The background to what became known as the Iran-Contra affair of the mid 1980s lay in US President Ronald Reagan’s pre-occupation with the spread of communism internationally, in particular in the United States’ own backyard of Central America.
In 1979 the Sandinista liberation movement in Nicaragua had finally overthrown the brutal dictatorship of General Somoza and Reagan became increasingly convinced that the presence of an actively left-wing regime would spark revolution throughout the region and threaten the security of the USA itself. In the early 1980s his administration ploughed massive amounts of military aid into a number of governments in Central America that were beset by civil war and guerrilla fighting.
In the case of Nicaragua, the focus was on destabilizing the government and engineering the overthrow of the Sandinista regime. Military aid was channeled to right-wing militia groups – the so-called ‘contras’ – fighting to achieve this. The American public, however, grew increasingly opposed to such funding and when Congress passed a law banning it, the White House resorted to covert means to continue its support. The scandal broke in November 1986 when the Reagan administration was forced to admit that it had been continuing secretly to fund the Nicaraguan ‘contras’ by means of arms sales to Iran which were themselves illegal and in breach of a trade embargo against that country.
In testimony to the subsequent congressional hearings on the affair Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North, who had been in charge of the covert operation, declared that Reagan and his Vice President, George Bush, had been aware of it, though both denied any knowledge of the details and no evidence was ever brought linking them to any wrongdoing. The affair nevertheless raised serious questions about the power of the executive and the extent and effectiveness of Congress’s oversight of foreign affairs.
Where: USA, Nicaragua, Iran
Death toll: The ‘Contra’ war against the Sandinista government caused tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Nicaragua.
You should know: An immunity agreement with the Senate regarding his testimony in the affair meant that Oliver North’s criminal conviction was subsequently quashed. He is now a radio talk show host and columnist. Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinistas and Reagan’s chief bogeyman, is currently the democratically elected President of Nicaragua.