Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Gary Sick, Discredited but Honored

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Gary Sick, Discredited but Honored

Article excerpt

The so-called 'October Surprise" plot that briefly enthralled the American public twenty years ago is one of the most influential political conspiracy theories in U. S. history. As the story goes, fearful that the release of fifty-two American hostages in Iran before the November 1 980 presidential election would secure President Carter a second term in office, the campaign of Republican candidate Ronald Reagan agreed to funnel weapons to the Islamic Republic in exchange for a delay in the hostage release until after the vote.

First floated by Lyndon Larouche and his followers shortly after Reagan's landslide victory,1 the conspiracy theory remained obscure until the Iran-Contra scandal suddenly gave the idea of such collusion an aura of plausibility. Since the Iranians clearly had it in their power to have an impact on the 1 980 election, it was not unreasonable to surmise that they would have sought to leverage this influence. Those who loathe the political right in the United States found it difficult to accept that the Iranians held off on releasing the hostages until after Reagan's inauguration without some form of quid pro quo.

The first to lend gravitas and mainstream credibility to allegations of a delay-for-arms deal was Gary Sick, a member of the National Security Council under Carter and his chief advisor on Iran. Now at Columbia University, Sick had written a well-received book on the 1979 Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage onus, All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran2 In an April 1 99 1 New York Times op-ed, Sick wrote that "hundreds of interviews in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East" with mostly anonymous sources had led him to conclude that "individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages."3 Later that year, he published his findings in October Surprise: America Js Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan,4 an account that combined a heavily footnoted script with sensationalist revelations about political corruption and treason.

One man's accusations have not had such a sweeping impact on public perceptions since the McCarthy era. With all of the major television networks covering the story incessantly, a January 1992 poll showed that 55 percent of Americans believed the allegations.5

With the United States still reeling from the Iran-Contra affair, Sick's accusations triggered a string of devastating journalistic critiques6 and two congressional inquiries that definitively discredited the October Surprise conspiracy theory.7 However, while Sen. Joseph McCarthy was destroyed by his irresponsible allegations, The October Surprise made Sick a star. Today he is a much sought-after commentator on Iran and Middle Eastern affairs with frequent appearances on CNN and C-Span, columns in The Daily Beasf and Foreign Policy,9 and a solid scholarly standing at Columbia - despite having published no subsequent books.

This success is indicative of how lucrative stridently politicized pseudo-research on the Middle East can be. While many of his liberal compatriots have come to acknowledge that the specific allegations he put forth in October Surprise are unfounded, most are unwilling to discard either their lingering suspicions that some form of delay -for-arms deal was made or find significant fault in Sick himself. If he got it wrong, the consensus appears to be, it was an honest mistake.


However, a close examination of one glaring misstep by Sick - largely unnoticed until now only because his book was discredited on other grounds - raises new questions about this verdict. Much of his argument rests on testimony he obtained from Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli who claimed to have been a top Mossad agent deeply involved in Iranian affairs. Central to his story is Mehdi Kashani, whom Ben-Menashe placed both in Israel in early 1 980 as an emissary of the Islamic Republic looking for an arms deal, and in Madrid and Paris during the spring, summer, and fall of that y ear as a member of the Iranian teams involved in the alleged meetings with the Reagan campaign. …

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