The Iran Contra Affair

On November 3, 1986, Lebanese newspaper Al-Shiraa reported that the United States secretly sold arms to Iran. The Iran Contra affair broke into the news cycle during the dawn of CNN and 24 hours a day news coverage. The story brought to light the illegal  sale of arms to Iran by the CIA and use of the proceeds to fund the Contra’s in Nicaragua. Both actions were unlawful, and prohibited by Congress. An Iranian arms embargo was in place, through executive orders of both Presidents Carter and Reagan. The Boland Amendment ended monetary support of the Contras and made illegal, the “supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua”. Undaunted by Congress, the Reagan Administration continued its support of the Contras.

Full Episode Transcript:

On November 3, 1986, Lebanese newspaper Al-Shiraa reported that the United States secretly sold arms to Iran. The Iran Contra affair broke into the news cycle during the dawn of CNN and 24 hours a day news coverage. The story brought to light the illegal  sale of arms to I

The Iran-Contra scandal held America’s attention, and rocked support of President Reagan. According to Gallup, Reagan’s job approval rating dropped from 63% in late October 1986, right before the scandal broke, to a low of 47% percent by December ‘86. Although Reagan’s approval rating remained low through all of 1987, Americans’ perceptions of Reagan improved steadily after he left office. In 2002, 73% of Americans approved of the way Ronald Reagan had managed his presidency.

Although it was never proven that Reagan had knowledge of the illegal aspects of the scheme, President Regan famously used the “I don’t recall defense” under testimony. It defies all but the most byzantine logic that these actions could have taken place without the President’s direct knowledge and approval. If, however, we are left to believe that the National Security Council undertook and approved of the arms sales and support of the Contras, outside of explicit Presidential assent, then even more serious concerns are raised about controls in place to prevent illegal and unauthorized actions by rogue NSC members and the CIA.

The events of the Iran-Contra affair are bookended by the Iranian Islamic Revolution, of 1979 through to November 1986, and transpired during the terms of two Presidents, Carter and Reagan.

There are four revelations that immediately jump out as the most egregious transgressions:

  1. The Regan administration violated its own executive order barring the sale of weapons to Iran, in order to free US hostages and to provide support to the Contras. He also did not live up to his own ideals or promises to the American people when he famously quipped in 1985, “The United States gives terrorists no rewards. We make no concessions, we make no deals.” .
  2. The secret, and illegal, mining of Nicaraguan harbors by the CIA, in violation of international law. How dare the CIA, outside of Congressional approval, mine the ports of an independent state?
  1. Allegations that the CIA was involved in Cocaine trafficking as a source of revenue for the Contras in Nicaragua. This became the subject of Congressional investigations, and the allegations were never proven. These alleged events took place during the time of Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign, aimed at reducing drug use in the United States, and President Regan’s renewed “War of Drugs” agenda.
  2. Conspiracy to violate tax laws. As lawful taxpayers, we all find this very offensive. Illicitly gained monies from arms sales to Iran were transferred to Swiss bank accounts under fictitious company names.

As always on the Paul Kristoffer Show, lets start with the basics:

Who are the Sandinistas? 

The Sandinista National Liberation Front, or known as the Frehn-te Sandinista de “lee-beh-rah–syohn” Nacional in Spanish, The Sadinistas, were Cuban and Soviet backed marxists active in Nicaraugua that took power in January 1979. Named after Augusto César Sandino, a revolutionary who led the fight against  American occupation of Nicaragua during the 1930’s. The Sandinstas took away private property and businesses, nationalized the banks, mines, and transit. They abolished the court system and constitution, and replaced them by Civil Defense Committees, which were staffed by peasants and workers. 

Who were the Contras? 

The Contras were various US and Saudi backed groups fighting in opposition to the Sandanista Government in Nicaragua. Made up of farmers, peasants and ex-military, the main contras group was the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN).

Why were the Iranians involved? 

