Source: The Hill
Oct 11, 2023
Democrats play defense on Biden’s $6 billion Iran deal
Democrats are being forced to play defense on President Biden’s controversial deal to free up $6 billion in Iranian assets in exchange for the release of five American prisoners, which Republicans are now demanding be reversed after terror attacks by Hamas.
Many Senate Democrats were caught off guard when outlines of the prisoner exchange deal emerged in August, while the Senate was out of session.
Now they are scrambling to determine whether the $6 billion in Iranian funds, frozen in South Korea, can be held up pending an investigation into what involvement Iran had in supporting or greenlighting the attacks on Israeli civilians over the weekend.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is up for reelection in Montana, a state that twice voted for former President Trump, called on the Biden administration “at a minimum” to freeze the $6 billion in Iranian assets.
“As American intelligence officials continue to investigate the terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas, we should review our options to hold Iran accountable for any support they may have provided,” he said. “At a minimum, we should immediately freeze the $6 billion in Iranian assets and explore other financial tools we have at our disposal.”
“I wasn’t supportive of the initial $6 billion transfer. We should absolutely freeze Iranian assets while we also consider additional statements,” he said Tuesday afternoon.
Manchin released a statement earlier Tuesday calling for harsh sanctions on any country or government linked to the attacks against Israeli civilians.
“Any country or government that is found to be supportive of this terrorist organization should have the most severe sanctions imposed upon them immediately to shut down the support of these terroristic, barbaric actions,” he said.
A Senate Democratic aide in another office said staff members are trying to get answers from the administration about whether the money can be held up and other possible ways to exert leverage over Iran.
“Can we call on the money to be refrozen?” the source asked. “In some ways, we have really limited ability to freeze it up.”
The Democratic aide suggested putting pressure on Western allies to tighten sanctions on Iran in response to the attack.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and members of a bipartisan delegation traveling to China and South Korea met with a group of ambassadors from allied nations at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Beijing on Tuesday to urge allies to do everything they can to stand in solidarity with Israel.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is pushing back on Republican claims that the money released to Iran will help Hamas, which is funded by Iran. He has emphasized none of the money from the frozen account has been spent, and that it may only be used for humanitarian assistance under close supervision by the Treasury Department.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said the political optics of the prisoner exchange aren’t good for the Biden administration but questioned whether anything can be done about it now.
“That $6 billion deal looks worse and worse,” he said. “But I’m not sure it’s possible to get it back.”
O’Hanlon said the Biden administration would be wise to try to step up pressure on Iran in response to attacks on Israeli civilians, depending on what further investigations into those attacks uncover.
“At a minimum, though, I’d try to put additional pressure on Iran — once the intelligence is sorted out about its role in this tragedy,” he said.
Senate Republicans are calling for an investigation into Biden’s deal and GOP lawmakers in both chambers are ramping up pressure on the administration to stop the $6 billion from flowing to Iran.
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the top-ranking Republican member of the Senate Banking Committee, said Tuesday that he will press Banking Committee Chairman Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to invite Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to appear before the panel to testify about the transfer of funds.
“The Senate should also investigate what led the Biden administration to allow a transfer of $6 billion to Iran and how it could expect Iran to not use that money to continue to fuel terrorism. The American people and Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, deserve transparency and answers,” said Scott, who is running for president, in a statement.
Brown, who faces a tough reelection in Ohio, said Tuesday that he is speaking with colleagues, the administration, the Israeli government and the Jewish community in Ohio, and he’s “looking at every tool available to support Israel and defeat Hamas.”
He did not make any mention of the $6 billion being released to Iran.
The Washington Post, citing Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials, reported Tuesday that Hamas militants started planning the assault at least a year ago and received support from Iranian allies who provided training, logistical help and tens of millions of dollars in weapons.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and 19 other Senate Republicans sent a letter to Biden on Tuesday demanding that he freeze the money set to flow to Iran.
“To stand by and allow Iran access to these funds as Hamas infiltrates Israel and murders, rapes and mutilates countless Israelis is unconscionable,” they wrote.
The senators argued that even if the funds are restricted for humanitarian purposes, “there is significant risk they could be used to further efforts by Iran or Hamas against Israel.”
Blinken addressed this criticism during a Sunday appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press”
“Iran has, unfortunately, always used and focused its funds on supporting terrorism, on supporting groups like Hamas. And it’s done that when there have been sanctions. It’s done that when there haven’t been sanctions. And it’s always prioritized that,” he said.
He emphasized that the funds in question “have always been, under the law, available to Iran to use for humanitarian purposes” before being frozen in South Korea.