March 3, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iranian Officials: Obama-era Prisoner Release was ‘Ransom’

March 3, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iranian Officials: Obama-era Prisoner Release was ‘Ransom’

Iranian intelligence agencies are fighting over credit for forcing the U.S. to pay ransom for five U.S. prisoners in January 2016. Last week, the deputy chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intelligence organization claimed it was his organization that secured payment for the hostages. The next day, a Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) official told state media that it was actually his ministry that deserved the praise. The Obama administration always insisted that it had not paid ransom for the Americans, but the Iranian intelligence officials’ statements leave little doubt as to Tehran’s own view.

The payment in question amounted to $1.7 billion, supposedly to settle a decades-old arms deal. In June of that year, FDD discovered – and Bloomberg subsequently reported – that after the $1.7 billion was handed over, Iran added the same amount to its annual budget and earmarked it for the military.

In August, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Washington had sent $400 million of the total amount as cash on an unmarked cargo plane and, moreover, that it did not send the money until Tehran had released the hostages. In September, the Journal reported that the remaining $1.3 billion had also been paid in cash. Despite the administration’s early denials, after being pressed over the suspicious timing of the exchange, it confirmed that the money had been used as “leverage” to secure the hostages’ release – but still insisted it had not been an act of ransom.

Some elements close to Iran’s power center, however, have always been more willing to call the deal what it was. In October, Mashregh News, an outlet close to IRGC intelligence, wrote an editorial saying Iran would demand “many billions of dollars” to release the six American citizens still detained in the Islamic Republic.

Just last week, Hossein Nejat, the deputy director of IRGC intelligence, said in a speech that Jason Rezaian – the Washington Post reporter held for over 500 days, and one of the five hostages released last year – was a spy. According to Nejat, during the nuclear talks, then-Secretary of State John Kerry asked his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif several times to release Rezaian. Nejat has himself said that Washington’s $1.4-billion payment was for the express purpose of getting the reporter back.

One day later, an unnamed MOIS official told state media a different story. “The Supreme National Security Council gave the MOIS authority to manage the negotiations,” he said, adding that the talks were handled by representatives of the ministry, Central Bank, and President’s Office.

As on other unflattering stories related to Iran, the Obama administration kept a veil of secrecy over the details of the ransom payment. Nevertheless, the truth tends to ultimately find its way out – in this case through the work of investigative journalists and the remarks of Iranian officials themselves. Whatever Obama administration officials wish to call it, their de facto ransom payment has encouraged Iran to double down on efforts to target U.S. citizens traveling there. The very fact that Tehran is holding Americans – four of them detained since last year’s cash-for-prisoners exchange – is testament to that disconcerting trend.

Unless Iran faces consequences for its use of U.S. citizens as bargaining chips, it will not only continue the same practice but likely embolden other rogue states to target Americans the same way. Washington must make clear that targeting its citizens will make it incur tremendous costs, and not reap billions in benefits as before.

Saeed Ghasseminejad is an associate fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @SGhasseminejad