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Iran Expert Weighs In On Controversial Washington-Tehran Money Transfer


What really happened when the United States paid $400 million to Iran? That question has returned to the news and to the presidential campaign. So we've brought in Karim Sadjadpour. He's with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He's come by. Good morning, sir.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Good to see you again. OK, so this started with a Wall Street Journal report the other day. They reported on what seemed like suspicious details in timing. Iran released four hostages. And on the same day, a plane arrived with $400 million in cash for Iran. Can we just go through the facts here? Who were the hostages?

SADJADPOUR: Well, there were several hostages. One was Jason Rezaian from The Washington Post. There was another gentleman called Saeed Abedini who is a Christian pastor and Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine. So there were several hostages...

INSKEEP: People that had been arrested at different times. Iran wouldn't have called them hostages. But they were being held in any case.

SADJADPOUR: Exactly, and several of them for more than a couple years.

INSKEEP: And so what was the cash?

SADJADPOUR: The cash was $400 million in multiple currencies - Swiss francs, euros, U.S. dollars - that was part of an overall $1.7 billion that was sent to Iran which was money left over from the Shah's time which Iran was owed.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people - back in 1979, change of government in Iran's revolution, the U.S. froze a lot of Iranian assets. This is money from back in those days, is that right?

SADJADPOUR: That's right, yeah.

INSKEEP: So this is money that Iran said it was owed that it was suing for. And the United States did make the payment on the same day. So before we get into how this appeared, was this, strictly speaking, a ransom payment?

SADJADPOUR: Well, I don't think you can call it a ransom because it was money that Iran was owed. At the same time, when the administration says this was purely a coincidence, that the money was exchanged at the same time that the hostages were released, I think that's also fanciful. I think this was clearly a quid pro quo.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to what the president did say about this in a press conference yesterday. He was asked if the hostage release or the prisoner release and the payment was connected, if it was a sort of secret ransom, and he answered in quite some length. Here's a little bit of it.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And it wasn't a secret. We were completely open with everybody about it. And it's interesting to me how suddenly this became a story again. That's point number one. Point number two - we do not pay ransom for hostages.

INSKEEP: Is he right that all the parts of this story were known at the time, way back in January?

SADJADPOUR: I think the aspect of the $400 million was - in cash payments flown on a plane in multiple currencies - that wasn't totally clear. And then the second part that, again, this was purely coincidental and the United States doesn't pay ransom - the reality now is that there are more U.S. nationals in prison in Iran, since this exchange took place, there are more U.S. nationals in Iranian prison...

INSKEEP: Meaning that Americans, Iranian Americans, in many cases, have been taken prisoner or arrested for various things, more of them than before.

SADJADPOUR: Exactly, and a precedent has now been set.

INSKEEP: Well, let's hear what Donald Trump had to say about this. He talked about it at some length on the campaign trail yesterday.


DONALD TRUMP: I got up this morning. And I pick up the papers. And then I turn on the news. And I see $400 million being shipped in cash.


TRUMP: And they didn't want dollars. It's being shipped in different currencies. And it's being shipped overnight to Iran - $400 million.

INSKEEP: Trump went on to say in considerable detail that he had seen a video of the cash payment being made, recorded, he said, by Iran's military. Is there such a video?

SADJADPOUR: No, he is, I think, mistaking something which was the Iranian revolutionary guards released a video after all of this. And they essentially wanted to show that they are better negotiators than the Iranian foreign ministry and they've gotten more in exchange than the Iranian foreign ministry got in the nuclear deal. But that video, which he thought was from Iran, it was footage from Geneva...

INSKEEP: From Switzerland of something else, basically.


INSKEEP: So there's not such a video. But there was a cash payment. Is the bottom line here that the United States was just trying to clear up a lot of old business all at the same time from Iran and even though they didn't want any of it to amount to be a ransom payment for prisoners, that's just part of the deal, that's how it turned out?

SADJADPOUR: I think that's essentially it. This was a long-running saga. The United States thought that they can kill several birds with one stone. And so I think that's true. At the same time I think it's a valid critique to say that the optics aren't great because it does appear that we're offering Iran a quid pro quo for the release of innocent American citizens.

INSKEEP: Karim, thanks for coming by once again.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.