WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican-led House moved ahead Thursday on a bill to prohibit the United States from making cash payments to Iran and require that Congress be notified before any future claims settlements with Tehran.
The legislation, an election-year broadside, is solidly backed by Republicans aiming to rebuke the Obama administration for paying Iran $1.7 billion in cash earlier this year to settle a decades-old arbitration claim. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to score political points with the bill.
GOP lawmakers decried the payments as ransom, a charge the White House has rejected. Citing Iran’s status as a leading state sponsor of terrorism, they’ve also have contended the untraceable cash will be used to finance terrorism around the world.
A House vote was expected Thursday night. The Obama administration has threatened a veto of the bill, calling it “an ill-advised attempt to respond to a problem – so-called ‘ransom’ payments to Iran – that does not exist.”
An initial $400 million payment in euros, Swiss francs and other foreign currency was delivered on pallets on Jan. 17, the same day Tehran agreed to release four American prisoners. The remaining $1.3 billion was paid in cash installments made on Jan. 22 and Feb. 5.
The administration has said the arbitration payment and prisoner release were separate, but later acknowledged that the cash was used as leverage until the Americans were allowed to leave Iran.
Republicans on a House panel pressed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew about the cash payments at a Financial Services Committee hearing on the condition of the financial system, potential risks and what regulators are doing to keep a close watch to prevent another financial crisis.
Republican lawmakers grilled Lew about the money and the exchanges became heated.
Lew insisted the payment wasn’t ransom. He said it complied with sanctions rules and that settling a contract dispute for less than what the Iranians had claimed “saved the American people billions of dollars.”
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the committee’s chairman, cut him off. “Can you trace the money?” he demanded.
The payment was deposited in a bank account that Iran held in a third country, and the actual method of the payment is “a technical detail,” according to Lew.
Rep. Maxine Waters of California, the committee’s top Democrat, said the Republicans’ questioning was part of an effort to “dismantle” the landmark Iran nuclear agreement that gave Tehran relief from many international economic sanctions.
“What we find is an undermining of this president (Obama) at every turn,” Waters said. To Lew, she said, “I’m sorry that you have to endure this.”
The money settled a dispute over a $400 million payment made in the 1970s by the US-backed shah’s government for military gear. The equipment was never delivered because of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which overthrew the shah and ended diplomatic relations between the US and Iran. The $1.3 billion covers what Iran and the US agreed would be the interest on the $400 million over the decades.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.