What did the Iranians know, and when did they know it?
Or to flesh out the specifics:
When incumbent Jimmy Carter was desperately trying to negotiate the return of 52 hostages from Iran in time to strengthen his 1980 re-election bid, had the Iranians already been promised they could cut a better deal if they stonewalled until Ronald Reagan's election was assured?
According to the current issue of Newsweek magazine, this line of inquiry has been pursued - unsuccessfully so far - by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. Reportedly, investigators for the congressional committees may have discreetly chummed the same waters.
But the most logical time to pop such a question would have been July 28, when Attorney General Edwin Meese 3rd was testifying on national television. Under oath. Without immunity. And with no fellow-lawyer to shout objections.
In 1980, remember, Meese was one of two major strategists engineering Reagan's election campaign. The other mahoff was CIA director-to-be William
Casey, who died before the investigators could get a whack at him.
Speculation that Casey and Meese may have been privy to a pre-election deal with Iran is not exactly new. Although Newsweek is the first "mainstream" publication to mention it, the likelihood of such a plot was examined in depth six weeks ago by the "alternative press" weekly, In These Times, under the joint bylines of Barbara Honegger and Jim Naureckas.
Despite the unapologetically liberal-left orientation of ITT, Honegger's name makes it hard for the Reaganites to dismiss her reporting as radical pap. In the fall of 1980, she was working for the GOP as a researcher at Reagan's national campaign headquarters!
At the time, you'll recall, Reagan was making demagogic capital of Carter's inability to free the 52 hostages held since the Nov. 4, 1979, takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
But while Reagan flayed Carter publicly, the candidate's strategists were in private dread of what they termed an "October surprise," whereby Carter might gain release of the hostages in time to overtake Reagan in the polls.
Those fears were reinforced by the prediction of Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin that Carter would pick up enough late support to win if the hostages were freed before the campaign's final week.
In fact, Carter was reported close to finalizing the hostages' release until Oct. 22, when Iran abruptly changed its terms. With that, the mood at Reagan headquarters brightened. According to Honegger, an elated staffer told her:
"We don't have to worry about an 'October surprise.' Dick cut a deal."
Dick was Reagan's foreign policy coach, Richard Allen, then intimately associated with the Casey-Meese axis, but soon to become Reagan's national security adviser and the man who would hire Oliver North.
As for the "deal" Allen cut, evidence assembled by Honegger and Naureckas compellingly suggests the Iranians may have been guaranteed shipments of U.S. arms, if they delayed agreeing to free the hostages until after Reagan was elected.
By the time Carter did complete negotiations - on terms that did not include any promise of arms shipments, remember - the voters had rejected him.
We have since learned how the Reaganites did ship arms to Tehran, and when.
But the Iran-Contra panel blew a golden opportunity to make Edwin Meese explain why.