Daniel DePetris reviews the facts in the “overblown” story about the $400 million payment to Iran and the attempt to turn it into something more than it is:
The Obama administration has the facts on its side. However, what they also have is a perception problem: when the $400 million payment coincides with the freeing of Americans in captivity, Republican lawmakers in Washington who never liked engagement with the Iranians in the first place (on any issue) automatically assume that there was a quid-pro quo involved. Senators Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz—three lawmakers who vigorously campaigned to block the Iran nuclear agreement from passing last summer—are all describing the coincidence as a ransom payment in order to get American prisoners who were unjustly detained out of Tehran’s prison system.
I keep seeing the argument that the administration is right on the facts in this case, but has an “optics” problem. I’m not sure I understand that. As far as I can tell, the “optics” or “perception” problem is just that determined opponents of the nuclear deal will try to spin any development as proof that there should never be any engagement with Iran on any issue. Put another way, the story is potentially a political problem for the administration because opponents of engagement are willing to say anything in order to score points, but then that has been true for years.
One constant in the debates over the nuclear deal and all dealings with Iran over the last seven years is that opponents of engagement misrepresent the nature of any agreement made with Iran. Nuclear deal critics insist that Iran will be “given” $150 billion, when the money has always been theirs and the final figure is likely to be much closer to $50 billion. They consistently said that the deal would “pave the way” to an Iranian nuclear weapon when it will do just the opposite. Opponents of the deal base their objections on the thinnest reeds possible, and pretend that Iran is violating the deal when it has been certified as fully complying with it. We saw that again earlier this year, and the claims of Iran hawks were once again wrong:
Yet nonproliferation experts, including Vaez, Jeffrey Lewis and Richard Nephew, who was previously a key architect of U.S. sanctions policy on Iran, all say that such cases of alleged Iranian “cheating” either happened before the deal took effect; were based on Iranian ballistic missile acquisition efforts not subject to the terms of the deal; or did not conclusively demonstrate, according to Vaez, “an attempt to subvert the nuclear agreement.”
In the case of this payment, the U.S. settled a longstanding dispute in which the U.S. was mostly in the wrong: we took money as part of an arms sale and never delivered the goods, and then kept the money for more than thirty years. While we all understand why the U.S. did that in the context of the complete breakdown in U.S.-Iranian relations at that time, it was a dispute that could be and now has been resolved. As in the nuclear deal, Iran was getting its own money back. If the positions were reversed, the same people here wailing about a “ransom” payment would be complaining that the amount was too small.
The nuclear deal created an opening for settling an old dispute and that avoided a judgment against the U.S. that would have been costlier than the settlement that was reached. Naturally, the people most offended by this are the same ones that endlessly prate about the importance of the “rules-based international order” so long as those rules never apply to the U.S. And since nothing seems to excite hawkish hearts more than the opportunity to accuse their domestic opponents of giving in to hostage-takers, they have chosen to distort what happened and pretend that a “ransom” had been paid when every minimally informed person can see that there was no such thing. All in all, this has been yet another tiresome episode of watching Iran hawks throw a fit over nothing because they have no credible arguments available to them.