Republican lawmakers are calling for an inquiry into the administration’s decision to pay a $1.7 billion claims settlement to Tehran after Iranian hard-liners reignited concerns that the money was ransom to secure the release of American prisoners.
The dispute is the latest point of contention between the Obama administration and Republicans vehemently opposed to its handling of negotiations with Iran over a deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and an agreement to free several Americans, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, from Iranian detention.
The settlement was over a claim long pending before an international tribunal in The Hague set up to resolve disputes between the United States and Iran in the wake of the hostage crisis spanning from 1979 to 1981. The sum of $400 million, plus $1.3 billion in interest, settled claims over money Iran paid decades ago to buy weapons from the United States that were never delivered, after Iran’s revolution broke out.
“There was no benefit to the United States in dragging this out,” President Obama said of the settlement last weekend after the nuclear deal was implemented, adding that the country probably saved “billions” by striking a deal instead of waiting for a judgment. “With the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well.”
But where the administration presented the confluence of events as simply politically expedient timing, leading Republicans saw the troubling sketches of a ransom deal. And in Iran, the commander of the country’s Basij force reportedly boasted this week that Iran had secured the money as a price for letting the Americans go.
“This money was returned for the freedom of the U.S. spy, and it was not related to the [nuclear] negotiations,” said Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, according to Iran’s Fars news service.
Now some Republicans in Congress want a reckoning from the State Department over a deal they say will encourage other countries and groups to capture Americans and try to bilk the United States out of more cash.
“The timing and details of the U.S. cash transfer of $1.7 billion indicates it might be a ransom payment and it is likely interpreted as such by our adversaries,” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John F. Kerry this week, citing Naqdi’s comments and asking several pointed questions about how the payment was discussed in diplomatic negotiations.
“This concession was never raised by the State Department as on the table, which the Administration must answer for,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) said in an emailed statement Friday. He is also angling for an inquiry into the claim settlement and how it may have related to the prisoner release.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was one of the first critics to label the transaction “ransom,” though he has not decided whether to establish an official inquiry into the matter.
The administration has denied any suggestions that the United States engaged in a quid pro quo arrangement for the release of the American detainees, financial or otherwise. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest described the prisoner deal as a “humanitarian gesture.”
And the parallel timing of deals is hardly unique.
“It’s not uncommon for the U.S. to have to play three-dimensional chess in its relationships with other countries,” said John Bellinger, who was the legal adviser for the State Department under President George W. Bush and currently works for the firm Arnold & Porter.
He added, however, that if the negotiations over prisoners and the settlement of the claim really were separate, the White House could have done more to ensure that the two events would not look like a quid pro quo.
“If there really was no linkage, I’m surprised the State Department did not delay the announcement for several weeks,” he said.
Officially, the United States maintains a zero-tolerance policy for negotiating the release of prisoners or hostages with ransom payments, unlike some of its European allies, who have paid for the release of their citizens. Such policies have come under close scrutiny in the past few years as extremist groups have captured Westerners and demanded ransom payments for their return.
The Justice Department maintains the right to charge private citizens and companies who arrange ransom payments to such groups with providing material support for terrorism, though last year the department stated that it would not prosecute such cases.
Brian Michael Jenkins, a Rand Corp. expert who has written extensively about prisoner exchanges, said that policies on how to deal with terrorists do not apply to agreements such as those ironed out between the United States and Iran.
Jenkins cited deals to send medical supplies to Cuba in order to release brigade prisoners who were captured during the Bay of Pigs crisis and assets that were released to resolve the American hostage crisis with Iran as examples of prior crises in which the United States made similar arrangements.
The terms of the 1981 release of the American hostages, negotiated under President Jimmy Carter but carried out under President Ronald Reagan, was “a lot closer to a ‘ransom’ than the current arrangement,” Jenkins added. “This is in the category of diplomacy.”