The $400 million ransom: Legal, but not right

But why cash, and why in an unmarked cargo plane? How come the U.S. did not simply transfer the $400 million we are told actually belonged to Iran to a foreign entity, to be converted into foreign funds for conventional banking transmission to Tehran? That would have permitted the U.S. to keep track of how Iran spent the money, at least to some extent. Here, recall the assurances given by CIA Director John Brennan that the sanctions relief Iran has received thus far has been used for infrastructure projects and shoring up the Iranian currency, to help undo some of the damage that sanctions inflicted on the country’s economy. Again, why cash?

The apparent explanation isn’t pretty. There is principally one entity within the Iranian government that has need of untraceable funds. That entity is the Quds Force—the branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps focused particularly on furthering the regime’s goals world-wide by supporting and conducting terrorism. This is the entity, for example, that was tied to the foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., in 2011, as well as to the successful plot to blow up a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994.

Notably, there is a federal statute that bars the transfer of “monetary instruments”—cash or its equivalent in bearer instruments—with the intent to promote “specified unlawful activity.” That term is defined to include a crime of violence or use of an explosive against a foreign country, a category that would include terrorism.