Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran’s first president after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, died Saturday at age 88 in Paris.
There have been remarkably few U.S. obituaries for such a significant figure. Only one mentions what is probably the most important fact about Bani-Sadr’s life from the perspective of American politics: He claimed that Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign colluded with the post-revolution Iranian government to keep U.S. hostages in Iran until after that year’s election.
The lone exception was from The Associated Press, and even it mentioned the subject mostly to knock it down. The AP obituary stated that Bani-Sadr “gained notoriety after alleging without evidence in a book that Ronald Reagan’s campaign colluded with Iranian leaders to hold up the hostage release.”
In fact, rumors that the Reagan campaign had made some sort of agreement with Iran’s Islamic Republic began swirling in Washington soon after Reagan’s landslide victory over President Jimmy Carter. The possibility became known as the “October Surprise” theory thanks to the documented concern in the Reagan camp that Carter would pull off a release of the hostages in October, just before the election. (The AP obituary incorrectly says that Bani-Sadr’s book “gave birth to the idea of the ‘October Surprise’ in American politics.”)
While largely forgotten now, the seizure of 52 U.S. diplomats and citizens at the American Embassy in Tehran by revolutionary Iranian students, and the failure of the Carter administration to free the hostages, was a central issue in the 1980 presidential contest.
By 1992, what would be the final year of the George H.W. Bush administration, there was enough political pressure on the subject that both the Senate and the House of Representatives opened investigations. Both found that there was no significant substance to the allegations.
By this point Bani-Sadr had — as referenced by the AP — stated in his 1991 memoir, “My Turn to Speak,” that in the spring of 1980, “Americans close to Reagan” had proposed “not a reconciliation between governments but a secret agreement between leaders.”
Bani-Sadr wrote that he had in fact spoken publicly about this in real time: “In late October 1980, everyone was openly discussing the agreement with the Americans on the Reagan team. In the October 27 issue of Enghelab Eslami” — or Islamic Revolution, Bani-Sadr’s newspaper — “I published an editorial saying that Carter was no longer in control of U.S. foreign policy and had yielded the real power to those who … had negotiated with the mullahs on the hostage affair.”
In December 1992, Bani-Sadr sent a detailed letter to the investigative task force in the House. He had learned of the possibility of a hostage deal in July 1980, he said, from Reza Passendideh, the nephew of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of Iran.
Bani-Sadr later wrote in 2013 that Ben Affleck’s movie “Argo” egregiously misrepresented some facts surrounding the revolution in Iran. One example, he explained, was this:
Ayatollah Khomeini and Ronald Reagan had organized a clandestine negotiation, later known as the “October Surprise,” which prevented the attempts by myself and then-US President Jimmy Carter to free the hostages. … 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.
The passage evinces Bani-Sadr’s strong animus toward the Khomeini government. Bani-Sadr was elected in January 1980 with almost 80 percent of the vote but held more moderate positions than other factions vying for power in the fluid post-revolutionary period. He was impeached with Khomeini’s support in June 1981 and soon fled the country fearing for his life.
Bani-Sadr’s credibility has been called into question. The House task force claimed that “Bani-Sadr’s analysis demonstrates how some Iranians may have mistakenly misled themselves to believe that Khomeini representatives met with Reagan campaign officials.” Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., excoriated Bani-Sadr on the floor of the House in 1991.
However, Bani-Sadr is by no means the only top government official to assert that there was a clandestine agreement on the U.S. hostages. The late reporter Robert Parry covered this subject in great depth, pointing out that former Israeli Prime Minster Yitzhak Shamir stated that “of course” there was an October Surprise conspiracy. The biographer of Alexandre de Marenches, the extremely conservative head of French intelligence at the time, has said that de Marenches told him that the French secret service helped arrange the meetings.
Bani-Sadr is by no means the only top government official to assert that there was a clandestine agreement on the U.S. hostages.
Russia’s post-Soviet government sent the House task force a report asserting that there was such a deal. Yet House investigators did not publicly acknowledge the report, including it only in the classified version of their conclusions. Parry stumbled across the classified documents by accident in a Capitol Hill bathroom repurposed for storage.
And Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat directly told Carter in the 1990s that the Reagan campaign approached him with an offer of arms for his Palestine Liberation Organization if he could help broker a deal with Iran.
Last but not least, the headline for the story on Reagan’s 1981 inauguration in the Onion book “Our Dumb Century” is: “Hostages Released; Reagan Urges Nation Not to Put Two and Two Together.”
The moves from Reagan’s campaign would not have been a new tack for a Republican aspirant to the White House. It is has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the 1968 Richard Nixon campaign conspired with the government of South Vietnam to thwart a peace deal that would have boosted the chances of Nixon’s rival, Hubert Humphrey.
Whatever the underlying truth of the October Surprise theory, it is simply a fact that Bani-Sadr said what he said, repeatedly.
Bani-Sadr’s New York Times obituary mentions that Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations at the time resigned over the taking of the hostages and wrote a long article condemning it — and only one place in Iran published it: a newspaper supporting Bani-Sadr.
The peculiar blackout of Bani-Sadr’s perspective on the extension of the hostage crisis for Reagan’s political gain suggests that the distance between the U.S. corporate press and the Iranian media is not as large as we might hope.