State Department Spokesperson John Kirby Comments on Use of $400M Payment as 'Leverage' for Prisoner Exchange with Iran (Excerpts)

August 18, 2016


QUESTION: On Iran, one assumes that you’re familiar with the latest Wall Street Journal report concerning the payment of the 400 million to Iran. Is there anything in The Wall Street Journal story that you dispute on factual grounds?

MR KIRBY: (Laughter.) Look, rather than getting up here, as much as I’m sure you’d love for me to pick apart every media story --

QUESTION: It’s a very simple question. Is there anything you say is untrue in that story?

MR KIRBY: What I would like to do is respond to it this way, okay, because I’ve seen the article. So let me just – let me address this whole issue of timing this way. We were able to conclude multiple strands of diplomacy within a 24-hour period – and oh, by the way, you can go back and look at your own work that was done back then, and you’ll see that we were completely above board about this. Even the President himself talked about the timing. We were able to conclude multiple strands of diplomacy within a 24-hour period, including implementation of the nuclear deal, the prisoner talks, and the settlement of an outstanding Hague Tribunal claim which saved American taxpayers potentially billions of dollars.

As we said at the time, we deliberately leveraged that moment to finalize these outstanding issues nearly simultaneously. It’s already publicly known that we returned to Iran its $400 million in that same time period as part of The Hague settlement agreement. With concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release given unnecessary delays regarding persons in Iran who could not be located as well as, to be quite honest, mutual mistrust between Iran and the United States, we, of course, sought to retain maximum leverage until after American citizens were released. That was our top priority.

QUESTION: So there was – hold on.

QUESTION: Just to return to my question, is there anything in The Wall Street Journal story that you dispute on factual grounds?

MR KIRBY: You’d have to – look, I don’t have the article in front of me so I’m not going to go through line by line.

QUESTION: I’m not asking you to do that.

MR KIRBY: I know you --

QUESTION: I’m just saying you read the thing. If there’s something leapt out at you that you said, “Well, that’s untrue,” you would be in a position to tell us, wouldn’t you?

MR KIRBY: James, I think I’ve characterized the central finding of the story, which was that – that the payment of the 400 million was not done until after the prisoners were released. I’m not disputing that.

QUESTION: Why weren’t you able to tell us that 10 days ago when I myself asked the question, “Can you at least assure us that those prisoners were in the process of being released before that money touched down?”

MR KIRBY: As I said at the time, we weren’t in a position then and had no intention of getting into a tick-tock for every moment that happened in that 24-hour period. That’s what I answered your question at the time. I think it was me. And we answered your question at the time. That was – it was not – never our intention to have to do that. But you’re asking me about a press story that’s already been written about it that has more detail about it, so I’m providing some context with respect to that.

QUESTION: But you’re --

QUESTION: But you are – you are changing a little bit, because first you said that this was two separate diplomatic tracks. That’s what the White House said. That’s what the State Department said. Now you’re saying that it was used as leverage, which would --

QUESTION: Connect the two.

QUESTION: -- connect the two. Thank you, James. Connect them.

MR KIRBY: They were still – they were independent efforts.

QUESTION: But you were using one for leverage in --

MR KIRBY: They came together --

QUESTION: -- as a part of the other.

MR KIRBY: Well, they came together near simultaneously. And I think it would make sense, perfect sense, that when we’re in this moment that you --

QUESTION: It would. It does make sense.

MR KIRBY: If your top priority is to get your Americans out and you’re already having some issues about locating some of them, that you want to make sure that that release gets done before you complete that transaction.

QUESTION: So they’re connected.

MR KIRBY: No, they’re – they’re connected in the sense that they came together at the same time and we obviously were making a priority getting the Americans out. And frankly, I think if we had done it – if we had done it any differently, then I think you and I and James and I would be having a much different conversation up here, wouldn’t we?

QUESTION: The payment was contingent on their release --

MR KIRBY: What I’m saying is --


MR KIRBY: What I’m saying is that because we had concerns that Iran may renege on the prisoner release, given unnecessary delays already regarding some persons in Iran as well as some mutual mistrust, we, of course, naturally, and should be held to task if we didn’t, sought to retain maximum leverage until after the Americans were released. That was our top priority.

