Fact Check: Republicans Are Lying About Obama’s “Secret” $400 Million Payment To Iran

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Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus claimed President Obama “secretly gave the Iranians $400M at the same time 4 Americans were released from their custody” and linked to a Wall Street Journal story that has the right up in arms this fine Wednesday morning.

But as Adam Kahn, author of Hack the Bird pointed out, the White House discussed this money in a press briefing on January 19th, 2016 (my bold):

Q Thank you very much. Appreciate it, Josh. On Sunday, we learned that the United States made a payment to the government of Iran of $1.7 billion. Was this tied to the deal that led to the freedom of the Americans that were being held in Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, this is actually the result of a long-running claims process that had been at The Hague. In 1979, there was obviously an Iranian revolution that abruptly severed relations between our two countries. And prior to that revolution, the U.S. government had entered into an agreement with the then-Iranian government to transfer about $400 million in military equipment to the Iranian government. Once the revolution took place, obviously that equipment was not transferred, but we also didn’t return Iran’s money either. So that money essentially was held in what could, I think — essentially in an escrow account. And for more than 30 years now, the Iranians have been using this claims process at The Hague to try to recover that $400 million.
This resolution that we agreed to was to return the $400 million and also to pay about $1 billion in interest. Now, the reason that this ends up being a very good deal for taxpayers is that our exposure, when it came to paying interest, could have been much higher. The Iranians were actually seeking $7 billion to $8 billion in interest payments. And I think that’s an indication of how the interests of taxpayers were very well served by reaching this settlement.
Q Okay, but as I understand it, the Department of State announced this payment of $1.7 billion to the government of Iran just before the plane carrying the freed Americans landed in Geneva. You’re really telling me that this is an absolute coincidence that this payment just happened to coincide with the precise moment when the American prisoners were flying to freedom?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, I think we’ve made pretty clear that this is not a coincidence. The fact is, these kinds of diplomatic opportunities —
Q So it was — because Paul Ryan has suggested this was a ransom payment. You saw his statement.
MR. EARNEST: He’s wrong about that.

Speaker Paul Ryan made this accusation back in January. Someone might want to tell the Wall Street Journal this. This was addressed back in January as well, Ned Price, Spokesperson for the National Security Council, pointed out:

Certain reporters and Republicans are also acting as if the interest is a new thing but nope to that as well, see the reference to the interest in the January press briefing above. It is now August 3rd, presumably enough time to read the press briefing.

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Perhaps Republicans are trying to make Donald Trump’s claim that we gave Iran $150 billion for “nothing” look sane. Sorry, no go.

The Hill wrote up this morning that the administration “secretly” sent this money to Iran, and then used a claim by Republican (Tehran) Tom Cotton, who wrote a widely mocked and criticized letter to Iran, to complete the argument:

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said the transaction amounted to “a $1.7 billion ransom to the ayatollahs for U.S. hostages.”
“This break with longstanding U.S. policy, put a price on the head of Americans and has led Iran to continue its illegal seizures” of Americans, he added.

This is another example of two lies competing. One, the money wasn’t secret and two, Republicans believe/feel this was a ransom exchange but of course, they can’t prove it. So they just claim it as fact. This has been repudiated by the people who conducted the negotiations and while they could be lying, when we factor in track records for getting facts correct, Republicans don’t come out on the winning side.

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However, I would be willing to bet that all “negotiations” for hostages involve trading something egregious to get the hostages back, that is what a negotiation is, and I would be willing to bet that if we all knew what was traded — under any administration — it would make us queasy. The problem of incentivizing hostage taking is a real one. So it’s a fair question to ask, but it’s hardly an established fact.

The Hill even used language that directly references the January press briefing:

“The payment was part of a settlement over an arms deal from 1979, shortly before Iran went through a regime change.
U.S. officials have denied that the payment was a ransom for the release of the prisoners.
“As we’ve made clear, the negotiations over the settlement of an outstanding claim … were completely separate from the discussions about returning our American citizens home,” said John Kirby, a State Department spokesman. “

Here’s an AP report from January, “The Obama administration’s $1.7 billion payment to Iran to settle an arcane, decades-old financial dispute is prompting questions among Republican lawmakers”.

Oh, so not so very secret if the AP knew about it. Huh. The first few paragraphs lay out the issue:

The Obama administration’s $1.7 billion payment to Iran to settle an arcane, decades-old financial dispute is prompting questions among Republican lawmakers trying to piece together the full scope of last weekend’s dramatic U.S.-Iranian prisoner swap and the lifting of many American sanctions on Tehran.

The announcement’s timing, just after confirmation that three Americans left Iranian airspace, is leading to calls for investigations and shedding light on a little-known fund that the president can dip into when he wants to resolve international financial disputes. Legislative efforts are already afoot to curtail that ability.

U.S. officials deny claims that the payment was a bribe to ensure the release of a total of five Americans traded for the freedom of seven people in legal trouble in the U.S. over business deals with Iran.

Bottom line, it looks like Republicans are so desperate to distract from Donald Trump’s insane mental break that they’re sifting through their faux Obama scandal boxes and handing out talking points to any reporter foolish enough to fall for “the Benghazi emails implicate the Obama administration, but I can’t show them to you so just tell people you read them”

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scam from a “Republican aide”.

Whatever you think about the Iran deal, the money is not a secret. If Republicans can’t read and don’t bother to use Google, that is hardly reality’s fault.

Edit 3:00 PM EST Thursday: Vox explains here why the ransom theory is DOA:

But the Iranian negotiators on the prisoner exchange were not the same negotiators involved in the weapons deal settlement. Therefore, they couldn’t make demands of the US team negotiating the weapons deal settlement, which means they couldn’t negotiate a quid pro quo of money for hostage release, the definition of a ransom.

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