The Untold Story of Jimmy Carter’s Defeat
By: CHARLOTTE JONES / STAFF WRITER
“October Surprise” was a phrase coined by George H. Bush, that accused President Jimmy Carter of attempting to spin the Iranian hostage crisis into a matter that would re-elect him. It was not until a few years later, however, that the October Surprise conspiracy was born, except this time around, the phrase was not aimed at Carter, but instead directed towards President Ronald Reagan.
Jimmy Carter, born and raised in Plains, Georgia, served as the 39th President of the United States. A member of the Democratic Party, he served from 1977 to 1981. During his four years in office, he faced several challenges that shaped the nation. The most notable and course-altering one of all: the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
The hostage crisis began on Nov. 4, 1979. Iranian militants invaded the United States embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans captive. 13 were released between Nov. 19 and 20. One was released on July 11, 1980. However, it was not until Jan. 20, 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, that the other 52 were released. The crisis lasted 444 days.
While the country celebrated the return of the hostages and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, the timing of the release did not go unquestioned. The inauguration and the release happened minutes apart. Was it simply a coincidence, or was there an underlying plot happening?
Gary Sick is an analyst of Middle East affairs. Sick served on the U.S. National Security Council as a middle eastern advisor under Presidents Ford, Carter, and — for a couple of weeks — Reagan. On April 15, 1991, he broke the story of “The Election Story of the Decade” for the New York Times.
With years of experience working on the study of the Middle East, Sick knew the region well and how often conspiracies could arise. He describes hearing the rumors of a deal between the Reagan administration and Iran in 1980, but he “dismissed them as fanciful.” It was again during the 1988 election the rumors surfaced once more near him, but Sick remained adamant about their falsehood.
It was one year later, in 1989, that Sick began investigating the rumors. It started off as documentation for a book on Reagan’s administrative policies towards Iran. However, after sifting through mass amounts of documents, Sick noticed a pattern surrounding the 1980 election.
“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,” Sick writes.
The sources ranged from high-ranking government officials to low-ranking arms dealers. While the stories were not identical, the central facts were remarkably consistent. It was because of Sick’s past government experience that he knew about “certain events [which] could not possibly be known to most of the sources, yet their stories confirmed those facts.”
In Dec. 1979 and Jan. 1980, Cyrus and Jamshid Hashemi, a set of brothers with reliable contacts in Iranian revolutionary circles, approached the Carter Administration seeking support for their candidate in the Iranian presidential elections.
The Carter administration was unable to do anything for the Hashemi brothers, and their candidate lost the election, but they stayed in close contact regarding the hostage crisis.
Cyrus Hashemi passed away in 1986, but Sick reconnected with Jamshid in 1990 while conducting his interviews.
According to Mr. Hashemi, William Casey — who was Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager at the time and later became the director of the CIA — approached the brothers in 1980 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Casey made it apparent to the brothers that he wanted to stop Carter from gaining any political ground when it came to the crisis; the brothers agreed.
The Hashemi brothers were responsible for arranging two critical meetings between Reagan officials and high-ranking Iranian government members. Mr. Hashemi told Sick that, ”In a Madrid hotel in late July 1980, an important Iranian cleric, Mehdi Karrubi, who is now the speaker of the Iranian Parliament, allegedly met with Mr. Casey and a U.S. intelligence officer who was operating outside authority. The same group met again several weeks later.”
Hashemi stated that Karrubi agreed in the second Madrid meeting to cooperate with the Reagan campaign about the timing of any hostage release. Karrubi secured an agreement from Casey that the Reagan administration would unfreeze Iran’s assets and assist them with military equipment. Sick writes that Hashemi was not the only source to confirm these meetings in this detail; there were two others who came forward with identical information.
During Carter's time in office, his administration placed a total arms embargo on Iran. According to two former Israeli intelligence officers Sick interviewed, “Individuals associated with the Reagan campaign made contact with senior Government officials in Israel, which agreed to act as the channel for the arms deliveries to Iran that Casey had promised.” Due to interference from William Casey, Iran was becoming equipped with the weapons necessary for war against Iraq, going against the Carter Administration.
The research Sick conducted was never considered substantial enough to take down the Reagan administration, as no high-ranking United States official confirmed the story to be true. However, the repeated chatter from Sick was enough to capture the attention of the House of Representatives, who urged a special investigation into the situation to be conducted.
Lee Hamilton, an United States House of Representatives member from Indiana, was the Chair of the House October Surprise Task Force. The task force was responsible for conducting a 10-month investigation into the accusations that representatives of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign made a secret deal with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages in Iran.
In an article published by the New York Times on Jan. 24, 1993, Hamilton stated, “The task force report concluded there was virtually no credible evidence to support the accusations. Specifically, we found little or no credible evidence of communications between the 1980 Reagan campaign and the Government of Iran and no credible evidence that the campaign tried to delay the hostages' release.” Hamilton was critical of Sick in his statement, emphasizing that the task force found no evidence that coincided with what Sick reported.
However, evidence produced after the conclusion of the investigation proves the report to be flawed. The report claimed Casey was never in Madrid, but according to documentary evidence reported to White House Counsel Chester Paul Beach, among State Department "material potentially relevant to the October Surprise allegations, [was] a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown," noted in a "memorandum for record" dated Nov. 4, 1991.
The news of Reagan’s campaign affairs in the Middle East has been spoken about since his inauguration. Many foreign officials have confirmed the meetings in Madrid and the deal that was struck. It was not until March 23, 2023, that Ben Barnes, a Texas businessman and former lieutenant governor of Texas, came forward and corroborated the story as well.
Ben Barnes is the highest-ranking American official to come forward with the same information. In a New York Times article written by Peter Baker, Mr. Barnes recounts his perspective on the 1980 election.
Barnes served under John B. Connally Jr., a Democrat turned Republican who sought out the Republican nomination. Reagan steamrolled Connally, crushing his dreams of being elected but opening a new door to the white house, one under the Reagan administration. Mr. Connally brought along Mr. Barnes as they went to work for Reagan.
Barnes told Baker that what happened next was a secret he held close to him for 43 years. “Mr. Connally,” he said, “Took him to one Middle Eastern capital after another that summer, meeting with a host of regional leaders to deliver a blunt message to be passed to Iran: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.”
When Barnes and Connally returned to the United States, they met with Casey and recited the details of the meetings. Barnes informed Baker, “Mr. Carter is now 98 and in hospice care, I felt compelled to come forward to correct the record.”
Barnes went on to name four individuals whom he confided in years ago: Tom Johnson, a former aide to Lyndon B. Johnson (no relation) who later became publisher of the Los Angeles Times and president of CNN; Mark K. Updegrove, president of the L.B.J. Foundation; Larry Temple, a former aide to Mr. Connally and Lyndon Johnson; and H.W. Brands, a University of Texas historian.
All four confirmed that Barnes had shared the story with them, and all four echoed the same comment: “Ben Barnes has never lied to me.”
Barnes reported to Baker that on Sept. 10, 1980, Connally, Barnes, and Casey sat down at the Dallas international airport where Connally depicted the details of their trip to Casey. It was recently confirmed that, according to an entry in Mr. Connally’s calendar, he was in Dallas on that day. However, Mr. Casey’s archives at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University did not confirm nor deny his presence at the Dallas airport.
The information provided by Ben Barnes does still not fully confirm that the Reagan administration was responsible for the hostages being held until Jan. 20, 1981. However, his story makes him the highest American official to affirm the suspicion., “I’ll go to my grave believing that it was the purpose of the trip,” Barnes told Baker.