President Joe Biden’s deal with Iran that unlocks $6 billion in Tehran’s frozen funds to bring five imprisoned Americans home is creating the kind of terrible optics and an opening for his domestic foes that a politically weakened president can ill afford.
Yet, it is also an example of the kind of agonizing dilemma only presidents face in their lonely Oval Office perch, and the way they often have to juggle humanitarian concerns with geopolitics and domestic considerations where no easy answers exist.
After all, the United States does not do deals with its well-meaning friends to free hostages or wrongly detained Americans. US enemies like Iran, Russia, Venezuela or the Taliban with which Washington has in recent years traded for detainees drive excruciatingly tough bargains and understand how to leverage political pressure for concessions that can be tough to justify before a hostile political audience at home.
There is no perfect deal to free imprisoned Americans and the agreement with Iran is especially divisive. But a president must consider whether they have the power to spare detained citizens from the horrors of prisons in places like Iran and Russia and whether they are negligent if they choose not to free them for domestic political or geopolitical reasons or out of a fear of emboldening US foes. In this way dealing with US enemies can be a sign of political strength rather than weakness.
But the price for Biden for getting five Americans home in a deal facilitated by Qatar is a gusher of claims from Republicans playing into their narrative that he is weak, is losing his critical faculties and is going soft on a sworn US enemy.
Former President Donald Trump said on his Truth Social network that the move had created a “terrible precedent” while obliterating its nuance by slamming a “6 billion dollar hostage deal” with Iran. “Once you pay, you always pay, & many more hostages will be taken,” Trump warned. This is despite the fact that administration officials insist frozen Iranian money leveraged in the deal can only be disbursed for humanitarian purposes.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, plans later Monday to slam the President for an initiative that will “foment terrorism across the Middle East,” and demonstrate to China that it can profit from US appeasement, a senior campaign official said.
Criticism from the likes of former President Donald Trump and Pence is politicized in the context of their presidential campaigns – and ignores their own deals to free Americans. In 2019, Trump engineered a prisoner swap with Iran to free Xiyue Wang, a US citizen accused of spying. Trump also personally welcomed three Americans home from North Korea in 2018 after a deal which looked like a quid pro quo for a later summit with tyrant Kim Jong Un that turned into little more than a giant photo-op. Yet Trump’s deals, like Biden’s, also reunited Americans with their long-suffering families.
Some Biden critics will also use the latest deal to create a political kerfuffle to sabotage any attempt by the administration to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran that was scuttled by Trump. But GOP lawmakers also raise more serious points about the agreement.
Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for instance, expressed concerns as the deal took shape that it “creates a direct incentive for America’s adversaries to conduct future hostage-taking.” This may be the case but is difficult to prove – although nations like Iran have long considered such tactics fair game in decades-long standoffs with the US – most famously in the US embassy siege in 1979-80. Similar reservations were raised about prisoner swaps with Russia like the one that traded imprisoned arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner last year. Moscow is subsequently currently driving a relentless bargain over the fate of imprisoned Americans Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.
But whoever is in the White House and clinches deals to bring Americans home will face claims from political foes who claim they should have done better. Such is the prerogative of those out of power who don’t share the burden of office. Trump, the GOP front-runner is the ultimate example and leapt at the chance in recent days to claim the president is “incompetent” and that his Iran deal will bankroll terror.
But diplomatic bargains and swap deals like the one conducted with Iran – which played out against a fast-changing geopolitical re-ordering in the Middle East – raise a more basic issue that transcends immediate politics. Every deal, done by Biden, Trump, Barack Obama and all the way back to Ronald Reagan to free US citizens abroad foments a political firestorm but is also an act of grace and generosity from a president willing to take a political hit while also no doubt hoping for a domestic boost from bringing Americans home.
And would Americans prefer a commander-in-chief who rigidly insists there can be no negotiations with US enemies for hostages or prisoners because that would only encourage more seizures and that hardline foreign policy considerations must take priority? Or do they have peace of mind abroad knowing that a president of either party will do what it takes to get them back if they are unjustly imprisoned?
“This is my brother, not an abstract policy,” said, Neda Sharghi, the sister of Emad Sharghi, who was released from Iran on Monday. “We are talking about human lives. There is nothing partisan about saving the lives of innocent Americans and today should be a moment of American unity as we welcome them home.”
The White House prisoner dilemma has sharpened in recent years because families of detainees have become more adept at raising political pressure on presidents to act, including through the use of social media. For years, diplomats would advise families to stay out of the spotlight to avoid raising the eventual price for their loved-ones’ freedom. Some presidents reasoned that their personal involvement would do the same. But sophisticated pressure campaigns – like the one mounted by supporters of Griner have changed the game. Paul Whelan’s family have conducted a visible media campaign and has publicized their meetings with Biden and other officials.
Three of those part of Monday’s deal – Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz and Siamak Namazi – had been in jail for more than five years. The identities of the other two Americans are not publicly known.
Biden administration officials stressed the $6bn in funds released money will only be able to be used by Iran for humanitarian purchases and each transaction will be monitored by the US Treasury Department.
But in the heat of the 2024 campaign, the nuances of the pact are already lost.