A Biden administration agreement with Iran to unfreeze $6 billion of funds to Tehran in exchange for the release of five American prisoners has roiled lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Republicans in Congress and even a few Democrats fear that such a deal encourages hostile nations to take more Americans traveling abroad as hostages in the future.
While the administration has touted the agreement — which comes after more than a year of indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran — as a diplomatic breakthrough, critics say Washington has catered to a foreign adversary it shouldn’t have negotiated with in the first place.
“If we’re paying a billion dollars per kidnapped individual, then you’re going to see more kidnappings. That’s why you don’t negotiate with terrorists, that’s why you don’t negotiate with kidnappers. The idea of basically paying to release, in this effect, a hostage is a terrible idea,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said.
“Remember back in the Reagan years, we had — was it — guns for hostages, that was the story, remember that? This is a billion dollars for a hostage,” he added.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called the move “shameful” as it pays “ransom to the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism.”
Even Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) spoke up over “concerns” that President Biden was creating incentives for more Americans to be taken hostage.
“This is an example of why we have to go ahead and make it very clear to Americans that they cannot travel to certain places in the world where they are likely to ultimately become a hostage. Until we do that we will constantly be in a set of circumstances” where the United States faces negotiations to free detained Americans, Menendez told reporters Monday.
Though U.S. officials have said the funds will only be used for humanitarian purposes, GOP lawmakers also fretted that the deal could free up dollars for Iran elsewhere that could be used to purchase weapons or back dangerous proxies.
“President Biden can’t seem to cut his habit of sending money to terrorists,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“It’s $6 billion to Iran on 22nd anniversary of 9/11,” Scott added, asserting Biden “is putting a price on American lives.”
Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), meanwhile, tweeted that there was “NO downside for dictatorships, like Iran or Russia, to take Americans hostage. With Biden, these regimes always get a good deal in the end and that’s why they’ll keep doing it.”
And Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) wrote on X that cutting such a deal was “naïve and dangerous.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed a waiver last week enabling the transfer of $6 billion in oil revenues blocked in South Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions. The previously frozen funds are due to be released to restricted accounts in Qatar banks, a State Department spokesperson confirmed to The Hill.
The U.S. also gave the go ahead for the release of five Iranian nationals currently detained in the United States, with both steps meant to grease the wheels for the release of five U.S. citizens held in Iran.
Washington seeks to free three known individuals all sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran: Siamak Namazi, 51, detained in Iran in 2015 while visiting family and accused of spying; Emad Sharghi, 59, a businessman first arrested in 2018; and Morad Tahbaz, 67, a British-American environmentalist of Iranian descent arrested in 2018 and charged with spying and colluding against Iran’s national security.
The fourth and fifth detainees have not been identified, though all five are under house arrest in Tehran.
State Department spokesman Matt Miller insisted Tuesday that the deal was a “tough choice” that was necessary as “Iran is not going to release these American citizens out of the goodness of their heart.”
“That is not real life, not how this works, that was never going to happen,” he said. “We have to make tough choices and engage in tough negotiations to bring these American citizens home.”
The State Department also called the transfer “a critical step” in securing the release of the Iranian-Americans, stressing that Washington has not lifted any of its sanctions on Tehran or offered the country any sanctions relief.
The U.S. continues “to counter the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses, destabilizing actions abroad, its support for terrorism, and its support for Russia’s war against Ukraine,” the spokesperson said.
Despite the disapproval from GOP lawmakers, the agreement between Washington and Tehran marks a major development for the adversaries. The two have long butted heads over issues including aggressive Iranian military moves in the Gulf of Oman, Tehran’s ties with Moscow — including supplying Russia with weapons for the Kremlin’s ongoing war in Ukraine — and negotiations over the all-but-dead Iran nuclear deal.
The criticisms are also not unexpected; Republicans in the past several weeks have voiced their displeasure over any agreement with Iran after the initial parameters of the deal were reported.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) claimed last month the dollars could be used to “prop up” Iran’s aggressive foreign policy agenda.
“I want to get these Americans home more than anybody,” McCaul said. “But we have to go in [with] eyes wide open. [The] $6 billion that now is going to go into Iran [will] prop up their proxy war, terror operations, and their nuclear bomb aspirations,” he told Fox News Sunday.
Still, several GOP presidential hopefuls took the finalization of the deal as a fresh opportunity to level blows at Biden, including former President Trump, who called the commander in chief an “incompetent fool” and suggested without evidence that he was getting a “kickback” from the funds being returned to Iran.
Former Vice President Mike Pence similarly claimed the agreement “endangers Americans abroad,” while former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley said the only thing that makes the new worse is “announcing it on 9/11.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), meanwhile, claimed on X that the deal “bankrolls nuclear ambitions, hostage takers, and extremists who hate America.”
But National Iranian American Council President Jamal Abdi called the politicization of the prisoner swap “disturbing and disheartening.”
“The prisoner swap can be a win for the American and the Iranian people provided that it is defended from the hawks in Washington and Tehran who don’t want to see it happen,” Abdi said. “If the process plays out, five Iranian Americans will be reunited with their families and Iranian money will be used to purchase food and medicine as intended. We can both condemn the reprehensible hostage taking of Iran’s government while welcoming the release of those wrongfully detained.”
Further complicating matters for Biden, however, is the new assertion by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi that his government will choose how it’ll use the $6 billion once the funds are unfrozen.
The money “belongs to the Iranian people, the Iranian government, so the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide what to do with this money,” Raisi said in an interview Tuesday on NBC News.
The United States quickly pushed back, insisting that South Korea will release the funds to Qatar’s central bank, which will oversee that the dollars can only be used for humanitarian aid such as food and medicine, as U.S. sanctions stipulate.
“The money can only be used for humanitarian purposes,” Miller said Tuesday. “We will remain vigilant in watching the spending of those funds and have the ability to freeze them again if we need to.”
And National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told MSNBC that Raisi was likely “playing to his domestic audience” with his comments, noting that “the parameters of this arrangement are very clear.”
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