Republicans on key foreign policy panels are criticizing an unfolding plan that would release Americans imprisoned in Iran because it involves giving the Islamist regime access to billions of dollars — with one calling it a “ransom.”
Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, shared his reservations Thursday as several Americans were moved from an Iranian prison to hotel or house arrest, a key early step in the deal.
The plan involves many parts, and it is likely to take weeks to implement. Republican opposition adds another variable to an already fragile situation.
The plan involves Iran releasing five Americans in exchange for the U.S. freeing a handful of imprisoned Iranians, according to a person briefed on the deal by the State Department who was granted anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
It also includes giving Iran access to some $6 billion of its frozen assets via Qatar, money it will be allowed to use only for purchasing items such as medicine and food, said a second person familiar with the agreement who was not authorized to discuss it on the record.
Risch warned that such machinations set a bad precedent.
“While I welcome home wrongfully detained Americans, unfreezing $6B in #Iranian assets dangerously further incentivizes hostage taking & provides a windfall for regime aggression,” Risch tweeted. “The Biden Admin must punish those who use Americans as political pawns and work to end this practice.”
Other Republicans voiced concerns over what Iran could do with the funds. In a statement, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the deal a “ransom” and a “craven act of appeasement,” warning that Iran would “use these ill-gotten gains to attack our troops, fund terrorism, and arm Russia.”
U.S. efforts to negotiate with longtime adversary Iran on anything, especially its nuclear program, are a subject of constant tensions in Washington, largely but not entirely along party lines. Antipathy toward Iran has risen further as it has helped arm Russia in its war against Ukraine.
There’s plenty of sympathy on Capitol Hill for efforts to bring home Americans wrongfully detained in Iran or elsewhere. But details of the deals struck can lead to varying reactions, especially when money is involved.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, the United States negotiated the release of five detained Americans that coincided with the implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and involved prisoner exchanges.
At the same time, Obama’s team struck a deal with Iran on a separate, decades-old military sales legal dispute. Because the latter involved sending an initial $400 million in cash to Iran just as the prisoners were being released, Republicans slammed it as a ransom that would lead Iran to imprison more Americans.
And Tehran has not stopped the practice in the years since.
And those Americans did not have dual Iranian nationality, making their cases somewhat easier to negotiate. (Iran does not recognize dual nationality. That means it does not recognize Iranian Americans as American citizens.)
The five detainees the United States is now trying to free are Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz and two others whose families opted not to identify. At least some are dual citizens of the United States and Iran. They had been held on dubious charges including espionage.
Among those applauding the deal was Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, where Tahbaz has ties. “I’m thrilled that this day has arrived,” Murphy said in a statement, while acknowledging that he won’t “breathe easy” until the prisoners are back home.
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