Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi has said the regime will use $6 billion released in a hostage swap wherever it is needed. Sakineh Salimi/Borna News/Aksonline ATPImages/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in The Messenger on September 21, 2023

In the Biden administration’s agreement with Iran to release five Americans this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed that “Iran will not be receiving any sanctions relief.” Yet, The Associated Press reported that Blinken “issued a blanket waiver for international banks to transfer $6 billion in frozen Iranian money from South Korea to Qatar without fear of U.S. sanctions.”

 For this reason and more, the deal is already drawing criticism — and rightly so.

The State Department emphasized the humanitarian aspect of the deal, hoping to distract the American people from asking the obvious question: “Wasn’t this a $6 billion ransom payment that will incentivize nations like Iran and Russia to continue to take American hostages?” As House Republican leaders wrote to President Biden in August: “Our citizens deserve answers about why your administration is rewarding an Iranian regime that is targeting Americans overseas and at home.”

But the most consequential criticism of the hostage-exchange agreement is that it reportedly is part of ongoing, secret negotiations with Iran for a new nuclear deal that would add billions of dollars to the coffers of the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. Beyond the South Korean funds released, $10 billion in frozen Iranian assets from Iraq have been made available. If that money isn’t for hostages, what is it for? When I visited Qatar and Oman in the spring, officials there acknowledged that the White House had asked them to act as intermediaries with Iran’s leadership — without making Congress privy to the talks.

According to Richard Goldberg, senior fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, this “isn’t just the largest hostage ransom payment in American history; it’s also the second phase of an unacknowledged agreement with Tehran that strengthens the ayatollah’s position in the Middle East and frees the regime to cross the nuclear weapons threshold.” In addition, Goldberg wrote in the New York Post, “U.S. officials now admit they’re allowing Iranian oil exports to China to skyrocket” by not enforcing sanctions. Hasn’t the Biden administration said that China is our No. 1 threat?

On the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death, which led to widespread protests against Iran’s repressive regime, releasing billions of dollars to the mullahs can be considered offensive to the Iranian people. They are desperate for America’s support for regime change in their country and aren’t likely to forget our indifference to their plight.

If talks are indeed underway for another nuclear deal, they could go against U.S. law. The 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act requires the president to not issue any sanctions relief in a new nuclear agreement with Iran without congressional oversight.

Rogue nations such as Iran and Russia will continue to take Americans hostage, knowing that the soft underbelly of democracies forces them to release arms traffickers, narco-terrorists and spies in exchange for unlawfully imprisoned Americans. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, being held in Russia, is the latest (but not the only) hostage, and sooner or later America will submit to Russia’s extortion for his release, whether with money or the reciprocal release of a Russian criminal.

And it isn’t only America doing this: Nations in war zones, such as Israel, say they will not negotiate with terrorists but have had to swallow hard to get their citizens returned in uneven swaps, releasing convicted terrorists.

So, what is a democracy to do? With regard to hostages, no matter how much Western leaders claim they will not negotiate with kidnappers and terrorists, they typically capitulate. Whether they align politically with the right or left, U.S. presidents — including Biden, Barack ObamaDonald Trump, and even Ronald Reagan, who unfroze Iranian funds and provided sanctions relief in exchange for the Americans taken during the 1979 Iranian Revolution — it is a challenge that democracies face and cannot win.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out in an editorial: “After paying $6 billion to Iran, how will Biden prevent future ransom grabs? Iran has paid no price for imprisoning Americans and has now been paid ransom for them. … It’s part of Tehran’s business model, and it works.”

Even released hostage Siamak Namazi said that Iran “has mastered the nasty game of caging innocent Americans and other foreign nationals, and commercializing their freedom.”

Iran’s leaders interpret sanction waivers as weakness. Blinken’s claim that Iran can use the money only for humanitarian needs is laughable — especially when everyone knows the money is fungible and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi reportedly has said Iran will spend the funds any way he pleases. It means more money for Iran’s “morality police” to brutalize Iranians; for missiles for Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to use against Israel; and for the ayatollah’s henchmen in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Instead of rewarding a terror state, America should enforce sanctions, call for United Nations Security Council snapback sanctions, and create secondary sanctions against nations that allow Iran to circumvent them, instead of facilitating Iran to become a threshold nuclear state. The result of Biden’s approach will be a nuclear arms race in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

Releasing funds to Iran rewards a nation that cannot be appeased. Iran has called for our destruction repeatedly, and has the blood of Americans on its hands. The deal sends a message to our allies that American principles are up for discussion.

The Biden administration needs to change its policy from looking only at Iran’s nuclear program to incorporating a comprehensive approach to all of Iran’s malign activities — from terrorism to ballistic missiles to human rights abuses. A watered-down, unenforceable nuclear deal is bad enough. Enabling the regime to survive and thrive with ransom payments and sanctions relief is a stain on America’s reputation and ultimately will contribute to a more dangerous Middle East.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, and Mandel Strategies, a consulting firm for business and government officials in the Middle East. He is the senior security editor and the Jerusalem Report.

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