The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been too busy luxuriating in cargo shorts and observing Donald Trump’s cratering polls to focus on international relations. It therefore took me a few days to read the Wall Street Journal story about how the United States sent $400 million in foreign cash to Iran at exactly the same time Iran released American prisoners:

Wooden pallets stacked with euros, Swiss francs and other currencies were flown into Iran on an unmarked cargo plane, according to these officials. The U.S. procured the money from the central banks of the Netherlands and Switzerland, they said.
The money represented the first installment of a $1.7 billion settlement the Obama administration reached with Iran to resolve a decades-old dispute over a failed arms deal signed just before the 1979 fall of Iran’s last monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The settlement, which resolved claims before an international tribunal in The Hague, also coincided with the formal implementation that same weekend of the landmark nuclear agreement reached between Tehran, the U.S. and other global powers the summer before.

A follow-up WSJ story noted that Justice Department officials had qualms about the exchange because the timing of it made it seem like a quid quo pro.

This got a lot of conservatives exercised about how VERY DAMNING FACTS just got revealed and it’s a scandal and it shows the United States paying Iran ransom for U.S. hostages.

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The thing is, though, almost all of this information was reported back in January when the asset exchange was made (including the $400 million figure). Both Vox’s Zack Beauchamp and the New York Times’ Michael Shear and David Sanger offer explainers about the transaction. To sum them up:

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  1. Remember, the money that was transferred was always Iran’s money. It’s just that the United States seized Iran’a assets when Iran seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Always remember — this is Iran’s money being given back to Iran;
  2. By all accounts the United States was going to lose an international legal tribunal ruling on the dispute. The payment prevented having to pay an even bigger penalty (in terms of interest on the $400 million held over 35 years).
  3. The transfer was not kept secret, but announced in January when the exchange took place. The new information in the WSJ stories are that (a) the transfer was in pallets of cash and (b) DOJ officials were queasy about the optics.

President Obama certainly didn’t think of it as ransom:

There’s no kerfuffle that Donald Trump can’t make worse by opening his mouth, so naturally he falsely claimed that he had seen secret, Iranian-filmed video of the cash transfer. This prompted much merriment from U.S. officials who, you know, actually know stuff. Indeed, it was such an egregious mistake that even Trump had to acknowledge it.

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So that’s that — another conservative freakout over nothing! Except for one thing — the optics of this are horrible, and the optics matter.

Scattered throughout the sober reporting and the debunking explainers are the following tidbits:

  • WSJ: “U.S. officials also acknowledge that Iranian negotiators on the prisoner exchange said they wanted the cash to show they had gained something tangible.”
  • Vox: “It’s easy to see how the timing is suspicious.”
  • NYT: “It seems unlikely that the simultaneous timing of the two events [the cash transfer and the hostage release] was coincidental.”

I have no doubt that the White House did not view these two exchanges as a quid pro quo. And it’s really stupid to think of giving someone their money back as a ransom payment. That said, the DOJ’s qualms about the optics of this deal were well-founded. Even if the United States didn’t view the cash payment as a ransom, elements of Iran’s government clearly did think of the exchange in this way. And if that’s what Iranian officials believe, then they will believe that hostage-taking might be a lucrative means of procuring other assets. So yeah, it matters what the Iranians think happened back in January.

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I’m glad that the president has forcefully denied that this was a ransom payment. The White House should continue to do so — not to disabuse U.S. conservatives, but to disabuse Iranian conservatives that this kind of well-timed exchange could happen again.

In international relations, sometimes bad optics are worth the value of the deal being made. But it’s also worth correcting the optics when they look bad. The only new information from this week about these exchanges with Iran is about the optics. That’s worth reporting. The Obama administration is pushing back forcefully. That’s the right thing to do politically — and the right thing to do diplomatically.

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