Mr. McFarlane, a tacit retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, worked at the nexus of the military and political establishments in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the son of a congressman, a graduate of the US Naval Academy and a distinguished Vietnam War Veteran.
In the early 1970s he was military assistant to Henry A. Kissinger, who was both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to President Richard M. Nixon. Mr. McFarlane’s subsequent efforts in Iran have often been perceived as misguided efforts to emulate Kissinger’s pioneering efforts to restore ties with Communist China.
After retiring from the military in 1979, Mr. McFarlane served on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee and then became an adviser to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. during the early years of the Reagan White House.
Mr. McFarlane was Haig’s liaison on tough issues in the Middle East and with Congress, and he was credited for convincing Congress to restore funding for the MX missile program and move forward with nuclear arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union.
He became deputy national security adviser and in 1982 pushed for the sending of US Marines on a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon. It was a risky move that ended in disaster when terrorists bombed the Navy barracks and killed 241 US soldiers in October 1983 – just two weeks after Mr. McFarlane’s new job as Reagan’s chief national security adviser.
As National Security Advisor, he was credited with helping shape Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Anti-missile Initiative, popularly 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 that country’s help in freeing American hostages being held in Lebanon. The effort was also intended to help restore US diplomatic ties with Iran, which had been severed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The conspirators, centered on Mr. McFarlane, derived tens of millions of dollars in profits from arms sales to aid the Nicaraguan “contras,” rebels fighting the pro-communist, Castro-backed Sandinista government. Through a series of laws in the early 1980s, Congress restricted and then banned direct US military aid to the rebels.
Mr. McFarlane’s chief deputy in the Iran-Contra program was Oliver L. North, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who served on the National Security Council staff. North worked directly with CIA Director William Casey to circumvent the law.
As he wrote in his 1994 memoir Special Trust, Mr. McFarlane quickly became “disillusioned with the Iranian initiative following the first Israeli delivery of … missiles to Tehran. I thought it was time to call this project off. It had too quickly turned into a trade in Israeli arms for hostages, rather than a serious attempt to identify a possible successor to Khomeini. Still, I sensed that the President would stick to this policy.”
On December 4, 1985, Mr. McFarlane tendered his resignation to Reagan because he described his increasingly acrimonious personal and professional disagreements with Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and with White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, who continually sought to do so belittle him and restrict his independent access to the President.
Mr. McFarlane also never won the full confidence of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who was concerned about the White House’s secret support for the Nicaraguan Contras.
After officially leaving the government, Mr McFarlane remained an unofficial White House envoy in efforts to release the American hostages being held by Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Iranian proxy, and held a secret meeting with “moderates” Iranian officials who he hoped would be willing to discuss normalization steps.
In May 1986, the new national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, asked Mr. McFarlane to lead a secret mission to Tehran. He arrived there earlier this month in an unmarked Boeing 707, which carried an Irish passport as an alias. He was accompanied by North, CIA officer George W. Cave, and two other CIA officers.
They were driven to the former Hilton Hotel and herded into a secluded suite in anticipation of meeting with senior Iranian officials. No one showed up for substantive diplomatic talks, nor did a realistic possibility of promised hostage rescues emerge. Meanwhile, Iranian guards shook off the 707 and seized the Hawk missile parts the Iranians had claimed as Mr McFarlane’s ticket to Tehran.
Mr McFarlane departed after the third day of impasse talks. He left a kosher chocolate cake iced with a key that should have symbolized a new opening between Iran and the United States.
Mr. McFarlane’s dream of renewing relations with Iran for Reagan, thereby equating Kissinger’s triumph in China to Nixon, had failed. In his own memoir, Weinberger derided Mr. McFarlane as “strange, withdrawn, moody [and] overbearing” with “a great desire to be perceived as better than Henry – a difficult task at best.”
Although there were rumors of a secret supply channel to the Contras, the first public evidence came on October 5, 1986, when a CIA-controlled cargo plane carrying weapons to the Nicaraguan rebels was shot down by Sandinista forces. Congress soon began an investigation into the Iran-Contra operation.
In November 1986, Poindexter resigned and North was fired. There was talk of impeaching Reagan. The White House staffers led by Regan initiated a damage control plan to foreclosure the President and blame it on Mr. McFarlane, who was no longer in the White House and lacked the influence and standing of friends like Shultz and Weinberger.
On December 1, Reagan appointed a special commission, chaired by Senator John Tower (R-Texas), to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal.
Mr McFarlane later said he was depressed and wracked with guilt for failing to prevent the scandal from spreading around Reagan, who had publicly insisted he would not trade guns for hostages.
On February 9, 1987, the night before he was due to appear before the Tower Commission, Mr. McFarlane swallowed 30 Valium pills and fell asleep next to his wife. She found him unconscious in the morning and called a doctor friend who saved him. He was then hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.
In the first interview after his suicide attempt, Mr. McFarlane recounted The New York Times, “What really drove me to despair was feeling like I had let the country down. If I had stayed in the White House, I certainly could have prevented worse things from happening.”
When he recovered, Mr. McFarlane testified before congressional committees, often contradicting the recollections of others in the White House and National Security Council.
It was not until March 1988, after lengthy negotiations between his attorney Leonard Garment and Iran-Contra Special Attorney Lawrence E. Walsh, that Mr. McFarlane pleaded guilty to four counts and a grand jury indicted North and Poindexter.
Mr McFarlane acknowledged that he had withheld information from Congress four times to hide the White House’s secret support for the Contras.
On March 3, 1989, he received a two-year suspended sentence and a $5,000 fine for each of the four counts of misdemeanor. He was required to do 200 hours of community service but could have received a maximum sentence of four years in prison and a $400,000 fine.
Ahead of his sentencing, Mr McFarlane told the court: “Clearly this episode in the country’s history has caused tremendous turbulence in our country’s trials and to the extent that I have contributed to that, I regret it. I am proud to have served my country.”
In 1992, he was pardoned by President George HW Bush along with Weinberger, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and three former CIA officials. North’s 1989 conviction on criminal charges stemming from the affair was overturned on technicalities, and it was never tried again.
Robert Carl McFarlane was born on July 12, 1937 in Washington. At that time, his father represented William Texas as a Democrat in the US House of Representatives.
He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1959 and twice served in combat duty in Vietnam. In 1967 he received a master’s degree in strategic studies from the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
In 1959 Mr. McFarlane married Jonda Riley. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children, Lauren, Melissa and Scott; two sisters; and eight grandchildren.
After the Iran-Contra affair, Mr. McFarlane started an international consulting company. He resurfaced in the news in 2009 when the Sudanese government sought his help from the Obama administration to help lift sanctions. Then-Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was ousted in a military coup in 2019, was indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide and war crimes related to the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Sudanese officials helped arrange a $1.3 million deal between Mr McFarlane and the Qatar government, The Washington Post reported. Mr McFarlane met with Sudanese intelligence officials in Middle Eastern capitals, where he insisted he would not work for Sudan directly, only through a third party such as Qatar. Federal investigators conducted an investigation but declined to file criminal charges.
In Washington, Mr. McFarlane has long been seen as a man of contradictions: penitent and defensive about Iran-contra, soft-spoken and outwardly inscrutable, but actually scathing about what he saw as fraud and disloyalty from those he had served as a more dutiful Marine.
In his 1994 memoir, Mr. McFarlane recalled Iran-Contra as a “shabby episode.” He remained at odds with the president, who approved “every single action I’ve ever taken” in Iran-contra but who “lacked the moral conviction and intellectual courage to stand up in our defense and in defense of his policies.”