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5 Americans Freed After Being Wrongfully Detained In Iran; Blinken Speaks On Iran's Release Of 5 Detained Americans. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired September 18, 2023 - 11:00   ET



JARED GENSER, ATTORNEY FOR FAMILY OF DETAINED AMERICAN SIAMAK NAMAZI: I mean, they're doing extraordinary. I mean, I think for me to imagine them all finally being able to hug for the first time. I mean, we didn't even know if Baquer Namazi would still be alive. You know, he was 79 and had lots of medical ailments when he became a hostage in Iran, even the Iranian government's own doctors felt compelled to let him out because they were afraid he was going to die.

They kept him a hostage in Iran for many more years outside of prison, they won't even let him leave, despite the fact that his sentence was commuted. And he could have died at any time. And the fact that he's 86 years old now, you know, I think he's been staying alive all this long to be able to reach this moment to be able to hug his son again and freedom to be able to be reunited with his family.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: Seeing your emotion kind of come through on this is, it shows the real, the humanity of all of this in the mix of obviously, this so complicated politics. I'm looking through his statement, it's a lengthy statement that you all issued from Siamak.

GENSER: He's been waiting a long time to say it.

BOLDUAN: Yes. I can imagine, he's got a lot. And will have a lot to say going forward. And that's one thing that I'm noticing this is not just what has happened to me since, it's a call to what needs to happen now, speaking directly to President Biden, talking about what he as I take my first breaths of freedom while you engage with world leaders at the United Nations, I urge you to initiate a game changing global endeavor aimed at preventing hostage taking in the first place. Talk about what he -- what his mission is, now that he is now having his first breaths of freedom.

GENSER: Well, I think this is his mission, because he has been and will be a case study example of like the worst that can happen to you if you're an American detained somewhere in the world, because of how many times, you know, he and his father were left behind by Democratic and Republican administrations. The reality is, is that there was no difference in outcome. And the policies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump when it came to the freeing of American hostages, Siamak, you know, and Baquer detained at the end of the Obama administration, and they were detained at the end of the Trump administration. And it doesn't matter whether you're talking maximum pressure or engagement, the outcome is the same. And the reason is because no government in the world has ever decided to, you know, lead a multilateral effort to create draconian disincentives for countries that engage in hostage taking. And I would urge President Biden today, immediately after this extraordinary moment has happened to announce to the world that he's determined and will work multilaterally around the world and state sponsored hostage taking as a practice.

And the only way you do that is by going after the incentive structure for regimes like Iran that engage in these kinds of behaviors. The reason they do it is because it's profitable every single time, there are no consequences if you do it. And all you have to do is wait, and eventually it will be paid out. It's a logical, rational and reasonable thing to do. And the only way it's going to be ended as a practice is if 30, 40, 50 countries around the world come together and say, we're going to take an attack on one is an attack on all policy.

And if one hostage is taking -- taken dozens or even 50, 60 countries around the world would take action against the hostage taker, all of a sudden, then the cost could actually outweigh the benefit, and maybe hostage takers would have to reconsider their perspective. But, you know, we've been doing this the same way since '79. And even earlier in our country's history. And we have to change it in a dramatic and meaningful way.

BOLDUAN: Those big and serious and important conversations going forward. In the most immediate though now, Jared, do you have any view or window into when Siamak, when his mother, when that entire family will be reunited once again?

GENSER: Well, he'll be reunited in the Washington, D.C. area after probably about a 15 or 16-hour flight from Doha. So very, very late tonight, East Coast time, you know, I do want to say something about Effie Namazi, who is -- who story we couldn't tell, because she was always in harm's way. But this is a woman who was a loyal wife and mother.

And you know, she stayed there when both her husband and her son were in jail, when her husband got out. She took care of him until he could go abroad. But she refused to leave until Siamak was able to leave the country. And she stayed there for years and years and years since until this day came and until she could finally leave the country with her son.

And what she's been through as a mother is beyond what anybody can imagine as a mother as a wife. And I think she is the silent hero of the family, who held them together through these extraordinarily difficult times.

