Joe Biden

Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Return of American Detainees from Iran

September 17, 2023

Via Teleconference

8:08 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Good evening, everybody. This is [moderator]. Thank you all for joining us on this call on a Sunday evening to talk about Iran.

Before we get started, I just want to put a couple of quick ground rules. This call is going to be held under an embargo until the President's statement goes out tomorrow morning. For planning purposes, I anticipate that that will happen around 7:30 a.m. But also for awareness, should anything change, I will be available starting around 5:00 a.m. to provide any sort of support or notice that is needed. But as I said, for your all's planning purposes, we anticipate that the statement will go around 7:30 tomorrow morning.

For awareness but not for reporting, joining us on today's call is [senior administration official] and [senior administration official].

It seems like somebody might have their line unmuted. If you don't mind muting your line.

But with that, I will hand it over to [senior administration official] first just to say a few words. He will hand it over to [senior administration official], and then we'll open it up for a few questions. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [moderator]. And thanks, everybody, for joining. This call is to give you a heads up that we anticipate, as of this moment, that the consular deal with Iran will be fully implemented tomorrow morning.

But I want to caution, as [moderator] just did, that, as with really anything we do with a country like Iran, this process remains extremely complex, fragile, and could still hit unanticipated hurdles.

But, as of right now, and right now is before daybreak in Iran, we do believe we're on track. And we just wanted to provide this opportunity to offer some background information and answer any questions as you prepare your stories on this -- on this deal. So, thanks for joining at such a late hour on Sunday night.

What I'll do is I'll walk through what we expect to unfold and some of the broader context behind this deal and also just our larger policy with Iran, and then I'll turn it over to senior official number two.

So, here's what we anticipate the events to unfold over the next 24 hours: As early as 5:00 a.m. Eastern time -- so, it's about nine hours or so from now -- seven Americans will board a Qatari plane and leave Iran for Doha, Qatar. The Americans on the plane will be Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz, and two Americans who wish to remain private. Also on the plane will be Effie Namazi, the mother of Siamak, and Vida Tahbaz, the wife of Morad. And both have been previously unable to leave Iran.

So, we are bringing home five American citizens who have been imprisoned -- wrongfully imprisoned and two family members of those imprisoned who were banned from traveling.

The current plan is for these seven individuals and our Americans -- our American citizens to deport Doha as quickly as possible, and they will then come -- everybody will come directly to the Washington, D.C., area, where they will be reunited with their families. And the Department of Defense will be offering optional services for families that might request help for their recovery and integration into normal life, as we routinely do in these very difficult endeavors.

In return for the safe return of our fellow American citizens, five Iranians will receive clemency. These five individuals -- their names has -- have been reported. I can give them to you if you like, but let me just kind of keep going.

These individuals have been charged or convicted with nonviolent crimes: Two of the five have been in prison and their sentences were about to expire -- in one case, in less than 100 days from now; three are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted. We anticipate that two of the Iranians who do not have legal status in the U.S. will return to Iran again through Doha, Qatar.

In connection with the exchange, we are also moving $6 billion in Iranian funds previously held in South Korea -- in a restricted account in South Korea to a restricted account in Qatar, where they will be available for a limited -- a very limited category of humanitarian transactions. That is food, medicine, medical devices, and agricultural products only.

And I wanted to dispel a few myths about what this entails -- this transfer entails that has just continued to linger out there.

First, these are not taxpayer dollars. This is not a payment of any kind. No funds enter Iran ever, nor do any funds get paid to Iranian companies or entities.

The account in Korea is not a legally frozen account under our laws. The funds there have been legally available for non-sanctionable trade, including under the last administration. This goes on for some years.

At bottom, these are Iranian funds -- payments made by South Korea to Iran for purchases of oil years ago, including during the last administration -- moving from one restricted account in Korea to another restricted account in Qatar. These funds will be available only for transactions for humanitarian goods with vetted third-party, non-Iranian vendors.

I just want to, kind of, just focus on this a little bit because the facts are important. The key facts: These are funds that were legally available for non-sanctionable trade in South Korea and will be available for a similarly restricted category of humanitarian-only trade in Qatar. And the funds will likely to be spent on individual humanitarian transactions probably over a period of years.

We are implementing this arrangement through the establishment of what we are calling "the humanitarian channel in Qatar." And the Treasury Department will have more information -- a great deal of additional information on this tomorrow, including a description of its stringent due diligence and monitoring standards.

