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Iran-Contra and Arms-for-Hostages Scandals

Hezbollah and Iranian-Supported Islamic Militancy

Project: Iran-Contra and Arms-for-Hostages Scandals
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According to investigative journalists Joe and Susan Trento, the arrest of former CIA agent Edwin Wilson, who was involved in business dealings with Libya, has serious consequences for US terrorism policy: “Throughout the 1980s the United States used its intelligence services to divert blame from Iran and Hezbollah onto Libya as part of its entanglement in Iran-Contra with the so-called moderate Iranians with whom the Reagan administration dealt. Ever since international arms dealer Edwin Wilson had been captured and imprisoned in the early 1980s, American intelligence and the White House had labeled Libya a rogue nation, and Libyan dictator Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi a terrorist leader. The intelligence operation went so far that the United States actually recruited a gang of Lebanese criminals to pretend to be a cell of Libyan-backed terrorists conducting violent acts around the world.… These activities, all choreographed by the CIA, were fed to allies such as West Germany as authentic intelligence that implicated Libya for terrorists acts that were either fake or were, in reality, authorized by Iran and carried out by Hezbollah and other surrogate groups.”
Benefit to Iran - This policy apparently benefits Iran: “The Reagan administration had given the Iranians plenty of cards to play. The biggest card was the help it had provided making Libya seem like the ultimate source of all terrorist acts.… When the Reagan administration turned Libya into a vicious terrorist nation operating throughout Europe, that gave Iran the perfect opening for retribution.”
No action against Hezbollah - In addition, it prevents the US from taking action against Hezbollah, even though Hezbollah is killing Americans: “Because of the Iran-Contra scandal—the selling of weapons to Iran to fund the war in Central America—the Reagan administration ended up protecting Iran’s number one terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, while at the same time Hezbollah’s terrorists were killing and kidnapping hundreds of Americans. While secretly working with the Iranian government, the Reagan administration manipulated intelligence to blame Libya for terrorist attacks for which Hezbollah was responsible. During the 1980s Hezbollah killed and terrorized hundreds of Americans in Beirut, bombing the US Marine barracks, blowing up the CIA station, and killing State Department employees in a bomb attack on the US embassy. Hezbollah did all this with the help of local militia leaders whom the United States relied on as its secret conduits to Iran for its sale of weapons.” [Trento and Trento, 2006, pp. xvi, 64-5]

Entity Tags: Joseph Trento, Central Intelligence Agency, Edwin Wilson, Iran, Susan Trento, Hezbollah, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Complete 911 Timeline

Category Tags: Iran-Contra Affair, Hezbollah and Iran

Secretary of State George Shultz announces that the State Department has designated Iran as a state sponsor of international terrorism. [PBS, 2000] As of mid-2008, Iran is still designated as a terrorism sponsor.

Entity Tags: US Department of State, George Shultz

Category Tags: Hezbollah and Iran

Lt. Col. William Buckley.Lt. Col. William Buckley. [Source: Arlington Cemetery (.net)]William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, is kidnapped by militants who claim to be part of a mysterious organization they call Islamic Jihad. Buckley will die in June 1985, after 15 months of captivity, neglect, and torture. The CIA will not acknowledge his death until 1987. His body will not be returned to the US until December 1991. Buckley’s captivity, and that of at least five other American hostages, will be cited as one of the precipitating factors in the Iran-Contra arms deals. [PBS, 2000; Arlington Cemetery (.net), 4/23/2006] (Note: Some sources cite the date of his capture as March 16, not March 3.) [New York Times, 11/19/1987] It remains unclear exactly who Buckley’s captors are. This “Islamic Jihad” organization is not the same group as is later led by Sunni militant Ayman al-Zawahiri, nor is it the Palestinian organization of the same name. In the 2001 book Sacred Rage, author Robin B. Wright notes that a group spokesman claims, “We are neither Iranians, Syrians nor Palestinians, but Muslims who follow the precepts of the Koran.” Wright calls the organization “a mysterious group about which nothing was known” except for its “pro-Iranian” ideology, probably “more of an information network for a variety of cells or movements rather than a cohesive or structured independent group of extremists.” [Wright, 2001, pp. 73, 85] New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Goldberg later writes that he believes the organization is either a precursor to the Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah or a more violent adjunct to that organization. [New Yorker, 10/14/2002]

