Don’t call the cash to Iran ransom

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Your headline mischaracterizes the cash transfer made to Iran in return for the release of four Americans as ransom when, in fact, it was a leveraged exchange.

Decades ago, Iranian deposits in U.S. banks were frozen. As part of the recently negotiated treaty to limit Iran’s nuclear development, trade sanctions were lifted, and it was agreed that some or all of those frozen assets still held in U.S. banks would be released. The initial release of some of Iran’s frozen assets was conditioned upon release of the four Americans, but that cash transfer does not meet the definition of ransom regardless what your headline writer misstates.

When ransom is paid, it is paid with the payer’s own assets as, for instance, when a family pays their own money to kidnappers for the return of their family member. In the case of the cash transfer to Iran, it was Iran’s own money all along that was delivered and not funds of the U.S. government or any other entity. Cash was withdrawn from Iranian accounts at U.S. banks, converted to other currencies, and airlifted to Iran.

Leverage, on the other  hand, is when two parties hold something of value to each other which they pressure each other to return.

Imagine that your neighbor borrows your lawnmower and won’t return it unless you return his leaf blower. If your grass is high enough, and if his leaves are deep enough, you’ll return his leaf blower in order to get your lawnmower back. He’ll return your lawnmower in order to get his leaf blower back. The neighbor is leveraging his possession of your lawnmower against your possession of his leaf blower and vice versa, but neither of you is paying ransom to the other.

And that’s what happened between the U.S. and Iran. Iran wanted their own money returned badly enough that they agreed to release the four Americans whom the U.S. wanted back. Each party leveraged their position against the other, but no ransom was paid.

“I’ll give you back your money if you give me back my citizens.” — leverage.

David C. Murray
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