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Context of 'November 3, 1986: Lebanese Newspaper Reveals US Arms Sales to Iran, Beginning Iran/Contra Affair Scandal'

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Graham Fuller.Graham Fuller. [Source: Ohio University]The US tilts ever more sharply towards Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, even though the Reagan administration continues to maintain a posture of overt neutrality in the conflict. The administration has provided covert military aid for both sides in the struggle (see 1981 and October 1983), and has been divided over which regime to support (see January 14, 1984). It is already involved in “Operation Staunch,” a program designed by Secretary of State George Shultz to stem the flow of weapons to Iran. Now, some officials are arguing that it is time to reverse that course. Graham Fuller, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Middle East, writes two controversial secret memos advocating that the administration begin providing support for Iran against Iraq. Fuller is presenting a position long held by national security director Robert McFarlane and two of McFarlane’s aides, Oliver North and Howard Teicher. This pro-Iran group has recently been joined by CIA director William Casey. Both McFarlane and Casey are supportive of Fuller’s memo. Fuller writes in a May 17 memo, “Our tilt to Iraq was timely when Iraq was against the ropes and the Islamic revolution was on a roll. The time may now have to come to tilt back.” Fuller argues that the US should once again authorize Israel to ship US arms to Iran. Ironically, this is the mirror image of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s argument in favor of supporting Iraq: the US must counter one covert policy with another (see Early 1982). The pro-Iranian coalition within the administration gives scant consideration to the hostage-taking of seven Americans by Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite militant group with strong ties to Iran’s theocratic regime. On May 20, Fuller circulates a second memo, called a “Special National Intelligence Estimate” (SNIE), that is only read by a handful of senior White House officials (Ronald Reagan is one of the recipients; George Bush is not). Fuller’s memo is written almost entirely for Reagan’s benefit, and in its arguments, becomes a basis for renewed arms sales to Iran and the resulting Iran-Contra scandal. Fuller evokes one of Reagan’s favorite themes, the trouncing of the Soviet Union in the global arena: “We know that the USSR views Iran as ‘the prize’ in the Gulf. Moscow will improve relations when and where it can… until it gains major influence in that state. The disturbing possibility is that the USSR is far more likely than the US to be first in finding opportunities to improve its ties to Iran.” Interestingly, in 1991, during Robert Gates’s Senate hearings on becoming the director of the CIA, it is learned that Fuller’s memo contradicts the views of career Soviet analysts at the agency, who believe that the Soviet Union has no real hope of making inroads into the Iranian regime. The USSR is the chief arms supplier for Iraq, Iran’s bitter enemy and current opponent in a long and bloody war. Iran is arming the Afghan mujaheddin, the Islamist resistance fighters viewed as a threat by Saddam Hussein. Several CIA analysts will later testify that they believe Fuller deliberately slanted his memo for political reasons. In 1992, Fuller himself will admit that he was wrong, but will deny any politicization. Regardless, Fuller’s memo becomes a critical document shaping the Reagan policy to arm Iran. It is not clear whether Vice President Bush ever saw the memo, but whether he did or not, beginning in 1985 he takes part in numerous White House meetings where the arming of Iran is discussed. If he has objections to the policy, he never voices them. [Time, 11/17/1986; New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Saddam Hussein, William Casey, Robert M. Gates, Oliver North, Reagan administration, Robert C. McFarlane, George Herbert Walker Bush, Graham Fuller, Central Intelligence Agency, Howard Teicher, Caspar Weinberger, Hezbollah, George Shultz

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iran-Contra Affair

Robert McFarlane.Robert McFarlane. [Source: Shelly Katz / Time Life / Getty Images]A delegation secretly sent to Iran by the White House to break the arms-for-hostages deadlock (see November 3, 1986) returns to Iran. The two countries have been at an impasse since January, when President Reagan authorized the sale of 4,000 antitank missiles to Iran but US officials insisted that all of the American hostages held by Hezbollah be freed before the missiles would be delivered, a condition the Iranians have refused (see January 17, 1986). The US delegation—actually the third such delegation to secretly visit Tehran—includes former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane; McFarlane’s longtime supporter and current National Security Council member Oliver North; CIA expert George Cave; and North’s NSC colleague, Howard Teicher. Israel, which will facilitate the arms transfer, sends Amiram Nir, a counterterrorism adviser to Prime Minister Shimon Peres. [Time, 11/17/1986; New Yorker, 11/2/1992] McFarlane and North bring with them more spare parts for Iran’s Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. They attempt, and fail, to persuade the Iranians to facilitate the release of all American hostages. [New York Times, 11/19/1987] The delegation’s mission has borne no fruit, as the Iranians insisted on “sequencing,” or releasing the hostages two at a time as arms shipments were delivered. Part of the problem surrounds the Iranians’ belief that they are being charged outrageous prices for the missiles, a perception given credence by the fact that profits from the weapons sales are being used to fund Nicaragua’s Contra rebel movement. [Time, 11/17/1986; New Yorker, 11/2/1992]
Unusual Negotiation Tactics - Part of the negotiations involves North, the NSC staffer who coordinates the administration’s dealings with the Contras, offering the Iranians a Bible signed by President Reagan and a chocolate cake. In response, the Iranians stall. Hezbollah will release a few US hostages and take others hostage, maintaining the status quo. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 65]
Explicit Briefing of President, Vice President - McFarlane later briefs both Reagan and Vice President Bush on the arms-for-hostage negotiations (see May 29, 1986).

