The setting was dramatic and the stakes were high. In the summer of 1987, millions of Americans tuned into the Iran-Contra hearings to witness Secretary of State George Shultz deliver a master class on why America should never exchange prisoners or other rewards for U.S. hostages. “Lord deliver us from such bright ideas as that,” he said with grave derision. Such deals would create a hostage bazaar that would never run short on supply. “The minute you pay for a hostage, you give an incentive to people to take more hostages,” Shultz explained.
The Biden administration has refused to learn this lesson, this month agreeing to release $6 billion of frozen oil revenue in exchange for Tehran’s release of five hostages. The message for Vladimir Putin, whose American hostages include Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, is that this is a seller’s market, and opening bids should be in the billions.
There are two centuries of evidence to support the notion that paying for hostages creates a market for them. In the early 1800s, the young United States was paying Barbary pirates gigantic sums worth $10-20 billion per year in today’s money for annual returns of American hostages. Over time, this policy shifted. Washington would no longer negotiate with pirates and terrorists, but it would still cut deals with hostile governments. Shultz had to testify in 1987 because the president he served made the mistake of trading arms for hostages with Iran, which promptly resulted in the taking of more hostages.
Joe Biden was already a Senate veteran in 1987 but seems not to recall Shultz’s advice. For Biden, paying off Iran is the sequel to paying off Russia. Late last year, the White House released to Russia the infamous “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout, a detestable arms dealer, in exchange for American pro basketball player Brittney Griner. “How is it acceptable for someone like Brittney Griner to be put…in a Russian penal colony, in horrific circumstances that she did not deserve?” said one U.S. official, explaining the “moral obligation” the White House felt to secure Griner’s release.
Perhaps the sentiment was understandable. However, Russia’s next move was predictable. After releasing Griner, Moscow took a replacement hostage: Gershkovich. He joined fellow Americans Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel as hostages in the Russian prison system. As Shultz foresaw, the White House created an incentive for Russia and others to take people as bargaining chips. And the costs of these deals are likely to rise.
Importantly, the Administration’s hostage swapping is not occurring in a vacuum. In the case of Iran, the cash transfers to Tehran could be laying the groundwork for a reboot of Barack Obama’s nuclear deal and an accompanying easing of sanctions. Likewise, Russia appears keen to negotiate a break from the “swift and severe” sanctions that the White House imposed on the Kremlin after its expanded invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Could Moscow use its hostages to negotiate a similar respite as the one potentially on offer to the Iranians? Will it use its hostages as leverage to temper American support for Ukraine? Or will Putin simply look to spring from jail the various Russian spies and cybercriminals that the United States and its allies have imprisoned?
The problem with the White House’s hostage trading is that it treats Iran and Russia as normal, status quo countries. They are not. Both obviously fall into the category of either state sponsors of terror or outright terrorist states. The administration’s folly is that it has not made this moral, legal, and geostrategic distinction in either case. Violating the Shultz doctrine, it has opened a hostage bazar for our people. This will only invite more predation by America’s enemies.
When you are in a hole, stop digging. That should be the first step for the White House. There should be no more ransoms. The Shultz doctrine should reign supreme. Stop giving away the store and encouraging America’s adversaries.
About the Author, Peter B. Doran
Peter B. Doran is an adjunct senior fellow at FDD. He is the former president of the Center for European Policy Analysis. A recognized expert on Russia, Ukraine, and transatlantic relations, he has testified before Congress on topics covering geopolitics and energy security and state-sponsored disinformation. He contributes articles for Time, Foreign Policy, Defense News, National Review, and The Hill. He is also the author of Breaking Rockefeller (Penguin), which examines the rise of Russian oil. He holds a master’s degree from the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He received undergraduate degrees in history and Russian from Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College.