Iran Contra Scandal

“I agreed to sell TOWs anti-tank missiles to Iran
Ronald Reagan, diary entry, January 17, 1986

Ronald Reagan was inaugurated into the most powerful office in the world January 20, 1981. What he accomplished during his eight year tenure will be remembered for a very long time. Through the good, the bad, and the ugly, Reagan weathered all the storms. Perhaps the greatest tempest of "The Reagan Years" was Iran-Contra. Yet, Reagan managed to emerge without a scratch in his teflon image, untarnished to this day (some would argue). Should the President of the United States be allowed to lie about the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, ignore his country's foreign policy and moral and social values without suffering the consequences?

Since the Cold War started after World War II, Iran had been a fairly stable state, thanks to the United States government which installed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1953 as leader of the country. The government of Iran was therefore closely tied to America and it took little trouble to disturb the US. Jimmy Carter was once quoted as saying that the Shah and Iran was “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world.” At the time of his statement, this was true to an extent, but as always in the Middle East, this stability did not last. In February of 1979 while Carter was still President, a group of fundamentalist militants drove the Shah’s government out. This group was lead by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The ousting of the stable Shah did not sit well with the United States, but to make matters worse the fundamentalists seized the US embassy in Teheran and took 66 hostages. Carter quickly placed a general embargo on Iran, which included all forms of weapons.

Ronald Reagan was lucky his first day in office. At the same time he was giving his inauguration speech, the 66 hostages taken at the US embassy were released, after 444 days of captivity. This did not exactly make Carter look good, but Reagan of course reaped the benefits. Right from the start Reagan took an anti-terrorist stance, claiming that, “The US gives terrorists no rewards, no guarantees, we make no concessions. We make no deals.” Little did the public know that this was in fact almost a complete lie.

Things started taking a turn for the worse late in 1983. On October 23, the largest non-nuclear bomb ever recorded was driven into the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon and detonated, killing 241 marines. The bomb was connected to an Iranian terrorist group. This event caused America to reevaluate current embargoes on Iran.

Unfortunately, the US was not the only country to provide weapons to Iran. Worried that Iran would win the war against Iraq and threaten the supply of oil from the Persian Gulf, and still upset over the bombing of the marine barracks, the US worked to halt all weapon imports into Iran. In December of 1983 Ronald Reagan initiated Operation Staunch which urged all 41 nations involved in supplying Iran with weapons to, “stop transferring arms to Iran because of the broader interests of the international community.” The “international community” the US referred to being themselves.

Despite these efforts, the war between Iraq and Iran continued, and so did the terrorism. In March of 1984, William Buckley, a CIA station chief, and a few others were captured by Iranian terrorists. Buckley was eventually killed a year later. In June of 1985 TWA flight 847 was hijacked and 29 Americans were held hostage by terrorists, again, connected with Iran in some way. The terrorist community seemed to be mocking Reagan’s promises to stop them.

A failed rescue mission in which two US helicopters collided after refueling in the desert only served to make matters worse. The image of helicopter wreckage strewn across the desert had a lasting effect on the American people.

Something had to be done, and Ronald Reagan had to do it, but he did not have many options. By 1984, Operation Staunch and US embargoes had made Iran desperate for arms. Operatives throughout the Middle East started receiving offers from Iranians to buy or trade American weapons. According to John M. Poindexter, the first person to ever suggest an arms deal with Iran was an Israeli official, but Robert McFarlane (National Security Advisor to the President) and William Casey (CIA director) both pushed Reagan to reopen diplomatic relations with Iran. Casey longed for the old Iran before Khomeini and also wished to recover Buckley who was taken in 1984. McFarlane had been suggesting opening channels to Iran as early as 1981.

John Poindexter when asked about the topic stated that, “The geographic and ethnic importance of Iran make it of strategic importance to the United States... The US can not afford to write off any country of such importance to us. We must strive to bring about change and gain the confidence of those elements that we feel can make it happen.”

