Carter failed to realize that breaking his promise not to allow the deposed Iranian Shah into the United States for cancer treatment was at the root of Islamic violence against the United States across the entire Muslim world. His primary advisers all had financial or personal ties to the Shah. They included former CIA Director and U.S. Ambassador to Iran Richard Helms and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
On April 24, the mission commenced. Nearly everything that could go wrong did. A plane collision at a remote rendezvous point killed eight of the rescuers before they could get near a hostage, and the mission was cancelled. The Iranians used the event for an effective propaganda effort against the United States, and Carter was absolutely humiliated. Just three days after the rescue mission failed, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski pressed Carter for a new rescue plan. Carter was hesitant, but Brzezinski persisted.
General David Jones, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summoned his most knowledgeable officer concerning clandestine operations in Iran, General Richard Secord. Although Secord now headed the Air Force’s international programs office in the Pentagon, he seemed the perfect candidate to plan a second rescue attempt. What Carter had no way of knowing was his officer in charge of the rescue operation was deeply involved with a group of CIA officers who vehemently opposed Carter and had very close ties to the worst of the Shah’s regime. Although General James Vaught was the nominal commander of the operation and Secord the deputy commander, Jones made it clear that it was Secord’s show.
Such a rescue, if successful, would have been a tremendous boon to the fast-expiring Carter administration and could well have returned President Carter to a second term. Any hopes that another rescue operation would catch the Republicans unaware, however, were effectively erased with Jones’s assignment of Secord to head the operation.
Secord asked for time to plan the mission and concluded that a fast, massive strike would be the only way it could succeed, now that the Iranians were on alert. Secord personally briefed Defense Secretary Harold Brown on the operation. Brown agreed that Secord would get access to a wide variety of units from several of the military services for the operation.
“Sometimes planning for an operation takes a long time,” the late intelligence officer William R. Corson said. “And when an operation was preceded by a failure, special care needs to be taken for the next operation. Maybe the operation would not be ready in time for Carter to give the order.” As former intelligence operative Michael Pilgrim put it, “If nothing else, the Republicans had someone inside who could warn them that Carter had his own October surprise in the works.” In the end, it never happened; there was no second rescue attempt.
Carter’s most secret operations were thoroughly penetrated by Bush supporters—not only by Secord heading the abortive second rescue operation, but also by many others on the National Security Council staff. Gary Sick, who worked at the NSC during this period, wrote in his book October Surprise that in the Carter White House, “there were individuals who were committed to the defeat of Jimmy Carter and his replacement by Ronald Reagan. Using code names and clandestine reporting channels, they provided information about deliberations within the White House and among the National Security Council Staff concerning the hostages and other policy matters. One of those sources stole a copy of President Carter’s briefing book, which the Republican campaign then used to prepare Reagan for his debate with Carter on October 28.”
William Casey and others in the Reagan–Bush campaign believed that there were two major events on which the election would hinge. One was the single debate scheduled between President Carter and former governor Reagan for October 28, a week before the election, in Cleveland; the other was the possible release before the election of the American hostages in Iran—the putative “October Surprise.” The theft of President Carter’s briefing book was, therefore, a major boost for the Republicans.
According to the late Robert Crowley, a former top level CIA official, it was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, then a low-level CIA analyst, who provided contents of the briefing book to the Reagan campaign. “There is no question Gates had access to it. There is no question Casey got it,” Crowley said. William Corson explained: “Gates gets the job as the [official White House] liaison to . . . the Reagan election campaign. . . . His responsibility is to go out and to brief Casey on what’s happening . . . the same as LBJ did with Nixon. So Gates has a reason to be going over to Virginia to talk to Casey and/or [James] Baker. No question about it.”
The first approach from Iran to the Carter administration to exchange military armament for the American hostages came on April 29, 1980, the 178th day of captivity for Colonel Charles Wesley Scott and just days after the failed hostage rescue attempt. Scott spoke fluent Persian and was one of the most informed of the American hostages concerning Iran. Scott had reported to Pentagon official Erich von Marbod when von Marbod was in charge in Iran in the 1970s as the Deputy Director of the Defense Security Assistance Agency.
