Earlier this month, five previously imprisoned Americans left Iran as part of a prisoner swap agreement under which the U.S. released five Iranians from prison or dropped charges against them. Iran also received a $6 billion payment as part of this deal.
Although Biden Administration critics welcomed the release of the American prisoners, many criticized the $6 billion payment to release the American hostages because they claimed this was a ransom payment.
Biden officials vehemently denied this characterization, arguing the United States did not pay Iran anything because the $6 billion was Iranian funds released from a South Korean bank. Because this was Iran’s money, Biden Administration officials argued this could not be called a ransom payment.
Most mainstream reporters supported the Biden Administration’s spin on the prisoner swap and said Biden officials “unlocked” $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds from a South Korean bank to free the American prisoners.
Surprisingly, the ordinarily pro-Biden Washington Post editorial board disagreed. It contended in a September 18, 2023 editorial titled, “The Iran prisoner deal continues a miserable cycle of hostage-taking” that “these sorts of deals reward noxious regimes and encourage more hostage-taking.”
The Post editorial board was correct. It does not matter that the payment to Iran was not U.S. money or that this was frozen Iranian funds. When the United States arranges a transfer of funds to another nation to free unjustly detained Americans, the U.S. is making a ransom payment to free American hostages.
The Post also was right that the U.S. repeatedly paying ransom to Iran to free innocent Americans has set a bad precedent that will embolden Iran to take more American hostages.
Another bad precedent is how the Biden Administration created an equivalency between the Americans and Iranians freed in the prisoner swap.
The Americans freed by Iran were innocent and mostly U.S.-Iranian dual-nationals arrested on false espionage changes when they returned to Iran to visit relatives.
The five Iranians are criminals who committed serious violations of U.S. law.
Four were charged with stealing and/or attempting to illegally transfer military or nuclear technology to Iran.
The fifth Iranian – Kaveh Afrasiabi – was facing trial for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act because he allegedly was paid $265,000 by the Iranian Mission to the UN to appear on American TV as a supposed neutral Iran expert.
This is at least the third time the U.S. has paid ransom to Iran to win the release of unjustly imprisoned Americans. In 2011, the Obama Administration paid Iran a $500,000 “bail” through Oman to win the release of three American hikers who accidentally wandered into Iranian territory and were charged with espionage. And in 2016, the Obama administration paid Tehran $1.7 billion in “pallets of cash” to free five Americans as part of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the JCPOA).
The Obama Administration objected to criticism that the $1.7 billion it paid to Iran in 2016 to free five Americans was ransom. Liberal late-night host Stephen Colbert mocked the administration over this when he said on his show, “a lot of people are saying this sounds like ransom because they know what the word ‘ransom’ means.”
One prominent Iranian official openly called for Iran to generate revenue by taking Americans hostage. In 2021, former Iranian Republican Guard Corps commander-in-chief Mohsen Rezaei called for taking 1,000 Americans hostage to get billions of dollars “to solve our economic problems.”
Moreover, claims by Biden Administration officials that they put in place procedures to ensure that the $6 billion payment to Iran would only be used for humanitarian purposes are laughable because money is fungible. The U.S. cannot stop Iran from spending these funds for purposes beyond humanitarian activities, such as funding its military or nuclear program.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi confirmed this in an NBC News interview when he said, “This money belongs to the Iranian people, the Iranian government, so the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide what to do with this money.”
Many experts believe it is sometimes unavoidable for the United States to pay ransom to free innocent Americans being held hostage by hostile countries.
President Trump takes a different view. In a post on Truth Social, Mr. Trump strongly condemned the Biden Administration’s $6 billion payment to Iran. He noted that as president, “I brought 58 HOSTAGES home from many different countries, including North Korea, and I never paid anything.”
President Trump’s Truth Social post touched on a factor in the recent ransom payment deal to Iran that the Washington Post editorial board will never address: the vital role of strong U.S. presidential leadership.
America’s enemies are going to take U.S. citizens hostage and hold them for ransom when they believe they can get away with it and when America has a weak and indecisive administration.
This clearly was not the case with President Trump. Love him or hate him, America’s enemies and adversaries feared Mr. Trump as president. They saw him as prepared to use U.S. military force to protect U.S. interests and citizens. President Trump’s tough national security policies brought North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table and convinced him to halt his nuclear and long-range missile tests. Trump’s Russia policy probably dissuaded Russian President Putin from invading Ukraine during his presidency.
It seems clear that President Trump’s leadership also enabled his administration to win the freedom of a large number of innocent Americans held abroad without paying ransom.
The growing weakness of Mr. Biden’s leadership was evident at the UN General Assembly when, for the first time in memory, heads of state of the other Security Council permanent members chose not to attend engage in traditional meetings with the U.S. president on the sidelines of the UN session.
A growing global perception of weak leadership from the Biden Administration, coupled with the bad precedent of the $6 billion ransom payment to Iran, creates a high likelihood that many more Americans will be taken hostage for ransom before the end of President Biden’s term.
Fred Fleitz is vice-chair of the America First Policy Institute Center for American Security and a Newsmax TV contributor. He previously served as National Security Council chief of staff, CIA analyst and a House Intelligence Committee staff member.