The Iran-Contra affair was a political scandal revealed in 1986 as a result of earlier events during the Reagan administration. It began as an operation to improve U.S.-Iranian relations, wherein Israel would ship weapons to a moderate, politically influential group of Iranians opposed to Ayatollah Khomeni; the U.S. would reimburse Israel with those weapons and receive payment from Israel. The moderate Iranians agreed to do everything in their power to achieve the release of six U.S. hostages, who were being held by Hezbollah. The plan eventually deteriorated into an arms-for-hostages scheme, in which members of the executive branch sold weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of the American hostages, without the direct authorization of President Ronald Reagan. Large modifications to the plan were conjured by Lt. Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council in late 1985. In North's plan, a portion of the proceeds from the weapon sales was diverted to fund anti-Sandinista and anti-communist rebels, or ''Contras'', in Nicaragua. While President Ronald Reagan was a supporter of the Contra cause, he did not authorize this plan, nor was he aware that the funds were being sent to the Contras.
After the weapon sales were revealed in November 1986, Ronald Reagan appeared on national television and stated that the weapons transfers had indeed occurred, but that the United States did not trade arms for hostages. The investigation was compounded when large volumes of documents relating to the scandal were destroyed or withheld from investigators by Reagan administration officials. On March 4, 1987, Reagan, in a nationally televised address, took full responsibility for any actions that he was unaware of, and admitted that "what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages."
Many investigations ensued, including by the United States Congress and the three-man, Reagan-appointed "Tower Commission." Neither could find any evidence that Reagan himself knew of the extent of the multiple programs. In the end, fourteen administration officials were charged with crimes, and eleven convicted, including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. They were all pardoned in the final days of the George H. W. Bush presidency, who had been vice-president at the time.
The affair is comprised of two matters: arms sales to Iran, and funding of Contra militants in Nicaragua. Direct funding of the Nicaraguan rebels had been made illegal through the Boland Amendment. The plan was discovered when a Lebanese newspaper reported that the U.S. sold arms to Iran through Israel in exchange for the release of hostages by Hezbollah. Letters sent by Oliver North to National Security Advisor John Poindexter support this. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S. said that the reason weapons were eventually sold directly to Iran was to establish links with elements of the military in the country. The Contras did not receive all of their finances from arms sales, but also through drug trafficking.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Middle East was faced with frequent hostage-taking incidents by hostile organizations. In 1979, Iranian students took hostage 52 employees of the United States embassy in Iran. On January 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan became President, the hostages were freed following the Algiers Accords. Hostage taking in the Middle East did not end there, however. In 1983, members of Al-Dawa, an exiled Iraqi political party turned militant organization, were imprisoned for their part in a series of truck bombs in Kuwait. In response to the imprisonment, Hezbollah, an ally of Al-Dawa, took 30 Western hostages, six of whom were American. Hezbollah demanded the release of the prisoners for these hostages.
Michael Ledeen, a consultant of National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, requested assistance from Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres for help in the sale of arms to Iran. At the time, Iran was in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War and could find few Western nations willing to supply it with weapons. The idea behind the plan was for Israel to ship weapons through an intermediary (identified as Manucher Ghorbanifar) to a moderate, politically influential Iranian group opposed to the Ayatollah Khomeni; after the transaction, the U.S. would reimburse Israel with the same weapons, while receiving monetary benefits. The Israeli government required that the sale of arms meet high level approval from the United States government, and when Robert McFarlane convinced them that the U.S. government approved the sale, Israel obliged by agreeing to sell the arms.
In 1985, President Reagan entered Bethesda Naval Hospital for colon cancer surgery. While recovering in the hospital, McFarlane met with the president and told him that Representatives from Israel had contacted the National Security Agency to pass on confidential information from a sect of moderate, politically influential Iranians opposed to the Ayatollah. These Iranians sought to establish a quiet relationship with the United States, before establishing formal relationships upon the death of the Ayatollah. McFarlane told Reagan that the Iranians, to demonstrate their seriousness, offered to persuade the Hezbollah terrorists to release the seven U.S. hostages. Reagan allowed McFarlane to meet with the Israeli intermediaries because, according to him, establishing relations with a strategically located country, thus preventing the Soviet Union from doing the same, was a beneficial move.
