Obama administration denies Iran cash payment was ransom for prisoners

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Obama administration defends Iran payment

WASHINGTON, Aug 3 (Reuters) - The Obama administration said on Wednesday that $400 million in cash paid to Iran soon after the release of five Americans detained by Tehran was not ransom for them as some Republicans have charged.

The five, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, were released on Jan. 16 in exchange for seven Iranians held in the United States for sanctions violations. The prisoner deal coincided with the lifting of international sanctions against Tehran.

At the time, the United States said it had settled a longstanding Iranian claim at the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague, releasing $400 million in funds frozen since 1981, plus $1.3 billion in interest that was owed to Iran.

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The funds were part of a trust fund Iran used before its 1979 Islamic Revolution to buy U.S. military equipment that was tied up for decades in litigation at the tribunal.

"The link between prisoner release and payment to Iran are completely false," State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Twitter in response to a Wall Street Journal article that Washington secretly organized the cash airlift.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest heatedly beat back suggestions the money transfer to Iran was ransom, or 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 at a daily White House briefing.

Earnest said the Republicans who have long opposed the Iran nuclear deal are seizing on how the money was paid to Iran as a way 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."

See more from the prisoner exchange:

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Iran prisoner release deal
Amir Hekmati waves after arriving on a private flight at Bishop International Airport, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Flint, Mich. The 32-year-old Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who was released from an Iranian prison as part of a deal with Iran is returning to home to Michigan. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Amir Hekmati speaks to the media after arriving on a flight at Bishop International Airport, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016 in Flint, Mich. Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who was released from an Iranian prison as part of a deal with Iran, landed in his home state of Michigan on Thursday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
U.S. journalist Jason Rezaian waves as he poses for media people in front of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Rezaian was released from an Irani prison last Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
U.S. journalist Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Salehi hold hands as they pose for media people in front of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Rezaian was released from an Irani prison last Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
In this image made from video, former U.S Marine Amir Hekmati, center, is flanked by Michigan congressman Dan Kildee, left, and Hekmati's brother-in-law Ramy Kurdi as he speaks to the media in Landstuhl, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. Former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, who was one of four Americans released by Iran as part of a prisoner swap, is in good health and looking forward to getting home soon, a congressman said Tuesday. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Hekmati's home state of Michigan, said he spent several hours with the 32-year-old, who spent 4 ½ years imprisoned in Iran before his release over the weekend. (APTN via AP)
Dan Levinson, son of Robert Levinson, talks to reporters in New York, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. The relatives of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran almost nine years ago, said Monday they're happy for the families of prisoners released from Iranian custody over the weekend but wished government officials had warned them he would not be among them. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Christine Levinson, center, wife of Robert Levinson, and her children, Dan and Samantha Levinson, talk to reporters in New York, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. The relatives of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran almost nine years ago, said Monday they're happy for the families of prisoners released from Iranian custody over the weekend but wished government officials had warned them he would not be among them. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
U.S. Representatives Dan Kildee, right, and Jared Huffman talk to media people at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. Four U.S. citizens who were released from an Iranian prison where transferred to Landstuhl for medical treatment. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
U.S. Representatives Robert Pittenger, center, Dan Kildee, right, and Jared Huffman, left, talk to media people at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. Four U.S. citizens who were released from an Irani prison where transferred to Landstuhl for medical treatment. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
President Barack Obama makes a statement on the release of Americans by Iran, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama makes a statement on the release of Americans by Iran, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
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While there have long been questions about the timing of the payment to Tehran, one Iranian concern was that the Obama administration would face too much domestic political criticism if it delayed acting on the tribunal's decision.

Due to the international sanctions against Iran, the payment, made in euros, Swiss francs and other currencies, had to be made in cash.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump blamed his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for launching the talks with Iran.

"Our incompetent Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was the one who started talks to give 400 million dollars, in cash, to Iran. Scandal!" Trump said in a Twitter post.

Republican National Committee spokesman Reince Priebus also weighed in. "The Obama-Clinton foreign policy not only means cutting a dangerous nuclear deal with the world's number one state sponsor of terrorism, it also means paying them a secret ransom with cargo planes full of cash," he said in a statement.

House Speaker Paul Ryan was more measured, saying that: "If true, this report confirms our longstanding suspicion that the administration paid a ransom in exchange for Americans unjustly detained in Iran."

RELATED: See President Obama with the military through the years:

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Obama with the military (BI)
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Obama with the military (BI)

A soldier hugs the President as he greeted U.S. troops at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House)

Obama claps as he passes by 'The President's Own' US Marine Band on the White House grounds.

(White House Photo)

Obama greets US troops as he holds a Veterans Day event at the US Army Garrison at Yongsan military base in Seoul November 11, 2010.

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Obama shakes the prosthetic hand of Medal of Honor award recipient Army Sergeant 1st Class Leroy Petry. Army SFC Petry lost his right hand tossing away a grenade to save his fellow soldiers during combat in Afghanistan.

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President Barack Obama speaks to soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division during a visit to Fort Drum in New York, June 23, 2011.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House)

President Barack Obama talks with WWII veteran Kenneth (Rock) Merritt aboard Marine One after departing the 70th French-American Commemoration D-Day Ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, June 6, 2014.

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Obama greets US military service members and their families at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.

(Photo via Reuters)

(White House Photo)

Obama poses for a photo with troops at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

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Obama greets US service members at the Pentagon.

(White House Photo)

Obama signs a patient's military banner while visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed.

(White House Photo)

Obama fist-bumps a US soldier at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

(White House Photo)

President Obama visits service members in Afghanistan.

(White House Photo)

President Barack Obama poses for a photograph with Oregon National Guardsman, from left, Alek Skarlatos Air Force Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, and Anthony Sadler, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. The three helped prevent a terror attack on a French train in August 2015.

(Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)

Obama hugs a soldier while visiting troops at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

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President Barack Obama is introduced at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduation in New London, Conn., Wednesday, May 20, 2015, before giving the commencement address.

(Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
 

President Obama meets with members of military families.

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President Barack Obama jokes with Commander Wendy Halsey and Command Master Chief Al Marcucci following his arrival at Camp David, Md., for the G8 Summit, May 18, 2012.

 (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House)

The President applauds Medal of Honor honorees, from left, Staff Sergeant Melvin Morris, Sergeant First Class Jose Rodela, and Specialist Four Santiago J. Erevia, during the Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House. The President awarded these three Army veterans plus 21 others posthumously the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry.

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President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki encourage participants during the Wounded Warrior Project's Soldier Ride on the South Lawn of the White House, April 17, 2014.

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President Barack Obama visits soldiers at the USO at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany on June 5, 2009.

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama talk with Corporal William "Kyle" Carpenter, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.) in the Blue Room following a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House, June 19, 2014.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House)

President Barack Obama watches as members of the National Naval Medical Center's Marine Wounded Warrior basketball team play on the White House Basketball Court, Oct. 8, 2009.

(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House)

Obama greets military personnel after taking part in a ceremony welcoming the Wounded Warrior Project's Soldier Ride at the White House.

(Photo via Reuters)

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(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by John Walcott and James Dalgleish)

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