This channel is designed explicitly, again, to guard against money laundering, misuse of Asian and U.S. sanctions, and, as I stated, no money ever goes to Iran. If Iran tries to divert the funds or use them for anything other than a limited humanitarian purpose as authorized, we'll take action to lock up the funds. And that is very clear from what Treasury will put out tomorrow.

So this humanitarian channel is consistent with U.S. government's longstanding law and policy across administrations that U.S. sanctions do not preclude limited humanitarian transactions for food, agricultural products, medicine, and medical devices. And that's all that is at issue here.

A couple of other issues: As part of our action tomorrow, we are also issuing new sanctions under the Levinson Act, both against the Ministry of Intelligence and against Iran's former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for their actions. These are the second set of act sanctions, I believe, to be issued under the Levinson Act; they will not be the last.

The United States will never give up on Bob Levinson's case. We call on the Iranian regime to give a full account of what happened to Bob Levinson. The Levinson family deserves answers, and we will continue to take action under the Levinson Act to impose costs on Iran.

This also applies to the Biden's administration's policy on travel to Iran. To be blunt, no American should travel to Iran for any reason. No American citizen or dual citizen -- it doesn't matter: Do not travel to Iran. For dual citizens, Iran does not recognize dual citizenship. As many of you know, they're treated as a subject of Iranian law. So, we are very clear, there's just no basis for any American passport holder to travel to Iran. And senior official number two will have more to say about that.

So, that is the background, and that is the whole arrangement here.

We are returning five American citizens to their families after years of torment. We're moving a restricted Irani account from one jurisdiction to another. We are providing clemency to five Iranians convicted or charged with nonviolent offenses.

Importantly, this deal does not change our relationship with Iran in any way. Iran is an adversary and a state sponsor of terrorism. We will hold them accountable wherever possible.

On Friday, just 48 hours ago, the President spoke on the anniversary of Mahsa Amini's death, and we rolled out nearly 30 new sanctions designations, including Press TV and the individuals and entities that contribute to the oppression of Iran's people.

We have sanctioned more than 400 individuals and entities in more than 40 tranches of sanctions since the beginning of our administration. We're increasing our military posture in the region. We have responded decisively to Iran's attacks against our forces by Iran's backed militia groups, including by conducting targeted responsive strikes in March of this year. There have been no attacks in Syria in 6 months since that response, 13 months in Iraq.

Just by contrast, in early 2021, when our administration entered office, our personnel were under regular and ongoing attack by these Iranian-backed groups, and we have taken action to counter that and deter that. And we'll continue to do so.

Separately, we've increased our interdiction posture to deter weapons shipments into Yemen. And with the diplomacy -- U.S.-led diplomacy have secured what is now an 18-month period of calm in Yemen -- the quietest period since the war began nearly a decade ago.

We're also importantly united with our allies on Iran policy. We'll have a lot more to say tomorrow about the many partners who helped contribute to this deal.

But we lead the charge -- just for some examples -- to have Iran removed from the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Last week, 62 other nations joined us in calling out Iran's lack of cooperation of the IAEA in Vienna. And there's more examples coming.

Needless to say, the United States will never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapon, a policy we deliver on through diplomacy or other means, if necessary.

So, today and what we expect to transpire tomorrow, does not change our approach on any of this. We are focused daily on a policy for the Middle East that combines deterrence with diplomacy to reduce risk of Iran's aggression while deescala- -- deescalating conflicts through diplomacy wherever possible, and contributing and building a more stable, integrated, prosperous Middle East region.

But it goes without saying that when we have an opportunity to bring American citizens home, we do seek to seize it, and that's what we're doing here.

So, finally, let me just put the focus back on where it belongs. Tomorrow, the President is making five families whole again. That's ultimately what this is about. And we look forward -- we tremendously look forward, especially all of us working on these issues for so many years and have gotten to know the families, to welcoming our fellow citizens back, once again, on their home soil -- with the caveat I put up on top that until our Americans are out of Iran, this is not over, but we are hopeful at this moment that this will be over by this time tomorrow.

So, with that, I want to turn it over to senior official number two for some more background.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you so much. And I am in wholehearted agreement with the first senior administration official. We are very optimistic that we are on the brink of a historic moment.

