October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan. By Gary Sick.


Summer 1992 (1619 words)

Historians frequently remind us that the study of the past is less a definitive chronicle of bygone eras than a vehicle to examine contemporary social and cultural values. Through this perspective, there appears in the late twentieth century a popular belief that the interruption of the natural course of history by sinister plots has inflicted unfair burdens upon the United States. Oliver Stone's "JFK" beams this message to an impressionable populace, but the phenomenon is rampant with new interpretations of Watergate and the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Zachary Taylor, and even Marilyn Monroe.

The latest historical "fact" exhumed in this process is the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis. Gary Sick, the National Security Council expert on the Middle East at the time, soberly reports in October Surprise of an alleged clandestine deal between the Iranian mullahs and Ronald Reagan's campaign operatives. In return for holding the fifty-two Americans until after the election, the Republicans promised to pay back Iran through surreptitious arms deliveries via Israel. The book's implicit message is that without the foul play, the Reagan-Bush era may never have occurred. If the allegations are true, the 1980 election would be, in Sick's words, the first "political coup" (p.12) in American history.

The argument in October Surprise rests on the confession of Jamshid Hashemi, a jet-setting Iranian businessman. Hashemi, along with his arms-dealing brother Cyrus, offered to put the Carter administration in touch with members of Iran's revolutionary regime to discuss the hostage crisis. The Hashemis credentials were solid, Sick reports, because the brothers had already arranged at least one contact between a still-classified US government official and a relative of the Ayatollah. In 1990, Jamshid told reporters that the Hashemis had also been approached by members of the Reagan campaign seeking the same access.

Sick makes a compelling prima facie case for the charges of a secret deal. Terrified that a pre-November hostage release would tip the election in Carter's favor, members of the Reagan campaign staff penetrated the deepest levels of the government to monitor Carter's handling of the crisis, "an achievement," in Sick's phrase, "that would have been the envy of the KGB" (p.138). Some of the more egregious examples of Reaganite scheming include: around-the-clock surveillance of US Air Force bases where Iranian weaponry purchased under the Shah was interned; knowledge of the transcripts of meetings of a handful of top government and military officials planning a never-executed second rescue; and the theft of Carter's foreign policy briefing book. These ethical breaches were so grave that both the FBI and a Senate subcommittee investigated the leaks of classified information after the end of the campaign.

For obvious political reasons, the Carter administration was desperately trying to negotiate the hostages' release. But the Iranians were searching for a solution as well especially after Iraq invaded in late September. Carter's worldwide arms embargo prevented Iran from obtaining the weapons and spare parts necessary to defend itself. As the talks with Carter were reaching their climax, the Hashemis allegedly set up secret negotiations between Reagan campaign director William Casey and Khomeini officials. These contacts occurred in July and August in Madrid and concluded in Paris in October, Sick reports. At the same time these purported meetings ended, the Iranians abruptly cut off contact with the Carter administration and refused to discuss the hostages until after the election. Sick reasons that the Republicans came through with a more attractive offer, and so the hostages were ultimately not released until five minutes after Reagan was inaugurated. The moniker "October Surprise," coined and disseminated by the Reagan campaign through the press to ready the public for a possible pre-November hostage release, became a term best known for Casey's insidious deal. Sick illustrates the alleged payoff for the hostage release as well. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin suggested that Carter allow Israel to resume weapon sales to Iran. Israel had furtive, but good relations with Iran before the revolution and wanted to continue the ties in order to counter what it perceived as Iraq's growing military threat. During the Carter embargo, a few Israeli shipments to Iran did circumvent US restrictions, but the weapons pipeline began to gush immediately after the inauguration, despite pronouncements that the new administration would never sell arms to Iran. In 1990, then Secretary of State Alexander Haig publicly admitted that some weapons arrived in Iran without his permission though Sick lists a variety of sources including State and Defense department officials and high-ranking Israelis who point the finger at Haig.

