Over the Christmas break, the AP published a fact check on President Donald Trump’s claim that former President Obama paid ransom for the release of a hostage in Iran.
Aug 18, 2016: AP reporter gets Obama spokesman to admit on camera that $1.7 billion they gave Iran was quid pro quo for hostages.
Dec 25, 2018: AP publishes factcheck saying Trump is "recycling familiar fictions" by tweeting money was a quid pro quo for hostages. pic.twitter.com/CWeEdNSAaj
— Omri Ceren (@omriceren) December 26, 2018
The AP then responded:
—The $1.8 (actually $1.7 billion) was a debt owed to Iran, which bought military equipment from the U.S. that it never received because relations ruptured when the shah was overthrown in 1979.
—The debt was in international arbitration for years. As part of that, Iran paid settlements of more than $2.5 billion to U.S. citizens and businesses.
—$400 million, representing the principal and held in a U.S. government trust fund, was paid in cash and flown to Tehran on a cargo plane, which gave rise to Trump’s dramatic accounts of money stuffed in barrels or boxes and delivered in the dead of night.
The remaining $1.3 billion, representing interest accrued over nearly 40 years, was paid separately. In order not to violate U.S. regulations barring direct U.S. dollar transfers to Iranian banks, the money was remitted to Iran in late January and early February 2016 in foreign hard currency from the central banks of the Netherlands and of Switzerland, according to the Congressional Research Service .
Politifact also nailed the president on it.
While some in the national security community might consider the transaction unsavory, ineffectual, or legally questionable, calling it “ransom” isn’t quite accurate.
The word “ransom” implies that Iran refused to release the prisoners unless the United States turned over $400 million of its own money to Iran, and American officials capitulated.
In reality, the United States owed Iran $400 million as part of a longstanding dispute, and negotiators used that pending settlement as leverage to release the detained Americans. Experts said this kind of exchange is standard issue in U.S.-Iran relations over the past few decades.
The important but subtle nuance is this: While settling the $400 million helped ensure that the prisoners got home, it wasn’t an illicit payment. Iran, according to the claim adjudicators, had a legitimate right to the money.