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Four Americans Released Have Left Iran. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired January 17, 2016 - 07:00   ET


JOEL ANDROPHY, LAWYER OF BAHRAM MECHANICH (via telephone): -- they received their funds that they expected in the nuclear deal arrangement that they have with the United States.

[07:00:12] So, they had told the United States that we are going to wait for the funds. The funds were received, but they decided not to fly out at night. They said we will fly out in the morning. So we were asked to come back to the jail this morning at 1:30 because that gave enough time for the Americans to be flown air space.


CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: OK, Christiane, I want to get your reaction to his claim that he was told by both the U.S. government and the Iranian government that the U.S. hostages, essentially, would not be flown out of Iran until Iran received the funds that were given to them or that were released to them by this IAEA agreement.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, look, it is a fascinating insight what the lawyer has told CNN about the nuts and bolts of the timing of this arrangement. From my experience and from my insight, having interviewed Iranian officials on precisely this issue and others in the past, they are absolutely sticklers for strict symmetry when these kinds of things happen.

So, the whole idea of the timing for both releases to be coincidental is what Iran has often demanded in the past, but most especially regarding this nuclear deal, because if that timing issue of the funds going into the bank account -- again, I do not know the details nor do I know the mechanics of how the money goes into a bank account -- but what I can tell you and we know publicly is that Iran was, yesterday, and even before yesterday, was declared publicly by the IAEA in full compliance with its part of the nuclear deal, so far. So that has already happened. In other words, Iran saw itself as being in full compliance of its part under this bargain.

So, it was waiting for the United States to be in full compliance with its end and that is to transfer the funds. So it makes total sense, if that is what the lawyer said about the timing, it totally makes sense, given my knowledge and general people's knowledge of the way Iran works in these situations. Remember, Iran and the United States still do not have diplomatic relations. They have now a nuclear deal, which has enhanced the possibility of diplomacy and which we are seeing as a result of this diplomacy, this concurrent plan to have a prisoner swap and, last week, we saw as a result of direct diplomacy, the rapid resolution of the U.S. sailors who were taken by the Iranian military in the Persian Gulf having wandered into Iranian territorial waters.

So, yes, diplomacy is happening and yes, the Iranians are total sticklers for 100 percent symmetry and that's because of the fact that is what they want, but it's also because they have to answer to their hardliners as well. And if Iran was seen to have sent out the American prisoners before getting their money or whatever, then there would be a lot of internal, you know, pressure on the president and the foreign minister who negotiated this deal. That is my information from the Iranian side and my experience of the Iranian way of negotiating in the past -- Christi.

PAUL: We appreciate that.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: Christiane, hold on a second.

We are some reporting from CNN's chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto who says that the families have been told by the U.S. Department of State that the plane carrying those four hostages has now departed from Iran. Wheels up from Iran, those Americans who were held in Iran are now en route, we expect, to Germany. That coming from CNN chief national security Jim Sciutto.

We have also been given an update that the President Rouhani will speak in the next 30 minutes or so. It's now just after 3:30 p.m. in Tehran, so expect that sometime this hour that we will hear from the president.

But let me ask you about the president and how he will have to frame this prisoner swap. We saw and heard from him. I got his Twitter account up here in which he says, "#implementationday, I thank God for this blessing and bow to the greatness of the patient nation of Iran. Congrats on this glorious victory," speaking about the nuclear deal and the beginning of this phase of the deal. But will he have to walk a line in how he characterizes and phrases this prisoner swap with the United States?

AMANPOUR: I'm not sure he'll make a big deal about that. I've been watching Iranian news and other such things. They are much more interested and for them, the actual, you know, real achievement and success and what they term is a triumph is sealing this deal with the United States and the other world powers.

