The Story of the “October Surprise”and How Reagan Got Away with It
By Frank Gormlie / OB Rag
With all the scandals bursting around Trump and the White House these days, with FBI and Congressional investigations into possible crimes committed by the President’s men, many pundits and commentators are making the obvious comparisons with Richard Nixon’s Watergate Scandal.
Yet, besides Watergate, there’s another very striking historical parallel in our not-to-distance past, and it’s another comparison that it would be good for us to review as well.
If we turn the clock back thirty-six or so years, we would find another time and another American Presidential election, an election in which the Republican candidate colluded with a foreign government to manipulate the results of that election to defeat the Democratic candidate.
It was the 1980 presidential election and Republican Ronald Reagan – the governor of California – was running against the incumbent, Democrat Jimmy Carter. And in 1980 the foreign country that intruded into our election was the nation of Iran.
What was going on internationally was key to the context of the presidential election. For a year before the 1980 election- in early November 1979 – 52 Americans were seized and held hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran, the capital of Iran.
Because of decades of US intervention into Iranian affairs and due to our crucial support for the dictator, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, when the Iranian Revolution broke out in 1979, in retaliation for those deadly years of American monetary and military support for the Shah, one wing of the revolution seized the hostages.
It was a huge crisis for the Carter administration. The nightly news channels had those constant tickers counting the number of days the hostages had been held. And as the hostage crisis carried over into the presidential campaign, candidate Reagan hammered Carter for his failure to resolve the international crisis that the captivity of the hostages represented.
But within the Republican campaign team, deep concerns were raised that Carter would indeed negotiate an end to the crisis just weeks or days before the election – in October – giving him an electoral boost that would carry him into a second term. Reagan people called this the “October surprise”.
In the meantime, President Carter’s officials were in negotiations with the Iranian government about the hostage situation, specifically with representatives of newly-elected Iranian President Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr. By all accounts, Bani-Sadr was a moderate; he had actually called for the release of the hostages during his successful campaign for the Iranian presidency – a popular idea, and he did win. He would say later:
“I openly opposed the hostage-taking throughout the election campaign…. I won the election with over 76 percent of the vote….”
Carter’s negotiators firmly believed that they could work out something with the Iranian government – and if his people had been able to get the hostages freed, it’s probable that Carter would have won re-election, for months leading up to the election he was leading in the majority of polls .
Unbeknownst to Carter, the fears of an October Surprise within the Reagan camp were so intense that it pushed the Republicans to do something very radical – they began their own secret negotiations with the Iranians, but with a different faction, the one led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Reagan team also created a private network of military and intelligence contacts to monitor what the Carter administration was doing – particularly what they were doing with the Iranians – and feed that information to the Reaganites.
But it was the opening up of secret negotiations by Reagan operatives with the Iranians that was the most astonishing maneuver by a presidential candidate – at least up to then – in American history.
The resulting secret deal between the Reagan people and Khomeini altered American politics and history. An arrangement was negotiated with Khomeini’s people to keep the hostages in captivity in Iran until after the American presidential election, which would thereby deny Carter his diplomatic plumb – the fabled October Surprise – putting the kibosh on his electoral hopes – and also the fortunes of Bani-Sadr.
According to plan, Carter’s desperate talks with the Iranians stalled – and come election day November 1980 – the hostage drama had not been resolved. The voters punished Carter and handed the White House over to the governor of California. Post-election, Carter did end up with a formal agreement with his Iranians to have the hostages released – but the real deal had already been made.
On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan gave his inauguration address. Within minutes – literally within minutes of that address – all of the hostages were released by the radical student allies of Khomeini.
Six months later, in June of 1981, Bani-Sadr was overthrown and replaced with Mohammed Ali Rajai, another ally of Khomeini. Bani-Sadr told The Christian Science Monitor in 2013, that these secret dealings by Khomeini most certainly “tipped the results of the  election in Reagan’s favor.”
But why would Iran do that? What was in it for them?
In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. Because America had armed the Shah for decades – Iran was saddled with American weaponry and they desperately needed spare parts for those weapons. Reagan’s people had offered a deal they couldn’t pass up – American weapons and parts along with the release of billions of Iranian government monetary assets held in US banks – in exchange for holding onto the hostages until after the American presidential election. The weapons and parts shipments had to be kept secret for domestic political reasons and because of the official US arms embargo toward Iran – so they were to be delivered by Israel.
