The question has arisen once again as to whether the Obama administration deliberately misled Congress and the American people about the terms of the Iran nuclear deal.
Investigatory findings by Senate Republicans released Wednesday say that it did.
The report issued by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations revealed that under President Barack Obama, the Treasury Department issued a license in February 2016 that would have given Iran limited access to the U.S. financial system — something the administration had said it was not going to have.
The license would have enabled Iran to access $5.7 billion of oil revenue stranded in an Omani bank by permitting it to convert the Omani rials into U.S. dollars and then into euros.
Technically, there was nothing wrong with this. Such a license in itself was not illegal, and was not a breach of the nuclear accord or the sanctions regime.
The problem is — and what Republican senators are exercised about — is that the Obama administration was not candid about it. No outright lies were told; but something close to it that could legitimately be called deception apparently did occur.
The license was issued to Oman’s Bank Muscat at the same time the Obama White House, the Treasury and the State Department were all giving out assurances that they would not cave to Iranian demands and were not considering allowing it access to the U.S. financial system.
Shortly after the nuclear deal was finalized, in July 2015, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew testified that Iran “will continue to be denied access to the world’s largest financial and commercial market.”
Yet, the license, as well as a broader easement in financial restrictions on Tehran that was drafted but never implemented, were never disclosed until now.
In off-the-record responses, former Obama administration officials are denying that they misled the public.
The various testimonies given by officials at the time were intended, they claim, to dispel inaccurate reports about proposals that would have gone much farther than the Omani license, by permitting Iran to buy or sell directly in dollars. Such proposals never existed, they said.
Nevertheless, those statements unmistakably gave the impression that Iran was not getting access to the U.S. financial system. Nor were the Obama-era officials exactly forthcoming about the access that was indeed given — as we now know. In all the public discussion about the Iran deal and the accompanying sanctions, they never thought it necessary to mention the Omani license. The politicians and journalists who questioned them did not know of it, and they weren’t offering the information for free.
How big is this issue?
There are mitigating factors that arguably render the deception minor compared to White House prevarications in years past. The license for a specific currency conversion, albeit a large one, is not a wholesale cancellation of financial restrictions.
And, as the Senate committee acknowledged, Iran was in the end not able to benefit from the license anyway, because U.S. banks would not cooperate, out of fear of getting in trouble with the sanctions regime and causing harm to their own reputations.
It does not seem to be on a par, say, with the Johnson administration’s misrepresentations of alleged North Vietnamese aggression in order to persuade the Senate to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; or the secret bombing of Cambodia during the Nixon administration. Nobody here got killed; the Constitution was not trampled; the license was never even used.
Why, then, the reticence to own up to a perfectly legal financial instrument crafted in the interests of world peace?
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the subcommittee’s chairman, answered that question on Wednesday: “The Obama administration misled the American people and Congress because they were desperate to get a deal with Iran.”
They feared that if word got out about this loophole, opponents of the deal would seize on it to trash the entire accord. They so believed in the vital necessity of the deal that it justified, in their view at least, a small prevarication. Nobody lied. They just didn’t tell the whole truth.
It was part of the deceitful selling of the Iran deal to the American people. It brings to mind, for example, the repeated promises of “snapback sanctions,” automatic reimposition of sanctions in the event that Iran violated the agreement.
After it emerged that putting the lid of sanctions back on once it had been taken off was not automatic at all, Wendy Sherman, Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief deputy in negotiations with Iran, explained it beautifully: The term was never meant to be taken so literally, she claimed. “It was just one of those things you say.”
Not exactly a lie. Only very much like a lie.