President Obama responds to a story in this week's Wall Street Journal about a $400 million cash payment to Iran that was made at the same time that four hostages were freed, around the same time that the Iran Nuclear Deal was finalized last year.
State Dept. spokesperson Ret. Rear Admiral John Kirby said yesterday that the timing of the release of hostages was "all coincidental." "The team that was negotiating the release of our Americans, was a completely separate team than the one negotiating in The Hague; it was a completely separate process. Though simultaneously done, the timing is all coincidental," he said.
Obama's spokesman Josh Earnest said in a press breifing yesterday that the fact that cash was used in the payment was not relevant, "particularly when we all know there is no banking relationship between the U.S. and Iran." Earnest also accused critics of the deal of "lying to the American public," for suggesting the untraceable cash could have been used by the Iranians for "nefarious purposes."
"Our incompetent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the one who started talks to give 400 million, in cash, to Iran. Scandal!" Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday.
"It's been interesting to watch this story surface," the president said about the story published Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal.
Related Video:Earnest: "Certainly Possible" That $400 Million Cash Payment To Iran Was Used For "Nefarious Activities"
"This wasn't some 'nefarious deal,'" the president said Thursday afternoon at the Pentagon. "It was the assessment of our lawyers that we are are at a point that there was significant litigation risk," regarding the sanctions in an international tribunal, "and we could cost ourselves billions of dollars."
"It was their advice and suggestion that we settle" with Iran, the president explained.
Regarding the timing of the deal, "the issue is not so much that it was a coincidence, as it is that we were able to have a direct discussion," he said. "John Kerry met with the [Iranian] foreign minister, which meant our ability to clear accounts on a number of issues at the same time converged."
"And it is not at all clear to me why it is that cash as opposed to a check or a wire transfer has made this into a news story," the president noted. "Maybe because it feels like some spy novel or you know, some crime novel. Because cash was exchanged."
"The reason cash was exchanged is because we don't have banking with Iran," he said. "Which is part of the pressure we could apply to them, so they would close down a bunch of facilities that, as I remember, two years ago, three years ago, five years ago, was people's top fear and priority, that we make sure Iran doesn't have breakout nuclear capacity. They don't. This worked."
QUESTION: What is your response to critics who say the $400 million in cash you sent to Iran was a ransom payment? Was it really simply a "pure coincidence" that a sum, that was a payment held up for almost four decades, was suddenly sent at the exact same time that American prisoners were released. And can you assure the American people that none of that money went to support terrorism?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Okay. It's been interesting to watch this story surface. Some of you may recall, we announced these payments in January. Many months ago. There wasn't a secret. We announced them. To all of you. Josh did a briefing on them.
This wasn't some "nefarious deal." At the time we expressed that Iran had pressed a claim in a tribunal about money of theirs we had frozen that as a consequence of it working its way through the international tribunal it was the assessment of our lawyers where we are are at a point that there was significant litigation risk and we could cost ourselves billions of dollars. It was their advice and suggestion that we settle.
And that's what these payments represent -- and it wasn't a secret. We were completely open with everybody about it, and it is interesting to me how suddenly this became a story again. That's point one.
Point two, we don't pay ransom for hostages. We have a number of American hostages being held all around the world. I meet with their families. And it is heart breaking. And we have stood up an entire section of inter-agency experts who devote all their time to working with these families to get these Americans out.
But those families know that we have a policy that we don't pay ransom.
And the notion that we would somehow start now, in this high profile way and announce it to the world, even as we're looking into the faces of other hostage families, whose -- whose loved ones are held hostage, and say to them that we don't pay ransom, defies logic.
That's point two. We don't pay ransom.
We didn't here and we won't in the future. If we did, we would encourage Americans to be targeted.
Much in the way of countries who do pay ransom have a lot more of their citizens taken by various groups.
Point number three: Is that the timing of this was in fact dictated by the -- by the fact that as a consequence of us negotiating around the nuclear deal, we actually had diplomatic negotiations and conversationes with Iran for the first time in several decades.
So the issue is not so much that it was a coincidence, as it is that we were able to have a direct discussion. John Kerry met with the foreign minister which meant our ability to clear accounts on a number of issues at the same time converged.
And it was important for us to take advantage of that opportunity both to deal with this litigation risk that had been raised. It was important for us to make sure that we finished the job on the Iran nuclear deal. And since we were in a conversation with them, it was important for us to push them hard in getting these Americans out.
And let me make a final point on this. It has been well over a year since the agreement with Iran to stop its nuclear program was signed. And by all accounts it has worked exactly the way we said it was going to work. You will recall that there were all these horror stories about how Iran was going to cheat, and this wasn't going to work, and Iran was going to get $150 billion to finance terrorism and all these kinds of scenarios. And none of them have come to pass. And it's not just the assessment of our intelligence community. It's the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community. The country that was most opposed to this deal that acknowledges this has been a game-changer that Iran has abided by the deal that they no longer have the sort of short term breakout capacity that would alow them to develop nuclear weapons.
So what I'm interested in is if there is news to be made, why not have some of these folks who were predicting disaster say, you know, this thing actually worked. That would be a shock. That would be impressive. If some of these folks who had said the sky is falling, suddenly said, you know what, we were wrong, and we are glad that Iran no longer has the capacity to break out in short term and develop a nuclear weapon.
But of course that wasn't going to happen. Instead what we have is the manufacturing of outrage in a story that we disclosed in January. And the only bit of news that is relevant on this is that we paid cash.
Which brings me to my last point. The reason we had to give them cash is because we are so strict in maintaining sanction answers we don't have a banking relationships with Iran that we couldn't send them a check. We could not wire the money.
And it is not at all clear to me why it is that cash as opposed to a check or a wire transfer has made this into a news story. Maybe because it feels like some spy novel or you know, some crime novel. Because cash was exchanged.
The reason cash was exchanged is because we don't have banking with Iran. Which is part of the pressure we could apply to them, so they would close down a bunch of facilities that, as I remember, two years ago, three years ago, five years ago, was people's top fear and priority, that we make sure Iran doesn't have breakout nuclear capacity. They don't. This worked.