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President Barack Obama is photographed during a presidential portrait sitting for an official photo in the Oval Office, Dec. 6, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

August 20, 2016: On Thursday, for the first time the Obama administration clearly and publicly said a cash payment of $400 million to Iran was used as leverage to ensure the release of a group of American prisoners being held by Tehran.

Earlier this month, in August, President Barack Obama denied that the payment to Iran on the same day as a hostage release was “some nefarious deal,” pointing out that the transfer was announced in January, a day after implementation of the U.S. nuclear deal with Tehran.


On Thursday, State Department spokesman John Kirby repeated the administration’s position that the negotiations to return the Iranian money, the result of an aborted arms deal in the 1970s with the U.S-backed shah were conducted separately from the talks to free four U.S. citizens in Iran.

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“We had concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release,” Kirby told reporters, citing years of mutual mistrust between the two countries. “Obviously, when you’re inside that 24 hour period and you already now have concerns about the endgame in terms of getting your Americans out, it would have been foolish, and prudent, irresponsible, for us not to try to maintain maximum leverage.

“So if you’re asking me was there a connection in that regard at the endgame, I’m not going to deny that,” he added.


Jason Rezaian. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The prisoners were The Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, Jason Rezaian; Marine veteran Amir Hekmati; Christian pastor Saeed Abedin; and a fourth man, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, whose disappearance had not been publicly known before he was freed.

The cash transfer and the release of the hostages — both on January 17 — came at the same time as Iran’s deal with the United States and five other world powers restraining Tehran’s development of nuclear weapons, along with the lifting of sanctions that had hobbled Iran’s economy.

Critics, especially those who oppose the Iran nuclear deal, have termed it a ransom payment. Republican lawmakers also criticized the action, saying it undermined the longstanding U.S. opposition to ransom payments.

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Iranian media reports have quoted senior defense officials as saying they considered the cash as a ransom payment.

On the day of the transfer, non-U.S. currency cash — in euros and Swiss francs among others — was stacked on wooden pallets and flown into Iran on an unmarked cargo plane.

It was the first installment on a $1.7 billion settlement stemming from the failed U.S. weapons pact with Iran in 1979 just before its last monarch, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was toppled. The U.S. dispatched the cash in foreign currencies because any transaction with Iran in dollars is illegal under U.S. law. (VOA)

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