U.S. Release of Iranian Assets Creates Conundrum for Israel
Critics are accusing President Joe Biden’s administration of succumbing to extortion in its recent decision to give the Islamic Republic of Iran access to some $6 billion in frozen assets in exchange for the release of five Americans wrongfully held in Iranian prisons. They describe the deal as “the largest hostage ransom payment in American history” and “a craven act of appeasement” that “dangerously further incentivizes hostage taking” and “provides a windfall for regime aggression.”
The labyrinthine deal involves transferring money South Korea owes Iran for oil it purchased before President Donald Trump sanctioned such transactions in May 2019. South Korea will send the money to Qatar’s central bank, which will hold it in restricted accounts.
The Biden administration said Iran can only use the funds to purchase humanitarian goods, such as food and medicine; but the Iranian Foreign Ministry declared that Tehran alone will decide how the money is spent. Analysts worry that Iran will use it to finance terrorism and further its nuclear weapons program.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bemoaned the news. “Arrangements that do not dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will not stop its nuclear program and will only provide it with funds that will go to terrorist elements sponsored by Iran,” his office stated.
Some suspect the prisoner release is part of a larger U.S. effort to coax Iran back into the July 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Brokered by President Barack Obama’s administration, the deal promised sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian curbs on its nuclear program.
Trump terminated American participation in the JCPOA in May 2018, saying it showered Iran with money and would not prevent Tehran from getting nuclear weapons or the ballistic missiles needed to deliver them. Since assuming office in January 2021, Biden has sought to revive the JCPOA by making wide-ranging concessions to the Iranian regime.
Suspicions that Biden reached a backroom deal with Iran arose when, a day after the White House announced the prisoner swap, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had slowed its accumulation of near-weapons-grade enriched uranium. Some observers say Biden wants to defuse tensions with Iran ahead of the 2024 U.S. presidential elections to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities during the campaign and is bribing Iran to informally agree to a minor pause in its nuclear work until after the election.
Two senior Israeli defense officials told The New York Times the prisoner swap is part of a broader deal reached during indirect talks between American and Iranian officials in May 2023, during which Tehran promised to curb attacks against American troops in Iraq and Syria and limit the supply of drones to Russia for use against Ukraine. The White House denies any quid pro quo.
Yonah Jeremy Bob, The Jerusalem Post’s senior military correspondent, noted that Israel is looking beyond the November 2024 U.S. elections to October 2025, when the JCPOA is scheduled to end and when many of Iran’s violations of the nuclear deal will become legal: “If the deal does not push back Iran’s uranium stock—and worse for Israel—if it does not even freeze 60% enrichment, the West will have recognized Iran as a nuclear threshold state. This would reduce the Jewish state’s maneuvering options and narrow what diplomatic tools could be used to prevent Iran from breaking out a nuclear weapon, making the need for a military strike more likely.”
(Please note that this article was written before the brutal surprise attack by Hamas, the Palestinian Arab terrorist organization in Gaza and proxy of Iran, on Israeli civilian communities near the Gaza border on October 7, 2023.)