White House spokesman Josh Earnest
White House spokesman Josh Earnest Reuters

The White House on Monday acknowledged that $400 million in cash sent to Iran early this year was related to the release of three American prisoners, but denied once again that it amounted to “ransom” or even “leverage”, The Hill reports.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest also said top officials advising President Barack Obama on national security matters had stood by the decision to carry out the exchange, which has been roundly criticized by Republicans.

“The president of course discussed these arrangements with members of his national security team and there was unanimous agreement among his national security team that he should move forward,” Earnest said, according to The Hill.

The State Department acknowledged last week that the money sent to Iran in January was linked to the release of three American prisoners after a Wall Street Journal report said U.S. officials held control of the money until the prisoners left Iran.

“It would have been foolish and imprudent, in our view, to go ahead and settle the cash payment of the principal when we didn't have our Americans back,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told MNSBC last week.

“We did use it as leverage, and we make no apologies about that because we got our American citizens back safely,” Kirby said.

On Monday, however, the White House spokesman declined to similarly call the cash payment “leverage,” stating, “That is not a word that I have used.

“What works is that Iran released four American citizens who were being unjustly detained in exchanged for seven individuals being released in the United States. That was the exchange,” he was quoted by The Hill as having said.

The White House spokesman explained that U.S. officials were engaged in three separate diplomatic tracks around the time of the exchange in January. The State Department acknowledged last week that the efforts merged during the release of the Americans in Iran.

“All of this was accomplished without a single shot being fired, all of this was accomplished without U.S. troops being deployed and it's an indication of how effective the president's tough, diplomatic strategy has proved to be,” Earnest said.

President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have insisted the payment didn’t amount to ransom, because the U.S. owed the money to Iran as part of a longstanding dispute linked to a failed arms deal from the 1970s.

Republicans last week blasted the Obama administration over the saga, with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) saying, "If it quacks like a duck, it's a duck. If a cash payment is contingent on a hostage release, it's a ransom. The truth matters and the president owes the American people an explanation.”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has also criticized Obama as well as his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who served as Secretary of State during the Obama administration’s negotiations for a nuclear agreement with Iran.

On Saturday, Trump said Obama had lied to the American people about the payment to Iran.

"While President Obama and Hillary Clinton are shrinking America's military, they are also expanding, through allowing it to happen, the military of Iran," Trump said.

"They are doing this with their disastrous deal that puts Iran on a path to nuclear weapons and gives them another $150 million, not to mention the $400 million in cash, which turned out to be a ransom payment after all, just like I said. in other words, our president lied to us. He lied to us," he added.

Earnest on Monday repeatedly went after “right-wingers” in the U.S. and Iran, claiming criticism of the exchange was in part motivated by those seeking to torpedo the deal.

He also defended the administration's openness about the exchange, new details of which were reported on early this month.

“We've been quite direct since January when the president announced this deal ... exactly what the benefits would be for the United States,” Earnest insisted, according to The Hill, pushing back when pressed by reporters several times in somewhat testy exchanges where he defended the administration's story as consistent.

Earnest insisted the exchange didn't amount to “ransom,” saying repeatedly it was instead a “mutual prisoner release.”