Most Americans pretty much assumed that the release of $1.7 billion to Iran in January 2016, in conjunction with the implementation of the nuclear JCPOA and the swap of prisoners between the U.S. and Iran, was effectively a ransom payment.
But according to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, parts of the release deal — on which Congress has now been briefed — make it clear that the monetary compensation to Iran was absolutely, unquestionably, and egregiously a ransom payment. No “effectively” about it. This was a mob deal, down to the literal stacks of currency being flown to Iran on pallets.
If you like, you can take comfort from the fact that only $400 million of the ransom seems to have been transferred to Iran in that particular manner.
But the bottom line is that when it’s reported that Obama “sent cash to Iran” as the hostages were being freed, that really effing means Obama sent cash to Iran. Don’t envision the U.S. Treasury making an accountable electronic transaction of some kind. Think Guido and three armed goons driving to the docks at midnight with wrapped packages of $100s in the trunk.
Of course, Obama didn’t sent wrapped packages of $100 bills to Iran. That would have been illegal.
The $400 million was paid in foreign currency because any transaction with Iran in U.S. dollars is illegal under U.S. law. Sanctions also complicate Tehran’s access to global banks.
The administration has emphasized that since 17 January, the day the hostage-extortion swap occurred.
The Obama administration has refused to disclose how it paid any of the $1.7 billion, despite congressional queries, outside of saying that it wasn’t paid in dollars. Lawmakers have expressed concern that the cash would be used by Iran to fund regional allies, including the Assad regime in Syria and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization.
WSJ narrates the basic details of the event:
The Iranians were demanding the return of $400 million the Shah’s regime deposited into a Pentagon trust fund in 1979 to purchase U.S. fighter jets, U.S. officials said. They also wanted billions of dollars as interest accrued since then.
President Obama approved the shipment of the $400 million. But accumulating so much cash presented a logistical and security challenge, said U.S. and European officials. One person briefed on the operation joked: “You can’t just withdraw that much money from ATMs.”
Mr. Kerry and the State and Treasury departments sought the cooperation of the Swiss and Dutch governments. Ultimately, the Obama administration transferred the equivalent of $400 million to their central banks. It was then converted into other currencies, stacked onto the wooden pallets and sent to Iran on board a cargo plane.
On the morning of Jan. 17, Iran released the four Americans: Three of them boarded a Swiss Air Force jet and flew off to Geneva, with the fourth returning to the U.S. on his own. In return, the U.S. freed seven Iranian citizens and dropped extradition requests for 14 others.
See? No actual U.S. dollars on the pallets. So it’s all cool.
As the WSJ article relates, reporting from January indicates that the U.S. prisoners were released on the same day the $400 million in foreign paper currency was flown into Iran: 17 January 2016.
It’s an irony of some kind that this date missed the 25th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm by one day. It also missed the 37th anniversary of the Shah’s departure into exile, in 1979, by that same day. (He left Iran on 16 January 1979.) Philosophize as you will.
WSJ notes CIA Director John Brennan’s theme that Iran is using this cash to “build up infrastructure” in the country. And that may technically be true, if we include expanding Iran’s military capabilities in the category of “building up infrastructure.” (It’s harder to fit subsidizing guerrilla warfare and terrorism in the greater Middle East into that category.)
So now you know. The Iranians had it right all along (as did you, if you assumed Obama paid the $1.7 billion as a ransom).
This is the deal that might have been jeopardized by Iran’s untimely, unlawful seizure of two U.S. Navy patrol boats in the Persian Gulf five days before. Sure, that’s one way of looking at it: that the unfortunate maritime incident might have upset a delicate agreement.
The more likely interpretation is that Iran was buying insurance as the day of the swap neared. Cynics who pulled the trigger on that interpretation at the time look vindicated here.
And this is the Barack Obama who thinks Donald Trump isn’t fit to be president, but is saucer-eyed over Hillary Clinton’s “qualifications” for the office. Just think about it.