Khamene’i had traveled nearly 400 miles to see this hostage because of the growing reality of the war with Iraq. On April 1, an Iranian had attempted to assassinate two of Saddam Hussein’s closest loyalists. The tensions between the two nations rose as more acts of violence followed. Khamene’i’s government was in terrible military and economic shape and he knew war with Iraq was coming.
The story of the Hashimi brothers, Cyrus and Jamshid, did not begin with their claims concerning an October surprise. The Shah and SAVAK had persecuted their family during the so-called “White Revolution” of 1963. Cyrus and Jamshid had both left Iran and had become involved in the shadowy world of international arms deals. While they remained close to the anti-Shah clerics, they also had connections to American intelligence through Iranian Rear Admiral Ahmad Madani, an old associate of American arms dealer Edwin Wilson and his military colleagues von Marbod, and Secord. In 1970, Madani, openly outspoken against the Shah, had been exiled on trumped-up corruption charges. After the Shah was deposed, Madani returned and took up both the Defense and Naval portfolios in the first revolutionary government. He was also assigned as military commander in the Khuzestan region along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, where hostilities with Iraq were expected to break out momentarily.
When Cyrus Hashimi’s American lawyer in Paris called a colleague in Washington offering his client’s expertise on the current happenings in Iran, the colleague wrote a letter to Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Almost immediately, Hashimi, despite his dubious history as an arms dealer and gambler, became the Carter administration’s only reliable source of information on the Iranian government. Carter administration officials found his information “to be accurate,” according to Gary Sick, then on the National Security Council.
In March 1980, Jamshid Hashimi registered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington for one of his regular briefings from a State Department intelligence officer. No one else except his brother, Cyrus, was supposed to know that Jamshid was in Washington. So when a knock came at his hotel-room door, he was surprised to see two strangers.
At the door was a businessman named Roy Furmark, who had business connections to Cyrus Hashimi. With him was a large rumpled man he introduced as William Casey. Jamshid expressed surprise to Furmark and Casey at their unexpected appearance. During the meeting, Jamshid phoned Cyrus, who assured him that Casey was reliable. Jamshid, who has since died, told Gary Sick and others in 1990 that Casey—who in March 1980 had just become Reagan’s campaign manager—had wanted his help in freeing the American hostages.
On March 21, Cyrus and Jamshid got together at Cyrus’s home in Wilton, Connecticut. Cyrus told Jamshid that his contact with Casey was through John Shaheen, with whom Cyrus had been involved on an oil refinery deal. Shaheen had also been, at one time, the boss of Roy Furmark. On that warm early spring weekend, Cyrus told his brother that he believed the Republicans would be coming to power and that it would be in their own best interest to have some friends in the Republican camp. Thus, Carter’s only reliable sources of information on Iran decided to become, as Gary Sick put it, “double agents” for the Reagan–Bush campaign.
Casey asked the Hashimi brothers to arrange for a meeting with someone in Iran who had authority to deal on the hostages. The Hashimis’ connections did not reach to Ayatollah Khomeini himself, but they went far enough. Through Admiral Madani, they arranged for a meeting with a cleric, Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi, who had close ties to Khomeini’s son. According to Gary Sick, the Hashimi brothers also offered the Carter administration a meeting with Karrubi.
When Donald Gregg, a Carter National Security Council aide who had nothing to do with Iran, went out of his way to see Cyrus Hashimi, it should have seemed very suspect.
Donald Gregg had been a deputy of legendary CIA covert official Ted Shackley during the Vietnam War. In the spring of 1980 Gregg’s official job on the NSC was to coordinate intelligence for East Asia. At about the time the first American hostage rescue mission collapsed, Gregg attended a meeting in New York at Cyrus Hashimi’s bank at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. As Gregg carried out this clandestine mission, no one in the Carter White House was aware of his connections to George H.W. Bush, who was running against Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination. Former national security aide David Aaron told the Village Voice: “I think most people were unaware of [those connections] . . . Zbig (Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski) hired him . . . if Zbig was aware of it, he’s never told anybody that.”
