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In heat of the campaign, White House and Clinton face questions about $400-million payment to Iran

President Obama talks about the $400-million cash payment to Iran.

President Obama and Hillary Clinton both expressed surprise Thursday that a $400-million cash payment to Iran early this year has suddenly become an issue in the presidential campaign.

After all, Obama had publicly disclosed the payment to Iran at a White House news conference in January called to announce implementation of the historic Iran nuclear deal.

At a news conference Thursday at the Pentagon, Obama did little to hide his bemusement at having to answer questions about the payment.

“There wasn’t a secret,” he said. “We announced [it] to all of you.”

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He described the money as the return of Iranian funds from a dispute dating back to the 1970s.

The administration could not send the money in dollars or send a wire transfer of funds because of U.S. sanctions, Obama said, so the money was delivered in other currencies  

“We couldn’t send them a check,” he said.

The president flatly rejected allegations that the $400 million was a ransom for four Americans who were released from Iranian custody at about the same time.

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The idea that the U.S. would have paid ransom “defies logic,” Obama said, and would have betrayed the families of other Americans held unjustly around the world — many of whom he has met with personally.

He took the opportunity to defend the landmark nuclear accord that the U.S.-led international coalition reached with Iran more than a year ago. The agreement has “worked exactly the way we said it was going to work,” he said. 

The impetus for renewed questions about a publicly announced settlement was a Wall Street Journal account of the transaction, which revealed that the $400 million was “converted into other currencies, stacked onto the wooden pallets and delivered to Iran on an unmarked cargo plane,” as the paper described it.

The existence of the deal itself was indeed disclosed and reported in real time, covered by the Los Angeles Times and others.

But what’s old can still be news, especially given the pace of the modern news cycle. Put it in the midst of a presidential campaign and all bets are off.

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has questioned the payment for two days.

“I woke up yesterday and I saw $400 million dollars, different currencies, they probably don’t want our currency,” Trump said Thursday in Portland, Maine. “Four hundred million dollars being flown to Iran. I mean, folks what’s going on here? What is going on?”

Trump again cited a video that he said shows an “airplane coming in and the money coming off.”

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“That was given to us has to be by the Iranians,” he said. “You know why the tape was given to us? Because they want to embarrass our country. They want to embarrass our country. And they want to embarrass our president.”

But his campaign has acknowledged to CBS News that the video, in fact, shows Americans landing in Geneva, Switzerland, and wasn’t provided by Iran.

Stephen Miller, a senior policy advisor to Trump’s campaign, still insisted that “nothing less than a full investigation is required.”

“This administration has embarrassed our country as no administration has before, going so far as to fund Islamic terror through cash payments to Iran,” he said in a statement. 

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) raised concerns that the report confirmed suspicions that the money was paid as ransom for the release of several U.S. citizens, including journalist Jason Rezaian, held by Iran. 

Iran said it was owed the money from an unfulfilled contract for U.S. fighter jets that the previous, U.S.-backed government had paid to the Pentagon. The aircraft were never delivered after the shah of Iran was deposed in the 1979 revolution. 

Ryan said if it were a ransom payment, it would “mark another chapter in the ongoing saga of misleading the American people” to sell the international agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear development program.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest denied that the money was paid as ransom.

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“The United States does not pay ransoms,” he said. “The only people who are making that suggestion are right-wingers in Iran who don’t like the deal, and Republicans in the United States that don’t like the deal.”

Clinton, who stepped down as secretary of State several years before the payment was made, bluntly described it as “old news” in an interview with a Colorado television station.

“So far as I know, it had nothing to do with any kind of hostage swap or any other tit for tat,” she said.

Republicans were only reviving the issue “because they want to continue to criticize the [nuclear] agreement, and I think they are wrong about that.”

“I have said the agreement has made the world safer, but it has to be enforced. And I’ve spoken out very strongly about how I will enforce this agreement,” she added. “I will hold the Iranians to account for even the smallest violation, and that’s exactly what I think needs to happen.”

michael.memoli@latimes.com

For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

3:40 p.m.: This story was updated with comments by President Obama and Donald Trump.

The first version of this post was published at 11 a.m. 


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