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THE SITUATION ROOM

Iran Reaches Out; Budget Battle; Interview With Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy

Aired September 24, 2013 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, U.N. intrigue. Why Iran's new president didn't meet with President Obama after all? We're told it's complicated.

Plus the president's diplomatic moves in public and behind the scenes. Did he make the most of his big day at the United Nations? Or was an opportunity missed?

And after a dangerous end to the Kenyan mall siege, we're learning about the tricks used by terrorists to recruit new members right here in the United States.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the United Nations. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But we begin with the breaking new this is hour, Iran's president telling the United Nations just a few minutes ago he's ready to engage immediately in time-bound talks on his country's nuclear program. Hassan Rouhani reached out to the United States in his U.N. speech, just as President Obama had reached out to him only hours earlier. But after all the talk that the two leaders might in fact shake hands or meet a little bit, it didn't happen.

Here's our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a toast to diplomacy at the United Nations, as President Obama staked much of his second term on new initiatives to stop Iran from building a nuclear arsenal and to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

Standing before the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Obama tried to ease tensions between the U.S. and Iran, taking note of the moderate tone struck by Hassan Rouhani in recent weeks.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. We are not seeking regime change and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.

ACOSTA: But there were still words of caution, as the president tapped Secretary of State John Kerry as his point man to make sure the Iranians are serious. OBAMA: But to succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.

ACOSTA: Covering a broad range of subjects, President Obama defended his threat of force against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons, and he challenged the U.N. to pass a strong resolution that forces Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to surrender his poison gas stockpiles.

OBAMA: If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.

ACOSTA: There was even a poke at Mr. Obama's unlikely partner in disarming Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently criticized U.S. notions of American exceptionalism.

OBAMA: Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional.

ACOSTA: But all day long, the world waited to see whether Presidents Obama and Rouhani would be face-to-face. In the end, White House officials said such an encounter was too complicated for the Iranians. For his part, President Rouhani appeared open to the possibilities.

HASSAN ROUHANI, IRANIAN PRESIDENT-ELECT (through translator): Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region, in fact, in ideals as well as in actual practice.

ACOSTA (on camera): Despite the diplomatic strides made in New York, President Obama has arguably more pressing matters awaiting him in Washington, where a potential government shut down is just days away. It's now Secretary of State John Kerry's task to keep tabs on Iran's nuclear program. Kerry's next meeting with the Iranians, the highest level of its kind since 2007, is set for Thursday -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

We're going to have much from what's happening here at the United Nations, but I quickly want to go to Capitol Hill, where Republican Senator Ted Cruz is vowing to blast Obamacare on the Senate floor until he can no longer stand. The speech though won't delay the vote on the House Republican bill funding the government and defunding the Affordable Care Act.

CNN's chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is watching what's going on.

Explain to our viewers what we're seeing. There's Ted Cruz on the Senate floor, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He's been on the Senate floor for almost three-and-a-half-hours now. And it really is kind of ironic that he is down there making the case, he says, for so many conservatives especially out in America who simply think Obamacare would be a debacle.

At the same time, you have the president and former President Clinton trying to explain it in a way that people understand and appreciate that this is actually the right way to go for Americans. But back to the Senate floor, what is going on here is Ted Cruz defying his party leadership and many in his own party rank and file who think this is frankly a fool's errand, that what he's doing is not going to pass and is very hard to explain procedurally.

He's been speaking for about three-and-a-half-hours to a largely empty chamber. He's gotten some help from other Republicans who may have the same kind of ambitions, presidential ambitions, that he does. Rand Paul was there. I was told Marco Rubio is going to head there soon. He said he is going to be speaking all night.

But the thing to keep in mind is that this is effectively a very long speech to get attention. It's not going to change anything with regard to the timing of these votes or frankly the outcomes of the votes that will be tomorrow.

BLITZER: We will see what happens on the Senate floor. Lots at stake right now, the deadline approaching to fund the federal government. Dana, thanks very much.

Let's get back to the latest developments, the breaking news here at the United Nations.

Jim Sciutto is our chief national security correspondent.

