WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration said Thursday that a $400 million cash payment to Iran seven months ago was contingent on the release of a group of American prisoners.
It is the first time the U.S. has so clearly linked the two events, which critics have painted as a hostage-ransom arrangement.
State Department spokesman John Kirby repeated the administration's line that the negotiations to return the Iranian money — from a military-equipment deal with the U.S.-backed shah in the 1970s — were conducted separately from the talks to free four U.S. citizens in Iran. But he said the U.S. withheld the delivery of the cash as leverage until Iran permitted the Americans to leave the country.
"We had concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release," Kirby said, citing delays and mutual mistrust between countries that severed diplomatic relations 36 years ago. As a result, he explained, the U.S. "of course sought to retain maximum leverage until after the American citizens were released. That was our top priority."
Both events 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.