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The 1980 U.S. Presidential Election

1980 Presidential Election Ronald Reagan Jimmy Carter Iran Iran-Contra Affair October Surprise Conspiracy Theories Republican Party

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In my discussion of the 2016 election, one comment made was that my analysis took on the tone of a conspiracy theorist.  It is always interesting when that sort of accusation arises.  To accuse one of being a conspiracy theorist is often to dismiss such a person’s arguments as being based more on paranoia than on historically established facts.  Yet, conspiracies are a constant presence throughout history. Yesterday’s conspiracy theories sometimes become today’s accepted history.  History itself is often the narrative of the winners, the loser’s perspective often being forever silenced. 


The cliché goes that today’s headlines and the accompanying news stories are simply the first draft of history.  One reason for that is the need to understand what has gone on behind the scenes.  Another, to have the perspective of the future to sort out what will be decisive and what will be merely a passing curiosity.


I suppose that is why I object to the notion of dismissing a line of argument or discussion as being the product of “sore loserism”.   The outcome of a single election or a single debate on legislative policy is simply not enough to determine who the ultimate winners or losers will be.  Elections are all about conferring legitimacy.  To win an election is but one step toward obtaining the legitimacy needed to begin to possess real political power.  Royal and presidential decrees are easily ignored or worked around when they come from sources that are not seen as legitimate.  To complain that one is engaged in “sore loserism” can thus be the height of naiveté.  Put another way, it can be the equivalent of refusing to learn the lessons of history.


This brings us to the present topic that I would like to discuss.  The 1980 U.S. presidential election.  The “final draft” of the history of that election is yet to be written. One reason is the persistence of a “conspiracy theory” regarding the role that the Iran hostage affair played in the outcome of that election.  Bellow, I present one version of the events of that period.  One which I find highly plausible.  So plausible that I have edited extracts to the point of conveying a tone of finality of judgement.  This finality of judgement is not shared by Republican partisans, who would insist that the evidence presented is purely circumstantial, and perhaps not even particularly persuasive.  I wanted to acknowledge that dissenting viewpoint before proceeding.





In January 1992 I published my first journalistic article ever. Published in Puerto Rico’s Claridad weekly newspaper, it was titled “The October Surprise”. In it I affirmed that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign bargained secretly with Iranian radicals for the postponement of the liberation of 52 Americans that they were holding hostage. These hostages were employees of the US embassy in Iran’s capital city of Teheran, which had been stormed by militants loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini in November 1979. This secret deal, known as the October Surprise, frustrated the attempts of US president Jimmy Carter to obtain the hostages’ release in time for the elections in November. This failure cost Carter his reelection, and swept Republican candidate Ronald Reagan into the presidency. Polls carried out before the election showed that the hostage issue was of top importance in the minds of the American electorate.


The Republican campaign’s main negotiators in this deal were George H. W. Bush, vice presidential candidate and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, and William Casey, the campaign’s director and veteran spook who spied for the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two. Once elected, president Reagan appointed Casey to direct the CIA.


The hostages were freed the same day Reagan was sworn in as his nation’s fortieth president on January 1981. What was in it for the Iranians? Weapons, tons of them. Iran needed them badly in order to repel an invasion by Iraq. The Iran-Iraq war lasted from 1980 to 1988 and took approximately one million lives. The much-publicized wars in Central America in those years positively pale in comparison to the horror and carnage of this Middle East war, which was almost certainly the bloodiest of that decade. The October Surprise conspiracy and the arms deals related to the Iran-Iraq war led to the Iran-Contra affair, the biggest political scandal of the 1980’s.







Honegger: We do know from published accounts in the Knight-Ridder papers across the country that Richard V. Allen, who at the time was the chief foreign policy adviser on Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, met with Robert McFarlane, soon to become a key person in Irangate, and an alleged emissary from Khomeini's regime, in Washington D.C. in early October of 1980, to discuss a deal to delay release of the hostages until after the November 4, 1980 election, insuring Reagan's victory, insuring Carter's defeat....


Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr: … there were two separate agreements: one, the official agreement with Carter in Algeria, and the other one a secret agreement with another party which…was Reagan. They made a deal with Reagan that the hostages should not be released during the Carter's Administration, and that they should be released when Reagan became president. So then, in return, Reagan would give them arms. …the arms would be received in March, approximately two months after Reagan became president.


…Honegger: In late October, as part of my job on the writing staff of the national campaign headquarters, I was required every night to cover the news. I went into the operations center, which was the nerve center, the communications center, of the national headquarters for the Reagan campaign in 1980…. As I did so, I was amazed to see a complete …shift, over the last week and a half or so, in the mood in the operations center. Because of the worry about the "October surprise," that mood had been one of anxiety and tension ….and suddenly there was a party atmosphere. My first thought that it was someone's birthday, I walked up to a woman who worked for the gentleman who was in charge of the operations center, and asked her what was going on; and she said "Oh, haven't you heard? We don't have to worry about the October surprise. Dick cut a deal." She was standing next to a very heavy-set gentleman whom I didn't recognize, and I said, "Dick . . . you mean Dick Allen?" and she then got jabbed in the ribs by the man and just said, "Let it go. Dick cut a deal.





However, after becoming president (of Iran) on Feb. 4, 1980, he (Abolhassan Bani-Sadr) found his efforts to resolve the hostage crisis thwarted. Bani-Sadr said he discovered that “Ayatollah Khomeini and Ronald Reagan had organized a clandestine negotiation, later known as the ‘October Surprise,’ which prevented the attempts by myself and then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter to free the hostages before the 1980 U.S. presidential election took place. The fact that they were not released tipped the results of the election in favor of Reagan.”


Though Bani-Sadr has talked and written about the Reagan-Khomeini collaboration before, he added in his commentary on “Argo” that “two of my advisors, Hussein Navab Safavi and Sadr-al-Hefazi, were executed by Khomeini’s regime because they had become aware of this secret relationship between Khomeini, his son Ahmad, the Islamic Republican Party, and the Reagan administration.”


Bani-Sadr wrote that after he “was deposed in June 1981 as a result of a coup against me [and] after arriving in France, I told a BBC reporter that I had left Iran to expose the symbiotic relationship between Khomeinism and Reaganism.”


Over the years, Republicans have adamantly denied that Reagan or his campaign struck a deal with Iranian radicals to extend the hostage crisis through the 1980 election. But substantial evidence has built up supporting Bani-Sadr’s account and indicating that the release of the 52 hostages just as Reagan was taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1981, was no coincidence, that it was part of the deal. 





I was a member of the Carter Administration and on the staff of the National Security Council from August 1976 to April 1981, with responsibility for monitoring Iran policy. I first heard these rumors in 1981 and I dismissed them as fanciful. I again heard them during the 1988 election campaign, and I again refused to believe them.


…Then two years ago, I began collecting documentation for a book on the Reagan Administration's policies toward Iran. That effort grew into a massive computerized data base, the equivalent of many thousands of pages. As I sifted through this mass of material, I began to recognize a curious pattern in the events surrounding the 1980 election. Increasingly, I began to focus on that period, and interviewed a wide range of sources. I benefited greatly from the help of many interested, talented investigative journalists.


In the course of hundreds of interviews, in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, I have been told repeatedly that individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the Presidential election. For this favor, Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel.


…Their accounts were not identical, but on the central facts they were remarkably consistent, surprisingly so in view of the range of nationalities, backgrounds and perspectives of the sources. Because of my past Government experience, I knew about certain events that could not possibly be known to most of the sources, yet their stories confirmed those facts. It was the absence of contradictions on the key elements of the story that encouraged me to continue probing. This weight of testimony has overcome my initial doubts.


The principles of justice define an appropriate path between dogmatism and intolerance on the one side, and a reductionism which regards religion and morality as mere preferences on the other.   - John Rawls

Also tagged with one or more of these keywords: 1980 Presidential Election, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Iran, Iran-Contra Affair, October Surprise, Conspiracy Theories, Republican Party

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