I just want to offer a little more context for it. From truly the first day of the Biden-Harris administration, we have prioritized the safe return of Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained overseas. And as you heard from the first senior administration official, a skilled group of dedicated interagency experts have spent over a year negotiating what we hope and anticipate being the culmination of this release tomorrow. We could not have done this without partners at home and abroad, and you'll hear more about that in some statements tomorrow.

Assuming all goes as -- as we anticipate and hope tomorrow, we -- we can proudly add five more names to a long list of Americans whose release we have secured, truly from around the world: from Russia, from Venezuela, West Africa, from Rwanda, from Burma, from Afghanistan, from Haiti, from Iran previously, and from other countries we have deliberately not named out of sensitivities.

Even as we have placed such an emphasis and done so much work to bring home Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained -- many of whom were already in those awful circumstances as we took office -- as an administration, we have placed unprecedented emphasis on preventing future such cases from arising. And I want to spend a minute on that too.

You'll hear more about that work even this week, as we anticipate high-level U.S. government participation in an event on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly openings in New York, focused on the Canadian-led initiative to strengthen global norms against arbitrary detention. And Secretary Blinken has been a powerful champion of that initiative since his first weeks in office.

What's more, President Biden has augmented the U.S. government's toolkit with new and expanded tools to help bring our citizens home and impose costs on the culprits. In particular, he did so when he signed Executive Order 14078, which is entitled "Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained U.S. Nationals Home."

Now, that executive order itself draws on the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, which, as the name of that law itself suggests, is a credit, a testament to the perseverance of the Levinson family and of others who have turned just unbelievable family hardship and tragedy into constructive and meaningful action to prevent other families, other Americans from enduring what they've endured.

And so, as you heard from the first administration official: Tomorrow, we will announce a second set of sanctions under that very executive order against an entity and an individual in Iran previously or currently holding hostage or wrongfully detaining Americans.

Those actors in Iran, like others against whom we have used this sanctions authority and against whom we will use it going forward, have tried to use Americans for political leverage or to seek concessions from the United States, fundamentally treating human beings as -- as pawns, as bargaining chips. Those sorts of actions threaten the stability and integrity of the international political system and the safety of U.S. nationals and other persons abroad.

Specifically, we'll be announcing sanctions on Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security -- MOIS. The MOIS frequently holds and interrogates detainees in Evin Prison, in particular, which has a long history of human rights abuses, including extensive reports of torture. So, MI -- MOIS is the entity.

The U.S. government will also be sanctioning an individual -- former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- for constant promotion of lies about Bob Levinson's whereabouts that still persist to this day.

And as you heard from the first senior administration official, we can't emphasize strongly enough that the Iranian regime must finally come clean, allow for Bob Levinson to be at peace and for the Levinson family to have answers. But we will continue to call on Iran to give a full accounting of what happened to Bob Levinson, from his initial captivity to his ultimate murder.

So, these sanctions are one of a series of actions -- some public, some private -- that do two things at the same time: to secure the release of U.S. nationals wrongfully held overseas and to promote accountability for the culprits so that, by punishing these sorts of actions, we are deterring them from occurring again in the future.

Now, even if we are absolutely and steadfastly committed to reuniting Americans with their families after being held hostage or wrongfully detained, we are also working to warn fellow Americans in a way that can prevent the next generation of cases.

Again, as you have heard, we cannot say it more clearly: Americans should not travel to Iran. That is why this administration, for example, has introduced a "D" -- for wrongful detention -- indicator and applied it to the travel advisories for six countries, including Iran.

More broadly, we have made this issue set a national priority. That includes the first-ever mention in the U.S. National Security Strategy focused on the importance of addressing wrongful detainees and hostages.

So, fundamentally, what we anticipate, what we hope very much will culminate tomorrow is what we do: We bring home Americans in these awful, unacceptable circumstances and we work to prevent fellow Americans from being taken hostage or wrongfully detained going forward by punishing the wrongdoers and by warning our fellow Americans.

Let me stop there, other than to say thank you for joining us to hear about how we are working to bring our people home and reunite them with their families, while also using our tools and authorities -- indeed, increasing the tools available to us -- to hold accountable those engaged in this sort of appalling activity.

And with that, [senior administration official], let me kick it back to you for questions.

MODERATOR: Yep. Thank you, [senior administration official].

With that, we'll open it up to questions. Got time for a few here.

