We're Still Living with the Consequences of Letting Iran-Contra Perpetrators Get Away with ItRoundup
tags: Ronald Reagan, Iran-contra, impunity
Zeb Larson is a writer and recent graduate of The Ohio State University with a PhD in History. His research deals with the anti-apartheid movement in the United States.
On November 13, 1986, President Ronald Reagan addressed the country from the Oval Office about a growing scandal facing his administration. Ten days earlier, a Lebanese magazine had published an article alleging that the United States had been selling weapons to Iran to try and free American hostages in Lebanon. The allegation was a serious one because of an international arms embargo against Iran and because the United States was also selling weapons to Iraq in order to fight Iran. Reagan emphatically denied the United States had done anything like what was alleged: “We did not — repeat — did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.”
But that wasn’t the end of the matter. On November 25, Attorney General Edwin Meese revealed that a portion of funds from those arms sales had been illegally redirected to the Contras, a right-wing rebel group fighting against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. This was doubly serious because Congress had explicitly prohibited the provision of U.S. military aid to the Contras.
This complex scandal became known as Iran-Contra. Three months later, Reagan was forced to concede that, in fact, his administration had sold arms for the purpose of freeing hostages. He claimed he had not personally authorized either of those things, but as president, he had to assume full responsibility.
Reagan's popularity took a temporary hit, but his approval rating recovered by the time he left office. A special prosecutor and congressional bodies spent years reviewing the facts, but much of the evidence had been destroyed. Ultimately, only one person who was involved, ex-CIA agent Thomas Clines, served any time in prison; the others were all acquitted on technicalities or pardoned by George H.W. Bush.
In many ways, we’re still living with the consequences of Iran-Contra. There has been a similar lack of accountability for the grave abuses of subsequent administrations, including the torture of detainees during George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and President Donald Trump’s obstruction of justice in the federal probe into Russia’s election interference. Presidential overreach on foreign policy is the norm in U.S. politics, on both sides of the aisle, and meddling in other countries is simply taken for granted by much of the public.
So what set this chain of events in motion? We take a look back at the history.
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