For a refresher, the Iranian Revolution bagan in January 1979 when muslim clerics, led by Ayatolla Khomeini, swept to power and ousted the U.S. backed Shah of Iran, Shah Palavi who ruled as an absolute Monarch. The U.S. had long term strategic interests in Iran, as it is the site of oil rich lands.

On November 5, 1979, students at the University of Tehran became swept up by clerics in anti west anger, and set about burning and razing all symbols of the West.

Unfortunately, President Jimmy Carter continued his support of the Shah, even after the Shah abandoned his country, under the pretense of requiring medical care. 

Why were sales of arms to Iran illegal? 

The Sale of arms to Iran were illegal due to an arms embargo that was first put in  place by President Carter and later during the Regan administration. President Carter used the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to empower the executive order. The Act is a United States federal law authorizing the president to regulate international commerce after declaring a national emergency in response to any unusual and extraordinary threat to the United States. First enacted on November 14, 1979 and renewed most recently in March 2021 by President Joe Biden Jr., it is the longest and oldest “existing state of emergency.” 

After Reagan, more crushing sanctions were signed by President Bill Clinton, also via executive orders.

Why was support of the Contras illegal?
Congress passed the Boland Amendment, in multiple versions, to explicitly prevent the use of funds or resources to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, or start a war between Nicaragua and Honduras.

For some background: US President Jimmy Carter sent the Sandinista’s $99 million in aid in 1979 in the hope of making the Sandinista government more pro-USA. By early 1980 Carter’s attempt to curry favor with the Sandinistas had failed.  Instead of continuing to build an alliance with the Sandinista’s, President Carter authorized CIA support of forces in Nicaragua opposed to the Sandinistas through propaganda and by providing assistance, but not armed action.

In March 1980, violence in opposition to the Sandinistas broke out in Nicaragua, led by the Nicaraguan Democratic Force,  or FDN Fuerza (fwehr-sah) Democratica Nicaraguense (nee-kah-rah-gwehn-seh),   the main Contras group.

When Ronald Reagan becomes President in January 1981, he quickly ends support to the Sandinistas, and begins a covert policy of supporting opposition groups. The public policy of the US at the time is to interdict, or prevent, arms trafficking in the region. However,  Reagan signs approval for the CIA to provide arms, equipment and money to the Contras by the end of 1981 and in early 1982, which is hidden from the public.

In June 1982, as the Sandinistas continue to support revolutionaries in nearby El Salvador, President Reagan makes the policy of supporting opposition groups to socialist revolutions public. Known as the Reagan Doctrine, the policy was designed to stop the spread of Soviet influence globally by supporting and arming guerilla fighters opposed to Soviet/Cuban style marxism, without the use of US military personnel. Key groups supported by the Reagan doctrine were, the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, the UNITA’s in Angola, the Contras in Nicaragua and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front in Cambodia, a group opposed to the Khmer Rouge.

Although widely viewed as successful in stopping Soviet aggression, The Reagan Doctrine supported and continued war in foreign countries where the US may not have held long term national security interests. It is against our key belief here at the Paul Kristoffer show to break the laws made by Congress (or any laws, for that matter) or to support groups which have violated the human rights of individuals. It is immoral and wrong. Since this podcast is focused on the reduction of human suffering and misery, in general we would be opposed to any support of such groups through arms, equipment, money or training.

What is the National Security Council, and who were the key people on it at the time of Iran-Contra?

The National Security Council was established in 1947, to advise the President on domestic, international and military security issues. In 1981, President Ronald Regan headed up the NSC, with his VP, George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State, George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. The Director of the CIA, William Casey, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, William Crowe were advisors to the NSC at the time. Vice Admiral John Poindexter served in multiple capacities, including Deputy National Security Advisor to the President.

What was the Iran-Contra Affair?
The Iran-Contra Affair was a scheme by which the NSC and CIA illegally sold weapons to Iran, and then used the proceeds to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Both actions were illegal, and violated acts of Congress, and the trust of the American people.

