Iranian Students Ask About 1980
Eight days ago, a group of Iranian student activists asked me to respond to some questions about the October Surprise case, allegations that Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980 sabotaged President Jimmy Carter’s attempts to free 52 Americans then held hostage in Iran.
Carter’s failure to secure the hostage release before the 1980 election opened the way to Reagan’s landslide victory and the turning of the United States sharply to the right. With the 30th anniversary of Reagan’s victory just days away, the students posed seven questions.
“Dear Mr. Robert Parry,” they wrote, “You have been persistently investigating the issue of American Hostages in Iran and their freedom in the early 80s, known as ‘October Surprise’. As a group of young student activists in Iran this is very important for us too since the Iranian people have paid a great price for this as well.”
After receiving my responses, a representative for the students e-mailed me with a request that the exchange be posted at the Consortiumnews.com Web site. (The students also asked that no further details about their identities be provided because of the uneasy political situation in Iran.)
The seven questions and my answers follow:
1- Why do you follow this issue so persistently?
First, let me provide some background. In the 1980s, I was an investigative reporter for the Associated Press and uncovered some pieces of what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved the Reagan administration secretly selling weapons to Iran in exchange for Iran’s help getting U.S. hostages freed in Lebanon. Some of the profits were diverted to a clandestine White House operation supporting the contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua.
My early reporting, focusing on the contra side of the secret project, had been met with fierce denials from the White House. Even after the scandal broke into the open in fall 1986, the White House continued an aggressive cover-up, trying to limit investigations to the 1984-86 time frame and to protect President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush from the fallout.
In early 1987, I went to work for Newsweek magazine where my reporting challenged the official story that was emerging, which blamed most of the operation on a few zealous White House staffers, such as Oliver North, and insisted that the contacts with Iran began in 1984.
My reporting indicated that the scandal reached much higher – to Reagan and Bush – and began earlier than generally understood. Over time, it became clear to me that Reagan/Bush had approved the weapons to Iran almost immediately upon taking office in 1981. In other words, the Iran-Contra scandal had an earlier chapter, a view that eventually was shared by some on the staff of Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, but Walsh, too, came under intense pressure to limit his inquiry.
By 1990, witnesses also were emerging with bits and pieces of this earlier part of the story, tracing the Reagan/Bush contacts with Iran back to before the 1980 election, to a moment when President Jimmy Carter was trying desperately to negotiate a release of the 52 American hostages who had been seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when it was overrun by militant students in November 1979.
Personally, I also was coming pressure from senior Newsweek editors, who were associates of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and banker David Rockefeller, to back off any continued examination of the Iran-Contra scandal. Those differences led me to leave Newsweek in June 1990.
[Kissinger and Rockefeller were connected to the October Surprise case because Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank, held the Shah of Iran’s vast assets, which the new Iranian government wanted to pull out, a move that would have badly damaged the bank. Rockefeller, working with his longtime adviser Kissinger, pressured the Carter administration to admit the Shah into the United States for cancer treatment, the event that touched off the hostage-taking in Iran and led Carter to freeze the Iranian assets inside Chase. Kissinger and other Rockefeller aides also remained active behind the scenes during the hostage crisis. For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Henry Kissinger: Eminence Noire” or Secrecy & Privilege.]
After my departure from Newsweek, I was approached by PBS Frontline and asked to produce a documentary on the earlier phase of the scandal, which had become known as the October Surprise story because the alleged Republican motive was to stop Carter from pulling off an October surprise in the form of getting the hostages back right before the 1980 election.
I agreed reluctantly, since I had seen my career damaged by my persistence in pursuing the broader Iran-Contra scandal. Frankly, it would have been advantageous to me to have joined other American journalists in “debunking” the October Surprise charges. But I took the assignment and began traveling the world interviewing people who knew (or claimed to know) about these early contacts between Reagan/Bush and Iran.
Eventually, I concluded that while the case against the Republicans was not air-tight, neither could it be dismissed. There was simply too much evidence that, indeed, the Reagan/Bush campaign had made back-channel contacts with Iran in 1980. The PBS documentary, along with an op-ed by former National Security Council aide Gary Sick, prompted a congressional investigation.
