When Iran released four American prisoners in January, including journalist Jason Rezaian and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, it was heralded as a diplomatic breakthrough, CBS News’ Margaret Brennan reports.
“The plight of these individuals is they have done it and we have paid a price. We paid a price in a major way to bring them home,” said Representative Robert Pittenger upon their release. He was a member of a coalition of congressman that met three of the freed Americans at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
The Obama administration strongly denied paying any ransom to Iran, Brennan says, but according to details first reported by the Wall Street Journal, currency worth $400 million was flown into Tehran on a cargo plane around the same time that the Americans were released.
The plane was loaded with cash: Euros, Swiss Francs and other currencies, since any transaction with Iran in dollars is illegal under United States law.
Senior U.S. officials, Brennan reports, claimed the timing was coincidental: President Obama had planned to pay Tehran nearly 2 billion dollars to settle an outstanding legal dispute from before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“With the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well,” Obama said.
But the administration never consulted congress, according to Republican Congressman Ed Royce, who accused the White House of paying ransom to a state sponsor of terrorism, and as details of the cash became public Tuesday, there were instant reverberations on the campaign trail.
A few things to unravel here.
The money is ostensibly part of a $1.7 billion settlement of a $10 billion legal dispute from the time of the Shah, a dispute the US was likely to lose. The cash payment was because transacting with Iran in US dollars is illegal. If that were all that were going on here, it wouldn’t be that noteworthy.
But … it is noteworthy because Iran released four prisoners around the same time and is portraying the payment, at least to their populace, as a ransom. And the surreptitious way in which it was done tells you the Obama Administration knew quite well how it would be seen. They can squirm all they want but the difference between, “We’re paying you $400 million to release prisoners” and “we’re settling this legal dispute with you coincidentally at the same time you’re releasing prisoners” is academic. This is a ransom all but in name.
(A historical parallel: one of the conditions of settling the Cuban Missile Crisis was withdrawing nuclear weapons from Turkey. The Kennedy Administration was at least smart enough to delay the withdrawal so it didn’t look like a quid pro quo even though it was. The Obama Administration wasn’t even that smart.)
The last time we did anything remotely close to this, it was called Iran-Contra and we had years of hearings on it. Will the same happen now? I expect the Republicans to have some hearings. But I also expect the usual symphony of eye rolls, shrugs and “BENGHAZIIII!” denialism from the media and the Democrats. It’s likely that no laws were broken here. But, Good Lord, is this shady.