More than three decades after leaving office, former President Jimmy Carter says he still hasn't made up his mind on whether Ronald Reagan's campaign secretly sabotaged his negotiations with Iran to gain release of 52 American hostages then being held by the radical Islamist government.
In an interview for a new book, Conversations with Power by Brian Michael Till, Carter expresses uncertainty about the old political mystery known as the October Surprise case, but he reveals that he has discussed the matter with his former national security aide Gary Sick, who embraced the suspicions in a 1991 book, October Surprise.
"I have never taken a position on that because I don't know the facts," Carter told Till. "I've seen explanations that were made by George H.W. Bush and the Reagan people, and I've read Gary Sick's book and talked to him about it. I don't really know."
Still, Carter said he remains curious as to why the Iranians waited until immediately after Reagan was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981, to allow the hostages to fly out of Tehran.
"The thing that I do know is that after they [the Iranians] decided to hold the hostages until after the election, I did everything I could to get them extracted, and the last three days I was president, I never went to bed at all. I stayed up the whole time in the Oval Office to negotiate this extremely complex arrangement to get the hostages removed and to deal with $12 billion in Iranian cash and gold.
"And I completed everything by six o'clock on the morning that I was supposed to go out of office. All the hostages were transferred to airplanes and they were waiting in the airplanes. I knew this -- so they were ready to take off -- and I went to the reviewing stand when Reagan became president.
"Five minutes after he was president, the planes took off. They could have left three or four hours earlier. But what, if any, influence was used on the Ayatollah [Ruhollah Khomeini] to wait until I was out of office. I don't know."
For the past three decades, Carter has seemed more concerned about being accused of sour grapes than learning the truth about whether a Republican dirty trick helped sink his presidency.
In 1996, while meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, Carter reportedly raised his hands into a physical stop position when Arafat tried to confess his role in the Republican maneuvering to block Carter's Iran-hostage negotiations.
"There is something I want to tell you," Arafat said, addressing Carter at a meeting in Arafat's bunker in Gaza City in the presence of historian Douglas Brinkley. "You should know that in 1980 the Republicans approached me with an arms deal [for the PLO] if I could arrange to keep the hostages in Iran until after the [U.S. presidential] election."
Arafat was apparently prepared to provide additional details and evidence, but Carter raised his hands, indicating that he didn't want to hear anymore.
In the interview with Till, Carter also expressed continued uncertainty as to why a crucial helicopter for the U.S. hostage-rescue operation in April 1980 turned back rather than fly on to Tehran, a decision that forced the surprise assault to be scrubbed, a huge embarrassment for the Carter administration.
To carry out the mission, Carter had ordered eight helicopters to take part, including two as backups. As the mission proceeded, two helicopters developed mechanical troubles, cutting the number to the minimal of six. But one helicopter had turned back "with no reasonable explanation," Carter said, forcing the rescue to be called off when the number of available helicopters dropped to five.