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The Saudi Steps Up Coordination Efforts In Wake Of Growing Iranian Influence; New ISIS Video Depicts Killing Of Homosexuals; One Square Meter; Muscat, Oman

Aired March 5, 2015 - 11:00   ET


BECKY ANDERSON, HOST: Bullets ring out on Iraq's front line as an unusual mix of forces continues to press ISIS. I'm going to get you a live

update from our correspondent who is with a militia group as we speak.

And we'll also look at another battle raging in the Middle East. It's one fought with alliances, not artillery, and pits two powerhouses against

each other. We're live in Tehran with more.

ANNOUNCER: Live from CNN Abu Dhabi, this is Connect the World with Becky Anderson.

ANDERSON: Well, all this week one country has been central to many of the stories that we've been telling here on Connect the World. Depending

on who you speak to, Iran could help turn the tide against ISIS, or be the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East.

The Iranian military advisers are helping to tackle ISIS on the ground as Iran's Sunni rivals to the west debate their own response to the

militant threat.

Tehran's old enemy Washington has welcomed its intervention at a time when the two continue to grapple over a deal on Iran's nuclear


And in a speech to the U.S. Congress, the Israeli prime minister alluded to a fact not lost on his Arab neighbors.

Iran's influence is spreading, not just in Iraq, but in Syria, in Lebanon and mostly -- and most recently in Yemen.

So, on the one side, the U.S. has its traditional allies in Israel and the Arab world, on the other it has a nation with whom it suspended

diplomatic ties 35 years ago.

Well, Washington maintains it isn't coordinating directly with Tehran on action against ISIS. Fred Pleitgen explores what is a complex



FRED PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's still the main symbol of anti-Americanism in Tehran: the former U.S. embassy compound with

the many wall paintings portraying America as an enemy of Iran.

To the authorities here, the U.S. remains the great Satan. But there's also many Iranians who want better relations with America,

especially for this country's economic development.

Iran was an ally of the U.S. when the Shah was in power. But many Iranians felt oppressed by his regime.

Everything changed with the Islamic revolution in 1979 that brought the clergy under Ayatollah Khomenei into power. Students supporting the

revolution raided the U.S. embassy and held Americans as hostages for more than a year.

Eight U.S. service members were killed in a botched rescue attempt.

Today, the propaganda remains, but many say they have favorable views of the American people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's better for Iran to have a nice relationship to other countries, especially America. Only as a country, not as a power

of the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Out of the average I think it's good, I think. The life of the people. Freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We will be good friends if we can know each other.

PLEITGEN: But divisions are still large. A majority of Iranians believe their country has the right to develop a civilian nuclear program,

while the U.S. fears Iran wants an atomic weapon.

Sadagh Samii owns a publishing company. He says a nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions are key to getting U.S.-Iranian relations back on


SADAGH SAMII, PUBLISHER: Somehow it has to stop. We all hope that, you know, because of our financial situation, financial positions,

everything it we come to a certain agreement would be far better than a dead end situation.

PLEITGEN: Closer political ties between the U.S. and Iran appear to be a long way off, but many here believe a nuclear deal might be a first

step to reviving a relationship that has been toxic for more than three decades.


ANDERSON: Well, Fred's been in Tehran over the past few days.

It's a city where anti-American protests are not uncommon. And this week the Israeli prime minister has been singled out for ridicule, perhaps

unsurprisingly, for his speech to the U.S. Congress.

So we have a situation in which Barack Obama has a rift with Mr. Netanyahu. John Kerry still trying to thresh out a nuclear deal with the

Iranian foreign minister. And Washington and Tehran have a common enemy in ISIS.

Interesting times, Fred. The big question is just how significant a threat do Iranians think ISIS is? And what's the real extent of Tehran's

involvement in the fight against them?

PLEITGEN: Well, they certainly see ISIS as a very real threat to them, especially of course to the many Shiite shrines that there are in

Iraq. When you talk to many Iranians, they say one of the main reasons that they believe that their country should be involved in the fight that's

going on against ISIS in Iraq is because of these very important Shiite holy shrines.

The Iranians for their part for a very long time have been saying that they see the international coalition, they see the airstrikes that are

going on, but they very firmly believe that they are the ones who are doing the heavy lifting in Iraq. Of course, you have the revolutionary guard

core that is there that has generals. They're on the ground. The Iranians say they have advisers on the ground as well. They say to the forces that

they've trained, the forces that they are guiding, are the ones that are making a difference in the fight against ISIS.

And our own chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, of course, was able to speak to the Iranian foreign minister about all of

this. Let's listen in to what he had to say.


JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: We've been assisting the Iraqi people. Everybody knows that without our assistance, things would have been

different in Iraq. We are in Iraq in terms of advisers and other support. But without military personnel on the ground, fighting forces on the ground

as you say, boots on the ground, in order to help this very serious global fight against these extremists and terrorist groups. We hope that this

could unite all Iraqis.


