The Obama administration secretly airlifted $400 million in cash to Iran in January at the same time Tehran was releasing four jailed Americans, payment that a top congressional Republican is calling “ransom.”
The Wall Street Journal, citing U.S. and European officials and congressional sources, reported that the administration procured the money from central banks in Switzerland and the Netherlands. The money was stacked on wooden pallets and flown to Tehran in an unmarked cargo plane.
The money represented the first installment of a $1.7 billion settlement that the administration reached with Iran to resolve a decades-old failed arms deal signed before the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Journal reported.
The settlement came at the same time as formal implementation of the historic nuclear agreement reached between Tehran, the U.S. and other world powers.
“With the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well,” President Obama said at the time, without revealing the $400 million payment.
Senior U.S. officials denied that there was any link between the payment and the prisoner exchange.
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“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 paper. “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.”
But Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican and an outspoken critic of the Iran nuclear deal, accused Mr. Obama of paying “a $1.7 billion ransom to the ayatollahs for U.S. hostages.”
“This break with long-standing U.S. policy put a price on the head of Americans, and has led Iran to continue its illegal seizures” of Americans, he told the Journal.
Rep. Bill Johnson, Ohio Republican, said he will call on House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to appoint a special committee to investigate what he called a “very serious violation ” of foreign policy.
“For decades, American foreign policy has been to not pay ransom for hostages, because to do so only encourages more kidnapping of Americans,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement. “Not only did the Obama administration violate this common-sense policy, it did so secretly. If true, this would make the Iran-Contra affair look like jaywalking.”
In January, the announcement of the $1.7 billion settlement raised suspicions in Congress of a possible ransom payment.
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Republican lawmakers are called for an inquiry.
Lawmakers also criticized what they said was an imbalance in the prisoner exchange: The White House released seven Iranians and dropped extradition proceedings against another 14 in exchange for the Americans.