Gary Sick

Gary Sick


* Board member of Human Rights Watch
* Professor at Columbia University
* Served as the Ford Foundation’s Deputy Director for International Affairs from 1982-87
* Exhorts the U.S. to maintain diplomatic relations with Iran

Born on April 4, 1935, Gary Sick earned a BA from the University of Kansas in 1957, an MS from George Washington University in 1970, and a PhD from Columbia University in 1973. He served on the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter (1977-81), and also briefly under Presidents Gerald Ford (1976) and Ronald Reagan (1981). Sick was Carter’s principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis of 1979-81. According to former CIA analyst-turned-Brookings Institution scholar Ken Pollack, the Iranian radicals who kidnapped several dozen American hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 “initially … had intended to hold the embassy for just a few hours.” They changed their minds, however, when Sick leaked information to the Boston Globe indicating that President Carter had definitively ruled out any and all military options for the U.S. Confident that no force would be used against them, the captors went on to hold the hostages for 444 days.

From 1982-87, Sick was deputy director for international affairs at the Ford Foundation, where he oversaw programs relating to U.S. foreign policy. He has also served as: (a) a Global Political Risk Advisory Board member for the PIRA Energy Group, an energy-consulting firm; and (b) a Board of Governors member of the Centre for World Dialogue, an anti-sanctions organization whose mission is to promote rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

Sick is most famous for having popularized the “October Surprise” conspiracy theory which, as he wrote in a 1991 editorial in The New York Times, alleged that “individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush [presidential] campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the U.S. election,” in hopes that the unresolved crisis would harm the re-election bid of incumbent President Jimmy Carter. “For this favor,” Sick continued, “Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel.”

Sick’s theory took the national media by storm and led former president Carter to call for an investigation. Sick then proceeded to expand his assertions in the 1992 book October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan, wherein he described Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory as a “covert political coup.” The author was invited to discuss his allegations in numerous venues, including two Donahue shows, ABC‘s Nightline, and PBS‘s Frontline and MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. He was widely interviewed by print and broadcast outlets alike; was often quoted in the Washington Post and New York Times; and received respectful attention from Washington columnists and liberal talk-show hosts.

Under scrutiny, however, Sick’s “October Surprise” conspiracy theory was thoroughly discredited by a wide range of sources including independent investigations as well as House and Senate probes. Indeed, _The _New York Times reported on January 12, 1993 that a bipartisan House panel, after interviewing more than 230 witnesses, had “concluded that there is no merit to the persistent accusations that people associated with the 1980 Presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan struck a secret deal with Iran to delay the release of American hostages until after the election.” Even more emphatically, in March 1993 the American Spectator reported that: (a) “the ‘October Surprise’ episode … represents one of the most scandalous political hoaxes this century”; (b) a ten-month bipartisan congressional investigation had “devastated every single aspect of Sick’s fabrication”; (c) “every single source [Sick] cited in his book had been discredited as a liar” or a “wholesale fabricato[r]”; (d) “all of the meetings that Sick had described in great detailand which he said he ‘independently confirmed’never occurred”; and (e) “all of the clandestine U.S. or Israeli arms sales to Iran that Sick enumerated never happened.” The Spectator concluded that “a critical analysis of Sick’s book October Surprise … and every one of his footnotes juxtaposed against the findings of the 968-page congressional report, shows that Sick was not just a dupe in the matter but a deliberate purveyor of falsehoods.”

In 1991 Sick said that he had come to believe the various components of his October Surprise narrative very slowly, deliberately, and reluctantly—and only as a result of compelling testimony by many people whom he had interviewed regarding the matter. But documents acquired by congressional investigators subsequently proved beyond any doubt that Sick had fully accepted the conspiracy theory as early as June 1989before he had conducted even a single interview, and at which time the theory was based only on rumors that were being spread by a few journalists. So committed to the theory was Sick, that in 1989 he secretly signed a contract that was to pay him $60,000 in exchange for permitting Oliver Stone to produce a television movie based on the story. As part of that contract, Sick gave an interview to a Los Angeles movie producer on June 1, 1989, for the purpose of helping the scriptwriters understand the facts of the case. He went so far as to allege that Henry Kissinger had masterminded the entire plot. Stone eventually scrapped the project when it became abundantly clear that Sick’s theory was inauthentic.

Highly sympathetic to the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Tehran, Sick served a stint as a board member of the American Iranian Council, the chief lobbying group for Iran in the United States. For many years, he has vigorously championed the idea that America should pursue direct diplomacy with Iran’s government, rather than impose economic sanctions against it. Using his personal and professional connections with Columbia University, Sick was largely responsible for that school’s 2007 decision to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus.

