New Allegations Implicate Reagan
ARMS FOR HOSTAGES?
ON Oct. 20, 1980, Ronald Reagan introduced a new, potentially volatile issue into his campaign to unseat President Jimmy Carter and win control of the White House. After scoring the incumbent president for his record on defense and economic issues in a speech in Louisville, Mr. Reagan wondered aloud "why 52 Americans have been held hostage for almost a year now."Skip to next paragraph
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Through the long months of the presidential campaign, the former California governor had rarely mentioned the American hostages held in Iran, concerned that if Mr. Carter secured their release before election day the issue could backfire. A day later one perplexed commentator traveling with the Reagan campaign confessed that it was "not immediately clear why he had chosen to bring up the issue now."
This week, one controversial explanation has resurfaced: As recently as hours before Reagan spoke in Louisville, emissaries of his campaign may have closed a secret deal in Paris to have the release of the hostages delayed until after election day. The quid pro quo, demanded by representatives of the Iranian government, was arms, which reportedly began flowing into Iran within days of Reagan's inauguration.
'Whole thing is bizarre'
The new allegations of a hostages-for-arms deal, contained in a Monday New York Times op-ed article written by former Carter administration official Gary Sick and a Tuesday PBS "Frontline" broadcast, have drawn spirited denials from the Bush administration and from former Reagan administration officials.
"The whole thing is as bizarre as the day is long," says Richard Allen, foreign policy adviser during the Reagan campaign and later President Reagan's first national security adviser.
Even Dr. Sick, the Iran expert on Carter's National Security Council (NSC) staff, acknowledges that many details of the alleged contacts between the Reagan campaign and Iranian representatives are "murky" and may never be pinned down.
But in an interview Sick said information from 15 sources with direct or indirect knowledge of the meetings all point to the participation of Reagan's campaign manager William Casey and confirm the basic outlines of the arms-for-hostages swap that reportedly culminated at the time of Reagan's inauguration.
"It was the absence of contradictions on the key elements of the story that encouraged me to continue probing," wrote Sick, who is researching a book on the Reagan administration and Iran. "The weight of testimony has overcome my initial doubts."
In interviews this week, various Carter administration officials said they had no suspicion during the 1980 campaign that secret contacts were being made with Iranian officials through private channels. But several indicated that later revelations that the US sold arms to Iran to win the release of US hostages held in Lebanon have made the allegations more believable.
"Nobody contemplated that any leader of our country would go behind the back of the president to make a side deal with the Ayatollah [Khomeini]. It was too extraordinary to be plausible," says former NSC staff member Robert Pastor. "Now we know that Reagan did exchange arms for hostages, so the idea that seemed so implausible to President Carter in 1980 was not implausible to President Reagan."
Fifty-two US Embassy personnel were taken prisoner when Iranian militants seized the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.
To demonstrate concern for the hostages Carter first refused to leave the White House to campaign. But the "Rose Garden" strategy soon became a symbol of Carter's impotence in dealing with Iran and was abandoned.
Throughout the campaign Carter administration officials hoped - and Reagan campaign officials feared - that getting the hostages released would catapult Carter into a second term.
Account focuses on three
Sick's account focuses on three principal figures: Mr. Casey, who later became director of Central Intelligence; Mehdi Karrubi, an influential Muslim cleric who is now speaker of the Iranian parliament; and Jamshid Hashemi, an Iranian arms merchant who, along with his brother Cyrus, brought them together. According to Sick, when Casey first met Mr. Hashemi in late February or early March in Washington, he "made it clear that he wanted to prevent Jimmy Carter from gaining any political advantage from the hostage crisis."