PLEITGEN: So, the Iranians, many that we speak to here, Becky, are very critical of what the U.S. is doing in Iraq right now. They believe

that the airstrikes that are being carried out by the international coalition are really not making very much of a difference on the ground. A

lot of them say they would wish for more cooperation between the Iranians and the U.S.

However, it appears as though on a political level that's something that simply isn't in the cards from the American side, but from the Iranian

side, quite frankly, as well. We know that the supreme leader of this country has rejected American ideas of possibly trying to unite and getting

involved on some sort of operational level. That simply isn't going on at this point -- Becky.

ANDERSON: Fred Pleitgen is in Tehran for you this evening. Fred, thank you.

Iran, then, propping up the Iraqi campaign against ISIS. And right now the biggest ground offensive of that campaign is building up steam.

The Iraqi military, Shia militia and Sunni tribal fighters currently encircling the city of Tikrit with a view to launching a fullscale

offensive, we are told, in the days ahead that will wash out the militants who have taken control, they hope at least. But the White House is warning

that the mission must not give rise to sectarian tensions in what has long been a volatile region.

Well, CNN's Ben Wedeman is traveling with the powerful Hashad Shabi Shiite Militia (ph) who have been showing him areas that they've already

helped to clear of ISIS. He joins me now on the phone from there.

What's the story on the ground, Ben?

All right, it sounds as if we've got a pretty bad line with Ben, perhaps unsurprisingly.

Let's see if we can get back to Ben and move on just for the time being. See if we can get this story of exactly what's going on on the

ground shortly.

But as the U.S. makes positive noises about Iran's role in the fight against ISIS, it knows the importance of keeping its allies in the loop.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry finding himself engaged, of course, in a diplomatic dance traveling directly from talks with the Iranian foreign

minister in Switzerland to the center of the Sunni world in Saudi Arabia.

Newly crowned King Salman met this week with other leaders from majority Sunni nations. On the face of it, uniting against ISIS, but

undoubtedly keeping one eye on the growing influence of Tehran.

It really has been a fascinating week. The leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and now John Kerry of the U.S. in the past couple of weeks.

Riyadh's revolving doors of diplomacy of late seen by many as an effort by the new Saudi king to build a regional security doctrine that's

supported by a multination military force to challenge well two threats: ISIS and the perceived expansionist role of regional foe Iran.

Let's discuss this. Joining me from London is my colleague CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson.

John Kerry's visit, Nic, coming as it does off the back of his trip to Switzerland clearly an opportunity for the U.S. secretary of state to

explain why any rapprochement with Tehran makes sense.

How is that going to go down in Riyadh?


I mean, look, the way that the Saudis are going to look at it and their Gulf partners and you know you've talked about the leaders of both --

of Egypt and Turkey as well, perhaps to a lesser degree. But the Saudis most sensitively -- I mean, the Saudis are going to look to the east of

their own country where they blame what they see as a sort of an unsettled and uneasy Shia population being stoked by Iran. They'll look at Bahrain

on their periphery, the sort of Shia resentment there. They see that as being stoked by Iran. Look north to Syria where they see, you know, their

enemy Bashar al-Assad. They want him gone from power. And they see as being kept in there partly by Iranian help.

They see what's happening in Tikrit and Iraq as Iranian hegemony, an extension of Shia influence into Iraq, perhaps to a degree. You know, they

recognize they're not -- that's going to be the way it's going to be.

But Tikrit, this is the home of Saddam Hussein. It's, if you will, the heart of, you know, the Sunni world for them.

And then they'll look at Yemen on their south border where the capital has fallen to Houthi rebels who, again, the Saudis and a lot in the Gulf

see as being sponsored and pushed by the Iranians.

So, it's a tough sell.

ANDERSON: Within the last few hours, Nic, the Saudi foreign minister has highlighted precisely what we're discussing here, that fight against

radical Islam and more specifically ISIS is nuanced. And he said Tikrit is a prime example of what worries Saudi Arabia, that it's less about ISIS

taking over the city than it is about taking over Iraq.

To add, John Kerry said earlier, we will not take our eye off Iran's destabilizing action in the region.

What does Riyadh see as a consequence of Tehran's increasing influence in Iraq do you think?

ROBERTSON: I think they see a consequence of Iran's sort of growing regional influence, if you will, as the reason why they decided over the

past year or so to spend 160 billion dollars on their defense industry, building up their defense forces, putting more money in, buying more

weapons to make them, to make the Gulf states more secure where I think we've seen them with the Gulf states, if you will, to try to pursue perhaps

slightly different agenda on, you know, which bit of the rebel forces that they're going to back in Syria, for example.

We're going to see them coming together and coalescing around a sort of more agreed goals and ways forward. And there's the Saudis who want to

be at the leadership of that, Becky.

ANDERSON: Yeah, and they have. And many experts pointing out been a vacuum at the top of the Sunni world for a very long time. It looks like

this new emerging leadership is looking to fill that.

There are certainly periods when we witnessed a willingness by Iran to engage with Riyadh. We've seen that over the past year or so at times.

Given the strategic rivalry between the two perhaps best described as the Middle East's great game, what happens next?

ROBERTSON: You know, I think that we see a more unified Sunni position. I think that we'll see a growing challenge coming from the south

of Yemen. We'll see that position, that more unified Gulf Sunni position coalesce around the President Hadi in the south of Yemen.

There will be an expansion and a battle with the Houthis in the north to retake Aden. I think you're going to -- you're going to see a confused

picture still in part in Syria and Iraq, but I think you're going to want the Saudis are going to want to see that whatever happens in Iraq with the

Iranian influence, that the Iranians don't end up somehow, or a Shia dominated government, doesn't end up sort of getting control over what they

see as Sunni areas.

That's going to be where the balance is going to be looked for, how much power is the government in Baghdad going to give to those Sunni

tribesman, the few that it's brought on, the fight ISIS right now? How is it going to bring them into the fold.

If it does it, you know, positively and openly and this is all wonderful, and no one is kind of expecting it to be that easy by any

stretch of the imagination, I think the Saudis will sit a bit easier and not restful of course.

But I think that's one place they're going to look at it. But Syria is going on. They've got a vested interest in getting rid of Bashar al-

Assad there. They'd have Lebanon in their pocket without a strong Hezbollah. There's so much at play, Becky.

ANDERSON: All right. Nic Robertson in the house for you this evening. Some great analysis.

Let's get back to the ground. Ben Wedeman, I promised you, is traveling with the powerful Hashid Shabi Shiite Militia (ph). And we were

suggesting that he's been showing -- he's been shown which areas they have already helped to clear of ISIS. I think we've got him back on the phone.

Ben, can you hear me?


Yes, what we did see...

ANDERSON: Yeah, what have you seen and heard?

WEDEMAN: To the east of -- go on.

ANDERSON: Yeah, sorry, Ben, continue.

WEDEMAN: Yes, I can hear you, Becky. Just to pick up where I left off.

We were in an area to the east of Tikrit where we saw sort of a vast open expanse of territory where according to the Iraqi federal police and

also commanders from the popular mobilization unit that's been known as (inaudible) in Arabic, the military organization composed of volunteers,

mostly Shiite.

They say they've liberated, in their words, around 200 square kilometers to the east of Tikrit.

We were able to get quite close to Tikrit, just about three kilometers away from the center of the city where there is the last Iraqi installation

before the city begins. And I spoke to some of the officers there who told me that they had noticed that the ISIS forces are beginning to pull out of

the city.

They said they heard over the radio instructions to their fighters to shave their beards, cut their hair, put on civilian clothing and try to

leave the city with -- mingled in among civilians.

Now that was referring to the Iraqi members of ISIS who of course can mix in easily with the civilian population, much of which it appears has

already left the city and adjacent areas.

However, they said, that these foreign fighters with ISIS, who cannot mix in so easily, they believe are staying behind.

Now they said that, yes, as we've heard before they have profound problems with IEDs that have been left behind by ISIS on the road, by the

road, on bridges, behind houses, in cars, and that seems to be their real problem.

Plus, ISIS has stationed snipers in areas to make it difficult for the army and disassociated militias to move forward.

But certainly while we were at this forward base just to the south of Mosul, what we mostly saw was outgoing fire from the Iraqi forces, nothing

I could tell coming from the opposite direction, Becky.

ANDERSON: Ben Wedeman with a clear sense for you of what is going on in the ground in that part of Iraq.

Ben, thank you.

All this week, we have been teasing out the stories behind what are the shifting alliances and rivalries in the Middle East. Later this hour,

we're going to have an in depth look at the extent of Iran's help in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. We'll hear from Iran's foreign minister on

that theme again, part of our interview coming up.

And I'll be asking a leading voice on Iran and ISIS, how Tehran's strategy has changed. That is in about 15 minutes time.

We're going to be right back, taking a short break.


ANDERSON: Well, this week once again ISIS images meant to shock and terrorize has been distributed. And we are including them in the report

that I'm about to show you from Arwa Damon, because we think that it is important for you to know about how ISIS carries out its perverted justice

against gays in Syria and in Iraq.

The names of the men we have spoken to have been changed, their identities concealed.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: These still, dated March 2015, purport to show a man being thrown from a building. According to the

last caption, he was also then stoned to death, his alleged crime being gay.

These images were posted by ISIS in a stronghold of Raqqa.

This series, as well, from January show an older man seated in a chair and then tumbling to the ground.

