MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It:
Making a deal with Iran.
On Monday, The Biden administration cleared the way for a prisoner swap with Iran. Tehran agreed to free five American citizens.
PAUL BUTLER, HOST: In exchange, the United States is releasing five Iranian prisoners. And, crucially the U.S. is also unfreezing $6 billion dollars in Iranian money that has been tied up in South Korea under sanctions.
BROWN: That has drawn strong rebukes from Republicans who accuse the White House of paying ransom money incentivizing the capture of more American hostages in the future.
BUTLER: Joining us now to help us think through these issues is Benham Ben Taleblu. He is an expert on Iran, who has been called on to testify before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament. Benham, good morning!
TALEBLU: Great to be with you, good morning.
BUTLER: There is a long history of controversial prisoner exchanges with Iran. Are there any U.S. laws or regulations on the books that govern what a presidential administration is permitted to do when it comes to prisoner swaps? Or is it really just up to each president?
TALEBLU: Well, let's call a spade a spade here because we've had this issue with the government of the Islamic Republic ever since its inception in 1979. You may have heard, both in lore and in reality, American administrations saying we don't negotiate with terrorists. The problem is, in many of these”, quote unquote, agreements”, which in reality have been in some way ransom payments for hostage deals, the vast majority of them have involved funds that were transferred. For instance, if they are phased as part of a larger understanding, such as this most recent one, which many including myself believe to be part of some kind of evolving the unwritten nuclear freeze for freeze understanding, then that could trigger INARA, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which would require congressional review of it. But thus far, you've had the administration insisting that hostage diplomacy and nuclear diplomacy are separate and thus not linked. I'm inclined to disagree, but this is the administration's presentation of the case.
Moreover, you also have the question of remaining hostages. Every time there is a hostage dealing with Iran, there is a law for instance, called the Levenson act, that defines broadly, who is and isn't going to be considered a US national. Based on many popular interpretations of this law, there still are going to be once you get those five US citizens home, three remaining US nationals in Iran. So the problem is both wider and deeper than we perceive.
BUTLER: What do we know about the prisoners the Biden administration agreed to send back to Iran?
TALEBLU: So it's a great question, because there are not just financial components of this deal. There is also a hostage for prisoner component to the deal, as well as the reference to it being a swap. Ffive US citizens for five Iranian nationals. There are several different names being floated around. Obviously, there are more than five Iranian nationals, either in the courts or in prison or subject to some kind of elements of the US judicial and legal system. There's Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi for instance, who was reportedly mentioned as being part of the potential five that were going to be sent back to Iran. His case is actually very interesting. It's one of espionage. It's one of being a foreign agent.
Nonetheless, I want to point out a disparity here. In Iran, the five people who are returning who are US citizens are hostages. Many were given at best sham trials. And that is the most charitable interpretation we can give. Here in the US they were subjected to the US judicial and legal system for committing actual crimes. That's why I don't like to use the term prisoner swap, because there was a fundamental lack of parity in what is going on.
BUTLER: Republicans have particularly criticized the cash component of this deal, calling it a ransom payment. The Biden administration argues that the $6 billion dollars will be placed in restricted accounts in Qatar and will only be available for humanitarian trade. But Iran claims it will use the money however it wants. So clear this up for us. What restrictions if any are on this money?
TALEBLU: Well, the most important thing is that the US government has not been fully transparent about how restricted these monies are going to be in these newfound accounts in Qatar. This was a Democratic administration, two administrations ago that worked with Congress to help freeze these monies abroad because the problem always was with the Islamic Republic, we have problems with how they choose to spend oil revenues. That money has long been frozen for concerns over funding Iran's nuclear program, missile program, military endeavors, and more recently refrozen for all that plus for terrorism. So the administration has failed to explain the guardrails in place to prevent that money from being made accessible to Iran, either indirectly through sanctions busting or elsewhere through that fungibility argument. So just because Iran may not use that money doesn't mean that the overall improvement of the regime's macroeconomic situation, and economic empowerment, even if in a more limited way for humanitarian goods and purposes, means that more money will be freed up for more nefarious Iranian activities in there, too. You've even had Iranian government officials, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps who served early in the current Iranian president's cabinet, talking about hostage taking as a macro economic solution to Iran's economic problems.
BUTLER: Benham, is there anything the mainstream media is missing or overlooking about this story?
TALEBLU: I think all those groups, the American policymakers, American media, the American public needs to know that there is no equity in a kind of hostage agreement with Iran, even if it's a swap or a trade in persons. As I mentioned before, it's hostages for prisoners. What I would like the American public to also know, of course, is that it has been possible in the past to get back American citizens, Americans held hostage in Iran, without moving money. In fact, the Trump administration did this twice in 2019. Once with the case of Michael White, I believe it was a US Navy veteran, and once in the case of Chinese American academic from Princeton University. He was working on his doctorate in Iran, Xiyue Wang. Both of those cases were cases where jailed Iranian persons held in the US were sent back, and not monies.
BUTLER: We’ve been talking to Benham Ben Taleblu. He is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Benham, thanks so much!
TALEBLU: Thank you so much, my pleasure.
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