That Time Ronald Reagan opened Iran and Illegally sold Khomeini Weapons

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Reagan administration in the 1980s was buffeted by two policy drives toward Iran. On the one hand, Reagan ally Saudi Arabia supported Iraq, which illegally launched a war on the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1980 in order to steal its oil-rich Khuzistan Province. Reagan in 1983 sent Donald Rumsfeld, then CEO of Searle pharmaceuticals, to make friends with Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

From the other side, a section of the Israeli security establishment wanted Reagan to side with Iran against Iraq and to provide Iran weaponry. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran had been a major supplier of petroleum to Israel, which was boycotted by the Arab League (Iran is not an Arab country). Israel feared Iraq more than it did non-Arab Iran in that decade. After the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini began denouncing Israel and saying he hoped it would vanish from the arena of time. But Iran was at war with Iraq and had mainly American weapons systems, for which it needed spare parts. The US was boycotting Iran, but Israel had reverse-engineered US spare parts and was manufacturing them, and was happy to trade them to Iran in return for petroleum. The Ayatollahs quietly made the deal, since without spare parts their tanks and armored vehicles and F-14s were so much junk.

While these two points of view were duking it out in Washington, Reagan had two other problems in the 1980s. One was that the Israelis militarily occupied southern Lebanon from 1982. This occupation gradually angered the Lebanese Shiite Muslims who predominate in the south and east of the country and in the urban district of east Beirut. They formed radical guerrilla groups to fight the occupation. As part of this pushback against Israeli grabbiness, the radical Shiites began taking Americans in Beirut captive. The captured Americans, who came on US screens in video clips begging for their lives,

The other problem was that Reagan wanted to roll back leftist movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In Nicaragua the Sandinista leftists came to power. Reagan wanted to support right wing death squads known as contras. In 1982, however, the Congress enacted the Boland Amendment, which forbade Reagan to spend US government money on right wing militias in Central America.

Reagan and the people around him, possibly including George H. W. Bush, the vice president, came up with a clever but completely illegal and unconstitutional joint solution to all these problems.

Reagan offered Iraq some naval and other support in its war on Iran, and ran interference for Baghdad at the UN Security Council when there was a danger that the UNSC might condemn Iraq for using chemical weapons on Iranian troops at the front.

At the same time, to prolong the war and make sure no regional power obtained an absolute victory, Reagan shared satellite photos of Iraqi positions with Iran. On the advice of Israeli official David Kimche, he sent his national security adviser Bud McFarlane to try to establish relations with Khomenei and with then Speaker of Parliament Akbar Rafsanjani. McFarlane brought a Bible and a cake in the shape of a key to symbolize Reagan’s hope of opening Iran.

Then Reagan had his people steal hundreds of T.O.W. anti-tank missiles from the Pentagon warehouses and illegally ship them to Khomeini’s Iran, then on the US terrorist watch-list.

Let me just underline this. Reagan was prevented by law from selling US weaponry to Iran, and certainly without notifying Congress under the Arms Export Act. There was no aboveboard, legitimate way to do this. So he just had his people pilfer expensive weaponry and ship it to Iran. A notorious Israeli arms dealer was the intermediary.

Note, too, just for the annals of perfidy, that Reagan was at the same time militarily supporting Iraq, and had told Baghdad they were his allies.

Reagan, being a fiscal conservative, made Khomeini pay for the weaponry. Reagan then put that money in secret Swiss bank accounts and gradually sent it to the Nicaragua right wing death squads. That was how he got around the Boland Amendment. He didn’t use US government money for this purpose. It was Khomeini’s money.

In return for the American weapons, Iran agreed to pressure the Lebanese Shiites to let US hostages go, solving a PR problem for the US Republican Party.