Entity Tags: Shimon Peres, Ronald Reagan, Robert C. McFarlane, Oliver North, Hezbollah, George Herbert Walker Bush, National Security Council, Amiram Nir, George Cave, Howard Teicher

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iran-Contra Affair

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. [Source: GlobalSecurity.org]The Lebanese weekly Al Shiraa publishes an article reporting that the US has been sending spare parts and ammunition for US-made jet fighters to Iran in return for Iran facilitating the release of American hostages held by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah (see September 15, 1985). It also reports that national security adviser Robert McFarlane and four other US officials, including his aide Oliver North, visited Tehran in September 1986 and met with several high-level Iranian officials, who asked for more US military equipment (see Late May, 1986). After the meeting, the report says, four C-130 transports airlifted the arms to Iran from a US base in the Philippines. The flight of the transports has never been confirmed, but the rest of the report is essentially factual. It is unclear where Al Shiraa got its information; the publication has close ties to Syrian officials, and it is possible that the Syrians leaked the information in order to destabilize any possible thawing of relations between the US and Iran, perhaps with an eye to increasing Syria’s own influence in Iran. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, quickly confirms McFarlane’s visit, but adds elements to the story that many from all sides of the issue find hard to believe, including claims that McFarlane and his companions used Irish passports to enter Iran, and were posing as the flight crew of a plane carrying military equipment Iran had purchased from international arms dealers. Rafsanjani claims that McFarlane and his companions brought gifts of a Bible signed by Ronald Reagan, a cake shaped like a key (to symbolize an opening of better relations between Iran and the US), and a number of Colt pistols to be given to Iranian officials. Rafsanjani says that he and other Iranian officials were outraged at the visit, kept McFarlane and his party under virtual house arrest for five days, and threw them out, sparking the following complaint from McFarlane: “You are nuts. We have come to solve your problems, but this is how you treat us. If I went to Russia to buy furs, [Mikhail] Gorbachev would come to see me three times a day.” US officials say that Rafsanjani’s embellishments are sheer invention designed to humiliate the US and bolster Iran’s perception around the world. They confirm that McFarlane, North, and two bodyguards did visit Tehran, but bore neither Bible, cake, nor pistols; they did stay in Tehran four or five days, and met with numerous Iranian officials, perhaps including Rafsanjani. The officials are unclear about exactly what was accomplished, though apparently no new deals were concluded.
US Arms Deals with Iran Revealed - Though Rafsanjani’s account may be fanciful in its details, the effect of the Al Shiraa report is to blow the cover off of the US’s complex arms-for-hostage deals with Iran. While Al Shiraa does not mention the hostage deal, Rafsanjani does, saying that if the US and France meet certain conditions—the unfreezing of Iranian financial assets and the release of what he calls political prisoners held “in Israel and other parts of the world,” then “as a humanitarian gesture we will let our friends in Lebanon know our views” about the release of American and French hostages. On November 17, Time magazine will write of the Al Shiraa revelation, “As long as the deep secret was kept—even from most of the US intelligence community—the maneuver in one sense worked. Iran apparently leaned on Lebanese terrorists to set free three American hostages… . But once the broad outlines of the incredible story became known, the consequences were dire. The administration appeared to have violated at least the spirit, and possibly the letter, of a long succession of US laws that are intended to stop any arms transfers, direct or indirect, to Iran. Washington looked to be sabotaging its own efforts to organize a worldwide embargo against arms sales to Iran, and hypocritically flouting its incessant admonitions to friends and allies not to negotiate with terrorists for the release of their captives. America’s European allies, the recipients of much of that nagging, were outraged. Moreover, the US was likely to forfeit the trust of moderate Arab nations that live in terror of Iranian-fomented Islamic fundamentalist revolutions and fear anything that might build up Tehran’s military machine. Finally, the administration seemed to have lost at least temporarily any chance of gaining the release of the missing six US hostages in Lebanon, or of cultivating the Iranian politicians who might sooner or later take over from [the Ayatollah] Khomeini.” [Time, 11/17/1986; New York Times, 11/19/1987; New Yorker, 11/2/1992]
'Cowboy' Operation in the West Wing - The arms-for-hostages deal is run from the National Security Council by a small group of NSC staffers under the supervision of North; the group is collectively known as the “cowboys.” A government official says in November 1986, “This thing was run out of the West Wing [of the White House]. It was a vest-pocket, high-risk business.”

Entity Tags: Hezbollah, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini, Robert C. McFarlane, Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, Al Shiraa, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iran-Contra Affair

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