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CNN International: Iranian Foreign Minister: 5 Detained Americans Expected to be Freed Today; Biden to Attend Annual Gathering, Meet with World Leaders; Zelenskyy to Head to U.S. to Attend UNGA, Meet Biden; Israeli Prime Minister to Meet with Biden, Elon Musk During U.S. Visit; UN Revises Previous High Death Toll in Libya to at Least 3,958. Aired 4:00-4:30a ET

Aired September 18, 2023 - 04:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

MAX FOSTER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news into CNN. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson says five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran are expected to be released today as part of a wider U.S. Iran deal. He spoke at a news conference which was shown on state affiliated Press TV a short while ago. The U.S. government has designated all five Americans as being wrongfully detained. Joining me now, CNN International diplomatic editor Nic Robertson. It's a very complex deal, isn't it, Nic?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It is a very complex deal and it seems to be open to a variety of interpretations that certainly reflects what we've heard from the Iranian president over the past week. The broad details have been out there in the public domain as they've been debated. But what we're hearing from the Iranian Foreign Minister today is, he says, we would hopefully today see access to our money.

And what he's referring to there is $6 billion of frozen Iranian accounts that are being currently under the control of South Korea. And that money would arrive in an account. Now the Foreign Minister says in a regional state. But we understand that account, that new account that Iran would have access to would be in Qatar.

But the implications are here that this expected arrangement that would allow for these five Americans being held and one of them has been held in jail since October 2015, so almost eight years, that would expect to allow them to be free and this money frozen assets, if you will, would be put in an account that Iran would not have free and complete access to. There would be controls over that account. The account would be for Iran to use for humanitarian goods, medicines, food, for the population, that sort of thing.

And this is what brought the contention from Iran's president last week, speaking about it, saying that Iran essentially in essence would have all access to that account. The Iranians are saying that they expect five Iranian prisoners to be released from U.S. jail as well. So, the headline from the from the foreign minister, the Iranians, now expecting that money to end up in the account, apparently in Qatar, that they would therefore have controlled access to. Just setting out some of the sort of language around what the process has been happening over the past week. And the United States wrote a waiver -- the White House wrote a waiver allowing access to these accounts a week ago today. Let's listen to John Kirby, National security spokesman in the United States, who laid out some of the framework.


JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMAND: Well, I can't tell you everything that we're doing and what everything that this is, I can certainly tell you what it's not. And there's not going to be a ransom payment. There's not going to be sanctions relief. There's no U.S. taxpayer dollars that are going to be applied to getting these Americans home. And this $6 billion without getting into the details of the negotiations, I think there's a little confusion about what this account is all about.

This is part of an of a system of accounts that was set up in the previous administration that allowed some countries to import Iranian goods, non sanctionable goods, and that the Iranians could pull on those accounts, those payments, through the through a special system only used for humanitarian purposes. And that's what we're talking about here. It's a pre-existing account that was set up in the previous administration, which they allowed other countries to set up that has not been made accessible to the Iranians. They'd be able to have some access to it, but only for humanitarian purposes.


ROBERTSON: So I think you get a sense there from John Kirby about how contentious Iran -- of a political decision it is for the White House, for Iran to get access to these accounts. But it does seem to indicate from the Foreign Minister if this goes ahead, then those five Americans detained in Iran could well be on their way to freedom.

FOSTER: If we could just drill down a bit on that because, you know, you've addressed this and Kirby is slightly addressing it as well or trying to address it there. Obviously this money in the account isn't American money, but they did have some control over it. They're calling these prisoners, you know, wrongfully detained. Other people call them hostages.


A lot of people are seeing this as a ransom payment a payment to release American hostages, which may then encourage more hostages to be taken.

ROBERTSON: I think it's been clear over the past negotiations to free Americans and others detained by Iran that it is financial inducements, access to access to what Iran considers, and many in the international community consider their finances that have been frozen because of sanctions on the country. So it is a contentious issue.

But I think if we look more broadly beyond the release of prisoners from Iran that Iran has detained on accusations -- some of these five have essentially been detained on accusations, been convicted on accusations alleged of espionage, of working with foreign governments.

The idea that Iran gets a financial reward for better international good behavior goes beyond that. I mean, we could look at the recent situation, the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia that was brokered by China that's led to the Houthis in Yemen, who were being supplied with weapons and cruise missiles from Iran, abating their war with Saudi Arabia. So part of that deal sees better economic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the future. Development, you know, business connections between the two countries.

