Determined to help Iran counter Iraq -- and hopeful about rebuilding at least covert ties to Tehran -- Begin's government cleared the first small shipments of U.S. military supplies to Iran in spring 1980, including 300 tires for Iran's U.S.-manufactured jet fighters. Soon, Carter learned about the covert shipments and lodged an angry complaint.
"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 in an interview.
"And it stopped," Powell said. At least, it stopped temporarily.
"Too Friendly with Arabs'
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Carter said he felt that by April 1980, "Israel cast their lot with Reagan," according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of a congressional investigation conducted in 1992.
Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his possible reelection in 1980 to a "lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs."
Begin's alarm about a possible Carter second term was described, too, by Israeli intelligence and foreign affairs official David Kimche in his 1991 book, The Last Option. Kimche wrote that Begin's government believed that Carter was overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and was conspiring with Arabs to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.
"Begin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington," Kimche wrote. "They had, moreover, the apparent blessing of the two presidents, Carter and Sadat, for this bizarre and clumsy attempt at collusion designed to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state."
Extensive evidence now exists that Begin's preference for a Reagan victory led Israelis to join in a covert operation with Republicans to contact Iranian leaders behind Carter's back and delay release of the 52 American hostages until after Reagan defeated Carter in November 1980.
That controversy, known as the "October Surprise" case, and its sequel, the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-1980s, involved clandestine ties between some leading figures in today's Iranian disputes and U.S. and Israeli officials who supplied Iran with missiles and other weaponry for its war with Iraq.
In 1980, Khamenei, who was then an influential aide to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, appears to have been part of a contingent exploring ways to resolve the hostage dispute with Carter.
According to Army Col. Charles Wesley Scott, one of the 52 hostages, Khamenei visited him on May 1, 1980, at the old U.S. consulate in Tabriz to ask whether milder demands from Iran to the Carter administration might lead to a resolution of the hostage impasse and allow the resumption of U.S. military supplies, former National Security Council aide Gary Sick reported in his book October Surprise.
"You're asking the wrong man," Scott replied, noting that he had been out of touch with his government during his five months of captivity before adding that he doubted the Carter administration would be eager to resume military shipments quickly.
"Frankly, my guess is that it will be a long time before you'll get any cooperation on spare parts from America, after what you've done and continue to do to us," Scott said he told Khamenei.
However, Khamenei's outreach to a captive U.S. military officer -- outlining terms that became the basis of a near settlement of the crisis with the Carter administration in September 1980 -- suggests that Khamenei favored a more traditional approach toward resolving the hostage crisis than the parallel channel that soon involved the Israelis and the Republicans.