Secret $400 million drop-off sends bad message to Iran

Don’t believe what White House press secretary Josh Earnest says about the $400 million money drop-off.
Don’t believe what White House press secretary Josh Earnest says about the $400 million money drop-off. AP

One of my all-time favorite lines is from Henry Thoreau: “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”

It came to mind this week when the White House and State Department insisted the charge the U.S. paid a ransom to get back American hostages was purely circumstantial. Sometimes, a $400 million pay-off in laundered money, delivered in the dead of night in an unmarked cargo plane isn’t what it looks like.

January 16 was “Implementation Day” for the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran, in which Iran got sanctions relief possibly worth as much as $150 billion – roughly equivalent to 40 percent of its GDP – in exchange for some guarantees against developing nuclear weapons … for a while.

That same day, the Obama administration announced a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran, in which we traded 7 Iranian criminals and removed another 14 from an Interpol “most wanted” list. In exchange, they returned four innocent, imprisoned Americans. The Americans were freed thanks to “the relationships forged and the diplomatic channels unlocked over the course of the nuclear talks,” Secretary of State John Kerry preened then.

Yes, well maybe. But few things cement a working relationship like $400 million. Kerry failed to mention that part in his press conferences or Congressional testimony. In fact, the Obama administration kept it all secret.

The White House concedes it looks very bad but insists this was not a ransom payment. You see, the Iranians were suing for funds deposited with the Pentagon in 1979 for a weapons purchase later blocked when the ayatollahs deposed the Shah. The $400 million was simply the first installment of a $1.7 billion dollar settlement of that dispute. That the money delivery coincided with the release of our hostages is little more than a funny coincidence.

Shame on you for thinking otherwise, top White House flack Josh Earnest seemed to sayWednesday. The money drop-off was a success for diplomacy; it saved taxpayers “potentially billions” more if the arbitration hadn’t gone our way.

Still, why, if it was so laudable and innocent, did they keep it secret from the American people?

One possible reason from the Wall Street Journal expose: “U.S. officials also acknowledge that Iranian negotiators on the prisoner exchange said they wanted the cash to show they had gained something tangible.”

Catch that? The Obama administration did not think it was a ransom payment – they just wanted the Iranians to think it was.

And they bought it! “Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies,” Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi boasted on Iranian state media.

Sometimes you just have to marvel at the way smart people talk themselves into stupidity. The whole point of not paying ransoms isn’t to save money. We don’t pay kidnappers because we understand it will only encourage more kidnapping. So letting the Iranians think the $400 million was a ransom payment is doubly asinine, because it fooled the wrong people, the wrong way.

Now, not only have we given the Iranians untraceable walking-around money to give to its terrorist proxies, we’ve also given them every incentive to kidnap more Americans – which they’ve been doing. But at least the folks at the State Department can sleep soundly knowing they didn’t pay a ransom – it just looks that way.

Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online. Email: