US House advances measure blocking Iran from $6 billion freed up in prisoner swap

Bill, which is unlikely to pass Democrat controlled Senate, would impose new sanctions on Tehran and permanently bar it from accessing funds in light of its support for terror

A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 29, 2023, shows him greeting members of the Basij ahead of a speech in Tehran. (KHAMENEI.IR / AFP)
A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 29, 2023, shows him greeting members of the Basij ahead of a speech in Tehran. (KHAMENEI.IR / AFP)

WASHINGTON — The House passed a bipartisan measure Thursday that would block Iran from ever accessing the $6 billion recently unfrozen by the US in a prisoner swap, a step Republicans pushed in response to the nation’s alleged role in the deadly attacks last month by Hamas on Israel.

The measure — titled the No Funds for Iranian Terrorism Act — passed 307-119 as Republicans sought to hold the Biden administration accountable for what they call their complicity in funding Iranian-backed terrorism in the Middle East.

“With such instability in the region, the last thing we need to do is to give access to $6 billion to be diverted to more Iranian-sponsored terrorism,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during a debate.

US officials have rebuffed this criticism, noting that not a single dollar has yet to be made available to Iran and insisting that when it is, it can only be used for humanitarian needs.

Republican critics like McCaul say that despite the money being restricted to aid, it is fungible, and could free up other funds for Tehran to provide support to Hamas like they believe it did before it attacked Israel in early October.

The US and Iran reached a tentative agreement in August that eventually saw the release of five detained Americans in Tehran and an unknown number of Iranians imprisoned in the US after billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets were transferred from banks in South Korea to Qatar. But days after the October 7 attack by Hamas, the US and Qatar agreed that Iran would not be able to access the money in the meantime, with officials stopping short of a full refreezing of the funds.

The GOP-backed resolution, which now goes to the Senate where it is unlikely to be supported by the Democratic majority, would impose new sanctions on the funds to prevent the transfer of any monies to Iran. It also threatens to sanction any government or individual involved in processing the transfer of the funds.

US citizen Siamak Namazi (C) disembarks from a Qatari jet upon arrival at the Doha International Airport in Doha, Qatar, on September 18, 2023, after being released by Iran in a prisoner swap. (Karim JAAFAR/AFP)

Several Democrats who opposed the measure defended the Biden administration’s decision to allow the money transfer in exchange for American hostages, especially in light of the American hostages now being kept by Hamas in Gaza.

“Iran, of course, as Hamas, is a murderous and corrupt regime. They’re not pleasant. And this isn’t easy,” Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during the floor debate. “But thanks to this agreement, five American families are now home again.”

He added, “And Iran has lost the leverage of holding these American hostages.”

The complex deal between Washington and Tehran came together over the summer after months of indirect negotiations between US and Iranian officials. But the beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas has inflamed criticism of the deal as Iran has historically maintained strong ties with both Hamas and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

People cross a road in front of an anti-Israel billboard with the checkered keffiyeh covering the Star of David, entitled, ‘Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,’ in solidarity with the Hamas operation against Israel, in Tehran’s central Vali-Asr Square on October 8, 2023. (AFP)

High-ranking US officials have sought to defend the decision to negotiate with Iran despite its track record of supporting terrorism against the US and its allies. But officials have also conceded that Iran’s influence over the various groups is undeniable.

“Hamas wouldn’t be around in the way that it is without the support that it’s received from Iran over the years,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during interviews after the attack. But he acknowledged that “we have not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack.”

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