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Blinken: Spoke To Freed Americans, It Was "Emotional"; Today: Stellantis Meets With UAW As Strike Enters Day Four; CNN Spotlight: Sophia Chang And Empowering Women Of Color. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired September 18, 2023 - 11:30   ET




ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I'd also like to thank an extraordinary team, the State Department, and throughout the United States government that has been working to achieve this result for three years now. As happy as we are at the freedom of our fellow citizens, we also are thinking today of Bob Levinson, who is not among them and who is presumed deceased.

Bob's legacy, however, lives on. It lives on powerfully in the Levinson Act, which has given us new and important tools to help crack down on and deter the practice of taking Americans unlawfully to try to turn them into political pawns and to abuse the international system in that way -- in that way.

One of the things that I heard in my conversation with our fellow citizens who are now free is their own determination, their own commitment, their own conviction to continuing this work, to making sure that other Americans who are unjustly detained anywhere in the world come home. To date, under this administration, we have now brought 30 Americans home from places around the world where they were being unjustly detained. That work will continue.

At the same time, we're going to be working every single day to take steps to make this practice more and more difficult, and more and more of a burden on those countries that engage in it. And you'll see in the days ahead here in New York, at the United Nations, our efforts to work with other countries to do just that. But for today, for this moment, it's very good to be able to say that our fellow citizens are free after enduring something that I think it would be difficult for any of us to imagine that their families will soon have them back among them. And that, in this moment, at least, I have something very joyful to report.

Finally, let me say that throughout this effort, throughout the work we've done to bring so many other Americans home, President Biden has demonstrated that he's prepared to make tough and difficult decisions. I have no higher priority. The president has no priority -- higher priority than making sure that Americans who are unjustly detained anywhere can come home. And we'll continue that work in the days ahead. Thank you.


BLINKEN: Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Secretary, based on the successful detainee swap this week, will there be -- are you expecting any indirect talks with the Iranians this week anytime soon? I'm not talking about direct talks but through intermediaries or any sort of relaying messages.

BLINKEN: Thank you. Well, two things. First, let me be very clear that this process, the -- and the engagements necessary to bring it about the freedom of these unjustly detained Americans has always been a separate track in our engagement or for that matter, lack of engagement with Iran. So, irrespective of what was happening or not happening, for example, in pursuing the effort to return to the nuclear agreement, we've been focused on working independently to bring these Americans home. So, it doesn't speak to anything else in the relationship.

We continue to be determined to take whatever step is necessary to deal with actions by Iran and a whole host of areas that are profoundly objectionable and that many other countries find objectionable. At the same time, when it comes to perhaps the number one issue of concern, which is Iran's nuclear program, we continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to get a sustainable effective result. One that we had previously with the Iran nuclear agreement. And we'll continue to see if there are opportunities for that.

In this moment, we're not engaged on that. But we'll see in the future if there are opportunities. But President Biden's also been very clear that one way or another, he's committed to ensuring that Iran never acquired nuclear weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think there might be a deal anything on this week, Sir, the fact that --

BLINKEN: I wouldn't anticipate anything this week. We're focused today on the fact that these Americans are now free after having endured something that I think most of us can't possibly imagine. In one case, one of our fellow Americans is in prison for eight years unjustly. And that's what we're focused on for today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) This is a requirement, Sir? And do you think anything came after the announcement (INAUDIBLE)? If we raise concern regarding the release of the frozen funds for the Iranians and the possibility of using these funds to fund their -- (INAUDIBLE) and get if you can elaborate regarding the mechanism on how you would supervise and monitor the use of these funds for humanitarian purposes.


BLINKEN: Thank you. In fact, when we -- when we met with our GCC colleagues, our fellow Americans had not yet arrived in Doha. So, we didn't want to get ahead of that process. Having said that, as I mentioned, two countries in particular played an absolutely vital role in helping to get us to this day, and that is Oman and Qatar. As for the other members of the GCC, I've had occasion over the past many months to talk to them about the relationship with Iran, which is a challenge for each and every one of them including for us. And to discuss in that context, some of the efforts that we were making to bring home our wrongfully detained Americans. And again, I don't want to speak for them. But I think everyone is supportive of that -- of that effort.