Later it was disclosed that immediately after Reagan’s inauguration, substantial quantities of American weapons and spare parts began to be secretly shipped to Iran. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment were run into Iran with the tacit approval of the Reagan White House. In October 1982 the Israeli Ambassador to Washington told the Boston Globe that arms shipments to Iran by Israel were coordinated with the U.S. Government “at almost the highest of levels.”
How could something like this have happened? How could Reagan have survived such a scandal?
There’s a even mightier question. How could something as treasonous as this – a presidential candidate colluding with a foreign government to manipulate and win a presidential election – have been carried out to its completion without the media’s knowledge or without any apparent negative consequences?
Reagan did survive, of course, and went on and served two terms, ushering in an era of strict conservative reaction to the liberalism of the Sixties and Seventies, affecting politics, culture, the Supreme Court for decades, and bringing the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. (He is still considered a near-mythical figure within conservative Republican circles.)
The Initial Reaction
With the astonishing timing of the release of the hostages coinciding with Reagan’s inauguration, fears and suspicions began to arise that members of Reagan’s campaign team had conspired with Iran to delay the release of the hostages to prevent Carter’s “October Surprise”and that Reagan had rewarded Iran with weapons and by the release of Iranian monetary assets.
Yet the suspicions of an election-manipulating conspiracy, although credible, were without evidence and unsubstantiated – at first. These were the days back in the early 1980s – before the internet and social media – a time when mainstream media didn’t feel emboldened to challenge the establishment: it denied the scandalous claims of sabotage. Only left-wing journalists and followers of the right-wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche believed the conspiracy theory about Reagan and Iran. Even the July 1981 crash of a cargo-plane carrying US arms en route from Israel to Iran was not enough to set off alarm bells in the corporate offices of the major press outlets.
One scandal that did emerge from the 1980 presidential election was “Debategate”. A minor ripple politically, it was based on allegations that the Reagan campaign had surreptitiously been leaked Carter’s briefing material used for a debate, prior to it. The result was an investigation by a House of Representatives Sub-committee, and after a review of Reagan campaign documents, it found documentary evidence of the “October Surprise” – the concerted monitoring effort by the Reagan campaign of Carter’s plans to resolve the hostage situation, which the subcommittee detailed in its 1984 report.
However for half a decade, mainstream pundits and press considered the conspiracy claims as unworthy allegations – they didn’t use the term then – but as “fake news”. Bottom line, there was no public investigation, no public acknowledgement of any such scandal. Not yet at least.
Then a new scandal involving the White House did break in 1986. It was the Iran-Contra affair and it engulfed the Reagan administration as it exposed the U.S. government’s secret deal with the Iranian government crafted in 1985 to quietly sell Iran missiles and weapons. The monies exchanged were laundered and used by Reagan & Co. to covertly support the Nicaraguan Contras, a violation of formal US policies.
Investigations into these new allegations involving the Contras, Iran and the CIA suddenly made all those earlier claims of the Reagan-Iran scandal, the October Surprise, all the more plausible. Renewed interest in the possible subversion of the 1980 election spurred new Congressional and journalistic investigations.
Progressive media like The Nation, In These Times and some mainstream press began doing their own digging. They began substantiating some of the details of the conspirators. An example of one good summary was detailed in a 1987 article in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
In 1991, PBS’ Frontline published a report that laid out a strong case that top Reagan people had made a secret deal with Khomeini’s agents during the 1980 election campaign to hold onto the hostages and help defeat Carter, in exchange for arms shipments.
Also in 1991, The New York Times ran an editorial by Gary Sick, a retired Naval Captain, who served on Ford’s, Carter’s, and Reagan’s National Security Council, entitled The Election Story of the Decade where he confirmed by his own extensive investigation that in October 1980 the Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign made the secret deal with Iran.
As evidence grew of the October Surprise, an array of magazines jumped into the fray to de-ligitimize the conspiracy claims of a Reagan-Iran deal. Newsweek, the Village Voice and the New Republic all carried articles supposedly debunking Gary Sick’s investigation and the findings of others who supported the scandalous and explosive revelations.
