McClatchy DC - SC Republicans Demand Answers for Obama's $1.7B Ransom to Iran

News Article

Date: Sept. 9, 2016
Location: Washington, DC

By Vera Bergengruen

Back on Capitol Hill after a seven-week recess, the first order of business for many South Carolina Republicans this week was to condemn the Obama administration's transfer of $1.7 billion to Iran earlier this year, after new details about the transaction were revealed last month.

Sen. Tim Scott co-sponsored a "No Ransom Payments" Act bill with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to ban any future payments to state sponsors of terrorism, calling the details about the Obama administration's actions "just unreal and completely unacceptable."

"First, President Obama signs a terrible nuclear deal with Iran, and months later the American people find out about a $400 million ransom payment to the Iranian government," Scott said in a statement. "While we are certainly pleased these unjustly imprisoned Americans are back home. . . . This has set a terrible precedent and has put a price on American lives all around the globe."

Republicans have denounced the initial $400 million transfer in January as a "ransom" payment to Iran, since it coincided with the release of four American prisoners the same day. The administration and the State Department have denied that the payments constitute ransom money, instead describing them as "leverage" to ensure the release of the American prisoners.

The legislation co-sponsored by Scott is aimed at prohibiting the federal government from paying ransom for prisoners and stopping any payments to Iran from the Treasury Department's "Judgment Fund" until Iran returns the money.

Another South Carolina Republican, Rep. Mark Sanford, signed on as a co-sponsor to the House of Representatives' version of the bill, proposed by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., on Wednesday. The legislation similarly reiterates that the United States does not pay ransom, requires the president to secure the return of U.S. money from Iran and bans any future payments to state sponsors of terrorism.

"By Washington standards, $1.7 billion may pale in comparison to larger spending items, but I imagine this is not how taxpayers in Goose Creek and Beaufort thought their tax dollars would be spent," Sanford said in a statement.

"This is the same regime that has harassed our naval vessels, detained our sailors and continues to jail our citizens," he said. "There is a long-standing American policy not to reward terrorists or kidnappers with payments, and a change in this policy sets a dangerous precedent."

The $1.7 billion was the settlement of a decades-old arbitration claim between Iran and the United States. That payment comprised the $400 million, which was delivered in euros, Swiss francs and other foreign currency, and $1.3 billion in interest, the Obama administration acknowledged Tuesday.

On Thursday, House Finance Committee member Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., questioned administration officials at a hearing on the matter, pressing them to explain why the payments had been delivered in cash.

The Treasury Department has said the payments had to be made in cash because sanctions on Iran have successfully isolated the country from the international financial system.
On Wednesday evening, Mulvaney defended his participation in the hearing to critics on social media who complained that such committees rarely led to anything.

"Indeed, but for these hearings, the public would never know that much of this stuff is going on," Mulvaney wrote in a Facebook post. "And ultimately, public opinion can provide very stiff penalties, and can be a deterrent against future transgressions."

During the summer recess, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also had denounced the Obama administration's actions, saying with his usual bluntness that he did not believe their claims because he "has half a brain."

"He gave the Iranians money to get Americans out of jail -- to think anything else is crazy," Graham said on CNN last month.

Other members of South Carolina's Republican delegation in Congress also used some of their time back on Capitol Hill to protest the issue. On Tuesday, Rep. Joe Wilson used his one-minute speech on the House floor to condemn the administration for the payments, and Rep. Tom Rice on Thursday tweeted that the administration "owes Americans an explanation."