That speech we just heard from the Iranian president was indicative of a new charm offensive. But as you heard Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, say he doesn't believe it.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question.

I think we had a very general message of outreach from the Iranian president, nothing specific, for instance, no specific proposals about Iran's nuclear program, which is of course something the U.S. wants to hear, but this is all about sending perhaps more subtle messages. And it struck me the phrasing that he used about the need for mutual respect and mutual interest in terms of the basis of the U.S./Iranian relationship.

He used those words just a couple hours after President Obama used the exact same words as his proposal for the way forward. Let's listen to how President Rouhani put it.

BLITZER: We obviously have the wrong sound bite there. It's hard to understand when you're listening to both Farsi and English. But give us the gist.

SCIUTTO: Well, in the simplest terms, they both used the exact phrase mutual understanding and mutual respect.

This has tremendous meaning in Iran, because the feeling there among many Iranians, hard-liners and reformists, is that American policy has not shown respect to the Iranian side, that we have tried to pressure them, use a carrot and stick, treated them as a second class nation in effect.

So President Obama earlier in the day offering the olive branch, saying this is the way forward. President Rouhani just a couple of hours later using the exact same terminology. And that shows where there is possibly some common ground.

BLITZER: What was accomplished by the president here at the United Nations? What wasn't accomplished?

SCIUTTO: Well, one thing, he didn't get his meeting. The White House clearly reached out, made this opening to say we would be willing to meet with the Iranian president, which is difficult thing to do in public, and it's difficult to do diplomacy in public because you're laying yourself out there.

And in effect, he took a risk. He did not get that meeting. But when we think -- and we said this, this morning when we were speaking earlier as well. Where we stood two weeks ago in terms of the Iranian-U.S. relationship, where we are today, dramatically different. You have the president sending his secretary of state with the instruction to pursue a nuclear deal with the Iranians. This is a step forward. Now we have to see if there is the ability to solve those real disagreements on how to move forward.

BLITZER: We will see what happens Thursday here at United Nations when John Kerry, the secretary of state, meets with the Iranian foreign minister.

SCIUTTO: And on Friday the IAEA, another crucial meeting.

BLITZER: Big meetings. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Up next, the final moments of that deadly mall attack in Kenya and the possible link to Minnesota. We're uncovering the lies told to recruit would-be terrorists on U.S. soil.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The president of Kenya says the terrorists who attacked an upscale mall have ashamed and defeated after a deadly four-day siege.

Gunfire rang out today during a final police sweep of the building. Three floors of the mall collapsed during the operation, trapping bodies inside. Authorities say at least 61 civilians, five terrorists and six security officers are dead. Dozens more are injured or unaccounted for. And 11 suspects are in custody.

Experts are trying to confirm the attackers' identities and whether any Americans were involved, as the terror group Al-Shabab has claimed.

Our Brian Todd is looking into Al-Shabab's recruiting efforts right here in the United States. He's joining us now from Minneapolis with more. What are you finding out, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, many Somali families risked everything to get here. We have been looking into why some young Somali men would want to go back to so much violence and chaos. We found that for many the opportunities here weren't what they anticipated.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Their families scrambled out of war-ravaged Somalia, made their way to the friendly streets, good schools and social services of Minneapolis. Why would dozens of young Somali men have left it all, returned to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabab, one of al Qaeda's many vicious affiliates?

ABDIRIZAK BIHI, SOMALI COMMUNITY LEADER: He lives in poverty. He lives in a single-home household. He doesn't get out. He steps out and tries to do something and he ends up in the back seat of the squad car. His mother doesn't want to hear that.

TODD: A growing gang problem, high unemployment among Somalis in Minneapolis have taken many opportunities away, according to local leaders.

Bob Fletcher, a former sheriff here, says there's also an identity issue.

BOB FLETCHER, FORMER SHERIFF: Most of these kids are torn between two cultures. They're Americans, but they're not necessarily -- they don't feel totally accepted as Americans. They know they have a Somali history. Many do not have a father.

