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CNN International: Qatari Jet on Standby in Iran to Bring Five U.S. Citizens and Two Relatives to Doha. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired September 18, 2023 - 04:30   ET



MAX FOSTER, CNN ANCHOR: 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, just a short while ago.

The U.S. government had designated all five Americans as being wrongfully detained, a source briefed on details of the matter tells CNN, a Qatari jet is on standby in Iran to bring five U.S. citizens and two relatives to Doha. Do stay with us for the very latest on this, but I'm told I can now speak to Becky Anderson, who's in Doha. I gather the deal has effectively been done, so this is about to happen.

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN MANAGING EDITOR, ABU DHABI & ANCHOR (via phone): Max, it certainly seems like this is the beginning of the end of a year's long nightmare for five American citizens wrongly detained by Iran, who are expected to be headed here, to Qatar in the coming hours. According to that source briefed on the details, the Qatari jet, as you rightly said, is currently on the tarmac in Tehran. And this deal to release Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz and two others who have not yet been identified, has been mediated by Qatar over the past 18 months.

And this deal, Max, sees the unfreezing of $6 billion of Iranian funds. Until now, restricted in accounts in South Korea. Those funds, we are told by a source, have now been successfully transferred to bank accounts here in Qatar. So Qatar effectively then acting as a guarantor in this deal going forward. The deal also includes the release of five Iranians in prison in the United States for sanctions busting.

The Americans will be greeted in Doha on the tarmac as we understand it by Brett McGurk, who is the White House, Middle East envoy. Special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens and the U.S. acting Special Envoy for Iran, Abram Paley.

Now look, there's going to be relief from all of these hostages, of course. And indeed, their family members here members. Siamak Namazi's mother, as we understand it, is on the plane as well, as is the wife of Morad. But of course, this is going to be a huge relief for all of them, not least Siamak. He has been Iran's longest held American prisoner. His espionage charges there date back to 2015. He has made it very clear that he has felt left behind by successive U.S. administrations. And earlier this year went on a seven-day hunger strike in the notorious Evin prison to protest being abandoned, as he described it, by President Biden. Appealing to the president personally in an unprecedented life interview with CNN from Evin prison to get him freed.

So we are in the next hour or so timings still a little bit fluid, Max, but we are expecting to see those prisoners here in Qatar. Being transferred in the first instance to Doha from Tehran, and then if all goes to plan, they will be onwards from here en route to the United States -- Max.

FOSTER: OK, Becky, back with you in just a moment. But Nic, just a bit more about this money. Because you know, there is a lot of speculation online suggesting this is a hostage payment for the Americans being held in Iran, but it isn't actually America's money. It is Iran's money and they're prisoners.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: They're prisoners. The money is Iran's money. It was frozen due to sanctions on Iran. This is giving Iran some controlled access to that money by taking it from one account where it has been absolutely beyond their reach, frozen. Into another account where they will be able to access it, access that money.

And the White House has been very clear that this is for humanitarian goods only. The White House says we don't ever apply sanctions to stop people getting food, to stop people getting medicine for humanitarian goods. But we've heard over the past few days, a degree of pushback from Iranian officials, notably the President of Iran, speaking about this issue, saying -- and I think we can listen to him here -- saying that Iran will spend it on what they see fit.


EBRAHIM RAISI, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): This money belongs to the Islamic Republic of Iran and naturally we will decide -- the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide to spend it wherever we need it.


Humanitarian means whatever the Iranian people needs. So this money will be budgeted for those needs. And the needs of the Iranian people will be decided and determined by the Iranian government.


ROBERTSON: So that was an interview given to U.S. broadcaster NBC over the past couple of days. And clearly the question was raised because it is a contentious issue. We heard just earlier in the show from John Kirby laying out the U.S. views on this. The money it is -- is it paying for the release? That certainly if you stand up and take an objective view, that is what is happening. Iran is moved by financial inducements. This is a regime that is weak, that it is unpopular. The country is going through huge economic hardship because of the sanctions and they seem to turn to many avenues and respond to those financial inducements.

