Critics of the Iran nuclear pact wanted US prisoners to be part of the deal. So why are they crying ‘ransom’?

Thousands of protestors showed up in Times Square, New York City to protest the Iran deal on July 23, 2015. (Gabe Friedman)

Thousands of protestors showed up in Times Square, New York City to protest the Iran deal on July 23, 2015. (Gabe Friedman)

You know the old joke about the definition of chutzpah? Well, critics of the nuclear deal with Iran are offering up a new punchline.

First they vilify President Obama for agreeing to a deal that neglected U.S. prisoners being held by Iran.

Then they cry ransom once the administration brings them home.

On Thursday State Department spokesman John Kirby made news by conceding that there was in fact a connection between the release of American citizens and a $400 million payment to Iran made as part of a settlement awarded to the Islamic Republic by a court in The Hague.

“We deliberately leveraged that moment to finalize these outstanding issues nearly simultaneously,” he said. “With concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release, given unnecessary delays regarding persons in Iran who could not be located as well as, to be quite honest, mutual mistrust between Iran and the United States, we of course sought to retain maximum leverage until after American citizens were released. That was our top priority.”

Immediately Donald Trump and other Republicans pounced, claiming they had been vindicated in their campaign to paint the Obama administration as having paid a $400 million ransom in exchange for the release of three American prisoners.

President Obama and his lieutenants clearly have egg on their faces — and rightfully so after testing our collective intelligence by insisting that there was absolutely no connection between the sequence of events.

But the way Obama’s critics are talking, you would think that we offered cash in exchange for the release of the U.S. prisoners. But by most accounts, including the excellent investigative reporting by The Wall Street Journal, that is not what happened. It would be more accurate to describe both the prisoner release and the settlement payment as add-ons to the central deal — sanctions relief and the release of frozen Iranian monies in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program. As in the main deal, the Iranians were told they’d get the money owed them if they cleaned up their act. 

In fact, for years, one of the main arguments put forth by Obama’s critics was that in his zeal to strike a nuclear deal the president was ignoring Iranian bad behavior — including the imprisonment of U.S. citizens. And as it became clear that a deal was going to happen, opponents reamed Obama for failing to get the prisoners back.

Take, for example, The Israel Project, one of the loudest Jewish opponents of the Iran deal. In recent weeks the organization has been pushing the ransom payment line. But last summer, in its efforts to fight the deal, one of its talking points was that the agreement included no provisions for the release of the prisoners.

None of this is to let Obama and his aides off the hook. Instead of obfuscating, they should have unapologetically acknowledged that they refused to go through with the legal settlement payment until Iran made good on its commitment to release the prisoners.

Of course, from there Obama’s critics might have seized on a new, and maybe stickier, point: If we can’t trust the Iranians to release a handful of prisoners, why do we think they’ll live up to the key parts of the nuclear deal?

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