Pressure built to get to the bottom of what happened and both the Senate and the House formed committees to look into the claims. But the anti-conspiracy hit pieces did their work, and over a few years period, they flooded the landscape and provided the establishment narrative that all these allegations were simply hogwash. By the early 1990s, both houses of Congress had finalized their separate inquiries and concluded that the allegations lacked supporting documentation.
The debunkers won – even though they too were debunked – but the debunkers were able to manufacture the conventional wisdom on the subject. The hit pieces – deliberate psudo-journalistic tactics – early renditions of fake news – were intentionally driven to undercut any doubts of the 1980 presidential election and the legitimacy of Ronald Reagan. As one commentator observed about one of the hit pieces –
“[it] remained out on the market long enough to succeed in its goal of smearing one of the great journalism scoops of the past few decades, scaring away everyone from Congressmen to journalists from seriously pursuing it any further.”
As media watchdog FAIR wrote back in 1993:
Sadly, such tactics have had their intended effect on the conventional wisdom. The October Surprise is now a laughable non-story, and a deep chill blows over any press investigation of recent covert history. …
The result, as Frontline investigative journalist Bob Parry wrote, “scared the Senate into backing away from a full-scale October Surprise investigation and the House acted as if it would only go through the motions before clearing Reagan and Bush.”
But fortunately, we also have former Iranian President Bani-Sadr’s statement:
“It is now very clear that there were two separate agreements, one the official agreement with Carter in Algeria, the other, a secret agreement with another party, which, it is now apparent, was Reagan.
They made a deal with Reagan that the hostages should not be released until after Reagan became president. So, then in return, Reagan would give them arms. We have published documents which show that US arms were shipped, via Israel, in March, about 2 months after Reagan became president.”
In 1988, in response to a magazine article recounting the Reagan-Iran scandal, former President Jimmy Carter himself said:
“We have had reports since late summer of 1980 about Reagan campaign officials dealing with Iranians concerning delayed release of the American hostages. I chose to ignore the reports.
Later, as you know, former Iranian president Bani-Sadr gave several interviews stating that such an agreement was made involving Bud McFarlane, George Bush and perhaps Bill Casey.
By this time, the elections were over and the results could not be changed. I have never tried to obtain any evidence about these allegations but have trusted that investigations and historical records would someday let the truth be known.”
Some called it treason when they realized what Reagan had accomplished in 1980. His agents had secretly colluded with a foreign nation to sabotage the US government and to manipulate an American presidential election in his favor.
Even though heads did roll (remember Ollie North?) and Reagan’s presidential legacy seriously shaken by the Iran-Contra scandal, he was not impeached or forced to resign because of that or his collusion with Iran during the 1980 election. Today, fall from it. He is the grandfather of the right-wing Republican mantra of small government, highly respected and revered formally by both sides of the aisle (even Obama quoted him). Yet he is also seen as the Father of the Counter-Revolution – as the force that countered all that was good from the Sixties and Seventies.
Today, as we contemplate the current possible collusion between Trump and Putin and the manipulation of another presidential election – the one that was just held – the parallels between Trump and Russia with Reagan and Iran are just too striking. We must strain this history of past collusion – a collusion that subverted our democracy – for lessons that can serve us well during the present collusion – a collusion that is subverting what’s left.
One of the first lessons is that the truth needs a strong and independent press.
A second lesson is that having a strong and independent press is not enough for the truth to survive. There needs to be an active and aggressive citizenry to safeguard it and other democratic institutions.
Without Reagan’s Treason, Iran Would Not Be a Problem – November 26, 2013 By The Daily Take Team, The Thom Hartmann Program 2013 article TruthOut
The Daily Banter by Mark Ames
FAIR Nov 1, 1993- October Reprisals – Investigators of alleged Iran deal face smears, legal threats by John Canham-Clyne
The Election Story of the Decade /NY Times OP-Ed By Gary Sick; Published: April 15, 1991
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1987, pages 1, 16-17 Did Iran Delay Hostages Release To Ensure Reagan’s Election? By Richard Curtiss
“A conspiracy between a presidential candidate and a hostile foreign power against an incumbent president would seem to be without precedent in American history. But if Reagan struck a successful deal with Iran and captured the presidency in 1980, it would explain why he agreed to the bizarre alliance with Iran in 1985 and 1986: He had gotten away with it before.”
—B. Honegger and J. Naureckas, In These Times, July 7, 1987.