Following the Israeli-U.S. meeting, Israel requested permission from the U.S. to sell a small number of TOW antitank missiles to the moderate Iranians, saying that it would demonstrate that the group actually had high-level connections to the U.S. government. Reagan initially rejected the plan, until Israel sent information to the U.S. showing that the moderate Iranians were opposed to terrorism and had fought against it. With a reason to trust the moderates, Reagan authorized the payment to Israel, who would sell the weapons to the moderate Iranians. Reagan was committed to securing the release of the hostages, which motivated his support for the arms initiatives. The president requested that the moderate Iranians do everything in their capability to free the hostages held by Hezbollah.
In July 1985, Israel sent American-made BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) antitank missiles to Iran through arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, a friend of Iran's Prime Minister. Hours after receiving the weapons, one hostage, the Reverend Benjamin Weir was released.
After a botched delivery of Hawk missiles, and a failed London meeting between McFarlane and Ghorbanifar, Arrow Air Flight 1285, a plane containing nearly 250 American servicemen, crashed in Newfoundland on December 12, 1985. The accident was investigated by the Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB), and was determined to have been caused by the aircraft's unexpectedly high drag and reduced lift condition, which was most likely due to ice contamination.
On the day of the crash, responsibility was claimed by the Islamic Jihad Organization, a wing of Hezbollah that had taken credit for the kidnapping of the very Americans in Lebanon whom the Reagan administration sought to have released. The crash came on the fourth anniversary of another attack for which Islamic Jihad took credit: the near-simultaneous bombings of six targets in Kuwait, the French and American Embassies among them. Members of Hezbollah had participated in, and were jailed for, those attacks, but most of the conspirators were members of al-Dawa. An article in the June 2007 Middle East Review of International Affairs, by Nathan Thrall, published by the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), based in Herzliya, Israel presents evidence of Iran's complicity.
Two days later, Reagan met with his advisers at the White House, where a new plan was introduced. This one called for a slight change in the arms transactions: instead of the weapons going to the moderate Iranian group, they would go to moderate Iranian army leaders. As the weapons would be delivered from Israel by air, the hostages held by Hezbollah would be released. Israel would still pay the United States for reimbursing the weapons. Though staunchly opposed by Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Reagan authorized the plan, stating that, "We were not trading arms for hostages, nor were we negotiating with terrorists." Then retired, McFarlane flew to London to meet with Israelis and Ghorbanifar in an attempt to persuade the Iranian to use his influence to release the hostages before any arms transactions occurred; this plan was rejected by Ghorbanifar.
On the day of McFarlane's resignation, Oliver North, a military aide to the United States National Security Council (NSC), proposed a new plan for selling arms to Iran, which included two major adjustments: instead of selling arms through Israel, the sale was to be direct, and a portion of the proceeds from the sale would go to the Contras, or Nicaraguan guerrilla fighters opposed to communism, at a markup. North proposed a $15 million markup, while contracted arms broker Ghorbanifar added a 41 percent markup of his own. Other members of the NSC were in favor of North's plan; with large support, Poindexter authorized it without notifying President Reagan, and it went into effect. At first, the Iranians refused to buy the arms at the inflated price because of the excessive markup imposed by North and Ghorbanifar. They eventually relented, and in February 1986, 1,000 TOW missiles were shipped to the country. From May to November 1986, there were additional shipments of miscellaneous weapons and parts.
Both the sale of weapons to Iran, and the funding of the Contras, attempted to circumvent not only stated administration policy, but also legislation passed by Congress, known as the Boland Amendment. Administration officials argued that regardless of the Congress restricting the funds for the Contras, or any affair, the President (or in this case the administration) could carry on by seeking alternative means of funding such as private entities and foreign governments.
