Iran nuclear deal, prisoner release show the power of diplomacy, Obama says

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Sunday described the historic nuclear accord with Iran as proof that a “smart, patient and disciplined” approach to the world can yield better results than war.

The declaration followed the lifting of many of the harshest economic sanctions against Iran and confirmation that Iranian authorities had freed imprisoned Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and four other Americans.

Obama used his brief remarks to speak directly to young Iranians, holding out hope that his administration’s milestone foreign policy achievement could open up a pathway to a broader accord between two longtime foes.

“We have a rare chance to pursue a new path – a different, better future that delivers progress for both our people and the wider world” he said. “That’s the opportunity for the Iranian people. We need to take advantage of that.”

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The president cast his approach as a better alternative to the more bellicose path that his Republican critics have pressed for in recent months. He described the nuclear deal and the release of the five American detainees as evidence that “a strong, confident America” can advance its interests by engaging with its enemies.

He spoke just hours after Rezaian and two of the other Americans held by Iran left the country. Obama described their detention in “lonely prison cells” as an “absolute nightmare.” He praised their release and the nuclear accord as a “reminder of what we an achieve with strength and wisdom, with courage and resolve and patience.”

But he also highlighted the deep disagreements and tensions that remain between Iran and the United States.

“We recognize that there remain profound differences between the United States and Iran,” Obama said. He vowed that he would “remain steadfast” in opposing Iran’s threats against Israel, its support of terrorism and its backing of violent proxies in Yemen and Syria.

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He also spoke of Robert Levinson, an American who has been missing in Iran for eight years. His whereabouts are not known, and its unclear whether he is even alive.

Obama said Iran has agreed to “deepen coordination” as the United States works to find Levinson and reunite him with his wife and children. “We will not rest until their family is whole again,” he said.

The nuclear agreement and the release of the American prisoners were negotiated separately to ensure that the detainees were not used as leverage, U.S. officials said. But the completion of the nuclear deal last summer helped accelerate the talks about the prisoners, which loomed in the background of the negotiations.

The Americans were set free in exchange for U.S. clemency to seven Iranians charged or imprisoned over sanctions violations and the dismissal of outstanding charges against 14 Iranians outside the United States.

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Iran confirmed the release of Rezaian and the other American detainees just hours before diplomats in Vienna announced that Iran had fulfilled its promises under the nuclear accord. Secretary of State John F. Kerry described the months of intense negotiations and the drama-filled final announcement as a reminder of “diplomacy’s power.” The agreement with Iran marks a major victory for Obama, who has hailed the nuclear deal as an alternative to another potentially long and bloody war in the Middle East.

The accord frees Iran from crippling sanctions and potentially offers a pathway for ending the country’s decades-long economic and diplomatic isolation. The long and often-tense negotiations between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also have opened up a channel for the United States to keep talking with its longtime foe.

Obama said that relationship was essential to freeing American sailors taken captive by Iran last week when U.S. officials said they accidentally sailed into Iranians waters. The sailors’ capture “could have sparked an international incident,” he said.

The ongoing dialogue between the two countries and the relationship between their two top diplomats helped secure the release of the sailors in less than 24 hours, Obama said.

The nuclear accord comes with big risks for Obama, whose most significant foreign policy achievement hinges in part on Iran’s willingness to live up to its obligations under the accord, including an unprecedented inspections program.

Israel’s government and members of Congress have condemned the deal as caving in to the demands of Iran’s clerical rulers and said it doesn’t do enough to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Obama insisted that the accord with Iran provided its ruling clerics no room to cheat. “If they try to build a bomb covertly, we will catch them,” he said.

In recent weeks, Iran has shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country, dismantled thousands of centrifuges used for enriching uranium and destroyed the core of a major nuclear reactor. Instead of being two to three months from acquiring a weapon, Obama said, it is now a year away.

Even as the sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program were lifted, the Obama administration announced new sanctions on Sunday on 11 entities, including five Iranians who had worked to help Iran acquire sensitive technology for its ballistic missile program.

The program “poses a significant threat to regional and global security, and it will continue to be subject to international sanctions,” said Adam J. Szubin, acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. Some in Congress have criticized Obama for not moving more swiftly to sanction Iran for its violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution banning it from developing missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.