The White House has rubbished claims that $400 million in cash paid to Iran soon after the release of five Americans detained by Tehran was a ransom.
The five prisoners, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, were released in January in exchange for seven Iranians held by the US on charges of sanctions violations.
The prisoner exchange coincided with the lifting of international sanctions on Iran.
At the time, the US also airlifted $400 million to Iran, saying it was the first instalment as part of a $1.7 billion settlement that was agreed at the Iran-US Claims Tribunal in The Hague. The amount pertained to a failed deal between the two countries involving the purchase of US military equipment by Iran before its 1979 revolution.
An unmarked cargo plane airlifted $400 million worth of euros, Swiss francs and other currencies to Iran, said Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in its article quoting officials from the US and Europe as well as congressional staff who had been briefed on the operation afterwards.
According to WSJ, Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who is a staunch opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, accused President Barack Obama of paying “a $1.7 billion ransom to the ayatollahs for US hostages.”
Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on Wednesday sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to appear at a future committee hearing to discuss the payment.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest rejected suggestions the money transfer to Iran was ransom or a secret payment.
"The United States, under President Obama, has not paid a ransom to secure the release of Americans unjustly detained in Iran and we're not going to pay a ransom," he said in response to the WSJ article.
Earnest said Republicans, who have long opposed the Iran nuclear deal, are seizing on how the money was paid to Iran as a way to undermine the deal. "They're struggling to justify their opposition to our engagement with Iran," he told a briefing.
He further said that the US does not have a banking relationship with Iran.
Due to international sanctions against Iran, the payment had to be made in cash, some US officials argue.
Senior officials at the Justice Department had objected to sending cash on a plane to Iran at the same time that Iran was releasing four imprisoned Americans (the fifth American was released separately). But their objections were overruled by the State Department, the WSJ reported in a separate story on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the discussions.
"People knew what it was going to look like, and there was concern the Iranians probably did consider it a ransom payment," the newspaper quoted one of the people familiar with the discussions at the Justice Department as saying.
Justice Department prosecutors were also concerned that the United States would release too many Iranian convicts and drop too many pending criminal cases against people suspected of violating sanctions laws, the second WSJ report said.
In response to the report, a Department of Justice spokesman said in a statement: "The Department of Justice fully supported the ultimate outcome of the Administration's resolution of several issues with Iran, including Hague settlement efforts, as well as the return of US citizens detained in Iran. We will not comment further on internal interagency deliberations."
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump blamed his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state during Obama's first term, for launching the talks with Iran.
"Our incompetent Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was the one who started talks to give 400 million dollars, in cash, to Iran. Scandal!" Trump said in a Twitter post.
Our incompetent Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was the one who started talks to give 400 million dollars, in cash, to Iran. Scandal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2016
The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, blasted the Obama administration in these words: "The Obama-Clinton foreign policy not only means cutting a dangerous nuclear deal with the world's number one state sponsor of terrorism, it also means paying them a secret ransom with cargo planes full of cash."
House Speaker Paul Ryan also joined the critics, saying, "If true, this report confirms our longstanding suspicion that the administration paid a ransom in exchange for Americans unjustly detained in Iran."