Antony J. Blinken

Remarks to the Press on the Release and Recovery of U.S. Citizens Unjustly Held in Iran

delivered 18 September 2023, Palace Hotel, New York, NY

Audio mp3 of Address


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Good morning, everyone. Just a few minutes ago, I had the great pleasure of speaking to seven Americans who are now free -- free from their imprisonment or detention in Iran, out of Iran, out of prison, and now in Doha en route back to the United States to be reunited with their loved ones. Five of the seven, of course, had been unjustly detained, imprisoned in Iran, some for years; two others had been prevented from leaving Iran. I spoke to them after they landed in Doha.

I can tell you that it was for them, for me, an emotional conversation.

It’s easy in the work that we do every day sometimes to get lost in the abstractions of foreign policy and relations with other countries, and forgetting the human element that’s at the heart of everything we do. But today, their freedom, the freedom of these Americans for so long unjustly imprisoned and detained in Iran, means some pretty basic things. It means that husbands and wives, fathers and children, grandparents, can hug each other again, can see each other again, can be with each other again. So it’s a day that I’m grateful for.

I want to thank a number of partners who’ve been so vital to helping us reach this day, particularly our partners in Oman, Switzerland, Qatar, the United Kingdom. Each has played a very important role in enabling us to free our fellow citizens. I’d also like to thank an extraordinary team at the State Department and throughout the United States Government that has been working to achieve this result for -- for 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 -- in that way.

One of the things that I heard in my conversation with -- 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 -- 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 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.

Mr. Miller: We have time for two questions. Humeyra.

Q: Thank you.

SecState Blinken: All right.

Q: Hello, Mr. Secretary. Based on the successful detainee swap this week, will there be -- are you expecting any indirect talks with the Iranians this week, any time soon? And I’m not talking about direct talks but through intermediaries, or any sort of relaying messages.

SecState 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 -- 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 in 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 [has] also been very clear that one way or another, he’s committed to ensuring that Iran never acquire a nuclear weapon.

Q: Do you think there might be an opportunity this week, sir, the fact that --

SecState Blinken: I -- 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 was in prison for eight years unjustly [Siamak Namazi]. And that’s what we’re focused on for today.

Mr. Miller: Hiba.

Q: Yes. Thanks, Mr. Secretary. Today you had a meeting with the GCC foreign minister, and this meeting came after the announcement of that. Did they raise concern[s] regarding the release of frozen funds for the Iranian, and the possibility of using these -- these funds to fund terrorism, whether in Lebanon, in Yemen, elsewhere? And if you can elaborate a little bit regarding the mechanism on how you would super -- supervise and monitor the use of these funds for humanitarian purposes too.

SecState Blinken: Great, thank you. In fact, when we -- when we met with our GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] colleagues, our fellow Americans had not yet arrived in Doha, so we didn’t want to get ahead of -- 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 -- 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 -- the resources, I think it’s very important to be very clear about exactly what this involved. As you know, this involved the access by Iran to its own money, money that had accumulated in a Korean bank 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[ed] the use of resources for humanitarian purposes, because our -- 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 -- 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.

Mr. Miller: Thank you.

SecState Blinken: Thanks very much.

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Page Updated: 11/4/23

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