Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1987, pages 1, 16-17

Special Report

Did Iran Delay Hostages Release To Ensure Reagan's Election?

By Richard Curtiss

"A conspiracy between a presidential candidate and a hostile foreign power against an incumbent president would seem to be without precedent in American history. But if Reagan struck a successful deal with Iran and captured the presidency in 1980, it would explain why he agreed to the bizarre alliance with Iran in 1985 and 1986: He had gotten away with it before."—B. Honegger and J. Naureckas, In These Times, July 7, 1987.

The charge has been raised, first in the Middle Eastern and European press and now in the US, that in 1980 while Jimmy Carter was frantically negotiating for an early release of American hostages in Iran, members of the Ronald Reagan campaign staff made the Ayatollah Khomeini an offer he couldn't refuse—badly needed US arms and spare parts for his war with Iraq if he kept the US Embassy hostages in Tehran until after election day.

Improbable as that story seems, given the outrage that any US presidential candidate would risk if the public learned of it, there is one Iranian willing and able to provide details that give the report increasing credence. He is Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who was president of Iran at the time the release negotiations were taking place. His statements in a Paris interview with theWashington Report on Middle East Affairs, shed light on heretofore inexplicable developments in recent US history.

Before Ronald Reagan was elected president in November 1980, the prevailing political wisdom about US Middle East policy went as follows: Although the Ayatollah Khomeini had thwarted Jimmy Carter at every turn, Carter's failed Desert One rescue attempt might look mild in comparison to what Ronald Reagan was likely to do to gain the release of the American hostages being held in the US Embassy in Tehran. Regarding Israel, although normally a Democratic president was considered too dependent upon pro-Israel American financial backers to use America's economic and military aid to force Israel to make a land-for-peace agreement with its Arab neighbors, a second term Democrat, no longer concerned about re-election, would be free to pursue such a settlement. On the other hand, a Republican president, backed by businessmen with strong interests in Middle East oil and trade, would also vigorously pursue that Arab-Israel peace so essential to American interests everywhere.

This left both Israelis and Iranians perplexed about which presidential candidate to support. The voting patterns show that Israel and its US backers chose Reagan. The record indicates the Iranians did too, and the evidence was there from the beginning.

Jimmy Carter had sat up all of the night before Reagan's inauguration, awaiting news that the American Embassy hostages seized in Tehran during his term were being returned just before that term ended. Instead, 15 minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, the Ayatollah released the hostages. In retrospect, it seems to have been a signal that he'd fulfilled his part of a deal, not with Carter but with Reagan. Further, the crash on July 18, 1981, on the Soviet-Turkish border of an Argentine aircraft en route from Israel to Tehran with a cargo of US arms revealed that the Reagan administration was not enforcing US rules against the transfer of its weapons without its permission. So far, no one had put two and two together.

Carter Waited in Vain

Then came a whole series of Israeli insults and even provocations against US Middle East policies: "Annexation" by Menachem Begin of Syria's Golan heights and a public dressing down of the American ambassador who complained about it. The invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which ended a US-brokered Israeli cease-fire with the PLO, followed by Begin's refusal to stop bombing West Beirut until the US sent in Marines to supervise the withdrawal of its PLO and Syrian defenders. Then followed the violation of Sharon's pledge not to invade undefended West Beirut, but rather to let the Lebanese Army take it over. There was also Begin's instant rejection of the "Reagan Plan" for Mideast peace, and the simultaneous proclamation of 10 new Jewish settlements on the West Bank, although Jimmy Carter had called them illegal and Ronald Reagan had agreed they were an obstacle to peace.

The Reagan administration maintained an astonishing silence in the face of such calculated public rejection of stated US Middle East policy objectives. George Shultz, Reagan's new secretary of state, instead toed the Israeli line. He reinstated the policy of "strategic cooperation," which conferred unprecedented privileges on Israel and unprecedented responsibilities on the US. He also increased US economic and military aid to Israel, and provided it all on a grant rather than loan basis. Even after the Reagan second term began, Shultz criticized European allies who sold weapons to Khomeini, but seemed oblivious to large-scale Israeli arms shipments by air and sea to Iran.

