Iran-Contra | Jason Saltoun-Ebin googlea0aa0d8ee69b5ad6.html


President Reagan meeting with former hostage David Jacobsen, November 25, 1986. 

Photo: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

What would you do if you were the President of the United States, terrorists had kidnapped and were still holding hostage several American citizens, and were now threatening to kill them unless you agreed to sell them sensitive military equipment that they needed in their war against a neighboring country that was on friendly terms with the United States? Add to that, Congress had recently restricted funding that your administration desperately wanted to provide to Central American paramilitary units fighting wars against communist backed forces that you had vowed to fight until the communist threat was erradicated.

President Reagan was faced with just this situation in 1985, when factions of the Iranian government proposed to secure the release of several American hostages in exchange for the sale of military equipment. The problem, for President Reagan, was that the Congress of the United States had specifically found Iran to be a sponsor of terrorism and, therefore, passed a resolution denying the sale of any military equipment to Iran. Fearing that the hostages would be killed, Reagan illegally authorized the sale because he had to do something to save these american lives. Oliver North, a senior staff member of the White House National Security Council, was placed in charge of the operation. North oversaw several transfers of military equipment to the Iranian factions, although by the time the arms-for-hostages scandal was revealed in November 1986, North had already diverted millions of dollars of the profits from the arms-for-hostages deal to the Contra leaders in Central America so that they could continue fighting in the absence of Congressional funding. 

The whole story of Iran-Contra is of course much more complicated then the brief summary presented above. For that reason, for those interested in studying the Iran-Contra scandal, books like Lawrence Walsh’s “Firewall” and “The Iran-Contra Scandal: A Declassified History”, by the researchers of the National Security Archive, are essential readings. I also suggest visiting the National Security Archive website Iran-Contra section at, although most of the documents presented below have likely been released after the National Security Archive created its webpage. 

*Last updated, August 27, 2013


Iran fact sheet **Classified Supplement

This five page fact sheet reviews the economic, political and military situation of Iran.

"A U.S. Political/Military Strategy for Nicaragua." 

(This undated document was declassified in 2010 and likely found in the North files at the Reagan Library. Uploaded July 18, 2013.)


Feb. 21, 1984: “Central America Legislative Strategy — Additional Funding for Nicaraguan Democratic Oppoision Forces.” 

In this memo from President Reagan to Secretaries Shultz and Weinberger, DCI Casey, and General John Vessey, Chairman of th Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Reagan wrote that he is “determined that this program [of support for the Nicaraguan democratic opposition] should continue.” 

May 18, 1984: "Funding for the Nicaraguan Program and El Salvador"

In this one page memo from President Reagan to Secetary's Shultz and Weinberger as well as DCI Casey and Chairman General Vessey, President Reagan orders Secertary Shultz to "take the lead in developing a concerted Adminisration effort to achieve passage of the El Salvador supplemental". President Reagan directs, "We should frame our approach on the strategic importance of Central America to our national security. … Measures should be taken to cause a closed briefing for the entire House of Representatives so that there can be no doubt that terminating this program would have disastrous results for the United States."

July 28, 1984: "Next Steps in Central America"

President Reagan, in this two page memo to Secretary's Shultz and Weinberger, as well as DCI Casey and Chairman General Vessey, explains the principles he has approved to guide Ambassador Shlaudeman in his upcoming negotiations with the Government of Nicaragua. 

September 4, 1984: Situation Room Note: "Deaths of Americans in Nicaragua Helicopter Crash"

September 6, 1984: "Nicaraguan Helicopter Downing"

In this memo, from North to McFarlane, North summarizes the "Facts relating to the events of September 1," when a helicopter was shot down in Nicaragua killing two Americans. North concludes, "Based on information available, it can be assumed that this was a well-intentinoed effort on the part of these Americans generated by public knowledge that USG funding was no longer available to the anti-Communist Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters."

September 18, 1984: "Instructions for Talks and Draft NSDD regarding Dialogue with Nicaragua"

Oliver North, in this memo, forwarded to Robert M. Kimmitt, the National Security Council exective secretary, President Reagan's July 28, 1984 memo on Nicaragua as well as Secretary Shultz's memo of July 27, 1984, also on Nicaragua. After receiving the memo, Kimmit handwrites for North, "Thanks, Ollie. I'm glad someone on the staff recognizes the importance of a complete record. Bob 9/19."

No date: Proposed Strategy for Nicaragua

This top-secret paper is "a broad strategy paper. Agreement by all working parking to a strategy is first priority; therefore the attached is a strawman. Once agreed to each element of the strategy would require a management team and a detailed plan." Among the options discussed is attacking the power grid in Nicaragua.  