Finally in 1985 Reagan bought the idea and expressed approval of arms shipments to Iran as a measure to acquire some leverage and influence with the “moderate” groups in Iran. This was in fact a straight arms-for-hostages deal. On August 2, Ronald Reagan approved an initial shipment of 100 US TOW missiles to Iran. These weapons were shipped from Israel and the Isrealis were promised that their stock would be replenished. A month later, 408 US TOW missiles were again shipped from Israel to Iran. The next day an American hostage was released by terrorists in Lebanon. This early success helped fuel the initiative into the next year.

At the same time as the terrorist situations in the Middle East, a problem was brewing in Central America. The communist government in Nicaragua caused some fear in the administration. Reagan was a die-hard anti-communist and the Nicaraguan Sandinista communist government bothered him greatly. This was also true for William Casey, head of the CIA. Reagan had Casey organize a guerrilla movement that could fight against the Sandinistas and their unhumanitarian treatment of the Nicaraguan people.

The CIA became highly involved with the guerrillas, “freedom fighters” as Reagan liked to call them, in a short period of time. Training manuals for sabotage and assassination were provided by the CIA. Arms and money were provided as well. At the same time Ronald Reagan was declaring a “war on drugs”, he approved the use of Manuel Noriega as a “conduit” for money to the freedom fighters, the same Noriega that was connected with the Medellin drug cartel. Reagan overlooked Noriega’s drug involvement for the time being since he was aiding the US. Noriega was simply in it for personal gain and he reaped the benefits of handling large amounts of US money to the freedom fighters.

The CIA even went so far as to mine Nicaraguan harbors, an event that eventually made it into the American press. This did not please Congress and they placed a $24 million spending cap on funding to the guerrillas. Eventually the Boland act was passed by Congress making it illegal for intelligence agencies to support the guerrillas. Reagan called Congress “a meddlesome committee of 535” and told his staff to work around the law.

At this time the National Security Council, of which McFarlane was director, decided to consider themselves a non-intelligence based agency, and continued support for the guerrillas as Reagan wanted. The passage of the Boland II act that “clearly ends US support for the war in Nicaragua.” did not seem to phase Reagan or the NSC staff either. Enter Oliver North, a marine lieutenant colonel who was assigned to the NSC staff. North was put in charge of keeping the freedom fighters, referred to as contras by some, together. Through a system suggested by McFarlane of private and foreign contributions, North raised money to support the Contras. Foreign countries providing aid were repaid in disguise as other projects.

North borrowed another idea from the Department of Defense. The Pentagon had a basement project known as the Special Operations Department. This group was comprised of highly trained marines, the best equipment, and could be deployed at a moment’s notice. North took this idea and combined it with his money effort to the contras to form the Enterprise. Before long the Enterprise, which consisted of arms merchants, former CIA and Pentagon operatives, and former armed forces personnel, had built up a large base with their own funding, Swiss bank accounts, navy, air force, and private companies.

The Enterprise became a private organization that did not have to abide by US laws, but which was available to the President as a military or financial source. “They carried out their missions through a network of shadowy figures who operated in the netherworld of third world intrigues and revolutionary movements, skirting or actually dealing with terrorists, hostage takers, and drug dealers.” Richard Secord, a former Air Force general headed the Enterprise, and persuaded the Saudi government to donate moneys that the Enterprise used to buy and distribute weapons to the contras. The Saudi’s were given a Swiss bank account number in which they could place a monthly million-dollar “gift” to the contras without detection by anyone.

Invariably, money brought the Iran initiative and the plight of the contras together. North came up with the “neat idea” to divert money earned from the Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan guerrillas when the first sale produced a few hundred thousand dollars of profit. This idea was welcomed by both Poindexter (who had become National Security Advisor after McFarlane had resigned) and Reagan. Although the majority of the money which was made from the arms deals went to the Enterprise, a good three or four million made it to the contras.

In 1986 the sales to Iran continued. In February North arranged a deal of 1000 TOW missiles which brought a profit of $6 to $10 million which Secord could use for the contras. Yet hostages still remained in captivity and by this time William Buckley, the CIA station chief, had been tortured and killed. The Iran-Contra connection was in full bloom.

The Iranians demanded more weapons still, and even intelligence data on Iraq. In May of ‘86 McFarlane (who had resigned, but was still involved in the operation) and North flew to Teheran, the capitol of Iran, in person in an attempt to calm things. Using fake passports, they carried a small shipment of missile parts, .357 pistols, and suicide pills should they be captured. Mcfarlane made an offer involving yet another shipment, this time of HAWK missile parts, for the exchange of all Americans held in Beirut. The Iranians were not cooperative, and the adventurers left, accomplishing nothing.