However, my old editors at Newsweek and neoconservatives at The New Republic published matching articles in fall 1991 denouncing the October Surprise allegations as a bogus conspiracy theory. That, in turn, emboldened the Republicans to redouble their efforts at covering up serious wrongdoing by then-former President Reagan and then-President George H.W. Bush, who was planning to seek reelection in 1992. Though Bush was never interviewed for the investigation, he denounced the October Surprise accusations against him at two news conferences.
Despite the fact that the key Republican alibi cited by Newsweek and The New Republic proved false – and the evidence kept growing that the Reagan/Bush campaign indeed had struck a secret deal with Iran in 1980 – the congressional inquiry swept much of this evidence under the proverbial rug.
Then, after Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton in 1992, the congressional investigators saw even less reason to press ahead. The desire was for this ugly incident to go away.
So, the congressional inquiry ended with a finding of Republican innocence, a resolution warmly embraced by Official Washington, which made fun of anyone who didn’t go along. After reviewing the investigative report, however, I wrote a story for the Nation magazine pointing to some of the irrational alibis and conclusions that the inquiry had used to “clear” the Reagan/Bush campaign. The article opened me to attacks from other journalists for not falling into line.
This is perhaps a long way of explaining that I felt that a major violation of journalistic standards and a gross miswriting of American history had occurred in the dismissal of the October Surprise allegations. Though I went on to work on other stories (like the political crisis in Haiti), I felt a special responsibility to do what I could to correct this falsification of the public record.
After all, very few people knew the details to this scandal as I did. If I had simply acquiesced to the false conventional wisdom, I feared the history might be permanently distorted.
As years passed, I was able to access more and more evidence that contradicted the official findings. In 1995, I founded the Consortiumnews.com Web site, in part, as a way to get this new evidence to the American people and the world public.
Though Official Washington – and the major U.S. news media – have never been willing to reconsider the October Surprise issue, a much fuller and more accurate account of what happened at least exists on the Internet.
2 - Do you believe that it would come to fruition someday?
I really don’t know if the facts that we have assembled will ever change Washington’s conventional wisdom. Many powerful people – both in politics and in media – have a stake in maintaining the status quo, and almost no one has an interest in doing the hard (and unrewarding) work that would be involved in fully setting the record straight.
Much depends on whether people of other countries, including Iran, have the courage to ferret out evidence that may exist in their archives.
3 - What is the importance of this issue for US history?
The 1980 election was pivotal for the United States and the world. For all his shortcomings, President Carter had begun to address the environmental and energy crises facing America and was prepared to pressure Israel to accept a Palestinian state during his second term.
However, by Election Day 1980, the prolonged hostage crisis had eroded Carter’s political support and cleared the way for a landslide victory for Reagan and the Republicans. Not only was a right-wing Republican put into the White House but reformist Democrats were defeated in Congress.
In office, Reagan ignored environmental and energy concerns and stopped pressuring Israel’s Likud leadership (which was playing a middleman role in the U.S.-to-Iran arms shipments). Instead of peace with the Palestinians, Likud launched an invasion of Lebanon with the goal of annihilating the PLO.
Under Reagan, many innocent people around the world – from Central America to the Middle East – died horrible deaths. With his impressive communications skills, Reagan also made war seem acceptable, even fun, to the American people.
Three decades later, the world is in a far worse place than it might have been if President Carter had been allowed to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis earlier.
4 - Are you aware about the consequences of this ordeal for Iranian nation?
I did travel to Iran in 1990 as part of my work on the PBS documentary. I recall visiting shops in Tehran where the shopkeepers had photos of young men hanging on strings. I asked who they were and was told that these were sons and brothers who had died in the Iran-Iraq War.
We now know that another part of the secret Reagan/Bush operation in the 1980s was to balance the U.S. weapons going to Iran, via Israel, with other clandestine military support to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Reagan’s CIA Director William Casey, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, would sometimes joke that the real goal was to get Iranians and Iraqis to kill each other off.
Beyond the immorality of this approach, it also worsened the region’s instability and ultimately contributed to additional warfare, both the First Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 and the later invasion of Iraq in 2003. Further, a legacy of animosity and distrust has remained between the United States and Iran.
5 - In your opinion, who had a more salient role in the creation and continuation of this ordeal, American or Iranian individuals?