Jan. 18, 1985: NSDD 159: Covert Action Policy Approval and Coordination Procedure

April 9, 1985: Strategic Recommendations: Iran (Declassified 2006; Uploaded July 23, 2013.)

April 18, 1985: Memo from Don Fortier to Poindexter, "US Policy Toward Iran" and draft NSSD on Iran. Declassified 2006; Uploaded July 23, 2013.

June 11, 1985: Draft NSDD on Iran

In the cover memo to this draft NSDD, Howard Teicher and Don Fortier warn National Security Adviser McFarlane that the "NSDD is provocative" because it "basically calls for a vigorous policy designed to block Soviet advances in the short-term while building our leverage in Iran and trying to restore the U.S. position which existed under the Shah over the lounger-term." 

September 30, 1985: "After Action Report on Central America Trip".

In this memo Secretary of Defense Weinberger forwards to President Reagan General Vessey's report on his recent trip to Panama, Honduras and El Salvador. "I heartily endorse his comments, particularly iwth retgard to his recommednations at the conclusion of the report," Weinberger wrote the Presdient. 

June 15, 1985: "Intelligence Support for the Democratic Resistance Forces in Nicaragua." 

(Declassified: 2011; Uploaded July 18, 2013.)

June 19, 1985: "Special Inquiry into Facts and Circumstances of Incident in San Salvador Involving Death of Four U.S Marines on June 19, 1985"

Four members of the U.S Marines were killed in El Salvador on June 19, 1985. This document is the Inspector Generals report, which does not recommend further investigation "for negligence in connection with this incident."

June 24, 1985: “Insurgency and Terrorism in El Salvador and Central America"

In this memo from Secreteary of Defense Weinberger to President Reagan, Weinberger argues for $23 million in increased security assistance for El Salvador.

December 10, 1985: Memo from DCI Casey to Deputy DCI on the Iran initiative

"The President  felt that any ongoing contact would be justified as an effort to influecce future events in Iran," Casey wrote to Gates. Casey also noted his impression: "As the meeting broke up, I had the idea that the President had not entirely given up on encouraging the Israelis to carry on with teh Iranians. I suspect he woudl be willing to run the risk and take the heat in the future if this willlead to springing the hostages. It appears that Bud has the action."

January 17, 1986 Memo from Poindexter to Reagan describing the arms sales to Iran and recommendung that Reagan sign a Covert Finding on Iran. 

In this important Covert Action Finding, President Reagan directs that the Finding authorizes assistance to friendly "foreign liaison services and third countries, which have established relationships with Iranian elements … for the purpose of: (1) establishing a more moderate government in Iran, (2) obtained from them significant intelligence not otherwise obtainable, to determine the current Iranian Government's intentions with respect ot its neighbors and with respect ot terrorists acts, and (3) furthering the release of American hostages held in Beirut and preventing additional terrorists acts by these groups." 

Poindexter writes on the bottom of the memo: “President was briefed verbally from this paper. VP, Don Regan and Don Fortier were present.” This document was also originally published in the “Iran-Contra Scandal” book by the National Security Archive in 1993. 

January 24th, 1986, memo from Oliver North to John Poindexter: “Operation Recovery.” 

The memo has “Please destroy after reading” written on the top and bottom of each page, and describes in detail the arms sales to the Iranians, including the transfer of weapons to Afghanistan, the release of 50 Hezbollah prisoners held by the Southern Lebanese Army, and of course, the release of the American hostages. 

The document, originally published by the National Security Archive in the book, “The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History,” (1993), had the following redactions which are now declassified: 

  1. 1.On the cover memo, the redaction between “Clair George” and “Dewey Clarridge” reads “Tom Twetten”. 
  2. 2.The last action for Sunday, January 26th now reads: “Nir provides list of 50 Hizballah prisoners being held by Lahad to Gorba in London.” 
  3. 3.Thursday, January 30. Both redactions now read: “to midwest depot, Texas.” 
  4. 4.February 25. The second line now  reads: “The 20 of 200 TOWs and first 2 of 20 launchers provided to Afghan resistance by Iranians.”

March 23, 1986: "Meeting of Assistant Secretary's Delegation With Honduran Preisdent and Military Leaders"

This cable summarizes the discussions between Assistant Secretary of State Abrams and Honduran President Azcona, Fireign Minister Lopez, and General Regelado on March 21 to "review steps to be takeng after the negative 20 March vote on aid for democratic resistance." 

