“Ransom” or “strategically timed escrow payment?”
That’s the question Obama administration critics and defenders were clashing over following the administration’s acknowledgement of a link between its plane shipment of cash to Iran last January, hours after Tehran released three American prisoners.
The Republican Jewish Coalition was one of the first groups out of the box in the battle to make the ransom label stick—and to incorporate it into the group’s effort on behalf of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“Hillary Clinton and Democrats across the country should immediately condemn this ransom payment and reverse their support for the dangerous nuclear deal with Iran,” said RJC’s executive director, Matt Brooks, in a statement issued Thursday.
“This $400 million ransom, along with the $100 billion Iran has already collected from the U.S., will further Iran’s funding of terrorist organizations who launch regular attacks in Israel, as well as their funding of militia fighters directly working to undermine our coalition forces in Iraq and Syria,” he added.
Not to be outdone, Steve Rabinowitz, whose public relations firm, Bluelight Strategies, speaks on behalf of the RJC’s Democratic counterpart, shot back, “This money was always the Iranians’….Only because [the administration] withheld payment at the last minute, did it ensure that the Iranians upheld THEIR commitments” to return the prisoners. “I’m sorry my RJC friends would prefer we either risked their fates or we reneged on international commitments.”
Rabinowitz, who represents the National Jewish Democratic Council, accused the Republican Jewish group of simply seeking “to raise money around” the issue.
The controversy may, more than anything, be a result of the administration’s insistent pushback against any notion of a link between the two ties, until Thursday, by fixating on the word “ransom.”
“We do not pay ransom,” Obama himself told reporters who asked about the flight of cash to Tehran on Aug. 4. “We didn’t here and we won’t in the future.”
Secretary of State John Kerry likewise stressed: “The United States does not pay ransom and does not negotiate ransoms.”
But what’s a ransom? Neither the release of the prisoners nor the cash hours after their release was a secret. The money constituted the first installment of a total of $1.7 billion that the United States acknowledges it owes Iran in connection with payments Iran sent to Washington for weapons long ago, just before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Washington refused to deliver the weapons to the new revolutionary anti-American regime led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after he ousted the Shah of Iran, an American ally. But it also held on to the money.
Negotiations for returning the money began several years ago, in parallel with the long diplomatic process that led to the deal last year in which Iran agreed to halt its efforts to develop its nuclear capabilities in exchange for the lifting of crippling international sanctions. Negotiations were also conducted during this period to secure the return of the three U.S. prisoners held by Iran—a Washington Post reporter, a Marine veteran and a pastor.
Obama administration officials insisted the negotiating process for the prisoners and for the money owed to Iran were never linked, just parallel. But on Thursday, State Department spokesman John Kirby finally conceded that as Iran mulled going forward with the release of the prisoners, “we deliberately leveraged that moment to finalize these outstanding issues nearly simultaneously.” He added: “I certainly would agree that this particular fact is not something that we’ve talked about in the past.”
To the RJC’s Brooks the payment “sets a dangerous precedent, one that will only put more Americans at risk.”
But to Rabinowitz, it was inevitable “once the nuclear deal was all but done and the money would have to be repaid.” Citing the administration’s success in getting Iran to reduce its demands for the interest accrued on the cache of cash since 1979, he said, “The U.S. actually negotiated quite a favorable deal - for which they should be commended.”
Perhaps Atlantic staff writer David Graham offers a way out of the semantic swamp:
“Even after American hostages had been released, there was no chance the U.S. would send the planes,” he wrote. “But it also never returned the money. In that sense, the money was really a hostage exchange: human hostages for monetary hostages.”
Larry Cohler-Esses is the Forward’s senior investigative writer. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others. Larry Cohler-Esses can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.