(Ames, Iowa) — Republican presidential candidates celebrated the release of five American prisoners from Iran Saturday, but many criticized the Obama administration's decision to swap Iranian prisoners to secure their release.
The agreement, reached after more than a year of negotiation between the U.S. and the Iranian government, coincided with ongoing meetings in Paris on the implementation of the Iranian nuclear agreement reached earlier this year and as many sanctions against the Iranian regime are set to be rolled back. Many GOP presidential hopefuls, who were critical of the original agreement in part because it didn't deal with the fate of the Americans held in Iran, including a Christian pastor and a Washington Post reporter, now condemn the way they were released.
“I have to see what the deal is for the four people, because somebody said they’re getting seven people back,” front-runner Donald Trump said at a rally in New Hampshire Saturday. “So essentially they get 150 billion [dollars] plus seven, and we get four. Meh, doesn’t sound too good. Doesn’t sound too good.”
Speaking to reporters in Johnston, Iowa, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said the swap only invites similar action by the Iranians in the future.
“We shouldn’t be involved in swaps,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that this tells us everything we need to know about the Iranian regime—that they take people hostage in order to gain concessions,” he continued. “And the fact that they can get away with it with this administration I think has created an incentive for more governments to do this around the world.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie echoed the sentiment at a town hall in Ames, Iowa. "We have to be grateful that those folks are being sent home but we also have to scrutinize what this president gave away in the process," Christie said. "This is not a guy I would let negotiate buying a car for me let alone anything else. I mean he makes bad deals and he seems to become an expert at making bad deal with the Iranians. The fact is that we shouldn’t have to trade anything to get our citizens back home. They were taken illegally by a rogue regime of Mullahs over in Iran and this is the problem with this president, he gets no respect around the world."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was more cautious, speaking to reporters in Hampstead, N.H., stopping short of condemning the trade. "I’m happy that hostages—because that’s what they were—were released—in return for people that violated United States law," he said, adding. "It doesn’t seem like there’s much symmetry there."
GOP candidates eager to capture the social conservative vote focused their praise on the release of Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, whose plight has been the subject of intense focus in evangelical Christian circles.
"Praise God that Christian pastor Saeed Abedini has been freed from his eight-year prison sentence for serving the Lord, spreading the Gospel and planting house churches across Iran," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who questioned why it took the Obama administration so long to secure his release.
"Our prayers have been answered today, as Pastor Abedini will return home to his wife and children in America," said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. "Pastor Abedini is an incredibly brave man for risking his life for his Christian beliefs and I am pleased that our government did not sit idly by while an American citizen was persecuted abroad due to religious intolerance."
With reporting by Philip Elliott/Hampstead, N.H.