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U.S. envoy: Seeing Americans freed from Iran ‘overwhelming’

For 14 months, a team of American officials met in secret with Iranian negotiators to work out an agreement releasing prisoners held by both countries. Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk sits down with Judy Woodruff to tell the inside story of the negotiations.

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    Why was Robert Levinson not included in Iran prisoner swap?

    McGurk described the last-minute scramble to locate Rezaian's mother and wife the night before his release. "We finally located Mary Rezaian, Jason's mother, at about 4 a.m. Geneva time."

    The negotiations with Iran, which took place with the help of the Swiss government, were "incredibly difficult," McGurk said. "This was so tough, and even in the last 72 hours, I mean it was literally some real shouting matches."

    He defended the deal against critics by saying the Iranians released were non-violent individuals, "some of them quite elderly," and some with sentences that would have ended in a year anyway.

    Read the full transcript of this segment below:

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    For the past 14 months, a small team of Americans from the State Department and other agencies met in secret with Iranian negotiators. And the two sides eventually worked out a deal to release prisoners Iran was holding and grant a pardon to individuals charged in the U.S.

    Today, we heard for the first time from one of five Americans released.

    Former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati emerged today in Landstuhl, Germany, and said he feels born again.

    AMIR HEKMATI, Former U.S. Marine Released from Iran: I was at the point where I had just sort of accepted the fact that I was going to be spending 10 years in prison. So, this was a surprise, and I just feel extremely blessed to see my government do so much for me and the other Americans.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Hekmati is being evaluated at a U.S. military hospital, along with a Christian minister, Saeed Abedini, and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was seen for the first time today with his wife in video from The Post.

    It was reported their release was delayed Sunday, when Iranian officials blocked Rezaian's wife and mother from boarding a plane in Tehran. The New York Times said Secretary of State John Kerry had to make a phone call to put the exchange back on course.

  • AMIR HEKMATI:

    As soon as we got out of Iranian airspace, the champagne bottles were popped. And the Swiss are amazing, their hospitality, chocolates. Veal was served.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Still to be resolved, the fate of American Robert Levinson, who disappeared from a resort in Iran nearly nine years ago.

    Meanwhile, Iranians, too, are celebrating, as international economic sanctions end under the terms of the nuclear deal. But Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made clear today he remains suspicious of U.S. intentions.

    In a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, he said: "I reiterate the need to be vigilant about the deceit and treachery of arrogant countries, especially the United States, in this nuclear issue and other issues."

    At the same time, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest pointed to the nuclear deal and the prisoner release as examples of principled diplomacy. It's now clear that the prisoner swap negotiations proceeded on a secret and separate track from the nuclear talks.

    The effort was led by Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy on fighting the Islamic State group since 2015.

    I sat down with McGurk earlier today, and began by asking him what it was like to be the first to see the released Iranian-Americans on the plane when they landed in Geneva.

  • BRETT MCGURK, Special Presidential Envoy:

    It was just overwhelming. That's really the only word that I can use.

    We have been working on this in secret for 14 months, and I have been in regular contact with the families. It was an incredibly difficult process. Until the last moment that the plane took off from Tehran and actually left Iranian airspace, you never really knew.

    The night before, we had an episode in which Jason Rezaian's mother and his wife could not be located. We finally located Mary Rezaian, Jason's mother, at about 4:00 a.m. Geneva time, very early morning in Tehran time. I spoke with her on the phone and told her to stay where she was. We worked with the Swiss to pick her up.

    But until they were on the plane and actually left Iranian airspace, nothing was really certain. So, in Geneva, when they landed, I — they were greeted by the Swiss state secretary, because Switzerland, the Swiss government was critical for this entire thing. But I got on the plane and welcomed them out of Iran, told them that your country, the United States, is going to do everything we possibly can for you and can't wait to get you home.

    And it was just an incredibly emotional moment. I honestly will never forget it. And to see them all together, it's hard to even put it into words.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How difficult was this process? I mean, some people have looked at this and said, well, the Iranians really were planning to release them all along, but they just weren't going to say so.

  • BRETT MCGURK:

    Well, not quite.

    Hekmati was sentenced to death in 2011. And Amir Hekmati's sentence was later reduced, but he was going to be in prison through about 2022. Saeed Abedini was sentenced in 2012 and he was serving a prison term until 2021.

    Jason Rezaian had not been sentenced yet, but he had been imprisoned for 18 months, and the sentence that he was facing — his trial had already been over — was going to be in a period of decades at least.

