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September 13, 2016

Lawmakers Trade Attacks Over American Prisoners Released From Iran

duffyWashington, DC – The Congressional furor over a January prisoner exchange with Iran continued last week in the House of Representatives, with Republican lawmakers doubling down on allegations that the Obama Administration paid a “ransom” to free five Americans and Democrats calling the episode a political charade.

“You can’t win this,” said Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA), addressing Obama Administration officials at a hearing last week. “I hope you know this is a political game to try once again to, number one, trash the Obama administration. Number two, trash the Iran nuclear deal. And number three, to somehow make them look like criminals.”

Appearing at a Financial Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Thursday, Administration officials answered lawmakers’ questions on the details of the release of Iranian prisoners in exchange for American prisoners. They reiterated that those negotiations were conducted separately from both the nuclear talks as well as negotiations to settle an outstanding dispute over an un-fulfilled arms sale to Iran dating back to the 1979 Iranian revolution. The U.S. ultimately agreed to return $1.7 billion to Iran to settle the debt, but Republican lawmakers have cried foul over the timing of the settlement – the prisoner exchange, the nuclear deal, and the debt settlement were all finalized over the same weekend.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iranian Affairs, Chris Backemeyer, said that the timing of the prisoner release, settlement payment, and Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was based on “significant diplomatic momentum that allowed us to advance U.S. interests all at the same time.”

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), whose constituent, former marine Amir Hekmati, was freed as part of the exchange, said the allegations amounted to the latest political attack against President Obama’s diplomatic efforts with Iran by opponents of the nuclear deal. Kildee noted that many of those decrying the settlement as a ransom payment were in fact the same people who had opposed nuclear negotiations with Iran unless American prisoners were freed. “On one hand when it fits the political narrative, the administration is criticized for not making these separate negotiations all combined into one,” said Kildee. “Now suddenly, we’re criticizing the fact that they assume we were.”

Kildee had warned throughout the talks that the prisoner issue and the nuclear issue must not be conflated, but that instead diplomatic advances in one area could open diplomatic opportunities in the other area. His views, which were shared by the Administration, appears to have been vindicated as, in his words, the prisoners were freed through the “bilateral discussion that was able to take place as a result of the JCPOA negotiation.”

The one area where critics of the prisoner release have focused has been on the fact that the payment was made to Iran in cash and was held until the prisoners were confirmed to have been freed. The Administration acknowledged that, because of financial sanctions that remain in place, there were no banking channels that would have allowed for quick transmission of the settlement and so cash was sent to avoid delays that could have upended the agreement. Backemeyer also explained that the payment was held because there were concerns that certain hardline elements in Iran were interfering with the release of the American prisoners and so U.S. officials decided that they would not allow the Hague settlement to move forward until it had been confirmed that the prisoners had been released.

Lisa Grosh, Legal Adviser to the Department of State’s International Claims and Investment Disputes Office mentioned in her opening statement that the $1.7 billion settlement was only a partial settlement of a larger series of ongoing cases at the Hague Tribunal. Since the creation of the Tribunal in 1981, $2.5 billion has been paid to U.S. nationals and companies by Iran.

Both State Department officials mentioned that certain details of this settlement could only be discussed in a classified setting given ongoing disputes in the Tribunal. State Department officials had made such classified briefings available to Congress since January, but only one legislator took them up on the offer.

It appears the political row over the Hague settlement is far from over. A Senate hearing on this issue has been scheduled for September 21. In the House, Foreign Affairs Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) has scheduled a markup for September 14 to advance legislation, the “Prohibiting Future Ransom Payments to Iran Act” (H.R. 5931), which is intended to block any future settlements of outstanding claims and prohibits all cash payments to Iran.

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