The surprise still haunting Bush

March 11, 1992

October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan
By Gary Sick
Times Books, Random House, 1991. 278 pp. US$23
Reviewed by Mark Delmege

In 1980, the Reagan-Bush campaign team conspired with Israel and Iran against President Carter. The effect was to delay the release of the US hostages until 1981.

On November 4, 1979, 52 hostages were seized at the US embassy in Tehran. The hostage crisis frustrated Carter throughout the 1980 presidential campaign.

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Carter and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979-81.

However, this book is not about him or his role in the events of that time. It is about how highly placed Republicans conspired with Iran and Israel to ensure that there would be no pre-election release of the hostages. Thus, no "October surprise" by Carter with which to enhance his election prospects.

Gary Sick presents an accumulation of evidence, built up since the late 1980s, from people who were involved in various aspects of the Republican conspiracy.

Many factors contributed to the success of the Republican plan. Carter had alienated the intelligence community during his term as President. Khomeini had a personal dislike of Carter. War was also looming with Iraq (the Iraqi invasion began in September 1980), and Iran needed arms and supplies.

Israel was keen to develop closer relations with Iran, but was hampered by the US arms embargo. However, with Republican help, it felt confident in making military sales to Iran even prior to the November elections.

The Reagan-Bush camp was able to harness these disparate forces and to prevent a pre-election release of the hostages.

A series of meetings was held from mid-year in Madrid and Paris with Reagan's campaign manager, William Casey, and representatives from Iran and Israel.

Casey offered a deal the Iranians could not refuse. Along with bribes to the Iranian negotiators, he permitted Israel to open a covert arms pipeline to restock Iran's US-made arsenal.

Reagan won the November 4, 1980, elections. The hostages were released on the day of his inaugration.

Sick documents a number of arms deals that flowed from the Madrid and Paris meetings. Even more recently, the New York Times (December 8, 1991) reported that in 1981, Reagan "allowed Israel to sell several billions of dollars' worth of American-made arms, spare parts and ammunition" to Iran.

I took this up with Ari Ben-Menashe, one of many sources Sick used for this book, and he agrees that much is left to be told. Ben-Menashe had a minor role in one of the early meetings in Madrid and went on to play a bigger role as events unfolded.

Ben-Menashe fell out with the Israeli Prime Minister Shamir in 1989 over the peace talks. The former favoured a solution granting the Palestinians a homeland that would take in part of the West Bank and Jordan. This, he said, was not acceptable to the US because of its oil interests in Saudi Arabia. Shamir, he said, was not prepared to buck the US view, though the PLO was prepared to go along with the plan.

Though the allegations developed in this book were first aired during the Bush-Dukakis election campaign in 1988, they received added credibility on February 5, when the US House of Representatives approved funds for a task force to investigate the allegations.

If the allegations stand up to scrutiny, it is hard to see how Bush could do other than stand aside in the coming US elections.

This style of outlaw politics was indicative of the Reagan era and served as a prelude to the Iran/contra scam. Casey went on to become Reagan's CIA director.

This is a fascinating book. It presents another significant chapter in what was wrong with US foreign policy in the 1980s, the reverberations of which are still being felt.

As far as I know, this book is not yet available in Australia. It is well worth reading when it arrives.

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