Obama accuses media of 'manufacturing outrage' in lengthy rant on Iran deal

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Obama on Iran Payment: We Do Not Pay Ransom

President Barack Obama went on an extended rant Thursday about a story that detailed the transfer of $400 million in cash to Iran the same day four American hostages were freed from the country.

"What we have is the manufacturing of outrage in a story that we disclosed in January," Obama said at a Pentagon news conference. "And the only bit of news that is relevant on this is the fact that we paid cash."

The Wall Street Journal described the transfer in a story earlier this week. The cash — euros, Swiss francs, and other currencies — was airlifted to Tehran on a cargo plane amid a prisoner swap in January in which seven Iranians detained in the US were exchanged for Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and three other Iranian-American prisoners.

The payment was part of a decades-old dispute over money Iran sent to the US to buy weapons that they never received.

See images of the hostages:

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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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Obama said the US had previously disclosed the $400 million payment to Iran and argued the reason the payment was made in cash was because of existing sanctions in place against Iran.

"The reason that we had to give them cash is precisely because we are so strict in maintaining sanctions and we do not have a banking relationship with Iran, that we couldn't send them a check and we could not wire the money," he said. "And it is not at all clear to me why it is that cash, as opposed to a check or a wire transfer, has made this into a new story. Maybe because it kind of feels like a spy novel ... because cash was exchanged."

The cash transfer came after the Obama administration struck a deal with Iran to limit its capacity to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief for the country. Some have said the hostages detained in Iran, whom were being held illegally, were used as bargaining chips as nuclear negotiations were underway.

"It's now been well over a year since the agreement with Iran to stop its nuclear program was signed," Obama said. "And by all accounts, it has worked exactly the way we said it was going to work."

He then railed against those who criticized the deal and thought it wasn't going to work:

"You will recall that there were all these horror stories about how Iran was gonna cheat and this wasn't gonna work and Iran was gonna get $150 billion to finance terrorism and all these kinds of scenarios, and none of them have come to pass. And it's not just the assessment of our intelligence community, 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."

"Why not have some of these folks that were predicting disaster say, 'You know what, this thing actually worked'? That would be a shock. That would be impressive. If some of these folks who had said the sky is falling suddenly said 'you know what, we were wrong and we're glad that Iran no longer has the capacity to break out in short term and develop a nuclear weapon.' But of course that wasn't going to happen."

Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin noted on Twitter after Obama's comments that the main criticism of the Iran nuclear deal is that "when the deal expires, we're screwed." If Iran follows the terms of the deal, they will not be able to build a nuclear weapon for 10 years — but after that, the country could boost its centrifuges and ramp up its nuclear program.

Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.

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