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Four Americans Released Have Left Iran; 2 Killed in South Florida Storms; Iran Will Factor in Democratic Debate. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired January 17, 2016 - 08:00   ET


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: But here is what is happening this morning: as it was cast by Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran, a historic day.

[08:00:07] His characterization was speaking specifically about the implementation of his JCPOA, this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as it relates to the nuclear deal, and that plan has been going on for sometime.

But for the people who have been waiting for those four hostages that had been held in Iran, some for more than a year, some for several years, this is an amazing day, they'll be reunited from those loved ones, confirmed from a high level U.S. official that that plane carrying those four hostages is in the air en route to Switzerland, likely, then in a few days, on route to Landstuhl in Germany where there will get some medical treatment.

Let's go to Jim who is watching the very latest for us -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): This is a day that these families, as you say, Victor, have been waiting for, for years.

I've got word from the families that they were informed as soon as that plane was wheel's up. And keep in mind, that initially, the thoughts were that plane was going to take off yesterday. There were some logistical issues, I understand, in the last 24 hours, including something as simple as whether Jason Rezaian's mother was on the flight manifest.

So, red tape added a few hours, a half a day or so to that waiting time for the families, but that it was this morning, our time, when they got the official word from the State Department that the plane was in the air. And then, that release that they've been waiting for.

And I tell you, the families weren't willing to accept, believe, celebrate until that plane was in the air. And now that is just beginning. And enormous amount of relief from the family, just on the other point, because you have two major events this weekend, you have the release of the Americans, and you have the implementation of this nuclear deal. Which, having just visited with the Iranian president, I've been there a dozen times, when you go there, the thing that they want most, average Iranians is to be a normal country, and to have normal contacts with the world, to travel, to do business, et cetera.

That's what the Iranian president was speaking to as he was talking, saying Iranian businesses and banks will be able to do business with international banks. That hasn't happened for years. He referenced one thing in particular, it has always been mentioned by Iranians, and that is airplanes, and airplane parts. Why is that? U.S. embargo, they don't get Boeing parts, they don't get Boeing planes. They feel that affects airplane safety. Now, they're going to be able to buy new planes.

This is the sort of grassroots appeal of this to them, you know, it's about a nuclear deal, it's about transfer of American prisoners. For the Iranian people, it's about being reintroduced to the world again. It's, you know, it's a remarkable day on so many levels.

But I'll tell you, I've been in touch with the American family of the Americans released. They are full of excitement, full of emotion, and they can't wait to get to Germany to be reunited with their loved ones.

BLACKWELL: Jim, let me ask you a question as it relates to the statement we have from the senior administration official confirming these four Americans have been released. You've spoken with the families, but this statement leaves a bit of ambiguity, relating to all four of them being on this plane. And this is a quote from the statement, "We can confirm that our contained U.S. citizens have been released and those that who wish to depart Iran have left."

Have you spoken with the four families, and all four of those hostages are they all on the plane, or is it possible that will one or more is still in Iran?

SCIUTTO: We know that three of them are on the plane. We know that Jason Rezaian is on the plane. We know that Amir Hekmati is on the plane, the former U.S. Marine. And we know that Saeed Abedini, the Christian pastor is on the plane.

So, the question mark is the fourth Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, whether he is on the plane. And that's something that I've spoken to U.S. officials about and we're getting clarity. We're getting clarity from them. And they're leaving it to the family, to make it clear what his decision is.

We know Rezaian, the journalist, Hekmati, the former marine, and Abedini, the Christian pastor -- they're on that plane and out of the country.

CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good to know.

Jim Sciutto, thank you so much. We appreciate the update.

I want to take you now to CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen. He is live from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Fred, you are very close to where all of these Americans are going to be within the next day or two, we assume. What do you know about what will happen once they get there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, Christi, the folks here at the air base are operating under the assumption that at some point today, they believe that the four, or the people who did go on that plane, are going to come here to the air base and subsequently will be almost immediately brought to the Landstuhl medical facility -- which is, of course, one of America's, probably the biggest military hospital outside of the United States.

[08:05:19] It's one that's become very well known over the years as we had the Iraq conflict, the Afghanistan conflict with the many wounded being brought there. It's a high-level trauma center that also is a huge compound here outside of the air base. And certainly offers facilities for instance for the families of those who were just released to also be there with them, inside an enclosed compound to be able is to see their loved ones again, and, of course, we do expect that to happen in the next hours, in the next couple of days.