The Iran-contra revelations only deepened the mystery. Israel had involved the US in its arms shipments over the vociferous objections of the two senior members of the Reagan cabinet, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Shultz. In fact, each time the two advisers thought they had strangled the idea in its cradle, Reagan afterward authorized another surreptitious shipment of TOW anti-tank missiles or Hawk anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. The president rationalized these actions, which could have fatally tipped the Iran-Iraq war balance in favor of Khomeini, by citing an Israeli intelligence report that Iran was losing the war, although that report was contradicted by all US intelligence.

The entire catastrophic sequence of Mideast events, from the beginning of the Reagan administration, seemed inexplicable to Americans watching the congressional investigations in the summer of 1987. The determination of investigators like committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) to avoid implicating Israel only added to the confusion. Increasingly, however, pieces of an astonishing explanation have found their way into the foreign press, and American journalists are timorously beginning to fit them together.

Abolhassan Bani Sadr was president of Iran during and for some months after the 1980 US election that brought Ronald Reagan to power. The young and educated Iranian leader had returned in 1979 with Khomeini from exile, but he lost the presidency to rivals in Khomeini's entourage in May 1981.

"Of course there were negotiations with the Carter administration over the hostages," Bani Sadr affirms. The US had frozen some $12 billion in Iranian assets in US banks, as well as whatever arms the Shah had bought and paid for but which had not yet left the US. The bargaining with Carter, however, was primarily over the money, and the deal Carter eventually offered returned only $4 billion immediately and involved no arms. One reason Khomeini was becoming increasingly disaffected with Bani Sadr was the moderate president's insistence that Iran accept the Carter offer and get on with fighting the war with Iraq.

Savak Supplied the Connection

"There were also secret negotiations," Bani Sadr maintains, and it is these negotiations between officials of the Khomeini regime and members of the Reagan presidential campaign staff that would explain the subsequent unpredictable Reagan administration Mideast policies. As a result, a contract was signed with Israel for shipment of arms in March 1981, Bani Sadr says, and by the time he fled Iran in late July, 1981, there had been at least three Israeli arms shipments, including the one that crashed.

How did Israel get involved in direct contacts between Iranians and Reagan campaign officials? Bani Sadr says it was through the Iranian negotiators, who had close ties with Savak, the Iranian secret police organization which had had Israeli advisers in the time of the Shah.

The former Iranian president's information dovetails at this point with facets of the story previously revealed by American journalists. Bob Woodward and Walter Pincus have reported in the Washington Post and Alfonso Chardy in the Miami Herald that three Reagan campaign aides met in a Washington DC hotel in early October, 1980, with a self-described "Iranian exile" who offered, on behalf of the Iranian government, to release the hostages to Reagan, not Carter, in order to ensure Carter's defeat in the November 4, 1980 election.

The American participants were Richard Allen, subsequently Reagan's first national security adviser, Allen aide Laurence Silberman, and Robert McFarlane, another future national security adviser who in 1980 was on the staff of Senator John Tower (R-TX). The three American participants claim no deal was struck and that none of them can remember the Iranian's name.

Bani Sadr, however, says the secret deal was made, even as the Iranians publicly reached an agreement with the Carter administration to release the hostages in return for the unfreezing of $4 billion. The Iranian who secretly met with the Reaganauts in Washington, Bani Sadr says, was either Parvis Sabati, Manucher Ghorbanifar, or both. Ghorbanifar, like McFarlane, figures prominently in the subsequent US-Iran arms-for-hostages negotiations in 1985 and 1986. Ghorbanifar has also been described by the CIA and by Colonel Oliver North as an agent of Mossad, Israel's CIA.

Backstopping the 1980 Reagan-Iran negotiations, according to Bani Sadr, were four powerful figures in the Iranian Government: Speaker of the Parliament Ali Akhbar Rafsanjani (the "moderate" through whom the Reagan administration also worked in 1985 and 1986); Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, who died in a July 1981 bomb explosion at his political party's headquarters; Prime Minister (and Bani Sadr's successor as President) Mohammad Ali Rajai; and chief government spokesman Behzad Nabavi.