TODD: Enter the Al-Shabab recruiter. Some of them get to these young men over the Internet. This video features an Al-Shabab militant from Minneapolis who's since been killed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here. This is a real Disneyland.

TODD: When the recruiters actually arrive here, they have an impact.

BIHI: They tell them that they will go back to their own country that they have never seen, they dream about. They say it's a country where everybody is just like you. You can marry whoever you want to. Nobody will be screaming against you. You can find a better job. You can run an organization. You can be a leader. They make them leaders before they leave here. They give them titles.

TODD (on camera): And then once they get there, what happens to them?

BIHI: Wow. That is a nightmare for them.

TODD (voice-over): But the former sheriff says the tide turned in 2009. A suspected Al-Shabab suicide bomber struck at a graduation ceremony in Somalia, killing nearly two dozen innocents, an event many in Minneapolis recoiled from.

FLETCHER: Al-Shabab's appeal is really waning. What are you going back to at this point? You're going back to a life of almost certain death.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: More and more Somalis in this town are aware of that. And, as a result, Fletcher says there have been only five confirmed cases since 2009 of young Somali men actually going back to their homeland, back to that violence, and no cases he says since July of last year -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, I know you and your team experienced some hostility, some frustration amongst some of the young Somalis who are there as a result of your coverage. Tell us what happened.

TODD: Yesterday, we were at the Somali community center not far from here. Correspondent Martin Savidge, myself and our teams were kind of wrapping up our day, and a group of them just became very agitated.

In their minds, they thought we were kind of portraying this place as a real pipeline to terrorism, when it really has been just a few people. There are a hundred thousand Somalis in Minneapolis, in the Minnesota general area here. And only about 20 to maybe 30 have been recruited to go back. And there are thousands of young people who have not done the .

And they were frustrated by that. They got very agitated. They started yelling at us. We ended up having a dialogue, trying to talk them down for more than an hour and eventually we did. We got kind of our message across, and they got theirs across. But there is a real sense of frustration here, Wolf, among the young people about how they're being portrayed.

BLITZER: I can only imagine, Brian. Thanks very much, Brian Todd, in Minneapolis for us.

Coming up, the turmoil in Egypt. Sharp words from President Obama today for the interim leaders who ousted the former President Mohammed Morsy. I will get reaction from Egypt's foreign minister. He's here with me at the U.N.

And we will also tell you what Michelle Obama, the first lady, has been up to during her husband's busy day in New York City.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In his speech here at the United Nations today, President Obama also addressed Egypt's political turmoil. He had some sharp words for the country's interim leaders, though he says the U.S. isn't choosing sides between them and supporters of the ousted President Mohammed Morsy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: The interim government that replaced him responded to the desires of millions of Egyptians who believed the revolution had taken a wrong turn, but it too has made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy -- through an emergency law, and restrictions on the press, civil society, and opposition parties.

We have not proceeded with the delivery of certain military systems, and our support will depend upon Egypt's progress in pursuing a democratic path.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's get some reaction to the president now from the Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, who is here, who will be himself addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday.

You heard those pretty stinging words from the president of the United States. What did you think?

NABIL FAHMY, EGYPTIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: I think you need to listen to the whole speech.

He made the point that Egypt is going through a transition, that he wanted to work constructively with the interim government, and that he wanted to help the Egyptian people achieve their aspirations for democracy.

He did make references to three specific issues, emergency law, the press, and the media. But these are issues, frankly, which are a function of the security concerns that we're facing now. And I think they're a little bit taken out of context.

We are building a new society, a democratic society. And these issues will not be part of the future.

BLITZER: Is the Muslim Brotherhood now banned in Egypt?

FAHMY: No. It's not yet banned.

What happened was a court decision in response to a claim by another political party. And the court has now decided that the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which was banned in 1954, had its finances frozen. That is the first level of the court.

The Muslim Brotherhood has appealed that, so there is still a long process in the courts to decide that. The government has not taken any steps at all as of yet. But, anyway, Egypt will be open to anybody who's peaceful. It will not be open to those who use violence.