BOLDUAN: There is little more that needs to be said after that, especially when you think there are so many times when this was not a guaranteed ending of how this was going to go for these five Americans, especially for Siamak after all the years that he was in prison and just again, continues to give you chills when you hear these -- when you hear what we're looking -- when you hear what you're saying and you see these pictures of them finally landing in Doha. Jared Genser, thank you so much for coming on.


GENSER: Thank you.

SARA SIDNER, CNN HOST: What an extraordinary interview, what an extraordinary man who's clearly feels he's part of the family at this point he's been working on this for seven and a half years.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: You hear the emotion and the exhaustion, I think of the small army of people that have worked tirelessly to make this happen.

SIDNER: What did you find -- I found the phone calls after he was in house arrest, he had a cell phone that he could FaceTime.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: They gave him. They gave them smartphones, the regime allowed them to have the smartphones, they were able to make FaceTime calls afterwards, to their families, and obviously to Jared as we know. Siamak in his actual statement, did call out and thank what do you call the superstar lawyer, Jared, because he is stuck with this for a long time. He's been unpopular, I'm sure for rattling cages.

His, you know, I think his, you know, motivation for his own client probably helped the others as well, because he just wouldn't let it go. And I think this is just an amazing time how so many people got together to make sure these people wouldn't be forgotten. Because let's face it, it actually wasn't that easy to do this. And there was a lot of opportunity for, you know, administration's not to take the hard decisions. And then in the end this administration did.

And let's not forget, you know, we keep talking about should we shouldn't we. I mean, America has done these deals with North Korea, as I say, with Russia, with all these axes countries that are, you know, that, you know, that engage in this kind of commercialization of human life.

BERMAN: We just got an announcement from Mike Pence, of course, former vice president, running for president, he's going to have an event this afternoon, where he's going to criticize the unfreezing of Iranian funds to make this deal happen.

AMANPOUR: If I might respond as Jared Genser did when I first asked him about that, why is he criticizing? He and his administration went into a similar prisoner swap twice. They left Siamak behind, why? That's the question. That's the question.

BOLDUAN: And John Kirby said today, when I asked him what happens, because the reason they're of course criticizing, David Sanger is here as well, to join the conversation. The reason the where the criticism comes from, is that they say you're going to get -- you're handing the way it's depicted is it $6 billion are handing over to so they can continue to fund terrorism, and et cetera, et cetera around the world.

And what John Kirby said today was, if this money is seen to be, it's going to be used for not for humanitarian purposes, we cut it off. The transaction ends because of the structure of the constraints around this kind of money, but it's not going to stop, David, the criticism coming out.

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: No. And what you'll hear from critics is they use taxpayer money they haven't, you're going to hear from the critics, you shouldn't pay ransoms. Unfortunately, in getting prisoners back, whether it's Democrats or Republicans, we've always ended up having to strike some kind of deal. Sometimes it's prisoners for prisoners. Sometimes it's prisoners for releasing money. The nature of the Iranian case is a little bit unusual, because after the Iranian revolution happened, the Iranian government had paid for all kinds of things that have not yet gotten delivered, including arms from the United States.

And, you know, that was part of how the Iran deal came together in 2015. That did until President Trump pulled out of it, at least freeze the program in place. So everyone has to make these deals. I think it's a point Christiane has made, Democrats and Republicans have made.

BERMAN: Can I just ask, I'm fascinated by the FaceTiming that the Iranians allowed. I'm fascinated by how they have played this. Do you have any explanation for why?

SANGER: Well, first of all, this is not a unitary Iranian state. We have seen many cases before, where people with different agendas in Iran that pushed various parts of this through, some of them pro engagement, some have not been. In this case, it's a little bit of a mystery about why they pick this moment, and are not, as we've talked about earlier, using it to sort of push forward in a broader deal with the United States or the West. Maybe that moment will come.

But I guess having released them from the prison, they then had to show the United States they were planning to follow through. And the most important thing to them for the past three or four weeks has been, get that money transferred. I think my guess is in this purely the guess, is that that was part of the making sure that Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State signed off on the transfer of that money.

AMANPOUR: Yes. And you remember when they were released to House arrest on August 10th from Irvine to this undisclosed hotel. We heard from the Americans that they would not be actually physically released until about now it was like four to six weeks until all the T's crossed the I's were dotted on precisely this issue, the money and the transfer of the funds.

