Iran-Contra Affair

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13322

Is anyone above the law? What are the limits of the president's powers? Can a president break the law to do something he or she thinks is important for the country? Investigate the Iran-Contra Affair!


United States, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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When Lt. Colonel Oliver North testified at the Iran-Contra Hearings before Congress in 1987, he employed a feisty lawyer named Brendan Sullivan.

A memorable moment arose in the middle of this tension-filled hearing when Sullivan stood up for his dignity as an attorney and declared he was not a potted plant!

Watch User Clip: Brendan Sullivan Is Not A Potted Plant courtesy of C-SPAN:

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In the summer of 1987, a Congressional committee investigated the secret actions of President Reagan and his closest advisors.

The hearings went on for 41 days, and the American people were riveted to their televisions watching. It was difficult to unravel who did what, who knew what, what was legal, and what was illegal in order to understand the whole thing.

  • What exactly was all the commotion about?

To find out, watch the video below and write down answers to the following questions:

  1. What did President Reagan promise during his campaign in 1980?
  2. Who were the Contras?
  3. Who were the Sandinistas?
  4. What was the Boland Amendment?
  5. Who was Bud McFarlane, and what did President Reagan ask him to do?
  6. Where were some U.S. citizens taken hostage?
  7. Which country's government backed the hostage-takers?
  8. What arrangement did the government make for the release of the hostages?
  9. How did this help the Contras?
  10. Who was Lt. Col. North?
  11. What did North testify about?
  12. What was the conclusion of the Tower Commission?
  13. Who was found guilty in the affair?
  14. Was President Reagan found guilty?

What Was the Iran-Contra Affair? | History:

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While this video gives a brief summary of the main events, the reasons behind the affair are a lot more complicated. Let's look at some of the issues.

Iran and the Arms Deal

Iran had taken Americans hostage in 1979, and the U.S. had imposed an arms embargo on Iran (making it against the law to sell weapons to the Iranians).

Then, in the early 1980s in the country of Lebanon, a violent Islamic military and political group, Hezbollah, arose. The group was supported by Iran.

This map of the Middle East shows where both Lebanon and Iran are located:

map of the Middle East

Image [red lines added], via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

In the early 1980s, Hezbollah began a series of attacks against foreign embassies and military barracks in Lebanon, including bombing the American barracks at Beirut International Airport, which killed six civilians, 58 French soldiers, and 241 U.S. Marines.

1983 explosion of the Marine Corps builiding in Beirut, Lebanon

Image by USMC, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Hezbollah also attacked civilians and took hostages. At least 104 individuals, mostly Americans, were taken hostage. Eight of these people died while in captivity. One American journalist, Terry Anderson, spent seven years as a hostage.

The violence and hostage-taking weighed heavily on the minds of the American people and, of course, especially the president.

Since Hezbollah was supported by the Iranian government, President Reagan and his advisors thought that perhaps Iran could help in the negotiations to get the hostages released.

The Iranians wanted arms in exchange for their help. After months of negotiations, they made a deal. Iran sent money to America, and America sent anti-tank missiles to Iran.

Iranian soldiers with a BGM-71 TOW missile

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, falls under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Nicaragua and the Boland Amendment

Nicaragua is a country in Central America.

map of Central America

Image by Cacahuate with amendments by Joelf, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

In 1979, a revolutionary socialist party overthrew the Nicaragua government and took over the country. The Contras arose to fight against them, and Republican President Reagan, who was dedicated to stopping the spread of Communism, ordered the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) to begin covert (secret) operations to support their efforts.

Contra rebels in 1987

Image by Tiomono, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The American press learned of the CIA's actions and made them public. Then, the Democrat-controlled Congress passed the Boland Amendment to stop the support of the Contras.

The Boland Amendment prohibited government intelligence agencies from using money to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. President Reagan and his advisors believed this didn't apply to seeking funds for the Contras from foreign governments or private individuals.

Money Diversion

National Security Advisor Lt. Col. Oliver North came up with the idea of using the money from the Iranian arms sale to support the Contras in Nicaragua.

The money from the sale of arms to Iran (between 10 and 30 million dollars) was diverted (sent from the place it was going to a different place). It was given to the Contras, along with other money raised from foreign governments.

While there was evidence that President Reagan knew about the arms sale, there was no evidence that he knew about the diversion of the money.

President Reagan, 1981

Image [cropped], via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Some people questioned whether President Reagan knew about the diversion, while others concluded he should have had more control over the actions of his people.

  • Did you follow all that?

It's a lot to think about! Head over to the Got It? section to review what you've learned and research some of the actors in this drama!

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