- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 16, 2016

UPDATED: Declaring it a “good day” that proves diplomacy with Iran has been a major success, President Obama on Sunday praised the implementation of a nuclear deal with the old U.S. foe and touted the fact that formerly imprisoned Americans now are on their way home.

“This is a good day because once again we’re seeing what is possible with strong American diplomacy,” Mr. Obama said in remarks at the White House. “These things are a reminder of what we can achieve when we lead with strength and with wisdom, with courage and resolve and patience. America can do and has done big things when we work together. We can lead this world, make it safer and more secure for our children and our grandchildren for generations to come.”

This weekend saw the culmination of a major diplomatic effort over the objections of many in Congress. The Obama administration on Saturday lifted economic sanctions against Iran after the U.N. atomic watchdog agency determined that Tehran has complied with the deal to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the sanctions relief.

In a statement, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the sanctions-termination provisions of Iran’s landmark nuclear agreement are now in effect.

Mr. Obama signed the orders Saturday afternoon, saying Iran’s compliance “marks a fundamental shift in circumstances with respect to Iran’s nuclear program.”

The U.S. and Iran also carried out a prisoner swap Saturday, with Tehran releasing an American pastor, a Washington Post reporter and three other Americans who had been held.

Mr. Obama praised the return of the Americans in his Sunday address and said their families now can breathe a sigh of relief.

“I’ve seen their anguish, how they ache for their sons and husbands. I gave these families my word. I made a vow that we would do everything in our power to win the release of their loved ones … Yesterday, these families finally got the news they had been waiting for,” the president said.

Removing the sanctions is part of the international agreement reached last year among Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers when Tehran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency will allow Iran to immediately recoup some $100 billion in assets frozen overseas. Iran also will see huge benefits from oil, trade and financial opportunities after Western sanctions are lifted.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said Saturday this means “relations between Iran and the IAEA now enter a new phase. It is an important day for the international community. I congratulate all those who helped make it a reality.”

In Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the administration was lifting sanctions “on the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”

“As the president himself has acknowledged, Iran is likely to use this cash infusion — more than $100 billion in total — to finance terrorists,” said Mr. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. “This comes just weeks after Tehran’s most recent illegal ballistic missile test, and just days after [Iranian forces] detained 10 American sailors. A bipartisan majority in the House voted to reject this deal in the first place, and we will continue to do everything possible to prevent a nuclear Iran.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said the “flawed” deal is allowing Iran to keep much of its nuclear infrastructure.

“The ayatollah won’t even have to cheat to be just steps away from a nuclear weapon,” said Mr. Royce, California Republican. “Meanwhile, tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief will now start flowing to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“Since the nuclear deal was signed, Iran has twice violated U.N. resolutions to test ballistic missiles, fired rockets within 1,500 yards of the USS Truman, and seized 10 American sailors — all while propping up the murderous [Bashar] Assad regime in Syria. Iran will use this deal to become more militarily aggressive and dominate the region.”

At the same time, the administration engaged in a high-profile prisoner swap with Tehran. Iran agreed Saturday to release four detained Americans in exchange for seven Iranians held or charged in the U.S., while a fifth American detained in Iran, a student, also was released in an unrelated move.

The wife of an Idaho pastor who is among four detained Americans being released from Iran says the news is “a huge burden lifted off.”

Naghmeh Abedini told The Associated Press on Saturday that after she learned that Iran was going to release pastor Saeed Abedini, she woke up her children and told them “Daddy was coming home.”

She said in a telephone interview from Boise that “they were just excited. They couldn’t believe it.”

The Boise man was detained for compromising national security, presumably because of Christian proselytizing, in September 2012. He was sentenced in 2013 to eight years in prison.

Republican presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky welcomed the release of Mr. Abedini, and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said the exchange shows “diplomacy can work even in this volatile region of the world.”

GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and other Republicans say the Americans should never have been captured in the first place, and Mr. Rubio blamed the administration’s willingness to do prisoner swaps in the past.

In Iowa, Mr. Rubio said that governments were taking Americans hostage because they believe they can gain concessions from the Obama administration. He mentioned the June 2014 swap in which the U.S. exchanged Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban for five years, for five top Taliban commanders at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The publisher of The Washington Post says he “couldn’t be happier” to hear that the paper’s reporter, Jason Rezaian, had been released from Iran’s Evin Prison on Saturday.

In a statement, publisher Frederick J. Ryan Jr. also says more information will be available once he has more details and can confirm Mr. Rezaian has safely left Iran.

Mr. Rezaian had been held more than 543 days on espionage and related charges. He is among four detained Americans released Saturday in exchange for seven Iranians held or charged in the U.S.

Among the seven Iranians affected by the U.S.-Iranian prisoner swap is Bahram Mechanic, who has been jailed since his indictment in April on charges of illegally exporting microelectronic technology to Iran.

Defense lawyer Joel Androphy said his client was “elated” to be pardoned Saturday but said Mr. Mechanic has “been incarcerated for nine months for a crime that he’s just accused of but did not commit.”

Two other defendants in the case, Khosrow Afghahi and Tooraj Faridi, also are among those being offered clemency.

Mr. Androphy said the products his client was accused of providing to Iran were essentially surge protectors but the Justice Department “blew it up into some sort of national security terrorism threat.” He says Mr. Mechanic is “basically a victim of the trade issues between the United States and Iran.”

Mr. Obama said the release of the Iranians is a “one-time gesture” to Tehran due to the “unique opportunity” presented by the completion of the nuclear deal.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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