With regard to the resources, I think it's very important to be very clear about exactly what this involves. As you know, this involves the access by Iran to its own money. Money that had accumulated in Korean banks as the result of oil sales that Iran made, which were lawful at the time those sales were made.

And from day one, our sanctions have clearly and indeed always exempt the use of resources for humanitarian purposes because our aim is not to harm the Iranian people. Our problem -- our profound problem is with the Iranian regime. So, from day one, these Iranian monies that were in a -- in a Korean bank have always been available to Iran to use for humanitarian purposes.

But for a lot of technical reasons, they weren't able to access those funds where they were. So, the funds were moved to another bank where we have absolute oversight of how they -- how they're used, and they can only be used for humanitarian purposes. And we have absolute confidence in the process and the system that's been set up.

By the way, the previous administration, the administration prior to ours had set up a similar mechanism that was never used but exactly for these kinds of purposes. So, we're very confident that the funds -- the Iranian funds that had been made more easily available to Iran as a result of the actions that we've taken will be used exclusively for humanitarian purposes. And we have the means and mechanisms to make sure that that happens. Thanks very much.



JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: We've been listening to the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. An emotional Secretary of State Antony Blinken talking about the freeing of five Americans who had been wrongly detained in Iran, in the case of one, for eight years. And he talked about the immense amount of work that went into this release.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: Absolutely. Just getting your thoughts on what we heard from the secretary of state, Christiane.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Well, that it's a human story, first and foremost. I've heard that Antony Blinken carried the names of wrongfully detained in his breast pocket for a long time to concentrate his mind and to concentrate on the human costs of all of this. So, for him, I'm sure this is a big moment.

Then he goes, obviously into policy speak. Because the question is, what do you do next? What happens next to -- and I just say that Siamak said over the past 44 years, the Iranian regime has mastered the nasty game of caging innocent Americans and other foreign nationals and commercializing their freedom.

And he calls Evin Prison virtually a dystopian United Nations of hostages. So, this is part of his plea that the governments of the world band together to figure out a way that makes this commercialization of you know human lives like that null and void, that the costs outweigh the benefits in the future. And that's going to be the challenge.

SARA SIDNER, CNN HOST: You see there the video that we've been showing you all morning. I just want to re-up that and look at it. As you watch people as they're coming down, these are five people who have been detained and they are deeply, deeply thankful. And they've said that over and over again. But relieved.

They are now on their way to -- home, but they are free for the first time for one in seven and a half years, for the others in five-plus years. It is a real moment for them, for the country, and for their families, of course. And frankly, for the administration. I don't know, David, that we have seen Antony Blinken this emotional, normally about a whole lot of things. But you really saw the emotion.


I was curious about something he said, though about policy. He said from day one this -- these monies have been available to Iran to use for humanitarian purposes. But for some reason, they were not able to access them where they were. So, all of that had to be worked out before any of this could happen.

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So, that's right. So, on your first point, I thought the emotion that he showed was pretty remarkable. I've known Secretary Blinken for many decades. And I don't think in public I've ever seen him you know, quite like that. And it tells you that they're reminding themselves that all this diplomacy is not just about moving chess pieces, but it is about people. And it's a thing to remember today.

The money was in South Korea. And because of the sanctions, you couldn't transfer money out in any particular way. So, the Iranians wanted access. And I think their initial demand was basically just release all that cash to them.

This was sort of the compromise put out. I think the administration was hoping that both it would assure it would go to humanitarian purposes and it would blunt the political upheaval that would follow from this. But you know, money's money. And if they don't spend this -- on this, it gives them six billion dollars they can spend on something else.

What really struck me from his comments, though, was the desire to have some kind of a global arrangement to make this kind of hostage- taking prohibited or at least so costly, the countries wouldn't do it. We don't have the structure internationally right now to do that. You know China and Russia are two of the largest violators of this. And they are both on the Security Council.