                     May 21, 1986: Terms of Reference: U.S.-Iran Dialogue

            “Release of American Hostages in Beirut”: The “Diversion” memo

The memo, originally published by the National Security Archive, has the following redactions now declassified: 

  1. The name of the official the U.S. government met with on Feb. 20th was “Moshen Kangarlu, an official in the Iranian Prime Minister’s office.” (pg. 1). Mr. Kangarlu is also the redacted name in paragraph’s two and three on page 2. 
  2. The last line of pg. 4 now reads: “Waite will provide visible deception.”    

                                   Sept. 22, 1986: Oliver North's Trip to London

North traveled to London on Sept. 22, 1986 to meet with Panamanian General Noriega.  Travelling under the alias William P. Goode, North met with Noriega in the hopes that Noriega would provide funding for the Contra's in exchange for sharing intelligence.

                November 20, 1986: "U.S./Iranian Contacts and the American Hostages"

This 17-page document, as well as several other "false chronologies" prepared to aid Poindexter and Casey as they prepared to appear before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, according to "The Iran Contra Scandal: The Declassified History," "focused on distancing the administation from the arms shipments of 1985, which took place before Reagan had signed any Findings, arguably making them illegal. … To manage this problem, the chronolgy was amended to include a contrived account: the Israelis were responsible for the shipment and had told U.S. officials that the cargo consisted of 'oil-drilling equipment.'" (See The Iran Contra Scandal, 306-307.)

                    November 20, 1986: “Chronology of Events: U.S.-Iran Dialogue.” 

This three page unsigned memo provides a chronology of events from the first contact by the NSC with Iran in 1985 through  the Nov. 7th, 1986, replacement of 500 TOW missiles to Israel.  

Dec. 16, 1986:   Summary of Documentary Record of Secretary of State 

                                    George P. Shultz Concerning Iran Arms Sales.

This document is Secretary Shultz's prepared written testimony (dated Dec. 16, 1986) to a closed session of one of the Congressional Committees investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. 

                April 17th, 1987: “Congressional Interview of General Collin Powell.”

In this "Memorandum for the File," C. Dean McGrath summarized General Powell's answers on April 17, 1987 before the members of the Senate and House Select Committees on Iran/Contra.  

May 6, 1987: North Contacts with President Reagan.

May 7, 1987: "Conversations with Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition Reagarding the Testimony of Major General Richard Secord."

May 11, 1987: "Conference between: Carlucci; Culvahouse; Lytton; and Members of the Senate Seelct Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition.

May 14, 1987: “Saudi Position on Conversations with the President on Saudi Contributions to the Contras.”

In this important memo, Frank Carlucci tells the President that his former national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, solicited funds from the Saudis for the Contras, but that the Saudis do not have any recollection of the President ever doing so. 

June 24, 1987: "Testimony of Judge Stanley J. Sporkin on June 24, 1987.

July 10, 1987: "Testimony of LTCOL North July 10, 1987 (Morning). 

July 13, 1987: Testimony of LTCOL North July 13, 1987 (Morning Session)"

July 13, 1987: "Testimony of LTCOL North July 13, 1987."

July 13, 1987: "McFarlane Testimony". 

July 17, 1987: "Summary of Testimony of Admiral John Poindexter July 17, 1987.

July 20, 1987: "Summary of Testimony of Admiral John Poindexter July 20, 1987."

July 21, 1987: "Testimony of Admiral John Poindexter July 21, 1987 (Morning Session.)"

July 24 1987: "Explanation of Press Questions and Reports."

White House Counsel to the President Arthur Culvahouse prepared this memo for President Reagan after a heated press conference during which President Reagan was asked why he did not tell Shult more about the Iran initiative. The memo documents specific events and when exactley Shultz learned of each event. 

Aug. 3, 1987: "Testimony of Caspar Weinberger August 3, 1987."

February 10, 1988: memo from Arthur Culvahouse (Counsel to the President) to Howard Baker (Chief of Staff): “December 7, 1985 and January 7, 1986 Meetings.” 

July 20, 1989: Memo from Shane Smithton to Geoff Stewart, “Project — Catalog of North Lies.” (Archives II: Walsh, Special Prosecutor Files. Folder: Oliver North Lies)

July 24, 1992: “Judge Walsh Deposition of Ronald Reagan.” (Link to Washington Post)

Nov. 5, 1992: Deposition of Colin Powell


Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair

The National Security Archive: Iran Contra at 25: Reagan and Bush “Criminal Liability” Evaluations”. Electronic Briefing Book No. 365

The Oliver North File: His Diaries, E-Mail, and Memos on the Kerry Report, Contras and Drugs (National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 113)

Final Report of the Independent Counsel Investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair

Reagan: The Iran-Contra Affair, by PBS

© Jason Saltoun-Ebin 2016