By Russ Read,
The White House has dismissed claims that it paid Iran a “ransom” in exchange for the release of four hostages in January, but one terror finance expert says the sketchy transfer has the hallmarks of a ransom.
“The timing of this, despite administration protests to the contrary, suggests that this was a ransom payment,” Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on terrorism finance and the vice president of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “And even if this was not what the administration intended, it certainly looks that way to the Iranians.”
Administration officials said that the $400 million payment was part of a separate deal involving a long-standing legal battle over Iranian money deposited in a Pentagon trust fund shortly before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The U.S. has agreed to pay the Islamic Republic a total of $1.7 billion to settle the dispute.
“We would not, we have not, we will not, pay a ransom to secure the release of U.S. citizens. That’s a fact,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest in a statement Wednesday. “That is our policy and it is one that we have assiduously followed.”
Despite Earnest’s statement, Iranian leaders claimed in January that the payment was indeed a ransom.
“This money was returned for the freedom of the U.S. spy and it was not related to the [nuclear] negotiations,” Iranian Brig. Gen. Reza Naqdi told Fars News, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in January.
Massive stacks of cash worth $400 million were flown to Iran via an unmarked cargo plane around the same time Iran released the hostages, according to a Wall Street Journal report Tuesday. U.S. officials did not disclose exactly when the plane landed in the Iranian capital of Tehran, but Iran’s Tasnim News Agency confirmed the aircraft arrived the same day the Americans left Iran.
Schanzer noted that the Iranian interpretation of the payment as a ransom could be the reason why the Islamic Republic has arrested two more U.S. citizens since the transaction.
“I would also add that the way this was done looks like an illicit financial transaction,” said Schanzer. He noted that transporting the cash, which was made up of mostly Euros and Swiss Francs, covertly as opposed to using standard banking channels was likely intended to “evade” U.S. sanctions.
“This was the sort of thing that used to earn our enemies new sanctions,” said Schanzer. “Now its being characterized by the White House as statecraft.”
Earnest has insisted that the mysterious cash transfer was due to the U.S. and Iran not having a formal banking relationship, and was not intended to be secret. He did not say how the remaining $1.3 billion would be paid out.