Payment to Iran wasn't ransom, but it wasn't a coincidence either

Earlier this month, when President Obama rejected Republican arguments that he had paid “ransom” to Iran in January to obtain the release of four Americans, we suggested that the president had the better of the argument. We still think it’s inaccurate to describe as ransom the payment to Iran of $400 million in cash. As Obama noted, that sum is actually part of the settlement of a dispute over a failed arms deal that stretches back to the 1970s. The money belongs to Iran, and eventually it would have been returned.

But in one important respect Obama’s explanation was misleading. At a news conference the president suggested that the delivery of the $400 million in foreign currency to Iran and the release of the Americans “converged” because, thanks to contacts between the United States and Iran connected to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, the two countries were able to “clear accounts on a number of different issues at the same time.” In the same press conference Obama insisted that “we do not pay ransom for hostages.”  

But on Thursday State Department spokesman John Kirby essentially confirmed a Wall Street Journal report that Iranian officials in Geneva weren’t allowed to take custody of the cash until a plane carrying three of the Americans was airborne. (A fourth imprisoned American was released separately.)  Kirby said that “because we had concerns that Iran [might] renege on the prisoner release, given unnecessary delays already regarding some persons in Iran as well as some mutual mistrust, we, of course . . . sought to retain maximum leverage until after the Americans were released.”

Republicans gloated over Kirby’s concession. “We now know it was ransom,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The New York Times.

Royce has it exactly backward. Iran wasn’t using the hostages to get more from the United States than it was entitled to; the United States was using Iran’s money — funds Iran had paid for weapons that the U.S. never delivered — to ensure that Iran fulfilled its promise to release Americans who shouldn’t have been held.

But suppose Obama had announced, while the Americans were still imprisoned in Iran, that the U.S. wouldn’t return funds rightfully belonging to Iran until the Americans were released? Would returning Iran’s funds to Iran after the prisoners’ release have constituted  “ransom”? At what point would it have been permissible to pay Iran what was owed to it?

We raise these points to underscore the complexity of the issues surrounding this transaction. The shipment of cash wasn’t ransom, in the sense of being a payment that had no purpose other than to obtain the release of prisoners. But clearly its timing was connected to that objective.

Obama should have made that clear. Why didn’t he? One obvious explanation is that, even if he didn’t regard the timing of the payment as a form of ransom, connecting the payment to the prisoners’ release encourages the opposite interpretation — which in turn would create an incentive to hold more Americans hostage. He also may have omitted this detail because some of the same Republicans who cried ransom also opposed (and continue to oppose) the international agreement that placed limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, a signature achievement of Obama’s foreign policy and, by most accounts, a success. It’s understandable that Obama didn’t want to give ground to his critics, but in the end his dissembling has empowered them.

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