The Iran-Contra Affair was a scandal that came to light in November 1986. During the Reagan administration, senior officials secretly sold arms to Iran. Some U.S. officials also hoped that the arms sales would secure the release of hostages and allow U.S. intelligence agencies to fund the Nicaraguan Contras.
The scandal began as an operation to free American hostages being held by Hezbollah, the terrorist group with Iranian ties. It was planned that Israel would ship weapons to Iran, and then the U.S. would resupply Israel and receive the Israeli payment. The Iranian recipients promised to do everything in their power to achieve the release of the six U.S. hostages. The plan deteriorated into an arms-for-hostages scheme, in which members of the executive branch sold weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of the American hostages. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North modified the plan so that a portion of the proceeds from the weapon sales was diverted to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, who were anti-Sandinista and anti-communist rebels.
While President Ronald Reagan was a supporter of the Contra cause, no conclusive evidence has been found showing that he authorized the diversion of the money raised by the Iranian arms sales to the Contras. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Oliver North, however, indicated that President Reagan did know of and approved of a lot that was going on.
After the weapon sales were revealed in November 1986, Reagan appeared on national television and stated that the weapons transfers had indeed occurred, but that the United States did not trade arms for hostages.
To this day, it is unclear exactly what Reagan knew and when, and whether the arms sales were motivated by his desire to save the U.S. hostages.
On March 4, 1987, Reagan returned to the airwaves in a nationally televised address, taking full responsibility for any actions that he was unaware of, and admitting that “what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages.”
Several investigations ensued, including those by the United States Congress and the three-man, Reagan-appointed Tower Commission. Neither found any evidence that President Reagan himself knew of the extent of the multiple programs.
In the end, fourteen administration officials were indicted, including then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Eleven convictions resulted, some of which were vacated on appeal. The rest of those indicted or convicted were all pardoned in the final days of the George H. W. Bush presidency; Bush had been vice-president at the time of the affair. Some of those involved in the Iran–Contra scandal who were convicted of felonies and subsequently pardoned later became members of the administration of George W. Bush.
The scandal caused President Reagan’s popularity to drop. According to New York Times/CBS News poll in November 1986, Reagan’s popularity dropped from 67% to 46%. However, he survived the scandal, and by January 1989 a Gallup poll was “recording a 64% approval rating,” the highest ever recorded for a departing President at that time.