Mr. MacFarlane, a taciturn retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, served in the 1970s and 1980s at the nexus between the military and the political establishment. He was the son of a congressman, graduated from the United States Naval Academy and a Vietnam War veteran.
In the early 1970s, he was a military aide to Henry A. Kissinger, who was Secretary of State and National Security Adviser to President Richard Nixon. MacFarlane’s subsequent efforts in Iran have often been viewed as a misguided effort to emulate Kissinger’s pioneering successes in restoring relations with communist China.
After his military resignation in 1979, Mr. MacFarlane served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and then became an advisor to Secretary of State Alexander M. Hague, Jr. during the early years of the Reagan White House.
Mr. MacFarlane was Haig’s main man on difficult missions in the Middle East and with Congress, and he won plaudits for persuading Congress to return funds for the MX missile program and to advance nuclear arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union.
He became Deputy National Security Adviser and, in 1982, lobbied for the deployment of US Marines to Lebanon for a peacekeeping mission. It was a risky move that ended in disaster when terrorists bombed the Marine barracks, killing 241 American soldiers in October 1983—just two weeks after Mr. MacFarlane’s new position as Reagan’s top security advisor.
As a national security advisor, he was credited with helping to shape Reagan’s proposed Strategic Anti-Missile Defense Initiative, known as “Star Wars.” But almost everything he did was overshadowed by the Iran-Contra scandal, the illegal sale of arms to Iran in exchange for helping that country free the American hostages held in Lebanon. This effort was also intended to help restore US diplomatic relations with Iran, which had been severed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The conspirators, with Mr. MacFarlane at the center, diverted tens of millions of dollars in profits from arms sales to aid the “Contras” of Nicaragua, the rebels fighting the pro-communist Sandinista government supported by Castro. Through a series of laws in the early 1980s, Congress restricted, and then prohibited, direct US military assistance to insurgents.
MacFarlane’s principal deputy in the Iran Contra scheme was Oliver L. North, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps serving on the staff of the National Security Council. North worked directly with CIA Director William Casey to circumvent the laws.
As he wrote in his 1994 memoir “Special Trust,” Mr. MacFarlane “was quickly disappointed with Iran’s initiative after the first Israeli shipment of … missiles to Tehran. I thought it was time to abort this project. And soon the Israeli arms trade became in exchange for the hostages, rather than a serious attempt to identify a possible successor to Khomeini. Yet I felt it was a policy that the president would adhere to.”
On December 4, 1985, Mr. MacFarlane tendered his resignation to Reagan over what he described as his growing personal and professional disagreements with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and with White House Chief of Staff Donald T. It detracts from him and limits his independent access to the president.
Nor did Mr. MacFarlane gain the confidence of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who was uneasy about the White House’s secret support of the Nicaraguan Contras.
After officially leaving the administration, Mr. MacFarlane remained an unofficial White House envoy as he sought to release American hostages held by Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based proxy, and arrange a confidential meeting with those he hoped were ready “moderate” Iranian officials. To discuss the normalization steps.
In May 1986, the new National Security Adviser, John M. Poindexter, instructed Mr. MacFarlane to lead a secret mission to Tehran. He arrived there that month in an unmarked Boeing 707 carrying an Irish passport as an alias. He was accompanied by the North’s official, CIA George W. Cave and two other CIA officers.
They were moved to the former Hilton and moved to a secluded suite, expecting to meet with high-ranking Iranian officials. None of them showed up for substantive diplomatic talks, and no realistic possibility of the promised hostage release emerged. Meanwhile, Iranian guards shook Flight 707 and seized Hawk missile parts that the Iranians had requested as Mr. MacFarlane’s entry ticket to Tehran.
Mr. MacFarlane left after the third day of deadlocked talks. He left behind a kosher chocolate iced cake with a key, which was supposed to symbolize a new opening between Iran and the United States.