But it is a far leap to connect the antecedents and the aftermath to form a conclusive tale of treachery. Sick's meticulously documented evidence fails to convince readers of Casey's secret deals. By citing an anonymous underworld of gun smugglers, French and Israeli intelligence agents, and embittered Iranian exiles, Sick relies on hearsay testimony from people who were not present at the rumored meetings. For example, despite reporting that there were six Israelis, sixteen Iranians, and twelve Americans in attendance in Paris, Sick writes "none of the principals involved have ever spoken publicly about what happened" (p.146). And two of the main characters at the crux of the scandal-William Casey and Cyrus Hashemi-died in the mid-I 980s.

Sick unwittingly undermines his own case by citing "on-the-record" sources with histories of contradictions. Oswald LeWinter, a self-described freelance intelligence operative, claimed that he helped clean up evidence of the Paris meetings. However, he also said that he received $40,000 in 1988 to spread false stories about the "October Surprise" under an assumed name, a tale backed up by the journalists he fooled. Who can say if he is now telling the truth? Another example is the case of Iran's first President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, now living in exile. Bani-Sadr admits he was excluded from important decisions by Khomeini's religious inner circle, but claims he overheard secret murmurs of the deal. Yet Bani-Sadr also has a credibility gap. In addition to the "October Surprise" conspiracy, he is convinced that in 1980 National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski secretly teamed up with Saddam Hussein to plot the Iraqi invasion into Iran.

Aside from his questionable sources, Sick also neglects to analyze the story through other important viewpoints. In Sick's 1985 book All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran, the hostage crisis is examined from the inner depths of the White House. Reagan, Casey, and the Hashemi brothers do not even merit an appearance in that book, but in October Surprise they become lead characters when Sick reconsiders the same events through the prism of the 1980 election. To peg the story accurately, Sick should revise his stance a third time from the most important angle-the Iranian perspective. The many contradictory and inconsistent signals the Carter administration received after the revolution are best explained by factions in Iran struggling for power. Clerics and politicians attempting to curry favor with potential allies were unlikely to breach Khomeini's inner circle by advocating a deal with the "Great Satan." Furthermore, it is a dubious proposition to believe that Iran would pass up a chance to procure critical ammunition from the Carter administration for a future promise of weapons from Casey. After the initial success of the Iraqi incursion, Iran was literally fighting for its life. If Iran had held the hostages until after the elections, there were no definite assurances that the Republicans would win and then keep their end of the bargain once elected. Reagan's oft-quoted belligerence toward Iran at the time suggests the opposite. And if there was a deal, why did Iran negotiate so frantically with the Carter administration after the election to reach an agreement days before Reagan was inaugurated?

Despite the inconsistencies and illogical interpretation of events, there remain many titillating details to give even the most skeptical reader pause. Jamshid Hashemi and six other corroborating sources were able to pinpoint separately, without consultation, the exact days during the campaign for which there is no conclusive evidence of Casey's whereabouts. A search of 100,000 pages of Reagan's 1980 campaign documents revealed no traces, such as hotel receipts or journal entries, exonerating Casey. Also, in October 1980, the FBI began surveillance of Cyrus Hashemi's offices because he was suspected of illegal arms sales, but in February 19~, the taping was terminated ahead of schedule by the new administration. The information from these tapings has still not been released despite many Freedom of Information Act requests from journalists. Then there are the inexplicable arms sales to Iran after the Reagan administration took over, which some journalists have estimated to be worth several billion dollars. Sick makes a valid point when he claims that an "October Surprise" deal would serve as a precursor to the Iran-Contra affair between the same parties years later.

In Washington, Sick's charges have ignited a partisan battle. The story has been branded baseless by Republicans (White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater called Sick "the Kitty Kelley of foreign policy"). Columbia Pictures has optioned the movie rights for a reported $500,000.

On the other side of the debate, Sick's accounts have found a voice with outraged Democrats. Eight former hostages, President Carter, former hostage negotiator Warren Christopher, and even Presidents Bush and Reagan have supported a Congressional inquiry. While Republicans have blocked a move in the Senate, the House approved the formation of a bipartisan task force that will spend between $1.2 and $2.5 million to probe the charges. But any evidence Congress discovers supporting or denying the theory will be secondary to the ultimate judgment of the American people, who will confront past and present demons again.

Copyright 1992, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. All rights reserved.