Yellow Ribbon Project

White House: Cash Airlift Wasn't Ransom for Hostages, Negotiators Just 'Succeeded'

Amir Hekmati hugs a supporter from the Marine Corps League after landing in Michigan on Jan. 21, 2016. (Conor Ralph/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

WASHINGTON — In January, the Obama administration insisted that the release of hostages held for years by Iran was just coincidental timing with the implementation of the P5+1 nuclear deal and the release of several Iranians held in U.S. custody.

Now, they’re maintaining that pallets laden with $400 million in euros, francs and other forms of cash that landed in Iran at the time of the Americans’ release didn’t constitute any form of ransom.

Back on Jan. 17, a senior administration official told reporters on a background call that the U.S. was “settling a longstanding Iranian government claim against the United States government” regarding a shah-era contract in the Foreign Military Sales program.

The official said a $1.7 billion settlement was for “military sales to Iran that they made payment for, and we didn’t make delivery of the military equipment” as Iran “was seeking billions of dollars on this claim, and these kinds of complex litigation are very unpredictable, and our lawyers assessed that we could have faced a significantly higher judgment.”

“And so we see this kind of settlement as profoundly in our national interest and in our national security interest.”

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the administration “secretly organized an airlift of $400 million worth of cash to Iran” coinciding with the mid-January release of five Americans: Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, seized in August 2011; Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, seized in July 2014; Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, convicted in January 2013 of establishing house churches; Matthew Trevithick, a U.S. student detained last November; and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, seized in May 2015 after reportedly claiming that he knew the whereabouts of Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent kidnapped in March 2007.

Levinson was not included in the hostage release. The family has received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him.

Seven Iranians held by the U.S. were released, with the administration insisting it was not a prisoner swap. Fourteen Iranians were also pulled off the Interpol list and the $1.7 billion settlement was announced before the administration signed off on Implementation Day sanctions relief.

President Obama said at the time that “with the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well.” The White House did not disclose the $400 million airlift.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest today branded the revelations a scandal only in the minds of “those who are flailing in their attempt to justify their continued opposition to the deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

As far as the Hague settlement over the long-ago arms deal being shipped on pallets in a cargo plane, Earnest said “the fact of the matter is the United States does not have a banking relationship with Iran.”

“It is against the policy of the United States to pay ransom for hostages,” he said.

Earnest was asked if the administration had any concern about handing the Iranians a planeload of untraceable cash that could easily be funneled into nefarious endeavors.

In a lengthy answer that lumped the settlement with a broader sanctions relief windfall, he replied that “the bulk of the money we know has been going to shoring up their economic weakness, and that’s exactly what we predicted.”

As far as the other $1.3 billion of the settlement with Iran, Earnest said the Treasury Department would know if that payment has been made.

“I don’t know how much more transparent the president of the United States can be than to call all of you into the Roosevelt Room, I believe it was, on live national television and announce the fact that we have reached an agreement with Iran,” Earnest said. “I don’t know how much more transparent we can be than to have the secretary of State of the United States on January 17 issue a standalone written statement that’s headlined ‘Hague Claims Tribunal Settlement.'”

In that Jan. 17 release, Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran “will receive the balance of $400 million in the Trust Fund, as well as a roughly $1.3 billion compromise on the interest.” He did not give a timetable, and noted “there are still outstanding Tribunal claims, mostly by Iran against the U.S.”

“We will continue efforts to address these claims appropriately,” Kerry said.

Since the nuclear deal went into effect, Iran has seized American Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer Namazi, Canadian Homa Hoodfar, Briton Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and Lebanese Nizar Zakka, a permanent U.S. resident who was invited by the regime to a conference on women’s entrepreneurship in September and then arrested. Last month, Iran took another American: Robin Shahini of San Diego, who has a history of criticizing Iran’s human-rights abuses and was visiting family in the country.

Earnest said he was “not in a position to talk publicly about the cases of individual Americans if they have not signed a privacy waiver.”

“We’re not going to pay a ransom. If there are Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran, we will make a case regularly through some now established channels with Iran, to advocate for their release. OK?”

Pressed on whether the returned hostages would be home now if that money hadn’t been paid, Earnest replied, “What I can tell you is that our negotiators, who were talking with the Iranians about what was necessary to secure the release of American citizens in Iran succeeded.”

“That was different than the group of negotiators who were involved in the Hague negotiating with their Iranian counterparts to settle these long-standing financial claims,” he added.

Republican members of Congress ripped into the report, with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) sending a letter to Kerry demanding more information on “the terms and conditions of the Administration’s agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and putting him on notice that he would be called before the committee to testify.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the report “confirms our longstanding suspicion that the administration paid a ransom in exchange for Americans unjustly detained in Iran” and “would also mark another chapter in the ongoing saga of misleading the American people to sell this dangerous nuclear deal.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the “reckless arrangement” a “major breach of longstanding U.S. policy,” and Donald Trump slammed the report at a campaign rally today.

“The president made clear a year ago that right-wingers in the United States were making common cause with right-wingers in the Iranian government,” Earnest responded to the criticism. “And again if they’re doing it again to try to justify their opposition to an agreement that has benefited the American people, they can do that. But I think that’s going to be pretty hard for them to explain.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said “the logistics of this payment – literally delivering a plane full of cash to evade U.S. law – shows yet again the extraordinary lengths the Obama administration will go to accommodate Iran, all while hiding the facts from Congress and the American people.”

“Hundreds of millions in the pockets of a terrorist regime means a more dangerous region, period,” Royce said. “And paying ransom only puts more American lives in jeopardy.”

“We already know the Iran nuclear deal was a historic mistake. It keeps getting worse. What else is the Obama administration hiding?”

Earnest wrote off Royce as “an avowed opponent of the Iran deal continuing to try to justify his opposition to this agreement.”

Of the former hostages, Hekmati is now suing the Iranian government. At the time the Flint, Mich., resident filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for D.C., Earnest said the administration’s policy is those tortured for years at the hands of the Iranian regime were “detainees,” not hostages.

Rezaian, who’s back at work at the Washington Post, tweeted today that he saw the news about “$400 mil & me” on the TVs at Dulles Airport while his wife was being held by customs for a bag check.

“Very long day keeps getting longer…. Still beats prison,” Rezaian added.