Mr. MacFarlane’s dream of renewing relations with Iran failed for Reagan’s sake, thus matching Kissinger’s victory in China to Nixon. In his private memoirs, Weinberger ridiculed Mr. MacFarlane as “weird, introverted, and moody.” [and] Ambition “with” a great desire to be seen as better than Henry – a difficult task at best. “
Although there were rumors of a clandestine supply channel for the Contras, the first public evidence came on October 5, 1986, when Sandinista forces shot down a CIA-controlled cargo plane transporting weapons to rebels in Nicaragua. Congress soon began investigating Operation Iran-Contra.
In November 1986, Poindexter resigned and North was expelled. There was talk of impeaching Reagan. White House staff led by Reagan initiated a damage control plan to separate the president from the president and blame Mr. MacFarlane, who is no longer in the White House and lacks the influence and prestige of friends like Schultz and Weinberger.
On December 1, Reagan appointed a special commission headed by Senator John Tower (R-Texas) to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal.
MacFarlane later said he was depressed and felt guilty for failing to prevent the scandal from spreading around Reagan, who publicly insisted he would not trade guns for hostages.
On February 9, 1987, the night before his appearance before the Zodiac Committee, Mr. MacFarlane swallowed 30 Valium pills and went to sleep next to his wife. I found him unconscious in the morning and called a medical friend who rescued him. He was then taken to the hospital for psychiatric treatment.
In the first interview after his suicide attempt, Mr. MacFarlane told the New York Times, “What really drove me to despair was the sense of failure of the country. If I stayed in the White House, I’m sure I could have prevented things from getting worse.”
When he recovered, Mr. MacFarlane testified before congressional committees, often contradicting the memory of others in the White House and at the National Security Council.
It was not until March 1988, after lengthy negotiations by his attorney, Leonard Garment, with Iran Contract Special Prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, that Mr. MacFarlane pleaded guilty to four counts of misdemeanours, and a grand jury indicted him against North and Poindexter.
Mr. MacFarlane has admitted that he withheld information from Congress on four occasions, concealing secret White House support for the Contras.
On March 3, 1989, he was given a two-year suspended prison sentence and a $5,000 fine for each of the four counts of misdemeanour. He was required to perform 200 hours of community service, but could have received a maximum sentence of four years in prison and $400,000 in fines.
Prior to the sentencing, Mr. MacFarlane told the court: “It is clear that this episode in the country’s history has caused enormous disruption to the actions of our country, and in so far as I have contributed to it, I regret it. I am proud to have served my country.”
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush pardoned him, along with Weinberger, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, and three former CIA officials. North’s 1989 conviction on criminal charges arising from the case was overturned on technical grounds, and he was never prosecuted.
Robert Carl MacFarlane was born in Washington on July 12, 1937. At that time, his father, William, was representing Texas as a Democrat in the US House of Representatives.
He graduated in 1959 from the Naval Academy and twice served on combat tours in Vietnam. In 1967 he received a master’s degree in strategic studies from the University of Geneva, Switzerland.
In 1959, Mr. MacFarlane married Gonda Riley. In addition to his wife, the survivors include three children, Lauren, Melissa, and Scott; two sisters; and eight grandchildren.
After the Iran Contra case, Mr. MacFarlane started an international consulting firm. He appeared in the news again in 2009 when the government of Sudan requested his assistance from the Obama administration to remove sanctions. The International Criminal Court indicted then-Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was overthrown in a 2019 military coup, with genocide and war crimes related to the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.
The Washington Post reported that Sudanese officials helped arrange a $1.3 million contract between Mr. MacFarlane and the government of Qatar. Mr. MacFarlane met with Sudanese intelligence officials in Middle Eastern capitals, where he insisted that he would not work directly for Sudan but only through a third party such as Qatar. Federal investigators conducted an investigation but declined to file criminal charges.
In Washington, Mr. MacFarlane had long been seen as a man of contradictions: remorseful and defensive about Iran-Counter, seemingly soft-spoken and vague, but in fact scathing for what he saw as the deception and betrayal of loyalty from those he felt he served as a man. Naughty marine.
In his 1994 memoirs, Mr. MacFarlane mentioned Iran-Contra as a “trivial episode”. He has remained ambivalent about a president who “approved of every measure I have ever taken” in Iran-Contra but who “lacks the moral conviction and intellectual courage to stand up for us and defend his policy”.