The arms supply contract Iran signed with Israel in March, 1981, less than two months after Reagan's inauguration, was the payoff for delaying the release of the American hostages, Bani Sadr maintains. This is largely corroborated by a Washington Post report of November 29, 1986, that Secretary of State Alexander Haig gave Israel permission in 1981 to ship $10 to $15 million in US arms to Iran, and a 1983 statement by former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon that the extensive Israeli arms dealings that began in 1981 with Iran were approved by the United States. There is no question, also, that the trickle of US and other arms that began flowing to Iran through Israel in 1981 led to a flood in subsequent years.

If the evidence from overseas points the finger squarely at the Reagan administration, evidence from the United States itself is even more damning. A July 7, 1987, article written for the political weekly In These Times by Jim Naureckas and Barbara Honegger, a worker in Reagan national campaign headquarters in 1980, described the "paranoid" fear of an "October Surprise" by the Carter campaign just before the election. "In late fall," the two authors wrote, "the surveys still found the election too close to call. Reagan's pre-election top pollster, Richard Wirthlin, predicted that a pre-election hostage release would boost Carter at least 5 or 6 percent in the polls, and as much as 10 percent—giving him a sure victory—if the release came before the campaign's final week...But in the campaign's closing weeks, the mood of high anxiety suddenly changed...'We don't have to worry about an October surprise' a jubilant staffer at the campaign's operations center (told Honegger). 'Dick's cut a deal.'"

"Dick" was Richard Allen, and the deal apparently was a promise of arms in return for a delay by Tehran in releasing the hostages. A few days after the conversation Honegger describes, another Reagan campaign official, future CIA director William Casey, was sufficiently confident to tell journalist Roland Perry on October 30 that if something happened to give Carter the election, "it won't be the hostages."

It is no secret that the Reagan campaign had set up an elaborate apparatus to head off such an "October surprise." It included a network of active and retired military personnel serving on or living near US Air Force bases who were prepared to alert the Reagan campaign to any unusual activity that might indicate a pre-election rescue effort. The network plan, concocted by retired Admiral Robert Garrick, was to abort the mission by leaking it to the press.

A congressional subcommittee chaired by Representative Donald Albosta (D-MI) investigated this Reagan campaign "intelligence operation," and allegations that prior to their televised debate Reagan had prepared himself by examining a stolen copy of Carter's briefing materials. In May 1984, the sub-committee issued a 2,413-page report entitled "Unauthorized Transfers of Non-Public Information During the 1980 Presidential Election" which describes the campaign intelligence network and its actions.

Much of this information is laid out in the In These Times article cited above, and also in three articles by Christopher Hitchens in the June 20, July 11, and August 8, 1987, issues of The Nation. Several Washington Post articles, and Alfonso Chardy, writing in the Miami Herald, also supply evidence of a deal between Iranian emissaries and future Reagan administration officials. Many of the names cited in these accounts of the 1980 events reappear in the 1987 congressional Iran-contra investigations. They include William Casey, Attorney General Edwin Meese, Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, former CIA Deputy Director Max Hugel, Richard Secord, Oliver North, and Michael Ledeen.

Both operations involved some of the same characters, the same shadowy connections to Israel, the same secret wheeling and dealing with Iran, and the same extensive investigation by congressmen who then shied away from closing the circle. They pulled back when they realized that, standing with the president in the docket, was not only some of Israel's shadow government in Washington, but the Israeli government itself.

Hitchens sums it all up as follows: "Well, the hostages were released at just the right time, and the first shipments of weapons began the very next month. You may wonder if the Reaganites were capable of making such a vile deal. But you don't really wonder that, do you?"

Most members of congress have at one time or another strongly criticized every serving US president. Hardly any member of congress has ever reproached a sitting Israeli prime minister or high official. Clearly the Albosta group wasn't going to break the precedent in 1984, nor were the Iran-contra investigators, led by Daniel Inouye, in 1987. The moral is clear: If you plan to put something over on the American people, no matter how venal, self-serving, or destructive, you can get away with it if Israel is also involved. If history shows there is no American official above US law, it also shows there is no Israeli official who is not.