President Reagan conceded Saturday for the first time that "mistakes were made" in his administration's secret arms deals with Iran, and he promised the American people, "I will set things right."
Though the president continued to defend his policy of selling arms to Iran, his tone was more conciliatory than it has been since disclosures that money from Iran arms sales was diverted, possibly illegally, to aid the Nicaraguan contras.
"While we're still seeking all the facts, it's obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made, " Reagan said.
"Let me just say it was not my intent to do business with (Iran's leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini, to trade weapons for hostages nor to undercut our policy on anti- terrorism. . . .
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"I know the stories of the past weeks have been distressing. I'm deeply disappointed this initiative has resulted in such a controversy, and I regret it's caused such concern and consternation. . . . I will set things right."
Reagan again vowed that the administration would cooperate with Congress as it investigates the arms deal, even though two of his former National Security Council aides who were key to the investigation refused to answer Senate Intelligence Committee questions by invoking their Fifth Amendment right against incriminating themselves.
Noting that an independent counsel was to be named to investigate the deal, he promised again that "if illegal acts were undertaken in the implementation of our policy, those who did so will be brought to justice."
"I realize you must be disappointed and probably confused, " the president said in his weekly Saturday radio address. "You must be asking: What were we doing in the Middle East? What was our policy? . . . Were we engaged in some kind of shenanigans that blew up in our face?"
Reagan then explained that, when he was informed that "responsible elements" in Iran, through an intermediary, had requested a meeting with U.S. officials, he gave the go-ahead because he hoped the United States could help end the war between Iran and Iraq, terrorists bombings and the kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon.
In the 10-minute speech, Reagan said he personally authorized the contacts, which led to the Iran arms deal. He did not address the disputed issue of whether he had given advance approval of the first two arms shipments to Iran by Israel in 1985.
Attorney General Edwin Meese said Nov. 25 that the president had not been fully informed of the arms shipments until after they had been made.
In California on Friday, Meese backed away from that statement in the wake of reports that former national security adviser Robert McFarlane had testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Reagan had personally approved the operation over the objections of such top officials as Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
Until Saturday's speech, Reagan had adamantly refused to admit that any aspect of the arms exchange was a mistake or to apologize for it, as critics and even some political allies had urged.
All last week, some White House officials said privately that Reagan would have to acknowledge error. The first sign that the administration would do so came in a Wednesday speech by Vice President George Bush.
In a speech approved by Reagan, Bush said "mistakes were made." White House officials were encouraged by the positive response Bush received, and Reagan used the identical words Saturday.
In the Democratic rebuttal to Saturday's address -- written before the president gave his speech -- outgoing Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill Jr., D-Mass., said that "it is time for Ronald Reagan . . . to say that sending the weapons of death to Iran was a terrible decision that must never be repeated."
O'Neill condemned the policy of sending weapons to a regime that "exploded our embassy, car-bombed and killed hundreds of our Marines . . . captured and imprisoned our diplomats, burned our flag and waged a bloodthirsty war against their neighbors."
He added: "The American people did not build this country to what it is today so that the arsenal of democracy would become the arsenal of the ayatollah."
But Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., welcomed Reagan's concessions: "I believe when Ronald Reagan says . . . that mistakes were made, that will go a long way in laying to rest some of the criticism."
Dole went on to say he believes Reagan's reference to "mistakes" implies that the president shares blame, that he "knows that the buck stops at his desk."