SANGER: Permanent members with veto power. They would charge that we've taken political hostages. So, defining what is a political hostage is not an easy thing.

SIDNER: And we did hear as you spoke to Jared Genser, the attorney who has been dealing for seven and a half years trying to get one of the family members out, he said something's got to give. So, both you, him, every single person is saying this has to be solved but we're not at that point yet.

SANGER: We're not even close.

SIDNER: We're not even close. That's where we are.

AMANPOUR: A challenge for the future.

SIDNER: It is.

BERMAN: All right. Christiane Amanpour, thank you We know you've got to go run and do a lot more reporting. Your reporting crucial, we think in making what we just saw happened, happen.

Your interview with Siamak some time ago really brought this in front of the wall. So, thank you for that. We'll let you go. Continue to report on. David Sanger, our thanks to you as well.

BOLDUAN: Thank you, guys.

BERMAN: Five Americans now free. CNN's special coverage continues right after this.



BOLDUAN: Another major story that we are tracking right now this hour. The historic UAW strike against the big three U.S. automakers. A strike that's happening against all three for the first time. The UAW is expected to meet with Stellantis today who owns Jeep, Dodge, and RAM in hopes of ending the four-day-long strike.

But there is now another wrinkle here to consider. It might not just be U.S. auto workers taking action, everyone keeping a close eye on Canada today and tonight.

CNN's Vanessa Yurkevich has been on this. She's at the picket line outside a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan. Vanessa, what have you been hearing from those on the picket line today? And also, what is -- what is the -- what are people looking at when it comes to Canada?

VANESSA YURKEVICH, CNN BUSINESS & POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, people are encouraged that negotiations are still ongoing. Ford and GM met at the main negotiating table with the union over the weekend, Stellantis is today, but UAW president Shawn Fain saying that progress has been slow. I want to bring in right here, Darlene Heffley. And you know, ask her these questions about how are you guys feeling today. The negotiations are slow, but moving. What do you think about that?

DARLENE HEFFLEY, FORD EMPLOYEE: Well, it's a good effect. It's having on everyone. Everyone's got a good spirit. We're hopeful that things are going to come out good for both sides.

UAW and Ford have had good relationships in the past, but there are some things that geez, need to be caught up on. And one of those things is the tiers. We need to abolish the tiers.

Employees need to be making the same rate. They need to accelerate to the same rate. That gives them a hopeful for the future. And along with that would be pensions. They need to have a pension. That's something that they -- their future without a pension, they can work anywhere.

YURKEVICH: Because how much -- how much are people coming in at? What's the starting wage here?

HEFFLEY: It's around 16.75 an hour is what I understand but the promises that they can build up to a certain rate. But the UAW is holding out for more because they deserve more. These people work their bodies into the ground. They are just on a -- on a --

YURKEVICH: Yes. It's just tough work to be in there.


YURKEVICH: Thank you so much, Darlene, for your time.

HEFFLEY: You're so welcome.

YURKEVICH: Thank you. I just want to address your question about Canada and what's going on there.


There is a union that represents over 5,000 Ford workers at three plants. They have a strike deadline tonight, Kate, of 11:59 p.m. If they do not come up with a deal, that union with Ford, you're going to have a lot more people on strike at Ford. Kate.

BOLDUAN: Right. The talks continue. That is one thing we do know at the very least. Vanessa, thank you for being there. Sara.

SIDNER: All right. This week, we're bringing you a series called "CHAMPIONS FOR CHANGE." It's a time when we can put a spotlight on everyday people who just want to make the world we live in a better kinder place to be. For me, this year, that person is someone I recently met when I moved to New York City.

Sophia Chang is a fierce former music executive and mentor. Her passion for upliving women of color is inspiring a movement. It is not just for young women, but women of any age. Here's how she is empowering them to unlock their potential.


SIDNER: This is my 27th year in television news. I have reported from at least 15 countries. I moved to New York in March of 2022.

After 14 and a half years in the field, the pivot from the field to the anchor chair was uncomfortable. People think that I'm fearless because I go into war zones or because I go into conflict. This is an important day, especially for the Rebels.

