The Obama administration said Thursday that a $400 million cash payment to Iran seven months ago was contingent on the release of a group of American prisoners.
It is the first time the U.S. has so clearly linked the two events, which critics have painted as a hostage-ransom arrangement.
State Department spokesman John Kirby repeated the administration’s line that the negotiations to return the Iranian money — from a decades-old military-equipment deal with the U.S.-backed shah in the 1970s — were conducted separately from the talks to free four U.S. citizens in Iran. But he said the U.S. withheld the delivery of the cash as leverage until Iran permitted the Americans to leave the country.
Both events occurred Jan. 17, fueling suspicions from Republican lawmakers and accusations from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump of a quid pro quo that undermined America’s longstanding opposition to ransom payments.
Kirby spoke a day after The Wall Street Journal reported new details of the crisscrossing planes on that day. U.S. officials 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.
Earlier this month, after the revelation the U.S. delivered the money in pallets of cash, the administration flatly denied any connection between the payment and the prisoners.
“Reports of link between prisoner release and payment to Iran are completely false,” Kirby said at the time.
The money comes from an account used by the Iranian government to buy American military equipment in the days of the shah.