Top Republican lawmakers charged the Obama administration with paying a ransom to Iranian leaders in return for the release of four American prisoners, allegations the White House forcefully denied.
U.S. officials reportedly loaded an unmarked cargo plane with $400 million in cash stacked on pallets and delivered it to Iranian officials around the same time the prisoners were released in January. The Wall Street Journal first reported the news on what a front-page headline called a “planeload” of cash.
White House officials said Wednesday the payment was not a ransom, but rather repayment of money owed to Iran for a canceled arms deal four decades ago. The payment was also raised in a January 2016 news conference .
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona called the $400 million payment “disturbing,” with a few of his GOP colleagues using even more blunt language.
McCain issued a statement saying that what he sees as a cash-for-hostages settlement was “hardly surprising given [the administration’s] long record of concessions to America’s adversaries.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California noted that “America has had a longstanding policy to not reward terrorists and kidnappers with cash.”
“Bad behavior should be punished, not subsidized,” McCarthy said in a statement. “But President Obama and his Iranian negotiating team threw that out the window when they stacked $400 million of euros and Swiss francs onto wooden pallets, stuck those wooden pallets in an unmarked cargo plane, and flew those stacks of cash off to Iran.”
In a candid tweet, McCarthy dubbed the payment “ignorant.”
Asked if the $400 million payment was sent to Iran in January in return for the prisoners’ release, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest replied, “No, it was not.”
“It is against the policy of the United States to pay ransom for hostages,” Earnest told reporters.
He described the payment as part of a series of negotiations between Iran, U.S. and Western officials on a range of issues. One was curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions ; another were the hostages; and a third was the $400 million, which the U.S. has long said is owed to Iran due to a 1979 arms deal that was canceled after the fall of the late Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
“There was a conscious, strategic decision that was made on the part of the Obama administration, as we were implementing the deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, to resolve other longstanding concerns that we had with Iran,” Earnest said.
“And that included securing the release of five American citizens who'd been unjustly detained in Iran and closing out a longstanding financial dispute in a way that saved the American people potentially billions of dollars,” he added. “So this all came to a head at the same time because we are addressing and resolving longstanding concerns with Iranian behavior and the benefits are almost too long to mention.”
(While four Americans were released in a prisoner swap with Iran in January, a fifth American was also released separately).
Earnest gave a similar answer when asked about the payment in a Jan. 19 news conference.
Notably, the normally cool and even-keeled Earnest at several times became animated Wednesday when taking reporters’ questions about the payment and its timing.
He said opponents of President Barack Obama are trying to use the report and payment to score political points.
What’s more, Earnest, who never confirmed that the funds were transferred via a cargo plane, said the cash could not be easily transferred electronically from an U.S. account to an Iranian one because the countries lack a formal banking relationship.
Republican lawmakers weren't buying it though.
“Whatever the administration may claim, it is clear that this payment was a ransom for Americans held hostage in Iran,” said McCain, who dubbed the payment “reckless and foolish.”
“Just like the administration’s reckless nuclear deal, this cash payment incentivized further belligerent Iranian behavior, such as the arrests of two more Iranian-Americans,” he said. “The Iranian regime now has an additional $400 million to support” Bashar Assad in Syria, and terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, he added.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte , a New Hampshire Republican facing a tight re-election battle, dubbed the payment “outrageous.”
“This secret exchange demonstrates once again the fundamental flaws of the Iran [nuclear] agreement and the dangerous lengths this administration has been willing to go to in order to placate the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism,” she said in a statement.
Ayotte warned that the transaction could cause Iranian leaders to become “interested in unjustly arresting additional Americans in order to get more cash to support its goals.”