BERMAN: So Natasha just brought up the Secretary of State Antony Blinken. I understand we have a statement from him now. Let's go to CNN's Natasha Bertrand for that.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: That's right, John. So we did just get a statement in from Blinken where he thanked all of the of course American counterparts in Qatar, in Oman, and Switzerland for helping make this prisoner swap actually become a reality, the prisoner deal actually become a reality. And he reiterated that from day one he said of this administration, the President and I have made clear that we have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens at home and abroad.


And he says that under Biden's leadership, we have now secured the release of more than 30 wrongfully detained Americans around the world. Now he devotes a lengthy paragraph really to expressing satisfaction and gratefulness for, of course, the efforts by the Qatari who really played a key role in all of this as intermediaries because the U.S. and the Iranian delegations, as they were negotiating this, they never actually spoke face to face.

And so for over two years, and then more recently, over the last seven months as this deal crystallized, the Qataris were really key part of actually making this happen. Now, at the end of Blinken statement, he does reiterate as President Biden did in his statement that the -- that Americans should not go to Iran. And that because there is such a risk of Americans being kidnapped or being wrongfully detained by the Iranian regime, they should just heed the State Department's advice and stay away because, as John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson said, earlier this morning, the Iranian regime really does not distinguish between Iranian American citizens and American citizens, they just see them as Americans.

And so the Secretary of State really expressing his gratitude to U.S. partners who helped make this happen, and saying, look that this is a solemn day, also, because, of course, you know, the -- while they celebrate the release of these five citizens, one American citizen is still unaccounted for. And that is Bob Levinson, something that the administration has been trying to keep a spotlight on throughout all of this, that not all Americans have been freed there.

So really kind of emphasizing here that this is a key foreign policy priority for the administration, it will continue to be, and they have had success, but they will continue, of course, to keep making sure they bring all Americans home, guys?

SIDNER: I'm actually curious because you bring up Bob Levinson, and that was the White House put that in their statement, they mentioned the Levinson family, they said that he deserves answers. They deserve answers. And then they said we're going to sanction former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence under the Levinson Act. I'm curious, both to you and David, and to Christiane, what you make of this move. They hadn't even landed in Doha yet when those sanctions came out?

SANGER: So they briefed us yesterday that they were preparing to do this, and there were other sanctions last week. And my suspicion is there will be more sanctions under the Levinson Act. So Levinson is presumed to be dead. But he's also presumed who have been around and in Iran for probably a decade or so. And that's what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been sanctioned for, for basically lying about his whereabouts and so forth. It was also Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that really put the accelerator on the nuclear program. But that said, even after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was gone, no successor government in Iran has come out to come clean on this issue.

BOLDUAN: Let's get over to the White House, Arlette Saenz has been standing by for us. And Arlette, talk to us more about what you're hearing about these sanctions.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, President Biden in his statements specifically talked about the fact that they were issuing these new sanctions against Iran, as he talked about the need to hold Iran accountable for Bob Levinson, that American who had been detained for over a decade and is believed to have died in Iran.

And the sanctions that senior administration officials had previewed will be targeting two entities. First, there is Iran's Ministry of Intelligence. They -- officials have argued that they have detained and interrogated detainees at Evin Prison, which has historical human rights abuse issues. And then they're also have those another set of sanctions that we will be issued against the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the official say that the reason they are sanctioning him is for the fact that he spread lies and misinformation about Levinson's whereabouts.

So this offers an opportunity for the administration to try to hold Iranians further accountable for the detainment of Americans. And I'll also note that President Biden in his statement, in addition to celebrating the fact that these Americans, these five Americans will now be returning back to the U.S., back to their families. The President noted that there are still many more detainees around the world that they are working to try to release. Think of Evan Gershkovich in Russia also Paul Whelan, who's being held in Russia.

President Biden said that they will work tirelessly to ensure that those Americans are also made whole reunited with their families at some point, but the administration is celebrating this moment today as those five freed Americans and their two family members will be returning to U.S. soil very soon.


