The Obama administration is facing a storm of Republican criticism after acknowledging that a $400 million cash payment to Iran seven months ago was contingent on the release of a group of American prisoners.
Thursday's explanation was the first time the U.S. had so clearly linked the two events, which critics have painted as a hostage-ransom arrangement.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the negotiations to return the Iranian money from a 1970s account to buy U.S. military equipment were conducted separately from talks to free four U.S. citizens in Iran. But he noted the U.S. withheld the delivery of the cash as leverage until Iran permitted the Americans to leave the country.
"First of all, this was Iran's money, OK? It was money that they were going to get back anyway," Kirby said Friday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program. While the prisoner and financial negotiations were separate, he said the two tracks converged and the U.S. "took full advantage" by insisting on the release of the Americans before making the cash payment.
The prisoner release and cash transfer occurred Jan. 17, fueling suspicions from Republican lawmakers and accusations from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump of a quid pro quo that undermined America's longstanding opposition to ransom payments. Several members of Congress immediately pounced on Thursday's shift.
"The president and his administration have been misleading us since January about whether he ransomed the freedom of the Americans unjustly imprisoned in Iran," House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. "The president owes the American people a full accounting of his actions and the dangerous precedent he has set."
Trump went further in a speech Thursday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, accusing President Barack Obama of lying. "He denied it was for the hostages, but it was. He said we don't pay ransom, but he did. He lied about the hostages, openly and blatantly," Trump said.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday new details of the crisscrossing planes on that day. U.S. officials wouldn't let Iran bring the cash home from a Geneva airport until a Swiss Air Force plane carrying three of the freed Americans departed from Tehran, the paper reported. The fourth American left on a commercial flight.
Earlier this month, after the revelation the U.S. delivered the money in pallets of cash, the administration flatly denied any connection between the payment and the prisoners.
"Reports of link between prisoner release & payment to Iran are completely false," Kirby tweeted at the time.
At an Aug. 5 news conference at the Pentagon, Obama said flatly: "We do not pay ransom for hostages."
"We actually had diplomatic negotiations and conversations with Iran for the first time in several decades," he said, describing a busy weekend that also included finalizing the seven-nation nuclear accord. The confluence of diplomatic activity meant "our ability to clear accounts on a number of different issues at the same time converged."
"This wasn't some nefarious deal," Obama said.
The money comes from an account used by the Iranian government to buy American military equipment in the days of the U.S.-backed shah. The equipment was never delivered after the shah's government was overthrown in 1979 and revolutionaries took American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The two sides have wrangled over that account and numerous other financial claims ever since.
The agreement was the return of the $400 million, plus an additional $1.3 billion in interest, terms that Obama described as favorable compared to what might have been expected from a tribunal set up in The Hague to rule on pending deals between the two countries. U.S. officials have said they expected an imminent ruling on the claim and settled with Tehran instead.
Some Iranian officials immediately linked the payment to the release of four Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who had been held in Iranian prisons.
Another of the prisoners, pastor Saeed Abedini, also had linked the two events. He said that as the prisoners waited for hours at an airport to leave Iran, a senior Iranian intelligence official informed them their departure depended on the plane with the cash. U.S. officials had pinned the delays on difficulties finding Rezaian's wife and mother, and ensuring they could depart Iran with him.
Republican Sen. John McCain, himself a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said the administration "paid ransom to the world's number one state sponsor of terrorism and has been trying to deny it ever since."
"The administration clearly has a lot of explaining to do," added Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the House Financial Services Committee chairman, saying Congress must "fully investigate this outrageous action."