- Timing of U.S. settlement payment to Iran elicits ransom accusations; Iran exceptions included in new visa law
The United States made a settlement payment to the Iranian government on Sunday, immediately prior to Iran’s release of four American detainees, that some have suggested was a ransom payment. On Wednesday, Associated Press journalist Bradley Klapper pressed Deputy State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner as to whether or not it was a ransom, which Toner denied, saying the timing was purely coincidental. Justin Fishel of ABC News asked Toner, “[D]o you really…expect us to believe that the exchange would have happened without this payment?” Brig. Gen. Mohammed Reza Naqdi, the leader of the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer militia operating under the aegis of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said as much on Wednesday: “This money was returned for the freedom of the US spy [sic] and it was not related to the (nuclear) negotiations.”
Of the $1.7 billion, $400 million is a trust fund used by the pre-revolutionary Shah to pay for weapons, and the balance is interest of $1.3 billion payable by American taxpayers, which was confirmed by National Security Council Spokesperson Ned Price on Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote on Wednesday that there is yet another $1.7 billion claim – this one from American victims of Iranian terrorism, including the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. The Journal’s editorial board continued, “President Obama and [Secretary of State John] Kerry didn’t press for fair settlements for these victims as part of the nuclear deal and now seem to be pre-emptively reimbursing Tehran for its potential losses from the claims.”
In exchange for the four American detainees, the U.S. released seven Iranians in U.S. custody charged with sanctions-busting and removed 14 others from Interpol’s red list. Bloomberg View’s Josh Rogin explained that of those 14, two were high-ranking officials at Mahan Air, an Iranian firm that flies arms and soldiers to support the Assad regime and Hezbollah in Syria. Foundation for Defense of Democracies analyst Emanuele Ottolenghi said that their removal from the red list “is another signal that there will be no consequences for this airline and the crimes they are responsible for.”
Also on Thursday the Obama administration announced that it plans to waive the new visa requirement for people who traveled to Iran for "legitimate business-related purposes." The recently enacted legislation requires visas for visitors who hold dual citizenship in or have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan. When asked by Arshad Mohammed of Reuters as to whether or not the waivers fall under the national security exception of the legislation, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Toner responded that it doesn't, "but we also don't want to impede the -- that same businessman from doing business in the United States.”
Israeli authorities announced that they dismantled a cell of the Iran-backed terrorist group, Hezbollah, which was operating in the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem under the direction of Jawad Nasrallah, son of the terrorist group’s leader, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.The ringleader of the cell was identified as Mahmoud Zaaloul, 32, who had been recruited by Nasrallah through social media. Zaaloul served time in an Israeli prison from 2001 to 2005. According to security officials, he enlisted four other Palestinian men to carry out attacks. The cell received instructions to gather intelligence on Israeli forces, plan for attacks that included suicide bombings, and received $5,000 from Hezbollah. Two of its members had acquired weapons.
Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, said that it was “unusual” for a terrorist plot to have advanced so far before being detected and foiled. “The Hezbollah organization is trying to ride the terror wave that has taken over Israel in recent months and is acting feverishly to inflame passions on the ground,” the agency said in a statement.
The men have been charged with “membership in an illegal organization, receiving funds from an enemy and conspiracy to commit a lethal crime.”
Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah and Jawad’s father, promised retaliation against Israel for the death of Samir Kuntar, a notorious terrorist and high-ranking Hezbollah operative who was killed in an airstrike in Damascus last month.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Nasrallah in August that the nuclear deal provided them with a “historic opportunity” to threaten Israel. In September, reports surfaced that Iran backed up Zarif’s words by boosting its funding of Hezbollah, as well as Hamas, in anticipation of the windfall it would be receiving due to sanctions relief.