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Arafat & the Original 'October Surprise'

By Morgan Strong
November 2, 2004

A top aide to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat has dropped a new clue about the original “October Surprise” mystery of 1980: the name of the Republican operative who sought the Palestine Liberation Organization’s help to block President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations to free 52 Americans then being held hostage in Iran.

Longtime Arafat confidant Bassam Abu Sharif said that in mid-1980, he met in Paris with John Shaheen, a friend to both Ronald Reagan and Reagan’s campaign chief, William J. Casey. Abu Sharif told me that Shaheen, a former U.S. intelligence officer of Lebanese origin, extended a Republican offer of improved U.S. relations with the PLO if the Arafat-led organization would assist in persuading the Iranians to delay the hostage release until after the November 1980 elections.

Shaheen, who died in 1985, has long been a central figure in the so-called "October Surprise" case, allegations that Republicans sabotaged Carter’s hostage negotiations as a way to ensure the 1980 election of Reagan as president and George H.W. Bush as vice president. Though Abu Sharif and Arafat have previously discussed the Republican overture, they had refused to identify the Republican intermediary until now.

The alleged secret deal between the Reagan-Bush campaign and the Iranians popularized the idea of an “October Surprise,” a last-minute event that might alter the outcome of a U.S. presidential election. The phrase was coined by then-vice presidential candidate Bush in the context that Carter’s success in freeing the hostages might be his “October Surprise,” though it later came to refer to the alleged Republican scheming to derail Carter’s hostage talks.

Republican leaders have long denied that any deal with the Iranians was struck, although more than two dozen witnesses – including Iranian officials, European intelligence officers and international arms dealers – have described aspects of the 1980 Republican-Iranian contacts carried out behind President Carter’s back.

In 1992-93, a House Task Force conducted a half-hearted investigation of the controversy and judged the allegations of a Republican-Iranian deal to be false. But it was later discovered that the Task Force had concealed evidence that pointed in the opposite direction, including a classified report from the Russian government stating that Bush, Casey and CIA officers had met with Iranians in Europe in 1980 to strike a deal. [For details, see Robert Parry’s new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

Amazing Tale

I first heard of the amazing tale of the 1980 Republican "October Surprise" overture to the PLO while meeting with Arafat and Abu Sharif in Baghdad in 1988. They told me that they had been contacted in Beirut in mid-1980 by an American of Palestinian background. According to Arafat and Abu Sharif, this emissary claimed to represent a high-ranking member of the Reagan campaign who was seeking the PLO’s help to make sure the 52 American hostages in Iran wouldn’t be freed until after the 1980 election.

As a result of the Beirut meeting, Abu Sharif said he flew to Paris in July 1980 to meet the Reagan associate, who turned out to be Shaheen promising that if the PLO helped arrange the delay with the Iranians, the PLO would be rewarded. “We were told that if the hostages were held, the PLO would be given recognition as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the White House doors would be open for us,” Abu Sharif said.

PLO Influence

Shortly after the hostages were seized on Nov. 4, 1979, President Carter had sought Arafat’s help. Arafat, who had close ties to Iran’s new Islamic government, arranged the release of 13 hostages on Thanksgiving Day 1979, a move that helped whittle down the number to 52.

The PLO had a strong relationship with the Iranian revolutionaries, in part, because Abu Sharif had helped train Iranian militants at PLO camps in Lebanon several years before the 1979 revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran from power.

Abu Sharif also was an icon to many Islamic militants because of his leadership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was regarded by Western governments as a terrorist organization. Abu Sharif’s picture was on the cover of Time magazine in 1970, headlined “The Face of Terror,” after his group hijacked three airliners, forced them to land at an abandoned British airbase in the Jordanian desert and then held the several hundred passengers hostage until a number of Palestinians jailed in Israel were released.

The leader of the Iranian students who had seized the U.S. Embassy in November 1979 had taken the nom de guerre of “Abu Sharif” in Bassam’s honor. Bassam Abu Sharif, who had direct contact with the student militia, told me that in 1980 – before the Republican contact – he was working to free the remaining American hostages for Carter.

Besides Abu Sharif’s influence, Arafat had traveled to Teheran several times to meet with Iran’s Islamic leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A staunch supporter of the PLO, Khomeini had repeatedly told the U.S. government that the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was central to peace in the Middle East and crucial for the establishment of normal relations between Washington and Iran’s revolutionary government.

Following the meeting in Paris with the Republican intermediary, Abu Sharif said the PLO stayed on the sidelines of the hostage negotiations. But Abu Sharif told me that he came to the conclusion that the Republicans had succeeded in brokering a behind-the-scenes deal with Iran to prevent the hostages getting released before the 1980 election.

“Some sort of deal [was] made with Reagan’s campaign,” Abu Sharif said.

In 1988, however, Abu Sharif and Arafat would not give me Shaheen's name or other details of the PLO-Republican meetings in 1980. They wanted to hold back that part of the story to gain leverage with the Reagan-Bush administration, which – in their view – had reneged on the purported promise to recognize the PLO.