Gregg first met Bush at a dinner in Tokyo in 1967, when Gregg was a CIA officer and Bush was a new congressman from Houston. Seven years later, when Bush headed the American liaison office in Beijing, China, Gregg cemented their friendship by journeying from Seoul, where he was CIA Chief of Station, to Beijing to brief Bush. In 1976, when Bush was CIA Director, Gregg was assigned the sensitive job of CIA liaison officer to Congressman Otis Pike’s probe of CIA wrongdoing.
According to Gary Sick and other Carter NSC officials who wish to remain confidential, there was no official reason for Gregg to meet with Hashimi in New York in April 1980. Hashimi took Gregg to lunch at the Shazam restaurant, just around the corner from Hashimi’s bank. According to Jamshid Hashimi, his brother and Gregg discussed openings that the Carter administration and the Hashimis were trying to make with the new Iranian government. Years later, Gregg denied that he had had any contacts with the Reagan–Bush campaign staff prior to the 1980 election. He did not deny that he had contact with his old boss at the CIA, Ted Shackley, during this period. While Shackley and his former deputy Tom Clines had no official position in the Reagan–Bush campaign, numerous associates told the FBI that both men were meeting with George H.W. Bush on a regular basis during this period.
Meanwhile, the Hashimis arranged for a relative of Khomeini to go to Madrid on July 2, 1980, for a clandestine meeting at the Ritz Hotel with a Carter administration official. That meeting opened a dialogue, and Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr reacted favorably enough that he agreed to begin the first serious negotiations for the return of the hostages.
In the last week of July 1980, the meetings Hashimi had arranged for the Republicans took place. Gary Sick reports that the meetings included William Casey and a man Jamshid Hashimi identified as Donald Gregg. But there was an additional member of the delegation: Robert Gray. The following week, Gray officially joined the Reagan–Bush campaign as director of communications. After joining the campaign, Gray secretly received nonpublic material from the Carter White House that even included a copy of a personal letter from Anwar Sadat to Carter.
In October Surprise, Gary Sick wrote what is widely accepted as Hashimi’s account of the meeting:
Mehdi Karrubi opened the discussion by asking Casey . . . what was the purpose of this meeting? Casey replied with a question of his own. Was the Islamic Republic ready to deal with the Republicans? It was impossible to establish good relations between the two countries, he said, as long as the hostages were there.
Karrubi asked if the U.S. government would be willing on its part to return Iran’s financial and military assets. Casey said that would be impossible at this time since the Republicans were not in power, but it could be done after they came into office. As for arms, perhaps that could be done through a third country.
According to Sick, Casey asked if the hostages would be well treated until the moment of their release. “If Iran could give that assurance, and if the hostages were released as a ‘gift’ to the new administration, the Republicans would be most grateful and ‘would give Iran its strength back.’”
Sick quoted Hashimi as saying that Karrubi’s response was that he had “no authority to make such a commitment,” that he would have to seek instructions from Khomeini. Remarkably, Casey, according to Hashimi, then played on the Iranians’ hatred of Carter. Casey said that he had “no objection” if the Iranians continued to deal with the Carter administration, but he “personally had washed his hands of President Carter.” Hashimi said that Karrubi ended the meeting by saying in Persian, “I think we are opening a new era. I am talking to someone who knows how to do business.”
On about August 12, Karrubi had yet another meeting with Casey, according to Hashimi. This time the news he carried was electrifying. According to Hashimi, Khomeini had agreed to Casey’s terms: the hostages would be released on the day of Reagan’s inauguration, though the Iranians would continue to “go through the motions” with the Carter administration. As payment, Karrubi told Casey, Iran now expected the Republicans to fulfill their end of the agreement by using their influence to assist Iran in procuring arms. The threat of imminent war with Iraq was looming, and Iranian exiles had thrown in with Saddam Hussein.
