By Jack Forrest, CNN
(CNN) — Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said the five Americans freed this week from Iranian detention were released with “purely humanitarian motives.”
“There was an opportunity for this exchange to take place. And this exchange was, as I said, prompted by purely humanitarian motives, and I do think that the accomplishment was something that led to the happiness of the families of the prisoners, as well as having been able to show the true face of our humanitarian motives and efforts,” Raisi told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in New York, in an exclusive interview set to air in full Sunday.
The five Americans – Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz and Siamak Namazi, as well as two others who have not been publicly named – had been designated as wrongfully detained by the State Department. They returned to US soil early Tuesday morning, emotionally reuniting with family members at Fort Belvoir’s Davison Army Airfield.
Their release came as part of a wider deal that includes the US unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian funds and capped a significant diplomatic breakthrough after years of complicated indirect negotiations between the two countries, who do not have formal diplomatic ties.
While the Iranian government has claimed it can use the money however it pleases, the Biden administration has repeatedly stressed that the funds are narrowly limited to non-sanctionable purchases like food and medicine, and that they will be subject to strict oversight.
Raisi told Zakaria that the “funds belong to people of Iran” and that his government “will certainly keep to the core of our belief that the objective is to spend those funds to respond to the needs of the Iranian people.”
“These were funds belonging to the Iranian nation,” he said. “Naturally, when these funds come back, they will have to be spent towards the needs that address, towards objectives that address the needs of the Iranian people. And we will certainly keep to the core of our belief that the objective is to spend those funds to respond to the needs of the Iranian people.”
President Joe Biden faced push back over the agreement, with some Republicans swift to criticize the deal, alleging the transfer of the money harmed US credibility abroad and could be an incentive for US adversaries to wrongfully detain American citizens.
Raisi, during his remarks earlier Tuesday at the UN General Assembly in New York, lashed out at American sanctions, which include those punishing Iran for the violent suppression of protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, claiming “they have not yielded the desired results.”
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CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Frederik Pleitgen, Claudia Otto, Ramin Mostaghim, Mostafa Salem and Becky Anderson contributed to this report.