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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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Shatt al-Arab waterway.Shatt al-Arab waterway. [Source: CNN]Iraq invades Iran, officially beginning a nine-year war between those two countries, though Iraq insists that Iran has been launching artillery attacks against Iraqi targets since September 4. The overarching reason, according to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, is over control of the Shatt al-Arab, the geographically critical waterway between Iran and Iraq that empties into the Persian Gulf. (Iraq signed over partial control of the Shatt al-Arab to Iran in 1975, but reclaimed the waterway in 1979 after the fall of Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi; Iraq also has hopes to conquer the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan.) The United States will provide covert military support to both Iran (see November 3, 1986) and Iraq (see 1981-1988) during the war. [Infoplease, 2007]

Entity Tags: Saddam Hussein

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s, Iran-Contra Affair

Benjamin Weir.Benjamin Weir. [Source: Santa Clara University]The first arms-for-hostage deal between Iran and the US is completed (see August 6, 1985). On August 30, Israel sold over 500 US-made TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran. Now Iran frees the Reverend Benjamin Weir, an American kidnapped over a year before in Lebanon. White House officials hope for further hostage releases, but none are forthcoming. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992] Ronald Reagan will telephone Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres to thank him for Israel’s help in securing Weir’s freedom. The TOW missiles will be delivered to Iran on September 20, in the cargo hold of a DC-8 transport plane once owned by a Miami-based air transport company; the aircraft took off from Tabriz, Iran, disappeared from radar screens over Turkey, made what was supposed to be a “forced landing” in Israel and later returned to Iran by a circuitous route. [Time, 11/17/1986]

Entity Tags: Reagan administration, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Weir

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

President Reagan signs legislation that bans arms sales to nations that support terrorism (such as Iran), and strengthens US anti-terrorism measures. [PBS, 2000] The law, entitled the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986 [White House, 8/27/1986] , does not halt the Reagan administration’s sales of arms and weapons to Iran; the arms sales go forward in spite of the law explicitly prohibiting them (see September 19, 1986, Early October-November, 1986, October 5, 1986, Early November, 1986, and November 3, 1986).

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Terry Waite.Terry Waite. [Source: BBC]Negotiations between Iran and the US for more arms sales hit another snag, with the Iranians merely releasing some American hostages and kidnapping more (see September 19, 1986). CIA Director William Casey decides to reprise the earlier strategy of exhorting Iraq to escalate its air strikes against Iran, thus forcing Iran to turn to the US for more military aid (see July 23, 1986). Casey secretly meets with two high-level Iraqi officials, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Iraq’s ambassador to the US, Nizaar Hamdoon, to urge that the Iraqis once again intensify their bombing runs deep into Iranian territory. The Iraqis comply. But the Iranians’ return to the bargaining table is complicated by the October 5 shooting down of a CIA transport plane in Nicaragua, and the capture by the Sandinistas of the lone survivor, a cargo hauler named Eugene Hasenfus, who tells his captors of the US involvement with the Nicaraguan Contras (see October 5, 1986). Soon after, the Iranians release a single American hostage, but the Hasenfus revelation is followed by that of the Iran-US arms-for-hostages deals by a Lebanese newspaper, Al Shiraa (see November 3, 1986), and similar reports by US news organizations. With the public now aware of these embarrassing and potentially criminal acts by the Reagan administration, support for Iran within the administration collapses, most of the pro-Iranian officials leave government service, and the pro-Iraqi wing of the executive branch, led by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz, wins out. The closing months of the Reagan administration will feature a marked tilt towards Iraq in the war between Iraq and Iran. The Reagan administration will, in coming months, provide Iraq with a remarkable amount of military and economic aid, including technology to develop long-range ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, and even nuclear weapons. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992] Interestingly, one of the terrorist groups holding American hostages, the Islamic Jihad Organization (a group closely affiliated with Hezbollah and not the group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri), who released American captive David Jacobson in early November, urged the US to “proceed with current approaches that could lead, if continued, to a solution of the hostages issue.” Reagan officials publicly deny that anyone in the US government has made any “approaches” to Iran or anyone else. As a side note, the release of Jacobson also shows the efforts of Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a former hostage himself, to facilitate the release of the hostages in a different light. Waite’s untiring efforts have obviously been sincere, but never as effective as publicly portrayed. Instead, both the US and Iran have used Waite’s efforts as cover for their secret negotiations. One Israeli official calls Waite’s efforts the “cellophane wrapping” around the hostage releases. He says: “You cannot deliver a gift package unwrapped. That is why there will be no more hostage releases until he returns to the region.” (Waite has temporarily suspended his attempts to free the hostages, complaining about being used as a pawn in international power games.) [Time, 11/17/1986]

