Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has taken a page from right-wing mythology as the foundation for his tough-guy policy toward Iran, citing the supposed "history" of Ronald Reagan scaring the Iranians into releasing 52 American hostages on Jan. 20, 1981.
This account of a macho Reagan staring down the Iranians after they had mocked Jimmy Carter for 444 days is a cherished canard of the American Right, reprised again Tuesday in Romney's Washington Post op-ed, which states:. "Running for the presidency against Carter [in 1980], Ronald Reagan made it crystal clear that the Iranians would pay a very stiff price for continuing their criminal behavior."
But that swaggering tale of Reagan's toughness is not supported by the historical record. Not only does the overwhelming evidence now show that Reagan's campaign team negotiated secretly behind President Carter's back to undercut his efforts to free the hostages, but Reagan then followed up their release by authorizing secret shipments of weapons to Iran via Israel.
In other words, instead of bullying the Iranians over their hostage-taking, Reagan rewarded them. And those shipments did not begin in 1985, with the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage deals, but rather almost immediately after Reagan took office in 1981, according to a number of Israeli and U.S. government officials.
For instance, Israeli arms dealer William Northrop claimed in an affidavit that that even before Reagan's inauguration, Israel had sounded out the incoming administration regarding its attitudes toward more weapons shipments to Iran and got "the new administration's approval."
By March 1981, millions of dollars in weapons were moving through the Israeli arms pipeline, Norththrop said, including spare parts for U.S.-made aircraft and tons of other hardware. Northrop added that Israel routinely informed the new Reagan administration of its shipments.
(Northrop was indicted by the U.S. government in spring 1986 for his role in allegedly unauthorized shipments of U.S. weapons to Iran, but the case was thrown out after Reagan's Iran-Contra arms deal with Iran was exposed in fall 1986).
On July 18, 1981, one of Israel's secret weapons deliveries to Iran went awry. A chartered Argentine plane strayed off course and crashed (or was shot down) in Soviet territory, threatening to reveal the clandestine deliveries, which surely would have outraged the U.S. people if they had learned that Israel was supplying weapons to Iran with Reagan's secret blessing -- just months after the hostage crisis had ended.
After the plane went down, Nicholas Veliotes, a career diplomat serving as Reagan's assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, tried to get to the bottom of the mysterious weapons flight...
"'We received a press report from Tass [the official Soviet news agency] that an Argentinian plane had crashed,' Veliotes said in a later interview with PBS 'Frontline' producers. 'According to the documents ... this was chartered by Israel and it was carrying American military equipment to Iran. ...
"'And it was clear to me after my conversations with people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could trans-ship to Iran some American-origin military equipment. Now this was not a covert operation in the classic sense, for which probably you could get a legal justification for it. As it stood, I believe it was the initiative of a few people [who] gave the Israelis the go-ahead. The net result was a violation of American law.'"
The reason that the Israeli flights violated U.S. law was that Reagan had not given formal notification to Congress about the trans-shipment of U.S. military equipment as required by the Arms Export Control Act. If he had, the embarrassing reality of the arms pay-off to Iran would almost surely have leaked -- and questions might have been asked about why Reagan was making the pay-off in the first place.
In checking out the Israeli flight, Veliotes came to believe that the Reagan camp's dealings with Iran dated back to before the 1980 election.
"It seems to have started in earnest in the period probably prior to the election of 1980, as the Israelis had identified who would become the new players in the national security area in the Reagan administration," Veliotes said. "And I understand some contacts were made at that time."