Congressional hearings in 1986 and 1987 revealed that the US government had secretly sold weapons to Iran in 1985 (trading them for hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian militias) and used the profits to supply right-wing Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua with arms.
The attempt to get around the law (Boland amendment) specifically prohibiting military assistance to the Contras also broke other laws in the process.
Arms, including Hawk missiles, were sold to Iran via Israel – at a time when the USA was publicly calling for a worldwide ban on sending arms to Iran – violating the law prohibiting the sale of US weapons for resale to a third country listed as a ”terrorist nation”, as well as the law requiring sales above $14 million to be reported to Congress.
The negotiator in the field was Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North (pictured above and at right), a military aide to the National Security Council, reporting in the White House to the national-security adviser (first Robert McFarlane, then John Poindexter).
North and his associates were also channelling donations to the Contras from individuals and from other countries, including $2 million from Taiwan, $10 million from the Sultan of Brunei, and $32 million from Saudi Arabia.
The Congressional Joint Investigative Committee reported in November 1987 that the president bore “ultimate responsibility” for allowing a “cabal of zealots” to seize control of the administration’s policy, but found no firm evidence that President Reagan had actually been aware of the Contra diversion.
Ronald Reagan persistently claimed to have no recollection of events, and some evidence was withheld on grounds of ”national security”. The hearings were criticised for finding that the president was not responsible for the actions of his subordinates.
North was tried and convicted in May 1989 on charges of obstructing Congress and unlawfully destroying government documents. Poindexter was found guilty on all counts in 1990.
Former defence secretary Caspar Weinberger was pardoned in 1992 by President George Bush to prevent further disclosures.
In December 1993 the independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh published his final report. It asserted that Reagan and Bush were fully aware of attempts to free US hostages in Lebanon in 1985 and 1986 by means of unsanctioned arms sales to Iran.
The total cost of the Irangate enquiries came to $35 million.