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Decoding U.S. Foreign Policy: The Iran-Contra Affair

In this activity students analyze a timeline and official and unofficial documents that reveal the events of the Iran-Contra Affair. This activity also models the types of questions that can help students analyze foreign policy documents from other events. The activity instructions include suggestions for how to differentiate the activity for students with different reading levels.


  • Students will be able to describe the events of the Iran-Contra Affair.

  • Students will analyze the motivations of Reagan Administration officials during the Iran-Contra Affair.  

  • Students will appraise U.S. foreign policy in the late Cold War period. 


Step 1: First review with students the basic tenet of the Monroe Doctrine: that the U.S. has the right to intervene in Latin America in order to protect its interests in the Western hemisphere. Ask students to think of other events in U.S. history where the Monroe Doctrine was invoked. Then review with students what the Iran-Contra Affair was. The teacher may wish to share the background information provided in the historical context section of this activity plan or to review a textbook's account of the events. Enforce the basic definition of the Iran-Contra Affair: The Reagan Administration secretly sold weapons to Iran in order to fund anti-Communist fighters in Nicaragua known as Contras.  

Step 2: Hand out the timeline of the Iran-Contra Affair. Go over the events with students. Ask students to identify which aspects of the timeline reflect Cold War policies and which events indicate the new threat the U.S. faced from Islamic fundamentalists. Reinforce with students that the Iran-Contra Affair happened at a time when the threats to the United States were shifting from the Cold War to terrorism. Ask students to tell which threat in the 1980s seems more pressing, based on what they have learned about the Cold War to that point and what they know about U.S. foreign policy today. Tell students to keep the timeline as reference for the rest of the activity.  

Step 3: Pass out the "Decoding U.S. Foreign Policy" worksheet and the document "Reagan Administration Officials Debate How to Support the Contras." Before reading the document, ask students to note when this document was created and what type of document it is. Ask students to "place" this document on their timeline of the Iran-Contra Affair.  

Step 4: Ask for seven volunteers to read the "script" of the meeting. Before beginning, read the description. The different roles are:

  • Secretary/Narrator (Reads the time/place/persons present)

  • Robert McFarlane, National Security Advisor

  • George P. Shultz, Secretary of State

  • Caspar W. Weinberger, Secretary of Defense

  • Edwin Meese, Attorney General

  • George H.W. Bush, Vice President

  • Ronald Reagan, President

Now model "decoding" the document with the worksheet. Together, fill out the worksheet, making sure that students know how to answer each part of the worksheet. Before moving on, make sure that students know how this event fits on the timeline and what it tells us about the motivations and thinking of Reagan Administration officials at the beginning of the Iran-Contra Affair. 

Step 5: Divide students into groups of four. The teacher can divide students into groups according to skill level or create mixed-skill level groups. Below are suggested "reading levels" for each document. In their groups, students should read one of the four documents and decode it using a second copy of the worksheet.  

  • Beginning: The CIA Advises Nicaraguans How to Sabotage the Sandinista Government

  • Mid-Level 1: "Big Strong President Reagan" Encourages Sale of Weapons to Iran

  • Mid-Level 2: The Deputy Director of the CIA Advises on the Situation in Nicaragua

  • Advanced: Nicaragua's President Challenges U.S. Intervention in His Country

If working in mixed-skill level groups, students should share out their documents with each other before the next step.

Step 6: Ask students to share their findings from their documents with the whole class, focusing on their responses in Section III of the worksheet. Project the documents as the students discuss them and place them on the timeline. Possible discussion questions include:

  • Were the actions of Reagan's administration in the Iran-Contra Affair justifiable?  Why or why not?  

  • Had Reagan or his administration officials committed illegal acts and should they have been held accountable?  Why or why not?  

  • What do these documents tell us about U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War?  

  • Do these events challenge the assumptions of the Monroe Doctrine?  Is the Monroe Doctrine a sound foreign policy?  

Historical Context

Throughout his presidency, Reagan pursued an aggressively anti-Communist foreign policy. Early in his first term, Reagan had authorized a covert CIA operation to overthrow leftist governments in Nicaragua. Radicals known as Sandinistas had overthrown Nicaragua's military dictatorship and were threatening to do the same in El Salvador. The Contras were a coalition of paramilitary groups that opposed the Sandinistas. Fearing the spread of communism in the Western hemisphere, Reagan dubbed the Contras “freedom fighters” and channeled weapons and C.I.A. support to them. Congress remained skeptical, though; in 1984, it passed the Boland Amendment banning U.S. military aid to the Contras. Administration officials did not give up their support of the Contras, however; they merely looked for new sources of funds, other than federal appropriations from Congress, to send to Nicaragua. 

National security advisors hatched a plan to fund the Contras with money brought in by the sale of weapons to Iran. Officials also hoped the weapons sales would make Iran more favorable to helping the U.S. negotiate with Islamic radicals who had taken several Americans hostage in Lebanon. The proposed sale of weapons, however, was illegal; the U.S. had passed an embargo and publicly denounced Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. In order to hide U.S. actions, Reagan officials sold millions of dollars worth of weapons secretly through an intermediary.

The profits from this illegal arms trade, along with other money that was raised secretly from foreign governments, were then used to fund the Contras in their war against Nicaragua’s radical Sandinista government. Several NSC officials went to jail, and much evidence suggested that Reagan had condoned the illegal acts. At the very least, it is clear that he supported the sale of weapons to Iran for the release of hostages and he supported the covert aid to the Contras. No one ever testified that he approved the weapons sales in order to fund the Contras. Although Democratic lawmakers shied away from any effort to impeach the still-popular president, the Iran-Contra Affair nonetheless deprived Reagan of his ability to set the national political agenda for the remainder of his term.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Decoding U.S. Foreign Policy: The Iran-Contra Affair,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 18, 2024,

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