Q: Hi. Thank you so much for doing the call, both of you. A couple of questions. When did the President receive this deal to make a decision on? When did it reach his desk? Will he call the families or -- or the freed detainees tomorrow? And, you know, given that we've seen iterations of this deal in the past, why do you think it was this time that it stuck? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I'm not -- I'm not going to get ahead of any -- any phone calls that might or might not be happening. I'm also not going to discuss the internal deliberations. This has been a -- a process that has been going on for -- a very difficult negotiation, really, over a period of years.

When the opportunity came together after pretty principled, persistent diplomacy, a number of things, obviously, we completely flat-out rejected. When the opportunity arose that we thought a deal that was very much in our interests, that's when we chose to move forward. But in terms of the timeline, everything else, I'm just not going to get into that here.

Q: Hello. Can you hear me?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, we hear you.

Q: Okay. Thank you. Thanks very much for doing this. Can you give a few details about the sequencing: how the release on the U.S. side will happen, when exactly will the Iranians be released, to who and where.

And if this all goes well -- and it looks like it is -- is there any thinking within the Biden administration to use this moment to explore resuming the indirect talks with Iran to see if a deal can be struck in the future, may that be JCPOA or in any other way? So, in that sense, do you expect to hold any indirect talks with them this week, in the coming months about Tehran restricting its nuclear program?

And very lastly, what is your response to Iran's decision to bar key IAEA inspectors from Iran? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me -- this is senior official one -- and then let me answer some of those and turn it to senior official two, particularly on the -- some of the sequencing.

I'll just say there, we -- we maintain custody until the deal is through. So, we're not doing anything until we're very confident that our -- our Americans are -- are out and safe.

I will say, we -- look, diplomacy is one of our tools that we use in dealing with a very complex challenge like Iran. It's only one of them, including, as I said, sanctions, coordination with allies, deterrence.

And you asked if there's any talks planned this week. Absolutely not. The indirect talks we have from time to time through the Omanis -- I have to say, we are very grateful for the role that Oman has played in this role -- particularly, the Sultan of Oman -- and, as well, Qatar, which you'll be hearing more about tomorrow.

So, we do not close the door entirely to diplomacy. But we approach diplomacy with principled standards. And if we see an opportunity, we will explore it. But right now, I have really nothing to talk about.

[Senior administration official]?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll just chime in on -- on the first question a little bit. Probably less than -- than you'd like, but -- Humeyra, but I'll give it a shot.

You know, in terms of -- of those -- think of them as "outbound," I am going to stay a bit vague, because you have individuals who are currently in the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service until this is all culminated. And for operational reasons, we tend not to go into details about that -- even as we try to do what we're doing here, which is offer a bit of a preview and some context.

I will focus more on things in the other direction, which is really where -- where our focus is and ought to be, in which we anticipate, as -- as you heard earlier, we've -- our seven, really -- five detained plus two who've been prevented from leaving -- so that's seven Americans total making their way to Doha, spending relatively limited -- a quite limited period of time on the ground there, and then continuing back to the United States.

All of them will be offered what we call PISA -- post-integration support activity -- PISA support. It's a terrific program offered by the Department of Defense that many who have returned from hostage experiences or wrongful detention experiences take advantage of. And, indeed, I have heard from them personally. Not only does it offer them a lot in the moment, it offers them some skills and coping abilities that they continue to draw on for many, many months to come. It also helps their family members understand challenges they might not anticipate even weeks or months down the road.

So, we will be offering all of that care. It's -- of course, these -- these are -- these are free Americans at this point. It is their choice what they -- what they take advantage of. But we'll certainly be encouraging them to utilize those services being offered to them, and then, of course, work with them to -- to give them the support as they reintegrate where they should be, which is into their American family and friend communities.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have one question I didn't answer on the -- on the -- the IAEA inspectors announced over the weekend.

So, we're in a- -- very active coordination with our partners. I've mentioned there are no meetings envisioned over the coming week with Iran. We will be meeting at multiple levels with our E3 counterparts and partners to fully coordinate on this. And I think we'll have much more to say on this over the coming days.

Of course, that was a response to, really, organizing much of the world -- 62 countries -- together in Vienna late last week. So, we'll be talking to our partners -- UK, France, Germany, and others -- over the course of the coming week in New York. And we'll have more to say on that over the coming days.