BOLDUAN: Arlette, thank you so much. You know one thing I asked -- I spoke to John Kirby about as well, Christiane and David, is what this means if anything for the relationship or lack thereof between the United States and Iran. And Kirby making very clear that this doesn't change anything in their view, you're hearing the same?

SANGER: Absolutely. I mean, think about this. The President of the United States is in New York, the president of Iran, right, you see, is in New York, they are no more than 10 or 20 blocks apart. It would not be hard to seize on this moment to have at least a perfunctory conversation about taking the relationship forward. I don't think either one of them thinks that politically, either one could allow that to happen.

AMANPOUR: Yes, I mean, look, you're absolutely right. And particularly Raisi is, I mean, if you believe that there are different shades of authoritarianism and et cetera, Raisi is of the very fundamentalist, very hardline Iranian leadership. Rouhani wasn't so much, Khamenei wasn't so much, that's why they were able to make the Iranian nuclear deal. They are unable to make it now with people like Raisi.

And also they're unable to give the guarantees that if they did go into the U.S. into another deal that the next U.S. administration wouldn't pull out of like, like Trump did. So all of it, you know, there's a former American Iranian, who worked in the State Department on these issues, and they're trying to figure out a way forward. And they say that, you know, since 1979, 43 years since the Islamic Revolution, you know, Republicans have been this is what their words are virtue signaling to always sound tough on Iran, Democrats have been trying to negotiate at all costs, they say.

So there's no real, as I said, before, joined up grown up policy on a really important relationship. It doesn't have to be an ally. It's not. But it's an important relationship. And it's just like this, you know, it's like.

SANGER: It's also the cruel reality of sanctions, which is, once you put sanctions on, whether it's Russia, Iran, or North Korea, taking them off is really hard, because you look weak, even if your reasoning is good.

BERMAN: I was going to say what leverage does the United States have, if any?

AMANPOUR: Well, sanctions I mean, even under and this is the -- this is something that not many people talked about the context, even under the Iran nuclear deal, where certain sanctions were meant to be lifted in relation in return for the, you know, the halting the deal, et cetera, it was impossible to get those sanctions properly lifted. Many in the international community who were dealing with the financial services and all the financial instruments, were just too afraid they didn't want to sometime in the future come a cropper against the American, you know, sanctions again. So it's very complicated. And as I say, there's no real effort to actually have a proper geopolitical foreign policy with Iran.

SIDNER: -- if sanctions -- with the power of the sanctions are because there are new ones, obviously, they've just been put in place, but the power of the sanctions with Iran because the negotiation isn't happening.

AMANPOUR: Well, David, you know, this much better than me. But the fact of the matter is that it's always cat and mouse. Sanctions go on from one side of the world, Iran goes around to the other side of the world, China, Russia, all the other people that he's trying to get, you know, they sell a lot of oil to China, they have a lot of, you know, dealings with those countries who are not, you know, on the western side of the sanctions so.

SANGER: We also have one set of sanctions that are coming off next month, automatically, it's a U.N. sanction on the sale of missiles and missile technology. And the problem with that is it's going to give an opening to the Russians to begin to do more deals with the Iranians, the U.S., the Europeans have said they will keep their sanctions on. But the fact of the matter is the U.N. ban is going to lift. And when that moment comes, I'm afraid we could be headed into a tougher moment in the Russia, Iran --

BOLDUAN: But not to lose where we are in this moment.

SANGER: This is a great moment. Yes.

BOLDUAN: No, no. I'm not trying detract. I actually was just caught by this image that we have up here, this Getty image over in the wall that we'll be able to show of just these are three of the five Americans finally seeing.

SANGER: So great.

BOLDUAN: This just caught my eye to note that. And I do -- it was raised earlier. And I did ask John Kirby. He said there was no calendar event that sparked this happening today. But you do wonder why now?

BERMAN: They're both here. I can't imagine it's a pure coincidence the Iranian leader is in New York as we speak at this moment, it does feel that that's a little bit too coincidental.

AMANPOUR: Until it could have happened last week that these transfer issues, which were a bit of a snuggle this morning, were part of the issues last week.

BERMAN: As to what's next, let's go to CNN's Jennifer Hansler who's got some details about the ongoing process. What have you learned?

