The U.S. State Department said it released $400 million in cash to Iran under a court settlement in January only after it was assured that American prisoners had been freed by Tehran.
It was the first public acknowledgement of a link between the cash payment and Iran's release of prisoners on January 17. But the Obama administration portrayed the link as the opposite of what Republicans have charged, saying that the cash was used as leverage, not a ransom, to assure Iran's release of the prisoners.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said on August 18 that because of mutual mistrust between Tehran and Washington after 36 years of severed diplomatic relations, "We had concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release."
For that reason, "the payment of the $400 million was not done until after the prisoners were released...to make sure we had the maximum leverage possible to get our people out and get them out safely," he said.
Kirby's acknowledgement of a linkage was a reversal of previous denials by the State Department. It came one day after The Wall Street Journal reported new details about the incident.
The Journal reported that U.S. officials wouldn't let Iran airlift the cash settlement to Tehran from a Geneva airport until a Swiss Air Force plane carrying three of the freed Americans departed from Tehran.
The three freed prisoners -- Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief, Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, and Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine -- were included in a January 17 prisoner exchange that followed the lifting of most international sanctions against Iran under its nuclear deal with world powers.
Abedini since his release has said the exchange and cash payment were linked. He said that as he and other prisoners waited for hours at an Iranian airport to fly home, a senior Iranian intelligence official told them their departure depended on the status of a plane in Geneva that was carrying the cash.
Because the exchange occurred on the same day as the cash payment, U.S. Republicans -- including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump -- have been charging for weeks that the two events were related and that the cash amounted to "ransom" for "hostages."
The administration continued to deny that the cash was a ransom payment, however.
The administration also continued to maintain that while it negotiated the claims settlement and prisoner exchange with Iran at the same time last year, and they occurred on the same day, the negotiations were conducted on separate tracks and the outcomes of those negotations were in no way linked.
"We were able to conclude multiple strands of diplomacy within a 24 hour period, including implementation of the nuclear deal, the prisoner talks, and a settlement of an outstanding Hague tribunal claim," Kirby said.
Since "the events came together simultaneously...it would have been foolish, imprudent, irresponsible for us not to try to maintain maximum leverage" to ensure release of the prisoners, Kirby said.
The White House said it paid the $400 million from Iranian funds frozen since 1981, plus $1.3 billion in interest owed to Iran, to settle a decades-old Iranian claim for reimbursement of military equipment purchased by the Shah of Iran..
The military hardware was never delivered after the Shah was deposed by the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The White House said the payment was made in foreign currencies, including cash euros, because of remaining U.S. sanctions against Iran that prohibit payment in U.S. dollars or through the U.S. banking system.
Republicans saw the State Department's statement on August 18 as proof, however, that they were right about the deal.
"If it quacks like a duck, it's a duck. If a cash payment is contingent on a hostage release, it's a ransom. The truth matters and the president owes the American people an explanation," Republican Senator Ben Sasse said.
On the campaign trail, Trump sought once again to blame the incident on his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton on August 18, though the former Secretary of State was not involved in last year's negotiations with Iran.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has asked current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to appear at a committee hearing to discuss the payment.
The House Financial Services Committee has asked the Treasury and Justice Departments and the Federal Reserve to provide by August 24 all records related to the $400 million payment as well as the names of government officials who authorized the payment and those who objected to the cash transfer.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP
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