The US used a plane filled with $400 million in cash intended for Iran as “leverage” to ensure that American prisoners were released by Tehran, a State Department spokesman said Thursday.
The money was held up because of concern Iran would not come through on its agreement to release the prisoners earlier this year, spokesman John Kirby said.
Kirby insisted the money was not a quid pro quo for the hostage release, explaining that Tehran ultimately would have received the money, separate from the prisoner release.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on the holding up of the money until the prisoners were let go.
A video emerged earlier this month that purportedly showed the payment on the same day that the prisoners were released in January. The Obama administration had denied that there was any connection.
“We announced these payments in January. Many months ago,” President Barack Obama told reporters at the Pentagon as the news broke. “They were not a secret.”
The timing has raised suspicions, especially among Republicans, that the US paid a “ransom” of sorts to the Iranians.
An administration official on Thursday argued that the timing was deliberate and shrewd.
“With concerns Iran may renege on the prisoner release given unnecessary delays regarding persons in Iran who could not be located, as well as mutual mistrust between Iran and the United States, we of course sought to retain maximum leverage until after American citizens were released — our top priority,” the official said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein defended the administration’s decision, saying that misconstruing White House statements had become an “art form” in campaign season.
“The facts are clear,” Feinstein told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.” “This was a negotiation over, I think, a 1979 sale. This is Iranian money that was frozen. The agreement was that the $400 million be returned to Iran.”
She added, “Now Iran was going to release hostages that we very much liked released. Would we send the money before they’re released or after they’re released? I ask for your judgment. I know what I would do. It would be after they are released. And that’s exactly what the administration did and I think it’s very much the right thing.”
By Laura Koran, Theodore Schleifer and Naomi Lim, CNN
CNN’s Allie Malloy contributed to this report.