Republican lawmakers are fuming Wednesday over a report that the U.S. government secretly sent the equivalent of $400 million to Iran last January as four Americans were released by Tehran.
Details of the payout were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. It represents the first installment of $1.7 billion the White House agreed to pay Iran to resolve a scuppered 1979 arms deal signed just before the fall of Iran’s last monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The existence of the payment has been known since January, when four detained Americans — Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian; Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine; Christian pastor Saeed Abedini; and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari — were released by Iran.
But new details about the actual exchange of cash, delineated in euros, Swiss francs and other currencies, have stoked outrage among Republicans, who accuse President Barack Obama of putting more Americans at risk of being taken prisoner by hostile regimes.
“Paying ransom to kidnappers puts Americans even more at risk,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said in a statement. “While Americans were relieved by Iran’s overdue release of illegally imprisoned American hostages, the White House’s policy of appeasement has led Iran to illegally seize more American hostages.”
In response, State Department spokesman John Kirby said their release and the $400 million payment had nothing to do with one another. Any suggestion otherwise is, according to Kirby, “utterly false.”
“We just don’t pay ransom. … This was not ransom,” he said, adding there was “no secret” about the payment.
“It was their money,” Kirby said on Fox News Wednesday, noting the funds were frozen and it “made no sense for us to continue to drag out their claim.”
The payment settles a claim against the United States made by Iran before an international tribunal in The Hague. The timing of the settlement came the same weekend as the landmark nuclear deal between Iran, the United States and other global powers was implemented.
“With the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well,” President Barack Obama said at the White House on Jan. 17. He did not disclose the $400 million payout at the time.
Kirby insists the the arms deal settlement and the nuclear deal had nothing to do with one another.
“As we’ve made clear, the negotiations over the settlement of an outstanding claim…were completely separate from the discussions about returning our American citizens home,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told the Journal. “Not only were the two negotiations separate, they were conducted by different teams on each side, including, in the case of The Hague claims, by technical experts involved in these negotiations for many years.”
That hasn’t stopped Republicans from linking the two. On Wednesday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted, “Obama-Clinton foreign policy not only means cutting dangerous deal w/ # 1 state sponsor of terrorism it also means paying them secret ransom.”
“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,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., added in a statement. “Hundreds of millions in the pockets of a terrorist regime means a more dangerous region, period. And paying ransom only puts more American lives in jeopardy.”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump used the report to attack his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who served as Obama’s secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. On Wednesday morning, he tweeted, “Our incompetent Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was the one who started talks to give 400 million dollars, in cash, to Iran. Scandal!”
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) went as far as to link the payment with the Iran-Contra affair, in which Reagan administration officials secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran. “Reports of the U.S. paying Iran $400 million in pallets of cash, using other currencies in order to circumvent American law, is something of Hollywood films — and is reminiscent of the Iran Contra scandal. Have we not learned we cannot trust the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism?
This post has been updated with Pompeo’s comments.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/Getty Images