Also in January, these from ISIS in Mosul: two men murdered in the same manner.

In all the photographs, dozens of people are seen watching the killings, seemingly unfazed. Nor, a gay Syrian man says, that makes the

atrocious act even more nauseating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think and their facial expressions are really scary, because they are not even scared of what's going on. They may be a

little bit excited or maybe happy to go -- to get rid of homosexuals in the city.

DAMON: Syria was never a nation that accepted its lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community. The country's laws criminalize homosexual

acts, punishable by up to three years in prison. Since the revolution turned war, life for Syria's LGBT community has become even more dire.

It was not ISIS that forced Nor (ph) to leave Syria. Well before ISIS emerged in a significant force. In 2012, Nor (ph) saw this video. This is

the only frame that is not too gruesome to show. The video depicts two men being beheaded. They're accused of being spies, but then towards the end

of the clip a voice references a verse from the Koran. And Nor (ph) says when he heard that, it became one of the main reasons why he decided to


According to the posting, the video was filmed in Idlib, Nor's (ph) home province.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a very specific verse which says, like, only this sin of homosexuality would shake the throne of god. So whenever

we hear this in video or on audio, we know exactly that this meant for gay people.

It was the moment of clarity, the moment of understanding that this place is not safe anymore.

DAMON: Sami (ph) and his partner consider themselves already married. They fled after Sami's (ph) family found out they were together, and a car

tried to run them over.

Two hours later, Sami's (ph) phone rang.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was a man that was -- first he is saying this time you could have make it and you survived. But the next time you

will not.

DAMON: In Istanbul, the couple lives in shared housing with other Syrian men. When the ISIS photos emerged, one of their Syrian housemates

made a sickening comment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He made a very absurd joke about, he was so amused, and he has so much fun watching homosexuals. And he say now gay

men can fly.

DAMON: Fear of persecution continues to haunt them here.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Istanbul.


ANDERSON: Live from Abu Dhabi, it's 24 minutes past 8:00 here. Iran says its involvement in Iraq is essential, but is there more to its

influence there? That is coming up.

First, though, we'll look at what's making Oman's capital a property hotspot. That is One Square Meter up next.



JOHN DEFTERIOS, EMERGING MARKETS EDITOR: This week, One Square Meter is in picturesque Oman to see how two major hurdles, the global financial

crisis and the Arab Spring, delayed but did not derail plans to open up this property market to foreign investors.

Ten years ago what is today a mini-city on the outskirts of Muscat, was a big patch of reclaimed land. This complex, called The Wave, is

coming to life.

Residents sit in outdoor cafes. Gardeners trim hedges. And yacht owners set anchor in the marina.

A short stroll away, there's a Greg Norman designed golf course. The group's CEO says there's now enough critical mass built to see the wave


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most of the hard work has been done already. I mean, this golf course, the marina, the (inaudible) has been done already.

So now is the easy part, actually, of providing the rest of the puzzle.

DEFTERIOS: Big pieces of the puzzle include this five-star Kempinski Hotel, one of a handful planned.

This is a sizable $2.5 billion project, but it has seen only tepid demand by foreign buyers. Of the 4,000 properties planned, less than half

have been sold at just over 1,200 have actually been delivered to ownerse.

The Wave is the first luxury community to arrive on the shores of Muscat. It's built on six kilometers of coastline. It already has 3,000

residents. And to the surprise of the developers, nearly half of them are Omani.

Najida Aljumali (ph), a corporate strategist at Oman Oil Company, welcomed me into her five bedroom villa.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was people like me who have been outside and they like this kind of lifestyle, which they've seen abroad, or they've

been on holidays where they've rented villas like that. And now actually guess what, I don't have to go on holiday and rent those villas, I can come

here and have it all year around.

DEFTERIOS: A one hour drive southeast of Muscat, the feel of a distant getaway village is found here at Jebal Sifa (ph).

Owner, Laraine Patton (ph) says she and her husband fell in love with their two bedroom flat after climbing the stairs to this wraparound


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's spectacular. It sits into the landscape. It looks like an Omani village. And then you come into the marina and then

you realize it's not.

DEFTERIOS: This $1 billion project is majority owned by Arascon Development (ph) of Egypt after being slowed down by the global financial

crisis, then the Arab Spring, a boutique hotel has opened and 160 of 950 apartments have been built.

UNIDNETIFIED MALE: Of course it was a setback because the financial crisis affected everyone, but it's a well capitalized company with good

investors behind it. You survive. You learn. and you move on.

DEFTERIOS: Jebal Sifa (ph) and The Wave are two of the lucky ones. Half of Oman's 14 integrated developments proposed were halted at the

planning stages.

John Defterios, CNN, Musct.



ANDERSON: We're getting reports of a situation at LaGuardia Airport in New York. And for that let me get you across to my colleagues in the