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Historical Background of the Iran-Contra Affair
Events Surrounding the Decision.
Nicaraguan context. In the 1970s, dissatisfaction with a manipulative and corrupt government was escalating. All socio-economic classes were impacted and by 1978 the situation deteriorated into a short-lived civil war. Through violent opposition, the Marxist Sandinista guerillas achieved power in 1979. By September of 1980, the Sandinistas had suspended elections and taken control of the media. Leftist rebels in El Salvador received aid from Nicaragua and as a result of these ties, during the 1980s, the U.S. sponsored aid to the anti-Sandinista contra guerillas. El Salvador was undergoing a violent civil war at the time, with contention between the leftist rebels who were demanding political and military reform and the government in power.
The United States context referencing Nicaragua. In February of 1979, the U.S. suspended all new military and economic aid to Nicaragua. In 1981, head of the CIA, Casey, established the Central American Task Force, which was authorized to "support and conduct political and paramilitary operations in Nicaragua" (CIA). These efforts were supported by $19 million from Congress, and the Contra combat action began in September of 1982. Part of the Defense Appropriations Act of 1983, the Boland Amendment was enacted in December of 1982, effectively prohibiting funding to support an overthrow of the anti-Sandinista government by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA. By July of 1983, the Boland-Zablocki legislations allowed arms interdiction, but continued to prohibit aid to the Contras effort. Four months into 1983, Congress included $24 million in Contra assistance in the Defense Appropriations Act, but determined the aid program would end on September 30, 1984 with the prohibition to continue until December of 1985.
The Arms Export Control Act (AECA) prohibited retransfer of U.S. arms to a third world country unless certain conditions could be met: 1) The U.S. could not make the transfer directly; 2) The U.S. required certificates of receipt confirming transfer; 3) Reports were required to be filed with the Speaker of the House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the retransfer agreements; 4) Notice was to be given to Congress within 30 days following a retransfer of major defense equipment in excess of $1 million. No criminal sanctions for violations were provided by the AECA. A violation of AECA would not viewed as criminal unless a there was a concomitant conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Further, Section 501(a) of the National Security Act of 1947 required intelligence activities to be disclosed to the House and Senate intelligence committees, except for those activities deemed too sensitive by the President. Especially sensitive information could be disclosed only to the intelligence committee chair and ranking member and to the leadership of the House and Senate. Covert action is intended to be a tool of policy makers -- not intelligence agencies -- if it is determined that the best way to achieve a specific policy goal is through secret means. According to the National Security Act Section 503(e), covert action is "An activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly" ("Ethical Problems, 2011).
From late 1984 to may 1986, the National Security Council continued fund-raising in order to channel goods and cash to the Contras. An economic embargo was declared on Nicaragua by President Reagan in April 1985. Through the Intelligence Authorization Act, Congress authorized the provision of communications equipment and intelligence to the Contras by the CIA. Lethal assistance was formally discontinued to the Contras with the Presidential Finding in January of 1986. The Kerry Committee of the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations began an investigation into alleged narcotics trafficking and gun running during the Contra War (Ebel, 1992; Hamilton & Inouye, 1995). A violation of the Boland restrictions by the National Security Council was reported by the Miami Herald in June of 1986. In December of 1986, the Iran-Contra affair, as it had become known, was to be investigated by Independent Counsel Walsh. In fiscal year 1987, Congress provided $100 million to renew the nonmilitary and military assistance to the Contras. A provision of that legislation barred aid to any group engaging in drug trafficking. This provision effectively cleared the way for the CIA to get involved in the Contra War once again.
The United States context referencing Iran. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was restored to power in 1953 by a coup organized by the Eisenhower administration and supported by the CIA and the British Foreign Intelligence Service (M16) at the U.S. Embassy. The complexities of alignments and power-brokering over oil supplies and refinement, coupled with fears of The Cold War, led the U.S. To align with British oil interests with the hope of shutting out the Soviets. The coup was directed against the nationalist Iranian government that was attempting to unconstitutionally unseat the Shah. A campaign of religious and secular unrest directed against the Shah began to escalate in October of 1977. Buy January of 1978, the resistance to the royal monarch had intensified until, in the last quarter of 1978, Iran was overcome with chronic demonstrations and strikes. When the Shah of Iran entered the U.S. For medical treatment in 1979, Iranians feared another U.S. backed coup with plans to support the Shah. A radical student group seized U.S. citizens as hostages from several diplomatic compounds in Tehran. The 1979 Iranian Revolution successfully replaced the unpopular pro-Western Shah with a fundamentally anti-Western Islamic Republic of Iran. As Time reporter John Snow put it, the crisis in Iran -- U.S. relations, which was -- from an American perspective -- exacerbated by the taking of hostages, an entanglement of "vengeance and mutual incomprehension" (Snow, 1981). The taking of hostages violated established principles of international law that grants immunity from arrest to diplomats and recognizes sovereignty to diplomats in their embassies. The U.S. experienced the taking of the hostages in Iran as a blow to its influence in Iran and as an end to the long-standing support of the Shah. A pivotal point in Iran-U.S. relations, the hostage situation served to enhance the power and prestige of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Further, it strengthened the political will of Iranian supporters of theocracy and eroded the ground of previous efforts to normalize Iranian relations with the West. Shortly afterward, the U.S. took economic sanctions against Iran, further widening the growing gap between the two countries.
In response to the hostage situation, and after unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the release of the hostages, the U.S. froze approximately $12 billion in Iranian assets. Following the invasion of Iran by Iraq, the sanctions against Iran were increased in 1984 to prohibit weapons sales and all U.S. assistance to Iran.
The Iran context. Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 when the monarchy in power was overthrown and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi went into exile. A theocratic system of government replaced the monarchy. Governing power was vested in the Supreme Leader, a conservative religious scholar who was accountable only an elected body of 86 clerics known as the Assembly of Experts. In 1979, Islamic students and militants took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, signaling their support of the Iranian Revolution. On November 4, 1979, three U.S. citizens were taken hostage at the Iranian Foreign Ministry and 66 more U.S. citizens were taken from the Embassy of the United States. Six Americans, aided by the Canadian Parliament that provided Canadian passports for the hidden hostages, escaped and 13 were released on November 19 and 20, 1979. One more U.S. citizen was released on July 11, 1980. The remaining 52 American hostages were held for 444 days until their release on January 20, 1981. The U.S. had not been able to negotiate a release of the hostages so a military rescue operation, Operation Eagle Claw, was attempted on April 24,1980. The mission failed badly, destroying two aircraft and resulting in the death of one Iranian civilian and eight American soldiers. On January 19, 1981, the Algiers Accords was signed, thereby obtaining the release of the hostages. Their release coincided with President Reagan's inaugural address immediately following being sworn in as President of the United States, replacing Jimmy Carter. From 1980 through 1988, Iran and Iraq fought a violent, indecisive war which led, between 1987 and 1988, to clashes between the Iranian military and the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf.
The Lebanon context. Between 1982 and 1992, Lebanese terrorists took 96 foreigners hostage, apparently as insurance against retaliation by the U.S., Syria, and other nations who believed they were responsible for bombing incidents against a Marine barracks and the embassy in Beirut. At least eight hostages were killed outright and many others perished from maltreatment. The kidnappers were associated with different clans within the Hezbollah organization. There was speculation that the Islamic Republic of Iran and perhaps Syria were actively involved in…[continue]
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