Iran Contra: So You Thought You Knew the Truth About Ronald Reagan


Ronald Reagan haters ascribe malice to nearly all of his actions during his eight years as President. That ascription is especially made for his supposed involvement in what came to be known as the Ira-Contra Arms for Hostages scandal.

In reality, though, Reagan's biggest mistake was, in his attempt to make things right, to trust people who didn't deserve to be trusted.

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The event now known as the Iran-Contra Scandal began at a time when Ayatollah Khomeini was very sick and it was thought that his death was imminent. In part due to his authoritarian rule, and in part due to Iran’s protracted war with Iraq, the Iranian economy was in a shambles. Moderate Iranians hoped to use the problematic situation as an opportunity to reach out to the west.

Using Israel as a go-between, the moderate Iranians approached the United States. Israel broached the idea with President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Adviser, Bud McFarlane. McFarlane introduced the issue to President Reagan during his recuperation at Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he had had a cancerous polyp and part of his intestine removed a few days previously.

Reagan, whose government had been, behind the scenes, attempting to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq War, was interested in the proposition from the Iranian moderates. Having traveled extensively in Iran when Shah Reza Pahlavi was still in power, Reagan could easily imagine that very few Iranians had been pleased with the authoritarian rule of Khomeini. He saw the Iranian approach as a way to mend relations between the two countries.  He imagined that, with the death of Khomeini, a new and freer government would likely emerge.

To get the United States to realize that they were serious, the moderate Iranians indicated to the Israelis that they could use their influence to secure the release of seven Americans that were at the time being held hostage by Hizballah. Several ideas had already been tried—and had failed—to get the hostages back, so President Reagan filed this particular overture into his mental filing cabinet. In order to assess the Iranians’ ability to deliver on their hostage promise release, a U.S. team was sent to confer with their Israeli intermediaries.

Later on, Reagan made the mistake of trusting the Iranian moderates, who apparently had more ability to promise than to deliver on their promises.  Three hostages were indeed released, but other hostages were taken in their place.

Contrary to popular myth that exists today, the Reagan administration had no dealings whatsoever with the Iranian government in the attempt to secure the release of the hostages.  This phony idea came from a nondescript newspaper in Lebanon in an effort to belittle and derail the Reagan administration's efforts to secure the hostages' release.  News entities across the United States, eager to jump on anything that made Ronald Reagan look bad, seized upon this lie from Beirut.

Also contrary to popular myth, the episode was never about arms for hostages.  As Reagan himself said, "None of the arms we had shipped to Iran had gone to the terrorists who had kidnapped our citizens."

Contrary to popular myth still popular today, Ronald Reagan did not know that Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Bill Casey had diverted funds from sales of arms to Israel into the hands of Nicaraguan Contra rebels in contravention of law.  In reality, knowing full well that U.S. funding of the Contras was illegal, Reagan instead used the soapbox of the Presidency to encourage private entities to support the Contras.

Oh, the things we think we know--until we find out that we've been lied to by someone with a political axe to grind.

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