President Obama on Thursday rejected Republican assertions that his administration paid Iran a $400 million ransom to secure the freedom of four American hostages.
Obama expressed bewilderment that something that “was not a secret” when the funds were transferred has become a major issue following a new report that the payment was made in cash that was delivered via an unmarked cargo plane.
Senior Republicans, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona, on Wednesday blistered the Obama administration for handing over what they called a ransom payment.
Obama noted that his press secretary, John Earnest, conducted a briefing largely about the funds, held by the United States since an arms deal was canceled in 1979, when Iran’s last monarch lost power.
“This wasn’t some nefarious deal,” Obama said at the Pentagon following a meeting with national security officials about the fight against the Islamic State.
The president described the freeing of the hostages coming as the product of direct engagement with Iran about ending its nuclear weapons ambitions. As a result, Secretary of State John Kerry was able to talk with Iran’s top diplomats about several other matters, including the hostages and returning what his advisers have described as cash that was rightfully claimed by Tehran.
“We don’t pay ransom for hostages,” Obama said, reiterating a decades-old American policy.
He noted he often meets with family members of other Americans being held hostage in other countries. Paying a ransom to Iran while looking those family members in the eye “defies logic,” he said, adding it also would encourage other countries and actors to kidnap Americans with the goal of a big payday.
The revelation the transfer was made in cash might make the situation seem “like a spy novel,” but Obama said it was done because the two countries lack a formal banking relationship.
Other highlights of the president's pre-vacation Pentagon press conference:
- Obama said "Congress needs to do its job" and pass a bill to fund a response to the Zika virus outbreak because more cases in the United States are expected. He did not, however, call on lawmakers to return from their extended summer break early to do so.
- Obama took issue with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump's assertion that the presidential election is "rigged." He also said of whomever is elected that he plans to "do everything I can to help them succeed."
- The president said he lacks confidence that U.S. and coalition officials can trust Russia's assertions that it will target extremist forces in Syria rather than helping the regime there cling to power.