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Release of Americans looks like a win for Obama, but critics see capitulation

Saturday’s exchange was a key moment for President Obama—now he will have to contend with how it the America public will react. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

The day after the historic nuclear accord with Iran had been reached, President Obama went to the White House East Room to celebrate. A reporter wanted to know why he was “content” to indulge in all the “fanfare” while four innocent Americans remained imprisoned in Iran.

"The notion that I am content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails?" Obama responded. "That's nonsense, and you should know better."

He vowed to keep working until the prisoners were reunited with their families.

Six months later, Obama made good on his pledge when Iran released five U.S. citizens Saturday, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who spent 544 days in captivity.

It was an I-told-you-so moment for a president who has bet his foreign policy legacy on the high-stakes nuclear agreement with Tehran that has been denounced by his critics as a capitulation to an untrustworthy U.S. enemy.

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Republicans celebrated the Americans’ release but questioned whether the White House had given up too much by granting clemency to seven people charged with violating U.S. trade sanctions against Iran. The Obama administration and its allies countered that the diplomatic breakthrough illustrated that the president’s policy of engagement with Iran on nuclear issues had begun to produce broader benefits.

“While the two tracks of negotiations were not directly related, and they were not, there is no question the pace of progress in the humanitarian talks accelerated in light of relationships forged and diplomatic channels unlocked during the course of the nuclear talks,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told reporters in Vienna.

For Obama, the release of the American prisoners — on the same day that international inspectors certified that Iran had met implementation obligations on the nuclear accord and some international sanctions were lifted — capped a week in which his Iran strategy was tested more than once.

On Tuesday, just hours before his State of the Union address, Iran apprehended 10 U.S. Navy sailors who had strayed into Iranian waters. Republicans pounced, suggesting that Tehran was testing, and taunting, the White House to illustrate Obama’s weakness.

Obama did not mention the situation during his hour-long national address, and the following day, the sailors were released without harm — a sharp contrast to a 2007 incident in which Iran held 15 British sailors for two weeks.

The events suggest that the U.S.-Iran relationship “has some degree of momentum,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “None of the gains since the nuclear deal — Iran participating in the Vienna talks, the release of the prisoners, the release of American sailors — is, in and of itself, an earth-shattering development. But put together they point to at least a trend.”

Nasr said that implicit in the nuclear deal is that the two countries could cooperate in other areas and “have a better climate where issues could be resolved. This is an example of it.”

The concurrent timing of the prisoner swap with the lifting of economic sanctions raised questions in Washington after White House officials had insisted for months that the nuclear deal and the release of the Americans were not contingent on one another. Obama, in his news conference in July, had said that the administration feared that tying the American prisoners to the nuclear agreement would make it harder to walk away from the nuclear talks if Iran was demanding too much.

“Think about the logic that that creates,” Obama said. “Suddenly, Iran realizes, ‘You know what? Maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals.’ ”

Administration officials insisted Saturday that the two efforts remained on parallel, but distinctly separate, tracks over the past six months; they acknowledged that channels of communication opened during the nuclear negotiations helped spur discussions on the prisoners. It was the Iranians who initiated the idea of releasing the Americans in exchange for a list of Iranians and those with dual citizenship charged with crimes by the U.S. government.

Obama aides emphasized that the swap differed from other prisoner exchanges the president has authorized — including one with Cuba last year and another with Russia in 2010, when intelligence operatives were released by both sides. The U.S. captives in Iran had not committed any crimes and did not have intelligence ties, administration officials said, and Obama mandated that the United States not release anyone with terrorism ties or those who had committed violent crimes.

“This is a unique arrangement that we pursued during the course of the nuclear discussions,” a senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters. “It’s a one-time-only type of agreement,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and was not authorized to speak on the record. “We do not envision this type of humanitarian reciprocal release replicated in the future. But a window opened, and we wanted to take advantage of it.”

Asked about criticism from Republicans that the administration had given up too much, the same official responded: “As president, you have to make a decision: Would it be better to leave these Americans there with sentences that stretched on because we don’t want to make a reciprocal humanitarian gesture? . . . Our determination was that it was a better decision to get our people home.”

Obama aides described a long negotiating process with the Iranians that stretched back 14 months, during which Obama, Kerry and other high-ranking U.S. officials pressed repeatedly for the Americans’ release. State Department official Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, helped lead the intensive negotiations, officials said.

Even as the talks accelerated after the nuclear deal was announced, the path to a prisoner swap nearly collapsed as the fragile relationship was tested by Iran’s decision to conduct ballistic missile tests last month.

As the Obama administration weighed fresh economic sanctions for the violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution, Reuters reported Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Kerry that the prisoner negotiations would be derailed. The administration delayed the sanctions.

“If your standard is that the problems with Iran will go away, this [nuclear] deal falls woefully short, but it does give you tools to manage problems with Iran better, and the indications this week are that it probably has,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Obama administration is “trying to nudge Iran in a constructive direction,” Alterman added. “The point of the deal is to make Iran a more normal state, both in the way it behaves and the way it is treated in the world.”