Romney’s Made-up History on Iran

Exclusive: In facing down Iran as U.S. president, Mitt Romney says he would be guided by the experience of Ronald Reagan threatening Iran with a military strike if it didn’t free 52 Americans held hostage during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But Romney’s historical precedent is a fantasy, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has taken a page from right-wing mythology as the foundation for his tough-guy policy toward Iran, citing the supposed “history” of Ronald Reagan scaring the Iranians into releasing 52 American hostages on Jan. 20, 1981.

This account of a macho Reagan staring down the Iranians after they had mocked Jimmy Carter for 444 days is a cherished canard of the American Right, reprised again Tuesday in Romney’s Washington Post op-ed, which states:. “Running for the presidency against Carter [in 1980], Ronald Reagan made it crystal clear that the Iranians would pay a very stiff price for continuing their criminal behavior.”

Ronald Reagan delivering his First Inaugural Address in 1981, with President Jimmy Carter on right.

But that swaggering tale of Reagan’s toughness is not supported by the historical record. Not only does the overwhelming evidence now show that Reagan’s campaign team negotiated secretly behind President Carter’s back to undercut his efforts to free the hostages, but Reagan then followed up their release by authorizing secret shipments of weapons to Iran via Israel.

In other words, instead of bullying the Iranians over their hostage-taking, Reagan rewarded them. And those shipments did not begin in 1985, with the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage deals, but rather almost immediately after Reagan took office in 1981, according to a number of Israeli and U.S. government officials.

For instance, Israeli arms dealer William Northrop claimed in an affidavit that that even before Reagan’s inauguration, Israel had sounded out the incoming administration regarding its attitudes toward more weapons shipments to Iran and got “the new administration’s approval.”

By March 1981, millions of dollars in weapons were moving through the Israeli arms pipeline, Norththrop said, including spare parts for U.S.-made aircraft and tons of other hardware. Northrop added that Israel routinely informed the new Reagan administration of its shipments.

(Northrop was indicted by the U.S. government in spring 1986 for his role in allegedly unauthorized shipments of U.S. weapons to Iran, but the case was thrown out after Reagan’s Iran-Contra arms deal with Iran was exposed in fall 1986).

Lost Plane

On July 18, 1981, one of Israel’s secret weapons deliveries to Iran went awry. A chartered Argentine plane strayed off course and crashed (or was shot down) in Soviet territory, threatening to reveal the clandestine deliveries, which surely would have outraged the U.S. people if they had learned that Israel was supplying weapons to Iran with Reagan’s secret blessing just months after the hostage crisis had ended.

After the plane went down, Nicholas Veliotes, a career diplomat serving as Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, tried to get to the bottom of the mysterious weapons flight.

“We received a press report from Tass [the official Soviet news agency] that an Argentinian plane had crashed,” Veliotes said in a later interview with PBS “Frontline” producers. “According to the documents this was chartered by Israel and it was carrying American military equipment to Iran.

“And it was clear to me after my conversations with people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran some American-origin military equipment. Now this was not a covert operation in the classic sense, for which probably you could get a legal justification for it. As it stood, I believe it was the initiative of a few people [who] gave the Israelis the go-ahead. The net result was a violation of American law.”

The reason that the Israeli flights violated U.S. law was that Reagan had not given formal notification to Congress about the transshipment of U.S. military equipment as required by the Arms Export Control Act. If he had, the embarrassing reality of the arms pay-off to Iran would almost surely have leaked — and questions might have been asked about why Reagan was making the pay-off in the first place.

In checking out the Israeli flight, Veliotes came to believe that the Reagan camp’s dealings with Iran dated back to before the 1980 election.

“It seems to have started in earnest in the period probably prior to the election of 1980, as the Israelis had identified who would become the new players in the national security area in the Reagan administration,” Veliotes said. “And I understand some contacts were made at that time.”

Q: “Between?”

Veliotes: “Between Israelis and these new players.”

Veliotes added that the embarrassing facts about the downed plane were obscured by Reagan’s State Department, which issued misleading guidance to the U.S. press.

Israeli Pipeline

In my work on the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s, I also had obtained a classified summary of testimony from a mid-level State Department official, David Satterfield, who saw these early arms shipments as a continuation of Israeli policy toward Iran.

“Satterfield believed that Israel maintained a persistent military relationship with Iran, based on the Israeli assumption that Iran was a non-Arab state which always constituted a potential ally in the Middle East,” the summary read. “There was evidence that Israel resumed providing arms to Iran in 1980.”

Over the years, senior Israeli officials have claimed that those early shipments, which Carter had tried to block, received the blessing of Reagan’s team.

In May 1982, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon told the Washington Post that U.S. officials had approved Iranian arms transfers. “We said that notwithstanding the tyranny of [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini, which we all hate, we have to leave a small window open to this country, a tiny small bridge to this country,” Sharon said.

A decade later, in 1993, I took part in an interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Tel Aviv during which he said he had read Gary Sick’s 1991 book, October Surprise, which made the case for believing that the Republicans had intervened in the 1980  hostage negotiations to disrupt Jimmy Carter’s reelection.

