U.S. Held Cash Until Iran Freed Prisoners

Two weeks ago the WSJ revealed the Obama administration sent Iran $400 million in cash while the Iranians released some American hostages [a]. That triggered a debate about whether the payment was a ransom: critics insisted the two were linked but the administration said they were unrelated.

Then one of the released hostages, Pastor Saeed Abedini, seemed to confirm it was a ransom: he said that according to an Iranian intelligence official at the airport, the hostages' plane was held overnight while the Iranians waited for a second plane, presumably the plane with the cash [b]. The administration flatly denied that sequencing to journalists, saying the hostages weren't held up pending the cash. But officials wouldn't clarify the timing any further, and eventually a State Department spokesperson said it was "pretty much" a waste of time for reporters to keep asking about it [c].

The WSJ locked down the sequencing anyway. The cash payment was absolutely conditioned on the hostage release.

The trick is that the administration didn't technically lie to reporters: Iran didn't hold up the hostages until the cash arrived, according to the WSJ. Instead it was the administration which held up the cash until Iran let the hostages get into the air --

New details of the $400 million U.S. payment to Iran earlier this year depict a tightly scripted exchange specifically timed to the release of several American prisoners held in Iran... U.S. officials wouldn't let Iranians take control of the money until a Swiss Air Force plane carrying three freed Americans departed from Tehran... Once that happened, an Iranian cargo plane was allowed to bring the cash back from a Geneva airport that day... Once the Americans were “wheels up” on the morning of Jan. 17, Iranian officials in Geneva were allowed to take custody of the $400 million in currency.

The full article is pasted below. There's another scoop in there - about how the Iranians loaded the cash into an IRGC-linked airline - which is a completely separate issue from the ransom, but is still likely to deepen controversy over the transfer.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-held-cash-until-iran-freed-prisoners-1471469256

By JAY SOLOMON andCAROL E. LEE
Aug. 17, 2016 5:27 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — New details of the $400 million U.S. payment to Iran earlier this year depict a tightly scripted exchange specifically timed to the release of several American prisoners held in Iran, based on accounts from U.S. officials and others briefed on the operation.

U.S. officials wouldn't let Iranians take control of the money until a Swiss Air Force plane carrying three freed Americans departed from Tehran on Jan. 17, the officials said. Once that happened, an Iranian cargo plane was allowed to bring the cash back from a Geneva airport that day, according to the accounts.

President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have said the payment didn’t amount to ransom, because the money was owed by the U.S. to Iran as part of a longstanding dispute linked to a failed arms deal from the 1970s. U.S. officials have said that the prisoner release and cash transfer took place through two separate diplomatic channels.

But the handling of the payment and its connection to the release of the Americans have raised questions among lawmakers and administration critics.

The use of an Iranian cargo plane to move pallets filled with $400 million brings clarity to one of the mysteries surrounding the cash delivery to Iran first reported by The Wall Street Journal this month. Administration officials have refused to publicly disclose how and when the cash transfer authorized by Mr. Obama took place.

Executives from Iran’s flagship carrier, Iran Air, organized the round-trip flight from Tehran to Geneva where the cash—euros and Swiss francs and other currencies stacked on shipping pallets—was loaded onto the aircraft, these people said.

“Our top priority was getting the Americans home,” said a U.S. official.

Once the Americans were “wheels up” on the morning of Jan. 17, Iranian officials in Geneva were allowed to take custody of the $400 million in currency, according to officials briefed on the exchange.

The payment marked the first installment of a $1.7 billion settlement the Obama administration announced it had reached with Tehran in January to resolve a decades-old legal dispute traced back to the final days of Iran’s last monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. His government paid $400 million into a Pentagon trust fund in 1979 for military parts that were never delivered because of the Islamic revolution that toppled him.

Mr. Obama said on Aug. 4 that it was necessary to procure the cash for Iran because of economic sanctions on the country.

One other U.S. citizen freed in the January prisoner exchange was released separately.

Republican lawmakers have charged that the $400 million payment equated to a ransom paid by the White House to gain the release of the Americans.

Republican leaders said they are preparing to hold hearings on the $400 million transfer once Congress returns from its summer break in September. Rep. Sean Duffy (R., Wis.), chairman of a House investigative body, sent letters to the Justice and Treasury Departments, as well as the Federal Reserve, on Aug. 10 requesting all records related to the Iran exchange.

Mr. Duffy asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to identify all “persons within the Department authorizing or otherwise taking steps to carry out the payment.”

Senior Justice officials objected to the $400 million cash transfer due to fears it would be seen as a ransom payment, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Lawmakers have focused on the mechanics of the $400 million cash transfer to try to back their allegations that the delivery of the money was in exchange for the return of the jailed Americans.

One of the Americans released in January as part of the prisoner exchange, a Catholic pastor named Saeed Abedini, said he and other American prisoners were kept waiting at Mehrabad airport for more than 20 hours from Jan. 16 to the morning of Jan. 17. He said in an interview that he was told by a senior Iranian intelligence official at the time that their departure was contingent upon the movements of a second airplane.

