Engagement with an adversarial government in Tehran has borne fruit, US President Barack Obama said on Sunday, hailing a series of “diplomatic victories” last week with the Islamic Republic as validation of his broader foreign policy.
Because of his approach, Obama asserted, the United States has in recent days avoided a hostage crisis over US sailors captured in Iranian waters, ended another in a prisoner exchange, and successfully reached implementation day for the nuclear deal reached between Iran and world powers last summer.
Also on Sunday, the Obama administration announced new sanctions designations targeting Tehran for its ballistic-missile activity.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s policy remains the same: It will not let the Islamic Republic obtain nuclear weapons.
Speaking at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said Israel will continue to closely monitor Iran’s compliance with its international obligations regarding the nuclear deal, its ballistic missiles and involvement in terrorism.
“The international community must enact severe and aggressive sanctions against every violation,” he said.
The prime minister – who fought an ultimately losing battle against the deal for years, including going toe-to-toe with Obama over the matter – said that without Israel having led the fight to impose crippling economic sanctions on Tehran, “Iran would have had nuclear arms a long time ago.”
“Israel’s position was and remains just as it was: not to let Iran get nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu stressed. He added that it is “clear” Iran will now have more resources to turn to its “terrorist and aggressive activities in the region and the world.” But, he added, “Israel is prepared to deal with any threat.”
Netanyahu said Jerusalem is concluding the formulation of a new 10-year Memorandum of Understanding with the US that will govern the level of US military aid to Israel over the next decade. He hinted that this was part of the deterrence architecture being built to counter Iran, saying that the MoU is “important to repel threats in the region, first and foremost – of course – from the Iranians.”
Under the current 10-year MoU, which expires next year, Israel received some $3 billion in annual military aid from the US, a figure now expected to rise.
Obama, speaking about implementation of the Iran deal from the Cabinet Room of the White House, said, “This is a good day."
“For decades, our differences with Iran meant that our governments almost never spoke to each other. Ultimately, that did not advance America’s interests.”
Instead, he continued, the White House has discovered that “a strong, confident America could advance our national security by engaging directly with the Iranian government. We’ve seen the results.”
On Saturday, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Tehran has complied with its initial obligations under the nuclear agreement reached in July, and the US and EU removed their nuclear-based sanction.
Striking at his critics, Obama said the capture of 10 American sailors last Tuesday, who apparently strayed accidentally into Iran’s waters, “could have sparked a major international incident.” Instead, the US worked directly with the Iranian government and resolved the crisis within a day, he said.
And Obama announced that he personally pressed Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to release four American citizens “unjustly detained” in Iranian prisons, resulting in a prisoner exchange announced on Saturday. Those four Americans – Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post
; former US Marine Amir Hekmati; pastor Saeed Abedini; and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari – have safely departed Iran, he said, along with a fifth American who was released separately.
In exchange, the US has offered clemency to seven Iranians held in the US and charged with nonviolent crimes, and ended Interpol red-notice arrest warrants for 14 others.
The US also announced the settlement of a monetary dispute with Iran in a tribunal at The Hague over American military equipment sold to and paid for by Iran before the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
In 1981, with brokerage of the Algiers Accords over the Iran hostage crisis and the creation of a Iran-US Claims Tribunal, Iran filed a claim for these funds. The amount originally stood at $400 million, but has since ballooned with interest, and could have cost the US a substantial sum in litigation fees, as well.
“Iran will receive the balance of $400m. in the trust fund, as well as a roughly $1.3 billion compromise on the interest,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement announcing the settlement. “Iran’s recovery was fixed at a reasonable rate of interest and, therefore, Iran is unable to pursue a bigger tribunal award against us, preventing US taxpayers from being obligated to a larger amount of money.”
But the US president asserted that violations of the nuclear deal – or of any other international standard – will result in penalties.
The Obama administration on Sunday announced new sanctions designations targeting Tehran for its ballistic-missile activity, less than 24 hours after the nuclear deal entered into force.
The new designations include 11 entities and people linked to the missile program, including United Arab Emirates-based Mabrooka Trading Co LLC (Mabrooka Trading) and “five Iranian individuals who have worked to procure ballistic-missile components for Iran.”
The White House had come under fire on Saturday after reports surfaced that, in negotiating the prisoner swap, it had given in to threats from Iran’s Foreign Ministry and backed down on implementing new missile penalties. In October, Iran test-fired new ballistic missile models – designed to carry large payloads, specifically nuclear warheads – in violation of international law.
But a senior administration official argued on Sunday that the wait was worthwhile.
“We did not want to complicate what was a very sensitive and delicate effort,” the official said in a phone call with reporters.
“Iran’s ballistic missile program poses a significant threat to regional and global security, and it will continue to be subject to international sanctions,” said Adam Szubin, acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in a prepared statement.
“We have consistently made clear that the United States will vigorously press sanctions against Iranian activities outside of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” he continued, using the formal name for the nuclear accord, “including those related to Iran’s support for terrorism, regional destabilization, human rights abuses and ballistic missile program.”
In his 15-minute remarks on Sunday morning – delayed 24 hours to ensure that the American hostages were safely out of Iranian airspace – Obama concluded with a direct appeal to the Iranian people for better relations.
“Yours is a great civilization, with a vibrant culture that has so much to contribute to the world – in commerce and in science and the arts,” he said.
“For decades, your government’s threats and actions to destabilize your region have isolated Iran from much of the world."
“Now, our governments are talking with one another,” he continued. “Following the nuclear deal, you – especially young Iranians – have the opportunity to begin building new ties with the world. We have a rare chance to pursue a new path – a different, better future that delivers progress for both our peoples and the wider world. That’s the opportunity before the Iranian people. We need to take advantage of that.”