The U.S. government delayed its $400 million payment to Iran until the country released several American hostages, a new report suggests.
According to officials who spoke to The Wall Street Journal, once the American detainees were "wheels up" on Jan. 17, Iranian officials in Geneva were permitted to take the cash — made up of Swiss francs, euros and other currencies. The new revelation offers more fodder to critics who claim the payment was a ransom.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a one-time contender for the Republican presidential nomination, tweeted that the details of the report "confirm secret payoff amounted to ransom."
In a statement Wednesday evening, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called on President Barack Obama's administration to "drop the charade and admit it paid a $400 million ransom to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism."
"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," he said.
The Obama administration, though, has pushed back against such allegations, claiming the timing of the large payment was just a coincidence. The White House said the $400 million is the first installment in a decades-old $1.7 billion failed arms deal between Iran and the U.S.
While officials have been tight-lipped about the clandestine payment, the new report reveals the money pallets were transferred via an Iranian cargo plane after it was confirmed that three U.S. hostages had departed from Tehran in a Swiss Air Force plane. The round-trip flight from Tehran to Geneva was organized by Iran Air, the country's flagship carrier.
"Our top priority was getting the Americans home," one U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal.
One of the Americans released in January was Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini. In an interview, the Christian minister said a senior Iranian intelligence official at the time told him their departure was contingent upon the movements of a second cargo plane. Abedini said he has been asked to testify next month before the House Foreign Relations Committee.
State Department officials have rebuffed Abedini's claims.
Republican lawmakers are planning to hold hearings on the $400 million payment once Congress returns in September from summer recess. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), chairman of the House investigative committee, sent letters on Aug. 10 to the Justice and Treasury Departments and the Federal Reserve, requesting all records regarding the exchange with Iran.
Duffy asked U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to identify all "persons within the Department authorizing or otherwise taking steps to carry out the payment."
According to people familiar with the discussions, several senior Justice Department officials objected to the $400 million transfer because of fears it would be perceived as a ransom payment.
The Obama administration confirmed it has paid Iran the remaining $1.3 billion as part of the settlement reached in January. However, U.S. officials have refused to disclose when — or how — the cash was paid out.
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