(CNSNews.com) – President Trump on Thursday night contrasted this week’s release of three Americans from North Korea with the release in 2016 of five Americans held by Iran, and alluded to the view that the Obama administration had effectively paid a ransom for their freedom.
Speaking at a rally in Indiana 14 hours after welcoming the three Americans home at Andrews Air Force Base, Trump said Kim Jong Un had done himself and North Korea a favor by releasing them ahead of their summit, scheduled to take place in Singapore on June 12.
“Kim Jong Un did a great service to himself, to his country, by doing this,” he said. “But those hostages came out with respect, we didn’t pay for them.”
“They came out for nothing,” he said. “And the others came out for $1.8 billion in cash – can you believe that?”
The figure he cited was somewhat off, but Trump was referring to the release in January 2016 of five Americans imprisoned in Iran.
The regime released them on the same day the Obama administration handed Iran $400 million, in cash, in what it said was settlement of a long running legal dispute. A further $1.3 billion in interest was paid subsequently, also in cash.
The prisoner release also took place on the day on which the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, took effect (“JCPOA implementation day.”)
Critics at home said the money handover amounted to a “ransom” payment for what were effectively “hostages,” and U.S. lawmakers later introduced legislation prohibiting “ransom” payments in exchange for Iran’s release of imprisoned Americans.
Among the lawmakers who led the push was then-Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), who is his current post of secretary of state played a key role in securing the release of the three Americans in North Korea.
The Obama administration rejected accusations that the $1.7 billion amounted to a ransom. It said the payment was settlement of a claim for funds paid before the 1979 Iranian revolution for undelivered military equipment. $400 million was frozen Iranian funds, it said, while the other $1.3 billion was negotiated interest, accrued over three-and-a-half decades.
The Obama State Department did later concede that the money had been used as “leverage” to ensure the Americans’ release that day.
Citing concerns that Iran may renege on the release, plus “mutual distrust” between the two governments, then-spokesman John Kirby told a State Department briefing the following August, “we, of course, sought to retain maximum leverage until after American citizens were released.”
“It would have been foolish, imprudent, irresponsible, for us not to try to maintain maximum leverage,” he said.
“In basic English, you’re saying that you wouldn’t give them the 400 million in cash until the prisoners were released, correct?” a reporter pressed.
“That’s correct,” Kirby replied.
In his speech in Indiana, Trump went beyond the money/prisoner release issue when comparing his approach to North Korea to his predecessor’s handling of diplomacy with Iran.
He voiced optimism that the upcoming summit with Kim Jong Un would be “a very big success.”
“But if it isn’t, it isn’t,” he said. “We’re not going to be walked into an Iran deal where the negotiator, John Kerry, refused to leave the table. What a deal, what a deal.”
Trump on Tuesday withdrew from the JCPOA, a move that will lead to the restoration of nuclear-related sanctions against the regime in Tehran.
In Indiana he called it “a deal that would allow Iran to go right to the brink of nuclear weapons, and ultimately very quickly have a nuclear weapon.”
He said the JCPOA had also given Iran’s regime $150 billion, “which would be used to spread bedlam and death and destruction all over the Middle East.”
Still held or missing in Iran
The five Americans released by Iran in January 2016 were Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who had been convicted of espionage; Pastor Saeed Abedini, serving an eight-year 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.
At least five more Americans are currently being held by Iran, most of them detained after JCPOA implementation began on that day in January 2016.
They include Baquer Namazi, a now 81-year-old Iranian-American citizen arrested weeks after the nuclear deal took effect; and his businessman son, Siamak Namazi, also a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, who had been arrested the previous year.
Both were both sentenced in October 2016 to ten years’ imprisonment for cooperating with the U.S.
Xiyue Wang, a Princeton post-graduate history student, was arrested in mid-2016 while in Iran to conduct doctoral dissertation research. Last July he was sentenced to a 10-year sentence on espionage charges.
Also incarcerated is Karan Vafadari, an Iranian-American art dealer and adherent of the minority Zoroastrian faith who has been detained, along with his wife Afarin Niasari – a U.S. legal permanent resident – since mid-2016.
Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American environmentalist, was reportedly detained by Iranian intelligence operatives last January.
The former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran 11 years ago, remains unaccounted for.