Mr. Abedini said he was asked to testify next month before the House Foreign Relations Committee.

State Department officials have rebutted Mr. Abedini’s comments, saying the delay in his plane’s departure wasn’t related to a second plane or the payment of the $400 million. They said the delay was solely tied to U.S. efforts to locate the wife and mother of another imprisoned American, the Washington Post’s former Tehran bureau chief, Jason Rezaian, and ensuring they were allowed to board the Swiss plane as well.

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Iran Air in 2011 for allegedly ferrying weapons and supplies for Tehran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Treasury said in its designation that “IRGC officers occasionally take control over Iran Air flights carrying special IRGC-related cargo.”

Lawmakers are concerned the IRGC may have gained control of the cash once in Tehran. U.S. officials said they are not certain how Iran has used the $400 million that was returned.

The Treasury Department lifted sanctions on Iran Air on Jan. 16—the day before the cash and prisoner transfers—as part of the landmark nuclear agreement reached between Iran, the U.S. and other global powers. The U.S. has maintained sanctions on a second Iranian air carrier, Mahan Air, for its alleged role in facilitating arms shipments for the IRGC.

Obama administration officials have confirmed that they have paid the remaining $1.3 billion to Iran as part of the settlement reached in January on the failed arms deal. This marked the interest accrued over the past 37 years on the original $400 million paid by Iran.

U.S. officials, however, have refused to disclose how the Obama administration made this additional payment. Lawmakers are seeking to determine whether this money was also paid in cash or if the Treasury Department was able to wire it electronically.

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[a] http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-sent-cash-to-iran-as-americans-were-freed-1470181874
[b] http://www.foxbusiness.com/features/2016/08/04/freed-american-hostage-waited-all-night-at-airport.html
[c] http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2016/08/260911.htm

WASHINGTON FREE BEACON

White House Partner Asked Soros for $750K to Fund Pro-Iran Deal ‘Echo Chamber’

Ploughshares Fund needed cash to spin media, pay off ‘validators’

BY: Adam Kredo 
August 18, 2016 5:00 am

An organization that played a key role in the White House’s effort to mislead the public and Congress about last summer’s nuclear agreement with Iran requested $750,000 for this campaign from a foundation backed by liberal billionaire George Soros, according to funding documents leaked to the public.

The Ploughshares Fund, a liberal organization cited by top White House officials as a chief architect of the Obama administration’s campaign to push the Iran deal, requested the cash from Soros’s Open Society Foundations so that it could pay off “experts and validators” of the administration’s diplomacy with Iran, according to a funding proposal titled, “Defending Iran Nuclear Diplomacy.”

The March 2015 funding request was leaked online as part of a massive document disclosure that revealed Soros’s efforts to fund a large network of liberal nonprofits and political groups.

The disclosure of the Ploughshares request shines further light on backroom efforts by the White House and its top allies to create what they called an “echo chamber” to galvanize public support for the nuclear deal with Iran.

Ploughshares was cited by senior White House officials as a chief architect of this campaign, which flooded the media with various experts touting the deal.

Ploughshares requested the $750,000 in order to solidify its pro-Iran network and bring others into the fold, according to the funding request.

This included efforts to “broaden and better coordinate circle of experts and validators who support diplomacy, including prominent US, European and Israeli military and diplomatic personalities, as well as Iranian human rights and civil society leaders,” according to the document.

Ploughshares raised concerns that opponents of the deal would scuttle negotiations before the administration achieved a final agreement.

“One potential risk is that unforeseen events or actions by opponents in the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Israel somehow make a deal impossible before the grant is fully implemented,” the document states. “Another potential risk is that negotiations on an accord or implementation phases extend beyond timeframe of the grant, and opportunities to derail diplomacy persist after resources might have been expended.”

The money would be used to facilitate “mainstream and social media outreach by validators along with other public and private efforts to shape the debate in support of an agreement and continued diplomacy,” the request states.

Ploughshares also hoped to “increase outreach by coalition members and validators to policymakers with focus on long-term impact of the deal on regional and global security issues where potential cooperation with Iran could be beneficial.”

The request provides a glimpse into efforts by the White House and its allies to strengthen its grasp on the media in order to prevent negative coverage of the Iran agreement.

The Free Beacon disclosed earlier this week that the Washington Post published an op-ed by a contributor employed by organizations that had taken money from Ploughshares. The op-ed advocated in favor of a recent $400 million cash payment to Iran, but the author and the newspaper did not disclose this relationship.

The scandal also has engulfed National Public Radio, which took money from Ploughshares while conducting interviews with proponents of the deal. NPR was also caught cancelling interviews with top congressional opponents of the agreement.

One foreign policy consultant who has worked intimately with Congress on the Iran deal said that the Ploughshares funding request is further proof that the White House’s efforts were well funded and highly influential.

“You couldn’t turn around last summer without bumping into some Iran deal booster complaining about all the money that skeptics were spending,” the source said. “Now we find out that the architects of the Iran echo chamber were soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars from dark money groups to pour into manipulating the media and pushing fabricated experts into the mainstream.”

Neither the Open Society Foundations nor Ploughshares returned requests for comment.