This complicated set of unconstitutional dealings came out in 1986. Reagan denied knowing or remembering much about it. At the time I thought he was lying, but we now know he had Alzheimers. Maybe he really didn’t remember it all and it was mainly the work of those around him. George H. W. Bush skated. A few lower level officials like Oliver North were hung out to dry. North was later given his own television show in Fox by Rupert Murdoch as a reward, I suppose, for arming Khomeini. Eliot Abrams, who was involved in Iran-Contra, was castigated by Congress for lying to it. Years later W. put him in the National Security Council, where he torpedoed US policy in support of a Palestinian state. He should be in jail.

A lot of documents for the scandal are available at the National Security Archive at GWU.

The Democrats decided it would be bad politics to impeach Reagan over having shredded the constitution into confetti. They were rewarded by the Republicans less than a decade latter with the Clinton impeachment, over matters of rather less moment than Reagan had been guilty of.

Ever after, we have had to hear Republicans preach to us how great Reagan, one of the most criminal presidents to hold office, was.

The deal reached by President Obama and the rest of the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in Vienna appears to remove after 5 years a conventional arms embargo imposed on Iran in 2007. We will hear a lot of squawking from Reagan-worshiping Republicans about this provision. We won’t hear that Reagan illegally sold Khomeini weapons. Wouldn’t that be worse than negotiating a legal end to an international arms embargo?

There was never any accountability for the constitutional coup conducted by Reagan and his people. Most continued to be powerful in Washington. In the period 2003-2008 when non-political appointees in the US government in Washington or think tanks wanted to bring me in for my expertise and advise on how to get out of the al-Qaeda and Iraq messes, Bob McFarlane and Eliot Abrams had me blackballed where they could.

So, we may conclude that Reagan tried to open Iran, but did it all wrong, not to mention unconstitutionally. President Obama will get credit for that opening in history. And ignoramuses on the Hill will shout at him that he should be more like Reagan.

Related video:

RT America: “Iran-Contra: America’s biggest political scandal?”

14 Responses

  1. Very timely reminders of the utter corruption of Reagan and his business backers. Readers may refer to Woodward’s “Veil” and Robert Parry’s journalist exposure of Reagan wrongs, and his news website link to

  2. What a glorious (sarcasm) history we have to reflect upon. Yet, most average Americans are hardly aware of any of this history. Mr. Cole, you and others like you, are to be commended for the information you bring us. Thanks!

  3. I spoke to Reagan’s personal physician about whether Reagan had Alzheimer’s dementia during office. The physician denied it flatly. As evidence he said that Reagan suffered head trauma after Reagan fell off a horse in July 1989. Reagan underwent extensive neurological evaluation since he had a subdural hematoma. The testing did not show any evidence for Alzheimer’s. As we now know, head trauma most likely ( but not definitely) accelerates Alzheimer’s dementia. So Reagan was probably fine until he fell off the horse. The proof will be in his medical record if that ever comes to light.

  4. TankBag

    but Reagan will always be a hero for swamping the US in Contra cocaine which worked out so well for the underprivileged…

  5. This is excellent information to have on hand when attempting to understand the 1980s and more recent history.

    It will never make it into the capitalist, corporate media because it’s truthful and because it reveals crimes committed by President Reagan and other US officials.

    However, if some working class yob robs a convenience store of $20, he will get years in prison.

    There is no justice, that’s a fact!

  6. The Reagan administration’s sale of weapons to Iran were technically legal – but violated the spirit of the law.

    The sale of TOW missiles was to replenish Israel – and Israel sold its TOW missiles to Iran from its prior stock. The weapons-for-U.S.hostages trade to get Lebanese Shi’ites to release these captives was legal and authorized by federal law granting the president broad powers to recover hostages. No one was prosecuted for these shipments of weapons because the independent counsel had no legal basis to initiate prosecution. Criminal offenses occurred in the diversion of funds to Contra operations in Nicaragua and the cover-up that followed.

    John Kerry was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at this time and received lurid testimony from convicted U.S. drug traffickers about their involvement with CIA-organized Contra resupply operations in which American pilots unloaded weapons to Contra bases and brought drugs in on the return flight. Testimony was received about the complicity of Latin American government leaders, including Manuel Noriega, in the international drug trade – which led to his investigation and eventual indictment. These traffickers received short prison terms due to their cooperation with Kerry’s committee.

