The Obama administration staunchly defended two deals with Iran that came to fruition on Saturday, praising an unexpected prisoner swap and long awaited sanctions relief for the Islamic republic despite criticism from the Republican presidential field .
On Saturday Iran released five US citizens, four as part of a deal with American officials in exchange for the pardon of seven Iranians facing trial or prison terms in the US for sanctions violations.
The releases, including that of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, coincided with the end of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, and came days after the release of 10 American sailors briefly detained by the Revolutionary Guard.
“I don’t think we’re thanking Iran with respect to the release of these American citizens,” a senior administration official told reporters late on Saturday. “Our judgment is they were detained in Iran unjustly. The fact of the matter is we had an opportunity to secure their release.”
Donald Trump, the billionaire who leads in the polls, suggested the US gave Iran more than it received. A spokesperson for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said President Obama had, via sanctions relief, paid “a ransom” for the Americans’ freedom.
Administration officials disagreed, stressing: “This was a unique circumstance.”
“This was not a spy swap,” said one, “this was not an exchange of intelligence assets.”
But the timing of the trade, and of a “separate but clearly associated good-will gesture” release of a fifth American, fed Republican fears that Tehran had used the prisoners as leverage for sanctions negotiations – and that the trade set a precedent of acceding to those who hold hostages.
In Vienna, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that discussions to free the Americans had “accelerated in light of the relationships forged and the diplomatic channels unlocked over the course of the nuclear talks”.
The officials who briefed reporters denied that the negotiations were ever linked, even if they developed in tandem. One official said the administration did not want the prisoners “to be used as leverage or a bargaining chip in the nuclear discussions.
“And similarly if those discussions had failed to reach a nuclear deal we did not want to jeopardize their potential release.”
It was reported on Saturday that the implementation of new sanctions over Iran’s ballistic missile tests had been delayed to avoid risking the prisoners’ release.
Only one of the Americans newly freed had departed Iran, the officials said. They added that the US intended to impose the new sanctions over the missile test, even as it removes 400 people from the sanctions list related to nuclear activity.
Kerry hailed the accomplishments of the nuclear talks, saying that as a result “the United States, our friends and allies in the Middle East and the entire world are safer because the threat of a nuclear weapon has been reduced”.
His predecessor as secretary of state, the Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, agreed about a safer world but struck a far more critical tone.
“We shouldn’t thank Iran for the prisoners or for following through on its obligations,” she said in a statement. “These prisoners were held unjustly by a regime that continues to threaten the peace and security of the Middle East.”
Clinton also noted the continued mystery surrounding Bob Levinson, an American who disappeared in Iran in 2007 and whom the officials refused to speak of except to say they still seek his return.
Clinton also said that “Iran is still violating UN security council resolutions with its ballistic missile program, which should be met with new sanctions designations”, and repeated her resolve to “stand side-by-side with our ally Israel”.
Beside Rezaian, whose wife, Yeganeh Salehi, will reportedly be allowed to leave Iran with him, the other Americans released on Saturday as part of the US-Iran swap were pastor Saeed Abedini, Nosratollah Khosrawi-Roodsari and marine veteran Amir Hekmati.
Matthew Trevithick, a writer and researcher who had written for the Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast, was also released. The reason for his relatively brief detention remains unknown.
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