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Republican senators claim 'dangerous precedent' set by Iran prisoner deal

Some Republicans call the deal a "ransom payment," but US officials say Iran could only access its frozen funds for humanitarian purchases under tight supervision.
A woman walks in front of a mural painting depicting the Iranian flag, in the capital Tehran on August 6, 2018.

WASHINGTON — A group of Republican senators say unfreezing billions of dollars in Iranian assets to secure the release of five Americans sets a bad precedent and will only encourage more hostage-taking, even as the Biden administration says the unlocked funds could be used only for humanitarian purposes.   

The mounting congressional criticism of the deal announced last week could complicate an already unstable context in which the agreement to bring home Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Shargi and two unnamed Americans is unfolding. 

Last week, Iran transferred four US citizens from Evin Prison to house arrest, where they are expected to remain under Iranian guard until some $6 billion in Iran’s energy revenue frozen under US sanctions is transferred from South Korea to an account in Qatar. The fifth American included in the deal was already under house arrest. 

In an Aug. 18 letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, 26 Republican senators accused the administration of providing Iran with a “ransom payment” in exchange for the detained Americans. 

“While we firmly believe the United States must use every appropriate resource to secure the release of American citizens wrongfully detained overseas, this decision will reinforce an incredibly dangerous precedent and will enable the Iranian regime to increase its destabilizing activities across the Middle East,” read the letter led by Sens. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Tim Scott, R-S.C. 

The released funds could only be used for humanitarian-related purchases such as food and medicine under supervision by the US Treasury Department, according to multiple sources familiar with the deal. 

Blinken defended the arrangement as one in which “the United States will have significant oversight and visibility,” stressing that Iran will not have direct access to the funds. 

"This is a way of actually facilitating their use strictly for humanitarian purposes and in a strictly controlled way," Blinken told reporters Tuesday. 

The senators requested an in-person briefing and written responses to a set of questions surrounding the potential for Iran to take advantage of the humanitarian arrangement, given its long record of sanctions evasion.

They make the case that granting Tehran access to $6 billion it can spend on humanitarian goods will free up money it could then spend funding terrorism across the Middle East, bolstering its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or stepping up nuclear enrichment.  

“Financial assets are fungible,” the senators wrote. “How can your departments guarantee that the funds will only be used for humanitarian purposes?”

Congressional opposition to the prisoner deal with Iran has mostly broken down along party lines, as it did when former President Barack Obama inked the 2015 nuclear agreement amid near-uniform opposition from congressional Republicans and a small minority of Democrats. 

Obama also took heat for his deal to bring home five wrongfully detained Americans. Coinciding with their release, Washington sent $400 million in cash to Tehran to resolve a decades-old debt for military equipment the Iranians purchased from the United States but never received. It paid Iran a further $1.3 billion in interest as part of the arms settlement. 

“We warned that this dangerous precedent would put a price on American lives,” read the letter to Blinken and Yellen. “Seven years later, the current administration is providing a ransom payment worth at least fifteen times that amount.”  

Meanwhile, hostage advocates have urged critics to wait until the Americans are safely back in the United States before making political fodder of the deal. Neda Sharghi, whose brother Emad has been held by Iran since 2018, told CBS’ "Face the Nation" her family is on “pins and needles” waiting for his full release. 

“We can have discussions about how to prevent this from happening in the future,” Sharghi said. “But we don't do that on the backs of innocent Americans.”  

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