QUESTION: How – can you connect the dots for me? How does the withholding of the cash give you the kind of leverage you were seeking?

MR KIRBY: We felt that it would be imprudent not to consider that some leverage in trying to make sure that our Americans got out.

QUESTION: So if it has leverage on the release of the Americans, then there’s a direct connection between these two events, you’re now telling us, right?

MR KIRBY: I’m saying the events came together simultaneously. But obviously, when you’re inside that 24-hour period and you already now have concerns about the endgame in terms of getting your Americans out, it would have been foolish, imprudent, irresponsible, for us not to try to maintain maximum leverage. So if you’re asking me was there a connection in that regard at the endgame, I’m not going to deny that.

QUESTION: Was there a sense --

QUESTION: So wait, hold on. So getting away from the word “leverage,” which is – in basic English, you’re saying that you wouldn’t give them the 400 million in cash until the prisoners were released, correct?

MR KIRBY: That’s correct.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.


QUESTION: Is it because the U.S. knew that the Iranians wanted that money at any cost?

MR KIRBY: I’m not – I can’t get inside the Iranian brain here. First of all, remember, it’s their – it was their $400 million --


MR KIRBY: -- that had been awarded to them by The Hague tribunal.


MR KIRBY: So let’s make that clear.


MR KIRBY: And because we already had concerns about the endgame in terms of getting our people out, we didn’t want to take any chances. And so we believed that as much leverage as could be had, we wanted to have. We wanted to keep as much leverage as possible. We believed that holding up that delivery was prudent, and we have released Americans now, I think, to – we can’t – we’ll never know for sure, but at least we got those – we got those people home.

QUESTION: How much time did it take?

MR KIRBY: And there’s no apologies for that whatsoever.

QUESTION: Yeah. And wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that a ransom is paid and then you get the people back, and not the reverse, which is what happened in this case?

MR KIRBY: Well, again, we don’t pay ransom, Ros.


MR KIRBY: This isn’t – this wasn’t a case of ransom. And again, I need to remind you all, while maybe the – a little bit of the tick-tock here that’s dripping out you might find new and salacious. There’s really nothing new here in the story about how we got those Americans out and how we leveraged opportunities here that were coming together at the same time. You can go back and look at the President’s comments and the Secretary’s comments when all of this happened. There were opportunities here that we took advantage of and, as a result, we were able to get American citizens back home.

QUESTION: Right. But I’m not disputing that – your characterization that this wasn’t ransom. It’s just that my traditional understanding of ransom was someone is holding someone hostage, says, “Give me money, I’ll give you the person.” The money is handed over, the person is then returned. The opposite happened in this case --

MR KIRBY: This was --

QUESTION: -- which is the U.S. citizens were allowed to leave Iran, and then the money from the separate settlement was then transferred.

MR KIRBY: And then their $400 million were --


MR KIRBY: -- was provided to them.


MR KIRBY: I don’t know how --

QUESTION: That doesn’t sound like a quid pro quo at all, John.

QUESTION: Yeah, that’s – that was my point. Beyond saying there’s no ransom, you’ve said several times – a lot of people from different podiums in this government have said there was no quid pro quo. What you just described is by definition a quid pro quo, is it not?


QUESTION: How is it not? You said they would not get the money until they were released – quid, quo.

MR KIRBY: Thank you for the Latin expert. (Laughter.) The Latin lesson, the Latin lesson.

QUESTION: I mean, what is that – what am I missing in the quid pro quo that you have just outlined?

MR KIRBY: Brad, they were going to get this money anyway because The Hague tribunal decided that they were going to get their money back. And --

QUESTION: No, they hadn’t decided that.

MR KIRBY: There was a negotiation inside The Hague tribunal that they were going to recover the $400 million principal and then some interest that we negotiated, which saved the taxpayers a lot of money. That process was moving forward and it was moving forward on an independent track.

