In a move that has drawn criticism from many Republicans, the administration of Barack Obama reportedly signed a "secret document" urging the United Nations to lift sanctions on two Iranian state banks on the same day that Tehran released four American prisoners in January.
U.S. officials and congressional staff who were briefed on the January interactions between the U.S. and Iran told The Wall Street Journal that senior State Department official Brett McGurk and an Iranian government representative reportedly signed three documents on January 17.
One document was an agreement to support lifting sanctions on the two Iranian banks, Bank Sepah and Bank Sepah International, which were blacklisted for funding Iran's ballistic-missile program. The sanctions were previously scheduled to be lifted in 2023 as per the January 16 nuclear agreement between Iran and other world powers.
Another "secret document" detailed the U.S.'s agreement to drop criminal charges against 21 Iranian nationals and Tehran's agreement to release the imprisoned Americans. McGurk also reportedly signed a third document in which the U.S. said it would send $400 million in cash to the Tehran, which would be followed shortly by two additional installments amounting to $1.3 billion as payment for a dispute between the two countries over a failed arms deal decades ago.
Hours later, Iran released the prisoners, the U.S. sent the $400 million cash payment and the U.N. Security Council lifted sanctions on Bank Sepah and Bank Sepah International, the sources said.
"Lifting the sanctions on Sepah was part of the package," a top American official who was briefed on the proceedings told The Wall Street Journal. "The timing of all this isn't coincidental. Everything was linked to some degree."
Many high-ranking Republicans, including Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have blasted the administration with allegations of foul play.
"This story grows more disturbing with each passing day," Ryan, a Wisconsin representative, said in a statement, according to Fox News. "It now appears that on the same day American hostages were freed from Iran, the administration not only agreed to the $1.7 billion cash ransom payment, but violated a key term of the nuclear deal by prematurely lifting ballistic missile sanctions."
The Obama administration maintains that this information is not new and has been widely available since January, and that it correctly followed all protocol for the situation.