Q: Hello. Thank you so much for doing this. You've answered some of my -- part of my question already. But can you tell us what their health condition is like for the five Americans who are returning, along with two -- you said the mother of Mr. Siamak Namazi and the wife of Mr. Morad Tahbaz. How are all of them doing?

And secondly, can you elaborate a bit on the monitoring systems that are going to be put in place to ensure that these funds that are being unfrozen -- Iranian funds that are being unfrozen will be used strictly for humanitarian purposes? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I would say a couple of things -- senior official number one -- on the Americans in terms of how they're doing. So, obviously, I can't speak for them. The emotional torment is something I think neither of us -- anyone -- nobody on this call can even imagine.

Since the Americans have -- our American citizens have been on house arrest, the Swiss and our Swiss Ambassador, our protecting power in Iran has had access to them, including today. And so, we remain in very close touch through the Swiss to ensure that the house arrest conditions, as had been agreed, are -- Iran is living up to them.

And we, again, thank the Swiss for playing that very important role.

Treasury will have much more to say on this tomorrow. I would just say this is about -- and one reason this deal took a very long time to put together -- this is an extraordinarily stringent monitoring and due diligence arrangement with banks that are trusted and with the full cooperation of the governor of Qatar.

And we will have ways to know if there is any diversion. As I said, we will lock it up again. And the category of humanitarian trade is limited to food, medicine, medical devices, and agricultural products. Anything that has been said otherwise is simply false.

And we have set this up in a way that we are very confident of that the risks of diversion are very low. If there is diversion, we will know about it. And if there is diversion of the funds, we will lock up the accounts.

Q: Thanks very much. [Senior administration official], in the past cases, (inaudible) exchanges usually been as a confidence-building measure in addition to a humanitarian measure. I'm struck by the fact that --

MODERATOR: Hey, David, it's [moderator]. It's a little hard to hear you.

Q: Okay.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm making it out.

MODERATOR: There we go. That's much better.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Keep going.

Q: Okay. I'm sorry, I'm on a -- I'm on a plane.

I was saying that these past cases have recently been confidence-building measures in addition to humanitarian relief. It sounds like both sides are going out of their way to say, "There's nothing that we're building toward here." And I'm wondering if you can tell us whether at any point in negotiations it looked like you may have been using it to try to to build on something.

And second, since you referred to the IAEA (inaudible) and on the withdrawal of the inspectors or the inspectors who wouldn't receive permission to enter Iran, can you give us an assessment of how that impedes your ability to understand what they're producing? (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, David, a couple of things. I would -- on the background diplomatic effort, look, Iran's economy is in deep trouble. They have come to us repeatedly through other countries, including Oman, with a sense of urgency to try to return to where we were last August.

We made very clear the world has changed significantly since last August and the chances for diplomacy in the current context of working are extremely slim. We do never -- we never close the door to it.

We've also made clear that so long as Iran is holding American citizens wrongfully detained in Evin Prison, that does not create a construct for diplomacy at all.

So, while I would not -- I would not call this a confidence-building measure, I will say it does remove an obstacle that was certainly -- certainly there.

But this -- this deal was negotiated through Qatar. It -- it is, as these things always are, a fairly separate, independent process. And when we saw an opportunity in which the -- the arrangements that we had always said would be what we would need to move forward, when Iran agreed to that, we -- we did decide to move forward.

So, we'll see where things go from here. But I think you're -- you're right, in terms of the overall backdrop. It is what it is.

I -- I'm not on this call, David -- it's just a different topic -- going to get into the intricacies of the nuclear program -- what we're seeing and what we're not seeing. But we're happy to do a follow-up call on that.

Q: I appreciate this, you guys. [Senior administration official], you mentioned that two of the Iranian prisoners are returning to Iran. But do you expect the other three to stay in the United States?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, it's a complicated endeavor with -- with DOJ and everything. And so, I'm going to be careful what I say.

[Senior administration official], anything we can say about that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I -- I would just say their status may still need some time to play out. This was also true, in case it's helpful, in previous arrangements to secure the release of Americans from Iran -- that those in the other direction, so to speak, had differing statuses here.

But I think [senior administration official] is right that we may just need to leave it there for now.

Q: Thank you very much. Given Iran's history over the past 44 years of taking Americans, do you have any confidence, any faith that this practice will end? Or do you believe that this is a tactic that Iran will continue?

