President Obama's team used a $400 million cash payment as "maximum leverage" to get Iran to release American hostages, a State Department official confirmed Thursday.
"The payment of the $400 million was not done until after the prisoners were released," State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed to reporters.
Kirby tried to avoid using the term "ransom" to describe the payment, but he conceded that the payment was "connected" to the release of the hostages. The payment was originally touted as the first step in resolving a long-standing dispute about money owed to Iran dating back to a failed weapons deal agreed to before the 1979 revolution.
"We, of course, sought to retain maximum leverage until after American citizens were released, and that was our top priority," Kirby said. "If your top priority is to get your Americans out and you're already having some issues about locating some of them, [then] you want to make sure that that release gets done before you complete that transaction."
That admission contradicts one of Kirby's colleagues, who insisted that there was "no timing" that connected the cash payment to the prisoner release. "There was no timing that was associated between the two," State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told reporters on August 8th. "I'm not going to get into a tick-tock. What I do, though, want to disassociate the idea — that you haven't said but has been in the public narrative — that there was some sort of tie between the two."
But a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, said Kirby's comments essentially admit it was a ransom payment.
"In January, House Republicans raised concerns about what appeared to be a ransom payment for the release of Americans unjustly imprisoned by Iran," said spokesman Doug Andres. "For months, the president and his spokespeople denied that he had reversed decades of U.S. policy by ransoming the freedom of American citizens."
"Today, State Department spokesmen John Kirby finally admitted it," he added. "As the president once acknowledged, paying ransom 'risks endangering more Americans and funding the very terrorism that we're trying to stop.' He owes the American people a full and honest accounting of the ransom payment made in January."
President Obama announced in January that U.S. and Iranian negotiators, upon the conclusion of the Iran nuclear agreement, had also arranged the release of four American hostages. The United States, he said, granted clemency to six Iranian-Americans and one Iranian who were serving jail sentences at a time.
Obama described that decision as a "reciprocal humanitarian gesture." Only then did he turn to the dispute about the money owed to Iran. "With the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well," Obama said.
Despite that presentation, Republicans have long suspected that the $400 million payment functioned as a ransom for the hostages, especially in light of more recent reports that the money was flown into the country in cash. "I'm outraged to hear that our tax dollars are literally being shipped on cargo planes to a terrorist regime," Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., said on August 3rd. "President Obama is so desperate to defend his disastrous Iran policy that he has resorted to ransom payments, effectively putting a price on every American citizen who travels abroad."
Kirby maintained that Obama's original statement was correct. He said the extra revelation that the payment the the hostage release were in fact "tied" confirms that the administration took sensible precautions to prevent Iran from reneging on the hostage release. "If we had done it any differently, then I think that you and I ... would be having a much different conversation up here," he said.