"It is not at all clear to me why it is that cash, as opposed to a check or wire transfer, has made this into a news story."
— President Barack Obama, Pentagon Press Conference, August 4, 2016
Thus did President Obama scold those who are now asking why his administration secretly airlifted $400 million worth of cash to Iran this past January, just as Iran was releasing four American prisoners. By Obama's account, there's nothing to see here. Not only did Obama deny, despite the striking coincidence of timing, that the payment was a ransom. He also mocked anyone who might see the story of the cash itself as troubling news, or newsworthy at all. Obama dismissed such reactions as "the manufacturing of outrage in a story that we disclosed in January."
Welcome, once again, to the vertigo of the Obama "narrative," in which the priority of his "most transparent" administration is not to deal honestly with the American public, but to spin a web of half truths, enmeshed in complexities, to cover up highly questionable uses of power — and then, if caught red-handed, use the bully pulpit to deride and dismiss the critics.
In this case, the thrust of Obama's remarks was to write off the story of the cash shipment to Iran as a bit of out-dated trivia, the sort of thing no serious person would care about. At his Pentagon press conference on Thursday, he went on to speculate that maybe the tale is generating interest simply because it is colorful to picture pallets of cash: "Maybe because it feels like some spy novel or some crime novel."
Yes, it does. But there are reasons that spy and crime novels — plus a fair number of felony cases in U.S. courts — are prone to feature such episodes as stacks of cash delivered secretly to the bad guys. Such behavior reeks of shady activity. Cash is highly fungible, and harder to trace than checks or wire transfers. (A word to the wise: If you ever find yourself making a multi-million dollar payment to someone, and he asks for it in stacks of cash, you might want to walk away.)
For a government, such as Iran's regime — world's leading state sponsor of terrorism — cash lends itself less to financing national infrastructure (the use to which the administration suggests it has likely been put) than to funding terrorists and pursuing illicit weapons. Whatever Iran's regime might be doing in the way of sewer and road repair, its demonstrated priorities include its continued testing of ballistic missiles, in violation of UN sanctions. The prime use of ballistic missiles is to carry nuclear warheads — which suggests that Iran's likely intent is, at a moment of its choosing, to scrap Obama's vaunted Iran nuclear deal (on which Iran is already cheating). As far as that entails buying weapons and technology from, say, nuclear-testing North Korea, or procuring illicit inputs on world markets, hard cash is a big help.
Obama's justification for sending the $400 million installment in cash is that the U.S., due to its strict sanctions on Iran, has no banking relationship with the country — thus the air-freighted pallets of banknotes. Except that doesn't add up. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey asks: "How come the U.S. did not simply transfer the $400 million we are told actually belonged to Iran to a foreign entity, to be converted into foreign funds for conventional banking transmission to Tehran?"
It's also disturbing that Obama's administration still seems unable or unwilling to officially disgorge such basic information — relevant to the accusation of ransom — as precisely what time, on what date, the $400 million worth of cash arrived in Tehran. Nor has Obama's administration disclosed how or when it conveyed to Iran a further $1.3 billion payout, which was part of the same deal. Was it sent by check? By wire? Or were there yet more pallets of money delivered door-to-door to Tehran?
One might almost suppose Obama knows quite well that cash shipments to Tehran are actually a very big story. A story that quite reasonably raises glaring questions about his dealings with Iran, and the integrity of the narrative he offers the public.
What's now clear is that Obama misled the public months ago, with an artfully crafted tale — omitting any mention of all that colorful cash. On Jan. 17, the same Saturday that Iran freed the American prisoners, Obama delivered a long statement, celebrating the formal implementation a day earlier of the Iran nuclear deal. In the same statement, Obama announced as if it were a separate issue — "a second major development" — that "several Americans unjustly detained by Iran are finally coming home." Framing this strictly as a prisoner swap, Obama added that "in a reciprocal gesture" seven Iranians charged or convicted of crimes in the U.S. were being released (he neglected to add that the U.S. was also dropping extradition requests for another 14 Iranians).
Then, as if turning to yet another, independent issue, Obama mentioned the payment to Iran, but without naming any actual amount, or time frame, or how the funds would be conveyed. He said, "the third piece of work that we got done this weekend involved the United States and Iran resolving a financial dispute that dated back more than three decades." Obama advertised this settlement as a terrific deal for America, while omitting entirely such eye-catching specifics as the information that he had directly approved a $1.7 billion payout to Iran, starting with a $400 million airborne stash of cash that we now know was touching down in Tehran within hours — give or take — of his public remarks.