Separately and distinctly, we were also in talks with them about getting our Americans back. That was also done by a different team and moving forward. These two tracks came together in a very finite period of time. And it would have been – given the fact that Iran hadn’t proved completely trustworthy in the past, it would have been imprudent and irresponsible for us to not – since we knew this payment was coming and coming soon, to not hold it up until we made sure we had our Americans out.

QUESTION: Which is why everyone called it a quid pro quo at the beginning, and you disputed that. So I don’t quite understand how that changes anything. You’re saying it would have been imprudent not to link the payment – the delivery of the money – to the release of the prisoners, but you’re saying the delivery of the money wasn’t a quid pro quo related to the release of the prisoners because there’s a backstory.

MR KIRBY: Because The Hague Tribunal had decided, the negotiation had been settled – that process was moving forward and would have moved forward regardless. But because it all happened in a short period of time, yes, we took advantage of that to make sure we had the maximum leverage possible to get our people out and to get them out safely.

QUESTION: So it was a quid pro quo.


QUESTION: You took advantage of it and you made it a quid pro quo.

MR KIRBY: We took advantage of leverage that we thought we could have to make sure that they got out safely and efficiently.

QUESTION: So you were holding the Iranians’ money hostage.

MR KIRBY: No, James.

QUESTION: They paid the ransom.

MR KIRBY: No, James. It’s their money. It’s their money.

QUESTION: Because they released the prisoners.

MR KIRBY: They were going to get it anyway.

QUESTION: Would you at least agree, John --

MR KIRBY: But look, guys, we had to – if we hadn’t done that and if for some reason the Iranians did play games and we didn’t get the Americans out and we hadn’t tried to use that leverage, then I can understand the disdain and the criticism here. But this was a sound decision made in the endgame of two separate negotiation tracks.

QUESTION: I’m making no value judgment on the decision. I’m just trying to get you to say what it is, which is very simple, and --

MR KIRBY: I have described what it is for the last 15 minutes. I haven’t used the Latin phrase that you like --

QUESTION: You haven’t for the last – you haven’t – you have not --

MR KIRBY: -- but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t described what happened.

QUESTION: Listen, this happened in January, and this is the first time you’ve ever said flat out that they wouldn’t get the money until the prisoners were released. That took – let’s count it – what, seven months? Why all the beating around the bush if it was such a great and noble decision?

MR KIRBY: The only reason that we’re having this discussion is because of the press coverage, Brad. We’ve said all along --

QUESTION: So evil reporters have made you dredge this up?

MR KIRBY: No, I’ve never called you guys evil. I’ve called you other things, but never evil.

QUESTION: I mean, you can’t blame press coverage because you didn’t say what this was seven months ago.

MR KIRBY: We did describe it seven months ago, Brad. Did we go through the --

QUESTION: You did not say it was contingent – this was contingent on that, and now you’re saying --

MR KIRBY: Did we – we said --

QUESTION: -- flatly out that this was – this payment was contingent on the release of the prisoners.

MR KIRBY: I said – I said it was --

QUESTION: You did not say that in January.

MR KIRBY: I said this was – as I said before, we of course wanted to seek maximum leverage in this case as these two things came together at the same time.

QUESTION: John, you said that – that everyone all along at all points has been completely above board about this, but you would agree that what you’re telling us today represents a new factual disclosure from the Administration, does it not?

MR KIRBY: I certainly would agree that this particular fact is not something that we’ve talked about in the past, but the – but if you go back and look at the press coverage, your own coverage of this when it happened, nobody made any bones about the fact that these two process were coming together at the same time and we took advantage of the opportunity we had with the closure of the nuke deal, with The Hague Tribunal, and with talks to get our Americans back – we took full advantage of that. And I don’t think anybody in the Administration is going to make any apology for having taken advantage of those opportunities to get these Americans home.

QUESTION: And would you agree that a reasonable observer could look upon a situation in which cash is withheld until prisoners are released as something akin to ransom?

MR KIRBY: Well, an observer, whoever he or she may be, can look at this however they want. I’ve described now over the last 10 or 15 minutes what happened and what our thought process was going through that, and I’ll let others decide for themselves.