The Israeli government was another deeply interested player in the Iran crisis. For decades, Israel had cultivated covert ties with the Shah’s regime as part of a Periphery Strategy of forming alliances with non-Arab states in the region to prevent Israel’s Arab enemies from focusing all their might against Israel.
Though losing an ally when the Shah fell and offended by the anti-Israeli rhetoric from the Khomeini regime, Israel had gone about quietly rebuilding relations with the Iranian government. One of the young Israeli intelligence agents assigned to this task was an Iranian-born Jew named Ari Ben-Menashe, who had immigrated to Israel as a teen-ager and was valuable because he spoke fluent Farsi and still had friends in Iran, some of whom were rising within the new revolutionary bureaucracy.
In his own 1992 memoirs, Profits of War, Ben-Menashe said the view of Israel’s Likud leaders, including Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was one of contempt for Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.
“Begin loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David,” Ben-Menashe wrote. “As Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian issue hanging on Israel’s back.”
After the Shah fell, Begin grew even more dissatisfied with Carter’s handling of the crisis and alarmed over the growing likelihood of an Iraqi attack on Iran’s oil-rich Khuzistan province. Israel saw Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as a far greater threat to Israel than Iran’s Khomeini. Ben-Menashe wrote that Begin, recognizing the realpolitik needs of Israel, authorized shipments to Iran of small arms and some spare parts, via South Africa, as early as September 1979.
After the U.S. hostages were taken in November 1979, the Israelis came to agree with Copeland’s hard-headed skepticism about Carter’s handling of the hostage issue, Ben-Menashe wrote. Even though Copeland was generally regarded as a CIA “Arabist” who had opposed Israeli interests in the past, he was admired for his analytical skills, Ben-Menashe wrote.
“A meeting between Miles Copeland and Israeli intelligence officers was held at a Georgetown house in Washington, D.C.,” Ben-Menashe wrote. “The Israelis were happy to deal with any initiative but Carter’s. David Kimche, chief of Tevel, the foreign relations unit of Mossad, was the senior Israeli at the meeting. … The Israelis and the Copeland group came up with a two-pronged plan to use quiet diplomacy with the Iranians and to draw up a scheme for military action against Iran that would not jeopardize the lives of the hostages.”
In late February 1980, Seyeed Mehdi Kashani, an Iranian emissary, arrived in Israel to discuss Iran’s growing desperation for aircraft spare parts, Ben-Menashe wrote. Kashani, whom Ben-Menashe had known from their school days in Teheran, also revealed that the Copeland initiative was making inroads inside Iran and that approaches from some Republican emissaries had already been received, Ben-Menashe wrote.
“Kashani said that the secret ex-CIA-Miles-Copeland group was aware that any deal cut with the Iranians would have to include the Israelis because they would have to be used as a third party to sell military equipment to Iran,” according to Ben-Menashe. In March, the following month, the Israelis made their first direct military shipment to Iran, 300 tires for Iran’s F-4 fighter jets, Ben-Menashe wrote.
In the 1990 interview at his house in the English countryside, Copeland told me that he and other CIA old-timers developed their own hostage-rescue plan. Copeland said the plan – which included cultivating political allies within Iran and using disinformation tactics to augment a military assault – was hammered out on March 22, 1980, in a meeting at his Georgetown apartment.
Copeland said he was aided by Steven Meade, the ex-chief of the CIA’s Escape and Evasion Unit; Kermit Roosevelt, who had overseen the 1953 coup in Iran; and Archibald Roosevelt, the adviser to David Rockefeller.
“Essentially, the idea was to have some Iranians dressed in Iranian military uniform and police uniform go to the embassy, address the students and say, ‘Hey, you’re doing a marvelous job here. But now we’ll relieve you of it, because we understand that there’s going to be a military force flown in from outside. And they’re going to hit you, and we’re going to scatter these [hostages] around town. Thanks very much.”
Copeland’s Iranians would then move the hostages to the edge of Teheran where they would be loaded onto American helicopters to be flown out of the country.
To Copeland’s chagrin, his plan fell on deaf ears in the Carter administration, which was developing its own rescue plan that would rely more on U.S. military force with only modest help from Iranian assets in Teheran. So, Copeland said he distributed his plan outside the administration, to leading Republicans, giving sharper focus to their contempt for Carter’s bungled Iranian strategy.
