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Iran Says It Seized British Oil Tanker after Accident; Trump Calls Racist Rally Supporters "Incredible Patriots"; Death Toll in Kyoto Animation Fire Rises to 34; China's Growing Ambitions to Dominate Space. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired July 20, 2019 - 03:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A new development on the British oil tanker captured in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran claimed it seized the ship following a fishing accident.

Walking back the walkback: Donald Trump says supporters in his rally this week where people chanted "send her back" are great patriots.

And remembering Apollo 11, 50 years ago Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag on the moon and now China is look to do one better.

We're live from the CNN Center and I'm Cyril Vanier and it's great to have you with us.


VANIER: So we are now getting a new explanation from Iran of why it seized a British flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran said it captured the vessel after it was involved with an accident and Iranian fishing boat about that ignored a distress signal. And Iranian news agency says that the tanker is now imported all 23 are to remain on board.

The British foreign office is advising all U.K. ships to avoid the Strait of Hormuz and warns that there will be a major repercussions if this situation is not resolved quickly.


JEREMY HUNT, BRITISH FOREIGN MINISTER: This is completely unacceptable. Freedom of navigation must be maintained. We will respond in a way that is considered but robust and we are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly, there will be serious consequences.


VANIER: And in Washington meanwhile the view from the U.S. president is, I told you so. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So we're going to be speaking with the U.K. and this only goes to show what I'm saying about Iran, trouble, nothing but trouble.

And remember this, the agreement, the ridiculous agreement made by President Obama, expires in a very short period of time, it was a short-term agreement.

When you're dealing in countries you have to deal in 50 years to 100 years, you don't deal on the short term. That was a ridiculous agreement. And it goes to show you I was right about Iran.


VANIER: CNN's Jomana Karadsheh joins us from Istanbul, Turkey, she's covering this for us.

And journalist Ramin Mostaghim.

So Jomana, Iran seems to be changing its story about what happened and why it sees this tanker.

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Cyril it is been about 12 hours since the story broke and now we are getting a new version of events coming through, Iranians in state media quoting a maritime authority official.

What they are saying is this British flagged tanker entered the Strait of Hormuz in the wrong direction and saying it entered through an exit point. And they say it collided with a fishing boat.

Now they say the fishing boat try to communicate with the tanker but it was not responsive. And so this fishing vessel got in touch with the port authorities, who, under the direction they say of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, moved the British flagged tanker, Stena Impero, to bandar Abbas.

They say it is under investigation and for security reasons all 23 of the members, majority of them Indian, they say, and other nationalities including some from Russia and the Philippines, they must remain on board while this investigation is ongoing.

Now we will wait and see what kind of reaction we will get from this latest version of events from the British. But all indications at this point is that we are looking at a tit-for-tat escalation that is taking place in the Strait of Hormuz and this has been really the concern.

If you look at the past few weeks,, following the seizure of that Iranian oil tanker, the Grace 1, by British Marines and in the Gibraltar authorities, the supreme leader of Iran did vow that they will respond and they will not leave this with no response and this has been the concern.

So we will have to wait and see what the British are saying and they are going through diplomatic channels.

VANIER: Ramin, what do you make about the claim --


VANIER: -- of it being about a fishing incident now?

RAMIN MOSTAGHIM, "L.A. TIMES": I think it is a good deal for those who are pacifists and don't want to see a big major confrontation in the Persian Gulf for war, whatever you call it, because the narration of FOX News and other media outlets is toning down from what was, a tit-for-tat, now they say it was an accident and ignorance to their stress call and that means that they don't try to show it as capturing.

It is anchoring of investigations in the Persian Gulf it now incurred, it means it is toning down and de-escalating narration, whatever it is it shows that Iran is not going for -- what it was looking like a tit- for-tat because they are changing their naraation and that is good for the pacifists inthe Persian Gulf and anyone who wants to seek de- escalation, and an anti climax that should happen right after a climax at an opening for diplomacy and providing room for a negotiation, that is what I'm making today from these news outlets.

VANIER: Jomana, I would connect that was something you were telling us a moment ago about the British reaction about this, they are not looking for a military option, that they are not looking to escalate this?

