The Iran-Contra Affair – 1986-1987
Lt. Col. Oliver North is sworn in July 7, 1987, before the congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra affair. (AP)
One of the most complicated and intrigue-filled scandals in recent decades, the Iran-contra affair dominated the news for many months. It consisted of three interconnected parts: The Reagan administration sold arms to Iran, a country desperate for materiel during its lengthy war with Iraq; in exchange for the arms, Iran was to use its influence to help gain the release of Americans held hostage in Lebanon; and the arms were purchased at high prices, with the excess profits diverted to fund the Reagan-favored "contras" fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
It was a grand scheme that violated American law and policy all around: Arms sales to Iran were prohibited; the U.S. government had long forbidden ransom of any sort for hostages; and it was illegal to fund the contras above the limits set by Congress.
The first press revelations occurred in November 1986, and were followed by three investigations, conducted by a presidentially appointed commission headed by former Texas U.S. senator John Tower, by Congress (in televised hearings in mid-1987) and finally by a special federal prosecutor.
Charges brought by the prosecutor eventually resulted in the convictions of several members of the Reagan administration, including Reagan's national security adviser, Adm. John Poindexter, and his deputy, Lt. Col. Oliver North. (North's multi-count conviction was set aside on appeal.) Reagan himself was never charged with any offense, although opinions differed about his knowledge of, and culpability for, the affair.