Iran-Contra Affair

Iran-contra affair, in U.S. history, secret arrangement in the 1980s to provide funds to the Nicaraguan contra rebels from profits gained by selling arms to Iran. The Iran-contra affair was the product of two separate initiatives during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. The first was a commitment to aid the contras who were conducting a guerrilla war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The second was to placate "moderates" within the Iranian government in order to secure the release of American hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon and to influence Iranian foreign policy in a pro-Western direction.

Despite the strong opposition of the Reagan administration, the Democratic-controlled Congress enacted legislation, known as the Boland amendments, that prohibited the Defense Dept., the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or any other government agency from providing military aid to the contras from Dec., 1983, to Sept., 1985. The Reagan administration circumvented these limitations by using the National Security Council (NSC), which was not explicitly covered by the law, to supervise covert military aid to the contras. Under Robert McFarlane (1983–85) and John Poindexter (1985–86) the NSC raised private and foreign funds for the contras. This operation was directed by NSC staffer Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North. McFarlane and North were also the central figures in the plan to secretly ship arms to Iran despite a U.S. trade and arms embargo.

In early Nov., 1986, the scandal broke when reports in Lebanese newspapers forced the Reagan administration to disclose the arms deals. Poindexter resigned before the end of the month; North was fired. Select congressional committees held joint hearings, and in Dec., 1986, Lawrence E. Walsh was named as special prosecutor to investigate the affair. Higher administration officials, particularly Reagan, Vice President Bush, and William J. Casey (former director of the CIA, who died in May, 1987), were implicated in some testimony, but the extent of their involvement remained unclear. North said he believed Reagan was largely aware of the secret arrangement, and the independent prosecutor's report (1994) said that Reagan and Bush had some knowledge of the affair or its coverup. Reagan and Bush both claimed to have been uninformed about the details of the affair, and no evidence was found to link them to any crime. A presidential commission was critical of the NSC, while congressional hearings uncovered a web of official deception, mismanagement, and illegality.

A number of criminal convictions resulted, including those of McFarlane, North, and Poindexter, but North's and Poindexter's were vacated on appeal because of immunity agreements with the Senate concerning their testimony. Former State Dept. and CIA officials pleaded guilty in 1991 to withholding information about the contra aid from Congress, and Caspar Weinberger, defense secretary under Reagan, was charged (1992) with the same offense. In 1992 then-president Bush pardoned Weinberger and other officials who had been indicted or convicted for withholding information on or obstructing investigation of the affair. The Iran-contra affair raised serious questions about the nature and scope of congressional oversight of foreign affairs and the limits of the executive branch.

See B. Woodward, Veil (1987); T. Draper, A Very Thin Line (1991).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Iran-Contra Affair: Selected full-text books and articles

The Middle East from the Iran-Contra Affair to the Intifada By Robert O. Freedman Syracuse University Press, 1991
Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992 By William M. LeoGrande University of North Carolina Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 20 "Iran-Contra"
Ronald Reagan: The Great Communicator By Kurt Ritter; David Henry Greenwood Press, 1992
Librarian's tip: "Iran-Contra Controversy" begins on p. 175
The White House Speaks: Presidential Leadership as Persuasion By Craig Allen Smith; Kathy B. Smith Praeger Publishers, 1994
Librarian's tip: "Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra Crisis" begins on p. 210
Reckoning with Reagan: America and Its President in the 1980s By Michael Schaller Oxford University Press, 1994
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "The Iran-Contra Affair and the 'End' of the Cold War"
President Reagan and the World By Eric J. Schmertz; Natalie Datlof; Alexej Ugrinsky Greenwood Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: "Iran-Contra" begins on p. 261
Crossroads: Congress, the President, and Central America, 1976-1993 By Cynthia J. Arnson Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: "Nicaragua and the Roots of the Iran-Contra Affair" begins on p. 273
U.S. Intelligence: Evolution and Anatomy By Mark M. Lowenthal Praeger, 1992 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: "The Iran-Contra Affair" begins on p. 76 and "Reprise: Robert Gates and Iran-Contra" begins on p. 94
Schools of Scandal; a Guide to Iran-Contra Theories By Corn, David; Morley, Jefferson The Nation, Vol. 245, August 1, 1987
How Iran-Contra Diminished Us By Schroth, Raymond A National Catholic Reporter, Vol. 30, No. 20, March 18, 1994
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