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Iran Blames U.S. and Regional Allies for Ahvaz Attack; Kavanaugh Accuser Tentatively Agrees to Testify Thursday; Vatican and China Agree to Joint Approval of Bishops; U.S.-North Korea Relations; Eritrea-Ethiopia Peace Deal; Cher Covers ABBA. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired September 23, 2018 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Iran blames the U.S. and Saudi Arabia as a terror attack on a military parade leaves dozens dead.

And the woman accusing U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault says she will testify before a Senate committee.

Plus they advised her not to do it. But Cher didn't listen. The singer is putting out an album of ABBA covers.

We are live from the CNN Center. I'm Cyril Vanier. Great to have you with us.


VANIER: We begin with Saturday's deadly terror attack at an Iranian military parade. Iranian authorities are saying at least 29 people are dead and they are blaming the U.S. and its allies. The attack unfolded in the southwestern city of Ahvaz.

State media report gunmen disguised as security forces opened fire on civilians and on military personnel. The U.S. is condemning the attack but Iran says separatists backed by Washington and by Saudi Arabia are responsible for it. More now from CNN's Ben Wedeman in Beirut.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's the worst such attack in Iran in years at a military parade in the city of Ahvaz near the Iraqi border, live images on Iranian television show the parade in progress. The crackle of automatic gunfire is then heard and then soldiers and civilians scatter.

In other footage posted on social media, people are seen hugging the ground for cover, clearly not knowing from where the gunfire is coming.

The parade, like many others, commemorated the 1980 September beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. The prime suspects are separatist groups in this oil-rich province with a significant Arab minority. Iranian officials, including foreign minister Javad Zarif, have blamed outside forces.

On his Twitter account, he wrote, "Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their U.S. masters accountable for such attacks. Iran will respond," he said, "swiftly and decisively in defense of Iranian lives."

"Regional terror sponsors" is Zarif's way of referring to Saudi Arabia, which, for years, has been engaged in a regional struggle for supremacy -- I'm Ben Wedeman, CNN, reporting from Beirut.


VANIER: For more on Iran's accusations, I spoke earlier with Trita Parsi. He's an Iran expert and a professor at Georgetown University.


TRITA PARSI, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: I think we've heard on numerous previous instances in which the Iranians would try to pin the blame of something like this on the Saudis or the United States or the Israelis.

But this time around I think there are quite a lot of things happening that actually makes it much more difficult to dismiss these accusations by the Iranians that easily; for instance, John Bolton, the national security advisor, penned a memo last August in which he specifically said that the United States should be providing assistance to the Khuzestani Arabs, the group that this entity claims to represent, an entity that perpetrated this terrorist attack.

You have the Saudi crown prince saying last year that he's going to take the fight into the inside of Iran. You have the advisor to the UAE crown prince today on Twitter, saying this was not a terrorist attack, this is declared policy and that we're going to see more things of this kind, almost taking credit for the attack.

And, of course, U.S. officials in the Trump administration back a couple of months ago said to Reuters that their policy is to foment unrest in Iran.

Mindful of that picture, it is not completely inconceivable that the Iranians are going to be looking toward Saudi Arabia, UAE and potentially the United States as being behind these attacks.

VANIER: So, Trita, in the context of what you just said, CNN recently interviewed the U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. I want you to listen to what he told us.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Iran has been confronting the world as the world's largest state sponsor of terror for quite some time. They have armed militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Nakativ (ph) Hezbollah and militias in Iraq. They are arming the Houthis in Yemen, launching missiles into the Gulf States.

The United States has begun to apply economic and diplomatic pressure in Iran to prevent them from doing this. That's our mission. And it is true, Elise, we have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor.


VANIER: All right. So that's Mike Pompeo --


VANIER: -- saying the U.S. is willing to respond. And by that he means militarily against the prime actor, Iran.

How does that fit into this context?

You were referencing pretty much this atmosphere of bellicose talk.

