President Barack Obama's legacy became further tied to Tehran on Saturday when Iran released four American prisoners and U.N. inspectors cleared the way for the easing of some painful sanctions on the Middle Eastern power.
Obama is taking new political fire from Republican presidential hopefuls and lawmakers -- joined by some notable Democrats -- over the nuclear deal his administration and other world powers inked with Iran that made the sanctions lifting possible. Now, he is under new attacks after swapping seven Iranians for Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and three other Americans.
White House officials hailed Saturday's developments as major victories -- "a demonstration of what diplomacy is able to achieve," as one put it Saturday -- but warned the sanctions could be put back in place if Iranian leaders' violate the nuclear pact.
The inspectors announced Saturday that they concluded Iran has dismantled enough of its nuclear program to comply with an historic pact agreed to last year. That compliance led the United States and other global powers to remove oil and financial sanctions that had been slapped on Tehran over its alleged pursuit of a nuclear arsenal.
The move means billions of dollars will flow into Iran, including $50 billion in previously frozen assets held outside the country. An equal amount of Iranian assets remain frozen, per the nuclear agreement. The easing of sanctions means entities in the United States and other countries can again do business with Iran's central bank and other financial entities.
White House officials who briefed reporters Saturday evening reiterated the Obama administration's stance that the lifting of sanctions does not mean other penalties cannot be slapped on Tehran for other behavior. The country recently detained a crew of U.S. Navy sailors who mistakenly navigated into Iranian waters, and before that, it carried out a ballistic missile test.
The administration officials said Iran has completed "significant reductions" in its nuclear capability, which "significantly" set back its ability to field an atomic weapon. Specifically, Iran has turned over 25,000 pounds of enriched nuclear material to Russia, which the White House officials said constitutes a "98 percent reduction" in its nuclear materials stockpile.
Iranian officials also have "completely stopped" all nuclear operations at its Fordo facility, and reduced their number of centrifuges from 18,000 to 6,000.
Though the White House was eager to claim a major diplomatic victory, Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressed concern.
“Today cannot be the beginning of the United States and Europe turning a blind eye to the troubling threat of a nuclear-armed Iran,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in a statement. “I opposed this flawed agreement, and fear its implementation shifts the leverage to Iran as sanctions are lifted in exchange for only limited and temporary restrictions, allowing Iran to industrialize its nuclear enrichment capability after a decade.
"Iran will have vast new resources to continue sponsoring terrorism, threatening its neighbors, and funding its nuclear and missile programs," he added.
And Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a former ranking member of the same panel, noted in a statement that the inspectors "confirmed they could not determine the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program."
The U.N. team did determine, however, that "contrary to its claims, Iran was working at certain points to weaponize its nuclear program," Menendez said. "With little known about Iran’s true intent, we find ourselves today opening a floodgate of frozen assets to a regime that is bent on opposing our interests."
Menendez pointed to the recent Iranian missile test, saying the Obama adminsitration "has at its discretion the tough sanctions it needs to deter these malign activities," adding: "We should use these tools now, unapologetically, to protect American national security interests.
The administration officials called the sanctions relief announcement and prisoner swap occurring just hours apart was a product of senior officials on both sides engaging in talks regularly, saying it became clear both things could be accomplished on the same day.
"The two tracks came together," one officials said. "The impulse became, 'Let's close these out together.' Given we were closing in on a resolution on both issues, it made sense to get these done on concurrent timing."
On the swapped Iranian prisoners, the senior administration officials said none of the Iranians were suspected of terrorist activities.
GOP presidential hopefuls were quick to pan the very idea of swapping prisoners with Iran.
“We shouldn’t be involved in swaps,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said during a campaign stop in Iowa, according to media reports. "The fact of the matter is that this tells us everything we need to know about the Iranian regime—that they take people hostage in order to gain concessions.”
To be sure, Iran was a topic on the campaign trail Saturday. Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state and the Democratic front-runner, said the U.N. compliance report, which kickstarts parts of the nuclear agreement, and prisoner exchange are "important steps that make the United States, our allies, and the entire world safer."
But, the often-hawkish Clinton, also sounded a cautionary and forceful tone, saying if elected, she would "vigorously enforce the nuclear deal as part of a comprehensive strategy that confronts all of Iran’s negative actions in the region and stand side-by-side with our ally Israel and our Arab partners.” She also said actions like the Navy crew incident and missile test mean new sanctions should be slapped on Iran.
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