On January 7, 1986, Poindexter proposed to the president a modification in the approved plan: instead of negotiating with the moderate Iranian political group, the U.S. would negotiate with moderate members of the Iranian government. Poindexter told Reagan that Ghorbanifar had serious connections within the Iranian government, so with the hope of the release of the hostages, Reagan approved this plan as well. Throughout February 1986, weapons were shipped directly to Iran by the United States (as part of Oliver North's plan, without the knowledge of President Reagan) and none of the hostages were released. Retired National Security Advisor McFarlane conducted another international voyage, this one to Tehran, Iran where he met directly with the moderate Iranian political group that sought to establish U.S.-Iranian relations, in an attempt to free the four remaining hostages. This meeting failed as well, as the members requested demands such as Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and the United States rejected them.
In late July 1986, Hezbollah released another hostage, Father Lawrence Martin Jenco, former head of Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon. Following this, William Casey, head of the CIA, requested that the U.S. authorize sending a shipment of small missile parts to Iranian military forces as a way of expressing gratitude. Casey also justified this request by stating that the contact in the Iranian government may lose face, or be executed, and hostages may be killed. Reagan authorized the shipment to ensure that those potential events would not occur.
In September and October of 1986 three more Americans—Frank Reed, Joseph Ciccipio, Edward Tracy—were abducted in Lebanon by a separate terrorist group. The reasons for their abduction are unknown, although it is speculated that they were kidnapped to replace the freed Americans. Later, however, one more original hostage, David Jacobsen, was released and the captors promised to released the remaining two, although that never occurred.
After a leak by Iranian radical Mehdi Hashemi, the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa exposed the arrangement on November 3, 1986. This was the first public reporting of the alleged weapons-for-hostages deal. The operation was discovered only after an airlift of guns was downed over Nicaragua. Eugene Hasenfus, who was captured by Nicaraguan authorities, initially alleged in a press conference on Nicaraguan soil that two of his coworkers, Max Gomez and Ramon Medina, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. He later said he did not know whether they did or not. The Iranian government confirmed the Ash-Shiraa story, and ten days after the story was first published, President Reagan appeared on national television and confirmed the transactions and stated the reasons for them:
"My purpose was… to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between [the U.S. and Iran] with a new relationship…. At the same time we undertook this initiative, we made clear that Iran must oppose all forms of international terrorism as a condition of progress in our relationship. The most significant step which Iran could take, we indicated, would be to use its influence in Lebanon to secure the release of all hostages held there."
The scandal was compounded when Oliver North destroyed or hid pertinent documents between November 21 and November 25, 1986. During North's trial in 1989, his secretary Fawn Hall testified extensively about helping North alter, shred, and remove official United States National Security Council (NSC) documents from the White House. According to The New York Times, enough documents were put into a government shredder to jam it. North's explanation for destroying documents was that he destroyed some documents to protect the lives of individuals involved in Iran and Contra operations. North said that he gathered documents that indicated he had sufficient authority for his actions. He took more than a dozen notebooks containing 2,617 pages of names, phone conversations, meetings, lists of action items, and details on operations recorded from January 1, 1984 to November 25, 1986, including highly classified information. It wasn't until years after the trial that North's notebooks were made public, and only after the National Security Archive and Public Citizen sued the Office of the Independent Council under the Freedom of Information Act.
During the trial North testified that on November 21, 22, or 24, he witnessed Poindexter destroy what may have been the only signed copy of a presidential covert-action finding that sought to authorize Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) participation in the November 1985 Hawk missile shipment to Iran. US Attorney General Edwin Meese admitted on November 25 that profits from weapons sales to Iran were made available to assist the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. On the same day, John Poindexter resigned, and Oliver North was fired by President Reagan. Poindexter was replaced by Frank Carlucci on December 2, 1986.
On November 25, 1986, President Reagan announced the creation of a Special Review Board looking into the matter; the following day, he appointed former Senator John Tower, former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to serve as members. This Presidential Commission took effect on December 1 and became known as the "Tower Commission." The main objectives of the commission were to inquire into "the circumstances surrounding the Iran-Contra matter, other case studies that might reveal strengths and weaknesses in the operation of the National Security Council system under stress, and the manner in which that system has served eight different Presidents since its inception in 1947." The commission was the first presidential commission to review and evaluate the National Security Council.