BLITZER: So the supporters of Mohammed Morsy -- and Mohammed Morsy, I take, he is still under arrest. Is he in jail right now?

FAHMY: He is in a secure facility. He's been accused formally by the courts. And the attorney general has processed his papers to the court system. BLITZER: What is he accused of? What did he do?

FAHMY: Well, again, they're still investigating how many charges will be made against him.

But the ones that I'm aware of relate to incidents in front of the palace while he was president, instructions he gave to the security forces to deal with demonstrators. And there were other accusations regarding issues in the Sinai. But let's leave that to the courts.

BLITZER: So, when the president says, as he just said, that certain military systems that Egypt has ordered from U.S. defense contractors will not be delivered, that's a pretty significant development.

FAHMY: He didn't say they won't be delivered. He said that they will deliver them as we implement the...

BLITZER: He said, "We have not proceeded with the delivery of certain military systems."

FAHMY: He continued to see that -- he said that their support will be dependent on...

BLITZER: "And our support will depend upon Egypt's progress in pursuing a more democratic path."

FAHMY: That's our objective.

So, we have a nine-month road map to establish the tenets of a democratic system, a new constitution, a parliamentary election, provincial election. That's our objective. Whether there was an aid package or not, that was our commitment. So I'm not worried, frankly, about that, because we intend to do that.

BLITZER: So the billion and a half, whatever the U.S. aid package that goes to Egypt every year, is that still going to Egypt right now?

FAHMY: It still -- my understanding is, it's still allocated to Egypt.

The payment of those funds to purchase certain equipment, that's a decision taken by the U.S. government in consultation with their Egyptian counterpart. But, again, we're talking about, since we're in September now, the new budget for next year.

BLITZER: I guess the argument, the concern that so many Obama administration officials have and others have as well, Morsy, whether you liked him or not, he was democratically elected.

FAHMY: So was Hitler.

BLITZER: So you're comparing Morsy to Hitler?

FAHMY: No, I'm not. But what I'm saying is that it's not about how you are elected. It's what you do after you're elected. President Obama himself said that Morsy did not govern inclusively. That's the essence of democracy. Do you accept others or not?

BLITZER: So because then the military steps in and they remove Morsy, and that, to a lot of Americans, looks like a military coup.

FAHMY: The military stepped in, in 2011 in response to the people.

President Mubarak resigned in light of that. And they continued to govern for a year-and-a-half and you did not consider it to be a coup. When they stepped in, in 2013, they governed for less than three days and handed it over to a civilian government. That's the essence of, did they seize power and govern? They did not. They responded to the street to prevent chaos, and then they handed it over to civilian government.

BLITZER: While you're here in the United States, will you be meeting with U.S. officials, the secretary of state, John Kerry?

FAHMY: I already did my first day of arrival.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: How did that meeting go?

FAHMY: It was in the spirit of the relationship. It's a constructive, straightforward, frank relationship.

We discussed things where we agree upon and things which we disagree upon and explained to each other the different context. We discussed everything from Egypt to Syria to the peace process in the Middle East. And we will continue to do that.

BLITZER: How would you describe, in a word, the U.S./Egyptian relationship right now?

FAHMY: I think it's as engaged as ever. It's of course dealing with a lot of sensitive issues, particularly the domestic situation in Egypt and the Syrian file.

BLITZER: Nabil Fahmy, the foreign minister of Egypt, thanks very much for joining us.

FAHMY: Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Good luck with your speech on Saturday here at the United Nations General assembly.

FAHMY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Take a look at this.

We're showing you some live pictures now from the U.S. Capitol, the Senate floor in particular. That's Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida. He's joining others led by Ted Cruz in opposing Obamacare. They're suggesting they're going to be speaking until -- at least Ted Cruz has said, he's going to be speaking until he can no longer stand. It's been several hours now that he and Rubio, maybe Senator Rand Paul will come as well, Mike Lee of Utah, they are railing against Obamacare, but all of their railing will be for naught as far as defunding Obamacare in the Senate. They will fund Obamacare. They will continue to send legislation to the House of Representatives funding the government, also funding Obamacare.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the United Nations.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.