The Hashimi brothers’ recollections, and Sick’s reporting of the negotiations, have been challenged by former President H.W. Bush and his supporters. Bush claimed successfully that he was not personally involved in negotiations that allegedly took place in Paris. On the days William Casey was supposed to have been in Madrid, his presence was recorded in pencil as attending a historical conference in England.
Casey had a mysterious aide named Tom Carter. Carter cannot be found anywhere these days and paper trails on him are difficult to find. What is known is that Carter had worked for Casey for years and that, after the 1980 election, Carter had an office across the hall from Casey’s at the Old Executive Office Building. Carter was forced to come forward and give testimony on behalf of the defense in the trial of Robert Sensi, the former United States manager of the Royal Kuwaiti Airline. Sensi had been arrested while on the run in England. He was charged with stealing millions of dollars from the airline.
Sensi was ultimately convicted, in the late 1980s, on eleven of sixteen counts. Had he been an everyday criminal in the District of Columbia, he would have gotten thirty years. Instead, a judge who had been appointed by Richard Nixon sentenced Sensi to a mere six months, with credit for four months already served in England. Adding to the mystery, the Royal Kuwaiti Airline did not attempt to recover any of the funds through a civil suit.
“Why did this man deserve such special treatment? Because Robert Sensi arranged in 1980 for Royal Kuwaiti planes to ferry back and forth to London, Madrid, and Paris the negotiators dealing with William Casey,” said William Corson, who had spent years investigating these issues. “The Thatcher regime, already deeply beholden to the Arabs, were the hosts. A Royal Kuwaiti jet collected the negotiating party from Madrid and flew them to London. In London, Casey made clear that his representative in all future negotiations would be Tom Carter.”
The Hashimi brothers were not the only ones making overtures to the Reagan–Bush campaign. In late September 1980, a bizarre meeting took place at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington. Former Marine Colonel Robert “Bud” McFarlane, then a national security aide to Texas Senator John Tower, had urged Richard V. Allen, the Reagan campaign’s national security expert, to meet with a mysterious Middle Easterner who had claimed he could help the Republicans get the hostages released. Allen said he was at first reluctant, but finally acquiesced, largely because Tower was a close friend of George Bush’s. Allen also liked McFarlane, who had served in the Nixon and Ford administrations under National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Allen and McFarlane took Lawrence Silberman, another important Reagan supporter, along to the meeting. Later, none of the participants could remember the name of the man with whom they met. Allen has claimed that a memo he wrote to the file about the meeting is missing. Silberman said that the Middle Easterner never suggested a quid pro quo of arms for the release of the hostages, but simply offered that President Carter would not benefit from the release. Silberman said that he told the Middle Easterner that the country has only one president at a time, and that the meeting quickly ended.
Hushang Lavi, an expatriate Iranian arms dealer, has claimed he was the mysterious Middle Easterner. The Lavi family had done tens of millions of dollars in arms deals over the years. Lavi claimed that he had contacted the Reagan–Bush campaign through James Baker’s office at campaign headquarters. (Baker was George H.W. Bush’s longtime friend and associate and had run his 1980 presidential campaign before joining the Reagan-Bush campaign.) Lavi was also one of the arms brokers former American arms dealer Edwin Wilson and his Pentagon associates Richard Secord and Eric von Marbod had dealt with in Iran and elsewhere.
Lavi said they discussed at the meeting F-4 parts in exchange for the hostages. Lavi agreed that Silberman, Allen, and McFarlane rejected his offer, but not because of outrage over the fact that he was suggesting going around President Carter; Lavi said it was because “they were already in touch with the Iranians themselves.” Silberman, Allen, and McFarlane insist that Lavi was not the Middle Easterner who approached them. But after Lavi died, reporter Robert Parry obtained a copy of his calendar for 1980, which not only confirmed the circumstances of the meeting, but also confirmed the earlier call to James Baker.
