The Obama administration is coming under tough new criticism for its dealings with Tehran after a Wall Street Journal report claimed the U.S. agreed to sign a “secret document” lifting international sanctions on Iranian banks just as the regime was releasing four American prisoners.
House Speaker Paul Ryan on Friday called on Obama to provide “an immediate explanation.”
According to the Journal, the Obama administration agreed to support removing United Nations sanctions on the banks well in advance of the 2023 date agreed upon in the nuclear deal. The early removal of sanctions on Bank Sepah and Bank Sepah International reportedly was part of a broader list of “tightly scripted agreements,” including the controversial prisoner exchange and transfer of $1.7 billion in cash to Iran that Republicans characterize as a “ransom.”
Ryan said the move violated the nuclear deal.
“This story grows more disturbing with each passing day," Ryan, R-Wis., said in his statement. “It now appears that on the same day American hostages were freed from Iran, the administration not only agreed to the $1.7 billion cash ransom payment, but violated a key term of the nuclear deal by prematurely lifting ballistic missile sanctions.”
The White House downplayed the details, though, as old news.
“I'd note that this information is not new and was reported on back in January,” a National Security Council official said.
A senior administration official said the U.S. was “comfortable” removing the bank from the U.N. sanctions list since the U.S. was already removing Bank Sepah from its own “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.” The official said the bank will still be cut off from the U.S. financial system, and the U.S. government has the ability to “quickly re-impose” sanctions if needed.
The Treasury Department designated both banks as facilitators of Iran’s nuclear program in January 2007 but sanctions were not to be lifted until 2023.
“Bank Sepah is the financial linchpin of Iran's missile procurement network and has actively assisted Iran's pursuit of missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction," said Stuart Levey, Treasury's under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence (TFI), in his 2007 statement initiating the sanctions.
The series of newly revealed agreements, including delivering millions to Iran in cash payments, has angered Republicans on Capitol Hill.
The Treasury Department has conceded it made two wire transfers to Iran in July 2015 and April 2016 despite claims that sanctions prevented non-cash payments to Iran.
“These wire payments contradict the Administration’s claim that American sanctions laws prevented payment to Iran in any other form than cash, and raise questions about why they agreed to pay in cash over more transparent and accountable methods,” wrote Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., in a Thursday column in The Hill.
Members of Congress reportedly were kept in the dark about the secret deal and Pentagon officials admitted in recent congressional testimony that they did not participate in the cash and prisoner transfers.
"We weren’t involved in this," Secretary of Defense Ash Carter testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September.
"I don’t know all the details of it, and the chairman and I were not involved in that. It is a decision that was taken by the law-enforcement and diplomatic [agencies]," added Carter.