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U.S. Officials: Ten American Sailors Held By Iran; White House: Iran Says American Sailors Are Safe. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 12, 2016 - 16:30   ET




ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Breaking news into CNN. Just minutes ago, U.S. officials say Iran has 10 American sailors in custody. Apparently, two small American vessels, boats, were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain when the U.S. lost contact with these boats.

Joining me now, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

Josh, what can you tell us about these 10 American sailors in Iranian custody?

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, Jake, I can you that U.S. officials have been in touch with the Iranians about the situation. This is obviously a situation that we're monitoring closely.

We have received assurances from the Iranians both that our sailors are safe, that they're being sort of afforded sort of the proper courtesy that you would expect. And we have also, most importantly, received assurances that they will be allowed to continue their journey promptly.


So this is the substance of the communications that we have had with the Iranians so far today. And it's a situation that we're going to continue to watch closely.

TAPPER: Josh, I know there's only so much you can say about this developing story. But did the Iranians accuse the American sailors of being in their waters? Did they give any sort of reason for taking 10 American sailors into captivity?

EARNEST: Well, Jake, the circumstances -- we're still learning more about the precise circumstances of this particular incident, so I don't want to say anything based on the first unconfirmed information that we have at this point. The thing I can tell you is that we are watching this closely, and we

have received assurances from the Iranians that our sailors are safe and that they will be allowed to continue their journey promptly.

TAPPER: Cory Gardner, senator from Colorado and Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the White House needs to brief Congress before going through with the State of the Union address, that this is a very alarming situation.

Are there any plans to brief Congress, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, anyone up here?

EARNEST: Well, I'm confident that there will be officials on the president's national security team who will be in touch with members of Congress to make sure they're aware of the conversations that we have had with the Iranians.

But, certainly, everybody should be aware of the fact that we have been in touch with the Iranians and that they have assured us that our sailors are safe, and that they will be allowed to continue their journey promptly.

TAPPER: Josh, I know we booked you to talk about the State of the Union, and I will get to that, because I know that you want to talk about that, but just one more question.

What do you say to people who say, Iran fired upon, not on, didn't hit, but fired a warning shot of sorts towards an American ship in the last couple of weeks, they test-fired, I believe, a ballistic missile in the last few weeks, and yet in a few days they're scheduled to have the relief of all of those sanctions?

The basic question being, this does not seem look a country that is ready to be welcomed back into the community of nations.

EARNEST: That's right, Jake.

And, certainly, the United States has been concerned with the kind of provocative, destabilizing actions that have been a hallmark of Iranian behavior over the last several decades, in fact. And that's why -- A, that is why the United States and this president made it a priority to organize the international community to reach an agreement with Iran that will prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

This agreement is actually the best way for us to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. And based on them following through with their commitment to ship 98 percent of their uranium stockpile out of the country, which they followed through on over the holidays, Iran right now actually doesn't even have the nuclear material necessary to build one nuclear weapon.

That's -- and we did all of that without a single American shot being fired. So, that's an indication that we're making some progress in countering the threat that is posed by Iran.

TAPPER: I hear you, but they have 10 American sailors in their custody right now, Josh. I mean, I think there are probably a lot of Americans watching this thinking, why are we about to give them sanction relief? They have 10 Americans in wherever they have them, in a boat, in a cell, whatever.

EARNEST: Well, because these were sanctions that were imposed on Iran over their nuclear program. And as soon as Iran takes the steps that they have committed to take and those steps can be verified by international nuclear experts, then we will know that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon.

That said, Jake, we're going to continue to have sanctions in place against Iran because of their support for terrorism. We're going to continue to have sanctions in place against Iran because of their continued development of their ballistic missile program.

And we have been pretty clear about the fact that Iran is going to be subject to additional sanctions because of the tests that they conducted at the end of last year. So, we continue to be concerned about this situation. That precisely is why the president made preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon a top national security priority. And we're making progress in actually accomplishing that goal.

TAPPER: Josh, I know you came here to preview the president's State of the Union. We're told that it's going to be a nontraditional speech. What can viewers expect to hear tonight?

EARNEST: Well, the president surely has plenty to talk about when it comes to all that we have accomplished over the last seven years.

And he surely has got a lot that he wants to talk in terms of what we hope to get done over the remaining year that the president has in office. But what the president's hoping to do is to use this opportunity to have a conversation with the American people about the longer-term challenges that are facing the country, but also the longer-term opportunities that are available, if we actually make the right choices at this point in time.

The president's going to talk first and foremost about the economy. We have seen our economy change dramatically over the last couple of decades because of technology. In some ways, that technology has allowed our economy to expand prosperity in ways that were previously unimaginable.

But what's also true is we're seeing that technology is having an impact of eliminating jobs not just on a factory floor, but in a variety of sectors. And so what kind of policies can we put in place as a federal government to actually support our work force, as economy goes through these changes, but also ensures that our work force is positioned to benefit from those changes that we know are taking place and are only going to accelerate?


TAPPER: All right, Josh Earnest, thank you so much. Appreciate it, sir. EARNEST: No problem.

TAPPER: When we come back, more on our breaking news, U.S. officials saying 10 American sailors are being held by Iran.

We will be back right after this quick break.



TAPPER: Welcome back to the lead.

We are following this breaking news off the coast of Iran, Iranians holding 10 American sailors in custody. The White House just told us, moments ago, that they have received assurances from Iran that these sailors are safe and being treated with courtesies afforded them, that should be afforded them.

CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto continues to work his sources.

Jim, you have some new details on who precisely may be behind this?


Iran's state Fars News Agency is reporting that the U.S. sailors were picked up by boats from Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. This is very much tied to the hard-line camp in Iran, which has, in effect, its own military, including its own navy really in the Persian Gulf, which has contested U.S. ships before, U.S. aircraft carrier a couple of weeks ago.