[07:05:08] This is at the heart and soul of President Rouhani's presidency and he is likely to talk about this in a way that portrays it as a massive victory for not just Iran, but also for his style of diplomacy. And to be very fair, he and the Foreign Minister Zarif powered through a lot of opposition at home from the extreme hard-line wing of the Iranian establishment, a lot of opposition to get this done, and they did it because they know that they have to, you know, better their levels of trust and cooperation with the international community, particularly on the nuclear issue, in order to have a fighting chance of having a sustainable economy. They know, certainly President Rouhani, he was elected because of his

moderate views, compared to the previous president. You mean big bad ugly Ahmadinejad who had a terribly confrontational role with the relationship with the West and saw his nuclear program bounce by leaps and bounds and didn't care about the effect of international sanctions on Iran and didn't care that the people didn't want this.

Rouhani came into power saying I'm going to fix this because this is what my people want and we need not to be pariahs in the international community anymore and we need to have our economy liberated, and we need to meet the demand, the legitimate demands of our people. Now, remember, most of the Iranian people are young people who want no part of this extremism and these hard-line politics that Iran has had.

So, they are able now to say, our patient diplomacy has brought us this dividend and it has a big side benefit for the United States and Europe as well because if listen to Secretary Kerry, if you listen to the British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond in the last 24 hours or so, they have repeated the fact that the world is a safer place today because for a long period of time, Iran will have no way to implement any kind of military nuclear ability, should they feel they want to do that, because they will be under strict supervision. And to that end, the head of the IAEA is en route, is landing in Iran to talk to the Iranians about the next phase of compliance and monitoring of their nuclear program.

So, this is the big picture that you're likely to hear from the Iranian president today.

PAUL: All right. Christiane Amanpour, we appreciate it so much. Thank you.

I want to go right now to Jim Sciutto, I believe, is on the phone with us. And Jim is the one who was just calling in to let us know that it is wheels up from Iran.

Jim, do we understand those, just making sure we clarify here, the prisoners who have been held in Iran are now on a plane and out of Iran airspace?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): That's right, Christi and Victor. I just spoke with the families of Amir Hekmati, the former U.S. Marine who is one of the four Americans being released and they have been informed by the State Department that the plane is wheels up from Iran. The moment the families have been waiting for, in some cases, for years, has come now.

And I'll tell you, having been in touch with the families for these last tense 24, 36 hours and, of course, going back months before that, but particularly in these last couple of days, they have been waiting for this moment. And they -- it's one of those situation they are going to believe it only when they see it and only when they get that word that plane is up. Their hopes, of course, raised yesterday with the announcement by the State Department of this deal, but they weren't going to celebrate until they got official word that their loved ones were leaving Iran finally.

They now have that official word. It's a moment they have been waiting for, like I said, in some cases for year, difficult years. They have that good news now.

PAUL: And, Jim, do we have any better clarification now as to where they will be going first and when? How many hours it will be before they will be reunited with their families?

SCIUTTO: My understanding is that they are going to Switzerland first to Geneva. The plane that they are flying out on is a Swiss government plane. The Swiss represent the U.S. in Iran because, of course, we don't have diplomat I'm relations with them and the Swiss Ambassador Julia Hoss has been a key contact in this case from the beginning. So, the Swiss plane taking them out.

My understanding they go to Switzerland first and, from there, at some point in the next couple of days, they are going on to Landstuhl in Germany where there is a U.S. military base and they will have medical tests. This is natural after so much time in detention, check their health and check their state of mind.

[07:10:00] And that is where, I'm told, that they will be reunited with their there families. It's going to be a special in a moment coming up in the next few days for these families and for these Americans and then, of course, I know we are going to be watching closely. But our thoughts go out to them now as they take in this moment they have been waiting for so long.

BLACKWELL: All right. Jim, stay with us.

We just got this statement from Frederick Ryan Jr., publisher of "The Washington Post" as it relates to the release of Jason Rezaian that Tehran bureau chief has been held for 545 days. It goes on for a few paragraphs. But I want to read two sentences here in which Ryan writes, "We are relieved that this 545-day nightmare for Jason and his family is finally over. We are pleased to see that Iran released four other Americans and our hope is that those who remain held will soon follow."

And they finish this with, "Now a free man, Jason will be reunited with his family, including his brother Ali, his most effective and tireless advocate and we look forward to the joyous occasion of welcoming him back to 'The Washington Post' newsroom."

