Iran is used to getting what it wants from American presidents.

Photographer: J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Has Taught Iran a Lesson: Hostage-Taking Pays

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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If Americans were detained, cash was exchanged, and Americans were released, that looks like a ransom payment, right? Using the razor of Occam.

Those are the facts as reported in extraordinary detail by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday: The U.S. arranged for the delivery of $400 million worth of cash just as Iran released four U.S. citizens.

Senior Obama administration officials insist this was not a ransom payment. They point out that different teams of experts negotiated the cash payment and the prisoner release. The cash payment was part of a larger $1.7 billion settlement over an arms sale from 1979. The prisoner release was part of a deal that released Iranians from U.S. jails. Hence the White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Wednesday that the payment was not a ransom.

There is a reason government officials stick to this convoluted story. U.S. policy for decades has prohibited official ransom payments. As President Barack Obama himself said a little over a year ago in remarks clarifying U.S. policy on hostage-taking: "I am reaffirming that the United States government will not make concessions, such as paying ransom, to terrorist groups holding American hostages."

And yet, when it comes to Iran at least, ransom payments are standard operating procedure. It goes back to the Reagan administration. In the early 1980s, Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, had taken several Americans hostage. In 1984, the Reagan administration began what it had hoped was an opening to Iranian moderates (sound familiar?). Eventually, that secret diplomacy turned into a deal to exchange anti-tank missiles from Israel for the release of hostages in Lebanon. The profits from the arms sale later went to fund the Nicaraguan Contras, but that's another story.

Reagan didn't get his story straight at first. In an address in November 1986 he acknowledged the arms sale, but insisted it was not part of a deal to free the hostages. By March 1987, Reagan came clean to the American people and acknowledged the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.

All of this is important because the Iranians learned an important lesson: Hostage-taking works. Despite the completion of the Iran nuclear deal a year ago, the payment of cash, the release of Iranian nationals and the State Department campaign to encourage foreign investment in Iran, Iran's regime is keeping to form. Since releasing the four U.S. citizens in January, the regime has arrested two more Iranian-Americans and detained other Westerners. The Wall Street Journal reports that friends and family of two captives say Iran wants more cash or a prisoner exchange.

If so, can you blame the Iranians? They learned a long time ago that even the toughest-minded U.S. presidents will pay to get their people back. All it takes are a few sweet words from some moderate-sounding interlocutors, and a not-necessarily-plausible cover story, and voila: The Great Satan is paying you for the citizens you should have never taken hostage in the first place.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net