Adding credibility to Lavi is that after the Republicans turned him down, he approached the third-party campaign of John Anderson through his attorney, former CIA counsel Mitchell Rogovin. Rogovin confirms that Lavi also made the same offer to the CIA.
Perhaps the final seal on President Carter’s fate was provided by the Thatcher government in England. British Customs investigator J. Barrie Riley, who arrested British gunrunner Ian Smalley, said that Smalley threatened on June 18, 1982, to reveal that the British Ministry of Defense was involved with fulfilling the Republican pledge of arms to Iran in exchange for delaying the hostages’ release until after the elections. What makes Smalley’s account believable is the fact that he provided Riley his notes on the shipments years before they became a public issue.
Why would former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher engage in such an enterprise with the Republicans? The former head of intelligence for Saudi Arabia: Kamal Adham. By this time, Adham had moved many of his operations to London and had cultivated not only Thatcher, but also her husband Denis and son Mark. According to arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian, Adham brought Mark Thatcher into the arms business. Soghanalian, who had infuriated the Thatcher regime when he had arranged the purchase of Exocet missiles by Argentina during the Falklands War, had believed he could never do business in Britain again. “To my great surprise, I learned that as long as I did business through a Mark Thatcher company, I could even purchase classified American equipment for export.” Soghanalian realized at the time that he had run into “Kamal’s system of cultivating the sons of the politicians. He did it with Mark Thatcher and he did it with George Bush.”
As for Jimmy Carter, it would take him more than a decade to ascertain the truth about how his presidency ended. He finally said in the Village Voice: “We tried to clean up the CIA. It had been shot through with people that were later involved in the Iran–Contra affair; people like Secord and so forth had been in the CIA when I took over. . . . We knew that some of the people were loyal to Bush and not particularly loyal to me and (former CIA Director) Stan Turner. We were worried about revelations of what we were doing. . . . I never did have an official report come to me and say that Bill Casey was meeting with Iranian officials in Paris or anything specific, just allegations and rumors . . . I didn’t believe them.”
For Carter, the realization that he had been cheated out of his presidency came with the publication on April 1, 1991 of former Iranian president Bani-Sadr’s book My Turn To Speak: Iran, The Revolution & Secret Deals with the U.S. He wrote: “I have proof of contacts between Khomeini and the supporters of Ronald Reagan as early as the spring of 1980 . . . the sole purpose of which was to handicap Carter’s re-election bid by preventing the hostages’ release before the American elections in November 1980. [Iranian officials] Rafsanjani, Beheshti, and Ahmed Khomeini [the Ayatollah’s son] played key roles in proposing this agreement to the Reagan team.”
In early 2004, a high official of the current Iranian government who asked not to be identified confirmed to National Security News Service that there was an arms-for-hostages deal between the Reagan–Bush campaign and the Iranian revolutionary government and that millions of dollars in payments were made to several Iranian clerics involved in these meetings. “The amount of the payments was between 16 million and 55 million dollars.” The same official confirmed that a longtime friend of Casey’s, New Jersey businessman William Zylka, assisted Casey in London in his preparations for the meetings in Spain. Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan confirmed that Zylka told him a similar story. Zylka said that he had actually helped Casey “put on a disguise before leaving for the meetings in Spain.” Zylka confirmed in an interview that he had several contacts with Robert Gray several years into the Reagan administration: “The purpose of one of my meetings with Gray was to place a bug in his Georgetown office. Casey asked me to do it because he feared Gray might be indiscreet about the meetings with the Iranians,” Zylka said.
|Footage of the siege on BBC1|
Even before Reagan won the election in November 1980, the stage was set, not just for the release of the American hostages in Iran, but also for what would become known as the Iran–Contra scandal. At the Republican National Convention, on July 17, 1980, in Detroit, George H.W. Bush agreed to accept the vice presidential nomination, and his loyal supporters from the CIA closed ranks around the new ticket. There were Reagan–Bush posters all over CIA headquarters in Langley—although with only Bush’s picture intact, and Reagan’s removed.