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Jeffrey Goldberg, William Francis Buckley, Central Intelligence Agency, Hezbollah, Robin B. Wright, Islamic Jihad Organization

Category Tags: Iran-Contra Affair, Hezbollah and Iran, US Hostages

National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane asks US government agencies to reassess their policies towards Iran. The government currently considers Iran a sponsor of terrorism (see January 20, 1984) and officially has no dealings with its government. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]

Entity Tags: Robert C. McFarlane

Category Tags: Other, Hezbollah and Iran, Robert McFarlane

Time magazine cover from June 24, 1985 featuring report on the hijacking of Flight 847.Time magazine cover from June 24, 1985 featuring report on the hijacking of Flight 847. [Source: Time]Islamic militants with the Shi’ite Amal group, an affiliate of Hezbollah, hijack TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome. 135 of the 153 passengers are Americans.
Demanding Release of Militant Prisoners - The hijackers demand the immediate release of 17 members of a Shi’ite militant group, Al Dawa, who were arrested in Kuwait for the December 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Kuwait City. (This group, the “Kuwait 17,” features prominently in other hijackers’ demands as well. They will accidentally be released during Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.) The hijackers also demand the release of some 700 fellow Shi’ite Muslim prisoners held in Israeli prisons and in prisons in southern Lebanon run by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army.
Navy Diver Murdered - The TWA pilot is forced to fly to Beirut, Lebanon, where, after their demands are not met, the hijackers shoot and trample Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem to death and dump his body on the tarmac. The plane is flown to Algiers and then back to Beirut again. Most of the passengers are released, but 39 are held captive in Lebanon. President Reagan holds a press conference largely focusing on the hostage crisis, and says that the US will never give in to terrorist demands.
Hostages Freed - After intervention by Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad, the remaining 39 hostages are freed on June 30 in Damascus; the hijackers are allowed to escape. Some of the hostages later compliment their captors for treating them well during their captivity. Nothing is ever confirmed, but speculation is widespread that some sort of quiet deal between Israel and the hijackers has been struck, as Israel begins releasing Shi’ite prisoners immediately after the hostages’ release. The US will deny that any such deal was ever made. In 1985, four of the hijackers will be indicted for their participation in the TWA takeover, but only one will ever be convicted. [PBS, 2000; PBS Frontline, 10/4/2001; BBC, 2008]

Entity Tags: Robert Dean Stethem, Hafiz al-Assad, Amal, ’Kuwait 17’, Ronald Reagan, Hezbollah

Category Tags: Arms-for-Hostages Scandal, Hezbollah and Iran

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

Category Tags: Arms-for-Hostages Scandal, Iran-Contra Affair, Hezbollah and Iran, Ronald Reagan

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

Category Tags: Arms-for-Hostages Scandal, US Hostages, Hezbollah and Iran, Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, William Casey, Eugene Hasenfus