PARSI: If it's in the sense that there has been suspicions for quite some time, including here in the United States. So the Trump administration is trying to provoke some form of a confrontation with Iran.

In the specific case that he's referring to, there's been attacks in the southern city, Iraqi city of Basra, both against the Iranian consulate as well as against the American consulate.

Without evidence, Pompeo is not only saying that Iran is behind it but also saying that the United States is going to take military action against Iran for these attacks. So we are already in a very, very explosive atmosphere, an atmosphere that the Trump administration ultimately has created, mindful of the way that they pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, that the United Nations Security Council endorsed.

And at the same time, pushing this much more harsh rhetoric and even saying that they're going to take action without presenting any evidence.

VANIER: Couldn't there also be another explanation, that one of the multiple groups that has carried out attacks on Iran in the past, is back at it?

PARSI: It certainly could be and that's why I think it's very important that the Iranians also show a tremendous amount of restraint right now. As I mentioned earlier on, there is some circumstantial evidence that makes their accusations perhaps a little more plausible but it doesn't mean that it amounts to actual evidence.

And we have seen attacks by Houthi (ph) separatists in Iran before. This is probably one of the biggest ones that they have conducted. But it's now taking place in a very different context, of course.

(END VIDEOTAPE) VANIER: That was Trita Parsi speaking to me earlier.

After days of contentious negotiations, the woman who has accused U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault has agreed to testify for now in a Senate committee hearing on Thursday.

One topic still to be negotiated is whether the hearing should be public. Research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford accuses Kavanaugh of assaulting her during a house party when they were both teenagers. Judge Kavanaugh denies this allegation. CNN's Supreme Court reporter Ariane de Vogue has the details.


ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT CORRESPONDENT: It looks like Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, will be facing senators at an historic hearing on Thursday that could very well determine the fate of Kavanaugh's nomination.

While Ford alleges that Kavanaugh assaulted her at a party some 30 years ago, he categorically denies the allegations. But there are still more details to be worked out between lawyers for Ford and the Judiciary Committee before the hearing is final. They plan to talk later on on Sunday to hammer out remaining issues.

Lawyers for Ford, for instance, believe that Republican senators should question Ford. Some in the GOP want to hire an outside counsel, maybe a woman, to do the questioning.

Also Ford thinks other witnesses should be called. For instance, they want to call Mark Judge, who Ford has said was in the room where the alleged assault happened. Judge has said he has no memory of the party.

But Senate judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley says there will be only two witnesses, Ford and Kavanaugh -- Ariane de Vogue, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: With me now, political analyst Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, and CNN legal analyst and defense attorney Mark Geragos.

Mark, is this hearing, in your understanding right now, definitely going to happen now?

MARK GERAGOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it sure looks like it. They're putting out all indications that they've reached an agreement on dates and now they're trying to fill in or backfill the blanks. So I would expect that it's going to happen and that it will happen on at least probably Wednesday for Kavanaugh, on Thursday for Dr. Ford.

VANIER: There is still considerable debate, though, over the exact circumstances of the hearing and that's what's keeping us from saying with certainty that it is going to happen.

What would be fair?

And I want to ask this question to both of you.

What would be a fair way to handle this?

Let's start first from a legal standpoint.

GERAGOS: Well, you know, we're in kind of a twilight zone. Remember, if you had people who had already staked out their position as judges, saying either that he's going to be confirmed, as I heard Mitch McConnell saying today, or Grassley saying, you know, that he's seen nothing that would basically shake his faith or, on the other side, where they're saying that there's no way, they're going to do whatever the Democrats who have said that there's no way they're going to let him proceed as a Supreme Court justice, you would disqualify the judges.

So let's put that aside, this bears little or no resemblance to a courtroom. This is more political theater --


GERAGOS: -- with the trappings of due process that literally has evaporated. Both sides have legitimate complaints.