All sides deserve a lot of blame. Based on the available evidence, it appears that the Republicans and their neocon allies felt they could strike these secret deals to get Reagan/Bush into the White House and – years later – concluded that they could get away with a cover-up to protect the Reagan/Bush legacies.
The congressional Democrats acquiesced to the cover-up because it would have required a determined and difficult political battle to extract the truth. The Washington press corps also lacked the integrity and toughness to perform its watchdog role.
To strengthen control over the West Bank and influence in Washington, Likud leaders in Israel felt justified in subverting a sitting U.S. president and manipulating a U.S. election. The Iranian leaders involved made shortsighted deals with elements of the U.S. and Israeli governments. Some of these leaders profited handsomely from the arms trafficking, but they didn’t have the interests of the Iranian people (or the Palestinians) in mind at all.
To this day, with very few exceptions, leaders of these countries and their journalists have allowed the false history of 1980 to stand. Whenever it seems like some officials are on the verge of releasing key documents from their archives, someone finds a reason to object, some immediate political need trumps a truthful history.
6 - Based on your investigations, when did the Democrats become aware of “October Surprise”, and what were their reactions? Have they informed American people immediately or they used it as a tool against their Republican rivals?
President Carter and his aides had real-time suspicions about this Republican chicanery with Iran, but perhaps not enough evidence to go public. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, there was significant evidence of the 1980 hostage interference.
But the Republicans were digging in and the Democrats felt a full-scale assault would be costly for other parts of their governing agenda. Rep. Lee Hamilton, for instance, feared the consequences of another major scandal (like Watergate) that would implicate a U.S. president and possibly force another impeachment battle. He felt that would not be good for the country, a sentiment shared not only in Congress but in much of the national news media.
As for the October Surprise evidence, we now know that so much new proof of Republican guilt was pouring into the congressional inquiry by late 1992 (including a lengthy letter from former Iranian President Bani-Sadr) that the inquiry’s chief counsel, Lawrence Barcella, felt that he needed several more months to evaluate the evidence.
Barcella has told me that he asked Hamilton, the inquiry’s chairman, to seek a three-month extension, but that Hamilton declined, citing political difficulties. Instead, Hamilton ordered the inquiry wrapped up. Much of the new evidence was misrepresented in the final report (including Bani-Sadr’s letter) or was simply hidden. (I unearthed some of it years later when I gained access to the congressional files.)
In my view, the Democrats put protecting the political system ahead of informing the American people about political misconduct. Beyond violating that core democratic principle, the Democrats also struck a bad bargain. The Republicans simply pocketed the Democrats’ capitulation on the October Surprise case and then escalated their own attacks on President Bill Clinton, eventually humiliating him with an impeachment trial.
Republicans have dished out similar treatment to President Barack Obama, who – in another gesture of bipartisanship – refused to investigate torture and other war crimes committed by President George W. Bush.
7 - Can you assess the financial and economical damages incurred by our two countries due to this ordeal?
It’s hard for me to assess the full financial and economic consequences of this sorry episode. If the hostage crisis had been resolved earlier and President Carter had been reelected, the United States might well have moved forward on addressing its energy dependence and on seeking a lasting peace in the Middle East. The United States also probably would not have shifted so dramatically to the right and would not have invested so heavily in its military.
Assuming Carter’s second term made real progress on his key goals, the world might look very different today. The United States would not be so dependent on Middle East oil, so it might have reduced its military presence there. A peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians might have lessened tensions in the region. Al-Qaeda might never have emerged. The 9/11 attacks might never have happened. Literally trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved.
As for Iran, a quick resolution of the hostage crisis might have forestalled war with Iraq. One document I discovered indicates that Saudi Arabian leaders told Saddam Hussein in summer 1980 that he had a U.S. “green light” to invade Iran. Though Carter denies giving such a “green light,” the hostage crisis certainly would have made the Saudi assertion more plausible to Saddam Hussein than if the crisis had been resolved promptly.
But it is inherently difficult to project an alternative course of history, since there are so many variables. Perhaps it should suffice to say that the mess that the world finds itself in today might be far less severe if the various parties had done the right things back in 1980.
I hope these answers help in your project.
Robert Parry, e-mailed on Oct. 22, 2010
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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