President Reagan appeared before the Tower Commission on December 2, 1986, to answer questions regarding his involvement in the affair. When asked about his role in the authorizing the arms deals, he first stated that he had; later, he appeared to contradict himself by stating that he had no recollection of doing so (in his autobiography, An American Life, Reagan does acknowledge authorizing the shipments to Israel).
The report published by the Commission, known as the Tower Commission Report, was delivered to the President on February 26, 1987. The Commission had interviewed 80 witnesses to the scheme, including Reagan, and two of the arms trade middlemen: Manucher Ghorbanifar and Adnan Khashoggi. The 200 page report was the most comprehensive of any released, criticizing the actions of Oliver North, John Poindexter, Caspar Weinberger, and others. It determined that President Reagan did not have knowledge of the extent of the program, especially not the diversion of funds to the Contras, although it argued that the President ought to have had better control of the National Security Council staff; it heavily criticized Reagan for not properly supervising his subordinates or being aware of their actions. A major result of the Tower Commission was the consensus that Reagan should have listened to his National Security Adviser more, thereby placing more power in the hands of that chair. Despite Oliver North's excuse for removing documents, which was for personal protection by claiming authorization from superiors, the Tower Report did not mention the use of any removed document in North's defense. The report did mention that the prosecution was eventually permitted to examine the notebooks removed from North's office, but were unable to find any significant information within the trial's time restraints.
The Democrat-controlled United States Congress issued its own report on November 18, 1987, stating that "If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have." The congressional report wrote that the president bore "ultimate responsibility" for wrongdoing by his aides, and his administration exhibited "secrecy, deception and disdain for the law."
Reagan expressed regret regarding the situation during a nationally televised address to the nation from the White House Oval Office on Ash Wednesday, March 4, 1987; Reagan had not spoken to the American people directly for three months amidst the scandal. He said:
"The reason I haven't spoken to you before now is this: You deserve the truth. And as frustrating as the waiting has been, I felt it was improper to come to you with sketchy reports, or possibly even erroneous statements, which would then have to be corrected, creating even more doubt and confusion. There's been enough of that."
He then took full responsibility for his actions and those of his administration:
"First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I'm still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior."
Finally, the president stated that his previous assertions that the U.S. did not trade arms for hostages were incorrect:
"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. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind."
Domestically, the scandal precipitated a drop in President Reagan's popularity as his approval ratings saw "the largest single drop for any U.S. president in history," from 67 percent to 46 percent in November 1986, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. The "Teflon President," as Reagan was nicknamed by critics, survived the scandal however and by January 1989 a Gallup poll was "recording a 64 percent approval rating," the highest ever recorded for a departing President at that time.
Internationally the damage was more severe. Magnus Ranstorp wrote, "U.S. willingness to engage in concessions with Iran and the Hezbollah not only signalled to its adversaries that hostage-taking was an extremely useful instrument in extracting political and financial concessions for the West but also undermined any credibility of U.S. criticism of other states' deviation from the principles of no-negotiation and no concession to terrorists and their demands.
In Iran Mehdi Hashemi, the leaker of the scandal, was executed in 1987, allegedly for activities unrelated to the scandal. Though Hashemi made a full video confession to numerous serious charges, some observers find the coincidence of his leak and the subsequent prosecution highly suspicious.
Oliver North and John Poindexter were indicted on multiple charges on March 16, 1988. North, indicted on 16 counts, was found guilty by a jury of three minor counts. The convictions were vacated on appeal on the grounds that North's Fifth Amendment rights may have been violated by the indirect use of his testimony to Congress which had been given under a grant of immunity. In 1990, Poindexter was convicted on several felony counts of lying to Congress, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and altering and destroying documents pertinent to the investigation. His convictions were also overturned on appeal on similar grounds. Arthur L. Liman served as chief counsel for the Senate during the Iran-Contra Affair.
The Independent Counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, chose not to re-try North or Poindexter. Weinberger was indicted for lying to the Independent Counsel but was later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush.
In 1992 U.S. President George H. W. Bush pardoned six convicted administration officials, namely Elliott Abrams, Duane R. Clarridge, Alan Fiers, Clair George, Robert McFarlane, and Caspar Weinberger.
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