Instead, Obama announced the payment in generic terms, further smoothing over the implications by using the passive voice: "Iran will be returned its own funds, including appropriate interest, but much less than the amount sought."
To the extent Obama used his high-profile podium to name any particular sum, he mentioned not the payout, but his rough estimate, purely hypothetical, that this deal might ultimately save America money. He said (the italics, highlighting the speculative nature of his statement, are mine): "For the United States, this settlement could save us billions of dollars that could have been pursued by Iran." Obama then used that bait-and-switch bit of guesswork about "billions" in savings to justify the timing: "So there was no benefit to the United States in dragging this out."
Actually, it's far from clear that there would have been no benefit to dragging out any settlement. Four previous American presidents had already dragged it out, quite rightly postponing the day that terror-sponsoring Iran might get its hands on a payout. But not Obama.
Obama deflected to Secretary of State John Kerry the job of handling the public "messaging" about the actual sum the U.S. had agreed to pay Iran, which totalled $1.7 billion. On that same day of Obama's statement, and Iran's prisoner release, Jan. 17, Kerry put out a press statement saying the U.S. and Iran had settled a dispute over roughly $400 million paid by Iran long ago, under the Shah, for a U.S. arms deal that fell through after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Kerry described the agreement as if it were relatively routine, saying it was: "the latest in a series of important settlements reached over the past 35 years at the Hague Tribunal." Citing "litigation risk" as the reason the Obama administration had chosen to settle this dispute that dated back well over three decades, Kerry said Iran would receive the $400 million plus "a roughly $1.3 billion compromise on the interest."
Finally, this week, The Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon and Carole E. Lee broke the news of the secret Obama-approved cash airlift in mid-January to Iran. Their story included such details as the U.S. government swapping 400 million U.S. dollars into euros, Swiss francs and other currency via the Dutch and Swiss central banks, loading the cash on pallets and flying the loot to Tehran's Mehrabad Airport aboard an unmarked cargo plane. The Journal cited a report from an Iranian news site close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Tasnim agency, which said the cash arrived on the same day the American prisoners left, Jan. 17.
Forced to admit that the cash shipment took place, the Obama administration now appears to be having great difficulties locating information on what time the cargo plane landed in Tehran — before or after the American prisoners took off? Asked about this at a press briefing on Thursday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner replied: "I don't believe we've gotten clarity on that."
There's also no clarity to date on how the Obama administration handled the payout to Iran of the additional $1.3 billion in interest. On Thursday The Wall Street Journal reported that "administration officials said the remaining $1.3 billion was later paid out of a fund used to pay judgments and settlements of claims against the U.S." But the Journal story included no information on how or when the U.S. made that additional payment, most likely because the administration won't say. Also this Thursday, the New York Times reported: "White House officials have declined to say whether the rest of the $1.7 billion payment (including $1.3 billion in interest) was also made in cash."
Where does that leave us?
1. For all Obama's denials and derision of his critics, the $400 million payment in January sure looks like a ransom, a cash-for-captives deal that can only encourage Iran to imprison more Americans — which it has already done.
2. If indeed there was a quid pro quo, and if the Iranians have any evidence of that, then Obama's denial that he paid any ransom opens the door to Iranian blackmail of the administration over this payola.
3. The U.S. airlift of cash to Tehran quite likely sends a signal to the world that those strict U.S. sanctions need not deter others from airlifting into Iran crates, or pallets, of cash, which can then be used for Iran's terrorist and military ventures. The U.S. government itself has set the example.
4. If there was nothing wrong with Obama's $1.7 billion settlement with Iran, and his administration's handling of the payments, then why won't his office provide full information about the logistics, for both the $400 million and the additional $1.3 billion, and answer in good faith the questions of Congress and the press?
5. Finally, there's the ugly matter of Obama belittling anyone who might question or criticize his cash payola for Iran. That shows an utter disregard for his own promises of transparency, and gross disrespect for the American public. It's terrible policy for an American president to secretly ship $400 million — or is it by now $1.7 billion? — worth of cash to the terror-sponsoring ballistic-missile-testing Islamic Republic of Iran. It's even worse when the president, caught out by the press, chooses to defend himself by denigrating the reporters, and his fellow citizens generally, as sensation-seeking fools. The best retort by now, no matter what the presidential mockery, is don't stop following the money.