The Iran-Contra Affair was a covert US arms deal that swapped missiles and other weapons to release sure Americans held captive in Lebanon by terrorists and utilized monies from the arms sale to finance military struggle in Nicaragua. The contentious deal—and the accompanying political scandal—threatened to derail Ronald Reagan’s administration. Indeed, this was one of the top political events of the 80s.
The Iran-Contra Affair, commonly known as “The Iran-Contra Scandal” and “Irangate,” may not have occurred if the political climate in the early 1980s had been different.
In the 1982 mid-term elections, President Ronald Reagan, who had won the White House in 1980, could not keep the political momentum going for his Republican colleagues. The GOP lost its grip on both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The outcome would make the president’s program more difficult to implement. Reagan promised to support anti-Communist insurgencies worldwide during his presidential campaign, but the so-called “Reagan Doctrine” ran into political opposition after the mid-term elections.
The Boland Amendment, introduced shortly after the Democrats took control of Congress, limited the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency or the CIA and the Department of Defense or DoD in international conflicts. Nicaragua, where anti-communist Contras were fighting the communist Sandinista government, was the target of the amendment.
The Contras, according to Reagan, are “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” However, much of their income had previously come from Nicaragua’s cocaine traffic, prompting Congress to approve the Boland Amendment.
Despite this, President Clinton directed his National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane, to find a way to help the drug-trafficking Contras, no matter what the cost—political or otherwise.
Arms for Hostage
Meanwhile, two regional powers—Iraq and Iran—were involved in a violent struggle in the Middle East, where US relations with numerous nations were strained to the breaking point.
At the same time, in Lebanon, Iranian-backed militants in Hezbollah were holding seven Americans prisoner, including diplomats and private contractors. Reagan issued a new directive to his advisers: find a method to return the hostages.
McFarlane set out to achieve precisely that in 1985. He informed Reagan that Iran had approached the US about obtaining weapons for its conflict with Iraq.
There was, however, a trade embargo between the United States and Iran at the time, dating back to Iran’s revolution and subsequent removal of Shah Pahlavi, during which 52 American captives were held for 444 days in a diplomatic conflict known as the Iran Hostage Crisis.
The armaments transaction between the US and Iran was first published by the Lebanese newspaper Al-Shiraa in 1986, far into Reagan’s second term.
By that time, Iran had purchased 1,500 American missiles for $30 million. Three of the seven Americans held captive in Lebanon were also released, despite an Iran-backed terrorist cell afterward kidnapped three more Americans.
Reagan denied negotiating with Iran or terrorists at first, only to retract his assertion a week later.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Edwin Meese started investigating the weapons sale, discovering that $18 million of the $30 million paid by Iran for the weapons had gone missing.
The National Security Council’s Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North then admitted that he had directed the missing monies to the Contras in Nicaragua. The latter had used them to obtain weapons.
North claimed he did it with Admiral John Poindexter, the National Security Advisor’s full knowledge. Reagan, he imagined, was aware of his efforts as well.
The Tower Commission Report
After a plane carrying supplies to the contras was shot down and its pilot kidnapped by the Sandinistas in November 1986, the NSC’s unlawful operations were exposed. A public outcry erupted almost immediately. Reagan established a Special Review Board to probe the matter on November 26. It included two well-known former senators, Edmund Muskie, who had also served as Secretary of State, and John Tower and Brent Scowcroft, a longstanding national security adviser. The board took the moniker Tower and became known as the Tower Commission.
The Tower Commission Report, which was issued on February 26, 1987, was not the indictment of presidential complicity that specific left-liberal journals said it was. Still, it did validate the NSC’s arms-for-hostages scheme and chastised the Reagan government for its “management style.”
The Fallout and Prosecution
Reagan was never indicted, and Weinberger was preemptively pardoned by George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, who was elected president in 1988.
McFarlane was charged with four counts of criminal concealing of information from Congress. He was given a two-year probationary period and fined $20,000.
North faces a total of 12 charges, including conspiracy and making false statements. Despite being found guilty in his first trial; North’s case was overturned on appeal due to a technicality. He has since worked as a conservative author, critic, television commentator, and the head of the National Rifle Association.
Poindexter was charged with seven felonies and tried for five of them. He was convicted on four of them and sentenced to two years in jail, though his convictions were later overturned.
Despite promising voters that he would never talk with terrorists—which he and his underlings did when brokering the weapons sales with Iran—Ronald Reagan was a popular president when he left office.
Walsh, the special prosecutor assigned to investigate the Iran-Contra crisis, acknowledged in interviews years later that Reagan’s “instincts for the country’s benefit were appropriate” and that the president may have had trouble remembering aspects of the controversy due to failing health.
During his statement before Congress, Reagan said that sending armaments to Iran was a “mistake.” However, at least among his followers, Reagan’s legacy has been preserved, and the Iran-Contra Affair has been relegated to an often-ignored chapter in American history.