WASHINGTON — White House hopefuls on both sides of the political aisle on Saturday hailed the prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran, though Republicans said the exchange took too long and served as a reminder that the longtime U.S. foe isn’t trustworthy.
Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari were released from Iranian custody in exchange for seven Iranians who were not convicted of violent crimes but of violating the sanctions ban against Iran, senior administration officials told CNN. A fifth American, Matthew Trevithick, is also being released by Iran, U.S. officials said, but they said his release was not part of the negotiated prisoner swap.
GOP front-runner Donald Trump, speaking at a campaign event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, criticized the Iranian nuclear deal, which he claimed will send $150 billion to Iran.
“Now I have to see what the deal is for the four people, because someone said they were getting seven back. So essentially, they get 150 billion plus seven, and we get four. Doesn’t sound too good. Doesn’t sound too good,” he said. “I am happy they are coming back, but it is a disgrace they have been there this long, a total disgrace.”
Speaking at the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, later Saturday, Trump said he “had something to do with” the prisoners’ release.
“I have been hitting (the Obama administration) very hard. And I think I might have had something to do with it. You want to know the truth — it’s part of my staple thing — I go crazy when I hear about this,” he said.
Trump’s top rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, said he’s glad the prisoners were released but is worried about the details of the exchange.
“We don’t know the details of the deal that is bringing them home, and it may well be there are some very problematic aspects to this deal,” Cruz told reporters in Fort Mill, South Carolina. “But at least this morning, I am giving thanks that Pastor Saeed is coming home. It is far later than it should have been, but we will be glad to welcome him home with open arms.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — who last spring joined 20 other senators in penning a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry saying that the Obama administration should push for the prisoners’ release as part of the Iran nuclear deal’s negotiations — said at a town hall in Johnston, Iowa, that situation “tells us all we need to know about the Iranian regime.”
“If these reports are true, of course we are happy for them and their families, but they should never have been there,” he said, adding that Iran takes “people hostage in order to take concessions. And the fact that they can get away with it in this administration is one of the reasons — has created an incentive for more governments to do this around the world.”
In an interview with CNN, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul called Abedini an “incredibly brave man.”
“For years, we have advocated for the release of Saeed Abedini. I’ve sent repeated letters to the administration encouraging them to advocate for his release hoping we’d pressure Iran for his release,” he said. “We’re excited he’s coming home. I think he’s an incredibly brave man to advocate for Christianity and to risk his life in the process.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in Amherst, New Hampshire, that if he were president, he would have threatened Iran with military action over the prisoners.
“I would say … if you do not release them, that there’s going to be military action, that that’s an act of provocation, an act of war. What I would do in January is recognize that Iran is not an ally. That’s how the Obama administration views this,” Bush said.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson said he was “overjoyed” for the prisoners’ families, but said “the fact remains that President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran is fatally flawed and gravely jeopardizes the national security interests of the American people, our ally Israel and other peaceful nations in the Middle East and around the world.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said the deal “should give each of us pause.”
“First, we are returning criminals back to Iran in return for freeing innocent Americans. Under no rational analysis is that a fair deal,” Santorum said in a statement. “Second, this exchange proves that Iran is no friend and continues to get the upper hand in negotiations with the Obama Administration. As I said in Thursday’s debate, Barack Obama’s deal with Iran must be shredded and I intend to do that on day one of my presidency.”
And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, while praising the release of Abedini, asked why it took the Obama administration so long to negotiate his release.
“He never should have been jailed and it’s embarrassing that John Kerry and Obama negotiate with Iran as innocent Americans remained locked-up in prison,” Huckabee said in a statement. “President Obama is a complete fool for trusting a country that’s been lying, cheating, murdering and sponsoring terrorism around the globe for 37 years. Empowering Iran with sanctions relief is like Neville Chamberlain writing a $150 billion check to Adolf Hitler hoping he’ll play nice and behave. This Iran deal is an insane disaster and this White House has lost its mind.”
But Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, lauded the announcement, with the front-runner saying she is “greatly relieved” that Iran released the American prisoners.
“Their families and our country have waited and prayed for this day to come,” she said in a statement. “But we shouldn’t thank Iran for the prisoners or for following through on its obligations. These prisoners were held unjustly by a regime that continues to threaten the peace and security of the Middle East.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, meanwhile, said the exchange represented progress in relations between Washington and Tehran.
“This good news shows that diplomacy can work, even in this volatile region of the world,” Sanders said.
O’Malley also cheered the exchange.
“Great news on the release of Jason Rezaian and others. Memo to Republican candidates: diplomacy beats carpet bombing,” he tweeted.