WASHINGTON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio praised Iran's release of five detained Americans on Sunday, but sharply criticized the deal the White House made to win their freedom saying it would lead to more Americans being taken "hostage."
U.S. President Barack Obama pardoned three Iranian-Americans charged for violating sanctions against Iran, a lawyer for one of the men said, while prosecutors moved to drop charges against four Iranians outside the United States.
Iran agreed to free five Americans including Rezaian and Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American Christian pastor sentenced to eight years in prison in 2013 on charges of undermining Iran's national security.
Cruz, speaking to Fox News Sunday, said, "Praise God that the prisoners are coming home" but Iran got the better end of the prisoner swap.
"We released seven terrorists who had helped Iran with their nuclear program, and we agreed not to prosecute another 14 terrorists for doing the same thing. That's 21 terrorists helping Iran develop nuclear weapons that they intend to use to try to murder us," Cruz said.
He said the deal was a "very dangerous precedent."
Obama on Sunday defended the move describing the release as a "reciprocal, humanitarian gesture" that was a one-time event.
But Rubio, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, said the deal traded American "hostages" for Iranian "prisoners who did commit a crime."
Obama has "put price on the head of every American abroad," Rubio said. "Our enemies now know that if you can capture an American, you can get something meaningful in exchange for it."
Rubio said that the deal shows "weakness" on the part of Washington, and if he were elected president, Iran would not dare to detain Americans because it would face tough consequences. He said the start of his presidency would be like that of Ronald Reagan in 1981, when Iran released hostages taken at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979.
A senior Obama administration official pushed back against criticism of the prisoner swap, saying that those held in the United States were not a major threat, and the administration made a "judgment" that brought detained Americans home.
"If people want to say that they were for leaving these Americans in prison, they should say so. But the fact of the matter is this was our opportunity to bring them home," the official told reporters on a conference call.
(Reporting By David Lawder; Editing by Alan Crosby)
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