Biden officials say $6 billion in Iran funds untouched amid attack on Israel

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Washington — The Biden administration pushed back on claims that a prisoner swap with Iran last month helped fuel the terrorist attack on Israel.

After Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel early Saturday, Republicans were quick to connect, without evidence, the assault to the $6 billion in funds that were unfrozen as part of the prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran in September.

"Let's be clear: the deal to bring U.S. citizens home from Iran has nothing to do with the horrific attack on Israel. Not a penny has been spent," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Saturday.

Where did the $6 billion come from?

Five Americans who had been wrongfully detained in Iran were freed as part of a high-stakes deal between Iran and the Biden administration that included the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian oil assets that were held in a restricted account in South Korea.

South Korea owed Iran the money for oil it purchased before the Trump administration imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.

Where is the $6 billion now?

Treasury's top sanctions official Brian Nelson said Saturday that the funds are still in restricted accounts in Qatar.

The Biden administration has insisted that the money would not be given directly to Iran and that it could only be used to fund Iran's purchases of humanitarian goods, such as food and medicine. Though Iran's president has said he would decide how to spend the previously frozen funds.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Sept. 13 that the funds that were moved to Qatar would have "more legal restrictions" than in South Korea and that the U.S. would have oversight about where the money is being spent.

"If Iran tries to divert the funds we'll take action, and we'll lock them up again," Kirby said.

A senior State Department official told CBS News on Saturday that "it will take many months for Iran to spend down this money" because of the "due diligence involved and the complexity of what have to be specific humanitarian transactions through this channel."

What have Republican critics said?

A number of Republicans have criticized the Biden administration for releasing the funds, claiming it freed up resources for Iran to support the attack.

"You can say certain funds can't be used, but you can use other funds that may be freed up as a result," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for president, told reporters on Saturday.

Vivek Ramaswamy, who is also vying for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, made similar comments on the campaign trail.

Former President Donald Trump said he would not be surprised if Iran put the "tremendous wealth that they just accumulated" toward the violence in Israel.

"To think that they're not moving money around is irresponsible," Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations, told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "They hate Israel. They hate America. They are going to continue to use this. It was wrong to release the $6 billion."

On Monday, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said "handing over $6 billion to Iran only helps the cause" and called on the Biden administration to refreeze the funds.

How is Hamas linked to Iran?

Iran funds and provides weapons to Hamas, an Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. The U.S. has designated it a terrorist organization.

"Iran and Hamas have a long relationship," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "Hamas wouldn't be Hamas without the support it's had for many years from Iran. In this moment, we don't have anything that shows us that Iran was directly involved in this attack, in planning it or in carrying it out, but that's something we're looking at very carefully, and we've got to see where the facts lead."

Iran provides up to $100 million annually to Hamas and other terrorist groups, according to a 2021 State Department report

"There's a degree of complicity here writ large," Kirby told reporters Monday of Iran's potential involvement in the attack.

But he said the U.S. doesn't yet have evidence that Iran was directly involved.

"We haven't seen hard tangible evidence that Iran was directly involved in participating in or resourcing or planning these sets of complex attacks that Hamas pulled off over the weekend," he said.

Willie James Inman and Margaret Brennan contributed reporting. 

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