Oliver North testifying before the Iran-Contra Committee.Oliver North testifying before the Iran-Contra Committee. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North testifies before the joint House-Senate Iran-Contra investigative committee. During the course of his testimony, he says he does not know if President Reagan had any knowledge of the diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). North also testifies that William Casey, the recently deceased CIA director (see May 6, 1987), knew of and approved the diversion of funds to the Contras. North admits that the Iranian arms sales were initially designed to help facilitate the release of the American hostages being held by Hezbollah. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]
Tour de Force - North’s testimony is a “tour de force,” in the words of authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, that allows Republicans the opportunity to reverse the field of the hearings and go on the offensive instead of defending the conduct of the Reagan administration. North, a Marine lieutenant colonel, wears his full-dress Marine uniform throughout his entire testimony with rows of ribbons festooning his chest. Handsome and full of righteous patriotism, he is striking on television, and contrasts well with the nasal, disdainful committee lawyers (see May 5, 1987) who spend four days interrogating him.
Need to Free Hostages Trumps Law - For the first two days, North and House counsel John Nields spar for the cameras. North says that Casey had directed him to create the so-called “Enterprise” (see November 19, 1985 and February 2, 1987), the clandestine organization that supported the Nicaraguan Contras with money, weapons, and sometimes US personnel. North admits to shredding untold amounts of evidence after the operation came to light (see November 21-25, 1986). He also admits to lying to Congress in previous testimony. But all of his actions are justified, he says, by the need to get Iran to free the American hostages. “I’d have offered the Iranians a free trip to Disneyland if we could have gotten Americans home for it,” he declares in response to one question about US arms sales to Iran. Senate counsel Arthur Liman will later write, “He made all his illegal acts—the lying to Congress, the diversion [of funds from Iranian arms sales to the Contras], the formation of the Enterprise, the cover-up—seem logical and patriotic.”
Targeting Covert Operations - Nields’s preferred line of questioning—covert operations—makes many committee members uncomfortable. Some House Democrats want to use the investigation to further their own goals of limiting covert actions, and others simply want the truth to be revealed. In contrast, House Republicans are united in opposition to any details of covert operations being revealed on national television and thus hampering the president’s ability to conduct future operations as needed. After the first day of North’s testimony, committee member Dick Cheney (R-WY) exults on PBS that North “probably was as effective as anybody we’ve had before the committee in coming forward very aggressively and stating what he did, saying why he did it, arguing that he was in fact authorized to take the activities that he did.”
Leaky Congress Unfit to Know of Covert Ops, North Contends - North echoes Cheney’s position that the question is not whether White House officials broke the law, but whether Congress was fit to consider the question of national security at all. North goes so far as to question the propriety of the hearings themselves: “I believe that these hearings, perhaps unintentionally so, have revealed matters of great secrecy in the operation of our government, and sources of methods of intelligence activities have clearly been revealed, to the detriment of our security.” North’s message is clear: Congress is not fit to handle covert operations or, by and large, to even know about them. Best for the legislature to allow the White House and the intelligence community to do what needs doing and remain quiet about it. North’s contention that Congress has leaked vital national security information is shot down by Senate committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who not only forces North to admit that he has no evidence of his contention, but that the White House, not Congress, is the main source of leaked classified information. Indeed, North himself has leaked information (see July 7-10, 1987). Inouye’s co-chair, Warren Rudman (R-NH) will later say: “The greatest leaks came out of the White House. North and company were the biggest leakers of all during that period.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 75-78] Nields, addressing North’s implication that the NSC has no obligation to tell the truth to Congress, says towards the end of his session with North: “We do believe in a democracy in which the people, not one lieutenant colonel, decide important policy issues, don’t we? … You denied Congress the facts North had admitted to lying about the government’s involvement with the Hasenfus plane. You denied the elected representatives of the people the facts.” [Boston Globe, 7/9/1987]
Impact on Public Opinion - Results will differ on North’s popularity with viewers (see July 9-31, 1987).

Entity Tags: William Casey, Warren Rudman, Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Arthur Liman, Bush administration (41), Contras, Daniel Inouye, Hezbollah, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John Nields, Jake Bernstein, Lou Dubose

Category Tags: Aid for Nicaraguan Contras, Arms Sales Profits to Contras, Arms-for-Hostages Scandal, Iran-Contra Affair, Violation of US Law, Hezbollah and Iran, US Hostages, House-Senate Committee, Dick Cheney, George H. W. Bush, Oliver North

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