Secondly, are all Americans and permanent residents now out of Iran or will be out of Iran in the next 24 hours?

Third, do you think that the timing of this has anything to do with Raisi coming to the United Nations?

And finally, what is next on your list of what you'd like to talk to about Iran specifically, whether it's within the nuclear program or other regional issues of what its proxies are doing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior administration official], do you want me to take a stab at the first two and maybe leave to you the last two?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, sure.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, look, we obviously are not at all confident with the practice. That is why we continue to warn Americans as starkly as you've heard the two of us do on this call, as starkly as the travel advisory on the State Department website, as starkly as the D for wrongful detention indicator does that travel to Iran is an extremely high-risk endeavor, for a number of reasons. But one of those -- the ones made salient in the -- in the opening sentences about travel advisory is its risk of arbitrary or wrongful detention.

Now, that -- the fact that bad behavior might continue can't and shouldn't stop us from ending just torment for these five -- really, seven Americans. And we are very pleased to believe at least we're on the brink of doing so.

But is the -- the concern that the states will continue to use Americans and others as bargaining chips, as political pawns is precisely why this administration is investing so much in trying to roll back this practice globally through our leadership in that Canadian-led initiative I mentioned earlier to strengthen global norms; through our use of sanctions, including the types of sanctions we'll be announcing tomorrow; and through the sort of warnings that we give Americans.

And I will say that -- that with this, all those designated under the statutory process as wrongfully detained in Iran will be coming out.

Now, of course, there are Americans detained around the world in various countries whose cases are considered by the U.S. Department of State under the 11-factor test set out in the Levinson Act and, based on the information available, don't receive that designation.

But we will be very pleased to say that all those currently designated as wrongfully detained -- all those Americans designated as wrongfully detained under the Levinson Act in Iran will be out, as -- again, with the caveat you've heard from us both: assuming this all goes forward.

And then, [senior administration official], why don't I kick it to you for the last two?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, just -- I mean, the decisions in these very difficult cases, I think when you look at the arrangement, as we've described it in detail -- we'll have more to say over the coming days -- the decision is to move ahead or to accept that these five American citizens will be in Evin Prison for an additional period of years and may never come home.

I mean, that is how difficult these cases are. That's something we need to weigh. They are excruciating.

I think, in this case, the arrangement that we finally worked out is very much in our interest. And we're going to make these families whole.

In terms of Raisi being in New York, I -- you'd have to ask the Iranians, Robin. I highly doubt that has anything to do with it because we finalized this arrangement some time ago and have been working to implement it ever since.

In terms of what we discuss with Iran, obviously, as I said, we are open to diplomacy on the nuclear side. But we have many other tools at our disposal on that issue. But we kind of have -- kind of a, I think, a fairly broad array of options.

But we do remain open to diplomacy. And we are grateful for our regional partners in that regard. And we also are focused, as I mentioned -- I think we have a strong policy of deterrence in the region, but we've also been focused on using diplomacy to de-escalate conflicts wherever -- wherever we can.

I think Jake had a statement late last week noting that the Houthis have an official delegation in Saudi Arabia, as we speak right now, for the first time since that war began. That is significant. And we have made ending the war in Yemen a priority of our policy in the region from the first days of our administration.

So, we have a lot of diplomacy going on in the region of multiple factors. With the Iranians, it is primarily focused on the nuclear program. I would just say that that's a crisis we shouldn't have. The decision to get out of a deal that, whatever you might say about it, was at least keeping the program constrained -- the last administration did -- chose to get out of it without a plan for what came next.

So, that's something that we grapple with every day, and we'll continue to do so. I'm sure you and I and others on the call will be talking about that over the coming weeks and months.

Q: Thanks, guys. A couple questions. Did Shahab Dalili come up in these deliberations?

Second, what message does this send to Iran or others, including Russia that -- although, you know, returning American hostages who are wrongfully detained is top priority for any administration, what message does this send to those countries that, you know, regardless of the case, that in some way, shape, or form, the U.S. could -- whether this time around the money is not Iranian previously, it might have been -- sorry -- it was not U.S. money -- previously, it might have been. So, what message does this sent to them or, you know, Russia for now where there is Evan, there is Paul Whelan, if they could expect something similar to get these Americans out?

