For the second time in four months, Mitt Romney has penned a tough-talking op-ed on the Iranian nuclear program. But this time, the almost certain GOP presidential nominee has introduced a new riff to his constant refrain that "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon." Now in his Washington Post piece and again in his speech Tuesday to AIPAC, Romney has portrayed himself as a modern day Ronald Reagan who will force Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions just as it did the 52 U.S. hostages in 1981. Unfortunately, Mitt forgot the full story of the Gipper's experience with Iran. As it turned out, in the Iran-Contra scandal that almost ended his presidency, Ronald Reagan gave the mullahs in Tehran not a show of American might, but a cake, a Bible - and U.S. arms.
Romney first Reagan impersonation appeared in Monday's Washington Post as a follow up to November's "I Won't Let Iran Get Nukes." In it, he cast Barack Obama as "America's most feckless president since Carter" and cast himself as the Gipper:
Beginning Nov. 4, 1979 , dozens of U.S. diplomats were held hostage by Iranian Islamic revolutionaries for 444 days while America's feckless president, Jimmy Carter, fretted in the White House. Running for the presidency against Carter the next year, Ronald Reagan made it crystal clear that the Iranians would pay a very stiff price for continuing their criminal behavior. On Jan. 20, 1981, in the hour that Reagan was sworn into office, Iran released the hostages. The Iranians well understood that Reagan was serious about turning words into action in a way that Jimmy Carter never was.
Speaking by satellite Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy (AIPAC) Conference, Mitt again donned his Reagan mask (around the 8:40 mark above):
"I believe the right course is what Ronald Reagan called 'peace through strength.' There is a reason why the Iranians released the hostages on the same day and at the same hour that Reagan was sworn into office. As President, I will offer that kind of clarity, strength, and resolve."
Apparently, Mitt Romney wasn't paying attention to the rest of Reagan's performance. That would be the part when Ronald Reagan swapped arms for hostages with Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Iran-Contra scandal, as you'll recall, almost laid waste to the Reagan presidency. Desperate to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, President Reagan provided weapons Tehran badly needed in its long war with Saddam Hussein (who, of course, was backed by the United States). In a clumsy and illegal attempt to skirt U.S. law, the proceeds of those sales were then funneled to the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And as the New York Times recalled, Reagan's fiasco started with an emissary bearing gifts from the Gipper himself:
A retired Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that on the secret mission to Teheran last May, Robert C. McFarlane and his party carried a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders.
According to a person who has read the committee's draft report, the retired C.I.A. official, George W. Cave, an Iran expert who was part of the mission, said the group had 10 falsified passports, believed to be Irish, and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ''opening'' to Iran.
The rest, as they say, is history. After the revelations regarding his trip to Tehran and the Iran-Contra scheme, a disgraced McFarlane attempted suicide. (That would be the same Bud McFarlane whose endorsement Newt Gingrich touted during a reecent GOP debate.) After his initial denials, President Reagan was forced to address the nation on March 4, 1987 and acknowledge he indeed swapped arms for hostages (video here):
"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages."
Of course, the sad saga didn't end there. Then Lt. Colonel and now Fox News commentator Oliver North saw his Iran-Contra conviction overturned by an appellate court led by faithful Republican partisan and later Iraq WMD commissioner Laurence Silberman. And in December 1992, outgoing President George H.W. Bush offered Christmas pardons to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra scandal figures. Among them were John Poindexter and Elliott Abrams, men who eight years later reprised their roles in the administration of George W. Bush.
As it turns out, Elliott Abrams - one of the people who brought you the Iraq War - is also now providing ammunition for Mitt Romney. As Washington Post blogger and Romney stenographer Jennifer Rubin wrote Monday after President Obama's address to AIPAC:
As former deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams explains, "Military and intelligence cooperation is excellent, and American diplomatic support for an isolated Israel was repeatedly (though not always, as he suggested) forthcoming. Still, any effort to paper over the differences between his administration and the Netanyahu government--or worse yet, to make believe there really are no important differences--was bound to fail." Facts are stubborn things, and Obama's record is so error-strewn and so different in tenor from predecessors that no speech can paper over the last three years.
Facts are, as Ronald Reagan liked to say, stubborn things. Among those facts is that with the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan disgraced himself and his country. Which is why Mitt Romney had it right for once back in 1994 when he proclaimed:
"I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush; I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."
Sadly, 18 years later and 25 years after Iran-Contra, Ronald Romney is trying to rewrite that history, too.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)