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The president has denied that the $400 million transfer of cash to Iran was in any way connected to the subsequent release of U.S. hostages.
“This wasn’t some nefarious deal,” Obama said during a press conference at the Pentagon. “We do not pay ransom for hostages.”
However, former U.S. hostage Saeed Abidini told the FOX Business Network that the plane he was on would not be allowed to depart until the cargo plane bearing the money arrived in Tehran.
In the interview, Abidini said he waited at the Geneva airport for hours:
Saeed Abidini: I just remember the night at the airport sitting for hours and hours there and I asked police— why you not letting us go — And he told me we are waiting for another plane and if that plane take off we gonna let you go.
Trish Regan: You slept there at the airport?
Abidini: Yes, for a night. They told us you going to be there for 20 minutes but it took hours and hours. And I ask them why you don’t let us go, because the — was there, pilot was there, everyone was there to leave the country. And he said we are waiting for another plane so if that plane doesn’t come we never let us go.
CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller says that neither the White House nor State Department mentioned the cash exchange:
The State Department defended the payment, however:
“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 State Department spokesman John Kirby, in response to the Wall Street Journal report.
Secretary of State John Kerry denied any improper transaction.
“The United States does not pay ransom and does not negotiate ransoms,” Kerry told reporters during a press conference in Buenos Aires. “It is not our policy. This story is not a new story. This was announced by the president of the United States himself at the same time.”
The White House has a different explanation for the cash transfer, according to Fox News:
The Obama administration has said the payment was part of a deal under the then-U.S.-backed shah to buy $400 million worth of military equipment in 1970s. The equipment was never delivered because in 1979, the government was overthrown and revolutionaries took Americans hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
The U.S. and Iran have been negotiating the Iranian claim to the money since 1981.
President Obama learned in striking fashion how the Israeli Minister of Defense feels about reports that $400 million was flown in wooden crates to Iran at about the same time that U.S. hostages were released by Iran in January.
According to Haaretz diplomatic reporter Barak Ravid, the Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman blistered Obama in a “formal statement”:
If it turns out the president cut a deal with Iran to release hostages in exchange for the $400 million in cash, he would be in violation of long-standing U.S. policy.