KARADSHEH: Well, I think the difference you see here when it comes to the British versus the Americans involved in incidents like this is that the British still have diplomatic channels that are open.

Jeremy Hunt saying that he tried calling the foreign minister, who is on his way to Venezuela, he was out a flight. They said that the British ambassador in Tehran was speaking to the foreign ministry, trying to resolve this.

And the real concern is when you're looking at this military buildup that we are seeing taking place in that narrow Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf where you have the U.S. increasing its presence there, you have a massive presence also of Iranian forces, so the biggest problem is that you can see is a situation escalating into unintentional conflict.

Where you've seen in recent weeks, we are not talking about an isolated incident. On recent weeks, you had tankers being attacked, you have had American and Iranian drones brought down so there is real concern about what happens in this highly charged narrow region in the Strait of Hormuz.

VANIER: Yes absolutely, when dornes are being shot down and tankers are being seized, at what point can it get it out of control.

Jomana Karadsheh, Ramin Mostaghim, thank you.

Brett Velicovich joins me. He's a former U.S. Army Special Operations, he has a special insight into this.

You worked for the Army Special Ops in the region, you were involved to some extent with the Iranian forces. Tell us how you look at all of this.

BRETT VELICOVICH, DRONE EXPERT: Well, to me what we are seeing now is more of the same of the world's largest exporter of terrorism, Iran's continues attempts to disrupt the freedom of navigation and global commerce in the strategy wway that is the Persian Gulf has become more and more hostile and aggressive because they keep getting away with it.

And they've been getting away with it for years now, they are responsible for 100 American soldiers' deaths and if we continue letting them get away with it, they will be responsible for hundreds more.

And they've never been held accountable is the truth and they have become more hostile because of the international community's inaction and the perceived weakness on bhalf of the Iranian regime and their calculation that the U.S. government and the U.S. public perception is that we don't have the will to do what might be necessary to stop them.

And in my opinion, unless we see some sort of military action or some international response to protect these ships transiting the waters, they will continue doing what they have done for years and it will only get worse.

VANIER: Is it possible to police the Strait of Hormuz in your opinion?

VELICOVICH: I believe with an international coalition it is, and U.S. Central Command today they announced Operation Sentinel, which is designed to be a task force, a --


VELICOVICH: -- maritime effort to help basically de-escalate tensions but at the same time escourt some of the ships that maybe seized by the Iranians in the future.

And that is important because now we are galvanizing international support and international communities that can go and protect some of the ships and I think we have seen especially with the recent British oil tanker that was seized, which did not necessarily have an escort there, but previously we saw with the Iranians seizing almost another British tanker and the British forces were able to respond.

And that is where we need to protect the ships in the near future. It is sad that it is got into that point but I do believe it will come to fruition here pretty soon, based on what I'm seeing here in the region.

VANIER: How dangerous is a situation because we are seeing drones and tankers being brought down but no one is getting killed. You could argue that Iran and the U.S. are taking very calculated steps that allow them to make a statement without triggering a conflict, without being too dangerous, is what I'm saying.

VELICOVICH: Well, when you're seeing drones being knocked out of the sky and the Iranians taking their own.


VANIER: Well, you know it is a drone, it's not a worship, the U.S. can get over a drone being knocked out. Iran can get over a drone, one of its drones being shot down.

VELICOVICH: Sure. But it can easily cross that line very quickly, where somebody does get hurt. The Iranians are taking explosive laden drones and they're slamming them into oil tankers. They have already shown a prospensity to conduct an action that could potentially injr somebody.

All it takes is one action where a U.S. military member is killed. That could completely change everything that's occurring there and a war could start.

The Iranians already believe that we are at war with them, economically and through the sanctions. And for years in my opinion the Iranians have been covertly at war with us through their proxy developments, they have been fairly sneaky about it and they don't come out necessarily and it is been very rare for them to target certain U.S. properties, they do it through their proxy groups that they train and provide this expertise to.

But it can very quickly escalate to something we might not be able to go back from without an actual military operation, where lives are lost in the end.

