WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Barack Obama rejected claims that the United States had paid a ransom for the release of Americans held by Iran.
Speaking Thursday at a briefing with reporters on national security, Obama said the $400 million in cash transferred to Iran earlier this year was to settle claims Iran had on the money since the 1980s, when the United States froze Iranian funds.
“At the time we explained that Iran had pressed a claim before an international tribunal about them recovering money of theirs that we had frozen; that, as a consequence of its working its way through the international tribunal, it was the assessment of our lawyers that we were now at a point where there was significant litigation risk and we could end up costing ourselves billions of dollars,” Obama said.
The payment, which was reported in January by various news outlets, came as the United States sought to settle financial claims with Iran around the time that Iran was implementing, together with the United States and five other major world powers, the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal.
Obama said the money was paid in cash because sanctions still in place forbid transfers through banks.
Republicans and critics of the deal say the cash was tied to a prisoner swap in January between Iran and the United States. Five Americans were freed at the time.
“If true, this report confirms our longstanding suspicion that the administration paid a ransom for Americans unjustly detained in Iran,” Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said in a statement. “It would also mark another chapter in the ongoing saga of misleading the American people to sell this dangerous deal.”
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has said the release of the money proves his point that the Iran nuclear deal is a bad one.
Obama defended the deal at the press conference. “It’s now been well over a year since the agreement with Iran to stop its nuclear program was signed, and by all accounts, it has worked exactly the way we said it was going to work,” he said. “It’s the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community — the country that was most opposed to this deal — that acknowledges this has been a game-changer, and that Iran has abided by the deal, and that they no longer have the sort of short-term breakout capacity that would allow them to develop nuclear weapons.”
Israeli security officials have said the deal reduces the threat for the time being, while Israel’s political establishment continues to decry the deal as dangerous.