And we spoke earlier about their rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and their they've stopped, it appears, from backing the Houthis in Yemen, who were then attacking the United States with Iranian provided cruise missiles.

So the financial inducements works with this Iranian leadership right now. I think you just have to read it, the situation and what's happening in that context.

FOSTER: And presumably the leadership in Iran have to say those sorts of things to -- for the domestic audience. It's interesting that he was saying that to NBC because it's more about making the Iranians feel, isn't it, that they -- they've got a good deal. But actually huge restrictions on these funds. They can't -- it's the Qataris which who will control it effectively.

ROBERTSON: Qataris have the account and there is a mechanism by which Iran -- as we understand it at the moment and we only have the broadest of details -- that Iran can say, we would like to use these funds to do X, Y and Z humanitarian deeds. And that will then be examined, analyzed and access to the funds if it's found to have merit.

Now, both sides in any negotiation, in any deal, need to walk away from the table, feeling that they've got something. The Iranians are talking about five Iranian prisoners in U.S. jails who will be released and go back to Iran. So the Iranian leadership needs to be able to sell this as a success. So it is not with surprise that they would say this is this is our money and we're getting access to it. But I think for those, you know, for, for critics of this or others would say, look what you're doing maybe is giving Iran money for humanitarian goods, but that will free up that money that they're spending helping people --

FOSTER: It would have been spent on humanitarian.

ROBERTSON: -- keeping them in leadership on other areas. Again though, the financial inducement, certainly from a Saudi perspective with Iran at the moment, do seem to be working.

FOSTER: But very briefly, I mean it does make a bit of a mockery of the sanction system. This is a blatant work around, around U.S. sanctions.

ROBERTSON: I don't think there's a -- I don't think there's a short answer to that. But what we can say is that just last week the U.K., France, Germany said that they would continue their sanctions on Iran. We heard over their failure to uphold the nuclear arms -- the nuclear deal. The nuclear watchdog, the IAEA has inspectors in Iran checking that they hold -- they're held to account on what they say they'll do, criticize the Iranian leadership for blocking 1/3 of their inspectors from access to the country. There's been no shortage of criticism of Iran and its actions. Indeed, additional sanctions for the United States last week on 25

members of the IRGC, Iran's, you know, main power body to law enforcement institutions for the head of prisons. And criticism as well of the way that Iran is handling this year long year anniversary of Mahsa Amini's brutal murder.

FOSTER: OK, we can get back to Becky. She's in Doha. Becky, I mean, you refer to this earlier on. I mean, what isn't disputed here that this is a huge relief for those five American prisoners and also their families who've been campaigning all this time. How do you expect today to play out? What will we see?

ANDERSON: Yes, it's interesting, isn't it? I mean, certainly the sort of background to this is that there have been 8 rounds of talks held between Iran and the U.S., obviously indirect talks mediated by Qatar. These talks started back in March of 2022. The first as we understand it, of these focused on the nucleophile and they then shifted to a prison prisoner for funds agreement that's loosely termed prisoner for funds agreement.

So these months of negotiations now culminating in what we will see on the tarmac here in a couple of hours.


It's a couple of hours' flight from Teflon. And so, as soon as we understand that that Qatari jet is in the air, wheels up and we'll find out that they are out of Iranian airspace. We should then expect that flight to arrive here sort of an hour, an hour and a half after that. So we're looking at what at least two hours from now as we understand it.

And you will see the American negotiators, Brett McGurk, was part of the negotiation for the release of Jason Rezaian back in the Obama administration back in 2016. So a man who is not unfamiliar with these negotiations and with indeed meeting prisoners, those wrongfully detained off the -- off a flight from Tehran.

So that's what we understand. And the details are not clear as of yet. What happens after these five prisoners arrive here in Doha? And those five will be, as I say, greeted by the American negotiators. And then, as we understand it, they will be en route for the United States after that. But we at present do not have the details as to when that onward flight will happen, Max.

FOSTER: OK, Becky, thank you.

