WASHINGTON — The United States on Sunday imposed sanctions over Iran's ballistic missile testing even as President Barack Obama hailed the release of five Americans from Tehran's custody and the implementation of a nuclear deal he hopes will stand among his lasting foreign policy achievements.
Obama pledged to counter vigorously Iran's "destabilizing behavior" across the Mideast even while the U.S. engages with the Islamic Republic. After the Americans had been freed, Obama announced economic sanctions against 11 individuals and entities as a result of a ballistic missile launch in October.
"We're not going to waver in the defense of our security or that of our allies and partners," Obama said.
With the sanctions announcement, Obama also sought to counter criticism from GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates that his actions had appeased a nation that has aided the spread of Islamic extremism.
"It reflects a pattern we've seen in the Obama administration over and over again of negotiating with terrorists and making deals and trades that endanger U.S. safety and security," Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said on Fox News Sunday.
"Our enemies now know that if you can capture an American, you can get something meaningful in exchange for it," Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said on NBC's Meet the Press.
But Obama said he decided "that a strong confident America could advance our national security by engaging directly with the Iranian government."
Democratic lawmakers who supported the agreement applauded the sanctions announced Sunday. Five Democratic senators said in a joint letter to Obama that failure to impose the restrictions could encourage Tehran to violate international obligations with impunity.
The Obama administration worked for nearly 14 months behind the scenes to negotiate the prisoner trade. Iran also agreed to work to locate American Robert Levinson, who vanished during a trip to Iran in 2007.
In a reciprocal move, Obama said that six Iranian-Americans and one Iranian serving sentences or awaiting trial were being granted clemency. He emphasized that they were not charged with terrorism or any violent offenses.
"They're civilians, and their release is a one-time gesture to Iran given the unique opportunity offered by this moment and the larger circumstances at play," Obama said.
Obama said the U.S and Iran had also resolved a longstanding dispute over money Iran used to buy military equipment from the U.S. before the two countries broke ties. Iran will get more than $400 million, plus $1.3 billion in interest.
The White House said its lawyers assessed that the U.S. could have faced a "significantly higher judgment" if the case continued.
"There was no benefit to the U.S. is dragging this out," Obama said.
Obama used his Sunday morning statement from the White House to speak directly to the Iranian people: "We have a rare chance to pursue a new path — a different, better future that delivers progress for both our peoples and the wider world."
Obama said Iran has a vibrant culture that has so much to contribute to the world in commerce, science and the arts, but "your government's threats and actions to destabilize your region have isolated Iran from much of the world."
The Obama administration said it was prepared to test whether additional cooperation with Iran was possible, most notably in resolving the civil war in Syria.
White House officials said during a briefing held after the president's address that Iran could play a significant role in resolving the Syrian civil war, but profound differences exist. They said Iran needs to understand the fighting won't be resolved as long as Syrian President Bashar Assad remains in power.
The officials said they know Iran is not going to dramatically change its actions in the next year or two.
"If Iran does act in a more constructive fashion, it would be a positive development in resolving difficult issues," the White House officials said. "If they don't, we will continue to enforce our sanctions and continue to have very strong differences."