I mean, the idea that we've lost any kind of presumption of innocence, number one, and, number two, the fact that you can't have -- you know, I agree with Cory Booker and Kamala Harris that the idea of rushing forward with this before you've done any kind of investigation or received all of the documents or been able to go through it, is equally laughable. So both sides bear the blame here --


VANIER: I guess my question is this, then, Mark.

What would it take for you at the end of next week, when both hearings have happened, we believe, what would it take for you to say, well, yes, we gave ourselves a good shot at getting the truth and understanding what actually happened?

GERAGOS: Well, I think if there was a legitimate investigation that went on, I think that would lend some or cloak this in some way, shape or form.

And if there was -- if this wasn't -- if there was some kind of an impartial or at least arguably impartial panel that was doing the questioning, I think that that would give rise to at least a semblance of due process. Right now, as I said, this is nothing more than kabuki political theater.

VANIER: OK. Well, the Republican senators were actually thinking of getting an outside counsel. To the best of our knowledge, Dr. Ford would not be amenable to that.

Larry, from a political standpoint, we also have to be mindful of the fact that we're right in the middle of a political war and that the Republicans legitimately, you know, wanted to score this major political victory which would be confirming their second Supreme Court nominee.

So what, in your mind, from a political standpoint, what would need to happen for this to be fair also to both sides politically?

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Well, first, let me reemphasize what Mark was suggesting. This is about politics. It isn't about the truth or falsity of what's going to be presented. Though it's also about public opinion.

And I can guarantee you that productivity in American offices will decline drastically on Thursday when Dr. Ford presents her testimony; if, in fact, it happens. This reminds me --


VANIER: -- by the way, we don't know if it will be public.

SABATO: We don't know if it's public. It ought to be public. It should be public. People will be very upset if it isn't.

But it reminds me so much of other big hearings that have magnified issues in American life in modern times, from Watergate to Iran-contra to Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. This is another one of those moments, when the public will judge, not the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, though they're the ones who get the first choice on whether or not Judge Kavanaugh actually goes to the Supreme Court.

VANIER: How do you see this unfolding, then?

If this is going to be decided by public perception?

SABATO: This is, as you noted, the middle of an election season, the middle of a general election. We actually only have 45 days to go until the real election. So on the minds of every senator voting, not just in the Judiciary Committee but on the floor of the Senate, will be the fact that many of their colleagues and perhaps themselves are on the ballot and many are in danger.

So this will be a shock but political considerations will come in; though, I would expect 95 percent plus of all Republicans to vote for and Democrats to vote against. This is coming down really to about five senators on both sides, who are going to determine whether Kavanaugh goes to the Supreme Court.

VANIER: All right. Mark Geragos and Larry Sabato, thank you both for joining us.


GERAGOS: Thank you.

SABATO: Thank you.

VANIER: The pope and China are taking steps to start working together.

Why do some critics say the church is betraying them?

We'll have that story ahead.

Plus, a year after threats and insults, the U.S. and North Korea are learning to be friends. We'll have a look at the changing Korean Peninsula -- coming up.





VANIER: For decades, China has chosen its own Catholic bishops without the Vatican's approval. But that is about to change.

The Vatican has just signed a landmark agreement with the Communist country that will allow the church to approve or veto candidates. The Vatican spokesman calls this a step toward bridging a gap between China and the church.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, this is not the end of a process. It's really the beginning. It's also important to remember that, while it's come to fruition under Pope Francis, Pope Benedict had a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2017. He was working for the same goal.

John Paul II had made a number of illegitimately ordained bishops. So this is really the work of 30 years and three pontificates.

The objective of the accord is not political but it's pastoral. What that means is that the faithful in China, that they have bishops who are in communion with the pope but, at the same time, recognized by the Chinese authorities.

It's an ongoing process but I think the ultimate goal is that the Catholics in China, the faithful in China, can be fully Catholic and fully Chinese.


VANIER: All this comes as Pope Francis greets cheering crowds on his tour of the Baltic states. Here's CNN's Vatican correspondent, Delia Gallagher, with that story.


DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: Pope Francis is in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, for the first day of a four-day trip to three former Soviet republics. This is a religious visit. Lithuania some 80 percent Catholic

population. Many of the young people have come out here to see their pope. But it is also a visit with political undertones because each of these three Baltic countries are celebrating 100 years of their independence from Russia.

They are now members of the European Union and of NATO. The relationship to the Vatican wants to encourage but at the same time be respectful of their sometimes contentious relationship with Russia.

At the same time as Pope Francis is visiting three former Soviet republics, the Vatican announced on Saturday an historic agreement with Communist China. The church in China has been split between an unofficial underground Catholic Church with ties to the Vatican and an official patriotic Catholic Church, which is run by the government in Beijing.

This new agreement may go some way to helping reestablish diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China. It is an agreement that is not without controversy. One of its harshest critics is a Chinese Catholic cardinal, who said it is an agreement in which the Vatican is selling out to the communist government of Beijing.

There are not a lot of details about the agreement but it has to do with the nomination of bishops, which previously both sides have not recognized each other's bishops. Now the Vatican says there will be a process for joint recognition of the bishops' nominations.

The Vatican is saying the pope hopes this will go some way to helping to heal the wounds of the past in the Chinese Catholic Church and unify Catholics in China -- Delia Gallagher, CNN, Vilnius, Lithuania.


VANIER: A totally different story of China this time. Angry officials in Beijing have summoned the U.S. ambassador to China. Foreign ministry officials are letting Terry Branstad know they object to the economic sanctions that have been imposed by the United States.

Washington took action after the Chinese military bought fighter jets and missile systems from Russia. Beijing has also postponed joint military talks.

World leaders are gearing up for a high-level debate at this year's United Nations General Assembly and the geopolitical landscape between the U.S. and the Korean Peninsula couldn't be more different. CNN's Paula Hancocks --


VANIER: -- has the view from Seoul.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There are a few key days coming up when it comes to the denuclearization of North Korea. South Korean president Moon Jae-in will be traveling to the United States to brief the U.S. president Donald Trump on his three-day summit with Kim Jong- un.

And he will effectively be putting the ball back in the U.S.' court. Now we already know that Kim Jong-un wants a second summit with the U.S. president. He sent a letter to Mr. Trump. The White House has said they are open to it.

President Moon will be reinforcing that message. He has said that Kim Jong-un told him he really wants another summit as soon as possible so that he can continue with denuclearization very quickly.

Now there are plenty of critics in the U.S., including within the Trump administration, that believe that Mr. Trump should not be rewarding the North Korean leader with a second summit when there haven't been tangible results on the steps toward denuclearization.

The other tangible result that President Moon believes he will be going to the U.S. with is that Kim Jong-un has agreed to shutdown the key missile site and he will be allowing international experts, he says, in to verify that process.

In addition to that, if the U.S. has corresponding measures, then North Korea will agree to shutdown its Yongbyon nuclear facility.

President Moon did have a press conference with journalists as soon as he got back to Seoul from the summit. And I asked him, what exactly are these corresponding measures?

And he effectively said that it was to end hostilities against North Korea, which means an end to the Korean War, which was signed by an armistice, not a peace treaty, back in 1953. And this is something that both North and South Korea have been very clear about. They both want to end the Korea War, to have that declaration and to have a peace treaty.

Now certainly so far the U.S. response appears to have been positive to this three-day summit. So President Moon will be heading to the U.S. and also to the United Nations General Assembly knowing that there is this positive response, that the U.S. is willing to restart negotiations.

But the issue remains the same. It is all about timing and order. The U.S. wants denuclearization and they will follow that with a declaration of the end of the Korean War and concessions. North Korea wants it exactly the opposite way -- Paula Hancocks, CNN, Seoul.