“Officially, the plan went only to people in the government and was top secret and all that,” Copeland said. “But as so often happens in government, one wants support, and when it was not being handled by the Carter administration as though it was top secret, it was handled as though it was nothing. … Yes, I sent copies to everybody who I thought would be a good ally. …
“Now I’m not at liberty to say what reaction, if any, ex-President Nixon took, but he certainly had a copy of this. We sent one to Henry Kissinger, and I had, at the time, a secretary who had just worked for Henry Kissinger, and Peter Rodman, who was still working for him and was a close personal friend of mine, and so we had these informal relationships where the little closed circle of people who were, a, looking forward to a Republican President within a short while and, b, who were absolutely trustworthy and who understood all these inner workings of the international game board.”
By April 1980, Carter’s patience was wearing thin, both with the Iranians and some U.S. allies. After discovering that the Israelis had made a secret shipment of 300 tires to Iran, Carter complained to Prime Minister Begin.
“There had been a rather tense discussion between President Carter and Prime Minister Begin in the spring of 1980 in which the President made clear that the Israelis had to stop that, and that we knew that they were doing it, and that we would not allow it to continue, at least not allow it to continue privately and without the knowledge of the American people,” Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell told me. “And it stopped” – at least temporarily.
Questioned by congressional investigators a dozen years later, Carter said he felt that by April 1980, “Israel cast their lot with Reagan,” according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of a House Task Force, which had examined the October Surprise controversy. Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his reelection to a “lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.”
Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski also recognized the Israeli hostility. In an interview, Brzezinski told me that the Carter White House was well aware that the Begin government had “an obvious preference for a Reagan victory.”
Encircled by growing legions of enemies, the Carter administration put the finishing touches on its own hostage-rescue operation in April. Code named “Eagle Claw,” the assault involved a force of U.S. helicopters that would swoop down on Teheran, coordinate with some agents on the ground and extract the hostages.
Carter ordered the operation to proceed on April 24, but mechanical problems forced the helicopters to turn back. At a staging area called Desert One, one of the helicopters collided with a refueling plane, causing an explosion that killed eight American crewmen.
Their charred bodies were then displayed by the Iranian government, adding to the fury and humiliation of the United States. After the Desert One fiasco, the Iranians dispersed the hostages to a variety of locations, effectively shutting the door on another rescue attempt, at least one that would have any chance of returning the hostages as a group.
By summer 1980, Copeland told me, the Republicans in his circle considered a second hostage-rescue attempt not only unfeasible, but unnecessary. They were talking confidently about the hostages being freed after a Republican victory in November, the old CIA man said.
“There was no discussion of a Kissinger or Nixon plan to rescue these people, because Nixon, like everybody else, knew that all we had to do was wait until the election came, and they were going to get out,” Copeland said. “That was sort of an open secret among people in the intelligence community, that that would happen. … The intelligence community certainly had some understanding with somebody in Iran in authority, in a way that they would hardly confide in me.”
Copeland said his CIA friends had been told by contacts in Iran that the mullahs would do nothing to help Carter or his reelection.
“At that time, we had word back, because you always have informed relations with the devil,” Copeland said. “But we had word that, ‘Don’t worry.’ As long as Carter wouldn’t get credit for getting these people out, as soon as Reagan came in, the Iranians would be happy enough to wash their hands of this and move into a new era of Iranian-American relations, whatever that turned out to be.”
In the interview, Copeland declined to give more details, beyond his assurance that “the CIA within the CIA,” his term for the true protectors of U.S. national security, had an understanding with the Iranians about the hostages. (Copeland died on January 14, 1991, before I could interview him again.)
Much of the controversy over the October Surprise mystery has centered on several alleged secret meetings in Europe between senior Republicans – including then-Reagan campaign chief William Casey and Reagan’s running mate George H.W. Bush – and Iranian officials, including senior cleric Mehdi Karrubi.
A variety of witnesses, including Iranian officials and international intelligence operatives, have described these contacts, which have been denied by Bush and other top Republicans. Though official U.S. investigations have generally sided with the Republicans, a substantial body of evidence – much of it which was kept hidden from the American people – actually supports the October Surprise allegations. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Evidence from Reagan-Bush campaign files also points to undisclosed contacts between the Rockefeller group and Casey during Carter’s hostage negotiations.
According to a campaign visitor log for Sept. 11, 1980, David Rockefeller and several of his aides who were dealing with the Iranian issue signed in to see Casey at his campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
With Rockefeller were Joseph Reed, whom Rockefeller had assigned to coordinate U.S. policy toward the Shah, and Archibald Roosevelt, the former CIA officer who was monitoring events in the Persian Gulf for Chase Manhattan and who had collaborated with Miles Copeland on the Iran hostage-rescue plan. The fourth member of the party was Owen Frisbie, Rockefeller’s chief lobbyist in Washington.
In the early 1990s, all the surviving participants – Rockefeller, Reed and Frisbie – declined to be interviewed about the Casey meeting. Rockefeller made no mention of the meeting in Memoirs.
Henry Kissinger, another Rockefeller associate, also was in discreet contact with campaign director Casey during this period, according to Casey’s personal chauffeur whom I interviewed. The chauffeur, who asked not to be identified by name, said he was sent twice to Kissinger’s Georgetown home to pick up the former Secretary of State and bring him to Arlington, Virginia, for private meetings with Casey, meetings that were not recorded on the official visitor logs.
On September 16, 1980, five days after the Rockefeller visit to Casey’s office, Iran’s acting foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh publicly cited Republican interference on the hostages.
“Reagan, supported by Kissinger and others, has no intention of resolving the problem,” Ghotbzadeh said. “They will do everything in their power to block it.”
In the weeks before Election 1980, FBI wiretaps picked up other evidence that connected Rockefeller associates with two of the key suspects in the October Surprise mystery, Iranian banker Cyrus Hashemi and longtime Casey business associate John Shaheen.
According to the FBI wiretaps hidden in Hashemi’s New York offices in September 1980, Hashemi and Shaheen were involved in the intrigue surrounding the Iran hostage crisis while simultaneously promoting murky financial schemes.
Hashemi was supposedly acting as an intermediary for President Carter for secret approaches to Iranian officials about getting the hostages released. But Hashemi appears to have been playing a double game, serving as a backchannel for the Reagan-Bush campaign, through Shaheen, who had known Casey since their World War II days together in the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s forerunner.
The FBI wiretaps revealed that Hashemi and Shaheen also were trying to establish a bank with Philippine interests in either the Caribbean or in Hong Kong. In mid-October 1980, Hashemi deposited “a large sum of money” in a Philippine bank and planned to meet with Philippine representatives in Europe, an FBI intercept discovered.
The negotiations led Shaheen to an agreement with Herminio Disini, an in-law of Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, to establish the Hong Kong Deposit and Guaranty Company. Disini also was a top moneyman for Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.
The $20 million used as starting capital for the bank came through Jean A. Patry, David Rockefeller’s lawyer in Geneva, Switzerland. But the original source of the money, according to two Shaheen associates I interviewed, was Princess Ashraf, the Shah’s twin sister.
On Nov. 4, 1980, one year to the day after the Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, Ronald Reagan routed Jimmy Carter in the U.S. presidential elections. In the weeks after the election, the hostage negotiations continued.
As Reagan’s Inauguration neared, Republicans talked tough, making clear that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t stand for the humiliation that the nation endured for 444 days under Carter. The Reagan-Bush team intimated that Reagan would deal harshly with Iran if it didn’t surrender the hostages.
A joke making the rounds of Washington went: “What’s three feet deep and glows in the dark? Teheran ten minutes after Ronald Reagan becomes President.”
On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 1981, just as Reagan was beginning his inaugural address, word came from Iran that the hostages were freed. The American people were overjoyed. The coincidence in timing between the hostage release and Reagan’s taking office immediately boosted the new President’s image as a tough guy who wouldn’t let the United States be pushed around.
The reality, however, appears to have been different. U.S. weapons soon began flowing secretly to Iran through Israel and participants in the October Surprise mystery got in line for payoffs.
The bank deal that Cyrus Hashemi and John Shaheen had discussed for months took final shape two days after Reagan’s Inauguration. On January 22, 1981, Shaheen opened the Hong Kong Deposit and Guaranty Bank with $20 million that had been funneled to him through Patry, the Rockefeller-connected lawyer in Geneva who was fronting for Princess Ashraf.
Why, I asked one of Shaheen’s associates, would Ashraf have invested $20 million in a bank with these dubious characters? “It was funny money,” the associate answered. He believed it was money that the Islamic revolutionary government was claiming as its own.
A second Shaheen associate said Shaheen was particularly secretive when asked about his relationship with the deposed princess. “When it comes to Ashraf, I’m a cemetery,” Shaheen once said.
From 1981 to 1984, Hong Kong Deposit and Guaranty pulled in hundreds of millions of petrodollars. The bank also attracted high-flying Arabs to its board of directors.
Two directors were Ghanim Al-Mazrouie, an Abu Dhabi official who controlled 10 percent of the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International, and Hassan Yassin, a cousin of Saudi financier Adnan Khashoggi and an adviser to BCCI principal Kamal Adham, the former chief of Saudi intelligence.
