State Department Confirms That $400 Million Was Contingent on Prisoners’ Release

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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands on January 14, 2015, with U.S. State Secretary John Kerry in Geneva.Photo: Rick Wilking/AFP/Getty Images

The United States government’s $400 million cash payment to Iran was contingent on the release of American prisoners, State Department officials confirmed Thursday. The statement comes after The Wall Street Journal, building on details reported earlier in the month, discovered that American officials would not let Iran take control of the money until three of the four U.S. captives had already departed from Tehran aboard a Swiss Air Force jet on January 17.

The timing of the cash drop raised the specter of a possible random payment, which critics seized on and made Donald Trump imagine a top-secret video. The Obama administration denied any quid pro quo. The United States owed that $400 million payment, plus $1.3 billion in interest, to the Iranian government from a failed arms deal back in the 1970s, and the U.S. government agreed to return that money as part of the larger Iran nuclear deal — the details of which had been made public at the time.

But the optics are definitely not great. Republicans in Congress have been pressuring the Obama administration for more details, including whether the $1.3 billion in interest was also paid in cash, or transferred electronically. According to the Associated Press, the House Financial Services Committee is considering whether to hold hearings on the matter.