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A Near-Miss That Almost Changed History

The Iran Hostage Crisis Re-visited

In November of 1979 the staff of the US Embassy in Teheran was taken prisoner by mobs controlled by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Two months of diplomatic pressures and direct threats hadn’t freed them.

But in early 1980, I came close.

I thought I knew then why I’d failed, but I didn’t know the half of it. Decades of investigative reports have now revealed the truth. Any efforts to free those hostages before the U.S. Presidential election that next November would have been undermined by powerful operatives in Ronald Reagan’s election campaign who saw that keeping the hostage crisis on the front burner would be a fatal blow to the chances of Jimmy Carter winning a second term.

I was at the time an American diplomat at the US Mission to the United Nations in New York. I’d been ordered not to talk to members of the Cuban delegation, our sworn enemies since Castro’s Communist takeover there. I thought that was stupid, so I talked often with the Castro Cubans, usually in bars well off the UN campus. They were baseball nuts as was I, so baseball became a vehicle for establishing respect and friendships with these people on the US hate list. It also led to an exchange that could have freed the American hostages in Tehran a year before they were finally released. Here's the section of my memoir, Quest, that gives you that story:

"In January, 1980, I went to Belgrade to track another meeting of the Nonaligned Movement. On the last night there, Ricardo and his boss invited me out for a “real workers’ meal”—meaning beans and pork and cheap red wine—at a run-down restaurant in the city’s industrial section. To the great discomfort of the Cubans, the Yugoslav government had insisted on supplying them with a huge black chauffeured limousine for their stay. Ricardo had directed the car to park a block away from the restaurant, and we’d walked the rest of the way. “We are socialists,” he’d said. “No way we drive up to a workers’restaurant in a limo.”

"It took a half bottle of hot sauce before the Cubans pronounced the meal acceptable. That was also when they ordered the fourth bottle of wine.

"After a long argument about the collapse of Red Sox pitching, the talk turned to politics.

"Two months earlier, the staff of the American Embassy in Teheran had been taken prisoner by mobs controlled by the Ayatollah Khomeini and no amount of direct threats or diplomatic pressures had worked to get them freed. America needed somebody else’s good offices and to me the Cubans, with their good links to Khomeini, seemed perfect. I brought up my idea. The waiter brought more wine.

"The Cubans, naturally, wanted to know what would be in such a deal for Cuba? About two in the morning we sketched out a plan on a napkin that would have traded Cuba’s help in freeing the hostages for a loosening of the American economic embargo on their island. We all thought it was a great idea.

"I assumed the notes had disappeared with the hangovers, but two weeks later in New York, Ricardo pulled me aside in a corner near the General Assembly hall and whispered: “The old man says we’ll do it.” When I looked puzzled, Ricardo sighed in frustration, wary of people watching us. “I mean,” he said very deliberately, “that Fidel Castro wants to pursue our plan. He will help free your people in Teheran.”

"I all but ran across the street to my office with the news, but when the Mission sent Castro’s offer down to the State Department, it was rejected outright. Subject to pressure from right-wing Cubans in Florida, the US government was not willing to give Castro the kind of PR coup he’d scoreif he got our people out. Nor was it ready to loosen the embargo under any circumstances. Instead, I got my knuckles rapped for encouraging the enemy.

" Considering Cuba’s close ties to Iran at the time, it seems likely they could have pulled off their end of the plan. The hostages were finally freed in early 1981 when the Algerians played a role almost identical to the one I’d suggested for the Cubans in Belgrade.

"The lesson for me—repeated many times since—was that my enthusiasm for doing ‘the right thing’ didn’t necessarily make others more receptive. Boldness scared more people than it attracted, and ideals raised more suspicions than they dispelled. None of this discouraged me. It just made the challenges more interesting."

Thinking about it now, I know even that account in my memoir was naïve. It wasn’t the influence of Miami Cubans that torpedoed the plan I’d cooked up with the Castro Cubans in Belgrade, but bareknuckle electoral politics. Reagan’s campaign thugs were sure that a release of the prisoners on President Carter’s watch could mean he’d beat Reagan. Failure to get them released made Carter the loser they wanted him to be. Their release on the day of Reagan’s inauguration made it clear that something had been afoot. How much is only now being revealed, most recently in a New York Times interview last month with Stewart Spencer, the chief strategist and architect of Reagan’s 1980 general election campaign. Spencer said that he believed then—and now—that Carter might have won if the American hostages seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 had been released before the 1980 election.

Bill Casey, a key Reagan dirty tricks guy, was determined not to let that happen. Spencer said that that in early 1980, Casey had persuaded former Texas Governor John Connally to embark on a secret mission to the Middle East, where Connally and his associate, Ben Barnes, asked various Arab leaders to urge the Iranians not to release the 52 hostages. Spencer’s firsthand account was only the latest evidence that Casey prolonged their captivity in order to help his candidate win.

Planning for such an elaborate plot had to have been set in motion soon after the Iranian action, when Casey and others realized what a winning card they’d been handed. Were they going to let some maverick US diplomat at the United Nations upset their plans? Not a chance. No matter that they were prolonging the suffering of the captives. This was about winning the White House.

Bill Casey and all those who helped him sold out the hostages and their country. I’m glad their guilt is now known, and that history can tell the story right.

Again, my account is in Quest—Risk, Adventure and the Search for Meaning, available from your favorite bookseller and on Amazon. There’s a 90-second trailer here.