By Jordan Fabian - 01/17/16 11:01 AM EST
President Obama on Sunday touted improved relations between the U.S. and Iran, pointing to the implementation of a landmark nuclear agreement and Tehran’s release of American prisoners.
The president's victory lap came after 24 hours of diplomatic wrangling that led to the release of five Americans and the lifting of sanctions against Iran under the historic nuclear deal reached last year.
"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," Obama said. "Under the nuclear deal...Iran will not get its hands on a nuclear bomb."
The president laid out the steps Tehran has taken to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, saying "we have now cut off every single path that Iran could have used to create a bomb."
"We’ve achieved this historic progress through diplomacy, without resorting to another war in the Middle East," he added.
Highlighting ongoing tensions between Washington and Tehran, however, the president announced new sanctions in response to two Iranian ballistic missile tests last year that violated international rules and sparked criticism of Obama's approach to Iran at home.
The Treasury Department sanctioned 11 individuals and companies working to advance Iran's ballistic missile program. The penalties were only announced after a plane carrying three of the Americans exited Iranian airspace on Sunday.
The developments are still a major victory for Obama, who pledged during his first campaign that engaging with America's traditional adversaries could advance the country's interests. The U.S. cut off formal diplomatic ties with Iran 36 years ago in the midst of a major hostage crisis.
"America can do -- and has done -- big things when we work together," he said. "We can leave this world and make it safer and more secure for our children and our grandchildren for generations to come."
Obama said negotiations to secure the release of Americans held in Iran “accelerated” after the nuclear deal. The talks began 14 months ago through a new diplomatic channel with Tehran opened during negotiations over the nuclear deal, senior administration officials said.
“Several Americans unjustly detained by Iran are finally coming home,” Obama said. "I gave these families my word -- I made a vow -- that we would do everything in our power to win the release of their loved ones."
Obama credited the improved relations between the two countries with the release of U.S. sailors who strayed into Iranian waters in “less than 24 hours.”
He also announced the U.S. and Iran had settled a nearly four-decade-old dispute over $400 million in Iranian funds designated for purchase of U.S. military equipment before the country's Islamic Revolution in 1979. The U.S. returned those funds plus $1.3 billion in interest, which the State Department said was less than Iran had demanded.
The president also stressed the U.S. continues to have concerns over Iran's destabilizing activities in the region, including its ballistic missile tests, saber-rattling with Saudi Arabia and threats toward Israel.
Republicans blasted the prisoner release, calling it another sign of Obama's capitulation to Tehran.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioBudowsky: Why Warren masters Trump Meghan McCain: ‘I no longer recognize my party’ Five ways Trump’s convention was a success MORE (R-Fla.), a leading 2016 White House contender, blasted the president for granting clemency to seven Iranians in exchange for American "hostages" who were wrongly imprisoned. The president also rescinded arrest notices for 14 other Iranians wanted for sanctions violations.
“The president has pardoned them in exchange for a release of hostages which had done nothing wrong and it proves once again now that nations and enemies of America around the world know there’s a price for Americans," Rubio said on CBS News's "Face the Nation" program on Sunday.
"The message it sends is “if you take an American hostage, Barack ObamaBarack ObamaWashington Post: Trump is a 'unique and present danger' Obama reaffirms support for Germany in wake of shooting GOP Sen. Flake offers Trump rare praise MORE will cut a deal with you, whether it’s [Bowe] Bergdahl, what he did with the Castro brothers, and now what he’s done with Iran," the senator added.
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed criticism of the swap.
"If people want to say they were for leaving these Americans in prison, they should say so," one senior administration official told reporters Sunday. "But the fact of the matter is, this was our opportunity to bring them home."
--Kyle Balluck contributed to this report, which was updated at 12:22 p.m.