So I think you get the sense here more broadly that what Iran wants as a price to do what the international community has been asking it to do, whether it's sort of stop terrorist activities around the world or release people that they've wrongfully detained, it always seems to have a financial inducement -- Max.

FOSTER: And if there's one thing that isn't disputed today, that this is wonderful news for the families of the people being released. So we're going to get a sense of that today. It's been incredibly hard time for them.

ROBERTSON: Oh, I think we will. I mean, look, one of the detained, his father went to Iran to try to help get him released and then he was detained too. It's the families of these detained Americans in Iran that have done some of their heaviest lifting behind the scenes, Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Sharghi. These are people whose families have been full square behind them and they've even, you know, paid a price for trying to get their -- trying to get their loved ones released.

So they are people that the United States has publicly been working to try to get released, but the pressure has really been growing and the mechanism to deliver it has really sort of been coming into public view over the past few weeks -- Max.

FOSTER: OK, Nic Robertson, back with you as you get more details of that story unfolds over the course of the day.

U.S. President Joe Biden will kick off a busy week in the hours ahead. He arrived Sunday night ahead of two campaign receptions today. But the main event will be this week's United Nations General Assembly. He'll be meeting with world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Later in the week he also plans to sit down with the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who will be attending the General Assembly and pushing for more support for Ukraine.

Off the international stage though, Mr. Biden is facing a number of challenges in Washington. That includes the possibility of the government shutdown later this month and an impeachment inquiry launched by House Republicans, CNN's Arlette Saenz has more from Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Biden will put his diplomatic skills to the test this week as he attends the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York City. He arrived there on Sunday and on Monday is set to hold some campaign fundraisers before diving into those meetings. On Tuesday, the President will deliver remarks before the UN General Assembly and officials say that he will talk about America's vision for leadership in the world and also make the case that countries need to work together in order to solve some of the world's biggest problems.

This is all coming as the President has tried to highlight his alliance building as a selling point heading into the 2024 election. But there also will be a lot of attention on who President Biden will be meeting with on the sidelines of the summit. He'll meet with Brazil's President Lula da Silva on Wednesday. And also on Wednesday, he's set to sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This will be the first time the two men are meeting since Netanyahu came in back into power last year.

But it does come at a time when there had been questions about whether such a meeting would even occur after the White House has expressed criticism and frustration with Netanyahu's government moving to make some judicial reforms in that country.

Now, when the president wraps up in New York City, he'll come back here to Washington. And on Thursday, here at the White House, he will host Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who also will be making the rounds up on Capitol Hill. This will give the men a chance to speak in person about the counteroffensive that's underway against Russia.


But the meeting also comes at a time when Biden is pushing Congress to pass more aid for Ukraine, but that is meeting significant resistance from Republicans in the House.

Arlette Saenz, CNN, the White House.


FOSTER: The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy will be attending the UNGA in person for the very first time -- well, for the first time on Tuesday. After that, he'll head to Washington to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House and with Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill. Mr. Zelenskyy is pushing for more support from allies, including long range missiles and artillery.

Zelenskyy is also eager to show his U.S. allies that Ukraine's counteroffensive is making gains on the battlefield. On Sunday, Ukraine liberated a key village south of the city of Bakhmut. CNN investigative producer Katie Polglase joins us now. And this is really around the fact that there are U.S. politicians who think the progress isn't good enough and what they're spending on the war isn't going far enough. KATIE POLGLASE, CNN INVESTIGATIVE PRODUCER: You're absolutely right,

Max. And that is one of the key things that President Zelenskyy is worried about. That while the Biden administration may be supportive of this funding for Ukraine, there may be those on the other side of the House that are not. And that is why he is also meeting with Senators at Capitol Hill to really explain why U.S. funding is so key.

And we've been seeing a lot of announcements really recently about Ukraine recapturing areas as part of this counteroffensive. And part of that messaging is showing that they are making progress. And where the U.S. money is going. This money that they are putting in, this military equipment, this training, all of this is worth it, is what Zelenskyy wants to demonstrate. And we saw just this morning, there's been reports they've recaptured another village, Klishchiivka in the eastern area of the frontline. Then yesterday, last week even there was the recapturing of Andriivka, before that Robotyne. These areas aren't big.

FOSTER: But they're just villages aren't they?

