Royce: Iran’s new ransom demand confirms worst fears

10/26/16 11:13 AM
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The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said news that Iran is demanding at least $4 million for the safe return of a U.S. permanent resident confirms his fears that the Obama administration’s huge cash payment to Tehran in January is encouraging Iran to take more hostages.

“Just as I feared, the Iranian regime now has more American hostages and wants more money,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., told the Washington Examiner Wednesday.

“The Obama administration’s $1.7 billion cash payment to Iran wasn’t just bad policy — it put additional lives at risk. … Iran should release all American hostages immediately and unconditionally,” said Royce.

Royce also noted that President Obama threatened to veto his bill to bar additional “ransom payments.” Obama argued at the time that the measure is aimed at solving a problem, the “so-called ransom payments, that does not exist.”

Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and permanent resident of the United States, has been imprisoned in Iran for more than a year and last month was sentenced to 10 years in Iranian prison on charges of spying, which he denies.

On Tuesday, Zakka said through his attorney that Iranian officials told him it would take $4 million from the U.S. to win his release, and that he would remain in prison until the payment his made.

Royce and other Republicans have argued for months that the Obama administration has given an incentive to Iran to take and host hostages in return for ransom payments by timing out a $400 million cash payment to Iran in January in order to ensure the release of four American hostages, along with a $1.3 billion cash payment just days later.

The administration has argued that that the payment was unrelated to the hostages’ release and was paid to resolve a longstanding dispute over money Iran had paid to the U.S. to buy jets, a deal that never happened after the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979. But officials have admitted that the payment was delayed to gain leverage in the hostage negotiations, and Republicans have warned that decision would lead to more hostage situations.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who formerly chaired the House Foreign Affairs panel, said Wednesday that the prisoners held in Iran are “pawns in a dangerous game as Iran continues to use the nuclear deal as leverage to extract more and more concessions from the U.S.”

“The obvious consequence of paying ransom to terrorists is that you have just demonstrated that hostage taking can be financially beneficial,” she told the Examiner. “The administration and all responsible nations must take a stand and take immediate action to secure the unconditional release of all hostages and put an end to Iran’s repeated violations of human rights.”

Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said the Obama administration’s view of the $1.7 billion in cash payment matters far less than what the Iranians think about it.

“What was more important to ask is whether the Iranians viewed it that way [as a ransom payment],” he said. “And now, it appears clear that they do.”

The Iranians want the money, Schanzer said, because the nuclear deal between Tehran, Washington and other world powers has not fully yielded the benefits Iran was expecting. Foreign investment in Iran has been slow to materialize in the wake of the nuclear agreement because global banks harbor lingering concerns about the risks associated with Iran’s ongoing support for terrorism and other illicit financial activities, he said.

“Demands for ransom will hardly assuage their fears,” Schanzer added.

A State Department official was tight-lipped about Zakka’s plight and any efforts the U.S. made to help bring about his safe return.

“As we’ve said before, the secretary raises the cases of detained and missing U.S. citizens anytime he meets with Iranian officials,” a State Department official told the Examiner. “Beyond that, we’re not going to get into the specifics of those conversations.”

“What we can say is that we make all appropriate efforts to work for the release of any unjustly detained U.S. citizens held overseas. That said, the United States does not pay ransom,” the official said.

The official said the U.S. government is “deeply concerned” by reports of Zakka’s sentencing, and is calling on Iran to release him “as soon as possible.”

Reporters pressed State Department press secretary John Kirby on Tuesday afternoon about the $4 million Zakka says Iran is demanding for his release, and Kirby repeated that the Obama administration does “not pay ransom.”

Critics of the cash payments to Iran say Zakka’s assertion that Iran is now demanding $4 million for his safe return should come as no surprise because Iran has been demanding that the U.S. return $2 billion in Iranian funds that were frozen as part of the sanctions regime in New York in 2009.

In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd last month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the U.S. and Iran are “currently conducting conversations” for more American payments to Iran and suggested the possibility of holding “parallel” talks on the prisoners, in a similar way that the U.S. and Iran conducted negotiations leading to the $1.7 billion cash payments and the previous prisoners’ release.

“Perhaps these dialogues can be still conducted simultaneously on parallel tracks while we’re conducting these same conversations in order to free the sums of money that are still owed to us,” Rouhani told Todd.

In addition, just days after Iran sentenced an Iranian-American businessman and his father to 10 years in prison each, Iranian officials told a state-run news outlet that they would consider their release if the U.S. sends “many billions of dollars” in ransom payments.

The officials told the outlet that they have decided to “wait and see” if the U.S. will offer “many billions of dollars to release” the businessman, Siamak Namazi and his 80-year-old father Baquer Namazi. The report in the Persian-language state-run Mashregh News outlet, was independently translated for the Washington Free Beacon.



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