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In the Iran-Contra Affair (also known as "Irangate"), United States President Ronald Reagan's administration was involved in the sale of arms to Iran, which was engaged in a bloody war with its neighbor Iraq from 1980 to 1988 (see Iran-Iraq War), and was said to have contributed the proceeds to the Contra rebels who ultimately forced the leftist and Sandinista government of Nicaragua out of office in democratic elections. Those sales thus had a dual goal: appeasing Iran, which had influence with militant groups that held several American hostages in Lebanon and supported bombings in Western European countries, and funding a guerrilla war aimed at toppling the pro-Communist Nicaraguan government, which was backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Both transactions were contrary to acts of the then Democrat-dominated Congress, which opposed the funding of the Contras and the sale of weapons to Iran.
The arms-for-hostages deal
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 being held in Lebanon. 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, the Administration approved a plan whereby an American intermediary, rather than Israel, would sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of the hostages, with proceeds made available to the Contras. At first, the Iranians had refused the weapons from Ghorbanifar, the Iranian intermediary, when both Oliver North and Ghorbanifar created a 370% markup (WALSH, Lawrence E. "Firewall"). Another intermediary was used to sell 500 TOW missiles. With the marked-up income of $10 million from the $3.7 million before, and the Iranian backed terrorists capturing new hostages when they released old ones, this was the end of the arms-for-hostages deal. In February, 1,000 TOW missiles were shipped to Iran. From May to November, there were additional shipments of miscellaneous weapons and parts.
Funding the Contras
The proceeds from the arms sales were made available, in an arrangement instituted by Colonel Oliver North, aide to the U.S. National Security Advisor John Poindexter, to provide arms for the Contras (from Spanish contrarrevolucionario, "counter-revolutionary"). The Sandinistas' eventual loss of power in the 1990 national election was seen as a rejection of the corruption of the Sandinistas and its Marxist mismanagement of the economy. Unemployment sky-rocketed under the Sandinistas, corruption flourished and the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies meant a great level of destabilization in the country which led to it failing to be re-elected.
It is accepted that the Sandinistas were heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union and Cuba with both military and economic aid, and were involved in destabilizing the governments of neighboring nations including El Salvador and Honduras. It was also alleged that the original election of the Sandinistas was tainted by electoral fraud, although this was not considered greatly unusual either in Nicaragua or the region at that time.
The Reagan administration, ignoring the mandates of the Democratic Congress (specifically the 1982-1983 Boland Amendment), provided assistance in kind of a financial nature to the Contras which was made possible by the North sanctioned arrangements with providing arms to Iran. The Contras received weapons and training from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as had others involved in toppling Soviet linked regimes throughout the world, under the policies of the Reagan Administration which had pledged not to permit the further growth of Soviet totalitarianism.
Discovery and scandal
In November of 1986, the first public reporting of the weapons-for-hostages deal occurred when on November 3 the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa exposed the arrangement. The operation was discovered only after an airlift of guns was downed over Nicaragua. On November 21, National Security Council member Oliver North and his secretary Fawn Hall shredded some documents relating to the issue. US Attorney General Edwin Meese on November 25 admitted that profits from weapons sales to Iran were made available to assist the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Faced with mounting pressure from Congressional Democrats and the media, Reagan on November 26 announced that as of December 1 former Senator John Tower, former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft would serve as members of a Special Review Board looking into the matter; this Presidential Commission became known as the Tower Commission . At this point, President Reagan said he had not been informed of the operation. The Tower Commission, implicated North, Poindexter, and Weinberger, amongst others, did not determine that the President had been involved in the matter although it did argue the President ought to have controlled the National Security staff better than he did.
The U.S. Congress then on November 18, 1987 issued its final report on the affair, which stated that the President bore "ultimate responsibility" for wrongdoing by his aides and his administration exhibited "secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law." Oliver North and John Poindexter were indicted on multiple charges on March 16, 1988. North, indicted on nine counts, was initially convicted of three minor counts although the conviction was vacated upon appeal on the grounds that North's Fifth Amendment rights may have been violated by indirect use of his testimony to Congress which had been given under a grant of immunity. Poindexter was convicted on several felony counts of lying to Congress, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and altering and destroying documents pertinent to the investigation. His convictions were also overturned on appeal on essentially the same grounds as North's. The Independent Counsel did not wish to re-try North or Poindexter.
On June 27, 1986, International Court of Justice (also known as the World Court) ruled in favour of Nicaragua in the case of Nicaragua v. United States . The U.S. refused to pay restitution and claimed that the ICJ was not competent for the case, and subsequently vetoed a United Nations Security Council Resolution calling on all states to obey international law. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in order to pressure the U.S. to pay the fine.
The Sandinistas lost power in February 1990 after losing much of their initial popularity due to economic mismanagement and government corruption.
Significance: The separation of powers
The Iran-Contra Affair is significant because it brought many questions into public view:
- 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 regulates it? Is the provision of the 1978 Ethics in Government Act that creates the position of independent counsel answering to the Attorney General, constitutional?)
- 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 undemocratic governments with governments more in sympathy with the values of freedom?
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 the executive and legislative branches change every few years.
- Documents related to the Iran-Contra Affair
- Secretary Weinberger's indictment
- Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters
- United Nations General Assembly Resolution calling the United States for full and immediate compliance with the Judgment of the International Court of Justice
- Analysis of Israeli involvement in the affair
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