What was the Iran-Contra affair? A political scandal that engulfed the Reagan White House

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At the same time, the Reagan administration was involved in Nicaragua. In 1979, the Nicaraguan leftists, the Sandinistas, or FSLN, overthrew a longtime US ally, the ruling Somoza family, and established their own government. When Reagan became president in 1981, he decided to isolate Nicaragua, which he saw as a Soviet client state in North America. The administration began providing aid to the Contras, a disparate group of Nicaraguans who opposed the FSLN.

The Contras turned out to be extremely violent. As the Reagan administration and its conservative colleagues celebrated, the Contras were regularly denounced by human rights groups for the indiscriminate murder of civilians. More than 30,000 Nicaraguans have been killed in the ten-year civil war between the two groups. Congress, where Democrats controlled the House, passed the Boland Amendment in 1982 and then renewed it, prohibiting US military aid from going to any group trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Reagan’s National Security Council (NSC) ignored lawmakers, first trying to raise funds from other governments, like Saudi Arabia, to continue buying arms for the Contras.

How did the United States end up selling arms to Iran?

These two problems, halfway around the world, intersected after the Reagan administration decided to secretly and illegally pursue both objectives. An exiled Iranian arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, claimed to have contact with a moderate faction in Iran, and further alleged that arms sales would improve the position of that faction. Ghorbanifar worked with Israel, which turned out to be an important intermediary. While Israel was not an ally of Iran, it was not an ally of Iraq either, and the ongoing war between the two countries has distracted them both. Israel began selling US-made weapons to Iran in 1981, even after the US State Department began ending arms sales, known as Operation Staunch, in 1983.

Although the CIA issued a “burn notice” against Ghorbanifar and warned that he should not be trusted, the Israeli and US governments decided to do so anyway. Beginning in 1985, Ghorbanifar passed American-made weapons to Iran via Israel, with the National Security Council overseeing sales. This happened with the knowledge of Reagan and his advisers, who endorsed the idea. William Francis Buckley, a CIA station chief in Beirut, was kidnapped in 1984 and Reagan continued the program in an attempt to secure his release.

Colonel Oliver North, an NSC military aide, then made an important proposal: sell the arms directly to the Iranians and divert some of the money to support the Contras. The plan was authorized and arms sales continued in 1986, with the funds being used to establish a private organization that channeled money to the Contras.

The operation was in many ways grotesque and mismanaged. At one point, the Sultan of Brunei accidentally sent $ 10 million to the bank account of a random Swiss businessman because North had given him the wrong numbers. North had also testified periodically before Congress before the scandal came to light, lying about US aid to the Contras. He also tolerated drug trafficking by the Contras.


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