But I am afraid of failure because I grew up with very little. That battle to survive, taught me to work really hard. What Sophia does is she teaches you to break through that fear to get to where you need to be.

SOPHIA CHANG, FORMER MUSIC EXECUTIVE: People always say, how do I start? I knew the second I met you. I'm going to invite you to one of my -- (INAUDIBLE)

SIDNER: You did. Yes. You knew me for five seconds and you're like I'm going to show you New York. I'm going to show you my New York. Are you going to come over to my house? You gather humans like flowers. Why do you do that?

CHANG: I'm a French lit major and there was a play I studied. And the most famous line means one must cultivate one's garden. I love pulling people together.

SIDNER: There are lawyers and there are actors and there are professors. You are there as a vessel to learn and to give back. So, it's a beautiful quilt of human beings.

Sophia stitched a storied career, most famously managing an A-list of Hip Hop royalty.

CHANG: That will never stop saying my name is Sophia Chang and I was raised by Wu-Tang. I was a yellow girl in a white world who wanted to be white. And then I meet Wu-Tang, and they are so reverential of Asian culture. They brought me around to a love of my culture, and therefore a love of self.

SIDNER: A self-love that later motivated Sophia to create a space exclusively for women of color. She calls it, "Unlock Her Potential." It doesn't promise outcomes, but it does promise possibilities.

CHANG: I wanted to be very specific about this. It is also for 18 and older. Why? If you Googled mentorship programs, the vast majority are for young people.


CHANG: Those folks absolutely need mentorship.

SIDNER: Sure. CHANG: But so do we. And as we get older, as women of color, we are erased. And so, I really fighting it for all of the other women of color out there.

MICHELLE, STAND-UP COMEDIAN: I'm so thankful to Sophia.

SIDNER: How old were you when you decided I wanted to be a stand-up comedian?

MICHELLE: 48. 10 years ago, I had a midlife crisis. And then I saw the ads for "Unlock Her Potential." Russell Peters is the mentor that I chose. And also, he takes me.

MICHELLE: My husband, he said he was going to be here but he's not here. That's great news for me. I mean, I love to keep my job as a housewife. I have a big goal of going to Madison Square Garden.

SIDNER: The fear as a champion, she's going to make sure that you feel proud of whatever it is you accomplished.


SIDNER: It was incredible spending time with her. She is no joke. Like you can't come out here sideways because you're always worried she might give you a kick.


BOLDUAN: Which I'm sure anyone would try to. She seems remarkable.

SIDNER: Yes, she's remarkable. She is.

BERMAN: But you don't do anything sideways either. I mean, I loved it. You two admitted that when you first met, took like five seconds.

SIDNER: Literally five seconds. She's like, all right, come over, you need to meet this person you need to know. And what I think is the most beautiful thing is so often we hear of young people being mentored.


SIDNER: And that's, you know, coming out of high school or college. You can be 80 years old. This woman that we talked to, Michelle, was 48 when she decided to be a stand-up comedian. I am terrified of standing up and making a joke because I can never remember the punch line unlike some of us. But, John, I'm sorry, you're going to --

BERMAN: It doesn't make people laugh.

SIDNER: So true.


BOLDUAN: -- It's -- but also -- it also is beautiful. I mean, I think it's hard for anyone to read their mind though that you -- that you even think that you're going to -- would ever fail. I mean, like all you --

SIDNER: Oh, yes. All the time.


SIDNER: All the time. It's just -- you know, it's a thing. I don't know what I'm just used to grinding. And she teaches you to grind with joy. And that's what I love about her.

BOLDUAN: Grind with joy.

SIDNER: Grind with joy.

BOLDUAN: That's a new mantra of CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

SIDNER: Be sure to tune in Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern for the "CHAMPIONS FOR CHANGE." It is a one-hour special for lots of folks. Thank you for being here.

BERMAN: All right.

SIDNER: This is CNN NEWS CENTRAL. John, get us out of here.

BERMAN: "INSIDE POLITICS" with some very special guests is up next.