History Commons Groups

November 11, 2008

The October Surprise according to Mark Bowden

A couple of years ago, the author and journalist Mark Bowden, most famous for writing Black Hawk Down about a battle between US troops and local forces in Somalia, wrote an extremely long history of the Iranian Hostage Crisis entitled Guests of the Ayatollah. It goes on for over six hundred pages and on page 627-628 we find the following paragraph, the only one in the book, about the alleged agreement between the Reagan campaign and the Iranian leadership known as the October Surprise:

“[Mousavi Khoeniha, a spiritual adviser to the hostage-takers] dismissed as immaterial the popular American theory of an ‘October Surprise,’ the theory mounted most compellingly by former Carter adviser Gary Sick in a book by that name. Sick shows that several of Reagan’s advisers, most notably his campaign manager William Casey (later CIA director), intervened through Iranian friends in the summer and fall of 1980 in an effort to prolong the hostages’ ordeal until after the November elections. Sick makes a strong case that such contacts were made, and the efforts were confirmed by Khoeniha, several of the other hostage takers, and also Sadegh Tabatabai, the former provisional government official who instigated the talks with Warren Christopher that eventually led the the hostages’ release. Like the cleric, they found the Reagan campaign’s efforts a revealing peak at the cynical underside of American politics but said they had little bearing on Iran’s decision to hang on to the hostages until Carter officially left office.”

This was—and still is—obviously major news, and there are several issues that need to be tackled.

(1) This is extremely strong confirmation of the first element of the October Surprise (the negotiations between the Reagan campaign and the hostage takers), as Bowden has the talks confirmed by the hostage takers’ spiritual adviser, a former Iranian government official and “several of the other hostage takers.” This confirmation from multiple, knowledgeable sources clearly lifts the October Surprise out of the “conspiracy dungeon” to the level of an established fact. Let us not mince words about what happened: the Reagan campaign negotiated with Iranian representatives in order to prolong the unlawful incarceration of American government employees and gain a political benefit—hampering President Jimmy Carter’s re-election chances.

(2) Bowden’s treatment of the issue is incomprehensible. Why is the information relegated to a single paragraph on page 628? He spends pages and pages on the minutiae of the hostages’ lives, their food, their clothing, their sleeping arrangements. He describes in detail other meetings at which the hostages were discussed by American and Iranian representatives. So why does he not describe these talks in detail as well? As one of Bowden’s readers, I would have been happy to learn the details of the negotiations.

Given the explosiveness of Bowden’s October Surprise revelations, it is amazing that they have received absolutely no comment anywhere on the internet. I just searched for the paragraph I quoted and the only hits I got back were for Google’s book service. This is certainly in part due to the information’s lack of prominence in Bowden’s book.

(3) While the Iranians Bowden talked to admitted the first element of the October Surprise, they denied the second element—that they had any bearing on Iran’s decision to delay releasing the hostages. Obviously, Bowden can only report what his sources tell him, and if they tell him the negotiations had no influence on the decision to finally release the hostages twenty minutes after Reagan had given his inaugural address, then he has to report that, instead of putting words in their mouth or twisting what they say.

However, although a journalist is under a duty to faithfully report what sources say, he is not under a duty to faithfully believe them, as they may be ill-informed or even lying. Here, there are grounds for at least questioning the accuracy of the claims that the October Surprise negotiations had no bearing on the timing of the hostages’ release. Firstly, let’s set out what we are being asked to believe: the Iranians and the Reagan campaign talked about the hostages and the campaign gave the Iranians to understand that they would like them to retain the hostages until after the election. Although Bowden does not say what was promised to the Iranians in return, it has elsewhere been reported to be arms. Then, we are told, the Iranians said no thank you to the quid pro quo, but complied with the Reagan campaign’s request anyway. Given that Saddam Hussein attacked Iran on 22 September 1980 starting the Iran-Iraq War and the Iranians were in desperate need of spare parts for their American-supplied military hardware, one is entitled to wonder whether the narrative is accurate. In the middle of a battle for their survival against the Godless Saddam Hussein, would the Iranians really turn down weapons that could help them win the war?

