WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama vigorously denies that a $400 million cash payment to Iran was ransom to secure the release of four Americans jailed in Tehran. He defended the transaction as evidence that the nuclear accord with Iran has allowed for progress on other matters.
"This wasn't some nefarious deal," Obama said during a news conference Thursday at the Pentagon.
The money was delivered to the Iranian government in January, at the same time the nuclear deal was settled and the Americans were released. The payment was part of a decades-old dispute over a failed military equipment deal dating to the 1970s, before the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Obama also answered political questions at the news conference, pushing back at Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's suggestions that the November election might be rigged, calling the assertion "ridiculous." He said his advice to Trump, a candidate he has declared "unfit" for the presidency, was to "go out there and try to win the election."
The president's appearance before reporters followed an hours-long meeting with military leaders at the Pentagon on the fight against the Islamic State group.
Obama said there have been gains in weakening IS in Iraq and Syria, but he conceded the extremist group still poses a threat to the United States as it shifts its tactics to carrying out attacks elsewhere around the world. While those attacks may result in less carnage, Obama said IS knows they still create "the kinds of fear and concern that elevates their profile."
Asked whether he feels any personal disappointment about not being able to do more to stop the Islamic State, Obama said: "I haven't gotten numb to it. It bugs me."
On Syria, the president criticized Russia's support of government attacks against opposition forces and its sieges of cities such as Aleppo. He accused Russia of failing to take steps to reduce violence in Syria — where a civil war has raged for much of Obama's presidency — but said the U.S. would continue trying to push Moscow to focus on the fight against IS and other extremists.
On Iran, Obama expressed surprise at criticism of his administration's cash payment to settle a longstanding legal claim, adamantly rejecting claims that it was a ransom paid for the release of the four Americans.
He pointed out that the payment, along with an additional $1.3 billion in interest to be paid later, was announced by the administration when it was concluded in January, a day after the implementation of a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran. "It wasn't a secret. We were completely open about it," he said.
Obama allowed that the one piece of new information, first reported this week by The Wall Street Journal, was that the $400 million was paid in cash. It was delivered to Iran on palettes aboard an unmarked plane.
"The only bit of news is that we paid cash," he said. "The reason is because we couldn't send them a check and we couldn't wire the money. We don't have a banking relationship with Iran which is part of the pressure we applied on them."
AP writers Julie Pace and Alicia A. Caldwell contributed. Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP