Cheating at Hostage Chess : OCTOBER SURPRISE <i> by Barbara Honegger (Tudor Publishing: $19.95; 323 pp.) </i>


The expression “America held hostage” was coined to describe the sequestration, in all of its legal and political implications, of U.S. diplomats in Iran from Nov. 4, 1979, to Jan. 20, 1980.

During the preceding presidential campaign candidate Ronald Reagan repeatedly pledged to his countrymen that as president of the United States he intended to stand tall and punish the perpetrators of anti-American terrorism wherever they might hide. Now, nine years later, Barbara Honegger has set out to prove that in October, 1980, the Reagan-Bush campaign manager William Casey informed the candidate of the urgent need to “neutralize” President Carter’s efforts to free the hostages before the November election--a scenario dubbed “October Surprise” by the Reagan campaign. This is an incredible charge by someone who “worked unceasingly” for Reagan in 1980 and served in his first administration for nearly four years.

“October Surprise” is Honegger’s version of how the Reagan-Bush campaign team sabotaged the Carter Administration’s negotiations with Iran in October, 1980. She contends that the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war on Sept. 22, 1980, made the Iranian regime so desperate for U.S. military equipment that Ayatollah Khomeini was willing to exchange the hostages for U.S. arms. However, the Reagan-Bush men spoiled the prospect of this trade-off by secretly promising Iran’s rulers more and better weapons if they kept the hostages until the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. When Iran accepted this offer and President Carter lost the election, argues Honegger, the Israelis entered the scene as intermediaries to deliver arms to the ayatollahs. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, recalls this astonishing development: “We learned, much to our dismay, that the Israelis had been secretly supplying American spare parts to the Iranians without much concern for the negative impact this was having on our leverage with Iranians on the hostage issue.”


Based on the information and expert commentary contained in “October Surprise,” Honegger could make a plausible case for the supposed connivance between Ronald Reagan and Ayatollah Khomeini. But her obsession to uncover secrecy and show the dark side of the men around Reagan has made her reporting so devious and convoluted that the final product is a discredit to her own story. For circumstantial evidence leaves little doubt that the Reagan-Bush campaign team and the Khomeini regime communicated their wishes to one another, but domestic political considerations on both sides made it imperative that their collusion remain tacit. Honegger fails to analyze this crucial dimension of the affair because she is plagued with an unduly romantic view of the American political tradition and a completely naive understanding of all matters Iranian.

Honegger’s eyewitnesses included a former Nazi pilot, a former informer for SAVAK (Iran’s intelligence agency before the 1979 revolution), scores of Israeli-connected arms dealers, an anonymous caller named “informant Y,” Mafia elements and a colorful assortment of American, Israeli, French, Italian and Iranian (among others) rogues and undercover agents. Blackmail, criminal misconduct, intrigues, official deceptions and the like are the ingredients of the plot in the labyrinth world of the conspirators whose number keeps expanding as the book progresses. In the epilogue, she lists 26 deaths, including those of Abby Hoffman and William Casey, and attempted murders as possibly connected to the Reagan-Bush complicity with Iran’s ayatollahs. One man Honegger repeatedly quotes is Mansur Rafizadeh, an Iranian who used to make a living by reporting the names of dissident Iranian students in the United States to the late Shah’s secret policy, so that upon their return to Iran they could be arrested at the airport. Taking such a character as a serious witness in investigative reporting is inane at best. Virtually everything he says is either false or foolish.

Honegger’s thirst for deep secrets has led her to suggest that the Palestine Liberation Organization instigated the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. The entirety of her evidence is the reported claim of “a key Shiite Moslem leader.” Her concoction of Yasser Arafat’s “Iran strategy” is on par with the accounts of political events favored by paranoid cultists. Equally disturbing is her suspicion that the sunshine over Washington on President Reagan’s Inauguration Day “might have been caused by a special kind of satellite . . . (that) uses a beam to burn holes in cloud cover below, so that photographs can be taken regardless of the weather.” The purpose of this operation, Honegger speculates, was to coordinate the release of the hostages in Tehran with the completion of Reagan’s oath of office in the White House.

Honegger tries to present Israeli and American arms sales to Iran as the smoking guns in the Reagan-Bush complicity with the Khomeini regime. She seems oblivious to the fact that Western arms shipments to Iran were motivated by both profit and strategic calculation. This was particularly the case for Israel because it saw the Iran-Iraq war as a plus for its own security. Yet, Israel was hardly alone to favor the prolongation of the war. More than 40 countries sold arms to the protagonists in the Gulf War; some of them managed to supply both sides simultaneously. The responsibility for the fratricide between Iran and Iraq cannot be attributed to either Israel or the United States but to the two criminal despots who ruled their respective countries with absolute power.

Based on the available evidence it is extremely difficult to make a case about the exchange of arms for a delay in hostage release that could stand judicial scrutiny. For neither side in the affair was interested in obtaining proof of the other’s involvement because neither side could blackmail the other without injuring itself. Consequently, it is very unlikely that evidence of their complicity could be found in material or documentary form. The point to remember is that the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-80 produced a convergence of interests between Ayatollah Khomeini and candidate Ronald Reagan. On the Iranian side, the confrontation with the Carter Administration helped the militant fundamentalists to consolidate their power. On the American side, the right-wing Republicans and the militarists in the foreign policy establishment benefited from Jimmy Carter’s humiliation and defeat. Similarly, Carter’s fall was so important for Khomeini’s dominant position in Iran, as well as for his prestige among Muslim and other extremists throughout the Middle East, that he simply had no intention of releasing the hostages before the 1980 presidential election.

The only acknowledged event directly related to the case is a meeting at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington on Oct. 2, 1980, between Richard Allen, candidate Reagan’s chief foreign policy adviser, and two Iranians whose identity remains a mystery. Other participants in this meeting were Laurence Silberman, Allen’s assistant, and Robert McFarlane, then an aide to Sen. John Tower on the Senate Armed Services Committee. These men report no record or recollection of the infamous meeting. Only Allen has been compelled to recall that the “Iranian emissary” proposed “an arrangement whereby the hostages could be released to the Reagan side at a date indeterminate.” There are also some reports that a number of meetings between high level Iranian officials and such Americans as George Bush and William Casey took place in Paris on Oct. 19 and 20, 1980, but they cannot be confirmed. It seems that the only possibility for the case to unfold beyond its present status is for such men to step forward and testify to the truth.


This miracle is not about to happen, and consequently the discourse on “October Surprise” is likely to remain speculative or conspiratorial. Honegger’s work is definitely in the conspiratorial mold and as such it is likely to become an addition to the library of conspiracy theorists and buffs. More sober readers will be certainly disappointed with Honegger’s transformation of a potentially serious case of foul play by a governing elite into a confused and unconvincing tale.