    There was one story about a marijuana shipment that came in via Homestead AFB in Florida on a return weapons supply flight. The flights were financed by the U.S. government.

    Much of these drug shipments obviously must have eventually reached the streets of America and distributed with the prior help of the U.S. government during Contra resupply operations. This flies in the face of the Reagan administration’s purported commitment to the “War on Drugs”.

    While Reagan went on television to present proof the Sandinista involvement in the cocaine trade – he did not reveal that the U.S. shut down the DEA station in Honduras since it interfered with Contra resupply operations or that many Contra leaders were equally as culpable in their involvement in the drug trade.

    The NY Times #1 bestseller “By Way of Deception” also implicated the Israeli government in that drug trade and led to an internal investigation within Israel in which the author was questioned at deposition. The author, a former Mossad officer, described his disgust at seeing cargo planes bearing the Star of David carrying cocaine shipments in Latin America.

    Kerry’s investigation of these links of the U.S. government to the drug trade are well document and present the most controversial aspect of Iran-Contra scandal.

  7. When the Iranian air force began running out of the Phoenix missiles for the F-14 Tomcats the U.S. had sold them in palmier days, the IDF stepped in. Israeli technicians showed the Iranians how to convert Hawk ground-based antiaircraft missiles into an air to air missile and mount them on the F-14s. The Hawk, by the way, was the first American weapon system sold to Israel directly, during the Kennedy administration. Ike wouldn’t agree to any sales, which is why the Israelis used French planes up to 1967 war.

    This assistance helped the Iranians to maintain almost complete air superiority over the Iraqi air force. The F-14s were overwhelmingly effective against (mostly) Soviet-built Iraqi planes, downing between 120 and 160 Iraqi planes (depending on who is counting) in air combat for the loss only one (disputed, some reports claim it was hit by ground fire). By contrast, mostly for want of opposition, in three decades of US Navy service, the F-14s downed only five enemy planes, one of which was helicopter. Iran is still believed to have between 10 and 20 F-14s in service.

  8. A consequence of US double-dealing during the Iraq-Iran war that is surprisingly overlooked was the firing of two Exocet missiles from an Iraqi jet very shortly after Saddam Hussein learned the US had been helping the Iranians. Despite 37 US Navy personnel being killed Washington and the Pentagon bought into the “story” that this was an “accident.” Yeah, right.

  9. Take the money, rich and secrecy out of politics and you will soon get a healthy government representing the 99% of Americans.

    This issue of Informed Comment must go viral or else “more of the same” rotten government with recessions, depressions and controlled major news of sensationalism and propaganda that allows the rich more money, power and control of the 99% of Americans.

    Informed Comment must become available on the radio and TV. Professor Cole could start with the University of Michigan’s radio station by providing them with 30 minutes of recorded news and headlines on the Middle East, America and the world, 15 minutes each by Cole and Tom Engelhardt of Tomdispatch-com.

    The average American listens to the news or watches it on the TV. They do not take or have the time to go on the computer and “read“. PBS News Hour is also controlled by the rich – “It‘s Howdy Dooty Time“ with lots of clowns and millionaire puppets.

    US Government! What a bunch of b**l s**t. It’s nothing but a façade for the money, power and control by the corrupt Billionaires and their puppet millionaires in Congress. Secrecy is a must for the corrupt US Government.

  10. Reagan was a “B” actor In
    Hollywood and Washington,
    nothing more, nothing less.
    Nixon, Reagan, & Bush 2
    were the Moe, Larry, & Curly
    of the GOP.

  11. For more info on the contra cocaine connection go read Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance link to
    You can buy it at Amazon.
    People accuse Reagan of starting the crack cocaine epidemic. Actually North’s plan was to sell the cocaine in Hollywood & make liberals pay for funding the contras. Except everyone in Hollywood already had their own dealer, so they had to give it to Freeway Rick Ross link to

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