A front-page New York Times news article assessing the Iran nuclear deal one year later includes this passage:
While congressional Republicans often refer to a "$150 billion giveaway" to the Iranians — an overly high estimate of what the Treasury says is $50 billion of Iranian-owned assets scheduled to be unfrozen in return for the nuclear concessions — the reality is quite different. Only a fraction of that $50 billion has actually been returned. (The State Department and the Treasury will not say how much, apparently to keep from further inflaming public opinion in Iran.)
That's nonsense, on many levels.
First, as Omri Ceren of the Israel Project pointed out to me, it's not just "congressional Republicans" who have used the $150 billion number. President Obama himself used it in a May 2015 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic: "The question is, if Iran has $150 billion parked outside the country, does the IRGC [Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.] automatically get $150 billion? Does that $150 billion then translate by orders of magnitude into their capacity to project power throughout the region?"
Mr. Obama also used that $150 billion figure in a July 2015 interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, arguing that, without an Iran nuclear deal, "[F]rankly, those sanctions would start falling apart very rapidly. And so, maybe Iran wouldn't get $150 billion, but they'd get a big chunk of that."
A May 2016 report by Kenneth Katzman of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says: "The total Iranian hard currency reserves held in foreign banks are estimated to be about $115 billion, and Iranian officials stated in February 2016 that they have gained access to the funds."
Israel's former ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, who is now a member of Israel's Knesset, said in a television interview, "This year Iran is going to get $150 billion in sanctions relief. That number over the next coming years is going to go up to $700 billion."
Iran has some outstanding debts — one of the rhetorical tricks used by the Iran deal's defenders is to say that if Iran has $50 billion in debt and gets $100 billion in sanctions relief, it only counts as $50 billion in sanctions relief. But, again, that's nonsense. If I win $1 million in the lottery and I have a $500,000 mortgage on my house, the amount of my lottery winnings is $1 million, not $500,000.
What's more, the total amount of sanctions relief includes not just unfreezing Iran's existing overseas assets but opening the door to future oil and gas deals by Iran that will mean tens of billions of dollars more in revenues in years ahead. One might also add in the $8.6 million that the US government paid Iran in April for "heavy water" that reportedly can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Finally, what about the Times claim, "The State Department and the Treasury will not say how much, apparently to keep from further inflaming public opinion in Iran"? The Times doesn't consider the possibility that what the Obama administration is concerned about here isn't "public opinion in Iran," but public opinion here in America.
After all, the American electorate isn't exactly thrilled about the prospect of making billions of dollars — whether it's $3 billion, or $50 billion, or $150 billion — newly available to the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism at a moment when Islamist extremists are launching deadly attacks on Paris, Orlando, Brussels, San Bernardino and Nice. With some luck, American voters will be able to grasp all this no matter how much the Obama administration and the New York Times try to obscure it.
More of Ira Stoll's media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.
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