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Mousavi and Reagan's Iran-Contra Fiasco

June 23, 2009

As President Obama offered perhaps his strongest rhetorical support to date for opposition protesters in Iran, CQ offered a look back at the former 1980's prime minister turned accidental reformer, Mir-Hossain Mousavi. In 1983, Mousavi, CQ reported, ''had to be aware" of Iranian-sponsored attacks on the United States in Lebanon, including the devastating barracks bombing that killed 241 Marines in Beirut. As it turns out, Mousavi was also intimately involved in another of Ronald Reagan's disastrous encounters with Iran just three years later. When Reagan sent a cake, a Bible and U.S. weapons to Tehran as part of the Iran-Contra scheme, then-Prime Minister Mousavi was there to receive them.
The Iran-Contra scandal, as you'll recall, almost laid waste to the Reagan presidency. Desperate to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, President Reagan provided weapons and spare parts Tehran badly needed in its long war with Saddam Hussein (who, of course, was backed by the United States). In a clumsy and illegal attempt to skirt U.S. law, the proceeds of those sales were then funneled to the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And as the New York Times recalled, Reagan's fiasco started with an emissary bearing gifts from the Gipper himself:

A retired Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that on the secret mission to Teheran last May, Robert C. McFarlane and his party carried a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders.
According to a person who has read the committee's draft report, the retired C.I.A. official, George W. Cave, an Iran expert who was part of the mission, said the group had 10 falsified passports, believed to be Irish, and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ''opening'' to Iran.

As the November 1987 report of the Congressional committees investigating the Iran-Contra affair detailed, the McFarlane delegation was to meet with a now familiar cast of characters in Iran, including Mir-Hossein Mousavi. As the report revealed, the arms-for-hostages swap got off to a rocky start:

The Presidentially approved McFarlane mission to Tehran in the spring of 1986 was intended to crown a 9-month effort to free the hostages and establish a dialogue with Iran. McFarlane likened the mission to Henry Kissinger's historic secret meeting with Premier Chou En Lai that paved the way to reconciliation with China. Eight years after an Iranian Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, was dismissed for meeting with President Carter's National Security Adviser, McFarlane was to meet with Speaker Rafsanjani, Prime Minister Musavi and President Khamenei, the three most powerful leaders in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini. What is more, McFarlane believed that the hostages were to be released upon his arrival and that the HAWK parts were not to be delivered until the hostages were safe. Hopeful of success, [Oliver] North arranged logistical support for the return of the hostages and prepared a press kit for the White House. North added his own flourish: He ordered a chocolate cake from an Israeli baker as a gift for the Iranians.
The Iranians had very different ideas - centering on arms and Da'wa prisoners. As a result, the Tehran meeting ended in an acrimonious confrontation with the hostages still captivity.

The rest, as they say, is history. After the revelations regarding his trip to Tehran and the Iran-Contra scheme, a disgraced McFarlane attempted suicide. After his initial denials, President Reagan was forced to address the nation on March 4, 1987 and acknowledge he indeed swapped arms for hostages (video here):

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages."

(For more background, read the Reagan diaries, starting with the part in which he admits in 1986, "I agreed to sell TOWs to Iran.")
As conservative blogger Ed Morrissey notes over at Hot Air, recalling Mousavi's role in the 1980's "serves as a reminder that the man whom the mullahs have suppressed was and perhaps still is of their regime." (Morrissey also pointed out that a spokesman told the Guardian this week that Mousavi previously "knew only Che Guevara," but now "he knows Gandhi.")
That may be. But to be sure, the revisionist history of John McCain and other Republicans notwithstanding, the tragic Beirut bombing and the embarrassing arms-for-hostages scandal that shamed the United States is a reminder of Ronald Reagan's record of defeat and disgrace when it comes to Iran.
UPDATE: The Washington Times is reporting that at least a month before the Iranian elections, the Obama administration sent a letter to the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei seeking improved relations. As Steve Benen notes, conservatives are predictably apoplectic.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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