President Obama on Thursday flatly denied that a $400 million pallet of cash delivered to the Iranian government in January, on the same day that four American citizens who had been detained by Iran were released, was a ransom payment, calling the latest uproar over the landmark nuclear pact with Tehran “the manufacturing of outrage.”
Mr. Obama said the payment was part of a decades-old dispute with Iran that had been litigated before an international tribunal, adding that his administration publicly disclosed the agreement in January.
“We do not pay ransom for hostages,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference at the Pentagon. In a forceful rebuttal to accusations from critics who said that the payment could put more Americans in danger of being held, he called “the notion that we would start now, in this high profile way,” one that “defies logic.”
On Jan. 17, the United States and European nations lifted oil and financial sanctions on Iran and released roughly $100 billion of its assets as part of the terms of the nuclear accord reached between Iran and six world powers.
The deal, meant to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, had Iran shipping 98 percent of its fuel to Russia, dismantling more than 12,000 centrifuges so they could not enrich uranium, and pouring concrete into the core of a reactor designed to produce plutonium.
It was a day of high drama that played out across Europe, Iran, and the United States. Tehran and the United States swapped long-held prisoners; the Americans, including Jason Rezaian, a reporter from The Washington Post, were released by Iran hours before the nuclear accord was put in place. Seven Iranians, either convicted of or charged with breaking American embargoes, were released in the prisoner swap, and 14 others were removed from international wanted lists.
The Obama administration came under immediate criticism from Republican presidential candidates, including Donald J. Trump, who denounced the swap as a sign of weakness and objected to the release of the $100 billion in frozen Iranian assets.
This week The Wall Street Journal reported the $400 million cash payment, raising questions about why the payment coincided with the release of the Americans held by Iran.
“It’s been interesting to watch this story surface,” Mr. Obama said. “Some of you may recall, we announced these payments in January. Many months ago. It was no secret.”
Mr. Obama’s comments came after a meeting with his national security staff on the battle to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
During the news conference he also called ridiculous any suggestion by Mr. Trump that the coming election would be rigged against him. While insisting that he has already spoken this week about his views on Mr. Trump, he nonetheless fielded a series of questions about the Republican nominee.
Asked whether Mr. Trump should receive classified briefings now, as is the norm for nominees of the two parties, Mr. Obama said that “they have been told these are classified briefings, and if they want to be president, they’ve got to start acting like presidents, and that means being able to receive these briefings and not spread them around.”
The president defended the continuing talks with Russia over military cooperation in Syria, saying that while he is clear-eyed about how much to trust Moscow, the United States has to try to bring an end to the war there.
“I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians and Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Obama said. “You’ve got to go in there with some skepticism.”
But, he added that he wanted to look at all options for a way out of a morass that has bedeviled his presidency for more than five years. “I’m pretty confident that a good chunk of my gray hair comes from Syria,” he said.
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