In June Congress finally allowed Reagan to resume aid to the contras, but they specified that the money would not be available for four months. North set to work to secure another arms deal to aid the contras until the congressional money would be available. When the Iranians released Father Lawrence Jenco in July, North got approval from Reagan and Poindexter to go ahead with a shipment of HAWK missile parts. It was now August and the sales to Iran had been going on for more then a year.

After negotiating with another contact in Iran, North had Israel ship 500 more TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran and in November hostage David Jacobsen was liberated from Beirut. At this point things began to fall apart for the Reagan Administration and the “neat” operation they had been conducting.

In early October Sandinista soldiers shot down a cargo plane carrying weapons to the guerrillas and only one crew member survived. He confessed to being part of a secret American government program to aid the contras. A few days later a press conference was held in which the crew member named CIA employees. Top CIA officials made attempts to deny the story and William Casey told North what he had to do with the contra-aid program: “shut it down and clean it up”.

A month later the Iranian end of the scandal began to break as well. A small Lebanese magazine Al Shiraa printed a sketchy article depicting the arms-for-hostages deals on November 3. US reporters were soon uncovering the details.

In the month of November, North, Casey, and Poindexter released false information to the press and to Congress. They attempted to place blame on the Secretary of State who had opposed the deal from the beginning and they suggested that Israel had “masterminded” the entire operation. At first, administration officials thought that things would blow over if they laid low, but it soon became apparent that the media was not letting go. Reagan, in an attempt to improve his image, asked Attorney General Edwin Meese to conduct an investigation.

During the inquiry by Meese, little was uncovered. He took no notes, he moved extremely slowly, and North, Poindexter, and McFarlane were able to clean up before the big guns entered the picture. North, Poindexter, and Fawn Hall (a NSC secretary) supposedly held what they referred to as a “shredding party,” destroying over 5,000 pages of incriminating documents about the operation, the Enterprise, and God knows what else. Even after Meese found a piece of a document that connected the arms sales with $10 to $20 million in funds to the contras, he allowed North access to the NSC office. The investigation seemed a little too relaxed but Poindexter pointed out that Meese carried out the investigation as a friend of the President and “not as Attorney General.” He went on to say that he did not find it surprising that Meese did not take notes.

Reagan eventually held a news conference with Meese in which they described the evidence Meese had found. After suggesting Israel take the blame for starting the arms deals, and getting a flat out “no” reply from them, Reagan made another attempt to save himself, he culled the NSC staff by firing North and pushing Poindexter into resignation.

After Meese’s press conference, Reagan finally appointed an official investigation committee headed by a former senator John Tower to clear everything up. He felt that he either owed at least that to the American people, or that if he did not he would lose a large portion of his credibility. The committee, that became known as the Tower Commission, held hearings in which almost all involved in the Iran-Contra affair testified. Ronald Reagan avoided answering many critical questions and often contradicted himself in his testimony. John Poindexter protected the president by denying any involvement by Reagan. He said of the Iran-Contra operations: “The buck stops here, with me.” Oliver North took the blame, and many others gave false testimony. All in all, the Reagan administration was successful in preserving the teflon image of their president.

Ronald Reagan had weathered this storm though turbulent and brutal it was. He lied about the war on drugs, about the war on terrorism, and even ignored congressionally approved foreign policy. He violated the very beliefs that many Americans held. But did President Ronald Reagan break the law? John M. Poindexter, in a statement he made to me nearly ten years after the events, said it as well as anyone could:

First of all, with regard to Iran-Contra and contrary to what you have probably read, there was nothing illegal about the actions the President took. The so-called violation of the Boland Amendment was never charged, tried or decided by a jury. Arms embargoes are the result of Executive Orders from the President and he can decide to make exceptions and these do not have to be public. He can defer reporting matters to the Congress until he deems it appropriate. The President makes many controversial decisions and his political opponents will often try to cast their differences as `The President has violated the law!’ There will always be confrontation between the President and Congress as each strives to keep control.

And that's mainly it.