As Jim was just saying there, the big question mark is how long when that plane lands, in Geneva, how long will they stay there in Switzerland before moving on here to Ramstein? That isn't a very long flight, if you go from Geneva to Ramstein, it's maybe a 30 minute flight to get to here to Ramstein.

And then, certainly, they can start that process of reintegrating, and first and foremost, of course, receiving medical checks, receiving medical attention, because, of course, we have to come in mind, they were in the Evin Prison there, in Tehran, which is a very, very tough prison -- which is one where for instance Jason Rezaian was known to have medical issues. It's unclear what his state, for instance, is, and this is, of course, a place, the Landstuhl medical center, where they will receive world class medical attention in the next coming days, Christi.

BLACKWELL: All right. Fred Pleitgen there for us at Ramstein Air Base.

As we heard, they will be heading to the Landstuhl Medical Center after that visit to Geneva. And we believe that they are en route there now.

Let's go to Chris Frates in Washington.

And, Chris, the question has been since the announcement of this swap, almost now 24 hours ago, when we would hear from President Obama. Do we any clarity there yet?

CHRIS FRATES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's still no clarity there yet. That's been the big guessing game for the last 24 hours or so.

But we did have big news this morning with U.S. officials for the first time confirming what some of the families had told us. That, in fact, the Americans had left.

And we have a statement, as well, it says, you know, "We can confirm that our detained U.S. citizens has been released and those who wish to depart Iran have left. We have no further information to share at this time. We would ask that everyone respect the privacy of these individuals and their families. When we have further information to share, we will."

That was from a senior administration official. And, you kind of hear there, a little bit of hedging, the fact that maybe not all four were on the plane.

Here's what I can tell you, guys -- Amir Hekmati, a congressman said he will be coming home. That's how we know he is on that plane.

Saeed Abedin, his wife tweeted that he would be coming home.

Jason Rezaian, he is "The Washington Post" reporter, and his newspaper, Fred Ryan, the publisher there, put out a statement that they can't wait for him to come home.

So, that leaves just one, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, he's the only one left we have not heard from his family.

So, guys, by the process of elimination, if there were anybody left in Iran, we suspect he would be the one because we've heard from either the employers or the families of everyone else.

PAUL: All right, Chris, quickly, we also got word this morning that Secretary Kerry is back in the U.S. There had been some speculation that perhaps he would meet with the Americans once they arrived in Switzerland.

Do we know why he decided to come back to the U.S.?

FRATES: We've not -- we've not heard why. We don't know whether it was a scheduling issue or why he had to come back across. So, we will find out.

But, certainly, those Americans will go from Switzerland to Germany, and then be home and we're also looking for word about what kind of reception they'll get once they're back here in the United States.

BLACKWELL: All right, Chris Frates for us in Washington, thanks so much. And we'll come back as soon as we get any clarity about when we'll hear from President Obama.

Let's go now to CNN senior media correspondent, Brian Stelter, who has been watching the response from "The Washington Post".

They are as the families of everyone else who is on that plane, and a country celebrating now that Jason Rezaian is in en route to Switzerland and has been released from more than 18 months of captivity there in Tehran.

Tell us what we're hearing from the folks there at "The Post".

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes, "The Post" has been widely praised for the tireless lobbying efforts on behalf of their reporter. You can imagine what it would be like in any newsroom, in any workplace really if one of your colleagues was being detained half way around the world.

I just spoke to a staffer at "The Post" who points out we have seen a photo of Jason Rezaian ever since he was detained back in July of 2014. I believe the same may be true for the other men as well. We have heard about their condition, we have heard about how they've been doing, we haven't seen them. One of the maybe best moments later today will be when we might be able to see these men as they get off one of these planes.

[08:10:04] Let me share a part of the statement from "The Washington Post" publisher, Frederick Ryan, he says "The Post" is elated by the wonderful news that Jason Rezaian has been released.

"We are relieved this 545-day nightmare for Jason and his family is finally over." He went on to say, "After enduring such deplorable conditions and inhuman treatment, the top priority now must be Jason's health and well being."

We know it's probably going to be a lengthy road of recovery for all of these men. I was told by a post staffer, there was lots of celebrating and this morning, but really, most of the e-mail traffic, most of the conversations are about the work, there's a lot of stories now to be told about their colleagues release.

PAUL: No doubt about it.

All right. Brian Stelter, thank you so much.

And we to want let you know, we have heard also from Amir Hekmati's family, releasing this statement today. "Our brother, son, and friend, Amir Hekmati has been released from Iran. We have been officially told that he's on a plane leaving the country. It's hard to put into words what our family feels right now. But we remain in hopeful anticipation until Amir is in our arms.

