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Iran prisoner swap
August 5, 2016

At a press conference at the Pentagon on Thursday, President Obama called Donald Trump's warnings of a "rigged" election "ridiculous" — "What does that mean?" he asked. "I've never heard anybody complain about being cheated before the game is over" — said that the Islamic State is losing but will still be able to create "the kinds of fear and concern that elevates their profile," and dismissed claims by Trump and other Republicans that a $400 million cash payment to Iran in January was ransom for four U.S. prisoners freed at the time time.

"We do not pay ransom for hostages," Obama said, asserting that the money was the first installment of a $1.7 billion settlement of outstanding, potentially much more expensive claims by Iran, and noting that his administration disclosed the deal in January and the media reported on it. "It wasn't a secret. We were completely open about it," Obama said. "The only bit of news is that we paid cash," he added, explaining that "we couldn't wire the money" because "we don't have a banking relationship with Iran, which is part of the pressure we applied on them."

Donald Trump also talked about the cash payment to Iran on Thursday, with his campaign accusing Obama of a "cover-up" and Trump himself describing a video of the cash delivery in some detail at a rally in Portland, Maine, saying Iran took and released the footage to embarrass Obama:

The thing about the video, notes the New York Daily News, is that "no one — including American intelligence officials — has any idea what he was talking about." When Trump first described the video of the "top secret" cash delivery at a rally Wednesday in Daytona Beach, his campaign told CBS News that Trump was actually referring to footage of the freed Americans walking off a plane in Geneva that has been played repeatedly on Fox News, and when The Washington Post sent that footage to Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks, she said that "yes," that's what Trump was talking about, "merely the b-roll footage included in every broadcast."

Trump will start receiving classified intelligence briefings soon — they haven't begun yet, campaign manager Paul Manafort says — and when he does, Obama said Thursday, Trump needs to act like a serious presidential candidate, which "means being able to receive these briefings and not spread them around." Peter Weber

August 4, 2016

On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. flew a plane carrying $400 million in cash to Iran at the same time Iran released four jailed Americans in January, and on Wednesday, The Journal said that some officials in the Justice Department objected to the timing of the payment, the first installment of a $1.7 billion settlement of a failed arms deal dating back to 1979. Republicans hammered the Obama administration on Wednesday, suggesting the payment was ransom for the Americans — which would be a violation of U.S. policy — but the White House insisted that there was absolutely no link between the payment and the prisoner exchange.

Both the prisoner swap and $1.7 billion settlement were negotiated by the State Department, and Justice Department officials did not object to either deal, considering the settlement a good deal for America, The Journal said, citing "people familiar with the discussions." But the Justice officials were reportedly concerned that delivering pallets of cash at the same time as U.S. prisoners were released would send the wrong signal to Iran, and to others who might seize American citizens. "People knew what it was going to look like, and there was concern the Iranians probably did consider it a ransom payment," one unidentified source told The Wall Street Journal. You can watch State Department spokesman John Kirby respond to questions about the payment in the video below. Peter Weber

January 19, 2016

Although the seven Iranians released in the U.S.-Iran prisoner swap Saturday are now free to return to Iran, none of them actually boarded a plane back to the country, ABC News reports. While a plane did take off Saturday from an undisclosed location on the United States' East Coast as part of the plan to exchange the seven prisoners for the release of four Iranian-American dual-national citizens imprisoned in Iran — including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian — the plane departed empty.

Six of the seven convicts who were imprisoned in the U.S. have Iranian-American dual citizenship, and instead apparently opted to remain in the U.S. All of the men have been convicted or charged with violating trade embargoes by selling sensitive equipment to Iran. The plans of the seventh prisoner are unknown to ABC News.

Out of the Americans freed, only one chose to remain in Iran. A fifth Iran prisoner, recently detained American student Matthew Trevithick, was also released, though he was not part of the prison swap. Becca Stanek

January 19, 2016

On Sunday, Iran suddenly refused to allow the wife and mother of Jason Rezanian, the Washington Post reporter at the center of a U.S.-Iran prisoner swap, to leave with him, nearly sinking the carefully negotiated agreement. Rezanian's mother, Mary, and wife, Yeganeh, were being held without telephones at a room in the Tehran airport, but U.S. officials and the Swiss negotiators representing the U.S. had no idea where they were. "The U.S. stuck to its guns, they had said Yegi had to come along with Jason and they got her out," Ali Rezaian, Jason Rezanian's brother, told CNN on Monday.

The missing mother and wife prompted a call from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to call his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who reportedly intervened and helped break the logjam. "We started to conclude that Mary and Yegi were being held to destroy the deal," an American official tells The New York Times, comparing the situation to the movie Argo. Jason Rezanian and two of the five other Iranian-Americans arrived in Landstulh, Germany, on Sunday, and they are undergoing medical evaluations. Peter Weber

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