Payment to Iran was used as ‘leverage’ for hostage release, admits State Department

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JUDY WOODRUFF: The January release of American prisoners from Iran was accompanied by a $400 million payment, money the Islamic republic had been owed for decades from a weapons sale that was never completed between the United States and Iran because of the revolution there. The Obama administration announced the payment at the time.

But, lately, critics have alleged that the payment’s proximity to the release amounted to a ransom, a charge the administration denies. But, yesterday, the State Department modified its response, saying the millions of dollars were used as — quote — “leverage” amid the negotiations over the prisoners.

Earlier today, I spoke with the State Department’s top spokesman, Adm. John Kirby.

Adm. John Kirby, welcome.

You have said that the cash payment that went to the Iranian government was intended as leverage to gain the release of these American prisoners. How is that different from paying ransom?

JOHN KIRBY, State Department Spokesman: Well, I didn’t say that it was used — that it was a leverage payment.

Remember, this was Iranian money that they had coming to them through The Hague tribunal, and it was money that had been frozen way back in 1979. So it was their money and they were going to get it anyway.

These parallel tracks were moving forward, and they began to converge. In fact, we took advantage of the convergence in a short 24-hour period to kind of wrap it all up together.

Now, what I said is, though, while there is no connection between the $400 million and the return of our American citizens, we did, however, in those endgame hours, hold back that payment until we knew that our Americans were safe and sound and on their way out of Iran, because, in the very last few hours, Iran was playing a few games here on us.

And we weren’t quite sure that the release was going to happen. And we were worried about Iran reneging on that very lengthy negotiation process that we put in place to bring them home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we know that there are more Americans still being held in Iran, and we know that the U.S. still owes Iran over a billion dollars in payments. Could that money be used to help gain the release of these additional Americans?

JOHN KIRBY: Well, again, we don’t pay ransom, Judy, and this wasn’t ransom. It’s a policy. The United States doesn’t pay ransom.

The $1.3 billion that you’re referring to, which was the interest payment scheduled based on the $400 million frozen assets, that has already been taken care of through the judgment fund. So that money has been paid out to Iran through a separate process.

But, in any event, regardless, we don’t pay ransom.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s turn to Syria. There have been horrific images coming out of there in the last few days, especially from Aleppo. We know that Secretary Kerry has been working on some sort of military cooperation, coordination between the U.S. and Russia. How would that work?

JOHN KIRBY: Well, there’s a couple of things here going on. Right?

I mean, there is obviously a coalition effort against Da’esh inside of Syria, which does have military components. And then there is a very strong and strident effort diplomatically to come to a political solution inside Syria.

And right now, because the cessation of hostilities hasn’t been uniformly observed and the regime keeps violating it, and Russian military activity keeps supporting those violations in some regards, but we have teams, Russian and U.S. teams, that are working through a series of proposals that were agreed to a couple of weeks ago in Moscow by the secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov to get the cessation of hostilities enforceable nationwide and in an enduring way.

We hope that they will be successful. But as the secretary said himself, this isn’t about trust and it isn’t about blind faith. This will only work if Russia is willing and able to use the influence that we know they have on the Assad regime to get these bombings to stop, to reduce the violence, to create not only a safer environment for the Syrian people, but he still believes that, if we can create some breathing space, if we can create a reduction in violence, that he can get the opposition and the regime back to the table perhaps as early as the end of this month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as you say, that is a big if. But even if it did work, wouldn’t it mean that President Assad would remain in power, as the Russians now currently say they want him to do? And doesn’t that contradict what the U.S. goal is, which is to remove him?

JOHN KIRBY: Well, I would say a couple of things there.

First of all, the Russians have had a long relationship with and in Syria for decades now, and we have seen in the past where their Russian — their activity, their military activity has bolstered the regime in very unhelpful ways, obviously.

But I will also say this. The Russians are a co-founder of the International Syria Support Group. The Russians signed on to the U.N. Security Council resolution which codified that process and codified the movement towards a cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access.

The Russians themselves have said in paper, in writing that they, like the rest of the international community, want to seek a Syria that is whole, and unified, and pluralistic, safe and secure.

Now, as part of all that, they have also agreed to a transitional process in Syria to get to a government that is decided upon by the Syrian people, and that’s what we’re all working towards.

Now, we have said our policy is that we don’t believe Bashar al-Assad, because of his brutality, can be a part of the long-term future of Syria. We still believe that. That is still the case. Our view is, Assad cannot be at the head of such a government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Admiral Kirby, one other quick subject, Ukraine.

We know that the Russians have been beefing up their military presence along the border. We know that President Putin is in Crimea today, which Russia invaded two years ago. What does the U.S. think President Putin is up to, and what is the U.S. prepared to do if the Russians do go into Ukraine?

JOHN KIRBY: Obviously, increased military activity along the border is not going to be helpful to creating a secure future here and to getting us past the tensions and towards a full implementation of Minsk.

Now, the Russians have committed to Minsk implementation. We obviously want to see all sides contribute to that in a meaningful way. That means pulling back the weapons. It means pulling back the forces. It means allowing for monitors to go in and allowing for local elections.

And we aren’t there yet. And the secretary routinely discusses this with Foreign Minister Lavrov. That’s the outcome that we want to see.

On Crimea, we do not recognize the occupation of Crimea. Crimea is part of Ukraine. And we have said long ago you can’t redraw the borders of the map of Europe through the barrel of a gun, as was done in Crimea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Admiral John Kirby at the State Department, we thank you.

JOHN KIRBY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After our interview, spokesman Kirby made one more point about Russian military activity on the border of Ukraine. He said, while the U.S. doesn’t have perfect visibility, it also doesn’t have indications right now that they, the Russians, are prepared to go across the line.

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