And then, just second, senior administration official one, you mentioned that there's an increased military posture in the region and that -- I wanted to ask: Does this, like, deter Iranian aggression on commercial tankers? And can you mention anything about the U.S. stance on the upcoming expiration of the U.N. arms embargo next month? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior administration official], you want me to take a stab at the first two, leave the third to you?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I'll take the last two. Go ahead, [senior administration official]. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. So, look, I'm not going to get into particular other cases. But I will just say, you know, there are, regrettably, many, many Americans detained around the world, and all of them are entitled to certain things that the U.S. Department of State works very hard to provide to them: consular access, representation in the relevant legal system, a chance at whatever passes for due process in those legal systems. And our embassies, consulates, or, in some cases, through protecting powers, we work very hard to provide that.

Then there is a subset of cases that -- under the Levinson Act's statutory test that designate it as wrongful detention cases. And that -- that goes above and beyond. They're entitled to all of what I said before plus the relentless efforts, hard as it may be, to bring them home.

And we are very pleased that all those Americans in Iran fall into that latter category -- which is a subset and will always be a subset of global cases of Americans held -- will be home, assuming this all goes forward.

And then -- and I know [senior administration official] will have more to say on this. But, you know, I do think we start with the question of what message would it send to Americans if they were wrongfully detained in a place like Evin Prison for years with no hope of coming home. And that's not something the President wants from us. That's not something the country, in our view, wants from us. And so, we believe that the message to them is: We will find a way to bring you home.

Wrongful detentions didn't begin under the last administration, but many of the people we're proud to be bringing home tomorrow were detained -- or when Paul Whelan, for example, as you mentioned, were detained -- they certainly didn't begin under this administration. Indeed, they've been going on for decades and, in a sense, centuries.

We do believe it's an awful practice, an inhumane practice, a barbaric practice, and one that we can begin to stamp out through some of the measures you've heard me talk about on this call -- by building global norms, by punishing and thus deterring this behavior, by warning those who might be the most vulnerable to it.

But fundamentally, even as we do that work to extinguish this practice, we need to bring home Americans.

And, [senior administration official], let me turn it over to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You asked about deterrence in the Gulf, in the waterways. It's hard to -- it's hard to answer. I can't say definitively. I will say, since we did increase our posture, we have not had any interdictions. I know the Iranians announced last week they did; we, I think, clarified on Friday, we've seen none of that, that that has not happened.

NAVCENT is doing a really great job, together with the coalition, as part of our role to ensure international commerce and -- in those -- in those vital waterways of the Middle East. But it's a difficult job. The territory is pretty vast.

But we had Bahrain -- the Bahrainis in town last week. We signed a comprehensive -- we call a "comprehensive security integration prosperity agreement." I think it's worth reading.

Obviously, that is where our 5th Fleet is based. And we're doing an awful lot to ensure that we deter this activity.

Of course, what's happening is that Iran sought to interdict tankers as we enforce our own sanctions and DOJ does what it does to enforce U.S. laws and seize illicit oil on tankers overseas.

So, that is something we're dealing with every day as we speak and will continue.

I will just say, on the October -- the expiration of some of the sanctions, which you mentioned, we -- the U.S. government is not lifting any sanctions.

I would just say, even as part of this deal, I know there was some reporting earlier in the week about a sanctions waiver. I want to clarify: We're not lifting any sanctions as part of this deal whatsoever.

We did waive sanctions for the limited purpose of allowing the funds to transfer outside the U.S. financial system very carefully through European jurisdictions to Qatar.

We did this very carefully with the Treasury Department. And to allow that transfer to happen, we had to issue some waiver letters. But that was for that limited purpose to allow the funds to transfer through some European banks ultimately on their way to Doha.

We are not lifting any sanctions here. And when it comes to October, we are not lifting any sanctions, and we are in active discussions with our European partners to ensure that sanctions remain in force, particularly when it comes to Iran's missile and UAV program.

Q: Yes. Hi, thank you for doing this. I just want to know who initiated this deal this time. I know you mentioned that you've been working on this for months and years. But this opportunity, as you call -- you called it, who initiated it this time?

And also, what made you unveil the $6 billion this time in relation to the exchange of prisoners? I mean, usually, in the past, there have been concessions that involved money or other things from the administration. But this time, what made you announce the money alongside with this deal?

