When word leaked the U.S. paid Iran $400 million in cash after the release of several prisoners in January, the State Department and President Barack Obama denied the payment was a ransom, refusing to answer questions about whether the cash was a factor in the prisoners' release.
But now a report in The Wall Street Journal quotes Iranian sources who say the jet carrying the massive cash payment was held on the tarmac until Iran kept its end of the bargain, in what the newspaper called "a tightly scripted exchange specifically timed to the release" of the American prisoners.
The report directly contradicts statements from the State Department's press director, Elizabeth Trudeau, who refused to answer questions from The Associated Press about whether the cash payment and prisoner release were related.
“Claims that the freed Americans were not allowed to depart until a ‘plane full of cash,’ and I’m doing that in air quotes, are just false,” Trudeau told AP on Aug. 8.
Trudeau went further, saying there was a misleading "public narrative ... that there was some sort of tie between the two."
Likewise, State Department spokesman John Kirby denied the payment was contingent upon the release of the American hostages.
"Reports of link between prisoner release & payment to Iran are completely false," Kirby tweeted.
Instead, the Washington Free Beacon noted, administration officials claimed the cash payment was part of a $1.7 billion settlement in Iran's favor over a failed arms deal dating back to the 1970s. It's not clear why the U.S. would settle that debt 40 years later, or why the U.S. government would deliver a cash payment to Iran after freezing $2 billion of the country's financial assets that were held in New York banks.
An earlier story in the Washington Free Beacon, published Aug. 4, detailed how senior officials from the Department of Justice opposed the cash transfer, arguing that Iran would consider it a ransom and could potentially lead to more U.S. citizens getting kidnapped overseas.
But the State Department was set on going ahead with the deal, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“Our top priority was getting the Americans home,” an unnamed U.S. official told the newspaper.