Let’s talk about Iran first:

Iran was in need of weapons during its war with Iraq, in the period between 1980 and 1988. Iraq wanted to prevent a similar Shia Islamic revolution in Iraq. Shia muslims are the majority in Iraq, with the ruling Sunni Baath party members being in the minority. Iraq also had visions of being the dominant power in the Persian gulf. The U.S. actively sought to prevent US made weapons from getting into the hands of the Iranians during this period, a program known as operation Staunch.

In July 1983, moderate groups in Iran indicated to Robert Macfarlane, an advisor to the NSA,  that they would be amenable to better relations with  America, if supplied with arms. This message was communicated via a Saudi Arabian man named Adnan Kosshoggi.  Robert McFarlane, and a CIA Officer met with a number of Iranians, including arms dealer Man-ucher Ghorb-ani-far. As a major oil producer, good relations with Iran was a strategic US interest.

Fifty-three hostages, who were taken by University Students in November 1979, were released on President Reagan’s inauguration day, January 20, 1981. However, a group named the Islamic Jihad took more U.S. hostages beginning in March 1984.

It was Iran’s interest in gaining weapons, and the U.S.’s desire to gain better relations with the new government in Iran, and access to oil, that drove interest in the arms deal. The U.S. also had an interest in gaining the release of hostages that had been captured by Islamic Jihad.

On July 1, 1985 President Ronald Reagan was quoted in The New York Times stating, “The United States gives terrorists no rewards. We make no concessions, we make no deals.” He was being completely inauthentic as three days later Robert McFarlane, an advisor to the NSA, met with the Iraninans and the Saudi arms dealer, Khashoggi.  Ronald Reagan approved a sale of 100 TOW missiles to the Iranians, through the Israelies, from his hospital bed a mere thirteen days after The New York Times quote. TOW missiles are designed as anti-tank weapons, but can be used to destroy many targets. TOW is an acronym and stands for “Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided missiles.”

On August 20th 1985, 96 TOW missiles were shipped to Iran, from Israel and $1 Million in funds was paid to cover the transaction. Lt. Colonel Oliver North was brought in to help manage the logistics.

On September 15, 1985, an additional four hundred eight TOW missiles were sold, and hostage Benjamin Weir was released. Benjamin was a missionary active in Lebanon, and was kidnapped off the street by Islamic Jihad. The profits from this sale went to the middlemen. 

Air Force Major General Richard Secord, who was known for excelling in the execution of covert operations, was brought in to facilitate future shipments of arms to Iran. On a side note, a Major General in the Air Force is a two star general rank, and awarded to highly regarded individuals. Secord was recognized for his duty during the secret war in Laos, which took place during the Vietnam conflict, and for the only successful POW rescue mission conducted during the conflict.

In November 1985, a second sale of arms to Iran was agreed, which provided the first source of funds that went to support the Contras. Secord, and another co-conspirator, created a shell company named, the Stanford Technology Trading Group International. The Enterprise, as it was known, was used as a front to receive the monies and establish a swiss bank account. $150,000 of the money was actually used to cover the cost of the arms, in this case 120 HAWK missiles,  and $850,000 was going to go to the Contras. 

As is the case with the Paul Kristoffer show, we will spend a brief moment detailing what HAWK missiles actually are. As you might expect, HAWK is a military acronym that stands for “Homing-All-the-Way-Killer”, and the weapon is a  medium range, surface to air missile designed for defense. You can access  links for more information about these weapons at 

When you take a look at the HAWK system, its hard to believe that these weapons cost only $1,250 a piece. Even if one were to assume that the vehicles needed to transport and launch the system were not included, it still seems like a low cost.

Getting back to our main story, the second shipment of HAWK missiles to Tehran, Iran’s capital city,  turned into a logistics nightmare, and the correct weapons were not delivered.

After experiencing problems with the second shipment, President Reagan signed a Presidential Finding authorizing US arms sales to Iran. A Presidential Finding is also known as a Memorandum of Understanding and it is way for the President to authorize the CIA to do something covertly, while notifying Congress.

