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In what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, US President Ronald Reagan's
administration secretly sold arms to Iran, which was engaged in a bloody war
with its neighbor Iraq from 1980 to 1988 (see Iran-Iraq War), and diverted
the proceeds to the Contra rebels fighting to overthrow the leftist
Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
Both actions were contrary to acts of Congress which prohibited the sale of
weapons to Iran, as well as in violation of UN sanctions.
The Israeli government approached the United States in August 1985 with a
proposal to act as an intermediary by shipping 508 American-made TOW
anti-tank missiles to Iran in exchange for the release of the Reverend
Benjamin Weir, an American hostage being held by Iranian sympathizers in
Lebanon, with the understanding that the United States would then ship
replacement missiles to Israel. Robert McFarlane, the Assistant to the
President for National Security Affairs, approached United States Secretary
of Defense Caspar Weinberger and arranged the details. The transfer took
place over the next two months.
In November, there was another round of negotiations, where the Israelis
proposed to ship Iran 500 HAWK anti-aircraft missiles in exchange for the
release of all remaining American hostages. General Colin Powell attempted
to procure the missiles, but realized that the deal would require
Congressional notification as its overall value exceeded $14 million.
McFarlane responded that the President had decided to conduct the sale
anyway. Israel sent an initial shipment of 18 missiles to Iran in late
November, but the Iranians didn't approve of the missiles, and further
shipments were halted. Negotiations continued with the Israelis and Iranians
over the next few months.
In January of 1986, Reagan allegedly approved a plan whereby an American
intermediary, rather than Israel, would sell arms to Iran in exchange for
the release of the hostages, with profits funnelled to the Contras. In
February, 1,000 TOW missiles were shipped to Iran. From May to November,
there were additional shipments of miscellaneous weapons and parts.
The proceeds from the arms sales were diverted, via Colonel Oliver North,
aide to the U.S. National Security Advisor John Poindexter, to provide arms
for the Contras (from Spanish contrarevolucionario,
"counter-revolutionary"). The Sandinistas' eventual loss of power in
national elections was seen by some as stemming from U.S. support for the
contras as well as the effects of a U.S. trade embargo initiated in May 1985.
The U.S. accused the Sandinistas of being backed by the Soviet Union and
Cuba, and of supporting in turn left-wing rebels against the U.S.-backed
government in El Salvador, scene of a destructive civil war throughout the
1980s. In 1985, the Sandinista movement claimed a majority in elections
validated by other independent observers from Western democracies as having
been fair and free, but the Reagan administration rejected the election as
Many conservatives agreed with Reagan and ignored the findings of these
international observers, comparing the election to one-candidate "elections"
in communist countries, although opposition parties ran against the
Sandinistas: six parties ran against the Sandinistas in that election,
winning 35 of 96 seats in the national legislature.
The Reagan administration, contrary to acts of Congress (specifically the
1982-1983 Boland Amendment), ferried funds and weaponry to the Contras
gained by the sale of arms to Iran. The Contras, led by former members of
the National Guard of the overthrown Somoza regime (1936-1979) received
weapons and training from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, especially
in guerrilla tactics such as destroying infrastructural elements and
In November of 1986, the first public allegations of the
weapons-for-hostages deal surfaced. The clandestine operation was discovered
only after an airlift of guns was downed over Nicaragua. Reagan claimed he
had not been informed of the operation and a Presidential Commission, which
implicated North, Poindexter, and Weinberger, amongst others, could not
conclusively determine the degree of Reagan's involvement as many documents
had been destroyed. Nevertheless on February 26, 1986 the Tower Commission
rebuked President Reagan for not controlling his national security staff.
Oliver North and John Poindexter were indicted on charges of conspiracy to
defraud the United States on March 16, 1988. Poindexter was convicted on
several felony counts of lying to Congress, obstruction of justice,
conspiracy, and altering and destroying documents pertinent to the
investigation. He avoided jail time due to a legal technicality.
There is also evidence that the CIA may have been involved with drug
trafficking to raise money for the contra campaign. The Sandinistas lost
power in fresh elections in February 1990, following a decade of U.S.
economic and military pressure.
The Iran-Contra Affair is significant because it brought many questions into
* Does the president have unconditional authority to conduct foreign
policy? (Can the president approve selling arms to a foreign nation
without congressional approval?)
* What information does the president have to provide to Congress and
when should that information be supplied? (Does the president have to
tell Congress about foreign policy initiatives?)
* What authority, if any, does Congress have to oversee functions of the
executive branch? (Does funding for foreign policy initiatives have to
be approved by Congress? Who defines the entire spending budget and who
* What role does the Supreme Court have in deciding conflicts between the
legislative branch and executive branch?
* How much support is America entitled to provide to armed opposition
forces seeking to replace a government it does not support with one
that it does?
Most, if not all, of the constitutional and ethical questions are still
unresolved. On one view, it appears that if the legislative and executive
branches do not wish to work together, there are no legal remedies. These
are transient issues in that each of the executive and legislative branches
change every few years.
There's more to add here, particularly on the political impact of the
scandal on Reagan's presidency. It won't do simply to say "it was damaging";
it's obviously more complicated than that.