White House: $400M Iran payment not ransom

White House: $400M Iran payment not ransom
© Greg Nash

The White House on Wednesday denied that a $400 million cash payment to Iran was a ransom paid to free American prisoners.

“No, it was not,” said press secretary Josh Earnest when asked if the money constituted a ransom. “It is against the policy of the United States to pay ransom for hostages.”

The spokesman blamed the furor over the payment on Republican lawmakers who are “flailing” to explain why they’re against the controversial nuclear pact with Tehran.

“The facts of this are quite clear,” he said. “And it’s an indication of just how badly opponents of the Iran deal are struggling to justify their opposition to a successful deal that has prevented and continues to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

Earnest grew indignant at questions surrounding the money transfer, renewing an accusation that GOP critics of the deal are seeking "common cause" with Iranian hardliners who want to undermine the deal.

His comments came in response to a Wall Street Journal report Tuesday detailing an airlift in January that delivered $400 million in cash to Iran that coincided with the release of four Americans imprisoned there.

The payment, which the administration acknowledged in January, was the first part of a $1.7 billion settlement to resolve a dispute surrounding an arms deal signed just before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But new details revealed by the Journal, including that the payment was delivered in unmarked cargo planes and was made in foreign currency, raised fresh concerns from Republicans that the payment was tied to the release of the prisoners.

Iranian press reports have quoted senior defense officials in Tehran who have described the payment as a ransom.

“Our incompetent Secretary of State, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGeorge Takei: US has hit a new low under Trump Democrats slam Puerto Rico governor over 'shameful' comments, back protesters Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE, was the one who started talks to give 400 million dollars, in cash, to Iran. Scandal!” tweeted Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanEx-White House spokesman Raj Shah joins Fox Corporation as senior vice president Trump quietly rolled back programs to detect, combat weapons of mass destruction: report Ocasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud MORE (R-Wis.) said the report marked “another chapter in the ongoing saga of misleading the American people to sell this dangerous nuclear deal.”

“If true, this report confirms our longstanding suspicion that the administration paid a ransom in exchange for Americans unjustly detained in Iran,” he said in a statement.

Earnest vehemently denied that administration misled the public about the payments.

He said at the time top U.S. officials acknowledged the payment as part of the arms deal settlement that was not directly connected to the nuclear agreement or the prisoner release.

The weapons were never delivered to Iran after the shah was overthrown in 1979.

“So that was the right decision,” he said. “It’s also why it was hard for the United States to make an argument in this case that we could just keep the money.”

U.S. officials have long said they agreed to the $1.7 billion settlement because they feared they would lose an arbitration ruling to Iran, which had requested around $10 billion. 

He also said the cash was flown to Iran and paid in foreign currency because the United States does not have a banking relationship with Iran.

"We could not possibly have been more transparent about the arrangement," Earnest said.

But Earnest refused to confirm how the remaining $1.3 billion of the settlement is to be paid, whether in cash or other means.