Iraq News - Local News - Baghdadpost

The Obama team dances around a rotten Iran deal

Details of the United States' 2016 prisoner swap with Iran continue to surface more than a year later, forming a picture much different from the one the Obama administration presented at the time, Jenna Lifhits wrote in an article published on The Weekly Standard.

The latest revelations are the most shocking yet. Under the deal, the United States granted clemency to 7 Iranians and dismissed charges against another 14 in exchange for the release of 4 Americans held in Iran. President Barack Obama called it "a reciprocal humanitarian gesture"—but it turns out the Justice Department had labeled many of those Iranians "a clear threat to U.S. national security."

Obama made the announcement on January 17, one day after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran took effect, along with the news that Tehran and Washington had settled a decades-old claim over an arms deal gone awry. Obama administration officials claimed the settlement—$400 million plus $1.3 billion in interest—saved American taxpayers a significant sum by avoiding a Hague Tribunal proceeding.

The string of briefings left dozens of questions unanswered, but most of Washington focused on the timing of the agreements. Officials repeatedly stressed that the money and the prisoners were separate from one another, and from the nuclear deal that had been a top priority for the administration. Skeptical lawmakers and members of the media swamped the administration with requests for information about the mechanics of the $1.7 billion outlay amid allegations that it was a ransom payment for the jailed Americans. Those questions were slowly answered over months—though not by the White House.

The Wall Street Journal ignited the firestorm in August 2016 with its report that the Obama administration had delivered to Iran $400 million in cash, the first installment of the settlement, via an unmarked cargo plane. Members of Congress toughened their demands for information and raised concerns that Tehran would use the hard currency to boost the Lebanese militia Hezbollah or Bashar al-Assad's murderous Syrian regime.

"For the administration to continue to refuse to answer simple questions regarding its suspicious delivery of $400 million in pallets of cash to Iran only raises more questions," then-congressman Mike Pompeo told The Weekly Standard in August. Iran ended up authorizing the money for transfer to its military, according to a September policy brief by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Administration officials claimed they used cash because the United States did not have a banking relationship with Iran. "What we have is the manufacturing of outrage in a story that we disclosed in January," Obama said. "The only bit of news that is relevant on this is the fact that we paid cash. . . . We couldn't send them a check and we could not wire the money."

But as TWS reported in September, the administration made such wire payments to Iran before and after the president's claim, in July 2015 and April 2016.

As controversy over the cash payment raged, administration officials maintained that the financial settlement and prisoner swap were not coordinated; it was a "coincidence" that the money arrived in Iran at almost the same time the regime freed the American prisoners.

But in fact, as another Journal report revealed a few weeks later, the cash payment was part of a "tightly scripted exchange" tied to the release of the Americans. Iran could take possession of the cash only once the Americans were in the air (three left that day). Another two cash shipments totaling $1.3 billion were delivered in the weeks that followed.

Following the Journal's disclosure, Obama officials said that the administration had used the cash as "leverage."

"We took advantage of leverage that we felt we could have to make sure that they got out safely and efficiently," then-State Department spokesman John Kirby said. "I don't think anybody in the administration is going to make any apology for having taken advantage of those opportunities to get these Americans home." He admitted, "I certainly would agree that this particular fact is not something that we've talked about in the past."

Then, in late September, the Journal shed light on another deal: The United States had agreed to support lifting United Nations sanctions on two Iranian banks critical to financing Tehran's missile program. Senior State Department official Brett McGurk signed three documents the morning of January 17, 2016, the report revealed: one for the prisoner swap, one for the $1.7 billion payment, and one committing to support lifting the U.N. sanctions. The decision received minimal press coverage at the time, and Obama did not mention it that day. "We still have sanctions on Iran for its violations of human rights, for its support of terrorism, and for its ballistic missile program," Obama said in announcing the swap and settlement. "And we will continue to enforce these sanctions, vigorously."

The three agreements were certainly linked, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, all rooted in the Obama administration's desire to secure the JCPOA.

"The nuclear deal was, for the Iranian regime, not the end of negotiations. It was nearly the beginning," Dubowitz told TWS. "They saw an opportunity in the waning year of the Obama administration to try and extract as many concessions as they could from an administration that was clearly . . . desperate for a deal." He added, "The notion that somehow the $1.7 billion was about an outstanding military account, and that had nothing to do with the hostages, which had nothing to do with Bank Sepah is completely absurd."

And now, explosive details about the prisoner swap and its effects on counter-proliferation efforts have come to light. Politico reported this week that the administration significantly downplayed the backgrounds of the Iranians let off the hook—and made sure some of them weren't captured before the nuclear deal was signed.

In his January remarks, Obama focused on the seven Iranian prisoners in the United States. "These individuals were not charged with terrorism or any violent offenses," he said, calling them "civilians." But the Justice Department had declared a number of these individuals threats to U.S. national security, allegedly central to or involved in illicit efforts to acquire for Tehran American multi-application technology, including that used in satellites and cruise missiles.

The State Department noted in its January statement, "The United States also removed any Interpol red notices and dismissed any charges against 14 Iranians for whom it was assessed that extradition requests were unlikely to be successful." Some of these fugitives were allegedly entrenched in efforts to acquire weapons and Boeing planes, according to Politico, and one likely contributed to the deaths of Americans. Amin Ravan was an alleged conspirator in a procurement network that got high-tech parts to Iran then used in IEDs, which Shiite fighters used to kill American soldiers in Iraq. U.S. military and intelligence officials have pointedly stated that targeting American troops is Iranian regime policy. "It is the policy of the Iranian government, approved to the highest levels of that government, to facilitate the killing of Americans in Iraq," then-CIA director Mike Hayden said in 2008.

The administration's decision to release or drop charges against these 21 was a concession to Iran fueled by its desire to protect the nuclear deal, a top proliferation expert told TWS.

"The State Department took a list from Iran of who they wanted un-indicted and pretty much accepted it, even as the people were credibly guilty of breaking U.S. laws," said David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security. "This was really a very extensive effort to appease the Iranians, who were very upset that their people were being arrested."

Worse, there was a broader pattern of administration officials delaying or denying investigations into Iranian figures in the run-up to the nuclear deal, Politico reported. Requests to lure Iranians with arrest warrants against them abroad, to countries in which they could be nabbed, were also put off. (A Chinese associate of one of the Iranians was arrested in London when he flew there to see a soccer match.) The State Department was central to stunting these efforts, Albright said. "This stuff stopped on Kerry's desk," he said. "When State Department and particularly Kerry didn't sign something, they couldn't proceed."

Kerry's former chief of staff Jon Finer disputed Politico's reporting that federal law enforcement agencies worry that years of work in counter-proliferation have been destroyed by State's single-mindedness. Every administration department agreed on the prisoner swap, he told TWS. "This notion that somehow this involved the White House, the State Department, in conflict with the DoJ or the FBI over these outcomes—the reality of those conversations, which I and others were involved in, is that there was a 100 percent unanimous consensus among principals in the Obama administration," Finer said. "In the end, all of the principals, including of the agencies that were described as having dissented to this, actually, in the end, supported."

But then, the secretary of state's former chief of staff also denied that the administration had downplayed or concealed the terms of the swap.

"The Obama administration, far from having hidden what were the terms of the prisoner exchange that took place, was pretty clear at the time—both at the level of the president of the United States and the secretary of state," Finer said. "Both of them made pretty detailed statements in the immediate aftermath of that arrangement about what it constituted, who was included and who wasn't, and also why."

Jenna Lifhits is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.