A Texas politician has claimed that he worked with a senior member of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign to convince Iran to delay releasing its hostages during the crisis of 1979 in a bid to derail Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid.
Ben Barnes, Texas’s former lieutenant governor, has claimed in an interview with The New York Times that John Connally Jr – once a governor of the same state and a high-ranking member of Reagan’s election team – took him on a secret diplomatic tour of the Middle East as part of a scheme to damage Carter by convincing Iran to hold on to its American hostages until after the election.
Mr. Carter was the US president when 52 diplomats and US citizens were taken hostage at the American embassy in Tehran by college students who supported the Iranian revolution.
Despite diplomatic efforts from the White House, the hostages were held for 444 days and the political crisis significantly damaged the Democratic president’s attempt to be re-elected. Mr. Carter was heavily defeated by his Republican rival in the election of 1980.
The hostages were released minutes after Reagan was sworn in as US president on Jan 20, 1981.
According to Mr. Barnes, Connally brought him to several Middle Eastern capitals to lobby regional leaders to convince Tehran that they would receive a better deal from Republican nominee Reagan if they kept the hostages until after the election.
Mr. Barnes told the newspaper that he was persuaded to come forward with his account by the news last month Mr. Carter is receiving home hospice care.
“History needs to know what happened,” Mr. Barnes told the newspaper. “I think it’s so significant and I guess knowing that the end is near for President Carter put it on my mind more and more and more. I just feel like we’ve got to get it down some way.”
According to the newspaper, records at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library show that Connally and Mr. Barnes left on a trip from Houston on July 18, 1980 to visit Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, and returned to the US on August 11.
Mr. Barnes said he was certain that the reason for the trip was to deliver the message to Iran to hold the hostages until after the election.
He claimed that when the pair met the first of a number of Middle Eastern leaders, Connally told them: “Look, Ronald Reagan’s going to be elected president and you need to get the word to Iran that they’re going to make a better deal with Reagan than they are Carter.”
Mr. Barnes added: “Yes [Connally] said, ‘It would be very smart for you to pass the word to the Iranians to wait until after this general election is over.’ And boy, I tell you, I’m sitting there and I heard it and so now it dawns on me, I realize why we’re there.
“I’ll go to my grave believing that it was the purpose of the trip.”
Mr. Barnes does not suggest that Reagan, who won two terms as US president, knew anything about the trip, but Mr. Barnes told The New York Times that Connally briefed the chairman of Reagan’s campaign, William Casey, when they returned to the US.
Mr Barnes claimed that Casey, who went on to be director of the CIA under Reagan, wanted to know whether “they were going to hold the hostages”.
“It wasn’t freelancing because Casey was so interested in hearing as soon as we got back to the United States.”
In 1992 and again in 1993, Congress held separate inquiries that investigated alleged collusion between the Reagan campaign and Tehran and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
The timing of the release of the hostages has over the years given rise to conspiracy theories and allegations that Reagan’s team conspired with Iran in a bid to prevent the release and stop Mr Carter pulling off an “October surprise” – a news event shortly before a presidential election that could swing the vote in one candidate’s favor.
The Reagan administration was accused by some – namely former Iranian president Abolhassan Banisadr – of rewarding Tehran by supplying the regime with weapons and releasing Iranian assets held in US banks.
Connally died in 1993. His eldest son, John Connally III, told The New York Times that he remembered his father taking the trip but that he did not know of any communication with Iran.
He said: “No mention was made in any meeting I was in about any message being sent to the Iranians.” It doesn’t sound like my dad.”
Casey died in 1987, while Reagan passed away in 2004.
Mr. Barnes, a Democrat, was a fundraiser for John Kerry’s failed bid for president in 2004 and was Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.