President Barack Obama on Thursday dismissed suggestions a $400 million payment to Iran amounted to a ransom paid in return for the release of American hostages.Confirming the US offered the payment in cash, Obama nevertheless downplayed the delivery’s significance, saying it was not a “nefarious” deal. And he pushed back on Republican attacks charging that the White House completed the transaction as part of the prisoner swap.
The line of argument was intensified by GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump just moments before the President’s comments, though he also complicated his message by referring to having seen a video of the transfer whose existence others have doubted.
Obama on Thursday sharply defended the decision to send palettes of cash to Iran, however. “We do not pay ransom. We didn’t here, and we won’t in the future,” Obama said after reports emerged that the United States delivered palettes of cash to Tehran on the same day the prisoners were freed. “Those families know we have a policy that we don’t pay ransom,” Obama said. “And the notion that we would somehow start now, in this high-profile way, and announce it to the world, even as we’re looking in the faces of other hostage families whose loved ones are being held hostage, and saying to them we don’t pay ransom, defies logic.”
Obama downplayed the story, saying he had been open about the payment at the time it was agreed upon.”We announced these payments in January. Many months ago. They were not a secret,” Obama said during a news conference at the Pentagon. “It wasn’t a secret. We were completely open with everybody about it.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to focus on the purported video risked diverting attention from his wider attacks on Iran policy, which have the potential to put the Obama administration and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in a tough political spot. “A tape was made — you saw that?” Trump asked the crowd sat the start of his rally in Portland, Maine. “With the airplane coming in, nice plane … and the money coming off, I guess.”
Trump went on to speculate that the tape was “given to us” by the Iranians to “embarrass our country and embarrass our president,” apparently concluding that the footage had been released by Iranian intelligence or government security services. “We have a president who’s incompetent,” Trump said. It remains unclear what tape Trump was referring to Thursday. He made similar comments on Wednesday.The Washington Post reported that the tape Trump had seen was included in a Fox News report about the $400 million transfer on Wednesday, but that the executive jet displayed appeared to be in Geneva that day, not Iran, and did not show the transfer of cash.
Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, did not return requests for comment on the video. The billionaire has frustrated Republicans in recent days with the lack of discipline at his campaign appearances and may have again stepped on his message by talking about a tape rather than the wider issue of why the United States was sending millions of dollars to its longtime foe. The Obama administration has repeatedly rejected GOP accusations that the cash — part of a$1.7 billion agreement to settle a decades-old arms deal dispute — was meant to grease the release of four US prisoners who were freed in January when Tehran implemented a landmarknuclear deal. A fifth US prisoner was released separately.
Secretary of State John Kerry insisted on Thursday that the United States never pays ransoms for hostages, rejecting accusations that a $400 million payment to Iran was a quid pro quo for the release of American prisoners. “First of all, the United States of America does not pay ransom and does not negotiate ransoms with any country,” Kerry said at a news conference in Argentina. “We never have and we’re not doing that now. It is not our policy.”
A furor erupted after The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday on the circumstances and timing of a cash payment to Iran. CNN had at the time reported that the transfer had been arranged.