Washington, DC – United States President Joe Biden’s administration has defended a looming prisoner swap deal with Iran against growing criticism from Republican legislators who say it will bolster the Iranian government.
US Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Tuesday that the administration had to make “real-life choices” to push for the release of five Americans imprisoned in Iran.
He dismissed Republican attacks on the agreement, which also will see Washington release five Iranian prisoners in its custody and release $6bn of Iranian funds frozen in South Korea due to US sanctions.
“Iran is not going to release these American citizens out of the goodness of their heart,” Miller told reporters.
“That is not real life. That is not how this works. That was never going to happen. We had to make tough choices and engage in tough negotiations to bring these American citizens home.”
The Biden administration informed Congress on Monday that it issued sanctions waivers to facilitate the transfer of the $6bn in frozen Iranian funds to Qatar.
Iran will be able to access the money but only use it for humanitarian purposes, including food and medicine, the US has said.
The waivers sparked a massive outcry from Republican hawks who accused Biden of paying a ransom for hostages — against stated US government policy.
Many also underscored that the announcement coincided with the 22nd anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, which Iran was not involved in.
“Biden just gave $6 billion to Iran — and on 9/11,” Republican Congressman Darrell Issa said in a social media post on Monday. “We used to call funding a terror state an act of treason.”
Another Republican, Steve Womack, accused the Biden administration of “handing over” $6bn to Tehran, while right-wing lawmaker Andy Biggs said the US was “shelling out prisoners and cash to Iran”.
GOP Senator Marsha Blackburn added, “The Biden administration’s $6 billion payout incentivizes Iran’s terrorist activities and endangers the lives of even more of our citizens.”
So we get 5 prisoners. Iran gets $6 billion.
Oh, plus Iran also gets five prisoners. 👌
— Rep. Ralph Norman (@RepRalphNorman) September 12, 2023
Miller rejected the Republican lawmakers’ comments. “No one has given Iran $1 here,” he said during Tuesday’s briefing. “These are Iranian funds. [This is] Iranian money.”
Under US sanctions, Iran was always able to access frozen funds for humanitarian purchases, but banks have been reluctant to engage in any transactions involving Tehran to avoid penalties from Washington.
Miller said the $6bn transfer is not yet complete but added that the funds would be under strict US Treasury oversight.
However, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said in an interview earlier on Tuesday with NBC News that Iran will spend the $6bn “wherever” it wants.
Miller contradicted that, saying the US will be able to freeze the funds again if it needs to.
The State Department spokesperson also reiterated that the prisoner swap will not change Washington’s broader approach to Tehran.
“This has been an action we have pursued to free these five wrongfully imprisoned American citizens,” he said.
“Separately, we do remain focused on constraining Iran’s nuclear programme, constraining its destabilising behaviour. We remain committed to ensuring it never obtains a nuclear weapon.”
The US and Iran have seen heightened tensions since 2018, when former US President Donald Trump nixed a multilateral deal that saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against its economy.
Biden came into office in early 2021 on a promise to revive the Iran nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
But as several rounds of indirect negotiations failed to restore the pact, Washington continued to enforce its sanctions regime against Tehran and piled on more penalties.
Publicly announced JCPOA talks were eventually put on hold, and attempts to restore them were complicated by a crackdown on anti-government protesters in Iran and accusations that Tehran was providing Moscow with drones for use in Ukraine.
Iran, which has denied seeking a nuclear weapon, has escalated its nuclear programme since the JCPOA fell apart.