WSJ: U.S. held cash plane until prisoners left Iran

The Wall Street Journal reports the U.S. refused to allow a plane full of cash to take off for Iran until U.S. prisoners were in the air on their way out of Tehran:

U.S. officials wouldn’t let Iranians take control of the money until a Swiss Air Force plane carrying three freed Americans departed from Tehran on Jan. 17, the officials said. Once that happened, an Iranian cargo plane was allowed to bring the cash back from a Geneva airport that day, according to the accounts.

President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have said the payment didn’t amount to ransom, because the money was owed by the U.S. to Iran as part of a longstanding dispute linked to a failed arms deal from the 1970s. U.S. officials have said that the prisoner release and cash transfer took place through two separate diplomatic channels….

Once the Americans were “wheels up” on the morning of Jan. 17, Iranian officials in Geneva were allowed to take custody of the $400 million in currency, according to officials briefed on the exchange.

Just last week a spokesperson for the State Department refused to give specifics about when one plane took off relative to the other and this report certainly explains that reluctance. There’s no way to spin the timing of this that looks good.

The timing strengthens the appearance this was a trade off: prisoners for cash. In fact, the implication of this story is that if Iran had not released the prisoners as promised the U.S. would never have released the money. That doesn’t sound like disconnected negotiations on two separate items, it sounds a lot more like a payment for the release of hostages, i.e. ransom. The only difference in this case is that the money we were paying wasn’t really ours. It was money from an old arms deal dating back to before the hostage crisis.

Also recall that interview on Fox Business in which one of the released prisoners, Saeed Abedini, claimed he was forced to sleep at the airport overnight and was told, “we are waiting for another plane and until that plane doesn’t come, we never let you go.” That has been denied by the Obama administration. The official story, which Secretary of State Kerry told back in January, is that the prisoner’s plane was delayed taking off for several hours because the wife of one of the prisoners had not been put on the plane’s manifest.

But really, what’s the difference? Does it matter whether the Iranians were waiting on the money to release the prisoners or the U.S. was waiting on the prisoners to release the money? I guess it’s marginally better from the standpoint of U.S. competence that we made Iran go first, but it still looks like a payment, albeit one we paid them using Iran’s own money.