The Cable

Obama: Hezbollah, American Prisoners in Iran Unrelated to Nuke Deal

President pushes back against Iran deal critics.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 15:  U.S President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the East Room of the White House in response to the Iran Nuclear Deal on July 15, 2015 in Washington, DC. The landmark deal will limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. The agreement, which comes after almost two years of diplomacy, has also been praised by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani but condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 15: U.S President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the East Room of the White House in response to the Iran Nuclear Deal on July 15, 2015 in Washington, DC. The landmark deal will limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. The agreement, which comes after almost two years of diplomacy, has also been praised by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani but condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama sought to set the parameters of the deal reached with Iran to halt work on its nuclear weapons program very narrowly in a press conference on Wednesday. He insisted that the contentious issues of four U.S. citizens currently being held in Tehran on murky grounds — and Iran’s continued funding of terrorist groups — are completely separate from halting the country’s nuclear program.

“It makes no sense, and it loses sight of what was our original No. 1 priority” of the negotiations, he said. “My hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently,” he added. “But we’re not counting on it.”

Obama said that tying demands for the release of Americans being held in Iran to the nuclear deal would have given Iranian negotiators more leverage, since they would have pushed to get “additional concessions” out of U.S. negotiators.

Even if Washington had walked away from the nuclear deal, “we’d still be pushing them just as hard to get these folks out,” he added. “That’s why those issues are not connected. But we are working every single day to try to get them out and won’t stop until they’re out and rejoined with their families.”

The president also said that some of the loudest criticisms of the deal coming from opponents in Washington, who claim that he failed to curb Iranian funding and support for terrorism, wrongly conflate those issues with the potential nuclear threat.

Uncoupling all of those issues from the nuclear deal “is a matter of us making a determination of what is our priority,” he said.

Obama conceded, however, that some of the money generated by sanctions relief, along with at least $100 billion in frozen overseas assets that Tehran will now have access to, will eventually flow to terrorist groups.

Some of that cash will first have to go toward fixing the Iranian economy, which has been devastated by years of tough sanctions. But Iran will still have funds to direct toward its “military and for some of the activities in the region that are a threat to us and a threat to our allies,” he said. “I think that is a likelihood that they’ve got some additional resources. Do I think it’s a game-changer for them? No.”

The solution is to work with countries in the Gulf and Israel to put more effort into blocking those transfers of cash and weapons to Hezbollah, Syria, or the Houthi rebels in Yemen, he said.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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