Republicans blast $400m Iran ‘ransom,’ say it encourages kidnappings
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Republicans blast $400m Iran ‘ransom,’ say it encourages kidnappings

White House denies funds paid to Islamic Republic were to secure release of detained US citizens; claims it was interest for 30-year-old failed arms deal

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Naghmeh Abedini holds a necklace with a photograph of her husband, Saeed Abedini, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 2, 2015 (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Naghmeh Abedini holds a necklace with a photograph of her husband, Saeed Abedini, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 2, 2015 (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON — Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on Wednesday blasted what he described as the Obama administration’s “ongoing saga of misleading the American people” regarding negotiations with Iran as prominent Congressional Republicans responded with unanimous fury at reports the administration had paid a $400 million ransom to secure the release of Americans held by the Islamic Republic.

“If true, this report confirms our longstanding suspicion that the administration paid a ransom in exchange for Americans unjustly detained in Iran,” Ryan wrote in a statement Wednesday, hours after the Wall Street Journal published a report documenting the transfer of funds from Washington to Tehran.

The US is forbidden from engaging in dollar transactions with Iran, and so the funds were reportedly transferred into foreign currency, packed in crates, and transferred to Iran via Europe.

The administration maintains that the transfer of currency had nothing to do with the Americans who were released by Iran around the time that the cash reached its destination. Instead, they argue, it constituted the interest on over a billion dollars owed by Washington to Iran due to a failed arms deal dating back over 30 years.

“This $400 million is actually money that the Iranians had paid into a US account in 1979 as part of a transaction to procure military equipment. That military equipment, as it relates to the $400 million, was not provided to the Iranians in 1979 because the shah of Iran was overthrown,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday. “It was hard for the United States to make an argument, in this case, that we could just keep the money.”

White House Spokesman Josh Earnest speaking to reporters, October 7, 2015. (screen capture: White House video)
White House Spokesman Josh Earnest speaking to reporters, October 7, 2015. (screen capture: White House video)

Earnest stressed that the reactions among Republicans to the initial report simply demonstrated “how badly opponents of the Iran deal are struggling to justify their opposition.”

Ryan also tied the report back to the diplomatic environment surrounding the still-controversial Iran nuclear deal. The payment, Ryan said, “would also mark another chapter in the ongoing saga of misleading the American people to sell this dangerous nuclear deal.”

Although the deal went into effect earlier this year, it has remained a fixture of the 2016 electoral cycle, with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton reiterating her support for it, while Republican candidate Donald Trump has alternately vowed to revoke it altogether or hold it to stringent enforcement standards.

With Congress on recess for the month of August, Ryan did not immediately posit a legislative means of addressing his concerns. Instead, he delivered a more amorphous call for action, asserting that “the public deserves an explanation of the lengths this administration went to in order to accommodate the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”

Prominent Republicans in the House and Senate alike argued Wednesday that the transfer of funds would undermine US security, particularly by encouraging Iran to detain more Americans, in the hopes of securing additional cash. Like Ryan, however, they stopped short of suggesting any legislative course of action.

US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan gives his weekly briefing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on May 12, 2016. (AFP / Nicholas Kamm)
US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan gives his weekly briefing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on May 12, 2016. (AFP / Nicholas Kamm)

“The logistics of this payment — literally delivering a plane full of cash to evade US law — shows yet again the extraordinary lengths the Obama administration will go to accommodate Iran, all while hiding the facts from Congress and the American people,” wrote House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce. “Hundreds of millions in the pockets of a terrorist regime means a more dangerous region, period. And paying ransom only puts more American lives in jeopardy.”

Senator Mark Kirk, who is struggling to retain his seat representing Illinois, also warned that the deal undermined Americans’ security.

“Paying ransom to kidnappers puts Americans even more at risk,” he wrote. “while Americans were relieved by Iran’s overdue release of illegally imprisoned American hostages, the White House’s policy of appeasement has led Iran to illegally seize more American hostages.”

“Paying ransom to kidnappers puts Americans even more at risk,” Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said in a statement. “While Americans were relieved by Iran’s overdue release of illegally imprisoned American hostages, the White House’s policy of appeasement has led Iran to illegally seize more American hostages.”

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, center, appears with his wife Yeganeh Salehi and mother Mary Reazaian in Germany on January 20, 2016, following his release from Iranian custody (screen capture: YouTube)
Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, center, appears with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, and mother, Mary Reazaian, in Germany on January 20, 2016, following his release from Iranian custody (screen capture: YouTube)

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian; former US Marine Amir Hekmati; Christian pastor Saeed Abedini; and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, were all released in January, in a move that administration officials heralded as emblematic of the potential advantages of improved channels with Tehran.

Former presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz stressed Wednesday that the prisoner release was, in fact, emblematic of the new relationship — one that he described as “a series of bribes and secret agreements.”

“The revelation that the Obama administration ransomed the three Americans being unjustly detained by the Islamic Republic of Iran with $400 million in cash is only the most recent piece of evidence that the so-called nuclear deal with the mullahs is fundamentally illegitimate,” Cruz said.

“It is nothing but a series of bribes and secret agreements that will do nothing to prevent Iran from reaching nuclear capability, yet will provide funding for their sponsorship of terrorism and encourage them to detain more of our citizens. This ‘deal’ should be ripped to shreds immediately before more damage is done.”

Opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal is a rare topic that has unified Republicans in an increasingly fractious election year. From nominee Trump down to moderate members of Congress, Republicans have condemned the deal — one of the Obama administration’s flagship foreign policy initiatives — as a bad agreement.

But with the $400 million long gone, and with Congress on its longest recess of the year, Wednesday’s firestorm of complaints did not seem to lead to any specific action on the Republicans’ part.

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