Interesting to see the role Qatar's playing in all of this. So really stepping up to the global sort of peacemaker role -- maker a role, how would you describe it?

ROBERTSON: Absolutely being that being a sort of a middle man here. I mean, this was something that the Omanis under the late Sultan there really, they did have a good role and a very positive role, being the middleman between Iran and the United States and others. And the Qataris are definitely stepping up to that. So, yes, I think we can expect others in the region, particularly

Saudi to want to have that role, perhaps with Iran in the future because of their own rapprochement and their closeness to the United States right now that that would be expected. Sorry.

But I think a sort of a detailed pertinent to today that we that we've got -- Becky is speaking about here and just to add to what she's saying. This day may not be without a couple of small hurdles.

I'm thinking here of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British Iranian national, who was released not so long ago from detention in Iran and freed to travel back to the U.K. And she was arrested there in April 2016. What happened to her at the airport during her carefully structured release? Well, she was held up there unexpectedly for quite a period of time. So it wouldn't be untoward to expect Iran to perhaps have some hiccups and delays on the tarmac and at the airport in in Tehran today.

I don't think -- I do think that this will go through because that's --

FOSTER: And the money is why, isn't it?

ROBERTSON: Everything's set up for it, but don't be surprised if the Iranians -- if the Iranians do something that gives them extra publicity and sell factor to their public on what they've done here.

OK, Becky, you've been reporting on these five prisoners for, you know, a very long time. Are there other prisoners? I mean, what's comes after this?

ANDERSON: Well, as we understand it, these are the Americans who have been wrongfully detained, according to the U.S. administration. So their departure from Tehran -- if that indeed is what happens in the next couple of hours -- we'll see the end of those who are wrongfully detained. American citizens, dual Iranian/American citizens.

But we do know that there are other Europeans and other dual citizens of Iranian European background, who remain in Iran. So as far as sort of the relationship between Iran, Tehran and the West, including the Europeans, there is still much work to do.

And let's be quite clear, you know, things have changed significantly since 2015, when the Obama administration negotiated that deal that the Trump administration then pulled out of in 2018. So while this, hopefully, according to those who are briefed in these negotiations, may provide, they say -- and this is their hopeful, this is what they're hopeful of -- a path potentially to some sort of negotiation down the route which is wider than just this prisoner swap. I think we have to be very clear about where relations and tensions stand between, not just the United States, but European capitals with Tehran at this point.

FOSTER: Becky in Doha, thank you. Back with you throughout the day. Also, Nic, who's here watching things from London.


FOSTER: Welcome to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Max Foster. If you're just joining us, updating a breaking news story 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 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. We're going to speak to Becky now, who's in Doha. We've also got Nic in London for some more analysis. But Becky, it's a hard story to cover, isn't it? Because it's a immensely complex deal, and you can't just encapsulate it in a sentence.

ANDERSON: Yes, and it and you're absolutely right. I mean this is a complex, complicated deal, but the bottom line at this point is -- Max.


And after years of imprisonment, at least five years and in one case at nearly eight, five American citizens wrongfully detained by Iran are now expected to be finally headed home. Their nightmare, expected to be over. And let's just be quite clear who we are talking about here. This deal to release these hostages as described by the United States, Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz and two others who have not been identified as of yet.

The new deal has been mediated by Qatar. It's been mediated over the past 18 months. Eight rounds of negotiations and sees the unfreezing of $6 billion of Iranian funds. Until now funds that have been restricted in accounts in South Korea under the U.S. sanctions policy. Those funds, we are told by our source this morning, have now been successfully transferred to bank accounts in Qatar. And that's key to this deal that the Qataris are mediating this. The Qataris will be responsible for sort of strictly controlling what these funds are spent on.

Because under the terms of this deal, the Americans have stipulated these funds -- this $6 billion worth of funds -- Iranian money at the end of the day. But these funds must be spent on humanitarian goods, food and medicine. And we all know just how much that is needed in Iran at present. The deal also includes the release of five Iranians who are in prison in the United States for sanctions busting.