Entity Tags: Terry Waite, William Casey, Reagan administration, George Shultz, Islamic Jihad Organization, David Jacobson, Caspar Weinberger, Al Shiraa, Nizaar Hamdoon, Eugene Hasenfus, Hezbollah

Timeline Tags: US-Iraq 1980s, Iran-Contra Affair

The Reagan administration, reeling from the revelation that it has illegally armed the Nicaraguan Contras (see October 5, 1986), attempts to conceal its workings in Nicaragua. In a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, joined by CIA officials, assures committee members that the US government is not involved in supplying the Contras. According to the witnesses, the CIA claims it had nothing to do with Eugene Hasenfus, the cargo handler who survived the recent downing of a CIA transport plane and in doing so revealed the existence of the illegal arms deals. Supposedly, the only involvement by US officials was to offer public encouragement. The committee Democrats do not believe anything Abrams or the CIA officials say, but at least one committee member, Dick Cheney (R-WY) offers his support. According to the summary written by the administration staffer taking notes that day, “Mr. Cheney said he found our ignorance credible.” There is far more going on than the committee Democrats know—or than Cheney will tell them. For years, Cheney has been urging Congress to authorize aid to the Contras, but the majority Democrats have been inconsistent in their support. As authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will later characterize the situation, Abrams, a self-described former socialist turned enthusiastic neoconservative, and others in the administration, such as National Security Council staffer Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, have now taken matters into their own hands (see October 5, 1986), in direct violation of US law. Committee Democrats are as yet unaware that Reagan officials such as North have also been negotiating arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, in a covert three-way deal involving Iran, the US, and the Contras (see November 3, 1986). [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 65]

Entity Tags: Eugene Hasenfus, Central Intelligence Agency, Contras, Elliott Abrams, Reagan administration, Oliver North, House Intelligence Committee, Lou Dubose, Jake Bernstein, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: 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

The Reagan administration, led by CIA Director William Casey and National Security Adviser John Poindexter (Robert McFarlane’s replacement), decides to downplay and deny any arms-for-hostages deals as reported in the world press (see November 3, 1986), while maintaining the secret negotiations with Iran. President Reagan accepts their advice. In notes Reagan takes during a clandestine meeting about the situation, he writes, “Must say something because I’m being held out to dry.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 65-66]

