The Associated Press reported yesterday that the Obama administration’s State Department said “that a $400 million cash payment to Iran seven months ago was contingent on the release of a group of American prisoners. It is the first time the U.S. has so clearly linked the two events, which critics have painted as a hostage-ransom arrangement.”
It didn’t take long for Republicans to express outrage, but what the AP report did not explain in detail is that these “critics” are wrong – and the payment wasn’t a “ransom.”
The background on this story is a little convoluted, but the United States has owed Iran money since 1979 – they bought some fighter jets, but we didn’t deliver (or refund the money) after the revolution and hostage crisis. The subsequent dispute has lasted ever since. The two countries reached an out-of-court settlement after Secretary of State John Kerry’s team concluded they were almost certain to lose at an international arbitration tribunal.
Vox’s Zack Beauchamp summarized what he described as a “dumb controversy” quite nicely.
The payment, which sounds really shady out of context, was actually the end of a boring, decades-old international legal case totally unrelated to the hot-button nuclear and prisoner issues. […][T]he basic logic of [the right’s criticisms] didn’t make any sense. Iran was going to get that money back no matter what through the arbitration process – probably more, if the Obama administration was right. Why would it release potentially valuable hostages in exchange for money it would have gotten otherwise?
Tony Fratto, a veteran of the Bush/Cheney White House, spent a little time yesterday urging the right to steer clear of this made-up controversy, calling it “silly.” Apparently referring to Republicans, Fratto added, “We’re not showing how we can be serious.”
That’s true, though GOP officials and candidates don’t want to appear serious; they want to appear outraged over a story they don’t seem to understand.
Beauchamp’s Vox piece added, “The bottom line, then, is that the AP story uncovers no real evidence suggesting that the US agreed to give Iran money that it wouldn’t have gotten otherwise as part of the hostage release deal. There’s smoke here, but no fire.”