US President Joe Biden’s deal with Iran that unlocks $6 billion in Tehran’s frozen funds to bring five imprisoned Americans home is creating the kind of terrible optics and an opening for his domestic foes that a politically weakened president can ill afford.
Yet, it is also an example of the kind of agonizing dilemma only presidents face in their lonely Oval Office perch and the way they often have to juggle humanitarian concerns with geopolitics and domestic considerations where no easy answers exist.
After all, the United States does not deal with its well-meaning friends to free hostages or wrongly detained Americans.
US enemies like Iran, Russia, Venezuela or the Taliban – with which Washington has in recent years traded for detainees – drive excruciatingly tough bargains and understand how to leverage political pressure for concessions that can be tough to justify before a hostile political audience at home.
There is no perfect deal to free imprisoned Americans and the agreement with Iran is especially divisive. But a president must consider whether they have the power to spare detained citizens from the horrors of prisons in places like Iran and Russia and whether they are negligent if they choose not to free them for domestic political or geopolitical reasons or out of a fear of emboldening US foes. In this way dealing with US enemies can be a sign of political strength rather than weakness.
But the price for Biden for getting five Americans home in a deal facilitated by Qatar is a gusher of claims from Republicans playing into their narrative that he is weak, is losing his critical faculties and is going soft on a sworn US enemy.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, for instance, plans later Monday to slam the president for an initiative that will “foment terrorism across the Middle East,” and demonstrate to China that it can profit from US appeasement, a senior campaign official said. This is despite the fact administration officials insist that frozen Iranian money leveraged in the deal can only be disbursed for humanitarian purposes.
Criticism from the likes of former President Donald Trump and Pence is politicized in the context of their presidential campaigns — and ignores their own deals to free Americans.
In 2019, Trump engineered a prisoner swap with Iran to free Xiyue Wang, a US citizen accused of spying. Trump also personally welcomed three Americans home from North Korea in 2018 after a deal that looked like a quid pro quo for a later summit with tyrant Kim Jong Un that turned into little more than a giant photo-op. Yet Trump’s deals, like Biden’s, also reunited Americans with their long-suffering families.
Some Biden critics will also use the latest deal to create a political kerfuffle to sabotage any attempt by the administration to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran that was scuttled by Trump.