- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2016

The White House and State Department gave conflicting explanations Monday for the administration’s alleged $400 million ransom payment to Iran, with President Obama’s spokesman still insisting the money was part of an old arms deal and a spokesman at Foggy Bottom conceding again that it was “leverage” to gain the release of four American hostages.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest wouldn’t even utter the word “leverage” in a 90-minute press briefing that dealt primarily with the question of a ransom payment.

“That is a word I have not used,” Mr. Earnest said.

But a State Department spokesman said last week that the payment in January was contingent on Iran releasing the hostages, and the agency reiterated its view Monday that the money was used as leverage for gaining the Americans’ freedom.

“It would have been imprudent for us to have handed over that money and not used it as leverage,” said department spokesman Mark Toner. “It was not ransom because this was money that we owed the Iranian government.”

Republican lawmakers have vowed to hold hearings on the issue when Congress returns to Washington after Labor Day. Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, sent a letter Monday to Secretary of State John F. Kerry demanding answers on the administration’s $1.7 billion arms-deal settlement with Iran, of which the $400 million was said to be the first installment.

“While your agency continues to deny it made a ransom payment to secure the release of American hostages, the facts clearly suggest otherwise,” Mr. Blunt said in the letter. “Your apparent dishonesty regarding the timing of the settlement has consequently cast serious doubt on the answers you provided regarding the source of funds that were used to pay off the Iranian regime.”

President Obama has insisted it wasn’t ransom, while Republican critics in Congress say it will encourage other enemies of the U.S. to seize Americans as hostages. Iran itself is believed to have seized three more U.S. citizens since January, holding them on various charges.

The State Department also issued a travel advisory Monday warning Americans not to travel to Iran due to “the risk of arrest and detention of U.S. citizens, particularly dual national Iranian-Americans.”

“Foreigners, in particular dual nationals of Iran and Western countries including the United States, continue to be detained or prevented from leaving Iran,” the advisory said. “U.S. citizens traveling to Iran should very carefully weigh the risks of travel and consider postponing their travel. U.S. citizens residing in Iran should closely follow media reports, monitor local conditions, and evaluate the risks of remaining in the country.”

Mr. Earnest said the cash payment came as part of the U.S. “pushing the envelope” in several negotiations with Iran, including completion of a nuclear agreement and resolution of the unresolved arms deal dating back to the regime of the Shah of Iran, prior to the Iranian revolution in 1979.

“We were going to go and get as much as we could out of the deal,” Mr. Earnest said. “Iran was in the business of signing off on agreements.”

The president’s spokesman said the payment wasn’t ransom, in effect, because U.S. officials didn’t view it that way.

“The United States was much more concerned about completing the agreement to bring our four unjustly detained American citizens home than we were in reaching the financial settlement,” he said. “The Iranians might have had a different set of priorities.”

As part of the hostage deal, the U.S. also agreed to drop charges against seven Iranians with dual citizenship with the U.S. who were convicted or awaiting trial in the U.S. for violating sanctions against Iran. The U.S. also dismissed charges against another 14 Iranians whom the administration believed it would be unlikely to capture through extradition.

The White House characterized the cash payment, the hostage swap, the nuclear deal and the resolution of the financial settlement as proud achievements of Mr. Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy.

“All of this was accomplished without a single shot being fired,” Mr. Earnest said. “It’s an indication of how effective the president’s tough diplomatic strategy has proved to be.”

He also said there was “unanimous agreement” among the president’s national security team that he should proceed with the payment and hostage exchange.

Mr. Earnest dismissed the accusations of a ransom payment as arising from “right-wingers in Iran and right-wingers in the United States.”

“The reason that we quibble with this notion of a ransom is pretty straight forward. The quid pro quo here was the release of four Americans by Iran in exchange for the release of seven prisoners in the United States,” he said. “There should be no confusion. The president has been clear from the beginning of this presidency that the United States does not pay ransoms.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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