President Obama on Sunday trumpeted the release of four Americans “unjustly detained” by Iran as the potential beginning of a new, less contentious relationship between Washington and Tehran, made possible by last year’s landmark nuclear deal.
"This is a good day. Once again, we’re seeing what’s possible with strong American diplomacy,” Obama said in remarks delivered from the Cabinet Room of the White House.
The release of the four Americans, including a U.S. Marine and a Washington Post reporter, was announced Saturday, the same day sanctions against Iran were lifted as part of the nuclear agreement.
Obama said talks between Washington and Tehran to secure the release of the Americans held in Iran “accelerated” after the nuclear deal. He also credited the nuclear talks for easing negotiations to get back ten Navy sailors after their vessels strayed into Iranian waters earlier this year, saying that in the past the mistake could have sparked a “major international incident.”
Seven Iranian prisoners were also released by the U.S. and Obama said the two sides had also put to rest a financial dispute dating back to the early 1980s that will see Iran recoup around $1 billion in cash.
Yet in a sign of the diplomatic strains that remain between the two countries, the U.S. Treasury Department announced minutes before the president spoke that it would impose fresh sanctions against Iran for violating prohibitions against ballistic missile tests.
Obama noted that there remain “profound” differences between the two countries, including Tehran’s animosity towards Israel.
Directing his comments to the Iranian people, Obama said that at least now “our governments are talking with each other.”
"We have a rare chance to pursue a new path,” he added.
The administration came under fire last year from Republican lawmakers and presidential contenders for leaving the American prisoners out of the nuclear bargain.
The president’s overt references to the deal’s extra benefits represent a strong pushback by the White House against those critics. Yet many in the GOP, while hailing the release of the prisoners held by Iran, criticized the deal that secured their return home and again slammed the nuclear agreement, the terms of which allow Tehran to receive billions in sanctions relief.
"We celebrate all of them coming home. But at the same time, this deal is a really problematic deal and it reflects a pattern we've seen in the Obama administration over and over again of negotiating with terrorists and making deals and trades that endanger U.S. safety and security," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said in an interview with "Fox News Sunday."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) took offense to Obama’s pardon of the seven Iranians “in exchange for a release of hostages which had done nothing wrong and it proves once again now that nations and enemies of America around the world know there’s a price for Americans.”
“If you take an American hostage, Barack Obama will cut a deal with you, whether it’s Bergdahl, what he did with the Castro brothers, and now what he’s done with Iran,” Rubio said during an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Donald Trump said the president should “absolutely not” get any credit for securing the release. “This should have happened years ago,” he added in an interview with ABC’s “This Week.”