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The Iran-Contra affair, which is also known as Irangate, the McFarlane affair, or the Iran–Contra scandal, refers to a US political scandal that took place during the final term of the Reagan administration. The scandal, which happened in the 1980s, began after senior government officials secretly helped the movement of weapons to Iran, which had been embargoed at the time by the US. The idea was to use the funds to help rebel groups (called Contras) in Nicaragua. This funding to the Contras was also scandal-worthy because the Boland Amendment prohibited the action.
In a bid to hide their true intentions, top government officials stated that the arms shipments to Iran were for helping to free American hostages that were held in Lebanon. The seven hostages were being held by Hezbollah, which had ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. However, later congressional investigations revealed that the shipments began even before the capture of the hostages, therefore ruling out the official explanation given. Further investigations failed to implicate President Reagan directly, but 14 officials, including the Secretary of Defense, were indicted.
After Iranian students attacked and captured Americans at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, President Jimmy Carter started an arms embargo to Iran. Prior to that, the US shipped arms steadily to Iran. When Reagan took office in 1981, he decided to keep the embargo in place. However, a meeting held by Reagan’s senior officials on July 21, 1981, deemed the embargo ineffective. The argument was that Iran could always buy spares from other countries and so the US should remove the embargo so that Iran did not fall within the sphere of the Soviet’s influence.
In 1983, the US started Operation Staunch with the aim of convincing other countries to impose an arms embargo on Iran as well. Operation Staunch turned out to be one of the most embarrassing points about the whole scandal because US officials were parroting to other nations about the wrongness of selling arms to Iran.
Meanwhile, at the same time, in Nicaragua, the Contras were warring with the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) of Nicaragua. It so happened that one of Reagan’s major goals while in office was to topple the FSLN and help the Contras. However, there was a clash between the executive and the legislature, which led to the establishment of the Boland Amendment between 1982 and 1984. The amendment curbed the assistance given to the Contras by the US government and later imposed a complete ban in 1984 after funding ran out.
At this point, the scandal started when senior officials in the US ignored the Boland Amendment by training and arming the Contras. Eventually, after another amendment to the original Boland Amendment, President Reagan ordered the NSC to keep the rebels together regardless of what Congress decided. This order sparked a legal debate of whether the NSC fell under the restriction of the Boland Amendment. Today, most political scholars agree that it did but the Reagan administration argued that the NSC was not explicitly restricted by the amendment. The NSC went on ahead to facilitate arms shipments to the Contras through a fake private organization that they controlled. Interestingly, Congress removed the restrictions on the Contras in October 1986 just before the scandal came out.
As stated earlier, the official story for selling arms to Iran was to free hostages captured by Hezbollah. To sell the lie, the involved officials started a paper trail that started in 1985, which was after the capture of the hostages. However, investigations proved that the shipments began in 1981, which was before the first hostage was captured in 1982. Records show that the first arms sale was in 1981 while the last one was in 1986. All these were actions to generate funding for the Contras. Officials argued that the Boland Amendment did not restrict the president from seeking other sources of funding from private sources.
The scandal broke out on November 3, 1986, from a senior official called Mehdi Hashemi of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Some say that an official in the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff called Arthur S. Moreau Jr. may have been the orchestrator because he felt that the whole thing was spiraling out of control. A few days later, on November 13, Reagan appeared on TV confirming that there was a sale of weapons to Iran. He argued that the US did it in order to mend ties with Iran by using Iran’s influence to secure the release of the hostages.
Oliver North and Others Testify
Things were further complicated after Oliver North destroyed important documents between November 21 and 25 of 1986. During North’s hearing, his own secretary confirmed to helping him destroy documents from the White House. In his defense, North argued he destroyed them because he wanted to protect the lives of the people involved in the operation in Iran and Nicaragua. Further, North testified to seeing Admiral Poindexter destroy a document that could have been a signed copy from the president authorizing the CIA to ship Hawk missiles to Iran in November 1985. On November 25, U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese admitted to using the funds from Iran to fund the Contras. On the same day, Reagan fired North while Poindexter resigned to be replaced by Frank Carlucci on December 2, 1986.
Congress and the Tower Commission
On November 25, 1986, President Reagan established a Special Reviews Board (the Tower Commission) to investigate the matter. The commission talked to 80 witnesses including the president himself and submitted its 200-page report on February 26, 1987. The comprehensive report criticized high-ranking individuals including Caspar Weinberger, John Poindexter, Oliver North, and others. The report also established that the president had no knowledge of the whole affair. However, the report was critical on the president stating that he should have kept better control over the NSC.
Congress started its own investigation in January 1987 and had a report ready on November 18 of the same year. Similar to the above report, the one from Congress heavily criticized the actions of the president stating that he should have known what his advisers were doing and that he bore full responsibility for their actions. However, due to the destruction of documents by the likes of North and Poindexter, the full involvement of the president in the whole matter remains unknown to this day.
In an address on March 4, 1987, from the Oval Office, Reagan went before Americans after three months of silence. He stated that his silence was because he was waiting for a full report on the matter. He also took full responsibility for the whole affair. His ratings took a massive hit (the biggest in history) from a 67% approval rate to 46% earning him the nickname of the "Teflon President." His ratings recovered later, though.
Internationally, the damage had far-reaching consequences. Essentially, adversaries knew that hostage-taking was a highly effective strategy in getting what you want from the US. In addition, the credibility of the US suffered a massive hit. The main source of the leak, Mehdi Hashemi, was killed in 1987. The official reason for the execution was nothing related to the scandal.