Former Iranian Hostage Says Obama Payments to Iran Led to His Arrest

Xiyue Wang / Getty Images
March 1, 2021

A former Iranian hostage who was wrongly imprisoned in the country for three years said the Obama administration's decision to pay Iran $1.7 billion in cash encouraged the hardline regime to abduct him.

Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American academic who was freed in 2019 by the Trump administration, said in a recent interview that Iran viewed the Obama administration's 2016 decision to send the country nearly $2 billion in cash as a signal that hostage-taking could lead to sanctions relief.  Wang was arrested by the Iranians in 2016, shortly after the Obama administration airlifted the $1.7 billion as part of a deal that saw other American hostages released from Iranian custody. The United States maintained the cash was not sent as part of a prisoner swap, but to cover the costs of a decades-old legal proceeding between the two countries.

"Iran saw it as a ransom payment, and they talk about it in the media in the open," Wang told American Enterprise Institute scholar Danielle Pletka in an interview published last week. "It really doesn't matter how Obama and his administration saw it. It was perceived by Iran as ransom, clearly. It is not even an inference. It's their explicit statement. The moral of this is make America pay."

Wang's comments shed new light on the former Democratic administration's dealings with Iran at a time when the Biden White House is pursuing direct diplomacy with the Islamic Republic in hopes of securing a revamped nuclear agreement. The Washington Free Beacon reported in early 2016 that the $1.7 billion payment was paid, in part, to secure the release of five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran. Wang's comments support that claim and indicate that Iran will continue to seize Americans in order to pressure the United States into making similar payments.

Wang said that after he read reports about the $1.7 billion payment, first published in the Wall Street Journal, "I felt, 'Oh shoot, they are going to arrest me, because clearly they want to take me for ransom.'" He was detained by Iranian authorities shortly after.

The Obama administration's payment, which was conducted in all cash, was pulled from a U.S. taxpayer fund controlled by the Justice Department. Under the terms of the deal, Iran was paid $400 million to settle a legal dispute over arms sales, plus an additional $1.3 billion in interest from the taxpayer fund.