And this has been a day that not just the folks at "The Washington Post" but our colleagues across the industry have worked for. There was a letter sent to John Kerry a few days ago asking the government as they reached implementation day to work harder to free Jason Rezaian and the others, and now we know this plane has left Iranian air space. We've also heard from the attorney from one of the dual citizens who was here in the United States held in federal prisons that the Iranians who were held in U.S. custody are now either at home with their families or en route, expecting, of course, to hear from President Rouhani sometime within the next few minutes, sometime this hour. PAUL: So, Jim, is there -- as we look ahead as to what will happen,

we can anticipate the families will be flown then to Germany to reunite, you said?


SCIUTTO: That's right. I already know that some family members have already made their way there in expectation of this. But these are plans the families are making now. Just one point I would say, Jason Rezaian has been there more than a year. Amir Hekmati, four years ago, almost to the day, January 9th, 2012, Amir Hekmati was sentenced to death by Iran for alleged spying. That sentence was later commuted.

But these have been extremely tense moments for the families, going back years. Saeed Abedini has been there a number years as well, the American pastor who was in prison. And during that time, the families did not honestly know certainly when it will end but also how it would end.

This is an unpredictable country. It's a country where they elected a reformist, more open-minded President Hassan Rouhani a little more than two years ago, but it has enormous power centers run by far more hard-line groups and that includes the judiciary which holds the prisoners and, oftentimes, you hear the judiciary does not listen to the president and there are elements in that country who would like to keep these Americans. And some who would have liked to deliver harsher punishments.

So, today, just a reminder that this not only was long and difficult time for the families and certainly the prisoners themselves, but also extremely unpredictable. It was not, by any means, certain it was going to end this way. So, today is a remarkable event.

Let's keep in mind, too, they were held all of them at least for a time and being imprisoned in Tehran which is where Iran, for years has held dissidents where there is accounts of torture and psychological and physical. They are coming out of a really tough period in their lives and that's one reason why, you know, they are going to be going through Germany and going to that military base on the way out.

And the recovery time for something like this is long. They have got a battle ahead of them. But not to take anything away from the happy day, but to understand that this is a true relief for the prisoners and for the families.

BLACKWELL: Jim, I just want to share a live picture here with our viewers. This is the room in which Iranian President Rouhani will speak in just a few moments. We were told that this was going to happen at the top of this hour, about 15 minutes ago. But now we are told it will happen sometime before the end of the hour.

Of course, we will bring you those remarks as soon as he walks up to the podium. We see the room now filling up.

But, Jim, I want to take you back to the fall of 2014 when there was that historic conversation between President Obama and President Rouhani and the great distance that the relationship between these two countries and these two presidents and the secretary of state and the foreign minister had reached this day in which an implementation day is followed by the release of these four U.S. hostages, a fifth actually released yesterday.

[07:15:19] And now, these Iranian Americans also being released from U.S. prisons. A great distance and a relatively short period of time, considering the long scope of the troubles between the U.S. and Iran.

SCIUTTO: No question. This is 37 years of conflicts between the U.S. and Iran, going back to 1979 when you had the other hostages incident, those American embassy employees taking over, 444 days. It was a phone call, as you referenced, Victor.

September 2013, U.N. General Assembly, I was there, as the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was leaving, President Obama called. It is first high level contact between the two countries literally in decades. Now, we would learn later that private secret negotiations had begun between the U.S. and Iran at a lower level earlier in 2013 authorized by the president.

But as you say, during that two and a half years, with less than two and a half years, it's remarkable progress. As you and I know, there are critics here who think that the nuclear deal gave too much to Iran and those two critics continue to criticize this prisoner swap. They say the U.S. should not have released the Iranian prisoners. I mean, you have that.

But from a historical perspective in that time frame to have a nuclear negotiation between Iran and the U.S. that puts significant caps on Iran's nuclear program, to have diplomatic contacts between the two countries, which are literally daily at a very high level. Javad Zarif and John Kerry talk all the time.