    And so I completely disagree. It's contrary to all the information that we have. And I think, had we not been able to find a way forward here, I think these Americans were looking at a very substantial, many, many years in Evin prison.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Why do you think you were successful? What were the forces inside Iran that made this work, working with you?

  • BRETT MCGURK:

    This process came out of the nuclear negotiation, but in the nuclear negotiations, primarily, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and some other elements of the Iranian system that don't have the decision-making authority over the security apparatus and the people that actually hold the keys to the prison cells.

    So we had to open up a parallel track and begin negotiations with those elements of the Iranian system, who we have really not had any engagement with. And so one reason it took a long time is that this was the first substantial engagement we really ever had with that element of the system.

    I think my Iranian counterpart, it's safe to say I may have been first American they have really ever met. And for many months, it was just a lot of back and forth about historical narratives and competing visions of what has actually happened between our two countries. And, of course, we didn't give any ground about their history of hostage-taking and support for terrorism, and they would go through their narrative.

    Eventually, I said, look, we could do this for months, or we can decide whether there is a way to actually get something done. We wanted our American citizens home, period. That's why we were there. And if there was no way to talk about practicalities of how to do that, there was no reason to have a discussion.

    And, eventually, really after the nuclear agreement came to fruition, things started to accelerate a little bit.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Who were these people you were dealing with, and are they the people who the U.S. can do business with in the future and get productive things done with in the future?

  • BRETT MCGURK:

    I mean, we will have to see.

    This was so tough. And even in the last 72 hours, it was literally some real shouting matches. And we did this all bilaterally, but the Swiss were always there, and sometimes we would bring the Swiss in to mediate, because it's just incredibly difficult.

    We have agreed to have a process, a channel, a consular channel to continue discussions, should that be necessary. The case of Robert Levinson, of course, was the topic of conversation every single round. As we said in 2011, we have to reason to believe he's not being held in Iran, so it's a different case.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There is another American — Iranian-American still being held, Mr. Namazi. How cruel is it to leave them behind and let these others — other five out?

  • BRETT MCGURK:

    Any other cases, I can't really discuss in detail, for privacy reasons and things, but I would just say we're going to continue to work, work this every day.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In terms of what happened, there are critics in this country who are saying this swap should never have happened, that these people were — should never have been held in the first place and the U.S. shouldn't have done anything in return to win their release.

  • BRETT MCGURK:

    I think the reality is, if you take that position, then Jason Rezaian should have stayed in Evin prison for decades. Amir Hekmati would have been in prison through 2022, and Saeed Abedini until about the same time.

    So that was the reality that you face. There was no way to simply say, they have to be released, release them. Of course, they're wrongfully detained, and we have made that clear consistently, particularly with the Iranians. These were totally unjust detentions, imprisonments.

    However, to get them out, you can't get them out by just saying, hey, get them out. And so we had to figure out a formula. And I think if you really look at it, in terms of, on the Iranian side, you're looking at nonviolent individuals, all — some of them quite elderly, people who in some cases their sentences were about the run in less than a year anyway.

    Most of them would have been out of prison before even the first of the Americans were to be out of prison. Given the category of cases we're talking about, of sanctions violations, three of them had been convicted, three of them were pending trial, and one was about to plead his case. So, only three were actually in prison.

    I think if you look at that and you consider what the stakes were if we could not find a way forward here for these Americans in Evin prison, at the end of the day, I think the president made the right call here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You said that there is no way to know whether this deal, these deals will lead to something productive in the future between the U.S. and Iran. But, specifically, do you see something, some movement on their part when it comes to Syria?

  • BRETT MCGURK:

    We have this Vienna process in which the Iranians are at the table and the Saudis are at the table for the first time since the Iranian — Syrian civil war broke out about five years ago.

    And that's encouraging, but that's a very difficult process. I think, look, Iran is a country that's going — undergoing some fundamental questions about its future. It has elections coming up here in about a month. For the first time in the history since the Iranian Revolution, they have parliamentary elections the same day as they're electing their assembly of experts, which will select the next supreme leader.

    So, you will have a very high turnout. And, already, you can see what's happening with the supreme leader trying to ban a number of reformist candidates. So, within Iran, there is this big competition for the reins of power. And how that plays out I think will say a lot about what's possible.

    But that's something the Iranians have to figure out. The United States will continue to protect our interests in the region. We define our interest based upon our own national security interests. And when it comes to Americans sitting in Evin prison, I think that's something that we have taken with the utmost seriousness.

    And, obviously, other than the families, we didn't tell anybody about this channel, because, had it not been secret, it would have been impossible to make any progress.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk, thank you very much.

  • BRETT MCGURK:

    Judy, thank you.

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