Obama and the $400 Million Question
Inching toward normalization with Iran is such a fraught idea that Americans want to believe their president knows what he’s doing. This is a regime that hangs teenage homosexuals, incarcerates Christian converts, flogs citizens who criticize their government, and finances suicide bombers. And not just the bombers who target U.S. troops in the Middle East, but also synagogues in South America.
Iran’s leaders still call the U.S. “the Great Satan,” spew anti-Jewish hate speech, and fanaticize about destroying Israel, which is why Israeli leaders view the mullahs’ nuclear obsession with such alarm.
So I hope and pray that President Obama is right when he says that the deal he forged with Iran has slowed that nation’s rush to acquire nuclear weapons. But he didn’t help his own cause at Thursday’s news conference.
Obama being Obama, it took 20 minutes and 30 seconds to get to the second question Thursday. It came from Mary Bruce of ABC News, and was prompted by a recent Wall Street Journal story revealing that the administration organized an airlift of $400 million in cash last January as four American hostages were being released.
“What is your response to critics who say the $400 million in cash that you sent to Iran was a ransom payment?” Bruce asked. “Was it really simply a pure coincidence that…a payment that was held up for almost four decades was suddenly sent at the exact same time that the American prisoners were released? And can you assure the American people that none of that money went to support terrorism?”
Although prepared for this question, Obama greeted it with disdain. “As many of you know, we announced these payments in January, many months ago,” he began. “It was not a secret. We announced them to all of you.”
Obama expounded at some length, making four or five points additional points. He noted that the $400 million was not our money—it belonged to Iran and was frozen in 1979 after the Iranian revolution. And coincidence, he added, was precisely the wrong word.
“We actually had diplomatic negotiations and conversations with Iran for the first time in several decades,” he said. “So the issue is not so much that it was a coincidence, as it is that we were able to have a direct discussion.”
Regarding the ransom angle, Obama simply re-asserted the official U.S. position that the American government does not make such payments; he chastised his critics for not acknowledging that the Iran deal “is working,” without amplifying on why he believes that’s true; and he concluded by saying that the only new bit of information in the Journal piece was the form of payment.
“It is not at all clear to me why it is that cash, as opposed to a check or a wire transfer, has made this into a new story,” he said. “The reason that we had to give them cash is precisely because we are so strict in maintaining sanctions, and we do not have a banking relationship with Iran, that we couldn’t send them a check, and we could not wire the money.”
“This wasn’t some nefarious deal,” he added.
These answers are so thin they should undermine, rather than bolster, confidence in the Iran deal. For starters, the administration didn’t “announce” the $400 million payment in January: White House press secretary Josh Earnest confirmed it when it was reported elsewhere.
Second, where would anyone get the idea that it was a ransom payment for hostages? How about from the Iranians themselves. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi was quoted on Iranian state media as crowing, “Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies.”
Finally, the $400 million being delivered in cash (mostly Swiss francs and Euros, apparently) is not a minor detail. It’s an alarming disclosure. The president’s explanation seems absurd. How does sending a cargo plane full of cash comply with existing sanctions while bank transfers do not? As far as not having “a banking relationship with Iran,” what does that even mean? Is the president really claiming that no bank in the world would have facilitated a legal transfer of funds—even if Obama had asked them directly?
As for why inquiring minds would be suspicious of a huge middle-of-the-night cash transfer of untraceable currency to avoid banking scrutiny, well, the answer is that such suspicion is built into federal law. Any bank doing business in this country is required to report to the federal government cash transactions in excess of $10,000.
Passed by Congress during the cocaine cowboy days of the 1980s, these statutes assumed that anybody moving that kind of cash around was trafficking drugs, running guns, laundering money for other vices such as gambling or prostitution—or at the very least, evading taxes. As an enhanced weapon, federal, state, and local governments enacted civil forfeiture laws allowing them to seize the property of suspected drug dealers without charging them with a crime.
Some of these cases would shock Kafka. Take the Burmese refugee—an American citizen for 10 years—who manages a touring Christian rock band, raising money for a Burmese orphanage. He was stopped for a taillight violation by Oklahoma sheriff’s deputies, who sent him on his way after relieving him of the $53,000 he’d raised for charity. Could be drug money, they said.
Yet, some Americans still stubbornly cling to their old ways of paying cash, so the laws were refined even more. Even banking transactions under $10,000—if they were done for the apparent reason of evading reporting requirements—became a felony. This crime is called “structuring.”
This law tripped up former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert—he’d paid hush money to a man he’d sexually abused many years earlier—but it’s an easy power to abuse.
Brothers David and Larry Vocatura learned this lesson when armed IRS agents came into their Connecticut shop demanding to know if they were dealing drugs or running a prostitution ring. Actually, they were operating a bakery that had been in their family for nearly a century. The feds took $68,000 from their bank account anyway. When they tried to get it back, the government’s initial response was to threaten criminal prosecution.
That’s how the U.S. government treats Americans who don’t keep perfect ledgers. When it comes to a brutal dictatorship that covets stockpiles of uranium and is infamous for funding state-sponsored terrorism, we’re a lot more trusting—and with vastly greater sums of money. At the risk of annoying our president, one should ask him how much of the $400 million might go to Hezbollah or the regime in Syria.
Oh, I almost forgot: Mary Bruce did ask Obama about that. It wasn’t a part of her question he chose to answer.