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Iran cash payment depended on hostage release, Obama admin

August 19, 2016

US President Barack Obama's adminstration has said the $400 million cash payment to Iran in January was dependent on the release of US prisoners. The administration had denied accusations of ransom made by Donald Trump.

Hassan Rohani und Barack Obama (Bildcombo)
Image: Getty Images/A. Burton/M. Wilson

In a press briefing on Thursday in Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby initially repeated the line that negotiations earlier this year to return the Iranian money had been conducted separately from the talks to free four US citizens in Iran. However, Kirby said the US had withheld the delivery of the cash as leverage until Iran allowed the Americans to leave the country.

"We had concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release," Kirby said.

As a result, he explained, the US had "of course sought to retain maximum leverage until after the American citizens were released. That was our top priority."

The cash repayment agreement and hostage release agreement were both made on January 17.

"We actually had diplomatic negotiations and conversations with Iran for the first time in several decades," Obama said on August 5, meaning "our ability to clear accounts on a number of different issues at the same time converged."

"This wasn't some nefarious deal," he said.

What goes around comes around

The money was connected with a military equipment deal with the US-backed Shah in the 1970s. Equipment was never delivered after the Shah's government was overthrown in 1979 and revolutionaries took American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran.

The agreement included the return of the $400 million, plus an additional $1.3 billion in interest. Obama has described these terms as favorable. Administration officials have said it could have cost some $10 billion without the settlement. The US delivered the money in pallets of cash.

Trump vindicated

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump accused the adminstration of a quid pro quo that undermined America's longstanding opposition to ransom payments.

The US newspaper "The Wall Street Journal" reported on Thursday new details of the crisscrossing planes on January 16. US officials reportedly wouldn't let Iran bring the cash home from a Geneva airport until a Swiss Air Force plane carrying three of the freed Americans departed from Tehran, the paper reported. The fourth American left on a commercial flight.

One of the Americans released in January as part of the prisoner exchange, a pastor named Saeed Abedini, said he and other American prisoners were kept waiting at Mehrabad airport from January 16 to the morning of January 17. He told the newspaper that he was told by a senior Iranian intelligence official at the time that their departure was contingent upon the movements of a second airplane.

Republicans quick to attack

"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," Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said on Thursday.

jbh/kl (AP, Reuters, AFP)