WASHINGTON -- A former Carter administration official has made fresh claims to support long-standing but unproven accusations that Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaigners negotiated a secret deal with Iran to delay the release of U.S. hostages until after the election.
Members of the Reagan campaign staff and the White House denied the accusations.
In exchange for withholding a benefit from President Jimmy Carter's re-election effort, the Iranians were rewarded with "a substantial supply of arms" from Israel, wrote Gary Sick, the Iran specialist in President Carter's National Security Council from August 1976 to April 1981, in an article published in the New York Times yesterday.
Mr. Sick said "at least five" sources told him that George Bush, then running for the vice presidency, attended at least one of several meetings between Reagan-Bush campaign members and high-level Iranian and Israeli representatives in Paris in October 1980.
"Three of the sources say that they saw him there," wrote Mr. Sick. "In the absence of further information, I have not made up my mind about this allegation."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater responded with a routine denial:
"Our position on all of that is the same as it's always been -- that there's nothing to it," he said during a regular news briefing.
People familiar with, or involved in, the 1980 Republican election campaign also denied, or responded with skepticism about, the claims.
Richard V. Allen, a member of Mr. Reagan's election campaign and the president's first national security adviser, said there was no truth to the allegations, which he described as "a conspiracy theory".
"We [the Reagan campaign] had no contact with Iran that I know of. It's baloney," he said.
In his article, Mr. Sick said he too was skeptical of the rumors until he began collecting material for a book on the Reagan administration's Middle East policy and noticed, among thousands of pages of computerized data, "a curious pattern in the events surrounding the 1980 election."
Since then, he wrote, he had interviewed hundreds of people in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, from government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to low-level intelligence operatives and arms dealers.
He wrote that one of these arms dealers, Jamshid Hashemi, told him that he had helped arrange a secret meeting between the late CIA Director William Casey, then Ronald Reagan's campaign manager, and Hojatolislam Mehdi Karrubi, an important Iranian cleric who is now the speaker of the Iranian Parliament, in a Madrid hotel in July 1980.
Mr. Hashemi said that, in a second meeting in Madrid some weeks later, the Iranian agreed to cooperate with the Reagan campaign about the timing of the hostage release.
There is no "smoking gun" in any of the evidence, Mr. Sick acknowledged. "In the absence of hard documentary evidence, the possibility of an elaborate disinformation campaign cannot be excluded," he wrote.
Mr. Casey died in 1987.
The fate of the hostages was a key issue in the 1980 election. They were taken prisoner when followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran's revolutionary government, seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.
A military operation to rescue them failed in the Iranian desert in April 1980 and the Carter administration hoped it might still obtain their release before election day. Reagan campaign officials were reportedly concerned that the return of the hostages could swing the race to Mr. Carter.
Suspicions about a deal between the Reagan campaign and Iran began circulating from the day of Mr. Reagan's inaugural, when Tehran agreed to release the 52 remaining captives five minutes after the new president was sworn into office.
Later, when it became known that arms started to flow to Iran from Israel only a few days after the inauguration, suspicions deepened that a secret arms-for-hostages deal had been concluded before the election.
Mr. Reagan's office in Los Angeles told Reuters that he had no immediate comment on Mr. Sick's article.