White House defends planned US-Iran prisoner swap amid fierce GOP criticism

"We're comfortable in the parameters of this deal," the NSC's John Kirby said.

September 13, 2023, 4:25 PM

The White House on Wednesday vigorously defended the administration's deal with Iran to free five detained Americans in exchange for unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue and the release of five Iranian citizens in U.S. custody.

The $6 billion in Iranian assets is coming from a restricted account in South Korea, where it was effectively frozen when the U.S. reinstated sanctions against Tehran after former President Donald Trump left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran's nuclear program and will be transferred to Qatar with restrictions that Iran can use it only for humanitarian purposes. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed off on the blanket waiver that paved the way for the funds transfer, and Congress was informed of the move on Monday.

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby insisted during a press briefing Wednesday that "Iran will be getting no sanctions relief" despite Republicans calling it "ransom."

"It's Iranian money that had been established in these accounts to allow some trade from foreign countries on things like Iranian oil. ... It's not a blank check. They don't get to spend it anyway they want. It's not $6 billion all at once. They will have to make a request for withdrawals for humanitarian purposes only," he said, adding that there will be "sufficient oversight to make sure that the request is valid."

Kirby was cautious not to reveal much about the detained Iranians that are part of the deal, saying it's still an ongoing process, but in general, said the crimes were "largely in the realm of sanctions evasions."

The detained U.S. citizens include Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, as well as two others who asked that their identity not be made public. Two Iranians, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, who was indicted by the Department of Justice in 2021 on counts that included conspiracy, violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and money laundering, and Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, who was charged by DOJ in 2021 with "acting and conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)," are on the list for a possible swap.

From left to right split shows photos of Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz and Siamak Namazi

Pressed on why the $6 billion needed to be released in addition to the five Iranian prisoners, Kirby said, "This is the deal we were able to strike to secure the release of five Americans."

"We're comfortable in the parameters of this deal. I get - I've heard the critics that somehow they're getting the better end of it. Ask the families of those five American's who's getting the better end of it and I think you'd get a different answer," he said.

When asked about Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's claim that the money is "fungible," Kirby said, "He's wrong. He's just flat out wrong."

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the White House, Sept. 13, 2023.
Susan Walsh/AP

Kirby said the funds in this agreement are "not a payment of any kind" and "not ransom" to secure the release of the Americans.

But Republicans blasting the planned swap earlier this week said the deal was a "ransom" and "sanctions relief."

"As Chairman of the [Republican Study Committee], we will use all legislative options to reverse this agreement and prevent further ransom payments and sanctions relief to Iran," Rep. Kevin Hern tweeted Tuesday.

The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, also expressed doubt on Wednesday that the funds would go only to humanitarian causes.

"Where is that going to go?" he said on Fox News. "It's going to go into terror proxies. It's going to go into building a nuclear bomb. This terrifies Israel and the surrounding nations in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia. This is probably one of the worst foreign policy moves I've seen."

ABC News' Desiree Adib contributed to this report.