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The Pawns of Politics : OCTOBER SURPRISE: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan, <i> By Gary Sick (Random House/Times Books: $23; 352 pp.)</i>

<i> Simpson, foreign</i> -<i> affairs editor of BBC News and a contributing editor to the Spectator, is the author of "Inside Iran" (St. Martin's)</i>

For the outside world it was one of the great mysteries of the 1980s why Americans held Ronald Reagan in such esteem for so long. To many of the rest of us, the man seemed to be a willing tool of others--his advisers, his wife, her astrologer--and to be largely incapable of understanding what was done in his name.

Most countries can usually survive perfectly well with a roi faineant on the throne, as long as their political culture remains intact. But in America, a new President tends to bring an entirely new team to Washington: men and women who often have little personal experience of the business of national government. As a result, they draw their political culture from their President, for better or for worse.

Under Ronald Reagan it was for worse. By not caring what was done in his name, the President permitted all sorts of subcultures to thrive. Some of these were simply crooked, others amoral. Methods didn’t matter; results alone counted. However unpleasant things smelled underneath, the President would always spray the deodorant of his moralizing speeches over it all. There was no question of doing deals with terrorists, he proclaimed, while deals were done with terrorists in his name. For a time the deodorant worked.

Gary Sick’s extraordinary book, which he calls “a form of political archeology” and which his publishers describe as reading like a spy thriller, is about the early stages of this moral vacuum. His contention is well known by now: that members of the Reagan-Bush election campaign negotiated through intermediaries with Iran during the 1980 presidential campaign in order to delay the release of the 52 American hostages there.

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There was genuine nervousness in the Reagan camp that if the hostages were released before the election, President Carter would gain the political credit for it. Sick maintains that William Casey, the flamboyant and unstable figure who later headed the CIA under Reagan, met several influential Iranians in the months before the election and arranged with them that Iran would not release the hostages until after the election. In return, he says, the Republicans offered Iran immediate supplies of weapons via Israel and promised there would be further help once Reagan was President.

Can it be true? The risks in deliberately extending the imprisonment of the hostages were immense, and it would be necessary to presuppose a very large degree of cynicism on the part of any politician or official who would consider such a thing. Yet it has to be said that Gary Sick makes a very clear and cogently argued case for it, and knowing the importance of sourcing the allegations, he has listed most of his informants by name. Not all of them are necessarily reliable, of course; in this curious half-world, liars and posturers abound. So do people with an ax to grind.

Sick’s mention of the name Richard Brenneke, who made some of these allegations in court (where a jury found in his favor), will cause some American investigative journalists to wince a little; they put a good deal of effort into examining his allegations that George Bush was involved in drug-dealings in Central America, and found him deeply unreliable. Nevertheless, Sick makes a reasonable case for trusting him on the question of the hostages. Ari Ben-Menashe’s name, too, will raise some eyebrows. He is a former Israeli intelligence agent who fell out with Mossad and helped Seymour Hersh with his recent book “The Samson Option”: Questions have been raised about some of the information he gave.

As for the Iranian side, Sick mostly has been forced to rely on people who have been driven into exile or else have some reason to dislike or fear the authorities in Tehran. He has indirect accounts from several people who are said to have been at the critical meetings in Paris in October, 1980, but no one who was there has spoken to him directly, even though it was said to have been attended by a surprisingly large number of people: six Israelis, 16 Iranians and 12 Americans (including, it is alleged, William Casey). His sources for other aspects of the affair are impressive.

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For those of us who know his work and respect it, the fact that Sick himself believes these things to be true is a powerful reason for taking them seriously. Granted, he is a Democrat who worked closely with President Carter in the final negotiations that brought the announcement of the release of the hostages a matter of minutes after President Reagan had formally taken office. On those grounds he is clearly parti pris .

Yet he is a balanced, fair-minded man whose book “All Fall Down” is--together with Robin Wright’s “In The Name Of God"--the best account of the revolution against the Shah and of the regime which followed it. Sick is not a natural conspiracy theorist--perhaps his time in Tehran, the conspiracy theory capital of the world, acted as a form of aversion therapy--and he is careful to take his claims only as far as the evidence will support them.

He himself is fully aware of the frailty of his sources. “I would not be human,” he writes, “if I did not confess that I have at one time or another awakened in the middle of the night with the thought: What if all these people are lying to me?” But Sick is discriminating about what his sources tell him. He examines the suggestion that then-Vice President-elect George Bush was at the Paris meeting, but does not allow it to carry him away; even a reader sympathetic to the basic proposition of the book is left with the feeling that it was highly unlikely, though Bush has been curiously unable to demonstrate unequivocally that he was in the United States at tht time.

The rest of Sick’s thesis is sensational enough anyway: CIA personnel, disillusioned with Carter, leaking information to his political rivals in the hope that they would soon take power; senior politicians prepared to stoop to the most dishonorable conduct to make certain that Carter was defeated; the conscious collusion by Israel in a plot to undermine the policy and wishes of the American government; the willingness of a revolutionary government that regarded the United States as its deadly enemy to aid one American political party against another.

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The implications are serious, and Sick lays them out before us. “To the extent that these people may have attempted to thwart the legitimate policies of the U.S. government or to manipulate the electoral process, they were engaged in nothing less than a political coup . . . . These accusations involve actions which, if performed, were not only strictly illegal but bordered on treason.” They are certainly worth investigating thoroughly, and we must hope that “October Surprise” will lead to a properly constituted inquiry that will establish the truth or falsehood of the whole business.

The trouble is, there is nothing inherently unlikely about it all: No inner voice says, “I simply cannot believe that Reagan would appoint people who could behave like this.” Within a few years, after all, his officials were behaving in very much the same fashion with precisely the same set of people when they agreed to barter arms with Iran for American hostages in Lebanon. By then the moral vacuum had thoroughly established itself at the heart of the Reagan presidency. On the face of it, there is no reason why it should not have been there from the very start.

BOOK MARK: For an excerpt from “October Surprise,” see the Opinion section, Page 3.


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