Lawmaker Probes Biden Admin’s Role in $1 Billion Ransom Payment to Iran

U.S. reportedly waived sanctions to facilitate payment to Tehran

Rep. Bryan Steil, R., Wis. (Getty Images)
March 9, 2021

A Republican lawmaker on the House Financial Services Committee is pressing the Biden administration to come clean about its suspected role in facilitating a $1 billion ransom payment to Iran as part of an effort to secure the release of a South Korean oil tanker that Tehran has been holding hostage.

Rep. Bryan Steil (R., Wis.) petitioned Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Tuesday to immediately provide him and other lawmakers with information about the reported U.S. role in waiving terrorism sanctions on Iran so that South Korea could complete the billion-dollar payment. South Korea has been locked in a dispute with Tehran over its January seizure of an oil tanker and its 20-member crew. Iran is using the tanker as leverage to pressure South Korea into freeing some $7 billion in oil revenues that are tied up in the country as a result of American sanctions.

"It would be gravely concerning if the United States waived terrorism-related sanctions on Iran to facilitate a ransom payment by South Korea without consulting Congress," Steil wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon.

The letter is the latest sign of mounting GOP frustration with the Biden administration’s diplomacy with Iran and efforts to cajole the country into negotiating over its growing nuclear program. Both the State and Treasury Departments have avoided briefing members of Congress, particularly on the Republican side, about their diplomacy and surrounding efforts to decrease pressure on Iran as part of a bid to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table. With Republicans in the minority, there is little they can do to block team Biden from rejoining the nuclear agreement with Iran, which former president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018. But members like Steil say Congress deserves to be fully briefed on these efforts.

There is growing consensus in Congress that the Biden administration should adopt a strong position in any discussions with Iran, including requiring it to release all American hostages and fully shut down its nuclear enrichment program. A bipartisan group of 140 House lawmakers—70 Democrats and 70 Republicans—sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday urging him to maintain sanctions on Iran until it not only winds down its nuclear program, but also reigns in its support for terrorism and pursuit of advanced military equipment, including ballistic missiles.

"It would be a grave mistake for the United States to provide sanctions relief to the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, Iran," Steil told the Free Beacon. "Congress shouldn’t find out about possible sanctions relief through foreign media. We must hear directly from the Biden administration and whether the United States plans to facilitate the transfer of these funds. I want answers and urge Secretary Yellen to provide needed clarity."

To this end, Steil asked members of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees U.S. sanctions, to appear on Capitol Hill and answer questions about the South Korean ransom payment and other behind-the-scenes efforts to relax sanctions on Iran.

South Korea’s foreign ministry confirmed late last month that it was moving forward with the $1 billion payment after discussions with the United States and other countries involved in resolving the hostage situation.

"The actual unfreezing of the assets will be carried out through consultations with related countries, including the United States," the South Korean government said at the end of February.

After South Korea agreed to pay Iran $1 billion of the $7 billion that has been tied up in the country as a result of American sanctions, Tehran freed 19 crew members who were being held in the Islamic Republic. The ship’s captain is still detained, likely as leverage to force South Korea into releasing more cash.

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said last week that he is engaged in discussions with South Korea about pressing the United States to go along with further ransom payments.

"Iran thinks that it is not necessary to obtain a license from the Americans, but the Korean side is still trying to obtain this license from the United States to release Iranian blocked assets in Korea," Zarif was quoted as saying on March 3 in the country’s state-controlled press.

The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment on its role in South Korea's negotiations with Iran.