Iran Contra Affair

Category: Politics

The Iran–Contra affair is a political scandal that took place in the United States in 1986-1987. This affair was discovered in November 1986. It apparently turned out that particular members of the President Administration were secretly organizing the sale of arms to Iran. Their actions violated Iran’s arms embargo of that time.  Some American officials hoped that weapons trade would facilitate the release of hostages. Nevertheless, more financial support of the Contras by the government had been once prohibited by Congress. The Iran-Contra Affair was connected to two separate countries and was dealt in two very different ways. The first secret foreign policy plan was the nonstop sustain for the rebellious Contras against the communist government in Nicaragua exactly when they needed it. At that same time Congress denied to give funds to the Contras. The second hidden foreign policy was the weapons trade in Iran for the hostages’ release, held by Iranian allies in Lebanon.

It all started from the rebellious Contra militants. Had been based in Guatemala they decided to topple the Marxist government of Nicaragua. Rebels were against that government and forced their way into power through the fear. All they knew was how to bomb, assassinate, and kidnap. They did not accept mild methods of war, neither they were ready for negotiations. They were the vivid example of brutal force in action. According to Human Rights Watch report, the Contras were guilty of attacking health care clinics and assassination of its workers. When they were kidnapping civilians they tortured and executed them. They did not give no quarter for women and children. They could carelessly deprive their captives of life, dignity and home. Unfortunately these barbaric militants were funded secretly by the U.S. government. Surprisingly, the officials of the Reagan administration continued to arm and train the Contras and provide arms to Iran. This operation received the title “Enterprise.”

Why did the U. S. government do this? The answer is simple. Americans wanted to reduce international Communist control all over the world. They were afraid of the threat of the communism. But the most interesting part of it was that the President was not aware of all that. Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) became a special branch of power at that time. It could conduct covert wars and paramilitary activities and nobody would ever get to know about it.

The first time the U.S. interfered openly was in 1936 since the Somoza dynasty commenced. President Jimmy Carter did everything not to improve Nicaraguan human rights violation. His foreign policy forced the Nicaraguan government to do this by cutting off all aid it had received before.

Much later in 1984, few countries started negotiations about arms sales to Iran. The plan was to ship weapons with the help of Israel to Iran. Nevertheless, the Israeli government demanded that the sale of arms received an approval from the U. S. government. A consultant of National security Adviser, McFarlane knew how to deal with this problem. He told Israelites that the U.S. government approves the sale, so Israel agreed. The very next year McFarlane told the President (Reagan at that time) about Iranians “who wanted to establish peaceful relationships with the United States”. All they wanted was just permission to sale the arms to Iran. Being unaware of the real situation, the President permitted this. Thus in two years Iran received more than 2500 TOW anti-tank missiles, 18 Hawk anti-aircraft missiles and 240 Hawk spare parts.

On December, 1985 Robert McFarlane resigned. After McFarlane's resignation, Oliver North, from the National Security Council (NSC), proposed another plan for advertising arms to Iran. There had to be two major changes in the plan. Firstly, Israel could no longer be the reseller of the arms. Secondly, a part of the proceeds would now go to Contras at a markup. North suggested a $15 million markup. The majority of the NSC supported North's plan that went into effect without notifying President Reagan. At first, the Iranians rejected buying arms at the higher price. Finally, they changed their mind and bought more 1,000 TOW missiles in February 1986. 

Meanwhile, Admiral John Poindexter who replaced Robert McFarlane suggested to the president a slight adjustment of the official plan. Now they would rather negotiate with "modest" members of the Iranian government instead of negotiating with the "moderate" Iranian political group (the Contras). Poindexter hinted that it would help to release the hostages, so Reagan approved this plan as well. During the whole month, United States shipped weapons directly to Iran but not a single hostage was released.

However, what is done by night appears by day. Thanks to Iranian informants, Ash-Shiraa the Lebanese magazine uncovered the arms sales in November, 1986. This was the first time somebody wrote about something like trading weapons-for-hostages. The Iranian government confirmed the Ash-Shiraa story. Thus, President Reagan had to tell something too. He appeared on national television on November 13 and could not give the proper explanation of the operation. He insisted that their purpose was mostly in convincing Iran to oppose international terrorism as a condition of progress in their relationship.

To cover up a scandal, Oliver North destroyed all the relevant documents and left the public with no answers. During North's trial in 1989, it appeared that he removed official United States NSC documents from the White House. North's account about destroying some papers was to protect the lives of people involved in Iran and Contra operations. He could just testify the quilt of Poindexter for destroying the papers. Years had to pass after the trial when North's notebooks were made public.

To make everything clear President Reagan announced the creation of a Special Review Board. Special commission was called on December 1, 1986 to look into the matter. This Presidential Commission took became known as the "Tower Commission". Its main target was to ascertain all the detail related to the Iran-Contra matter, to study the operation’s strengths and weaknesses, and it was conducted during eight different presidents. It was the first presidential commission to appraise the National Security Council.

President Reagan himself did everything to help investigating this case. He was ready to answer all the necessary questions towards his involvement in the affair. He did so on December 2, 1986. interesting fact is that he confirmed his authorizing the arms deals, but later he denied that fact. Whatsoever, Reagan acknowledged authorizing the shipments to Israel in his autobiography, An American Life.

The next year the Tower Commission published its 200-page report. After interviewing 80 witnesses of this case, including Reagan, and the arms trade middlemen it contained a lot of criticism in it. Nevertheless, the president was represented as nearly innocent. It explained that President Reagan was not aware of the scope of the program, above all about the sponsoring the Contras. On the other hand, it reproached the president for lack of appropriate control of the NSC staff. The end result of the Tower Commission was the agreement that President should have placed more power in hands of his National Security Advisor.

Meanwhile the effects of Iran Contra Affair were the following.  The U.S. earned millions of dollars from the weapons sale. This scandal showed that the President is unable to control his Office. The Office of the President developed in ways that often supported, sometimes competed with, and other times ignored other governmental bureaus and agencies. The Iran Contra Affair ended only in 1992, when President Bush published presidential pardons to all indicted in the scandal. In August 1993, Independent Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh also published his report. In it he concluded that this operation was a mostly successful cover-up ever. He believed that Reagan Administration officials tried to deceive Congress and the public about their knowledge of and support for the operations. McFarlane, Poindexter and North had to be admitted guilty to protect the Reagan Administration in its final two years.

Despite it was the number one topic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Iran-Contra Affair has been largely forgotten.

Related essays