The administration's task in denying that allegation just became much more difficult.
In response to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the State Department on Thursday acknowledged that the money was used as "leverage" in the prisoner-release negotiations. The money was already due to Iran as part of a settlement over a decades-old failed arms deal — also reached in January — but State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed it was withheld until the prisoners had left Iran.
"With concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release, given unnecessary delays regarding persons in Iran who could not be located — as well as, to be quite honest, mutual mistrust between Iran and the United States," Kirby said, "we of course sought to retain maximum leverage until after American citizens were released. That was our top priority."
Asked whether Kirby was saying the payment was contingent upon the prisoners being released, he responded, "That's correct."
How does this square with what the Obama administration said before?
Back on Aug. 3, after the Wall Street Journal revealed the $400 million payment, Kirby said the two matters were "completely separate." The money was the first installment of the $1.7 billion settlement reached at The Hague, and he said the negotiations were handled by a separate team.
The administration had announced in January that Iran would receive $400 million plus $1.3 billion in interest to settle the outstanding claim. But it said nothing about the timing, including that the initial payment had already been made simultaneously with the prisoner release.
"As we've made clear, the negotiations over the settlement of an outstanding claim at The Hague Tribunal were completely separate from the discussions about returning our American citizens home,” Kirby said at the time. “Not only were the two negotiations separate, they were conducted by different teams on each side, including, in the case of The Hague claims, by technical experts involved in these negotiations for many years.”
White House press secretary Joshua Earnest said that same day that the ransom allegations were meant to undermine the administration's deal to rein in Iran's nuclear program.
"We would not, we have not, we will not, pay a ransom to secure the release of U.S. citizens," Earnest said. "That's a fact. That is our policy, and it is one that we have assiduously followed."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Aug. 5 that the administration was aware of "the optics" of the cash transfer and had moved to "address it upfront."
"The president spoke to this settlement. Secretary [John] Kerry spoke to the settlement at the time and tried to say, 'Look, guys, I know [what] it looks like, but there's no there there,'" Toner said.
The administration is indeed walking a very fine line here. And reporters at Thursday's briefing clearly felt like they, at the very least, hadn't gotten the whole story from the State Department about the cash transfer.
Kirby's assurance that the two negotiations were "completely separate" is hard to square with the fact that the $400 million was contingent upon the prisoner release. While the negotiations over the prisoners and the cash might have been separate, the resolutions clearly weren't.
Of course, the money was already due to Iran — at some point — for an expressly different reason than the prisoner exchange. The Obama administration announced it in January, at the same time it reached a deal on the prisoner exchange and began implementation of the nuclear deal. The proximity of those events also makes it harder to separate them. But the cash transfer wasn't news; the timing and contingency was.
Robert Baer, a former CIA case worker in the Middle East who is now an author, might have said it best earlier this month.
“Technically, the State Department may be right,” Baer told The Washington Post. “But given the archaeology of our relations with Iran, it looks very bad. They take people. They get money back they think is theirs.”
Update 11:30 a.m.: Appearing on Fox News on Friday morning, Kirby acknowledged the increasingly bad optics of the situation and said he gets why people might see it as a ransom. "I understand why people would say that, Martha. I get that. But that doesn’t change the facts."
Thursday's revelation does indeed look bad for the administration, as did the after-the-fact revelation of the $400 million transfer made to Iran, and they both breathe life into Republicans' long-standing allegations that this was a quid pro quo in which prisoners were released in exchange for cash. There's a reason such things are avoided; they risk putting overseas Americans in danger of being held in exchange for money.
Expect plenty of parsing in the days to come.