COLUMN: Cash Payment to Iran for American Prisoners Sets a Dangerous Precedent

September 26, 2016
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

In January of this year, four American citizens were released from Iranian custody in a prisoner swap that exchanged seven Iranians and removed 14 more Iranians from an international police watch list. At least, those were the details the White House made public at the time. Administration officials were quoted as saying the deal was “a one-time arrangement” and “not a precedent for the future.” The more we learn about the exchange, however, the more we find that the administration has not been up front about the deal, which in reality sets a far more dangerous precedent.

Almost six months after the deal, we learned what the White House had kept a secret: on the same day as the prisoner release, the administration had arranged to send $400 million in cash, in multiple currencies and on wooden pallets, to be flown directly to Iran in an unmarked cargo plane. Why is it important that the payment was in cash? Because Iran is still the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, and sending cash payments makes it nearly impossible to verify that the funds are not being used to finance terror or other illicit activities.

President Obama denied that the payment constituted a “ransom,” but members of his own administration raised concerns that the Iranians certainly saw the payment as a ransom. The president also claimed that cash was necessary because the U.S. did not have the capacity to wire funds due to sanctions on Iran, but we have since learned that the U.S. Treasury made two separate wire transfer payments to Iran in the past few months.

The $400 million is part of $1.7.billion that the Obama administration said it was simply returning to Iran as part of a longstanding settlement. But the timing of this quid pro quo risks emboldening Iran to continue its bad behavior in the future to seize and hold Americans until a ransom payment is made. Since the payments, Iran has taken more Americans into custody, presumably to be used as bargaining chips in future deals.

In June of 2015, President Obama laid out U.S. policy on American hostages: “I firmly believe that the United States government paying ransom to terrorists risks endangering more Americans and funding the very terrorism that we’re trying to stop.” Cash payments to Iran in exchange for releasing American hostages operate under the same principle.

I voted last week with the House to pass legislation, the Prohibiting Future Ransom Payments to Iran Act (H.R. 5931), that bans cash payments to Iran from ever occurring again. Our enemies should have zero incentive to endanger Americans.