The debate over whether the $400 million the United States secretly airlifted to Iran last January — just as the ink was drying on the Iran nuclear deal and several U.S. hostages were being released by Tehran — constituted a ransom payment or simple financial leverage is raging in the U.S. Congress and across the 2016 presidential campaign trail.
The difference may just be a matter of semantics.
The truth is that the money — call it what you will — was an incentive in getting Iran to budge, and pocketbook diplomacy is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to liberating hostages.
As it turns out, the money in question was Iran’s in the first place, so, basically, it all boils down to a case of the U.S. government robbing Paul to pay Paul.
In fact, the payment was the result of an agreed settlement to a 35-year deal in international court, so sooner or later the United States was going to have to fork over the moolah anyway.
And, certainly, no one is complaining about the release of the American prisoners, least of all their families and friends.
What is at the heart of the issue is whether or not the triangular tradeoff of cash, nuclear deals and hostages was legal under U.S. law, and that is where the line gets blurry.
Strictly speaking, making a transaction with Iran in U.S. dollars is illegal.
The Barack Obama administration got around that little technicality by making the payment in euros and other foreign currencies acquired from the central banks of the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Consequently, sticking to the letter of the law, the deal was kosher, or at least, almost kosher.
Notwithstanding, the money — whether paid in greenbacks or bottle caps — was delivered to a rogue regime that has a nasty history of dangling American lives as a means of extorting Uncle Sam.
The United States has a long-standing policy of refusing to pay ransoms on the basis that paying such money only encourages the taking of more hostages.
That argument is all well and good for most people, but doesn’t hold water for the families of those Americans who have already been taken hostage and who are willing to do just about anything to save the lives of their loved ones.
Finally, there is the truth factor.
Despite the fluky fortuitousness of the three events (money, hostages and nuclear deal), the Obama administration is sticking to its story, insisting that there was no quid pro quo involved (like a kid who’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, swearing that he was just trying to put the lid back on straight).
The whole sorted incident doesn’t exactly encourage faith in government. (But then again, what does these days?)
Ransom, leverage, incentive … a rose by any other name …
At the end of the day, the important thing is that it looks like the United States got the best end of the bargain, because the hostages are safe, Iran is (supposedly) curtailing its nuclear ambitions and the money paid wasn’t Washington’s anyway.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.