Did Obama administration pay $400M ransom to Iran?

An unmarked cargo plane loaded with $400 million in foreign currency was sent to Iran as four Americans detained in Tehran were released — but the U.S. denies the delivery was a ransom payment.

The claim dated back to an arms deal conducted right before the Iranian revolution, which saw the ouster of then ruler of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and the installation of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The claim was negotiated in the international court in The Hague.

Iranian state television broadcast this image of a shipping pallet stacked with cash in February as part of a propaganda film
Iranian state television broadcast this image of a shipping pallet stacked with cash in February as part of a propaganda film

Officials said that wooden pallets stacked with euros, Swiss francs and other currencies were secretly flown into Iran on the plane in January, the same day the U.S. exchanged seven Iranians for four American citizens who had been detained.

The settlement was announced one day after the prisoner exchange and days after the U.S. and five other countries reached a landmark nuclear deal with Iranian officials.

Amid all of the wheeling and dealing, Obama failed to mention the $400 million payoff.

“For the United States, this settlement could save us billions of dollars that could have been pursued by Iran,” Obama said in January. “So there was no benefit to the United States in dragging this out. With the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well.”

U.S. authorities insist that the negotiations regarding the prisoner exchanges were completely separate from the nuclear deal and the settlement, but questions remain about the timing of the secret payment.

“As we’ve made clear, the negotiations over the settlement of an outstanding claim at the Hague Tribunal were completely separate from the discussions about returning our American citizens home,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Tuesday.

The claim dated back to an arms deal conducted right before the Iranian revolution, which saw the ouster of then ruler of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and the installation of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The claim was negotiated in the international court in The Hague.

U.S. officials have admitted, however, that Iranians demanded the payment so they could say that Iran had gained “something tangible” from the prisoner exchange, despite the fact that the U.S. released seven Iranians detained or indicted in the U.S. for sanctions violations. Six of the Iranians released by the U.S. were dual citizens.

President Obama approved the shipment of the nearly half billion dollars and the State and Treasury departments set about untangling the logistics, the newspaper reported.

For the cash payment, which was reported in the Iranian press as a ransom payment, the U.S. had to reach out to the Swiss and Dutch governments and transfer the equivalent of $400 million to their central banks. The money was then converted into other currencies, loaded onto a nondescript plane and airlifted to Iran.

Wolf Blitzer
Wolf Blitzer

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer the United States cannot rule out that the $400 million in cash the Obama Administration gave to Iran will be used to fund terrorist activities.

Blitzer asked Toner if there were any restrictions on how the Iranians could use the funds.

“I can’t speak to what restrictions that may be in place regarding that,” he said. “That is Iran’s money. But, what we have seen, and I think some U.S. officials have spoken to this, is that the money has not been used–as far as we can see, for any nefarious purposes. It has been used for infrastructure improvement, development projects, et cetera.”

He then pointed out that Iran could possibly use the money to conduct “bad behavior” in the Middle East.

“We haven’t seen it used,” he said. “Now, we can’t rule that out again because we’ve seen Iran continue to exercise bad behavior in the region. We can’t change that overnight.”

Blitzer noted that the Iranian government “has still been providing military financial aid” to groups that the U.S. considers terrorist organizations or destabilizing forces, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria, among others.

Four Americans being held on false charges were released in the deal as well as a fifth person who was not known to the international press.

Those freed included:

  • Jason Rezaian,Washington Post reporter and Tehran’s bureau chief, whom Iran convicted of being a spy. In a bizarre and secretive trial, Rezaian was tried and sentenced but the sentence was never made public. The State Department called the charges “absurd,” as did the executive director of the Post, who also said the charges were “the product of fertile and twisted imaginations” of Iranian officials. Rezaians’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, who is a journalist for the National, an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, was also arrested but later released. She was previously not allowed to leave the country but is expected to be able to leave with her husband.
  • Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran and translator, who went to Iran to visit his grandmother and other family members (as he had done twice before). Hekmati was accused of being a spy for the CIA and sentenced to death. Although his conviction was overturned three months later, Hekmati remained imprisoned.
  • Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor from Boise, Idaho, who  was arrested for setting up an orphanage. Abedini, who had visited Iran many times previously, was convicted in 2013 on charges of threatening Iran’s national security (due to his alleged participation in home churches, which are illegal in Iran).
  • Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, who was unknown until the prisoner release. Khosravi-Roodsari remains a mystery to the international media.
  • Matthew Trevithick, a student, who went to Iran in September to study Dari in a center affiliated with Tehran University. Trevithick was held for 40 days and released separately. He was reported on his way home January 16.
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