And also, how would you respond to critics -- maybe especially from the Republican side -- who have already been -- started criticizing the deal and saying that this might encourage further hostage taking? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In terms of who initiated, it's kind of hard to answer. This has been an ongoing process. We've had very clear standards of what we would agree to and not agree to. And when the negotiation -- when the Iranians basically agreed to what we would agree to, we made the decision to move forward. I think we kept a very firm position.

As we said to some of the families -- it was excruciating conversations -- there is never good news, ever, until there's finally good news.

So, it's hard to say in terms of initiation. We've had a very firm position. There are things we absolutely will not do. We are open to humanitarian trade, which does not violate U.S. sanctions, with no money going to Iran, et cetera -- everything I just laid out. And that's the arrangement that we worked out.

In terms of announcing what we announced, we just were putting out everything that is -- that is a part of this and describing in some detail, particularly the humanitarian channel. And again, Treasury tomorrow -- again, assuming everything remains on track -- Treasury, tomorrow, will release a Frequently Asked Questions, everything else that they normally do, including with a statement that describes some of this in more detail.

Again, to critics, I think that the question is, if you really look at the arrangements of this deal, the funds are available for humanitarian -- very limited category of humanitarian transactions. That is no different than they were in the last administration.

So, I think the question is, when you look at this arrangement: Would it have been better to say, "No, we're going to keep these Americans in Evin Prison for a period of years on end." And in the case of Siamak Namazi, he's been there since 2015.

So, I think we have a very good response to critics. Understand there are critics, too, with an arrangement like this.

These are some of the most difficult decisions a president makes. But I think this deal stands up.

Again, we kept firm to very firm principles. It's one reason this took so long. And I think when you look at the full contours of the deal, compared with the alternative, and the alternative is: These Americans never come home. So, I think it very much holds up.

Q: Thank you very much, [senior administration official] and [senior administration official]. We really appreciate it. And I can't even imagine what this has been like.

I had a detail, if you could give it to me before Treasury's briefing -- and I apologize if this has been asked. I got knocked off the call for a while. I'm still in transit.

But (inaudible) any money that was in South Korea and restricted account in Qatar. So, could you explain why it was important for Iran to get the money moved to Qatar? Did they use it and draw on it when it was in South Korea for non-sanctioned items?

And if you could explain how it's going to be monitored -- monitored by Qatar, given all of the Republican criticism that (inaudible) that money will now be available to Iran, that they -- freeing up other money that they could use for weapons or any other nefarious purposes.

And I don't know if you've responded to this, but the IAEA announced just this weekend that Iran has (inaudible) been certified for reentry (inaudible) the key inspectors who are most familiar with the nuclear program (inaudible).

Thank you both so much.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Andrea. I did answer the second question in the course of the briefing.

I'll just say a couple things about the funds and Korea.

I just think, if you really, you know, understand this stuff, I mean, a good chunk of these funds -- this is for South Korea purchasing Iranian oil in periods during which that trade was not sanctioned, including a period in 2018-2019 when the last administration issued what are called "significant reduction exceptions" to South Korea, Japan, Turkey, China, a number of other countries. And in most cases, those funds were spent -- billions of dollars -- so -- for, at the time, bilateral trade and non-sanctioned trade.

The Korea -- the situation in Korea was unique because of difficulties to convert the Korean currency. I just mentioned how difficult it was just to transfer these funds to Doha. And frankly, we've worked very closely with the South Koreans over the course of -- from the beginning of this administration about trying to hold on to this so that it is used in a -- the only way that it can be used for: humanitarian -- humanitarian trade.

But there were situations unique to Korea that made it difficult to actually do humanitarian transactions. What we've worked out in Qatar is, again, severely restricted -- and Treasury will describe this tomorrow -- medicine, medical devices, food, and agriculture -- that's it -- but with the conversion done in a way that you can actually do humanitarian transactions. No money going to Iran, no money going to Iranian entities, et cetera -- everything I just said in the beginning.

But that is one of the reasons why this account in South Korea had not been spent. It is not a frozen account. It is not legally unavailable to Iran. It is legally available to Iran for humanitarian transactions in South Korea before we did this deal. But we are moving it from one restricted account to another restricted account in Qatar under the terms I described.

And we'll have more to say about that tomorrow, particularly with the Treasury release.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you all. That concludes our call this evening. And we will be in touch in the morning. Thank you.

8:56 P.M. EDT

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Return of American Detainees from Iran Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365146

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