In addition, throughout the book, Bowden details the various attempts to get the hostages released and how they come to grief in Iran. Essentially, they all floundered on the same rock: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was the ultimate decider on the hostages’ fate. For example, on page 400 we read that an April 1980 attempt to set the hostages free was stopped by Khomeini: “A message essentially complying to [Iranian conditions for the hostages’ release] was drafted and sent to Iran but to no avail. Before it reached [Iranian President Abolhassan] Bani-Sadr, the effort to move the hostages was again vetoed by Khomeini, and the slippery Iranian president gave up.” This is typical of the book: although Khomeini is constantly vetoing the hostages’ release, Bowden never tells us what his motivation for doing this is. This is fair enough, though. Bowden doesn’t know and doesn’t usually claim to know what Khomeini’s motivation was.

How Bowden knows that the October Surprise negotiations did not influence Khomeini’s decision to have the hostages released twenty minutes after Reagan’s inaugural address is not expressly stated. Presumably, this is something that Khoeniha or Tabatabai told him, and it is certainly possible that one or both of them could have been told this by a person in Khomeini’s circle. However, as we don’t know why they think they know this, there is certainly reason to be sceptical of their claims.

(4) Finally, it should be pointed out that what Bowden wrote is ambiguous. The claim that the October Surprise negotiations “had little bearing on Iran’s decision to hang on to the hostages until Carter official left office” also accurately describes a situation whereby the Iranians had already decided to hang on to the hostages until after the election before they were approached by the Reagan campaign. In this meaning, they accepted whatever the Reagan campaign offered as they had every intention of complying with its request even before the request was made. Having said that, it should be emphasised that it is unclear whether Bowden was aware the passage was ambiguous when he wrote it.

So, to sum up, good on Bowden for talking to so many sources and writing such an extensively researched book, but bad on him for burying such important information in a single paragraph on page 628 and bad on him for uncritically believing his sources when they told him the decision to release the hostages just after Reagan took office, which was taken by Khomeini, was not influenced by the negotiations, if this is indeed what he means.


  1. It’s plain (as plain as it can be considering I haven’t read the book) that Bowden was more interested in writing about the hostages themselves than any political machinations going on between the Iranians and the Reagan campaign. Either Bowden really didn’t know anything more than what he wrote, or what he did know didn’t fit in with his main thesis and he chose to leave it out. If the second is true, he does his readers a disservice by not more fully reporting on the “October Surprise.” Either way, the confirmation from the Iranians is stunning and worthy of follow-up.

    Kevin, you really, really should contact both Bowden and Bamford (regarding your previous post) and ask them to comment on your critiques and questions. Are you planning to process Bowden’s book for the site?

    On a different note, something is squirrely about WordPress’s handling of italics. Let’s refrain from using the <i> tags for now. The em tags work fine, I think.

    Comment by Max — November 11, 2008 @ 1:42 pm | Reply

  2. Max, the think with Bowden is that he writes not just about the hostages daily lives in captivity, but also, and in some detail, about the diplomatic contacts between the Carter administration and the Iranians. If the book were just about the hostages, then I could understand not writing about talks between the Reagan campaign and the Iranians better. So I think it may well have fitted in to his main thesis, but he just didn’t want to go there.

    I don’t have any plans to process Bowden’s book, althugh there is some material in there that is interesting to us, or would be if we went for the Iranian embassy siege. By the way, it is not such a page-turner as Black Hawk Down, but that is probably more due to the turgid nature of the subject matter than Bowden’s skill as a writer. The Black Hawk Down firefight was just more exciting than, say, the tenth month of captivity for the hostages.

    Comment by kevinfenton — November 12, 2008 @ 3:38 am | Reply

  3. Hi KentonFention–This is obsolete information. Much more is known about this story. Please consult Robert Parry’s “Trick or Treason: The October Surprise Mystery” for the best account. You can also look at summaries on Bob’s website http://www.consortiumnews.com/archive/xfile.html. Good luck with your great work! William Shanley

    Comment by William Shanley — November 14, 2008 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

  4. William, sorry for your comment getting lost for a time. WordPress filed it as spam (?). Anyway, I’m glad you cited Bob Parry and Consortium News’s work on the “October Surprise,” it is excellent. When I get somewhat ahead of the curve with the thousand and one other things going on with the Commons, I intend to create some entries for the Iran-Contra timeline based on Bob’s work. Or better yet, you could step up and do some…!

    Comment by Max — November 15, 2008 @ 6:28 pm | Reply

  5. Hi William,

    thanks for the link. I am generally aware of Robert Parry, but haven’t read the article you mentioned yet. Will do so soon.

    Comment by kevinfenton — November 16, 2008 @ 6:45 am | Reply

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