For Kamal Adham, Saddam Hussein was an annoying neighbor who had one useful characteristic: he was a minority Sunni Muslim in a region dominated by Shiites. By brute force, he had come to dominate a country that had been artificially forged out of disparate tribal and religious interests. His role model had been Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and, like Nasser, Saddam considered himself an Arab nationalist. Even though he was a hard-liner on Israel, he demonstrated flexibility to the United States. He had been in touch with the CIA since the 1960s and was considered an up-and-comer long before he took power in the 1970s.
Saddam’s importance to the CIA increased dramatically with the fall of the Shah. Though Saddam had led Arab opposition to Carter’s Camp David Accords that brokered peace between Israel and Egypt, the personal and religious schism between his secular government and the new regime in Tehran was huge. Saddam Hussein’s opposition to Islamic fundamentalism had been visible early in his career, even before he assumed the presidency. After completing a campaign against the Kurds, he brutally suppressed Iraq’s Shiite majority. His next effort was against the Communists. After he became president, he banned the Communist Party, shut down every Communist office, and murdered seven thousand Iraqi communists. The Soviet Union, which had supplied most of the weapons for the Iraqi military, was furious. But this perceived anti-Communist trait in Saddam is what Kamal Adham would successfully use to sell the Reagan-Bush White House on the scheme of supporting both sides in the Iran–Iraq war.
Within a few months of the new Islamic government’s assumption of power in Iran in 1979, cross-border attacks and attempts to export religious warriors into Iraq began. The last straw for Saddam was when Khomeini allowed SAVAMA secret police to infiltrate Iraq and to target Hussein and other regime members for assassination.
According to one of Kamal Adham’s closest advisers, Adham advised Saddam that if he became a proxy warrior against the Iranian revolutionary government, he would have the loyalty of the Saudi and other Gulf royal families and the appreciation of the Western world. Adham also pointed out that the Iranian attacks would become more brazen if he did not act. Meanwhile, Saddam had a long list of issues with several of his neighbors, notably Kuwait. Saddam was convinced that Kuwait was stealing Iraqi oil by using a technique known as slant-drilling. He asked Adham if Saudi Arabia would intervene on his behalf if he agreed to invade Iran. Adham promised he would do what he could.
Saddam’s decision to attack Iran was not made in megalomaniacal isolation. In many ways, it was brought about by the same kind of Saudi manipulation that pulled the United States into the Afghan War against the Soviets. Adham persuaded Hussein to attack a much larger and richer country and to start a war that was likely to end in stalemate or worse for the smaller Iraq. Once started, the war was fought on a grand scale, featuring fronts miles long, poison gas, and inaccurate Soviet-made intermediate-range missiles raining down from both sides, causing huge numbers of casualties. Iran’s U.S.-made jets versus Iraq’s French and Soviet jets attacked with fury. On September 22, 1980, while the American hostages waited for lunch at the Komiteh Prison, an Iraqi MiG attack shook the prison. Saddam Hussein had started the Iran–Iraq war. At the same time, 45,000 Iraqi troops invaded Iran above Basra across the Shatt al-Arab waterway. But the lightning-fast victory Saddam expected did not happen.
As the Reagan–Bush team took over in January 1981, Saddam Hussein offered two attractions. The first was that he was the ideal hedge against Iran. The second was that billions of dollars in weapons sales meant there could be profits in the Iran–Iraq War for friends of the administration.
Sarkis Soghanalian, Saddam Hussein’s arms dealer, realized that the Iraq leader had started a war with Iran that he had no hope of finishing without outside help. Soghanalian soon realized that is precisely what British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and American President Ronald Reagan had in mind. “What they wanted was a bloody stalemate…Israeli equipment that came from the United States was showing up in weapons captured by Iraq from the Iranians. Saddam was being played by Kamal Adham.”
The Reagan-Bush campaign’s secret deals with Iran resulted not only in the largest scandal of the Reagan administration, they also contributed to the administration’s inability to respond effectively to the growing Islamic terrorist threat.