On Friday, President Obama took the unusual step of sending video greetings to the people of Iran to mark the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Unsurprisingly, many on the right were quick to scoff at Obama's call for "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect" and paean to "the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization." But while Commentary tried to rewrite history by claiming Obama's message was "perfectly in keeping with George W. Bush's unstinting effort to appeal to the world's Muslims at every opportunity," the conservative organ was predictably silent on Ronald Reagan's outreach to Tehran to 23 years earlier. After all, Reagan opened his disastrous effort by offering the mullahs in Iran a cake, a bible - and American weapons.
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 Tehran badly needed in its long war with Saddam Hussein. 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.
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.")
Of course, the sad saga didn't end there. Then Lt. Colonel and now Fox News commentator Oliver North saw his Iran-Contra conviction overturned by an appellate court led by faithful Republican partisan and later Iraq WMD commissioner Laurence Silberman. And in December 1992, outgoing President George H.W. Bush offered Christmas pardons to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra scandal figures. Among them were Elliot Abrams and John Poindexter, men who eight years later reprised their roles in the administration of George W. Bush.
Whether President Obama's Nowruz message to the Iranian people ultimately changes the dynamics in relations between Washington and Tehran remains to be seen. But if nothing else, it will shine a spotlight on Ronald Reagan's ridiculous 1986 olive branch, a pathetic gambit that embarrassed the nation, betrayed Reagan's words and eventually violated its laws of the United States.
** Crossposted at Perrspectives **