Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the news media’s discovery of the Iran-Contra affair, first exposed by the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa on November 3, 1986. The arms-for-hostages scandal nearly crippled the Reagan administration and catalyzed what may have been the greatest drop in a President’s approval rating in polling history. Over the course of that November, Reagan’s approval rating in the New York Times/CBS poll fell from 67 percent to 46 percent.
The affair began on August 20, 1985 with the first sale by Pentagon officials of TOW anti-tank missiles to the government of Iran. The sale violated a U.S. arms embargo against Iran, in place since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent taking of American hostages in Tehran. The sale’s purported intent was to secure the release of six American hostages being held by the radical Lebanese group Hezbollah, a group backed by the Iranian Armed Guard. Another layer of complexity came when Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council devised a plan to divert proceeds from the weapons sale to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, a paramilitary group seeking to depose the democratically elected (but Soviet-allied) Sandinistas from power. Further sales occurred between September 1985 and October 1986, with at least 2,500 TOW missiles and several hundred Hawk anti-aircraft missile spare parts shipped to Iran in exchange for hostages released. Directly funding Contras with intent to overthrow Nicaragua’s government ran afoul of federal law as the 1982 Boland Amendment explicitly banned such support.
The executive branch was aware of the affair’s questionable legal status. Notes taken by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on December 7, 1985 recorded that Reagan said “he could answer charges of illegality but he couldn’t answer charge [sic] that ‘big strong Reagan passed up a chance to free hostages.’” Wherever possible, the U.S. sought to organize sales to Iran through foreign entities. Once the Ash-Shiraa story made international news, North and Hall spent the remainder of November shredding potentially incriminating documents. The White House fired both on November 25, denying that the Iran-Contra arrangement had been an arms-for-hostages deal. Reagan himself would admit that “mistakes were made”in a televised address on March 4, 1987. The scandal dissipated during the course of 1987, even as Nicaragua sued the U.S. in the International Court of Justice.North was convicted in 1989 of three felony counts, while National Security Advisor John Poindexter was convicted of four 1990; both convictions were overturned on appeal. The “Teflon President,” recovered his popularity. Reagan left office in January 1989 with a 64 percent approval rating.