Why ‘Cash for Prisoners’ May
End Up Being Least of U.S. Concerns over Payment to Iran
By Aaron David Miller
Wall Street Journal
August 22, 2016
It’s not clear how much worse
things will get for the Obama administration over its $400
million payment to Iran in January, but the cash-for-prisoners scandal may
end up being the least of U.S. concerns in all this.
I write that knowing that Congress
plans to hold hearings in September. I also know that so close to Election
Day, this issue is likely to remain a highly politicized he-said/she-said among
Republicans eager to take aim, anadministration
on the defensive, and a Democratic nominee in an increasingly difficult
position because of the optics: a choreographed and sequenced transaction
in which cash was delivered after U.S. prisoners were released, regardless
of whether you consider it ransom.
Here’s the larger and more
potentially damaging perception beyond the general embarrassment: In the Middle
East, strength and negotiating acumen are prized; they demonstrate power and
credibility. And the region tends to consider actions and strategy in a time
frame that stretches far beyond the four- and eight-year scale of U.S. politics.
Meanwhile, the Obama
administration’s handling of Iran in this situation plays into the
narrative that the U.S. is weak and feckless and behaving as if it doesn’t
know what it’s doing.
Some will see this as proof that
the U.S. is unable or unwilling to contain Iran’s influence in the region,
whether because the administration fears that pushing the Iranians too hard on
Syria might jeopardize the international
agreement over Tehran’s nuclear program–a seminal achievement for Mr.
Obama–or because the U.S. is wary of deeper involvement in the region.
Others will notice that Iran is
cementing ties with its friends–Russia,
Turkey, Hezbollah, Iraqi militias that support Iran, and the Assad
regime–while the U.S.
is losing regional cloutby becoming estranged from its friends, notably
Israel and Saudi Arabia, also because of the nuclear accord.
Meanwhile, the Obama
administration is tripping over itself trying to explain how and why it didn’t
pay ransom as Iranian hard-liners contend that that is precisely what
happened–adding to the perception that Washington was played and is violating
its own pledge of not bargaining for imprisoned Americans.
All of this feeds into an image of
U.S. policy fundamentally constrained by a changing region, one that seems
beyond Washington’s willingness and capacity to manage. The central actor in
this new landscape is a rising Iran, willing to sacrifice much for its vital
interests. What can be hard to keep in mind in all the back-and-forth is that
Iran isn’t 10 feet tall–its regime has its own constraints in Syria and
Iraq. But in a region of weak Arab states, alongside a Russia willing to assert
its power, and a Washington constrained by a nuclear accord that has expanded
Iran’s ambitions, Tehran is a force to be reckoned with. This will be the case
even more when the constraints on its nuclear program begin to sunset in a few
years. At which point cash-for-prisoners may end up being the least of U.S.