From those contacts, think of the sailors, the American sailors that were -- this is just a few days ago, right? We had that incident just a few days ago that could not have been resolved without those diplomatic contacts and now you have this. And on the same day, Saturday, the nuclear deal implemented and this deal announced. Now, the families are in the air on their way here.

But you're absolutely right, Victor. It's a remarkable string of developments and diplomatic terms in a short span of time.

PAUL: And certainly, we cannot even imagine what it's like, not just for them, can you imagine as they sit on that plane, probably thinking I never thought this day would come, especially for Amir Hekmati who, as Jim so aptly reminded us, was in prison four years and sentenced to death at one time. So, not for them but their families as we know, again, if you're just joining us, the prisoners, the four prisoners that have been held in Iran are on a plane and out of Iranian air space, headed towards Switzerland, first. In a couple of days, will go on to Germany for medical tests and be reunited with their families.

We're going to take a quick break here. We'll be right back.


[07:21:08] BLACKWELL: All right. Continuing with the break news now, live pictures here out of Tehran. This is the room in which we are expecting to hear from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in just a few moments. He will, of course, speak about the implementation day of this nuclear deal. Quite possible, he'll speak about the big news happening today, this exchange of prisoners and hostages.

We have been told by the attorney for one of the dual citizens, U.S. and Iranian dual citizens, seven of them held in U.S. federal prisons that those seven have been released and are at home now with their families. And we've just learned from CNN's chief national correspondent Jim Sciutto that the families of the four hostages who were held in Iran are now on a plane and en route to Switzerland.

They have been released, have cleared Iranian air space. The expectation is that they will go to Switzerland and, days later, head to Germany for medical treatment.

PAUL: We want to go to CNN's senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen who is live for us at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, as we continue to look at these live pictures and await hearing from President Rouhani, of course.

But, Fred, I wanted to ask you, do you have any better clarity as to how long it will be before those Americans who are now in the air outside of Iran air space, how long it will be before they get to Germany and have any of their family members arrived yet there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are not sure whether any of the family members have arrived yet. Certainly, it is very much a possibility that some of them would already be en route here. We are actually at the Ramstein Air Base and is close to Frankfurt Airport, which is the main place you go into if you travel from the U.S. here to Germany.

As far as the actual logistics of bringing the four former hostages now here over to Ramstein military base, is the people are operating under the assumption that the first flight will go into Geneva there from Iran. Usually the flight time from Tehran to Geneva would be around four and a half hours and usually take about 40 minutes to clear Iranian air space and you have to fly over turkey and into Europe and fly into Geneva.

The folks here believe that it is very possible that the four could arrive today here in Ramstein, and would immediately be transferred, about one and a half mile trip to the Landstuhl medical facility and that is more than a hospital. It's a really big complex. If, indeed the families are already here, there is quarters there where they could stay, where they could then be reunited with their loved ones, and then, of course, also of those medical checks would take place there.

Of course, we have heard that Jason Rezaian had medical issues when he was there inside the Evin Prison. And so, certainly, the process of these medical checks, the process of having these people overcome what they have had to endure over the past couple of years something will take sometime. And it's unclear when exactly they would then make their way back to the U.S., Christi.

PAUL: All right. Fred Pleitgen live there in Germany -- Fred, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

BLACKWELL: Let's go to Chris Frates who has a new development for us from Washington -- Chris.

CHRIS FRATES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: From U.S. officials confirming what the families have been told that, in fact, those Americans have left Iran. I have a statement here from a senior administration official I want to read it to you guys.

It says, "We can confirm that our detained U.S. citizens have been released and that those who wish to depart Iran have. We have no further information to share at this time. I would ask this everyone respect the privacy of these individuals and their families. When we have further information to share, we will."

So, that's the first time that we have had a U.S. official confirm what we have heard from the families. That, in fact, those four Americans have left Iran.

[07:25:03] They're on their way to Switzerland now and then, of course, will head to Germany.

So, news out of Washington here that the U.S. government starting to confirm what we had been hearing from those families, guys.

