and again to reassure him" that Panama had no intention of arresting him or giving in to an Iranian request for his extradition, "Armao kept telling him that the Panamanian National Guard could send a plane to pick him up anytime," Panamanian officials said.
When Torrijos flew to Contadora to visit the shah Saturday, said one official on the trip, Pahlavi "looked very sick. It was very hot, but the entire house was closed up, all the doors and windows, and he had on long sleeves, his whole body covered up. His hand was clammy and feverish. The only thing he had on his mind was Egypt, Egypt."
The Panamanian sources displayed open sympathy for the Carter administration, with which they hope to continue good relations. Torrijos reportedly believes Kissinger and Rockefeller wanted to make life very difficult for Carter. "They succeeded in doing just that," an official said. d"Carter is right in the middle of electoral problems."