With the topic raised, one interviewer asked, “What do you think? Was there an October Surprise?”

“Of course, it was,” Shamir responded without hesitation. “It was.”

Walsh’s Suspicions

Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh also came to suspect that those later arms-for-hostage deals traced back to 1980, since it was the only way to make sense of why the Reagan team kept selling arms to Iran in 1985-86 when there was so little progress in reducing the number of American hostages then held by Iranian allies in Lebanon.  When one hostage was released, another was taken.

In conducting a polygraph of Vice President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser (and former CIA officer) Donald Gregg, Walsh’s investigators added a question about Gregg’s alleged participation in the secret 1980 negotiations between Reagan’s team and the Iranians.

“Were you ever involved in a plan to delay the release of the hostages in Iran until after the 1980 Presidential election?” the examiner asked. Gregg’s denial was judged to be deceptive. [See Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, Vol. I, p. 501]

So, the historical evidence suggests that the dramatic timing of Iran’s hostage release as Reagan was giving his Inaugural Address was not the result of the Iranians fearing Reagan’s retaliation, but rather was a choreographed P.R. event between Reagan’s team and the Iranians.

In the days before Reagan’s Inauguration, his acolytes had been busy circulating a joke around Washington which went: “What’s three feet deep and glows in the dark? Tehran ten minutes after Ronald Reagan becomes President.”

Instead the Iranians released the hostages at the moment most favorable to Reagan to enhance his standing with the American people as someone whom America’s enemies feared. Republicans got busy working the myth of the Mighty Reagan while Reagan’s team quietly approved Israeli-brokered weapon sales to Iran.

Now, this mythology has found a new place in Romney’s campaign, which has entrusted its foreign policy largely to neoconservatives who came of age during the Reagan administration in the 1980s and helped shape George W. Bush’s foreign policy last decade. In part, here is what Romney published in Tuesday’s Washington Post:

“Beginning Nov. 4, 1979, dozens of U.S. diplomats were held hostage by Iranian Islamic revolutionaries for 444 days while America’s feckless president, Jimmy Carter, fretted in the White House. Running for the presidency against Carter the next year, Ronald Reagan made it crystal clear that the Iranians would pay a very stiff price for continuing their criminal behavior.

“On Jan. 20, 1981, in the hour that Reagan was sworn into office, Iran released the hostages. The Iranians well understood that Reagan was serious about turning words into action in a way that Jimmy Carter never was.

“America and the world face a strikingly similar situation today; only even more is at stake. The same Islamic fanatics who took our diplomats hostage are racing to build a nuclear bomb. Barack Obama, America’s most feckless president since Carter, has declared such an outcome unacceptable, but his rhetoric has not been matched by an effective policy.

“While Obama frets in the White House, the Iranians are making rapid progress toward obtaining the most destructive weapons in the history of the world.

“The overall rubric of my foreign policy will be the same as Ronald Reagan’s: namely, ‘peace through strength.’ Like Reagan, I have put forward a comprehensive plan to rebuild American might and equip our soldiers with the weapons they need to prevail in any conflict. By increasing our annual naval shipbuilding rate from nine to 15, I intend to restore our position so that our Navy is an unchallengeable power on the high seas.

“My plan includes restoring the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously. It also includes increasing military assistance to Israel and improved coordination with all of our allies in the area.”

Historical Need

Sometimes, I’m asked why I have worked so hard trying to get the history of the Reagan era correct. The question often goes: “Why not leave that to the historians?” In the tone, there is a suggestion that this history is not as important as investigating current events.

But my concern is this: If the bogus history is allowed to stand unchallenged today, the Reagan mythology will continue to control how many Americans perceive their recent past and thus this propaganda will keep influencing the present and the future.

Romney’s op-ed is a good example of the price the nation and the world might pay for the tendency of many Americans (including prominent Democrats) to duck difficult confrontations with Republicans over a truthful accounting of the Reagan history.

With the Reagan myth lovingly protected by Republicans (and rarely contested by Democrats), it can become a touchstone for dangerous policies, now and in the future, both foreign and domestic.

[For more details on Reagan’s secret dealings with Iran, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege or’s “New October Surprise Series.”]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

15 comments for “Romney’s Made-up History on Iran

  1. JPZingher
    March 17, 2012 at 12:44

    WOW! I’ve never seen so much LEFTY disinformation in my life. To understand Carter’s Hostage Crisis, you have to start with a book called “THE PARTNERS: INSIDE AMERICA’S MOST POWERFUL LAW FIRMS” Here’s what happened. 1) The embassy is invaded and the diplomats taken hostage. The “students” demand the return of the Shah to face trial. Carter refuses. Then Carter issues an executive order freezing $8 billion in Iranian gov’t funds in American banks and he gets European banks to freeze funds as well. (The orders are available online.) 2) The Iranians then demand release of the funds and return of the Shah. We are not formally negotiating with Iran, but we are negotiating unofficially through the law firms that represent Ciitibank, Chase, First Chicago, etc. 3) The negotiations are at an impasse until the Shah dies of prostate cancer in June of 1980. 4) The Iranians then change their demands to return of their money and immunity from civil suit by the hostages. Carter REJECTED their new demands for whatever reason. 5) He goes on to lose the election to Reagan. Carter continues to reject their demands right up until he agrees to them, 24 hours before Reagan is sworn into office. Once the money is in Iranian hands, the hostages were released, just about the same time that Reagan was being sworn in. CARTER TIMED THE RELEASE TO COINCIDE WITH REAGAN’S INAUGURATION AND HE AGREED TO THE EXACT SAME TERMS THAT TEHRAN DEMANDED SIX MONTHS EARLIER. You can decide for yourself what was going on, but you should at least know that much.

