Is Biden’s $6bn Iran deal really behind Hamas attacks – or is GOP exploiting tragedy for partisan purposes?

Increasingly desperate GOP candidates turn to bashing Biden in hopes of harnessing the GOP electorate’s anger, writes John Bowden

Tuesday 17 October 2023 03:07 EDT
<p>Israelis evacuate a site struck by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon on Monday 9 October </p>

Israelis evacuate a site struck by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon on Monday 9 October

In the aftermath of a shocking attack on Israeli civilian, police and military targets, war has consumed the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip.

Thousands of miles away in Washington DC, the blame game has already begun.

Images of the violence have enraged supporters of Israel and Palestine alike across America, and with the 2024 presidential election looming in the background, efforts to politicise the conflict have begun in earnest.

That was clear over the weekend as every Republican candidate in the race blamed Joe Biden and his administration for the outbreak in violence — a result, they say, of the Biden administration’s softened approach towards Iran. The Iranian government’s involvement in the conflict has been hotly debated, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s support for Hamas well known but no clear evidence yet pointing to Iranian tactical or military support for the militants involved in the fight today. A Wall Street Journal report directly linked Iran’s government to the weekend attacks on Israel, citing senior Hamas and Hezbollah members, but has since been contradicted by statements from US officials.

Even Israel’s government seems conflicted over whether Iran is directly involved in the renewed fighting.

“Iran is a major player but we can’t yet say if it was involved in the planning or training,” a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said this week.

So the question becomes: are Republican claims that the Biden administration’s recent dollars-for-prisoners deal with Tehran is behind the attack on Israel supported by the facts? And the answer seems to be a simple, unequivocal, “no.”

NBC News anchor schools Nikki Haley over false claims on Hamas and Iran deal

In mid-September, the Biden administration announced what at the time was seen as the first major thawing of Washington-Tehran relations since the end of the Trump administration, and for many months before that. In exchange for a waiver for international banks to transfer $6bn in frozen oil revenue from South Korea to Qatar without triggering Treasury Department sanctions, Iran would release five American citizens that the US government says were wrongly detained or done so with political motivations.

The following accusations, being spread primarily by the neocon wing of the 2024 GOP primary and wider GOP (Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, et cetera), are simple: that the money being released by the Biden administration to Iran is funding the violence. The refutation, then, is equally simplistic: none of that money is in Iranian hands yet.

Sure, there can be a debate over how restricted those funds can really be. There’s definitely an argument to be considered, at least, over the idea that Iran could simply divert funding from other areas of government to fund militant groups across the region no matter how the US Treasury constricts that specific $6bn oil money with requirements, such as that it be managed by private groups or used strictly for humanitarian purposes.

But those arguments are irrelevant, at least for now. The money has not been released. Every penny is still in the bank. And realistically, any Iranian funding for development or training of Hamas militants for an attack on Israel would have had to happen months ago, long before the Biden administration struck its latest agreement with Tehran.

What’s more, now Iran may never get that money.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told members of Congress on Thursday that the US and Qatar had agreed to stop Iran from accessing the $6bn, The Washington Post reports.

The official reportedly told lawmakers the cash “isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

Speaking with reporters in Tel Aviv on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would not comment on whether the funds had been locked down, but the top diplomat said, “None of the funds that have now gone to Qatar have actually been spent or accessed in any way by Iran.”

Secretary Blinken also reiterated that the funds can only be spent for humanitarian purposes.

"Funds from that account are overseen by the Treasury Department, can only be dispensed for humanitarian goods, food, medicine, medical equipment and never touch Iranian hands," he said. "We have strict oversight of the funds and we retain the right to freeze them."

More than anything else, the accusations being flung by the lower-performing Republican neocon contingent within the packed presidential primary field are actually a road map explaining how the GOP ended up with Donald Trump at the helm. Ms Haley and Mr Scott appear to be involved in a one-upping battle, where each seeks to make the most outrageous and attention-grabbing headline blaming Joe Biden for the violence. These so-called “moderate” Republicans, whom Mr Biden has waxed poetically about once being able to work with, have spent the past few days accusing him of being “complicit” in the attacks themselves.

RNC chair says Israel attack is ‘great opportunity’ for GOP candidates

Such language used to be frowned upon in Republican circles. The embrace of that rhetoric by not just the Magasphere but by Ms Haley, Mr Scott and their contemporaries is emblematic of how the Republican Party has shifted further away from any ability to be collegial with their political rivals, the Democrats, as well as an embrace of the fact-free reality of the most hardcore GOP voters. Contrast Mr Scott’s tweet calling Mr Biden “complicit” in the deaths of Israeli civilians with John McCain’s defence of Barack Obama as a good, family man in 2008.

It’s just not the same party any more.

And consider this: they are still losing. Neither one appears close to a breakout within the Republican primary, or even as of yet achieving a second-place finish in a major contest. Even with all the huffing and puffing and Trumpifiying of their campaigns, the GOP’s hawkish establishment wing appears no closer to unseating the isolationist (by Republican standards) Donald Trump, who commands the majority of the voter base.

One commentator recently described the campaigns of Ms Haley and Ms Scott as running pre-Trump campaigns, or at the very least the kind of Republican campaign one saw in 2015, back when Donald Trump was a known factor but his total dominance of the GOP was not yet understood. At the very least, the two appear to have developed an understanding of the anger that now defines their voter base as its primary characteristic. But their ability to harness that anger and direct it against their enemies remains woefully inferior to Mr Trump’s own.

As DC’s response to the conflict takes shape over the next week, it’s important to remember that it is all taking place in the context of a Republican presidential primary — one defined, more than anything else, by the desperation and resentment harboured by its lower-performing participants.

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