POLGLASE: Exactly, these aren't small. These aren't big areas. But what they're trying to demonstrate is that there are still progress. This isn't a still frontline. They are making progress and that what they really need is more weaponry, more ammunition, more support from the United States. And this is why we've been seeing all this referencing of long range weapons, long range missiles.

Is that because particularly this kind of weaponry can get behind enemy lines. Target key areas of infrastructure strategy. Areas where Russia is supporting their war, not just on the frontline but repairing ships like they targeted last week in the Crimea. These areas are key for Russia's war effort. And what's Zelenskyy wants to show is that if they give them more weaponry, if they support them more, this counteroffensive may go faster. It may speed it up, and there may be a breakthrough. Which is what all of them want and what they desperately need, particularly as we now head into the winter months when the fighting will get even more challenging with the cold weather.

FOSTER: Well, it's classic Zelensky, isn't it? In terms of his smartness because he's expecting an argument to say that it's going too slowly and he's going to counter that by saying, well, if you want us to speed it up, give us some more weaponry.

POLGLASE: Absolutely. He flips it around and says we are making some progress, but really it's on the United States.


POLGLASE: To help us --

FOSTER: Yes, you're the reason it's not going quickly enough.

POLGLASE: Exactly, exactly.

FOSTER: Katie, thank you. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to address the

UN General Assembly in New York on Friday, but before that he set to sit down with U.S. President Joe Biden and Elon Musk. CNN's Hadas Gold is following developments and joins me live from Jerusalem. It's interesting when we talk about Ukraine because it does take a lot of the headlines, doesn't it? But there's the likes of Netanyahu, who also need headlines.

HADAS GOLD, CNN JERUSALEM CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and this is not going to be the type of trip I think to the United States that Benjamin Netanyahu would have wanted to really play out. But let's start according to the schedule.

He's actually still in the air right now. He is on his way to San Francisco where he will land and he will meet amongst others with Elon Musk. Of course, is the famous owner of Tesla and of X formerly known as Twitter. And with Elon Musk, he says he's going to discuss artificial intelligence as well as trying to convince him to invest more in Israel. Interestingly, they will also sit down to have what's being deemed a live conversation on X slash Twitter today. This will be at 12:15 Eastern.

And there is the expectation -- especially from here in Israel -- that Benjamin is in now will address some of the accusations that Elon Musk has allowed anti-Semitism to flourish on the platform. There have been some messages from people in Benjamin Netanyahu circle that he will do that. Especially because in recent years Benjamin Netanyahu has really branded himself as sort of this crusader against anti-Semitism around the world.

Now next after that, he will fly to New York, where on Wednesday he will be meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. This will be their first face to face meeting since Benjamin Netanyahu took back power late last year. And that has been a long time coming, because usually an Israeli Prime Minister meets with the U.S. president, you know, supposed to be great allies. They meet pretty quickly. But this will be the first face to face meeting since Benjamin Netanyahu took power.

And notably, it's not going to be at the White House. It's going to be on the sidelines at the UN and that is I think a very clear message from the White House, especially how the U.S. President, Joe Biden, has viewed the Benjamin Netanyahu government with his far right wing government and also these massive protests against the judicial overhaul that have been going on here now for nine months.


President Biden has been very clear about how his government feels about this judicial overhaul that is still pushing forward despite these protests, not only from Israelis here in Israel, but also from allies. And the protests are actually planned to be at every single stop. Netanyahu will be in San Francisco and in New York as well. And actually right before Benjamin Netanyahu got on his plane late last night, he actually accused the demonstrators of joining forces with Iran, the PLO and others. That has only further riled them up. And very interesting actually is that that was conveniently not in the

remarks that were just released to the media and sort of the press release about his remarks before getting on the plane. Those sentences were taken out. That's a notable omission. He has since tried to clarify those remarks, but they have really riled up these protesters. They say they will be at every single one of these stops and that Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to hear them from inside the buildings -- Max.

FOSTER: Hadas in Jerusalem, thank you so much for that.

We're going to have much more in the break -- after the break including the latest on what we've got on that U.S., Iran prisoner swap.



FOSTER: Breaking news out of Iran. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson says five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran are expected to be released today as part of a wider U.S. Iran deal. He spoke at a news conference which was shown on state affiliated Press TV just a short while ago. The U.S. government has designated all five Americans as being wrongfully detained. A source briefed on details of the matter tell CNN, a Qatari jet is on standby in Iran to bring five U.S. citizens and two relatives to Doha. They've been negotiating all of this. Stay with CNN for details as they become available.

