— -- Barack Obama's administration acknowledged for the first time today that a $400 million payment to Iran was used as "leverage" in the release of several American prisoners.
Earlier this year, when White House announced that Americans had been freed from Iran, it also said that a separate, decades-old financial dispute over the sale of U.S. weapons to Iran had been settled, resulting in a $1.7 billion payment.
The first installment of that payment came in a $400 million cash delivery made up of euros and Swiss francs. State Department spokesman John Kirby said today that payment was withheld on Jan. 17 until just after the five American prisoners were released, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.
“Because we had concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release ... we of course naturally ... sought to retain maximum leverage until after the Americans were released,” Kirby said today. “It would have been foolish, imprudent and irresponsible for us not to try to maintain maximum leverage. So if you’re asking me ‘Was there a connection in that regard in the endgame?’ I’m not going to deny that.”
But that statement appears to directly contradict previous lines from the administration early this month, after The Wall Street Journal broke the news that a cash payment coincided with the prisoner release. One of those statements came in the form of a tweet from Kirby saying explicitly the two actions were not linked.
On the same day, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner also attempted to shoot down any suggestion of a link. “The idea that this was all orchestrated as part of some kind of quid pro quo is just not accurate.”
The White House, too, was issuing vigorous denials of any quid pro quo.
Despite this new description, the White House and State Department maintain that the payment does not amount to a ransom. The administration has argued that paying ransom is against U.S. policy and that the money already belonged to the Iranians, independent of the situation with the prisoners.
“It’s time for the Obama White House to drop the charade and admit it paid a $400 million ransom to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism," Priebus said in a statement to ABC News. “President Obama has foolishly put a price on the head of every American abroad, and it should be no surprise that Iran has since detained more U.S. citizens.”
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska also issued a statement today after the comments from the State Department. “If it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. If a cash payment is contingent on a hostage release, it’s a ransom. The truth matters, and the president owes the American people an explanation.”