(CNSNews.com) – The head of the Iranian regime’s notorious Basij militia claimed Wednesday that Iran had received $1.7 billion from the U.S. in exchange for the release of imprisoned Americans, contradicting the Obama administration’s denial that the settling of a decades-old legal claim amounted to a ransom.
Tehran’s semi-official Fars news agency quoted Basij commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi as saying in an address to militia members that the U.S. agreed to pay the money to buy freedom for what the news agency called “its spies held by Iran.”
Fars headlined its report, “Basij Commander: U.S. Bought Freedom of Spies by Releasing $1.7 bln of Iran’s Frozen Assets.”
“The annulment of sanctions against Iran’s Bank Sepah and reclaiming of $1.7 mln [sic] of Iran’s frozen assets after 36 years showed that the U.S. doesn’t understand anything but the language of force," Naqdi said. “This money was returned for the freedom of the U.S. spy.”
Iran at the weekend released Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, convicted of espionage last year; pastor Saeed Abedini, sentenced in early 2013 to an eight-year prison term after being convicted of “crimes against national security”; former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, sentenced to death (later overturned) for spying; researcher Matthew Trevithick; and an Iranian-American, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari.
Rezaian, Abedini and Hekmati have long been viewed by supporters as “hostages,” along with the still unaccounted-for former FBI agent, Robert Levinson.
Also at the weekend, the administration announced the settlement of an Iranian legal claim arising from pre-1979 weapons supply agreements, plus an additional $1.3 billion in accumulated interest.
This is evidently the sum referred to by Naqdi and in the Fars report headline.
The timing of the two weekend events – and a third, the formal easing of sanctions against Iran as a result of the arrival of “implementation day” for the nuclear deal – prompted speculation of links between them, and the possibility that the payout was tantamount to a ransom.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wondered on CNN on Monday whether the $1.7 billion was “part of the ransom that we had to pay to get innocent Americans back from Iranian captivity.”
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), AshLee Strong, also used the word, welcoming the release of the prisoners but adding “we’re awaiting details from the administration on the ransom paid for their freedom.”
Strong later told the Washington Post that in return for freedom for unjustly imprisoned Americans, President Obama was “giving Iran a roughly $1.7 billion cash infusion.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday rejected the ransom allegation.
“Paul Ryan has suggested this was a ransom payment,” ABC News’ Jon Karl put to Earnest during his daily press briefing.
“He’s wrong about that,” Earnest replied.
“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,” Karl said.
“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?”
Earnest said that it was “not a coincidence” but that implementation of the nuclear deal “created a series of diplomatic opportunities for the United States that we’ve capitalized on.”
“And we used that opening and we used that deeper diplomatic engagement to secure the release of five American citizens who are being unjustly held inside of Iran,” he said. “And we used that diplomatic opening to resolve a longstanding financial claim that the Iranians had against the United States.”
Earnest said the payout was “a very good deal” for U.S. taxpayers, since the Iranians had been demanding seven to eight billion dollars in interest.
He characterized the steps as evidence of the administration’s “tough, principled diplomacy, even with countries like Iran with whom we have significant and longstanding disagreements.”