The Biden administration’s tentative plan to unfreeze $6 billion in funds to Iran in exchange for the release of five American prisoners has become another contentious foreign policy deal dividing Washington.
Opponents say the deal makes the U.S. look weak and contend the money could end up financing the Iranian military, which has seized American tankers and backed militia groups in Syria that have attacked U.S. troops.
Supporters see it as an important trade that would free detained American citizens. And they argue it could lead to more concrete progress with Tehran in the future, such as the revival of the Iran nuclear deal.
Alex Vatanka, the founding director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute, said the mechanisms of the deal would make it difficult for Iran to use the funds for anything but humanitarian purposes. He also stressed the deal was vital to easing tensions between Washington and Tehran.
“It is essentially something they had to do,” Vatanka said. “Because unless they did something and we continue being on this escalatory spiral, this could have gotten out of hand.”
Vatanka also noted the $6 billion in funds is only a portion of the billions of dollars for Iran that are frozen across the world.
“Let’s take a deep breath and look at the hard facts here,” he said. “And when I look at it that way, I don’t see this as a loss for the United States. I really don’t. And I don’t think it’s going to strategically make a huge difference [for Iran]. If anything, it shows you how desperate they are.”
Washington in 2018 froze $6 billion from Iran’s sale of oil to South Korea after former President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which had eased sanctions on Tehran in exchange for commitments not to develop nuclear weapons.
The Biden administration has made a greater diplomatic effort with Iran, including attempts to revive the JCPOA. At the same time, Seoul has long wanted to release the funds to continue buying oil from Tehran, and the U.S. has pushed for the release of American hostages abroad it considers wrongfully detained.
The five American hostages to be released as part of the deal are being held on 10-year sentences for espionage-related charges the U.S. has called dubious. Three have been publicly identified.
Siamak Namazi, a businessman, was arrested in 2015; a venture capitalist, Emad Sharghi, was sentenced in 2020; and Morad Tahbaz, also a British national, was arrested in 2018.
State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said the funds, which will be held in a Qatari bank account for monitoring, will only be used by Iran for humanitarian transactions, such as food and medicine.
“Iran’s accounts in other countries have been used to purchase humanitarian goods and services and to conduct other nonsanctionable transactions,” Patel said at a Monday press briefing. “Any kinds of funds that move will be subject to the same rigorous restrictions once it moves out of South Korea.”
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby also stressed to reporters this week the deal was not finished.
“There would be a rigorous process of due diligence and standards applied with input from the U.S. Treasury Department,” Kirby said.
While Republican critics support bringing wrongfully detained Americans home, they have blasted the Biden administration for tying their release to the unfreezing of billions of dollars of funds, arguing the move only emboldens Iranian aggression.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told “Fox News Sunday” it was naive to think Iran was “not going to have any control over this money.”
“I want to get these Americans home more than anybody,” McCaul said. “But we have to go in [with] eyes wide open. [The] $6 billion that now is going to go into Iran [will] prop up their proxy war, terror operations, and their nuclear bomb aspirations.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a top GOP presidential candidate, said the U.S. is “caving to Iran’s blackmail and extortion.”
“Rewarding Iran for taking Americans hostage incentivizes more hostage-taking,” DeSantis wrote last week on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Biden must stop obsessively pursuing disastrous deals that endanger our security. It is time to stand up to Iran with maximum pressure and roll back Iran’s malign influence.”
The tentative U.S.-Iran deal, which also includes the release of Iranian hostages in America, appears to have been in the works for months. Iranian officials hinted they were close to striking a deal last spring. Last week, Iran moved four of the hostages from the infamous Evin Prison to house arrest.
The announcement, however, comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran, with the Iranian Navy seizing several U.S.-flagged oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, indirect clashes in the Middle East and two years of failed negotiations over reviving the nuclear deal in the Biden administration. Iran has also been supplying drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, which the U.S. has consistently spoken out against.
The deal may be another worrying sign for Republicans who are against the revival of the JCPOA, which they say is not strong enough to rein in Iran’s military activity.
The State Department this week denied the deal has any links to other talks with Iran. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also denied the exchange has anything to do with the Iran nuclear deal, saying Tuesday it was “simply about our people.”
Russell Lucas, a professor studying international relations and politics in the Middle East at Michigan State University, said the transaction might end up being a one-off deal — but it would begin to ease tensions in the region.
“This is hopefully going to kind of lower the regional temperatures and hopefully facilitate greater diplomacy in the future,” he said. “In the end, there isn’t a military solution that the United States is going to be able to do that’s going to significantly change Iran’s behavior. It’s going to have to be done diplomatically.”