WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Barack Obama on Sunday (Jan 17) heralded the implementation of a nuclear deal and prisoner swap with Iran as a victory for diplomacy that would advance American interests and potentially spark more cooperative relations between Teheran and the world.
Speaking after Americans who had been imprisoned and freed by Iran had left the country, Mr Obama said Iran now would not "get its hands on a nuclear bomb" and the planet would be more secure.
"This is a good day because, once again, we're seeing what's possible with strong American diplomacy," Mr Obama said at the White House. "These things are a reminder of what we can achieve when we lead with strength and with wisdom."
His remarks were an implicit rebuke to Republicans, who have criticised the President, a Democrat, for his engagement with a country that has long been an enemy of the United States.
"We released seven terrorists who had helped Iran with their nuclear programme, and we agreed not to prosecute another 14 terrorists for doing the same thing," Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said on Fox News Sunday. "That's 21 terrorists helping Iran develop nuclear weapons that they intend to use to try to murder us."
The President said the United States still had profound differences with Iran and would continue to enforce sanctions over its ballistic missile programme, violations of human rights and support of terrorism. "We remain steadfast in opposing Iran's destabilising behaviour elsewhere, including its threats against Israel and our Gulf partners, and its support for violent proxies in places like Syria and Yemen," he said.
Mr Obama described the release of six Iranian-Americans and one Iranian charged in the United States as a "reciprocal, humanitarian gesture" that was a one-time event. The US government would "not rest" until another American citizen, Mr Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran more than eight years ago, was located, he said.
The President said a deal between the United States and Iran at The Hague, in which Iran received US$400 million (S$575.8 million) in funds frozen since 1981 plus US$1.3 billion in interest, could save the United States billions of dollars that Iran was pursuing.
"With the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well," he said.
Mr Obama campaigned for the White House in 2008 on a promise to engage with US enemies including Iran and Cuba. The nuclear pact and warming relations between Washington and Havana are likely to become a big part of his legacy as he completes his final year in office.
A US official said the Obama administration wanted to test whether there could be additional cooperation or constructive dialogue between the United States and Iran. The Syria talks would be the primary forum for that, he said.
Mr Obama said he hoped Iran would move into a more cooperative relationship with the world community on the back of this diplomatic breakthrough.
"I am hopeful that this signals the opportunity at least for Iran to work more cooperatively with nations around the world to advance their interests and the interests of people who are looking for peace and security for their families," he said.