    • tunkashila
      March 17, 2012 at 15:41

      And I’ve never seen such a desperate pack of lies-just admit that The Gipper and his cronies were scumbags from the git-go and quit clinging to this myth that he was a brave, stalwart Cold Warrior. If the orders Carter supposedly issued are truly online, I challenge you to post a link as proof. Certainly won’t be holding my breath…

  2. Lester Shepherd
    March 10, 2012 at 23:25

    It was a bribe. That’s what America always does. Every sicko that comes along is rewarded with guns, insane amounts of money, and the canard that democracy is coming. Shit on everybody in Congress since 1776.

  3. Bill
    March 7, 2012 at 16:41

    The people who cling to a belief Reagan Mythology are afflicted with a Vast Right Wing Psychosis.

  4. Kenny Fowler
    March 6, 2012 at 22:37

    The GOP desperation is showing as they start banging the war drums and lying about Reagan and the crimes committed by him and his gang..

  5. Craig Starks
    March 6, 2012 at 15:14

    Just because something is NOT made public doesn’t mean its not true. It just means that either the national media is LAZY, or worse yet doesn’t care. The mainstream (or rather lamestream) media have no real interest anymore in history

  6. Galactic Cannibal
    March 6, 2012 at 14:40

    So if the content of Mr Parry’s article is accurate and correct . Why is it not made public in our national media.

    • Hillary
      March 6, 2012 at 16:10

      Perhaps it is because exposing lies is “hateful” & Antisemitic.

      That is why intelligent folk rely on the Internet.

      The Main Stream Media is just a propaganda outlet for AIPAC & the neocons.

    • RougeRogue
      March 6, 2012 at 18:05

      You can thank the first George Bush for sealing that story tight, when on December 24th, 1992, with mere weeks left in office, he pardoned Cap Weinberger and 5 others associated with the Iran-Contra Scandal. Those presidentially pardoned 6 were due to start trials in January of ’93, on charges of perjury/obstruction of justice, due to testimony given (or, refused) relating to the scandal. The rest of the story might well have come public then, with deals negotiated to avoid jail time over those charges, but those Christmas eve pardons effectively put the final nails in that coffin.

    • bobzz
      March 6, 2012 at 18:12

      For one thing, million dollar reporters will not be invited to the table to get their sound-bites if they tell the truth. For another Democrats that know about Republican dirty tricks will not call them out. In a previous article, Parry pointed out that Johnson knew Nixon was working against his peace initiatives with Viet Nam, but he would not make it public because he thought the American people would be disillusioned with government. And now because he and Rostow did not make it public, Americans who do not like to be treated like mushrooms are disillusioned.

    • David Hamilton
      March 6, 2012 at 20:47

      Yeah, I don’t understand and didn’t understand back in 1991, when this treachery got exposed (Gary Sick’s book, Bank of Credit and Commerce International stories in the press, subsequent hearings in 1992, we being on Saddam’s side while we were also on Iran’s side in their war), why the major newspapers and TV didn’t make it all known to the public. It was there, it just didn’t gain any traction. Talk about the wool being pulled over your eyes!

      That joke running around when Reagan was about to take office – I heard it as “What’s made out of sand and glows in the dark? … Iran in about three weeks”. Chuckle…chuckle.

  7. Charles Norrie
    March 6, 2012 at 13:56

    In parctical terms Mr Reagan was a great friend of Iran, getting the CIA to set up and run the Iran-Contra business, so he could stage his Central American wars.

    It was Mr Bush who could not stand Reagan’s unofficial foreign policy and terminated with extreme prejudice trying to kill Amhad Beladi Behbehabi (note the spelling, Mr Marquise) who had been in charge of it. The plot failed and the US had to treat ignominiously with Iran in Glion Switzerland and the outcome was Lockerbie.

    Exactly the same number of Iranians died on IR-655 of 3rd July 198 as people on the Lockerbie plane, less certain US givernment officils who had to be included to make the dire plot work.

  8. Dwight Powers
    March 6, 2012 at 13:53

    The Republicans have,in the dark past, with Reagan and cronies and with Nixon and Kissinger , repeatedly broken federal law regarding private citizens dealing with foreign ‘enemies’ and continue to lie about their illegal activites. “Myth” Romney, continues to perpetuate the lies and will continue to do so, in order that he get’s himself elected, even when many Republicans don’t back him.This is all on top of the constant GOP attacks, both racial and otherwise against the Obama administration. Dog whistles that they blow, can be heard by humans, and at least agreed to by ignorant humans.

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