The Iran-contra affair involved an attempt by the National Security Council (NSC) of the Ronald Reagan administration to circumvent congressional limita- tions on aid to the contras (Nicaraguan guerrillas) and to secure the release of U.S. hostages held in the Middle East through the sale of arms to Iran. The revelation of this attempt undercut the popularity of the president and led to the indictment of several aides. The affair arose from parallel events in Central America and the Middle East. In Central America, the Reagan administration was supporting the contras, an amalgam of individuals and groups who opposed the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Despite a reputation for ineffectiveness and drug dealing, the contras were considered by the Reagan administration to be the best alternative to the Marxist Sandinistas. Congress passed the Boland Amendment in 1982, which prohibited funding for the “overthrow of the government of Nicaragua.” The amendment allowed humanitarian aid but specifically prohibited covert aid by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
At the same time in the Middle East, terrorist organizations such as Islamic Jihad were increasing their harassment of U.S. citizens in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the U.S. organization of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Beirut. Over a dozen U.S. citizens were kidnapped and taken hostage between 1982 and 1984. The Reagan administration responded to this provocation by vowing never to negotiate with terrorists, while blaming the Iranians for supporting these organizations.
Additionally the Iranians were locked in a war with the Saddam Hussein–led country of Iraq. Running from 1980 to 88, the Iran-Iraq War would be bloody but ultimately inconclusive. In the course of the fighting the Iranians began to run into a significant problem. Most of their military hardware had been purchased from the United States before the 1979 overthrow of the shah. As the war dragged on, Iran began to run short of ammunition and spare parts, which they could not acquire from the United States because of a congressional ban on arms sales to the Iranians stemming from the hostage crisis of 1979–81.
The NSC, led by National Security Advisor John Poindexter and CIA director William Casey, proposed the following arrangement to the president and his advisers. Through private arms dealers and Israel, the United States would sell arms to the Iranians above cost. In return, the United States expected Iran to pressure the terrorists to free the U.S. hostages. The profits from the arms sales would be secretly diverted to the contras to keep their activities afloat. Reagan approved the idea despite opposition from Secretary of State George Shultz and some dissent from Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
The first arms shipments took place in 1985, and more were sent in 1986. Despite pressure and apparent promises, only one hostage and the body of a second were released. The money and additional supplies were funneled to the contras until October 1986, when a CIAchartered plane crashed in Nicaragua. Its pilot confessed to running supplies to the contras. On November 3 a Lebanese journal, Al-Shira, revealed the existence of the arms sales to Iran. The Reagan administration acknowledged the existence of the arms sales and contra supplies in a speech by the president on November 13.
Witnesses such as NSC staff member Colonel Oliver North testified before both Congress and the Tower Commission, admitting to the arms sales and funding while portraying the president as a “handsoff” administrator. Reagan’s own appearance before the commission revealed the president’s shaky grasp of details and apparently poor memory of events. In the Tower Commission’s final report, the president’s lack of control over his staff was strongly criticized, but most of the blame for the scandal was placed on the National Security Council and its staff.
See also contra war; Iran hostage crisis; Sandinista National Liberation Front.