The Obama administration insisted Wednesday that its airlift of $400 million in cash to Iran in January wasn’t ransom for the release of five imprisoned Americans, while Republican lawmakers called the move appeasement and demanded that Secretary of State John F. Kerry turn over documents and testify before Congress.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest denied repeatedly that the cash payment was ransom.
“No, it was not. It is against the policy of the United States to pay ransom for hostages,” he said.
Some top Republican lawmakers said the payment, delivered in stacks of foreign currency on wooden pallets in an unmarked cargo plane about the same time Iran released the Americans, was too coincidental to pass the smell test.
“Paying Iran behind our backs, incentivizing further kidnappings of Americans while providing funds for terrorism, is as ignorant as it is wrong,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a letter to Mr. Kerry that he should appear before Congress to testify about the payment, which was first reported Tuesday night by The Wall Street Journal.
He said the State Department needs to turn over all documents and communications about the money, explain what steps the U.S. took to make sure the money wouldn’t go to fund terrorists or the Assad regime in Syria, and detail the negotiations involved in the exchange of four Americans who were held hostage in Iran.
“The timing of the first installment of the settlement agreement with Iran creates the appearance that the money was in fact tied to releasing the American hostages,” Mr. Chaffetz wrote.
His committee also has investigated the State Department on matters such as the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack and has complained about a lack of cooperation from the administration.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump slammed President Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama’s former secretary of state, for the secret payment.
“We have been humiliated by President Obama and his policies. We have been humiliated by the Iran deal,” Mr. Trump said at a rally Wednesday in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“This was all started by Hillary Clinton. Everything was started by her. They relied on her,” he said.
Some frequent Republican critics of the administration, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, tempered their comments about the development, saying a ransom payment would be wrong.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, noted that Iranian officials have called the payment “ransom,” but he didn’t characterize it as such in his own statement.
The five Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, were released Jan. 16 in exchange for seven Iranians held in the U.S. for sanctions violations. The prisoner deal coincided with the lifting of international sanctions against Tehran.
The money represented the first installment of a $1.7 billion settlement that the administration reached with Iran to resolve an arms deal signed before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which toppled the pro-U.S. regime.
Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of the paramilitary Basij Resistance Force, said at the time that it showed “the U.S. doesn’t understand anything but the language of force.”
“This money was returned for the freedom of the U.S. spy, and it was not related to the [nuclear] negotiations,” he said, according to the state-controlled Fars News Agency.
Mr. Earnest said the timing of the transaction was coincidental and that the cash was “their money,” owed from the decades-old arms deal.
“This all came to a head at the same time because we were addressing and resolving long-standing concerns about Iranian behavior,” he said. “This $400 million is actually money that the Iranians had paid into a U.S. account in 1979 as part of a transaction to procure military equipment.”
Rep. Mike Pompeo, Kansas Republican, said the State Department stonewalled his earlier inquiry into the payment. The administration’s claim of coincidental timing “insults our common sense and borders on lawlessness,” he said.
“The result? Three more Americans now sit languishing in Iranian prisons,” he said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said the “logistics of the 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,” Mr. Royce said. “And paying ransom only puts more American lives in jeopardy.”
Mr. Earnest said the cash was shipped on pallets partly because “the United States does not have a banking relationship with Iran.”
The settlement was reached at the same time as formal implementation of the landmark nuclear agreement among Tehran, the U.S. and other global powers.
“With the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well,” Mr. Obama said at the time, without revealing the $400 million payment.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the payment a “reckless arrangement.”
“We cannot forget that Hillary Clinton was the initiator of this dangerous approach by spearheading the disastrous nuclear deal,” Mr. Priebus said. “Disregarding the threat of radical Islamic terrorism is par for the course with the Democrat Party, and a Hillary Clinton presidency will only mean more of the corrupt bargaining with rogue regimes which has compromised the security of the United States and our ally Israel.”
Mr. Earnest vehemently rejected accusations that the money transfer to Iran was ransom or even a secret.
“The United States, under President Obama, has not paid a ransom to secure the release of Americans unjustly detained in Iran, and we’re not going to pay a ransom,” he said.
The White House spokesman said Republicans who have long opposed the Iran nuclear agreement are seizing on details of the money transfer to undermine the deal.
“They’re struggling to justify their opposition to our engagement with Iran,” he said. “I understand the interest in details for a more colorful story. But I don’t understand what this does to the broader outlines of an agreement that has been in place for six months now.”
The White House said it made the payment quickly after concluding negotiations with Tehran because Iranian leaders needed money urgently after years of economic sanctions over their nuclear program.
“We reached the agreement, and Iran wanted their money back,” Mr. Earnest said. “You would also understand that they’re quite eager for the money when you consider that the value of their currency has plummeted, that they haven’t been able to invest in infrastructure, that they’ve got debts that need to be paid and that they’re in the middle of a recession. At the time, they were eager to try to address the legitimate concerns of the Iranian people about the state of the Iranian economy.”
⦁ Stephen Dinan and S.A. Miller contributed to this report.