Clean up continues in Libya from deadly flooding that swept through the city of Derna just over a week ago. It's still unknown how many people have died, but the United Nations has revised the previous death toll of more than 11,000. They now cite the World Health Organization's figure of nearly 4,000 lives lost. Some 9,000 people are still considered missing and treacherous conditions are making search operations difficult. Since Jomana Karadsheh is on the ground in Derna, with the latest on efforts to recover the dead.


JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Libyan and international teams have been working tirelessly out at sea trying to recover the bodies of the thousands of victims of last week's catastrophic event that hit the city of Derna. And we have seen Libyan teams here trying their best to try and get out to sea to try and reach the bodies of those victims.

But what we're hearing from the international teams that have been working on this for days now is that this has become a near impossible mission. They say that one team told us that they were able to recover more than 60 bodies since they got here. But right now, they are not able to do this anymore. This one team says they spotted the bodies of about 300 people. But the conditions are so challenging out there for them, they say that they don't have the right equipment to reach these really hard to reach areas. Coves where these bodies have ended up. Shallow waters where their boats can go and they just don't have the equipment and the expertise, the manpower to deal with a situation like this.

And what they're telling us is while they did spot these bodies over the past couple of days, right now, those bodies have disintegrated into remains that they just cannot reach they cannot retrieve because of the health hazard. And this is absolutely devastating for the so many families, survivors here in Derna who he was speaking to who told us all they want is to find the bodies of their loved ones or their remains to give them a proper burial.

This one international team we were speaking with earlier said that they have dealt with accidents in the past with migrant boats, capsizing. They have dealt with search and recovery operations where they've managed to pull dozens of bodies in the past. But never had they had to deal with a situation with something on this scale before where they're looking for hundreds and thousands of bodies.

Jomana Karadsheh, CNN, Derna, Libya.


FOSTER: CNN's Larry Madowo joins me from Nairobi, Kenya, with more on this. Obviously, you know, there's political chaos, isn't there, in Libya. But the two governments effectively have come together. They're working together to try to resolve this. How do you think the -- what do you make of the progress they've been making there?

LARRY MADOWO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think this tragedy has been exacerbated by that division in Libya between the Tripoli government, recognized by the international community and the Eastern Parliament backed one under the rebel leader Khalifa Haftar. They are doing what they can to respond to the crisis to. You know, shift people away from Derna, which has been worst affected. But also there's still some criticism, including from the head of the UN support mission in Libya, that says if the alerts were taken seriously, their level of preparedness was higher, maybe lives could have been saved. Probably not avoid the catastrophe, but there should have been lessons learned from this, he says. Telling CNN that there's -- there needs to be some accountability after what happened here.

Because part of the problem is that the infrastructure in Derna was crumbling. These two dams that bursts were necessarily due for maintenance, but that just didn't happen. And even right now, as about 40,000 people have been displaced, according to the UN, as they're moving, they're exposed to land mines and explosive ordinance of war. So still another ongoing tragedy.

We might never know exactly how many people have died here, partly because of this conflicting reports. The Libyan Red Crescent -- and Libyan Red Crescent essentially disowned the UN numbers that we were reporting yesterday, over 11,300 people dead. The UN revising that number now citing the World Health Organization closer to 4,000.


But it's still a tragedy. A tragedy that is unspeakable. Listen to this one volunteer who's been helping try and find survivors or to pull out some of the bodies from the rubble.


YASSER IBRAHIM MUHAMMAD, VOLUNTEER RESCUE WORK (through translator): As a Libyan, when I pull out bodies, I swear I cry. I can't handle it, but it is God's will. So you have to hold up and pull out the body. There was a body that was divided in two parts right before us. There's nothing to do but to pull out the body. What can you do? These young men have come all the way from Tripoli, which is 1,500 kilometers away.


MADOWO: The immediate needs right now, food, shelter and water. Some of it is coming, but because of the scale and the extent of this devastation, they need just a whole lot more -- Max.

FOSTER: OK, Larry in Nairobi. Thank you so much for that. It's a huge, huge project.

We're going to be back in just a moment with the latest on those U.S. prisoners being released from Iran.


FOSTER: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Max Foster. If you're just joining us, updating a breaking news story, we're getting out of Iran. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson says five Americans who have been imprisoned in Iran are expected to be released today as part of a wider U.S. Iran deal. He spoke at a news conference which was shown on state affiliated Press TV.