To be clear, that is a hard line camp that is opposed to detente in effect with the U.S. and certainly opposed to the nuclear deal, which is meant to be implemented in the next several days.

So, you see there, hear a reflection of the divisions in that country. Remembering this nuclear deal in effect is the president's nuclear deal, it not the hard-liners nuclear deal. So the timing of this, days before the implementation is telling.

But I will add, as you mentioned, Jake, that we are hearing from the White House that the U.S. has received assurances that those sailors are safe and they will be released soon, which would mean that Iran, if it comes to be, wants to end this quickly as well.

We'll have to see that when it happens, Jake. We are following it very closely.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Obviously, we are praying for those ten sailors. Thank you so much, Jim Sciutto.

We are continuing to follow the breaking news about these ten American sailors being held by Iran, all of this hours away from the president's final state of the union address. What impact could this news have on his speech this evening? That story, next.



TAPPER: We are back with breaking news. Ten U.S. Navy sailors held by Iran. The White House says they have received assurances that these service members are safe and being treated with courtesy.

The news coming at an unfortunate time for President Obama just hours away from his state of the union address where he wants to project optimism.

Let's talk about this all. Joining me, CNN senior political analyst, David Gergen, a former adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. Also with me CNN political commentator, David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Obama.

Your first reaction to this news? I mean, this is obviously most unfortunate for the ten sailors and their families, but this is a horrible time for a president who wants to be conveying assurances and optimism to an anxious public?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, my first reaction was probably the same as David's, which is this is a presidency, at any given moment events can hijack your plans. I'm sure what's going on at the White House right now is a discussion where do you think this will be at 9:00 tonight and if it's still ongoing, how do we deal with it in the speech?

SCIUTTO: What would you advise President Obama, where you in there and the facts remain what we know them to be right now that we keep getting assurances that they will be released, but they are still in Iranian custody?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: They have two alternatives. You can go A or B at the last second. If they come out before the speech, he's -- that's something to crow about. At a time when people are really questioning whether this Iran agreement is working the way it was supposed to.

We were supposed to see a friendlier Iran, a more constructive Iran coming out of the agreement that's what we were led to believe. If these sailors are held through the speech, it's tough for the president. If they were released before, he can say, I told you, we are in a better place with them.

TAPPER: What if they're not, David, what does the president do? What if they're still in Iranian custody?

AXELROD: Well, first of all, I think one of the difficulties with the Iran agreement is it has always been focused on the issue of their nuclear capacity. The fact is, they've shipped their enriched uranium out of Iran that is what the deal called for.

One sense you can say, given these hostilities thank God that they have shipped it out. But I think you have to address the fact that's what the agreement was about.

We have a lot of work to do. You need to say something about we're going to defend our people from them and all hostile forces.

TAPPER: This in a way symbolizes the very problem that President Obama faces this evening. He said he is more optimistic and more confident about the direction of the nation than the public is.

GERGEN: That's exactly right. It's very hard to move the needle in the speech. President Obama has not had much success. I'm really surprised to see the headline in "The Huffington Post," how President Obama came to hate the state of the union address. I was like, what?

AXELROD: He hasn't expressed that to me. Look it's an opportunity and I think he'll take advantage of the opportunity. There's a limit to what you can do, particularly in a political season and giving the intractable nature of the politics right now.

But it is a chance to recount where we were, where we are, and where he thinks the country will go, and I think he's going to take full advantage of that.

GERGEN: Yes, but in terms of getting a balance, the last president got a bounce on the state of the union was Bill Clinton. He knew how to pump these things. In 1998, he got a ten-point bounce. Nobody has been able to equal that since Carter.

TAPPER: What did he do?

GERGEN: He got a budget agreement, you know, he got a balanced budget.

AXELROD: The country was in a different place.

GERGEN: He came in at 64 percent approval, just 20 points ahead.

TAPPER: David, the president talks about how there have been 68 straight months of job growth, how things are getting better, how the world is safer though it doesn't feel like it necessarily, murder is down, crime is down, et cetera. That's not what the public feels. The public is anxious and worried.

AXELROD: I don't that his mission in the speech should be to make the case for what has been as much as to make the case where he thinks the country should go, he should talk about the future.

I think there will be some of that element of talking about where we were and where we are. I think a lot of it will be focused where he thinks we ought to go. He wants to frame the discussion not just for this election year but beyond.

TAPPER: And, David, let me go back to where we started this conversation. If the news is bad, if the ten American sailors are in Iranian captivity at 9:00 Eastern this evening, does President Obama mention that in his speech? GERGEN: Absolutely. He has to mention it whatever way it goes. This is important. Everybody's watching. It's just not any country that sees ten guys, it's Iran. Iran is central to America's perception of their security and anxiety in the world.

If not enough we have terrorists but we don't know whether to trust Iran. Iran, this rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, could -- it could lead to conflict there.

This is a sensitive part of the world. I think the toughest part of the president's speech is foreign policy. I think tonight he's got to hit it harder.

[16:55:10]TAPPER: All right, David Gergen, David Axelrod, thanks to both of you for joining us. Much more on this breaking news that ten American sailors held by Iran. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Live on Capitol Hill, the startling breaking news, breaking just in the last hour, U.S. officials acknowledge ten American sailors are now being held by Iran.

Sources say it is unclear if the two vessels carrying the American soldiers breached Iranian waters or not. All of this could throw President Obama's speech writing team into a precarious state of limbo.

The state of the union is just a few hours away. What does the president say about this? National security likely to be a central theme of the president's address. This urgent development could change what the president says tonight.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you --