Sick’s apologetics for Iran’s totalitarian theocracy, and his collaboration with representatives of Iran’s government, have long histories:

  • When Iran was clearly involved in international terrorismduring the administration of its supposedly “moderate” President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97), Sick rationalized that this terrorism was being sponsored not by the government in Tehran, but by “opportunistic” independent entities with a “life of their own.”
  • Sick has collaborated on numerous projects with Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, the former Iranian deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations. When Mahallati was terminated from those positions, Sick used his influence to get him a job at Columbia University from 1991-97.
  • Strongly opposed to regime change in Iran, Sick in early 1995 condemned the leading pro-democracy organization that supported the overthrow of Iran’s theocratic government. “There is no viable political alternative to the present system,” he said. “We may not like this regime, but we’re going to have to live with it.”
  • Asserting that “unilateral sanctions do not work,” Sick in November 1995 stated that “the notion that we’re going to drive [Iran] into bankruptcy and thereby bring down the Islamic government are romantic and infantile pipe dreams.”
  • In 1996, Sick depicted the existing Iranian government as one that was more moderate than it had been during the Khomeini regime: “The [Iranian] revolution is over, and the fiery slogans have a hollow ring.”
  • When the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act—which imposed economic sanctions on firms that were conducting business with those two countrieswas passed in response to Iran’s involvement in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, Sick described the Act an “absurd bit of legislation” and “pure demagoguery.”
  • In 1997 Sick established the Center for World Dialogue in collaboration with Hossein Alikhani, an Iranian ex-convict who: (a) had close ties to Iran’s ruling mullahs; and (b) had pleaded guilty in 1992 to charges of violating anti-terrorist sanctions.
  • According to Sick, Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi was elected in May 1997 on a platform “dedicated to civil society, rule of law, and reconciliation with the international community.”
  • Maintaining that Iran was no longer the “fanatic, belligerent state” which it had been in the early 1980s, Sick said in 1999: “The Iran of 20 years ago is not the Iran of today.”
  • After Iran’s newly elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, first appeared before the UN Assembly in 2005, Sick told an interviewer that Ahmadinejad had “learned his brief pretty well”; had “handled himself well … in the speech”; and had presented “some constructive ideas.” “He’s a very prideful man,” added Sick, “and I think that sense of Iranian pride is one that may be very difficult for the West—and the United States in particular—to deal with.”
  • In 2006, Sick said that “Iran hasn’t invaded anybody for 250 years. It’s not a country that is out to take over other people’s territory.”1
  • In July 2007 Sick drew a moral equivalence between the Iranian and American governments which were led, respectively, by Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and George W. Bush. “The hotheads around President Ahmadinejad’s office and the U.S. foreign policy radicals who cluster around Vice President Cheney’s office,” said Sick, “listen to each other, cite each others’ statements and goad each other to new excesses on either side.”
  • Regarding Iran’s relationship with Hamas, Sick has said: “Iran claims that its support for Hamas is no different than the Saudis’ support. They give money for clinics and medical needs, but that money is used for terrorism. Iran has a different view on this. So it’s a matter of dispute.”
  • Sick has endorsed Iran’s position that Israeli-Palestinian peace deals “are a sham,” and that “Israel will not keep its promises.”
  • Sick opposes allowing American victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism to sue Tehran for damages.

When Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran in 2013, Sick gleefully reported that “he is a moderate … absolutely committed to finding a solution to this nuclear issue.” But in fact, Rouhani had formerly been a close confidante of Ayatollah Khomeini; had been incarcerated more than 20 times; had been closely monitored by the Shah’s secret police, for his opposition to the monarchy; had been appointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Iran’s highest decision-making body for security issues; had sided with the Iranian government forces that in 1999 violently attacked student protesters at Tehran University who rallied against the government; had announced that the demonstrators would be “tried in our court as [opponents of the republic] and those found guilty would be hanged”; had participated in the decisions to carry out numerous terrorist attacks and assassinations; had personally overseen the expansion of Iran’s biological/chemical weapons program in 1991; and had published a 2005 speech boasting how he had been able to move Iran’s nuclear programs forward while preventing the International Atomic Energy Agency from referring the country to the UN Security Council for violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In the summer of 2015, Sick was elated when the Obama administration announced that it had reachedalong with its “P5+1” negotiating partnersan agreement which would temporarily slow Iran’s progress toward its development of nuclear weapons (but virtually guaranteed that it would be able to produce such weapons within a decade or so). (For details about the accord’s provisions, click here.) “Basically,” Sick told the Democracy Now! news hour, “we’ve had two years of negotiation, which have been remarkably successful and produced something that is complicated but nevertheless solves the problem. If that is turned down by the U.S. Congress, the United States is on its own…. The chance of renegotiating it is very close to zero. As the situation evolves, there’s a very real chance of conflict.” Adding that “a world without an Iranian nuclear deal far more dangerous than the alternative,” Sick also assured that “a nuclear deal with Iran will not set off an arms race in the Middle East.”

Today Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and an emeritus board member with Human Rights Watch, where he was the founding chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Middle East and North Africa. Sick is also the executive director of Gulf/2000, an international online initiative (based at at Columbia University) that promotes research on political and economic developments in the Persian Gulf, and urges the U.S. to engage diplomatically with Iran.

For additional information on Gary Sick, click here.


1 This was untrue, as the website pointed out: “Twenty-three months after Iraq invaded Iran, Saddam withdraw his forces from Iranian territory and sued for peace.  Iran could have ended the conflict on favorable terms but instead attacked Iraq in an attempt to overthrow Saddam’s regime and establish an Islamic Republic.  Sick also completely discounts Iran’s military and financial support for its surrogates, Hamas, a fundamentalist group that wants to remove Israel from the map, and Hezbollah, which seeks to establish a fundamentalist republic in Lebanon.  Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are fighting in Syria and Iraq.”

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