The Iran-Contra affair or Irangate was a political scandal in the United States that was revealed in 1986. The affair involved the illegal financing of the Contras from the revenues from secret arms transfers to Iran.
The Contras were the opponents of the left-wing Nationalist Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Origin and progress
The affair began as an operation to improve relations between the United States and Iran. Israel was assigned the role of supplying weapons to a moderate, politically influential group of Iranians. The US would replenish the weapons that Israel shipped and be paid for by Iran.
The group of moderate Iranians pledged to do everything in their power to secure the release of seven US hostages held by the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah.
The plan evolved into an agreement whereby the Americans sold weapons to Iran to release hostages. Towards the end of 1985, another element was added to Oliver North’s plan, a member of the US National Security Council (NSC).
He arranged for some of the arms trade profits to be used to finance Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The US Congress had refused to approve funding for cons.
After the arms sales and the cons’ financing were revealed in November 1986, Ronald Reagan appeared on national television. He stated that the arms deals had indeed taken place but that the US was not trading weapons in exchange for hostages.
The scandal intensified when many documents about the arms trade were destroyed by Reagan’s officials or withdrawn from the initiated investigations. On March 4, 1987, Reagan addressed the audience again on television, assuming full responsibility, including for acts of which he had not been aware. He admitted that what began as a strategic opening to Iran slipped into swapping weapons for hostages during implementation.
Many inquiries followed, including Congress’s inquiry and the three-member committee that Reagan had appointed, the Tower Commission.
None of the investigations revealed any evidence that Reagan had been aware of the weapons programs’ scope. Fourteen officials were indicted and eleven convicted, including then US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. All were pardoned under the next president, George H.W. Bush, a vice president at the time of the affair.
The affair consisted of two parts: the arms sales to Iran and the financing of the anti-Sandinista cons in Nicaragua. Direct support to the Nicaraguan rebels was illegal as a result of the Boland Amendment instituted.
The affair came to light when a Lebanese daily reported that the US had sold weapons to Iran through Israel in exchange for Hezbollah’s release of hostages. Letters that Oliver North has sent to John Poindexter support this claim.
The Israeli ambassador to the US stated that the weapons had been sold directly to Iran, where the desire to establish a relationship with the Iranian military elements.
The cons financed themselves not only through arms sales but also through drug trafficking.
In the late 1970s and during the 1980s, the Middle East was often faced with hostage-taking by hostile organizations. In 1979 Iranian students took 52 employees of the US embassy in Iran hostage. This was the start of the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis.
On January 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan became president, the hostages were released under the Algiers Accords. This did not end the hostage situations in the Middle East. In 1983, Al-Dawa members, an exiled Iraqi political party that had developed into a militant organization, were imprisoned.
They were sentenced to prison for their role in a series of truck attacks in Kuwait. In the period between 1982 and 1992, Al-Dawa’s ally, Hezbollah, took hostage in response to their capture, among other things, a total of 92 Westerners, many of them American. This would come to be known as the Lebanese hostage issue.
Michael Ledeen, the adviser to US National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, requested assistance from the Prime Minister of Israel, Minister Shimon Peres, to sell weapons to Iran.
Iran was involved in the Iraq-Iran war and could find few Western nations willing to supply weapons to the country. The idea behind the plan was that Israel, through an intermediary, Mucher Ghorbanifar, would supply weapons to a moderate, politically influential Iranian group opposed to Ayatollah Khomeini. After the transaction, the US would supply Israel with the same weapons in return for monetary favors.
The Israeli government demanded that arms sales carry approval from the top of the US government. When Robert McFarlane convinced the Israelis that the US government approved the sale, Israel proceeded to sell the weapons.
In 1985, President Reagan was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital for esophageal cancer surgery. While the president was recovering in the hospital, McFarlane met him. He told Reagan that representatives of Israel had contacted the NSC to pass on confidential information from a group of moderate, politically influential Iranians who were opposing the Ayatollah. These Iranians silently tried to establish a relationship with the US before establishing formal ties after the ayatollah’s death.
Reagan allowed McFarlane to meet with the Israeli mediators, believing that establishing relations with this strategically located country was a favorable strategy to prevent the Soviet Union would do the same.
Following the Israeli-American meeting, Israel requested permission from the US to sell a small number of TOW anti-tank missiles to the moderate Iranians, indicating that it would be evidence of high-level connections with the US government. Initially, Reagan rejected the plan until Israel sent the US information that the moderate Iranians were opposed to and fought against terrorism.
Now that Reagan had reason to trust the moderates, he approved of the transaction. In his 1990 autobiography An American Life, Reagan wrote that he felt deeply involved in efforts to bring about the release of the hostages. This involvement motivated his support of the weapons initiatives. The president asked moderate Iranians to do everything in their power to release the hostages.
Discovery and scandal
Following a leak by Iranian radical Mehdi Hashemi, Lebanese weekly Ash-Shiraa revealed the matter on November 3, 1986. It was the first media report of the weapons-for-hostage deal. The operation was only discovered after a plane with weapons was shot down over Nicaragua.
Eugene Hasenfus, who was captured by the Nicaraguan authorities, claimed at a press conference that two of his associates, Max Gomez and Ramon Medina, worked for the CIA. Later he said he was not sure about this.
Oliver North tried to limit the scandal by destroying or concealing documents between November 21 and 25, 1986. During the 1989 lawsuit against North, his secretary detailed how she had helped North change, shred or disappear official NSC documents from the White House. According to The New York Times, enough documents were put in the shredder to cause it to jam.
North defended himself for destroying certain documents, arguing that he wanted to protect the lives of those involved in operations in Iran and other counter-activities. Years later, North’s notebooks were made public.
This only happened after the National Security Archive and Public Citizen had sued the Independent Counsel’s Office to do so under the Freedom of Information Act (in the Netherlands: Government Information Act).
Convictions, pardons, and re-entry
Oliver North and John Poindexter were charged with various offenses on March 16, 1988. North, who was indicted on 16 counts, was found guilty by a jury on three minor counts. The convictions were overturned on an appeal to North’s rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, probably violated by Congress’s indirect use of his testimony, while giving this testimony under the condition of inviolability.
In 1990, Poindexter was convicted of conspiracy, lying to Congress, obstructing justice, and altering and destroying documents related to the investigation. His conviction was also overturned based on similar arguments. Arthur L. Liman was chief of the Senate Legal Department during the Iran-Contra affair.
Attorney General of the United States Office of the Independent Counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, decided not to re-indict North and Poindexter. Caspar Weinberger was charged with lying to the Independent Counsel but was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.
In 1992 George H.W. Bush also pardoned six convicted officials, namely Elliott Abrams, Duane R. Clarridge, Allan Fiers, Clair George, Robert McFarlane, and Caspar Weinberger.
- Hewes v. M’Dowell — Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hewes_v._M%27Dowell
- Iran–Contra affair | Military Wiki | Fandom. https://military.wikia.org/wiki/Iran%E2%80%93Contra_affair