BLACKWELL: Chris, let me ask you a follow-up here. I know that often they release a statement and that's all. But I'm just looking for a bit of clarity here.

From the statement, I understand that the four have been released and those who wish to leave Iran have. Is there an expectation that all four do not wish to leave Iran?

FRATES: Well, we were following up on that, Victor. The expectation was everybody would leave Iran, but I think they were leaving it open that those decisions were made on a individual basis, family-by- family.

We don't have -- we have not contacted all of the families to see if, in fact, those folks have left. So we are going to be checking that out. But, you know, certainly that is the official statement. We will continue our reporting here to figure out, are all four of those Americans on that plane?

BLACKWELL: All right. Chris Frates, thank you, in Washington.

PAUL: All right. Chris, actually, i had one more question, if you don't mind.


PAUL: As we continue to watch and see when President Rouhani will be stepping up to that podium and what he will say. Any better indication today as to when we might hear from President Obama?

FRATES: Well, certainly, we have been waiting to hear that the Americans had, in fact, left Iran. There was a sense inside the White House that the president was waiting on that before he talked about both the Americans and the broader nuclear deal. Of course, most of the day yesterday, we spent waiting for the IAEA to say that the implementation day had arrived.

So, now those two things have occurred, you know, there is a thought that the president may speak today, but we are still not getting any official guidance about when that might happen, Christi.

PAUL: All right. Chris Frates, thank you so much for the updates.

FRATES: All right. Thank you.

PAUL: And, again, you're looking at live pictures here as we wait for President Rouhani to step up to that podium and discuss everything that has happened really in the last 24, 48 hours and beyond.


PAUL: -- the negotiations that it took perhaps to make all of this happen.

We can tell you that there are celebrations today at "The Washington Post" and Brian Stelter has been looking into, I'm sure, the elation of the folks there who have been waiting to see Jason Rezaian.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Each of these men now on this plane have had supporters, have had allies throughout this arduous process. Churches, newspapers in case of Jason Rezaian. I wanted to share what "The Washington Post" has just said, the publisher of "The Post", Fred Ryan, issuing a statement he has been waiting to issue.

He says "The Post" is "elated to hear the news the plane has been taken off and he has been released from Evin prison and has safely left the country with his wife, Yeganeh. We are relieved this 545-day nightmare for Jason and his family is finally over."

Now, the statement goes on to say that Jason experienced deplorable conditions and inhumane treatment. The top priority now must be his health and his well-being.

There are e-mails being exchanged now among "Post" officials. Just a couple of words in those emails, "wheels up." And this something "The Post" has been waiting for, as I mentioned, for 18 months, because he was detained in July of 2014.

Each of these men has a different story. Jason, of course, is the one that should have been writing the story and he's the one that would have been writing about this news today but, instead, he has been behind bars for far too long and I'm sure his family must be --


STELTER: Yes, it's incredible.

PAUL: Do you think, Brian, because he is a writer and, yet, the first and foremost as "The Washington Post" colleagues stated and is so true, his health is most important. At sometime, though, because we are hearing about different treatments of different prisoners there who have now been released, how plausible do you think it might be that they will talk about what happened to them in full in their time t that they were being held?

STELTER: You know, we have learned a lot from journalists who have been detained in Iran in the past. Several individuals you've seen here on CNN. We had a couple of them on "RELIABLE SOURCES" later this morning -- people that have told harrowing stories about what it's like to be obtained for months at a time.

Jason Rezaian was retained far longer than any of the journalists in the past. This case seemed even more torturous. There were times where he needed medication, needed to see doctors. There were times where he was held in solitary confinement.

I have a feeling, just a hunch, that maybe he has been writing the story in his head the whole time -- the way so many journalists do when they are going through some kind of experience good or bad. Obviously, it will take a while before we'll hear his story and the story of the other men being freed today.

PAUL: Absolutely.

STELTER: "The Washington Post" is having a celebration at the end of this month in D.C. They are opening their new newsroom. It's going to be a whole week of events. I'm sure they'd love to see him there at that time of the end of the month.