WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Obama administration acknowledged that the release of $400 million in cash to Iran in January was linked to Iran’s release of American prisoners, but rejected notions it was a ransom payment.
“With concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release given unnecessary delays regarding persons in Iran who could not be located as well as, to be quite honest, mutual mistrust between Iran and the United States, we, of course, sought to retain maximum leverage until after American citizens were released,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday at the daily press briefing.
It was the first time that the administration acknowledged linkage between the payment and the prisoner release. On Aug. 4, Mark Toner, another State Department spokesman, said there was no linkage between the prisoner exchange and the payment. “It’s just not true that there’s any linkage,” Toner said at the time.
Kirby’s acknowledgment Thursday came after the Wall Street Journal published a timetable on Wednesday showing that American officials linked the release of the funds to the release of the prisoners.
Republicans, including Donald Trump, the presidential nominee, have described the payment as a ransom for the release of five American prisoners released at the same time in exchange for Iranian prisoners in the United States.
“We now know from the State Department announcement that President Obama lied about the $400 million dollars in cash that was flown to Iran,” Trump said in Charlotte, North Carolina on Thursday night, at a campaign event. “He denied it was for the hostages, but it was. He said we don’t pay ransom, but he did.”
Sen. Mark Kirk. R-Ill., called for hearings on whether the payment was a ransom and whether it endangered American lives.
“The administration’s policy of appeasement gave Tehran a green light to kidnap and wrongly imprison more foreign hostages after the this ransom payment,” he said in a statement.
The Obama administration adamantly denies a quid pro quo, saying that the $400 million was part of the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal, and settled outstanding Iranian claims against the U.S. government. The implementation of the deal and the prisoner exchange were all carried out at the same time, in part to clear the slate as the deal went into effect.
Administration officials note that President Obama and other officials never hid the $400 million payment, and spoke about it at the time.
“The president himself talked about the timing,” Kirby said on Thursday. “We were able to conclude multiple strands of diplomacy within a 24-hour period, including implementation of the nuclear deal, the prisoner talks, and the settlement of an outstanding Hague Tribunal claim which saved American taxpayers potentially billions of dollars.”
Suspicions that the payment was a ransom were stoked this summer when it was revealed it was delivered in cash, but Obama administration officials have said this was necessary because sanctions in place at the time precluded a bank transfer.