JENNIFER HANSLER, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT REPORTER: Well, John, right now we were told when they're on the tarmac they're in Doha they're going to be given preloaded government cell phones so that they can call their families, they can Skype their families, FaceTime their families and let them know that they are on their way home, which is a huge, huge moment. We saw in that imagery that the returned Americans were greeting Abram Paley, who's the special envoy for Iran at the State Department, Roger Carstens, who's a special envoy for hostage affairs there at the State Department.


They flew from D.C. to meet them there on the ground in Doha. And they've been huge in this process. And so from here, once they take off from Doha, and we were told they won't take off from Doha until they've been, you know, checked out by medical personnel made sure that they're in fit state to fly. And when they fly back to the United States, they will be offered what's called the Post Isolation Support Activities, PISA. It's a Defense Department program that we've seen a lot of these Americans who were formerly detained take part in, needs to help them re-acclimate to normal life after years and years of being imprisoned.

Part of this is to kind of get a hold of their own narrative of what happened, come to -- start to come to grips with how they can come back to normal life after having such a traumatic time behind bars there. We've seen Brittney Griner take part in this program. We've seen the return of Citgo 6 from Venezuela take part in this program. So they will be offered information about this. They could take part in that. They don't have to. They're expected to however.

So they're expected to land back in the United States very late tonight in the Washington, D.C. area. And once they're on the ground there they will get to see their families for the first time in years and years.

BERMAN: I can't imagine what that's going to be like after everything they've been through. Jennifer, thank you very much.

Look, we have a lot more going on. We're waiting to hear from the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. We're going to take a quick break, much more head on this breaking news, five Americans after years in custody, wrongfully detained in Iran. They are now free. Stay with us.



BOLDUAN: The breaking news we are following and the new video that we now have in, five Americans who were wrongfully detained imprisoned in Iran for years, they are now free on Qatari soil meeting with first a team of Americans and government officials first greeted by the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar as they were walking first and finally down these steps to freedom.

We saw Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz and to others so far unidentified Americans, you see in this video landing just a short time ago. After they are in Doha, they're going to -- the group is then going to fly to Washington, D.C., the Arab Washington, D.C. area where they will finally be fully reunited with their families. We have a team of reporters standing by. We have Becky Anderson was on the ground in Doha covering it as the plane was pulling up in here in studio with us, David Sanger is here and Christiane Amanpour. Christiane, the long road to getting here.

AMANPOUR: Yes, it wasn't easy. And it took, I think, an interview by Siamak Namazi, the longest held to me, you know, in March a few months ago, to rattle the cages, if you'd like, to say I'm here, the spotlight needs to stay on. We're desperate. Please, President Biden, do everything you can to re-up these negotiations and get us out. And I think that was, you know, it's important, you know, people don't do things unless they put in the spotlight often.

And it's not easy for any government to deal with Iran, right. It's just not easy. You just see what's happening right now. They're already getting, you know, backlash. However, it needs to be understood that these are human beings.

BOLDUAN: I'm told that Tony Blinken, the Secretary of State is now --

AMANPOUR: Well, maybe he'll say more about it.

BOLDUAN: Maybe he will. Let's listen in.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: -- imprisonment or detention in Iran, out of Iran, out of prison, and now in Doha, on route back to the United States, to be reunited with their loved ones. Five of the seven, of course, had been unjustly detained, imprisoned in Iran, some for years, two others had been prevented from leaving Iran.

I spoke to them after they landed in Doha. I can tell you that it was for them, for me, an emotional conversation. It's easy in the work that we do every day, sometimes to get lost in the abstractions of foreign policy and relations with other countries and forgetting the human element that's at the heart of everything we do.

But today, their freedom, the freedom of these Americans, for so long, unjustly imprisoned and detained in Iran, means some pretty basic things. It means that husbands and wives, fathers and children, grandparents can hug each other again, can see each other again, can be with each other again. So it's a day that I'm grateful for. I want to thank a number of partners who've been so vital to helping us reach this day, particularly our partners in Oman, Switzerland, Qatar, the United Kingdom, each has played a very important role in enabling us to free our fellow citizens.

I'd also I'd like to thank an extraordinary team, the State Department and throughout the United States government that has been working to achieve this result for years now.