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Blinken rejects claim that $6 billion in Iranian assets helps Hamas

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the launch of the Global Music Diplomacy Initiative at the U.S. Department of State on Sept. 27 in Washington, D.C.  (Leigh Vogel)
By Patrick Marley Washington Post

Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed back Sunday against unsubstantiated claims that recently freed up Iranian assets facilitated Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel, noting none of the money has been spent yet and that it can be used only for humanitarian purposes.

“Not a single dollar from that account has actually been spent to date,” Blinken said on ABC’s “This Week.” “And in any event, it’s very carefully and closely regulated by the Treasury Department to make sure that it’s only used for food, for medicine, for medical equipment.”

A Hamas spokesman told the BBC that the group received direct support from Iran to conduct its attack. Blinken denounced Iran’s long history of backing Hamas but emphasized that Iran had not yet used the funds that were recently made available.

The Biden administration in September notified Congress that banks would be allowed to transfer $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil assets as part of an agreement to exchange five American citizens detained in Iran for five Iranian citizens detained in the United States. Under the deal, the funds were transferred from South Korea to Qatar and could only be used for humanitarian purposes.

South Korea held $6 billion in Iranian funds under a 2018 waiver from the Trump administration that allowed it to continue to purchase oil from Iran. The assets were frozen in 2019 when the Trump administration increased sanctions on Iran.

Under the recent deal, Blinken signed a waiver that said foreign banks would not be subject to U.S. sanctions for transferring the Iranian funds. The funds were transferred to Qatar’s central bank and can be used only for humanitarian purchases made by vendors who have been vetted.

The United States monitors how the funds are used to ensure they go toward providing food, medicine and other humanitarian needs to ordinary Iranians, according to the State Department.

Nader Habibi, a professor of economics at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies, said in an interview Sunday with The Washington Post that Iran was likely to use any additional resources for “regime survival.”

“Releasing that $6 billion obviously opens up resources for Iran, even if it is allocated just for food and medicine. That means that Iran would be able to release some funds that were previously going to food and medicine for other purposes,” Habibi said. “However, direct contribution to additional resources for Hamas, in my opinion, would be limited.”

In 2020, the State Department reported that Iran spends about $100 million a year on Hamas and other Palestinian groups. Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the consulting firm Eurasia Group, called that a relatively small amount in the context of the country’s overall finances and said Iran would most likely bankroll Hamas at the same level regardless of whether the $6 billion in humanitarian funds were made available.

“The reality is that funding Hamas is a foreign policy national security priority for Iran,” he said. “They’re going to find that money. The money they want to spend, they’re going to spend.”

Iran is going to be more interested in putting money toward domestic concerns, he said. “They need what they’ve got to tend the farm at home,” Kupchan told The Post.

Some Republicans criticized the unfreezing of the Iranian assets at the time, arguing it could inspire the country to capture more prisoners in the future. They stepped up their condemnations of the agreement after Hamas launched its attack Saturday on Israel.

“The Biden administration must be held accountable for its appeasement of these Hamas terrorists, including handing over billions of dollars to them and their Iranian backers,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), who is running for House speaker, wrote in a message on X, the platform previously known as Twitter.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Blinken emphasized that the funds must be used for humanitarian assistance. “When any money is spent from that account, it can only be used for medical supplies, for food, for medicine,” he said. “And those who are saying otherwise are either misinformed or misinforming. And it’s wrong either way.”

Nikki Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration and is now seeking the Republican nomination for president, was more nuanced than some of her fellow Republicans.

Suggesting on “Meet the Press” that the unfrozen assets would free up other money to allow Iran to fund Hamas’s attack, Haley said: “It was irresponsible for Secretary Blinken to say that the $6 billion doesn’t weigh in here.” She added: “I mean, let’s be honest with the American people and understand that Hamas knows and Iran knows they’re moving money around as we speak because they know $6 billion is going to be released.”

Blinken on “This Week” condemned Iran for its past support for Hamas but said that officials have not yet determined whether Iran was involved in the latest offensive.

“Hamas wouldn’t be Hamas without the support that it’s gotten over many years from Iran,” he said. “We haven’t yet seen direct evidence that Iran was behind this particular attack or involved.”

Echoing Blinken, deputy national security adviser Jon Finer on “Fox News Sunday” said the Biden administration was looking into whether Iran had a role. “It is too soon to draw any definitive conclusions, but Iran has been a longtime supporter of Hamas and has complete complicity in the capabilities that Hamas has built up over time,” he said.

Finer said the United States would closely monitor how Iran spends the recently unfrozen assets.

“If Iran spends that money in ways that it’s not supposed to, we will know,” he said. “We expect that this money is only going to be spent over a fairly extended period of time – years, not weeks, not months – and that spending money on stuff – food items, agricultural products, medicines – that benefits the Iranian people, but it does not benefit the Iranian military, is frankly not related to the discussion that we’re having today.”

In a separate appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” former secretary of state Mike Pompeo joined those who connected the weekend attack to the freed-up funds.

“I was on this very show a few weeks back talking about the fact that when the United States pays $1 billion per hostage, there’ll be more hostage-taking,” he said. “Look what happened yesterday – more hostages taken by the Iranian regime’s proxy, Hamas in Gaza.”

Hamas militants are holding Israeli military personnel and civilians hostage, according to Hamas and Israel. Blinken on “Face the Nation” said the U.S. government is investigating whether any Americans have been taken hostage.

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Mariana Alfaro and Daniel Gilbert contributed to this report.