Abu Sharif and Arafat, claiming to have tape recordings of the conversations with the Republican intermediaries, said they would make that evidence public if the administration denied the story of the 1980 contacts.

Playboy Article

I wrote an article about the PLO’s “October Surprise” claims for the September 1988 issue of Playboy magazine.

A few weeks after the article came out, according to Abu Sharif and other of my Middle East sources, the PLO was contacted by U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Robert Pelletreau, who had been instructed by Secretary of State George Shultz and Vice President Bush to begin a “dialogue” that would lead to the recognition of the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.

The Reagan-Bush administration demanded that Arafat must publicly recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist and renounce terrorism. Arafat did that in a speech to the United Nations in Geneva in December 1988. Arafat and Abu Sharif also continued to keep whatever evidence they had about the 1980 “October Surprise” secret.

Approached by PBS Frontline in 1990, Abu Sharif repeated his assertion that a senior figure in the Reagan campaign had contacted Arafat and the PLO in Beirut about engineering a delay in the hostage release.

“It was important for Reagan not to have any of the hostages released during the remaining days of President Carter,” Abu Sharif said. “The offer was, ‘if you block the release of hostages, then the White House would be open for the PLO.’ In spite of that, we turned that down. …I guess the same offer was given to others, and I believe that some accepted to do it and managed to block the release of hostages.”

But Abu Sharif would not give Frontline the name or offer proof either. Other PLO sources told Frontline that Arafat discovered during a September 1980 trip to Iran that his intervention was superfluous since the Republicans already had established other back channels to the radical Islamic mullahs. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Trick or Treason: The October Surprise Mystery.]

In the mid-1990s, Arafat also told Jimmy Carter about the Republican overture of 1980.

“There is something I want to tell you,” Arafat said, addressing Carter at a meeting in Arafat’s bunker in Gaza City 15 years after the end of the Carter Presidency. “You should know that in 1980 the Republicans approached me with an arms deal [for the PLO] if I could arrange to keep the hostages in Iran until after the [U.S. presidential] election.”

Arafat insisted that he rebuffed the offer, but he supplied Carter with few other details, no name of the Republican representative nor exactly when and where the approach was made. But the conversation was recounted by historian Douglas Brinkley, who was present when Carter and Arafat spoke. Brinkley included the exchange in an article for the fall 1996 issue of Diplomatic History, a scholarly quarterly. Later, through a spokesman, Carter confirmed that the conversation with Arafat had occurred as described by Brinkley.

Opening Up

Today, with Arafat and Abu Sharif increasingly marginal players in the game of Middle East power politics, Abu Sharif finally volunteered to me the name of the Republican emissary whom he says he met in Paris almost two and a half decades ago: John Shaheen.

Shaheen, a New York-based businessman, claimed to have known Reagan since childhood in Tampico, Illinois, and reportedly was the person who convinced Casey to support Reagan in the 1980 Republican primaries. After Reagan lost the 1980 Iowa caucuses, the former California governor turned to Casey to run the campaign. Casey, a renowned wheeler-dealer who had once headed the Securities and Exchange Commission, brought his ruthless business style to guiding Reagan to the Republican nomination and then to the presidency.

Casey and Shaheen had known each other for decades, having worked together in the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s forerunner. Later, the two men collaborated in business deals associated with Shaheen's oil-and-natural-gas ventures.

Shaheen also was a business associate of Iranian banker Cyrus Hashemi, who was assisting the Carter administration in its 1980 hostage negotiations. Some of the “October Surprise” allegations focus on Hashemi acting as a double agent, betraying Carter by secretly helping Shaheen and Casey sabotage Carter’s efforts. [See Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Whatever the full truth about Republican-Iranian contacts, Carter’s negotiations did fail to win the hostages’ release before the November 1980 elections. Carter’s perceived ineptness contributed to a late surge behind the Reagan-Bush campaign, which won a resounding victory on Nov. 4, 1980, exactly one year after the hostages were seized. The 52 hostages were finally released on Jan. 20, 1981, just minutes after Reagan was sworn in as the nation’s 40th president.

Some of the same characters connected to the October Surprise mystery resurfaced in the Iran-Contra Affair of 1985-86, in which U.S. arms were traded to Iran for help in winning the release of other U.S. hostages then held in Beirut, Lebanon. The Iran-Contra cast included Casey, Shaheen and Hashemi – who were early advocates of enlisting the Iranian mullahs over the Beirut hostage crisis.

None of this trio – Casey, Shaheen and Hashemi – was ever publicly questioned about the 1980 "October Surprise" case, which emerged as an issue in the later part of 1987. Shaheen died in 1985; Hashemi in 1986; and Casey, who collapsed with brain cancer in late 1986, died several months later.

Morgan Strong is a journalist and consultant on the Middle East.

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