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Context of 'January 17, 1986: Reagan Authorizes Clandestine Sale of Antitank Missiles to Iran'

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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

Outgoing National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and National Security Council staffer Oliver North fly to London to meet with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms merchant. Also present at the meeting are David Kimche, of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and Israeli arms dealer Yaacov Nimrodi. McFarlane tells Ghorbanifar that the US wants to end arms sales to Iran, though the US wants to continue pursuing diplomatic relations. [New York Times, 11/19/1987] The US will in actuality continue selling arms to Iran (see January 7, 1986 and January 17, 1986).

Entity Tags: Manucher Ghorbanifar, David Kimche, Oliver North, Yaacov Nimrodi, Robert C. McFarlane

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

John Poindexter.John Poindexter. [Source: US Navy]In a meeting between President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George Bush, Secretary of State George Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, CIA Director William Casey, and new National Security Adviser John Poindexter, the participants discuss whether to sell 4,000 Israeli-owned, US-made antitank missiles to Iran as another arms-for-hostages deal (see September 15, 1985). Shultz and Weinberger, as they have before, oppose any dealings with Iran. Bush, according to records of the meeting, fails to express any views at all, but Shultz will recall Bush supporting the deal. In 1988, Bush will tell a reporter that he doesn’t remember any such conflict over the arms sales, saying, “I never really heard them that clearly. And the reason is that the machinery broke down—it never worked as it should. The key players with the experience weren’t ever called together… to review the decisions that were made at a lower level.” It is hard to imagine any higher levels of the executive branch of government than what is represented in this meeting. In 1987, Bush will tell the Tower Commission investigating the deal that he didn’t know enough about the arms-for-hostages deals to be able to express an informed opinion about the decision to make the deals, and doesn’t remember the meeting as a “showdown session,” testimony contradicted by both Weinberger and Shultz in their own statements to the commission. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan, Tower Commission, William Casey, John Poindexter

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

Albert Hakim.Albert Hakim. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]During a morning intelligence briefing, President Ronald Reagan signs the authorization for the US to allow Israel to sell Iran 4,000 US-made antitank missiles (see January 7, 1986). As they have consistently done before, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz register their opposition to the arms deals with Iran. National Security Adviser John Poindexter notes in a February 1986 e-mail that Vice President George Bush supports the arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, writing that the “President and VP are solid in taking the position that we have to try.” The reasons the various administration officials have for agreeing to sell arms to Iran are complex. Reagan is motivated by his belief that supporting Iran thwarts Soviet plans for Middle East domination (see May 1985), and by his own personal sorrow over the plight of the hostages. Others have more overtly political motives primarily fueled by the upcoming midterm elections. If, as in 1980, the American hostages currently held by Islamist radicals can be freed before the elections, the Republicans would likely reap the political benefits. Iranian-born arms merchant Albert Hakim, who is involved in the arms deals, will later tell Congress’s Iran-Contra committee, “We had to meet a deadline in releasing hostages, because the elections were coming up.” Even National Security Council aide Oliver North, one of the chief facilitators of the deals with Iran, will admit to the committee, “There are political concerns.” The US insists that before it deliver any of the antitank missiles, all of the hostages must be released. Iran refuses, and a deadlock ensues that will last for months. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: John Poindexter, Caspar Weinberger, George Herbert Walker Bush, Iran-Contra Committee, National Security Council, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, Oliver North

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

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

Kurds gassed in Halabja.Kurds gassed in Halabja. [Source: PersianEye / Corbis]Days after the end of the Iran-Iraq War (see August 20, 1988), Saddam Hussein begins the first of a series of poison-gas attacks on Kurdish villages inside Iraq. A September 1988 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee states: “Those who were very close to the bombs died instantly. Those who did not die instantly found it difficult to breathe and began to vomit. The gas stung the eyes, skin, and lungs of the villagers exposed to it. Many suffered temporary blindness… . Those who could not run from the growing smell, mostly the very old and the very young, died.” While the gas attacks are continuing, Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead circulates a highly classified memo among senior State Department officials recommending that the US cultivate even closer ties with Iraq, whom it supported over Iran in the last few years of the war (see Early October-November, 1986). Whitehead offers a Cold War rationale: “[Soviet] clout and influence is on a steady rise as the Gulf Arabs gain self-confidence and Soviet diplomacy gains in sophistication. The Soviets have strong cards to play: their border with Iran and their arms-supply relationship with Iraq. They will continue to be major players and we should engage them as fully as possible.” Whitehead adds, “It should be remembered… that we have weathered Irangate” (see January 17, 1986). More must be done to develop closer ties with “the ruthless but pragmatic Saddam Hussein.” (Also see September 8, 1988.) [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Saddam Hussein, John Whitehead, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s

One of George H. W. Bush’s first foreign policy initiatives as president is to increase military and economic aid to Iraq. While a full explanation of this policy decision has never been provided, senior Bush officials will say in 1992 that the reason is, in part, to win back some of the trust between the US and Saddam Hussein that was lost over the US’s arms sales to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (see January 17, 1986). One official will say, “We had to work doubly hard to recoup the stature we lost with Saddam.” Bush continues his aid to Iraq in the face of several governmental departments’ reports that Iraq is embarking on a massive military buildup, including developing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, is guilty of massive human rights violations against Iraqis, and is beginning to allow terrorists to operate from within the country (see March 1989). [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: George Herbert Walker Bush, Saddam Hussein

Timeline Tags: US-Iraq 1980s

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