As many of you know, the father is ill and soon he'll embrace his son once more. We are incredibly grateful for today's news. We thank or government. We thank all of you whose thoughts and prayers helped us tremendously since Amir was taken from us in 2011 and we certainly are happy for that family and all of the families as well."

Big day, obviously for all of them. And to know that his father was ill, it's going to be a big moment for them.

BLACKWELL: Yes, when they're reunited.

Confirmation from the Hekmati family, from the employer of Jason Rezaian, and the wife of Saeed Abedini. Still waiting for confirmation of someone connected to Nosratollah Khosravi, that he also is on that plane headed to Switzerland, leaving Iran after captivity there in the country.

We'll take a quick break. New developments after the break.


[08:15:03] PAUL: Breaking news, Americans who have been held in Iran, some for years, are on a plane right now heading to Switzerland. They have been released. All of three, at least three of them that we see there, we believe the fourth has been released as well. We haven't heard from his family.

Also, the U.S. has released all seven of their Iranian prisoners who we understand many are back home already or en route to that.

But we have also been listening to the president of the Iran, President Hassan Rouhani, talking about the economic impact that this deal with IAEA and the international partners, what that's going to do to the country.

Let's go to Richard Quest here. He's awaiting the kickoff of the economic forum there where he is, and he has more on the economic impact in Iran.

Good morning, Richard.


The economic impact is simply vast and at the same time unknown Christi. For the very simple reason that not only do you have the effect of the released assets that are being frozen in the European Union and in Asia and in other parts of the world under the U.N. sanctions, you also have all the companies that are now going to be looking for business in Iran.

And the country itself will start to ramp up it's oil production. They want to try and get half a million barrels a day, almost immediately into the global supply chain.

They've told CNN they'd like to go to five or six million barrels a day. Now, that has huge ramifications for the oil industry, the price of oil which as we have talked about many times is collapsing at the moment on the international exchanges.

So, we can look at what's happening today in Iran from many different angles. You've got the geopolitical. You've got the nuclear. You've got the strategic.

But underpinning all of that from Iran's point of view is the economic and today, at least from the non-U.S. perspective, Iran rejoins the global economy.

PAUL: Yes, they are being reintroduced to the world again, as Jim Sciutto, so aptly pointed out. Richard Quest, we appreciate it. Thank you, sir.

BLACKWELL: All right. Let's turn now to CNN military analyst, retired Major General James "Spider" Marks.

And as we heard from Richard, of course, none of this happens in a vacuum, General.

As we look ahead to the Syria talks, a little more than a week away in Geneva. And how do you believe that this new level of cooperation, there will be independent and individual opinions of this deal is good for the world, well good for America, but this new level of cooperation, not only on the implementation of the deal but the swap of these prisoners and hostages, how that will impact those talks potentially as these countries look for a solution in Syria?

JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, Victor, that's a great question, and good morning to you and Christi.

Let me tell you, I view all of this through the filter as a military guy, and my primary concern with the lifting of the sanctions is what is the technology influx going to look like in Iran and how is that I think that going to be used for military purposes. It's what we call dual use technology.

You know, we saw today that Iran is going to buy 114 aircraft for commercial reasons from Airbus out of France. What that means is, this commercial use is very -- there's a very low threshold by which this technology can be used for military purposes.

So, the real point is, how do we continue as an international body to deal with Iran as the sanctions are lifted, and all these companies start to pour into Iran? Because this is a very fertile market. They want to spend money. They now have access to more funds.

This is going to be something that everybody needs to talk about, relative to the ongoing primary challenge that we have right now. Not only in Syria, but northern Iraq, by way of ISIS, Assad, et cetera, and the mess we've been talking about forever.

BLACKWELL: Well, Iran has broken deals in the past. What's your level of confidence that they will adhere to this agreement moving forward?

MARKS: Past is prolonged. Very little confidence. There's no reason to believe this.

Look, during the period ever these sanctions, you know, Victor, Iran has been able to establish one of the largest, most robust and modern ballistic missile capabilities in the region. But they've only been able to do that through foreign producers and foreign products and what I would call under-the-radar type of trade that's taking place so that those parts, those components can be married up, and the technology can be developed internal into Iran, but it didn't happen without that type of support.

So, there's very little confidence that we should have that any of this is going to be easy or that the rules will be followed. We have to be very, very aggressive at every step.

