- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 17, 2016

President Obama said Sunday his mantra of diplomacy rather than force has been vindicated, with the U.S. and Iran taking crucial steps forward in a landmark nuclear deal while also agreeing to a prisoner swap that saw four Americans finally returned home.

Over the objections of many in Congress and key U.S. allies such as Israel, the administration over the weekend lifted economic sanctions against Iran after the U.N. atomic watchdog agency said Tehran has complied with an agreement to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the sanctions relief.

The move caps a years-long effort on the part of the administration to halt Iran’s nuclear program without resorting to military force. The developments also come at a crucial time in the 2016 presidential race, and Republicans on Sunday took direct aim at Mr. Obama, who they said caved to Iran and chose to negotiate with a regime that supports terrorism.

Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders, on the other hand, praised Mr. Obama and said the Iran deal makes the U.S. and the world safer.

For his part, Mr. Obama took to the podium at the White House Sunday morning to boast that his patient approach toward Iran has worked.

“This is a good day because, once again, we’re seeing what is possible with strong American diplomacy,” the president said in brief remarks. “These things are a reminder of what we can achieve when we lead with strength and with wisdom, with courage and resolve and patience. Americans [have] 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.”

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 (IAEA) will allow Iran to immediately recoup some $100 billion in assets frozen overseas. Iran will also see huge benefits from new 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.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the step forward is “a tool for progress, growth and development of the country,” while also saying the U.S. and Iran had made “historic progress.”

But critics say the administration has made a mistake of epic proportions and has failed to hold Tehran to account for its support of terrorism.

In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said, “Tehran will continue to destabilize the Middle East and spread terrorism throughout the world,” continuing his frequent criticism of the agreement.

House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Edward R. 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.

Prisoner swap

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate, said the administration’s recent dealings with Iran merely undermine Mr. Obama’s “weakness” on the world stage.

“This deal is a really problematic deal, and it reflects a pattern we’ve seen in the Obama administration of negotiating with terrorists and making deals and trades that endanger U.S. safety and security,” the senator said on “Fox News Sunday.”

He also said Iran captured and held 10 U.S. sailors last week because it knew the administration would do nothing about it. The sailors were released after just 14 hours in captivity, but only after Iran released video footage of them on their knees with hands behind their heads.

Mr. Obama took an opposite view and said the U.S. and Iran were able to quickly resolve the crisis precisely because of the renewed diplomacy over nuclear weapons.

“I want to also point out that by working with Iran on this nuclear deal, we were better able to address other issues. We worked directly with the Iranian government and secured the release of our sailors in less than 24 hours,” he said.

Also over the weekend, 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 four Americans include Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini.

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.

Among the seven Iranians included in 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 had “been incarcerated for 9 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, are also among those being offered clemency.

While expressing concerns about Iran’s continued support of terrorism, Mrs. Clinton — who served as Mr. Obama’s secretary of state for four years — praised the progress.

“So this is the kind of smart diplomacy I was proud to be a part of in the first administration of President Obama that we’re just going to have to be persistent with, because we have a lot of problems with Iran. But the fact we put the lid on the nuclear weapons program, the fact that we got our prisoners back, I think, is a reason for good news,” she said on ABC’s “This Week.”

In his own statement, Mr. SandersMrs. Clinton’s chief challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination — said the exchange shows “diplomacy can work even in this volatile region of the world.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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