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President Obama Says Diplomacy Was Key To Nuclear Deal, Prisoner Swap


The U.S. and Iran are entering a new phase in their relationship. Yesterday, the U.N. nuclear watchdog verified that Iran has fulfilled its requirements to dismantle its nuclear program as part of the international agreement reached last summer. That has led to the lifting of international economic sanctions on Iran and a prisoner swap that saw five American prisoners released from Iranian jails. In exchange, the United States released seven Iranian prisoners. They were accused or convicted of violating U.S. sanctions. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said this has opened a, quote, "new chapter" for his country and the world. President Obama also spoke this morning from the White House. Let's take a listen to a portion of his remarks.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For decades, our differences with Iran meant that our governments almost never spoke to each other. Ultimately, that did not advance America's interests. Over the years, Iran moved closer and closer to having the ability to build a nuclear weapon. But from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, the United States has never been afraid to pursue diplomacy with our adversaries. And as president, I decided that a strong, confident America could advance our national security by engaging directly with the Iranian government. We've seen the results. Under the nuclear deal that we, our allies and partners reached with Iran last year, Iran will not get its hands on a nuclear bomb. The region, the United States and the world will be more secure.

MARTIN: That was President Obama speaking earlier at the White House. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley joins us now to talk more about this. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's first talk about the release of those American prisoners. Apparently there was a bit of a hold-up in their departure. What can you tell us?

HORSLEY: We first got word that these prisoners had been released early yesterday. And then there was this sort of nail-biting period of limbo as we waited for them to actually get on a plane and leave Iran. And that took a long time. They didn't actually leave Iran until this morning. We're told that the Americans wanted to make sure that one of the prisoners, Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who'd been held prisoner, that his wife and mother who were also in Iran would be able to get on the plane and travel with him. And that took some time. And then there was a delay that any frequent flyer can relate to. There were apparently crew rest issues. So it took a while for the plane to finally leave Iranian territory. And the president then held off making his statement until the Americans were safely out of harm's way.

MARTIN: Let's turn to today's news because while there's a whole lot of attention being paid to the old economic sanctions on Iran that have now been lifted, the U.S. government slapped new sanctions against Iran today. Tell us what they are and what do you know about the timing of that announcement?

HORSLEY: Yeah, just as soon as those four Americans were out of Iranian territory, the Treasury Department leveled new sanctions against five Iranian individuals, as well as a company based in the United Arab Emirates, which has links to China. All of this having to do with Iran's ballistic missile tests, which the U.S. believes are in violation of U.N. orders. These were sanctions that had been hinted at a couple of weeks ago and then withdrawn by the administration. There was a lot of criticism at that time. And we now know that the administration held off announcing these new sanctions until this very delicate prisoner swap had been achieved.

MARTIN: So, Scott, how do these new sanctions square with this big diplomatic opening that we've seen with Iran in the last day or so?

HORSLEY: Well, you know, the administration has said all along that striking this nuclear deal with Iran would not solve all of our differences with that country. We still have serious differences over Iran's contact - conduct in the region, places like Syria and Yemen, as well as things like that - what we regard as an unlawful ballistic missile test. And so the administration's trying to show that they're going to be vigorous in keeping an eye on those differences. At the same time, as you heard, the president says, look, engagement makes a difference. We're seeing diplomacy working, not only with this prisoner swap but last week - early last week - when those 10 U.S. sailors drifted into Iranian territory, the president says, you know, there were people saying this was going to be the beginning of a new hostage crisis. And instead, thanks in large part to these new diplomatic channels, those sailors were set free in less than a day.

MARTIN: This deal is far from universally loved here in the U.S. Can you outline some of the criticism against the deal?

HORSLEY: Yeah, we obviously - in exchange for these five Americans being released, the United States is freeing some Iranians who had been held in this country on sanctions violations. The administration calls that a one-time thing, not a pattern likely to be repeated. But it's certainly being challenged by critics, including some who were against the nuclear deal itself, who would say, look, the administration is giving up too much; it's going to encourage more of our adversaries to take prisoners. Again, the White House will stress that the folks, the Iranians who were being released, were not violent criminals or terrorists but were folks who had been accused and in some cases convicted of sanctions relations.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks so much, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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