A representative of then-candidate Ronald Reagan asked the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1980 to try to delay Iran's release of the American hostages until after the U.S. presidential election, a PLO offical said.
The White House quickly denied the allegation made to Playboy magazine by an aide to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.Also in the magazine's September issue, Arafat said a close adviser to then-President Jimmy Carter sought the PLO's help in speeding the release. In the wake of the 1973 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the United States agreed not to have contacts with the PLO because the organization refuses to recognize Israel's existence.
Minutes after Reagan's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, the 52 Americans held 444 days at the U.S. embassy in Tehran were freed.
In the interview, Arafat said he was instrumental in helping thousands of Americans escape from Beirut in 1976 and 1977, and in winning release of some of the U.S. hostages in 1980.
"We released the first hostages from the embassy, the first 13 embassy personnel," Arafat said. "They were released according to my personal efforts."
Arafat said he undertook the mission at the request of Carter.
"There was a special and permanent contact between me and President Carter," Arafat said. "I have written documents from President Carter himself."
Arafat said that although he had a letter of thanks from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for his help in 1976 and 1977, the U.S. government never acknowledged his alleged role in the 1980 hostage release.
Arafat's chief adviser, Bassam Abu Sharif, said in the interview that a member of Reagan's 1980 campaign staff asked the PLO to help stall the release.
Reagan's supporters in 1980 made much of Carter's failure to obtain the release of the hostages.
"We were told that if the hostages were held, the PLO would be given recognition . . . and the White House door would be open for us," said Sharif.
"It is not true," White House spokesman Roman Popadiuk countered Monday. He declined to elaborate.
Sharif said he met in Beirut with one of Reagan's "closest friends" during the 1980 presidential race. He identified the supporter as a major financial contributor to the campaign but did not name the individual.
Carter was not available for comment Monday, but a spokeswoman said he had been asked previously about reports that a Reagan supporter had attempted to delay the hostages' release.