The resulting agreement with the Iranians was that the US would provide 1,500 TOW missiles, in exchange for $3.6 million USD and the release of “1 ½ hostages”, which meant one hostage for sure, possibly a second. Out of the $3.6, $2.0 million went to the CIA to cover costs, and $1.6 million was funneled to the Contras. The resulting cost of $2,400 per TOW missile makes these weapons almost twice as expensive as the HAWK, surface to air missiles.

Getting back to Nicauragua and the Contras, President Reagan wanted to support the Contras with money, weapons and advice, but he had to get around the Boland Amendment. In order to circumvent it, CIA chief Willam Casey and National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane, evaluated the possibility of getting money from other countries to support the Contras. Saudi Arabia had already funneled millions, and support was sought from the Israelis.

In the Spring of 1984, an uproar and backlash commenced when congress found out that the CIA had mined the harbors in Nicaragua in 1982, which Colonel North knew about and allegedly had the President sign off on.

Conservative Fundraiser Carl Channell raises $12 million from private donors in 1985 and provides $2.7 million of it to the Contras. As a Paul Kristoffer show side note, Channell was struck and killed by a car in 1990, as he stood on a street in Washington D.C..

Secord is asked by Oliver North to help in getting supplies to the Contras. Oliver North, in his capacity as adviser to the NSC, solicits funding from foreign entities to support the Contras, including the Tawainese, Saudis and other groups. The Taiwanese provide $1 Million USD for the Contras in 1985. By then the initial Saudi contribution ran out, but they donated more. In total, they gave $32 million.

In October of 1986, a Contras plane was shot down in Nicaragua, with an American captured. Although this would imply direct US involvement with the Contras, in violation of Congress and the Boland Amendment, Congress did not look into the plane downing too much, otherwise they would have learned that the CIA had been continuing to carry  out sabotage in Nicaragua, without first informing Congress and in violation of the Boland Amendment.

The scandal was finally brought to light by Lebanese newspaper Al Shiraa. 

The individuals responsible for the Iran-Contra scheme all violated the U.S. Constitution, which specifies that Congress must appropriate funds for government operations. The Reagan administration, including the NSC and CIA, circumvented Congress and the Boland Amendment which banned US Aid to Nicaragua from 1982 to 1986, when the Contras were attempting to overthrow the Marxist regime in Managua, the capital and largest city in Nicargua.

Further, the Iran Contra affair violated the National Security Act. which required that the administratio notify Congress about any arms sales to Iran.

The Presidential Records Act was violated when John Poindexter destroyed a finding by President Reagan.

Fawn Hall, secretary to Oliver North, Oliver North himself and John Poindexter all lied to Congress, violating Federal Law when trying to cover up their illegal activities.

  1. Here is a list of five of the guilty parties and their sentences:
    1. Oliver North was convicted in federal court of destroying official documents, accepting an illegal gift and of aiding and abetting the obstruction of Congress in November 1986. His punishment did not include jail time, but 1,200 hours of community service, $150,000 fine and three years’ suspended sentence. These convictions were reversed on appeal.
    2. Fundraiser Carl Channell pleaded guilty in 1987 to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and received two years’ probation in return for full cooperation with ongoing investigations
    3. Casper Weinerger and McFarlane were Pardoned pre-emptively by President George Bush prior to trial, in 1992
    4. John Poindexter was found guilty of five felonies. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment on each charge, to be served concurrently, for a total of six months. However, because of the issue of potential contamination of the trial by the immunized testimony Poindexter gave to Congress, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed his convictions,

Conclusion: The Reagan Administration and CIA purposefully bypassed the Boland Act to support the Contras in Nicaragua and illegally sold arms to Iran, in violation of President Reagan’s own executive order. A governmental agency, such as the CIA, whose budget, operations and assessments are all conducted under secrecy, that deliberately bypassess the law of Congress to undertake illegal activities is in serious violation of the Constitution, and infringes on the inalienable rights of the Citizens of the United States of America.

Sources: The New York Times, Brown University, Gallup, Military Today

Music: Zapsplat

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