VANIER: The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is open. Families are reunited and the U.N. is praising their historic peace deal. One week after the two countries signed a new peace resolution, the close neighbors are rebuilding a relationship after two decades of bloody war. CNN's Farai Sevenzo has an update.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) FARAI SEVENZO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The rock star kind of politician emerged from Ethiopia again this year. Abiy Ahmed is the first-ever Ethiopian prime minister from the Roma people.

For years, Roma have been the largest of Ethiopia's 90-plus tribes but never in power. Earlier this year came Abiy, young, popular and with a zeal and a haste to reform.

Political prisoners were freed, a state of emergency scrapped and freedom of expression returned like rain after a long drought. It was Ethiopia's fall of the Berlin Wall moment. But not everyone was supportive.

Two people were killed in a grenade attack at a political rally in June. Abiy blamed groups wanting to undermine his agenda of peace. But a much larger threat had long gone unresolved.

What would Abiy do about the old enemy, Eritrea?

The two-decades old war began as a vague border dispute between two countries. An estimated 100,000 people died. Then came a breakthrough in July. Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki landed in Ethiopia to cement peace with Abiy.

Months later the border between the two countries reopened. Long-lost relatives were reunited and Eritrea, sometimes called Africa's North Korea, was suddenly opened to the world.

A final peace deal was signed on Sunday in Saudi Arabia's capital, Jeddah, in front of King Salman and the U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres.

ANTONIO GUTERRES, U.N. HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES: We have seen a conflict that has lasted for decades ending. And that is a very important meaning in a world where we see unfortunately so many conflicts, multiplying and lasting forever.

SEVENZO (voice-over): The Saudis say their motivation for brokering their agreement was to stabilize the whole of Africa. But given the Saudis' involvement in the long-running war in Yemen, many are asking, has the Ethiopian former leaders' peacemaking been highjacked by a Saudi king keen to spread the kingdom's influence across the Red Sea? -- Farai Sevenzo, CNN, Nairobi.



VANIER: The media landscape, like so many other things in Saudi Arabia, is changing in that country. A Saudi journalist has made history by becoming the country's first female news anchor.

Weam Al Dakheel appeared on a Thursday news program, setting a precedent for Saudi women. It's part of the country's wave of reforms, which also saw women get the right to drive this past summer. Cher is busier than ever these days, taking on a challenge that several people advised her not to do. The singing and acting superstar is ignoring the advice. Here's CNN's Robyn Curnow.



ROBYN CURNOW, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Sometimes the oldies are the best. Following her role in the box office smash, "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again," pop diva Cher is releasing an album of ABBA hits.

And the name of the album?

Well, what else but "Dancing Queen."

CHER, POP DIVA: When I did "Mamma Mia!," I did "Fernando" and then I did, you know, the opening to "Super Trooper." So somehow it came from that but not that I knew. You know, I was finished, I was going to go off on vacation. And I just thought, that might be a cool thing to do.

CURNOW (voice-over): Cher says she's not daunted by the challenge of doing her own interpretation of songs already beloved by millions of ABBA fans around the world.

CHER: Everyone said do not do "Mamma Mia!" and do not do "Waterloo," because they're just too famous and it's just -- you're not going to be able to get away with it.

And I went, no, I love them. I don't care how famous they are. I'm just going to do them.

CURNOW (voice-over): The singer is also producing an upcoming Broadway musical based on her life. Cher says it hasn't been easy to watch her own story play out on stage.

CHER: It's not fun at all. And if you're really -- the more honest you are, the worse it is. First time I saw it, I just walked out.

CURNOW (voice-over): But Cher does have one life lesson she wanted to share with other women.

CHER: We can't march every time something happens because there's a huge amount of marching and then it's over and women were glad that they did it. But, OK, now what?

The only thing I think that we can do and the thing we must do is vote, that every woman in the United States of voting age has got to vote. Otherwise, stop complaining.

CURNOW (voice-over): So political activism, a new album and a Broadway show, Cher is keeping busy and she's not showing any sign of stopping anytime soon -- Robyn Curnow, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE) VANIER: And thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I have the headlines for you in just a few minutes. So do stay with us.