Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) expressed concerns Monday amid reports that the Biden administration agreed to unfreeze $6 billion for Iran in exhange for five U.S. prisoners.
Menendez said “one of the concerns” about negotiating for the release of American prisoners unjustly detained by foreign adversaries is that it encourages hostile nations to take more Americans hostage in the future.
“This is an example of why we have to go ahead and make it very clear to Americans that they cannot travel to certain places in the world where they are likely to ultimately become a hostage. Until we do that we will constantly be in a set of circumstances” where the United States faces negotiations to free detained Americans, Menendez told reporters Monday.
He said he doesn’t think Congress will vote on the deal and declined to say how he would vote if it came to the Senate floor.
“We’ll see if it comes to the floor; I don’t think it will,” Menendez said.
Asked about Republican criticism that the Biden administration is creating incentives for more hostage taking by allowing $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds to move from South Korea to Qatar, Menendez said, “This is one of the concerns.”
Senate Republicans excoriated the deal, which also includes the release of five Iranian prisoners.
“First Joe Biden used 9/11 as an excuse to flee Afghanistan. Now he desecrates this day by paying ransom to the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism. Shameful,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a statement Monday.
Other Republican lawmakers warned that rewarding Iran would only set the stage for future detentions of Americans traveling abroad.
“If we’re paying a billion dollars per kidnapped individual, then you’re going to see more kidnappings. That’s why you don’t negotiate with terrorists; that’s why you don’t negotiate with kidnappers. The idea of basically paying to release, in this effect, a hostage is a terrible idea,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said.
“Remember back in the Reagan years, we had — was it — guns for hostages, that was the story, remember that? This is a billion dollars for a hostage,” Romney said.
The unfrozen oil funds are supposed to be limited to the purchase of food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.
National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said Secretary of State Antony Blinken took a procedural step to “ensure Iranian funds can move from one restricted account to another and remain restricted to humanitarian trade.”
Watson emphasized the deal will secure the release of five “wrongfully held Americans” and the administration has kept Congress “extensively informed from the outset of this process.”
But GOP lawmakers are skeptical the money won’t free up other funds for Iran’s support of terrorism.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) warned last month the money could be used to “prop up” Iran’s aggressive foreign policy agenda.
“I want to get these Americans home more than anybody,” McCaul said. “But we have to go in [with] eyes wide open. [The] $6 billion that now is going to go into Iran [will] prop up their proxy war, terror operations, and their nuclear bomb aspirations,” he told Fox News Sunday.
A senior administration official emphasized the decision to allow the Iranian funds to move was “not new” and “part of an ongoing process announced weeks ago to ensure funds are only used for humanitarian aid.”
The official said money won’t go to Iran directly and taxpayer funds will not be used.
Updated at 10:37 pm.
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