Though Cyrus Hashemi's name was not formally listed on the roster of the Hong Kong bank, he did receive cash from BCCI, al-Mazrouie’s bank. An FBI wiretap of Hashemi's office in early February 1981 picked up an advisory that “money from BCCI [is] to come in tomorrow from London on Concorde.” (In 1984, the Hong Kong Deposit and Guaranty collapsed and an estimated $100 million disappeared.)
Early in the Reagan-Bush administration, Joseph Reed, the aide to David Rockefeller, was appointed and confirmed as the new U.S. ambassador to Morocco. Before leaving for his posting, he visited the CIA and its new director, William Casey. As Reed arrived, CIA official Charles Cogan was getting up and preparing to leave Casey’s office.
Knowing Reed, Cogan lingered at the door. In a “secret” deposition to the House Task Force in 1992, Cogan said he had a “definite memory” of a comment Reed made about disrupting Carter's “October Surprise” of a pre-election release of the 52 American hostages in Iran.
But Cogan said he couldn’t recall the precise verb that Reed had used. “Joseph Reed said, ‘we’ and then the verb [and then] something about Carter's October Surprise,” Cogan testified. “The implication was we did something about Carter's October Surprise, but I don't have the exact wording.”
One congressional investigator, who discussed the recollection with Cogan in a less formal setting, concluded that the verb that Cogan chose not to repeat was an expletive relating to sex – as in “we fucked Carter’s October Surprise.”
During Cogan’s deposition, David Laufman, a Republican lawyer on the House Task Force and a former CIA official, asked Cogan if he had since “had occasion to ask him [Reed] about this” recollection?
Yes, Cogan replied, he recently had asked Reed about it, after Reed moved to a protocol job at the United Nations. “I called him up,” Cogan said. “He was at his farm in Connecticut, as I recall, and I just told him that, look, this is what sticks in my mind and what I am going to say [to Congress], and he didn't have any comment on it and continued on to other matters.”
”He didn't offer any explanation to you of what he meant?” asked Laufman.
”No,” answered Cogan.
”Nor did he deny that he had said it?” asked another Task Force lawyer Mark L. Shaffer.
”He didn't say anything,” Cogan responded. “We just continued on talking about other things.”
And so did the Task Force lawyers at this remarkable deposition on Dec. 21, 1992. The lawyers even failed to ask Cogan the obvious follow-up: What did Casey say and how did Casey react when Reed allegedly told Reagan’s ex-campaign chief that “we fucked Carter’s October Surprise.”
I found Cogan’s testimony and other incriminating documents in files left behind by the Task Force, which finished its half-hearted investigation of the October Surprise controversy in January 1993.
Among those files, I also discovered the notes of an FBI agent who tried to interview Joseph Reed about his October Surprise knowledge. The FBI man, Harry A. Penich, had scribbled down that “numerous telephone calls were placed to him [Reed]. He failed to answer any of them. I conservatively place the number over 10.”
Finally, Penich, armed with a subpoena, cornered Reed arriving home at his 50-acre estate in Greenwich, Connecticut. “He was surprised and absolutely livid at being served at home,” Penich wrote. “His responses could best be characterized as lashing out.”
Reed threatened to go over Penich's head. In hand-written “talking points” that Penich apparently used to brief an unnamed superior, the FBI agent wrote: “He [Reed] did it in such a way as to lead a reasonable person to believe he had influence w/you. The man's remarks were both inappropriate and improper.”
But the hard-ball tactics worked. When Reed finally consented to an interview, Task Force lawyers just went through the motions.
Penich took the interview notes and wrote that Reed “recalls no contact with Casey in 1980,” though Reed added that “their paths crossed many times because of Reed's position at Chase.” As for the 1981 CIA visit, Reed added that as the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Morocco, he “would have stopped in to see Casey and pay respect.”
But on whether Reed made any remark about obstructing Carter's October Surprise, Reed claimed he “does not specifically know what October Surprise refers to,” Penich scribbled down. [For a text of the Penich notes, click here. To see a PDF file of the actual notes, click here.]
The Task Force lawyers didn’t press hard. Most strikingly, the lawyers failed to confront Reed with evidence that would have impeached his contention that he had “no contact with Casey in 1980.” According to the sign-in sheets at the Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, which the Task Force had obtained, Reed saw Casey on Sept. 11, 1980, less than two months before the election.
When the official House Task Force report was issued on Jan. 13, 1993, the Task Force largely cleared the Republicans of the longstanding October Surprise charges, but that conclusion was based on tendentious interpretations of the published evidence and the withholding of many incriminating documents.
Among the evidence that was never shared with the American people was the fascinating connection between the powerful friends of David Rockefeller and the shadowy operatives who had maintained clandestine contacts with the Iranian mullahs during the long hostage crisis.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'