WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama hailed a series of breakthroughs with Iran as a vindication of his contentious policy of engagement on Saturday and called on young Iranians to take the next step in building new ties with the world. However, he went on to impose fresh sanctions on the Islamic republic.
“Today is a good day,” Obama said in a White House address to the nation after US prisoners were released from Tehran and key aspects of a nuclear deal were implemented.
“For decades, our differences meant our governments almost never spoke to each other. Ultimately that did not advance America’s interests,” Obama said in comments aimed at a sceptical US public. “We achieved this through diplomacy without resorting to another war in the Middle East.”
His comments followed a momentous day that saw international inspectors confirm Iran had hobbled a nuclear programme that had been decades in the making, costly to build and the source of extreme national pride.
The United States responded by easing decades of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy and kept it out of the global economy. The US also unfroze an estimated $100 billion of Iranian assets held abroad and settled a long running international dispute that will see Iran get $1.7 billion directly from Washington.
However, the jubilation was short lived after the US announced new sanctions linked to Iran’s ballistic missile programme.
Five Iranian nationals and a network of companies based in the United Arab Emirates and China were added to an American blacklist, the US Treasury Department announced in a statement.
The network “obfuscated the end user of sensitive goods for missile proliferation by using front companies in third countries to deceive foreign suppliers,” the statement said, adding that the five individuals had “worked to procure ballistic missile components for Iran.”
Simultaneously Washington and Tehran unveiled a prisoner swap deal that released high-profile American prisoners.
The detention of five Americans - including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian – had been particularly contentious in the United States, an uncomfortable echo of the 1979 hostage crisis which severed relations.
Obama hailed the release, with three of them landing in Switzerland late Sunday en route to the US. “When Americans are freed, that’s something we can all celebrate,” Obama said.
“I’ve met with some of their families. I’ve seen their anguish. How they ache for their sons and husbands. I gave these families my word. I made a vow that we would do everything to win the release of their loved ones, and we have been tireless.”
Obama said the United States would continue to have problems with the Iranian government’s “destabilising activities” in the region, including support for militant groups. But the US President insisted that his country would “not waiver” in defence of its security, or that of its allies and partners.
Young Iranians urged to build new ties
Even as he hailed talks with the Iranian administration, Obama offered an olive branch to Iran’s young and growing population. “I do want to speak directly to the Iranian people,” Obama said. “Yours is a great civilisation with a vibrant culture that has so much to contribute to the world in commerce and science and arts.”
“For decades your government’s threats and actions to destabilise the region has isolated Iran from much of the world. Now our governments are talking to each other.”
“Following the nuclear deal, you, especially young Iranians have the opportunity to build new ties with the world. We have a rare chance to pursue a new path.”
Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2016.