US$1.7 billion payment to Iran raises questions


By Bradley Klapper, AP

WASHINGTON — The U.S. administration’s US$1.7 billion payment to Iran to settle an arcane, decades-old financial dispute is prompting questions among opposition lawmakers trying to piece together the full scope of last weekend’s dramatic U.S.-Iranian prisoner swap and the lifting of many American sanctions on Tehran.

The announcement’s timing, just after confirmation that three Americans left Iranian airspace, is leading to calls for investigations and shedding light on a little-known fund that U.S. President Barack Obama can dip into when he wants to resolve international financial disputes. Legislative efforts are already afoot to curtail that ability.

U.S. officials deny claims that the payment was a bribe to ensure the release of a total of five Americans traded for the freedom of seven people in legal trouble in the U.S. over business deals with Iran.

Sunday’s financial settlement between Washington and Tehran was largely lost amid U.S. elation over the release of the Americans and global interest in the latest benchmark in Iran’s nuclear transformation. With the United Nations’ confirmation that Iran satisfied the terms of last summer’s nuclear agreement, it immediately recouped tens of billions in frozen assets and earned the chance to gain significantly more from suspended oil, trade and financial sanctions.

The much smaller U.S.-Iranian agreement concerned more than US$400 million in Iranian money, dating back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the end of diplomatic ties, which the U.S.-backed shah’s government used to buy American military equipment. The Iranians got that money back last weekend and some US$1.3 billion in interest.

The administration said the settlement was decided on its merits, with officials arguing that Iran demanded more than US$3 billion and, at some points during the talks, much more for an agreement.

Earlier this week, however, one Iranian military commander painted the payment in a different light. Mohammad Reza Naghdi, head of the Basij paramilitary wing of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, said the wiring of the funds was a payoff for letting the Americans go.

U.S. officials insist that’s not true.

“There was no bribe, there was no ransom, there was nothing paid to secure the return of these Americans who were, by the way, not spies,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner responded, referring to the charges that held each of the Americans in Iranian prison for years.

In addition to those who left Sunday on a charter plane for Switzerland — Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati and pastor Saeed Abedini — one American was permitted to leave a day earlier while another who was freed from prison opted to stay in Iran. Rezaian returned to the U.S. on the private jet of Post owner Jeff Bezos, the founder of online giant Amazon, the Post reported Friday night.