Back on the Hill, GOP Lawmakers Take Aim at Iran ‘Ransom’ Payments

By Patrick Goodenough | September 7, 2016 | 4:13am EDT
Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations in September 2013. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)

( – Republican lawmakers are seeking to halt any future “ransom” payments to Iran, introducing legislation designed to tie administrations’ hands in future dealings with the regime and, in one case, to secure the return of $1.7 billion handed over to the Iranians earlier this year.

Returning from a seven-week recess, Iran critics in Congress moved quickly Tuesday to respond to revelations over the summer about how the federal government settled a 37-year-old legal dispute with what the State Department describes as the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.

The administration announced the settlement last January but withheld details that have since emerged. Among them: $400 million in foreign currency banknotes were packed on pallets and flown to Tehran in an unmarked plane cargo plane on the same day Iran released imprisoned American citizens.

The administration for months denied that the money amounted to a “ransom” for the jailed Americans, but last month conceded that the departure of the Americans and arrival of the money were linked – in that the $400 million was used as “leverage” to ensure their release that same day. It continues to insist no ransom was paid.

Attention then turned to the $1.3 billion in interest, payment of which the administration had also announced last January, but also without details.

Citing “confidentiality,” the State Department repeatedly declined to say how that money made its way to Iran, but the Treasury Department now confirms the much larger interest payment was also made in cash, the Associated Press reported late Tuesday.

One of the initiatives introduced Tuesday, by a group of senators led by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would prohibit the U.S. government from paying ransom to Iran; mandate sanctions against Iranian officials who detain Americans; and require Iran to repay the $1.7 billion paid earlier this year.

Further, the “No Ransom Payments Act” takes aim at Iran’s failure to pay billions of dollars awarded by U.S. courts to the victims of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks going back decades.

The legislation forbids the future payment from the Treasury Department’s “Judgment Fund” – the conduit for this year’s $1.7 billion payout – of settlements for any Iranian claims, until Iran pays those court-ordered awards.

According to the Congressional Research Service, compensatory and punitive awards in U.S. court terrorism judgments against Iran total more than $55 billion. They include awards relating to the bombings of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983; the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996; and the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya in 1998.

Iran earlier this year threatened to take the U.S. to the International Court of Justice if almost $2 billion in frozen Iranian funds were used to pay out families of victims of Iranian terror, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Finally, the Rubio-Kirk legislation requires the federal government to certify that any funds that are provided to Iran will not be used for terrorism. Administration officials have acknowledged that some of the money Iran secures as a result of the nuclear deal and sanctions relief will likely be used to sponsor terror.

“President Obama’s disastrous nuclear deal with Iran was sweetened with an illicit ransom payment and billions of dollars for the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism,” Rubio said.

“President Obama may have attempted to appease our enemy with pallets of cash secretly delivered on an unmarked cargo plane, but Iran continues to cheat on the nuclear deal, harass our military, hold Americans hostage, and fund terrorism around the world,” he said. “Iran should be held accountable, and the Obama administration’s misguided policies must be stopped.”

A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives Tuesday by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kans.), who said the American people know that the money sent to Iran as “an unacceptable use of their taxpayer dollars and we wholeheartedly agree.”

“It is unprecedented and dangerous for President Obama to be doling out millions to the Islamic Republic of Iran – in the dead of night, under wraps, and in cash,” Pompeo said.

In a separate move, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) introduced a bill Tuesday prohibiting all future cash payments to Iran and demanding transparency on future settlements to ensure that none amount to ransom.

“The goal of our longstanding ‘no concessions’ policy is to remove a key incentive for hostage takers to target Americans and deny terrorists and their sponsors the resources they need to conduct attacks,” Royce said.

“Not surprisingly, Iran has since taken several more Americans hostage and continues to fund terrorist groups that threaten U.S. interests and destabilize the Middle East.”

Royce’s bill (H.R. 5931) is co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Lee Zeldin (N.Y.), Michael McCaul (Texas), Mark Meadows (N.C.), Pete Sessions (Texas), Daniel Donovan (N.Y.),  Charlie Dent (Pa.), Jason Chaffetz (Utah), Mike Conaway (Texas), Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.), Reid Ribble (Wisc.), David Trott (Mich.), David Young (Iowa), Scott DesJarlais (Tenn.), Paul Cook (Calif.), Robert Pittenger (N.C.), Ron DeSantis (Fla.), and Sean Duffy (Wisc.).

Senators co-sponsoring the Rubio-Kirk legislation include Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John Barrasso (R-W.Y.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), Deb Fischer (R-Nebr.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), David Perdue (R-Ga.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), James Risch (R-Idaho), and Dean Heller (R-Nev.).

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