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The Iran-Contra affair involved US activities in Iran and Nicaragua during the Reagan administration. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran became “stridently anti-American. ” The US severed Diplomatic relations and imposed sanctions (United Sates 3). The Reagan administration (1981-1989) wanted to improve relations with Iran by supporting individuals and groups considered moderate. In Nicaragua, the left-wing Sandinista government, which had also come to power in 1979 “became increasingly anti-American.
Accused of aiding left-wing rebels in El Salvador, the Sandinistas “turned toward Cuba and the Soviet Union” for support (United States 3).
Reagan, for whom defeating communism was a priority, was sympathetic toward the Contras, or counter-revolutionary insurgents who opposed the Sandinistas. He gave financial aid to the Contras. CIA officers were involved in various military actions. Public support, however, for US involvement weaken due to fear that Nicaragua might result in a protracted and costly Vietnam-type engagement leading to the loss of American lives.
Congress responded with a series of measures that limiting then banned aid to the Contras. Reagan compared the Contras struggle with that of the America’s “founding father’s” and ordered his National Security staff to “find a way to keep the Contras’ ‘body and soul’ together (United States 4). According to the Report to Congress, this led the President to turn to “third countries and private sources” to fund the Contras and to the National Security Council becoming “an operational entity that secretly ran the Contra assistance effort and later the Iran initiative” under Lt. Col.
Oliver North (United States 4) with the full knowledge of National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane. The Report stresses that the actions that followed were illegal, since Congress had banned aid to the Contras and CIA involvement lacked official authorization; “covert operations must be approved by the President personally and in writing” and Congress “must be notified” (United States 4). Although a private organization, “The Enterprise” took the leading role in continuing to support the Contras, various CIA personnel gave “logistical and tactical support” (United States 4).
Reagan’s team argued that Congress’s ban did not rule out private or third country funding. Meanwhile, Americans were being held hostage by the Iranian funded Hizbullah in Lebanon and Reagan was anxious to secure their release. In the summer of 1985, an approach from the Israeli government suggested that this could be achieved if the US sold arms to pro-American Iranians. Despite US sanctions against Iran, Regan “authorized Israel to proceed with the sales” without signing an order or notifying Congress (United States 6).
Defense Secretary Weinberger initially advised against this (United States 7) but was later implicated in the affair. In December 1985 Reagan signed an order (called a Finding), later destroyed by National Security Adviser John Poindexter, McFarline’s successor, who believed that “its disclosure would have been politically embarrassing to the President” (United States 6). A later Finding authorized direct sales through Enterprise rather than indirectly through Israel. North directed part of the profit to the Contras and to fund other covert operations, hence the link between Iran and the Contras.
Eventually, five American hostages were released, although two remained in captivity. On November 3rd 1986 a Lebanese paper published details of the arms sales, provoking controversy, scandal and several official enquiries in the USA. Reagan was at first reluctant to comment because he thought this would jeopardize release of more hostages (United States 9). Biographer Lou Cannon says that as the affair attracted attention, Reagan hoped it would “go away” if he did not talk about it, speaking about other issues instead (Cannon 646). When he did speak, he at first denied reports.
After a week, he admitted that the US had sold arms to Iran but said that allegations that this was “in return for hostages” were “utterly false” (United States 10). Later, with the Attorney General at his side, Reagan said that knew nothing about the sales until after they had taken place (United States 10). North, McFarlane and Poindexter began a cover up, aiming to protect Reagan, falsifying chronology and destroying documents. Reagan told the Tower Commission (which he established) that he “had approved the first shipment” to Iran then retracted, saying that he “could not remember” (Pious 135).
The Office of Independent Counsel determined that there was no “credible evidence” that Reagan violated any criminal statute” (Pious 135). The Congressional Report cleared Reagan of wrongdoing but held him responsible for presiding over an administration that disregarded democratic procedures, failed to inform Congress, whose officials lied, broke the law and even saw it as an “impediment to their goal” (United States 18). Reagan created an “environment” in which those involved believed they were “carrying out” his policies (United States 22).
The Tower Report concluded that the Iran-contra affair remains an “enigma” with no “unified account” available from those interviewed (United States & Tower, 16-17). George H W Bush, cleared of any complicity (United States 21), pardoned those convicted of offenses related to the affair. Reagan’s role remains controversial. Aides found him “inattentive, unfocused and uncurious. ” He delegated “many oversight duties” to others (Pious 136). Yet he ended his presidency with a very high approval rating, perhaps because his anti-Communist stance was popular and the Cold War was almost at an end.