Obama celebrates return of prisoners, announces sanctions
The United States yesterday imposed sanctions over Iran's ballistic missile testing even as President Barack Obama hailed the release of five Americans from Tehran's custody and the implementation of a nuclear deal he hopes will stand among his lasting foreign policy achievements.
Obama pledged to counter vigorously Iran's "destabilising behavior" across the Mideast even while the US engages with the Islamic Republic. After the Americans had been freed, Obama announced economic sanctions against 11 individuals and entities as a result of a ballistic missile launch in October.
"We're not going to waver in the defense of our security or that of our allies and partners," Obama said.
With the sanctions announcement, Obama also sought to counter criticism from GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates that his actions had appeased a nation that has aided the spread of Islamic extremism.
Obama said he decided "that a strong confident America could advance our national security by engaging directly with the Iranian government."
Democratic lawmakers who supported the agreement applauded the sanctions announced yesterday. Five Democratic senators said in a joint letter to Obama that failure to impose the restrictions could encourage Tehran to violate international obligations with impunity.
The Obama administration worked for nearly 14 months behind the scenes to negotiate the prisoner trade. Iran also agreed to work to locate American Robert Levinson, who vanished during a trip to Iran in 2007.
In a reciprocal move, Obama said that six Iranian-Americans and one Iranian serving sentences or awaiting trial were being granted clemency. He emphasised that they were not charged with terrorism or any violent offenses.
"They're civilians, and their release is a one-time gesture to Iran given the unique opportunity offered by this moment and the larger circumstances at play," Obama said.
Obama said the US and Iran had also resolved a long-standing dispute over money Iran used to buy military equipment from the US before the two countries broke ties. Iran will get more than $400 million, plus $1.3 billion in interest.
The White House said its lawyers assessed that the US could have faced a "significantly higher judgment" if the case continued.
"There was no benefit to the US in dragging this out," Obama said.
Obama used his Sunday morning statement from the White House to speak directly to the Iranian people: "We have a rare chance to pursue a new path a different, better future that delivers progress for both our peoples and the wider world."
Obama said Iran has a vibrant culture that has so much to contribute to the world in commerce, science and the arts, but "your government's threats and actions to destabilise your region have isolated Iran from much of the world."