It's funny how coincidences work.
In 2010, as much as $7 million was dropped on the deck of the Maran Centaurus, an oil tanker captured by Somali pirates, and the brigands happened to free the crew.
In 1997, Walter Kwok, the son of extravagantly wealthy Chinese businessman, was found alive in a wooden box after -- oddly enough -- the gangster holding him was paid $77 million.
In 1974, Marxist guerrillas in Argentina who had kidnapped Exxon employee Victor Samuelson unaccountably decided to release him upon receipt of more than $14 million.
To the list of these random, hard-to-fathom events must be added yet another bizarre coincidence: Last January, Tehran released four American prisoners just as the Obama administration sent $400 million in cash gift-wrapped for the regime.
This, at least, is the administration's cover story. Of course, no one would deny that all the earlier examples involved direct payments for the freedom of captives, but the administration wants plausible (or implausible) deniability. It insists it was the beneficiary of lucky timing with Iran. The weird confluence of cash payment and prisoner release can be called dumb luck, or a diplomatic opening, or another achievement of the indefatigable John Kerry -- anything but the "ransom for hostages" it obviously is.
At the most basic level, if the U.S. government were paying ransom to Iran, this is what it would look like: A cargo plane stuffed with wooden pallets of $400 million in foreign currency, obtained by the U.S. government from the central banks of the Netherlands and Switzerland, landing in an airport in Tehran reportedly the same day the hostages were released. The director Michael Bay couldn't ask for better material.
To be sure, the money wasn't an explicit ransom. That would be too obvious. It was part of a $1.7 billion settlement of a long-standing dispute over an abortive Iranian arms purchase dating from before the fall of the Shah.
The administration maintains that the negotiations over the decades-old arms-deal dispute and over the American hostages had nothing to do with one another -- they were handled by different U.S. negotiating teams.
But both teams worked for the same government, with the same goal of forging an opening to Iran and the same awareness of Iranian demands. According to The Wall Street Journal, which broke the details of the flight of cash to Tehran in a blockbuster report, U.S. officials "acknowledge that Iranian negotiators on the prisoner exchange said they wanted the cash to show they had gained something tangible."
"Something tangible" is commonly known as a ransom, which is what the Iranian press has called it, in yet another example of the Iranians being more forthright about their dealings with the United States government than representatives of the U.S. government are. A commander of the Revolutionary Guards commented, not unreasonably, that "taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies."
In a follow-up report, The Wall Street Journal noted that senior Justice Department officials objected to flying the cash to Tehran on grounds, in the words of one source, that "the Iranians probably did consider it a ransom payment." And why not? Somali outlaws, Marxist guerrillas and hostage-takers going back to the pirates on the Aegean Sea who seized Julius Caesar and demanded 50 talents of silver for his freedom have always considered such payments ransom. They feel no need to resort to euphemism or to try to fool people about what they are doing.
In contrast, the Obama administration wants both to downplay the Iranian regime's crimes and evade the truth about how it responded. Although by its standards the ransom payment was deft negotiation -- at least it got something for it. But Tehran now knows that hostage-taking pays lucrative rewards. The Iranians have taken three more hostages. They are clearly hoping for another coincidence.