The Iran-Contra Affair: Ronald Reagan’s Arms Sales Scandal

President Ronald Reagan holding a copy of the Tower Commission report on the Iran-Contra scandal
President Ronald Reagan Addresses the Nation on the Iran-Contra Scandal.

 Getty Images Archive

The Iran-Contra affair was a political scandal that exploded in 1986, during President Ronald Reagan's second term, when it came to light that senior administration officials had secretly—and in violation of existing laws—arranged for the sale of arms to Iran in return for Iran’s promise to help secure the release of a group of Americans being held hostage in Lebanon. Proceeds from the arms sales were then secretly, and again illegally, funneled to the Contras, a group of rebels fighting the Marxist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

Iran-Contra Affair Key Takeaways

  • The Iran-Contra affair was a political scandal that played out between 1985 and 1987, during the second term of President Ronald Reagan.
  • The scandal revolved around a plan by Regan administration officials to secretly and illegally sell arms to Iran, with funds from the sales funneled to the Contra rebels fighting to overthrow Nicaragua’s Cuban-controlled, Marxist Sandinista government.
  • In return for the arms sold to them, the Iranian government had vowed to help secure the release of a group of Americans being held hostage in Lebanon by the terrorist group Hezbollah.
  • While several top White House officials, including National Security Council member Colonel Oliver North were convicted due to their participation in the Iran-Contra affair, no evidence that President Reagan had planned or authorized the arms sales was ever revealed.

Background

The Iran-Contra scandal grew out of President Reagan’s determination to eradicate Communism worldwide. So supportive of the Contra rebels’ struggle to overthrow Nicaragua’s Cuban-backed Sandinista government, Reagan had called them, “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.” Operating under the so-called “Reagan Doctrine” of 1985, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was already training and assisting the Contras and similar anti-Communist insurgencies in several countries. However, between 1982 and 1984, the U.S. Congress had twice specifically prohibited providing further funding to the Contras.

The convoluted path of the Iran-Contra scandal began as a covert operation to free seven American hostages who had been held in Lebanon since the state-sponsored Iranian terrorist group Hezbollah had kidnapped them in 1982. The initial plan was to have America’s ally Israel ship weapons to Iran, thus bypassing an existing U.S. arms embargo against Iran. The United States would then resupply Israel with arms and receive payment from the Israeli government. In return for the weapons, the Iranian government promised to help free the Hezbollah-held American hostages.

However, in late 1985, U.S. National Security Council member Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North secretly devised and implemented a revision to the plan whereby a part of the proceeds from the weapons sales to Israel would secretly—and in violation of the congressional ban—be diverted to Nicaragua to help the insurgent Contras.

What Was the Reagan Doctrine?

The term “Reagan Doctrine” arose from President Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union address, in which he called on Congress and all Americans to stand up to the Communist-ruled Soviet Union, or as he called it the “Evil Empire.” He told Congress:

“We must stand by all our democratic allies, and we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.”

Scandal Discovered

The public first learned of the Iran-Contra arms deal shortly after a transport aircraft carrying 50,000 AK-47 assault rifles and other military weapons was shot down over Nicaragua on November 3, 1986. The aircraft had been operated by Corporate Air Services, a front for Miami, Florida-based Southern Air Transport. One of the plane’s three surviving crew members, Eugene Hasenfus, stated in a press conference held in Nicaragua that he and his two crewmates had been hired by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to deliver the arms to the Contras.

After the Iranian government confirmed agreeing to the arms deal, President Reagan appeared on national television from the Oval Office on November 13, 1986, stating of the deal:

“My purpose was to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between [the U.S. and Iran] with a new relationship … At the same time we undertook this initiative, we made clear that Iran must oppose all forms of international terrorism as a condition of progress in our relationship. The most significant step which Iran could take, we indicated, would be to use its influence in Lebanon to secure the release of all hostages held there.”

Oliver North

 The scandal grew worse for the Reagan administration after it became clear that National Security Council member Oliver North had ordered the destruction and concealment of documents related to the Iran and Contra arms sale. In July 1987, North testified before a televised hearing of a special joint congressional committee created to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal. North admitted that he had lied when describing the deal to Congress in 1985, stating that he had viewed the Nicaraguan Contras as “freedom fighters” engaged in a war against the Communist Sandinista government. Based on his testimony, North was indicted on a series of federal felony charges and ordered to stand trial.

Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North testifying before the Senate on the Iran-Contra scandal
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North Testifies to Senate on Iran-Contra Scandal.  Getty Images Archive

During the 1989 trial, North’s secretary Fawn Hall testified that she had helped her boss shred, alter, and remove official United States National Security Council documents from his White House office. North testified that he had ordered the shredding of “some” documents in order to protect the lives of certain individuals involved in the arms deal.

On May 4, 1989, North was convicted of bribery and obstruction of justice and was sentenced to a three-year suspended prison term, two years on probation, $150,000 in fines, and 1,200 hours of community service. However, on July 20, 1990, his conviction was vacated when a federal court of appeals ruled that North’s televised 1987 testimony to Congress may have improperly influenced the testimony of some witnesses at his trial. After taking office in 1989, President George H.W. Bush issued presidential pardons to six other individuals who had been convicted for their involvement in the scandal. 

Had Reagan Ordered the Deal?

Reagan made no secret of his ideological support of the Contra’s cause. However, the question of whether he ever approved Oliver North’s plan to provide weapons to the rebels remains largely unanswered. The investigation into the exact nature of Reagan’s involvement was hindered by the destruction of related White House correspondence as ordered by Oliver North.

In early 1986, the Reagan-appointed Tower Commission, chaired by Republican Texas Senator John Tower, found no evidence that Reagan himself was aware of the details or extent of the operation, and that the initial sale of arms to Iran had not been a criminal act. In a televised address on March 4, 1987, Reagan, however, took responsibility for the scandal, stating that “what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages.”

President Reagan's television address on the Iran-Contra Affair, 1987. National Archives

While his image suffered as a result of the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan’s popularity recovered, allowing him to complete his second term in 1989 with the highest public approval rating of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sources and Suggested References