A taciturn retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, Mr. McFarlane worked in the 1970s and 1980s at the nexus of the military and political establishment. He was a congressman’s son, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War.
In the early 1970s, he was a military assistant to Henry A. Kissinger, who was both secretary of state and national security adviser to President Richard M. Nixon. Mr. McFarlane’s later efforts in Iran were often perceived as a misguided effort to emulate Kissinger’s groundbreaking inroads at restoring relations with communist China.
After his military resignation in 1979, Mr. McFarlane served on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee and then became counselor to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. during the early years of the Reagan White House.
Mr. McFarlane was Haig’s point man for difficult assignments in the Middle East and with Congress, and he won plaudits for persuading Congress to restore money 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, he pushed for the deployment of U.S. Marines to Lebanon for a peacekeeping mission. It was a risky move that ended in catastrophe when terrorists bombed the Marine barracks, killing 241 U.S. service members in October 1983 — just two weeks into Mr. McFarlane’s new job as Reagan’s top security adviser.
As national security adviser, he was credited with helping shape Reagan’s proposed antimissile Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as “Star Wars.” But nearly all he did was overshadowed by the Iran-contra scandal, the illegal sale of arms to Iran in exchange for that country’s help to free American hostages held in Lebanon. The effort was also intended to help restore U.S. diplomatic relations with Iran, which had been broken after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The conspirators, with Mr. McFarlane at the center, diverted tens of millions of dollars of profits from the arms sales to help the Nicaraguan “contras,” rebels fighting the pro-communist, Castro-supported Sandinista government. Through a series of laws in the early 1980s, Congress restricted, then barred, direct U.S. military assistance to the rebels.
Mr. McFarlane’s key deputy in the Iran-contra scheme was Oliver L. North, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel serving on the National Security Council staff. North worked directly with CIA Director William Casey to circumvent the laws.
As he wrote in his 1994 memoir, “Special Trust,” Mr. McFarlane quickly grew “disillusioned with the Iran initiative after the first Israeli shipment of … missiles to Tehran. I thought it was time to abort this project. It had too quickly become a trade of Israeli arms for hostages, rather than a serious attempt at identifying a possible successor to Khomeini. Yet I sensed that it was a policy the President would stick with.”
On Dec. 4, 1985, Mr. McFarlane submitted his resignation to Reagan because of what he called his increasingly bitter personal and professional disagreements with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and with White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, who consistently sought to diminish him and curtail his independent access to the president.
Mr. McFarlane also never fully gained the trust of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who was uneasy about the White House’s secret support for the Nicaraguan contras.
After officially leaving the administration, Mr. McFarlane remained an unofficial White House emissary in efforts to release the American hostages held by Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based proxy of Iran, and arrange a secret meeting with what he hoped were “moderate” Iranian officials ready to discuss steps toward normalization.
In May 1986, the new national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, asked Mr. McFarlane 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 North, CIA official George W. Cave and two other CIA officers.
They were driven to the former Hilton Hotel and hustled to an isolated suite expecting to meet with high-level Iranian officials. None appeared for substantive diplomatic talks, nor did a realistic possibility of promised hostage releases emerge. Meanwhile, Iranian guards shook down the 707 and seized the Hawk missile parts the Iranians had demanded as Mr. McFarlane’s admission ticket to Tehran.
Mr. McFarlane departed after the third day of dead-end talks. He left behind a kosher chocolate cake iced with a key, which was to have symbolized a new opening between Iran and the United States.
Mr. McFarlane’s dream of renewing relations with Iran for Reagan, and thus matching Kissinger’s triumph in China for Nixon, had failed. In his own memoir, Weinberger mocked Mr. McFarlane as “strange, withdrawn, moody [and] pretentious” 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 proof came on Oct. 5, 1986, when a CIA-controlled cargo plane ferrying arms to the Nicaraguan rebels was shot down by Sandinista forces. Congress soon began an investigation of the Iran-contra operation.
In November 1986, Poindexter resigned and North was fired. There was talk of impeaching Reagan. The White House staff led by Regan initiated a damage-control plan to wall off the president and lay the blame on Mr. McFarlane, who was no longer in the White House and lacked the influence and stature of friends such as Shultz and Weinberger.
On Dec. 1, Reagan appointed a special commission chaired by Sen. John Tower (R-Texas) to investigate the Iran-contra scandal.
Mr. McFarlane later said he was depressed and consumed with guilt for failing to prevent the spread of scandal around Reagan, who had publicly insisted he would not trade arms for hostages.
On Feb. 9, 1987, the night before he was scheduled to appear before the Tower commission, Mr. McFarlane swallowed 30 Valium pills and went to sleep next to his wife. She found him unconscious in the morning and called a doctor friend, who saved him. He was subsequently hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.
In the first interview after his suicide attempt, Mr. McFarlane told the New York Times, “What really drove me to despair was a sense of having failed the country. If I had stayed in the White House, I’m sure I could have stopped things from getting worse.”
When he recovered, Mr. McFarlane testified before congressional committees, often contradicting the memory of others in the White House and on the National Security Council.
It was not until March 1988, after lengthy negotiations by his lawyer, Leonard Garment, with Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, that Mr. McFarlane pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts and a grand jury indicted North and Poindexter.
Mr. McFarlane acknowledged that he withheld information from Congress on four occasions, hiding secret White House support for the contras.
On March 3, 1989, he received a two-year suspended sentence and was fined $5,000 for each of the four misdemeanor counts. He was required to perform 200 hours of community service, but he could have received a maximum sentence of four years in prison and fines of $400,000.
Before his sentencing, Mr. McFarlane told the court, “Clearly this episode in the country’s history has created enormous turmoil in our country’s processes, and to the extent that I contributed to it, I regret it. I’m proud to have served my country.”
In 1992, he was pardoned by President George H.W. 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 a technicality, and he was never retried.
Robert Carl McFarlane was born in Washington on July 12, 1937. At the time, his father, William, was representing Texas as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He graduated in 1959 from the Naval Academy and twice served combat tours of duty in Vietnam. In 1967, he received a master’s degree in strategic studies at 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 business. He surfaced in the news again in 2009 when the government of Sudan sought his help with the Obama administration to remove sanctions. Sudan’s then-president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was ousted in a 2019 military coup, has been accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide and war crimes related to the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Sudanese officials helped arrange a $1.3 million contract between Mr. McFarlane and the government of Qatar, The Washington Post reported. Mr. McFarlane met with Sudanese intelligence officials in Middle Eastern capitals, where he insisted he would not work directly for Sudan but only through a third party such as Qatar. Federal investigators conducted a probe but declined to file criminal charges.
In Washington, Mr. McFarlane was long viewed as a man of contradictions: remorseful and defensive about Iran-contra, soft-spoken and outwardly inscrutable but in fact scathing about what he viewed as deceit and disloyalty from those he felt he had served as a dutiful Marine.
In his 1994 memoir, Mr. McFarlane remembered Iran-contra as a “tawdry episode.” He remained conflicted about the president who “approved every single action I ever took” in Iran-contra but who “lacked the moral conviction and intellectual courage to stand up in our defense and in defense of his policy.”