The election story of the decade

Gary Sick

April 17, 1991|By Gary Sick

SUSPICIONS about a deal between the Reagan campaign and Iran over the hostages have circulated since the day of President Reagan's inaugural, when Iran agreed to release the 52 American hostages exactly five minutes after Reagan took the oath of office.

Later, as it became known that arms started to flow to Iran via Israel only a few days after the inauguration, suspicions deepened that a secret arms-for-hostages deal had been concluded.

Five years later, when the Iran-contra affair revealed what seemed to be a similar swap of hostages for arms delivered through Israel, questions were revived about the 1980 election.

In a nice, ironic twist, the phrase "October surprise," which vice presidential candidate George Bush had coined to warn of possible political manipulation of the hostages by Jimmy Carter, began to be applied to the suspected secret activities of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign.

I was a member of the Carter administration and on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) from August 1976 to April 1981, with responsibility for monitoring Iran policy.

I first heard these rumors in 1981 and I dismissed them as fanciful. I again heard them during the 1988 election campaign, and I again refused to believe them. I'd worked in and around the Middle East long enough to be skeptical of the conspiracy theories that abound in the region.

Then two years ago I began collecting documentation for a book on the Reagan administration's policies toward Iran. That effort grew into a massive computerized data base, the equivalent of many thousands of pages.

As I sifted through this mass of material I began to recognize a curious pattern in the events surrounding the 1980 election.

Increasingly, I began to focus on that period and interviewed a wide range of sources. I benefited greatly from the help of many interested, talented investigative journalists.

In the course of hundreds of interviews, in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, I have been told repeatedly that individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the presidential election. For this favor Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel.

Some of the sources interviewed by me or my colleagues are or were government officials who claimed to have knowledge of these events by virtue of their official duties or their access to intelligence reports. Most insisted on anonymity.

Other sources are low-level intelligence operatives and arms dealers who are no boy scouts. A number of them have been arrested or have served prison time for gun-running, fraud, counterfeiting or drugs.

Some may be seeking publicity or revenge, but others have nothing to gain from talking about these events and genuinely feared for their personal safety.

Several sources said they were participants, personally involved in or present at the events they described.

Their accounts were not identical, but on the central facts they were remarkably consistent, surprisingly so in view of the range of nationalities, backgrounds and perspectives of the sources. Because of my past government experience I knew about certain events that could not possibly be known to most of the sources; yet their stories confirmed those facts.

It was the absence of contradictions on the key elements of the story that encouraged me to continue probing. This weight of testimony has overcome my initial doubts. The outlines of what I learned can be summarized as follows:

In December 1979 and January 1980 Cyrus and Jamshid Hashemi, two brothers who had good contacts in Iranian revolutionary circles, approached the Carter administration seeking support for their candidate in the Iranian presidential elections.

Their candidate lost, but they remained in contact with the U.S. government, providing useful information about developments in the hostage crisis.

Cyrus died in 1986, only three months after his cooperation with the U.S. Customs Service in a dramatic sting operation that resulted in the arrest of several Americans, Israelis and Europeans on charges of plotting illegal arms sales.

Jamshid Hashemi, who was also involved in international arms sales, was not implicated in that affair.

I re-established contact with Hashemi in March 1990 and interviewed him a number of times.

According to Hashemi, William Casey, who had just become Reagan's campaign manager, met with him in late February or early March 1980 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

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