Entity Tags: William Casey, John Poindexter, Reagan administration, Robert C. McFarlane, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Ronald Reagan speaks to the nation.Ronald Reagan speaks to the nation. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]President Reagan addresses the nation on the Iran-Contra issue (see October 5, 1986 and November 3, 1986). “I know you’ve been reading, seeing, and hearing a lot of stories the past several days attributed to Danish sailors (see Early November, 1986), unnamed observers at Italian ports and Spanish harbors, and especially unnamed government officials of my administration,” he says. “Well, now you’re going to hear the facts from a White House source, and you know my name.” But despite his direct introduction, Reagan presents the same half-truths, denials, and outright lies that his officials have been providing to Congress and the press (see Mid-October, 1986 and November 10, 1986 and After).
'Honorable' Involvement - He admits to an 18-month “secret diplomatic initiative” with Iran, for several “honorable” reasons: to renew relations with that nation, to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq war, to eliminate Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, and to effect the release of the US hostages being imprisoned by Hezbollah. He calls the press reports “rumors,” and says, “[L]et’s get to the facts.”
Falsehoods Presented as Facts - The US has not swapped weapons to Iran for hostages, Reagan asserts. However, evidence suggests otherwise (see January 28, 1981, 1983, 1985, May 1985, June 11, 1985, July 3, 1985, July 8, 1985, August 6, 1985, September 15, 1985, December 6, 1985, December 12, 1985, Mid-1980s, January 7, 1986, January 17, 1986, Late May, 1986, September 19, 1986, and Early October-November, 1986). Reagan also claims the US has not “trafficked with terrorists,” although Iran is listed as a sponsor of terrorism by the State Department. It “has not swapped boatloads or planeloads of American weapons for the return of American hostages. And we will not.” Reports of Danish and Spanish vessels carrying secret arms shipments, of Italian ports employed to facilitate arms transfers, and of the US sending spare parts and weapons for Iranian combat aircraft, all are “quite exciting, but… not one of them is true.” Reagan does admit to his authorization of “the transfer of small amounts of defensive weapons and spare parts for defensive systems to Iran,” merely as a gesture of goodwill. “These modest deliveries, taken together, could easily fit into a single cargo plane,” he says. (In reality, the US has already sent over 1,000 missiles to Iran over the course of a number of shipments.) He says the US made it clear to Iran that for any dialogue to continue, it must immediately cease its support of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, and to facilitate the release of US hostages held by that group in Lebanon. Evidence exists, Reagan says, of the Iranians ramping down their support of terrorism. And some hostages have already been freed, a true statement, though he fails to mention that others have been taken.
Admission of May Meeting - Reagan admits that former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane met with Iranian officials (see Late May, 1986). According to Reagan, McFarlane went to Iraq “to open a dialog, making stark and clear our basic objectives and disagreements.” He presents no further information about the meeting, except that the talks were “civil” and “American personnel were not mistreated.”
Exposure Risks Undermining Efforts to Facilitate Peace - The public disclosure of these “honorable” negotiations has put the entire US efforts to broker peace between Iran and Iraq in jeopardy, he says. In negotiations such as these, there is “a basic requirement for discretion and for a sensitivity to the situation in the nation we were attempting to engage.”
Reagan Says Congress Not Lied to - Reagan says that there is no truth to the stories that his officials ever lied to members of Congress about the Iranian negotiations (see Mid-October, 1986). The members of Congress who needed to know about the negotiations were informed, as were the “appropriate Cabinet officers” and others “with a strict need to know.” Since the story has now broken, “the relevant committees of Congress are being, and will be, fully informed.” [Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, 11/13/1986; Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 65-66]

Entity Tags: US Congress, Robert C. McFarlane, Hezbollah, Contras, Ronald Reagan, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Faced with revelations of his possible involvement in the Iran-US arms-for-hostage deals (see November 3, 1986), Vice President George Bush, who has been heavily involved in the deals both with Iran and with its enemy Iraq (see July 23, 1986), denies knowing anything about anything. He tells the press that he knew nothing about any administration officials objecting to selling arms to Iran: “If I had sat there, and heard George Shultz and Cap [Caspar Weinberger] express it strongly, maybe I would have had a stronger view. But when you don’t know something it’s hard to react…. We were not in the loop.” Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, telephones Shultz, the Secretary of State, and snaps, “He was on the other side [supporting the arms deals with Iran]. It’s on the record! Why did he say that?” Former National Security Council aide Howard Teicher, who was deeply involved in the arms-for-hostage deals with Iran, will say in 1992, “Bush definitely knew almost everything about the Iranian arms-sales initiative. I personally briefed him in great detail many times. Like so many others, he got premature Alzheimer’s after the arms sales became public.” [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Caspar Weinberger, Howard Teicher, George Shultz, George Herbert Walker Bush

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

August 20, 1988: Iran-Iraq War Ends

The Iran-Iraq war ends in stalemate after both sides reluctantly accept a UN-brokered peace agreement. The border between the two countries does not change. The war cost at least 1.5 million lives. The major arms supplier for Iraq was the Soviet Union, while France was the biggest supplier to Iran. The US covertly sold arms to both sides during the war, though towards the end of the conflict, the US, after its clandestine arms-for-hostage deals with Iran were exposed in the international press (see November 3, 1986), tilted towards Iraq (see Early October-November, 1986). The Iranian and Iraqi regimes will set about slaughtering their own dissidents after the war—the Iraqis primarily focusing on separatist Kurds and Iran-sympathetic Shi’ites, and the Iranians focusing on its leftist dissident population. [ZMag, 2/1990; New Yorker, 11/2/1992; Infoplease, 2007]

Entity Tags: United Nations

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, US-Iraq 1980s, Iran-Contra Affair

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