At six o’clock on Sunday morning, this past February 18, most of Washington DC was still tucked under the covers, keeping warm while temperatures outside hovered just above freezing.
But at the White House, President Trump was already up and steaming. As usual, the hot air poured out of a spout at the Twitter account of @realDonaldTrump. On President’s Day, the incumbent was once again thumbing down his predecessor.
“Never gotten over the fact,” Trump Tweeted, “that Obama was able to send $1.7 Billion Dollars in CASH to Iran and nobody in Congress, the FBI or Justice called for an investigation!”
Once again, Mr. Trump seems to have had his “fact” wrong. As the Washington Post’s respected Fact Checker Glenn Kessler wrote: “Contrary to Trump’s tweet, this $1.7 billion transaction was investigated by Congress.”
Kessler cited “transcripts of congressional testimony, a Treasury inspector general’s report and various letters between lawmakers and the Obama administration” and followed up with interviews of his own with “national-security lawyers and former Obama administration officials.”
But this time, President Trump may have been wrong on his facts, but right in his spiteful spirit, because Congress did investigate and as frequently seems to happen, found out nothing it considered important, and left a lot of really interesting questions unanswered.
The questions all revolve around what went down on January 16, 2016, events President Obama claimed showed, “what’s possible with strong American diplomacy.” The achievements? Certification that Iran was complying with its obligations under the Nuclear Weapons Agreement, which triggered removal of economic sanctions the US and its allies had placed against Iran. The momentum from his happy milestone helped the US and Iran settle 2 more vexing issues…an Iranian lawsuit for money the US had frozen back in 1979…and an exchange of prisoners…5 Americans released from detention in Iran, 7 Iranians – most of them convicted sanctions busters — sent home from US jails.
Perhaps the biggest question was about linkage…not the obvious link between giving Iran a favorable nuclear report card and the other 2 deals, but the possibility that the financial settlement and the prisoner exchange were tied together as a ransom payment.
A series of smaller, but nagging, unanswered questions about the money deal still give the whole negotiation a suspicious reek. For example, why was the $1.7 Billion American payback — for a frozen Iranian bank account and interest accrued over the 37 years since the freeze — made in cash? And, how was that $1.7 billion figure arrived at? And since it was $400 million in frozen funds and $1.3 Billion in so-called interest…how was the effective interest rate set? And why, more than a year after President Obama’s original announcement, and half a year since all these questions were publicly raised, have no good answers been forthcoming?
And what does all of this tell us about negotiating with Iran? And does any this remain relevant as the Trump Administration threatens to tear up the nuclear agreement and reimpose sanctions on Iran?
Richard J. Burton is a South Florida lawyer of wide ranging experience and deep passions. His legal work for the Medical Commission on Human Rights goes back to 1969 and fast forward to his creation of The Foreclosure Project to offer legal assistance to homeowners caught in the undertow of the 2008 financial collapse. Even more recently, Burton publicly alerted Floridians putting apartments or homes on Airbnb that doing so could trigger a very expensive tax reassessment. In between Burton has done a lot of counseling and a lot of litigating in Miami and South Florida, serving for 8 years on the Metro Miami Dade County Fire Commission, 4 years as Fire and Rescue Commissioner. He has also done some delicate legal work in the Middle East and Iran.