[08:20:00] I mean, that's why everybody's raising their hands saying, super, the United States had leverage, up until a couple days ago. Now, we've essentially stroked the check for $100 billion, now Iran, releases our prisoners, they let our sailors go. Now, that the gates are open and the flood will begin. We have to be very cautious. Very aggressive.

BLACKWELL: Important to have a long memory on this day that we're hearing separation from Tehran and from around the world.

Major General Spider Marks, always good to have you.

MARKS: Victor, thanks very much.


PAUL: And we'll be right back. Stay close.


BLACKWELL: Severe storms are hitting South Florida, two people have been killed by a possible tornado in Manatee County.

PAUL: We know three tornados have been reported near Sarasota. Take a look at the video we're getting in of the aftermath there. Watches still active as the storms move through Miami, we understand.

Meteorologist Derek Van Dam joins us with the latest.

What do you know? Any of these confirmed?

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: They are confirmed. Three confirmed tornados, two confirmed fatalities, unfortunately. Terrifying moments coming out of southern Florida overnight.

It all started at about 2:00, the worst of it hits Sarasota and Manatee Counties. This is actually a before and after images of one of the buildings that felt the brunt of one of the tornados that moved through the area. You can see this is a Google Earth image, and then, of course, the aftermath, terrifying moments, there were actually a few people rescued from this particular building as well. You can see some vehicles in here, the building almost completely pummeled by this particular storm system.

Now, it is moving offshore very quickly. Miami has had strong gusty winds with the front line of this cold front moving through. But I'm happy to report that the severe weather threat is diminishing very quickly. We're starting to stabilize the atmosphere from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando. But believe me, it was a rough overnight for, again, the residents of both Sarasota and Manatee County where we had the worst of the storms.

[08:25:07] Now, the east coast of Florida also saw some strong, gusty winds. Some unconfirmed tornados over that region. National Weather Service will be sending out personnel to assess the damage and determine what characteristic these particular tornados were on the scale of one to five, the enhanced Fujita scale one perhaps winds of around 90 miles per hour.

Victor, Christi, back to you. PAUL: All right. Derek, thank you. We appreciate it.

BLACKWELL: The lifting of sanctions against Iran and the swap of prisoners and hostages is sure to be the focus of the Democratic presidential debate tonight in Charleston, South Carolina.

Joining us now, Jake Tapper, host of "THE LEAD" and "STATE OF THE UNION".

You have Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on today. Big show. And we're already starting to get some reaction from them as it relates to this new element that we're seeing today -- the exchange of the hostages and prisoners.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": That's right. Obviously, everybody is happy about the fact that these four Americans detained in Iran, at least three of them we know are on their way back to the United States. And the fourth has been released as far as we've been told.

But beyond that, obviously, there are policy questions about whether or not trading seven individuals in prison here having gone through the due process, having gone through the justice system, whether trading them for four Americans who were held in Iran over what administration officials and others call trumped up charges, whether that is setting a bad precedent for further exchanges and the like, putting Americans at risk, some say.

We'll talk about that with Secretary Clinton, who also has called for more sanctions against Americans, was doing that on Saturday, which certainly raised some eyebrows among people who thought that without the Americans having gone out already, that potentially was problematic. So, we'll talk about and obviously the state of the Democratic race really heating up.

BLACKWELL: Yes, we've got that debate tonight. You have Bernie Sanders on. He's in a statistical dead heat in Iowa with Secretary Clinton. Ahead in New Hampshire, and now we learned from "The New York Times", starting to work on getting some attention and some footing in the African American community in South Carolina, going to HBCUs, urban radio stations to expect to become more aggressive during this debate tonight.

TAPPER: Well, look, Secretary Clinton has been very aggressive. In fact, one of her allies, David Brock, has been out there calling for Bernie Sanders to release his health record, which the Sanders campaign thought was a nasty and dirty attack.

So, we do expect that there will be fireworks this evening at the debate, but also, in just a few minutes on "STATE OF THE UNION", because both of them are going after each other on policy differences and now, of course, with David Brock, leveling this, these questions about Bernie Sanders's health, some people my that it's going more personal from the Clinton side of things.

So, we'll see how that develops. We'll talk to Sanders and Clinton about that next.

BLACKWELL: All right. Looking forward to the show. Thank you, Jake.

Be sure to watch this morning's can't miss episode of "STATE OF THE UNION" when CNN's Jake Tapper interviews White House hopefuls Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders. That's at 9:00 eastern.

And then at 11:00 p.m., CNN's Wolf Blitzer anchors special live coverage of tonight's Democratic debate.

PAUL: Thank you so much for spending your morning with us.