Not all of those prisoners, as we understand it, and even admitted to by Tehran this morning, actually looking to return to Iran. Two expected to return here, two expected to stay in the United States and one expected to go to a third country.

And the Americans -- American citizens will be greeted here in Doha by the American negotiators. And there will be relief, obviously, relief for what has been mental and physical anguish and torture, both for those who have been incarcerated over the years in Iran, and indeed for their family members. Who have tried so hard over successive U.S. administrations, Barack Obama's administration, Donald Trump's administration, and now Joe Biden's administration to get these wrongfully detained, American dual citizens out of Tehran and home -- Max.

FOSTER: OK, Becky, thank you. Nic's also here. We shouldn't forget five Iranian prisoners are also being released from the U.S. What do we know about them?

ROBERTSON: Very few details so far. We understand they're based on sanctions busting activities. Obviously, many, many sanctions on Iran and they've been arrested in the United States and jailed in the United States on account of that. But we don't know how long their sentences were. We don't know how much of their sentences have really been spent. We don't know the evidence that was brought against them.

FOSTER: We won't find out, will we?

ROBERTSON: Not immediately. I think once her identities become known, if that becomes known in the Iranian media, or if that's in the interests of the Iranian leadership -- because they control the media pretty much -- then we won't know more about them.

But I think it's kind of -- just to flip back to the money. Because the money is going to be contentious. It was contentious where the United States has affected other prisoner releases from the Iranians. And it's going to be contentious again. But it's also, you know, contentious or important on the Iranian side that they are seen to have access to their monies, not with controls. And we've heard from the Foreign Minister -- and if we can run that clip in a second -- but the foreign minister saying, you know, we will use it in proportion to our requirements. This is what he said.


NASSER KANAANI, RENE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESPERSON (through translator): We are hopeful that today we would see full access to our money and this will be transferred to an account Iran has announced in a regional state and Iran would be able to transfer that completely. And proportionate to requirements, we can spend that money. On the basis of the latest information I have, the prisoner exchange will also take place on the same day.

So five Iranian citizens will be released from American prisons on the basis of the latest information. Two nationals on the basis of their own willingness will come back to Iran. One of them, given presence of family elsewhere, will travel to a third country. Two other Iranian citizens incarcerated in America have said they want to stay in the U.S. for now.

The five Iranian prisoners will be freed today. And in exchange five nationals in jail in Iran on the basis of their own request will be extradited to the U.S. side. These two issues will hopefully be completed on the agreement in place.



ROBERTSON: So the take away there is, the assets will be put at the disposal of the administration of Iran to be used in proportional to their requirement.

FOSTER: It's not true though, is it?

ROBERTSON: No, it's not. As we understand, the deal is that they will only be able to spend it on humanitarian goods. That they'll only be able to get access to that money --

FOSTER: And the Qataris are policing that.

ROBERTSON: Potentially with others, but is -- what's the arrangement for policing it? And what's the involvement? And you know, the Iranians say we want -- so we want 1.5 billion, let's say immediately right now for projects X, Y and Z. What's the process to verify, authenticate that? What's the feedback on all of that? So that -- those are the sorts of areas that will come under scrutiny. And they are also the sorts of areas we may not get more details about because both sides are trying to play this back home as a win and not them kowtowing to the other side in essence.

FOSTER: We're obviously expect to see them arrive in Qatar. Will we expect to see them -- to see them in the U.S. as well. Because it's going to be a big personal moment for the families.

ROBERTSON: You know, I think you can expect to see when they arrive back that they will be -- that there will be additional family members greeting them in the United States. We don't know quite what to expect in terms of sort of numbers of family members potentially who could be there in Qatar. But this is going to be huge. I mean, and it's not just families, you know, the Iranian expatriate community in the United States and other places is galvanized by this. They see what Iran does.

FOSTER: OK. Thank you so much, Nic. We'll be following every twist and turn of this throughout the day here on CNN.

I'm Max Foster. Thanks for watching CNN NEWSROOM. Kasie going to pick up now with "EARLY START."