VANIER: Brett Velicovich, thank you so much for your insight into this.

VELICOVICH: Thank you for having me, appreciate it.

VANIER: A day after distancing himself from racist chants at a rally President Trump is calling his audience "incredible patriots." It caps a week of criticism against four minority female House lawmakers that all started with a tweet. Abby Phillip has the details.


REPORTER: Do you take that tweet back?

TRUMP: You know what I'm unhappy with. I'm unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can hate our country.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just one day after distancing himself from his supporters' ""send her back"" chant, President Trump now refusing to take back the words he wrote that prompted it.

TRUMP: I'm unhappy with the fact that a congresswoman can say anti- Semitic things.

PHILLIP: The president's defiance capping a week of controversy that started on Sunday morning with the racist attack, telling four congresswomen of color to go back to the places from which they came.

REP. ILHAN OMAR (D-MN): This is the agenda of white nationalists. PHILLIP: The president was emboldened as outrage exploded on the left

but Republican lawmakers were slow to comment. Two days after the tweets went out, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offering tepid criticism.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Well, I think I've just said, I think everybody ought to tone down their rhetoric.

PHILLIP: By Wednesday, Trump had turned the attacks into a scripted campaign strategy.

TRUMP: And she looks down with contempt on the hard-working Americans saying that ignorance is pervasive in many parts of this country. And obviously and importantly, Omar has a history of launching vicious, anti-Semitic screeds.

PHILLIP: His supporters responding with the chant formed from his own words.

CROWD: "send her back"! "send her back"! "send her back"! "send her back"! "send her back"! "send her back"!

PHILLIP: That scene apparently crossing a line for Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who voiced their discomfort with the chants to Vice President Mike Pence and sources say his daughter Ivanka Trump also expressed her concerns to the president.

By Thursday, Trump disavowed the chants by falsely claiming he tried to stop it.

TRUMP: I did -- and I started speaking very quickly. But it started up rather fast.

PHILLIP: Twenty-four hours later, the president now attempting to move the debate to more comfortable territory -- crowd size.


TRUMP: Those people in North Carolina, that stadium was packed. It was a record crowd. And I could have filled it ten times as you know. Those are incredible people. Those are incredible patriots.

PHILLIP: After Congresswoman Omar did go back to her home state of Minnesota, Trump false accusing her of staging the event.

President Trump also seemed to deny that his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and first lady, Melania Trump, advised him on whether or not those chants at his rally this week were acceptable. He said they did not advise him but they did speak to him about it. He was also asked whether or not he would be acceptable for Melania

Trump to face chants of "send her back," given that Melania was not born in the United States. The president didn't answer that question but said the first lady, also like he does, despises the comments by those four Democratic congresswomen that he has been trying to raise attention to all week -- Abby Phillip, CNN, the White House.


The fallout from President Trump's racist tweets is spreading overseas, for our leaders are weighing in and the latest Angela Merkel, she address he go back comments at a press conference on Friday.

Yes. I distanced myself from this decidedly instead in solidarity with the woman who were attacked. The United States strength is the fact that it is comprised of different people.

She said that Trump's comments to not match the impressions of the United States.

And Japan's worst mass killing, we have more details about the suspected arson fire at us famous studio that claimed over 30 lives.

Police say the suspect at the police say the suspect at the center of Japan's worst mass killing in almost 20 years has unspecified mental health issues; 34 people were killed in the suspected arson at the renowned Kyoto Animation studio, CNN's Kaori Enjoji is in Kyoto.

You are near the building in a shrine has been set up to pay tribute to the victims, tell us about everything you are seeing.

Well, George this is the first time we're allowed so close to the studio that was burned on Thursday, I am about three meters from the entrance of the building and it has been three days but you can see the black and out windows all the way up to the third floor and you can still smell the charring when you look at the flakiness of the snow that is all around this building that you can see straight through it it's almost as if you can feel the heat that has left this building on Thursday. There is a sign that used to say Kyoto Animation but it is fairly visible, we are right in front of the building --


ENJOJI: and you can see the magnitude of the fire and I have a better sense of why the fire spread so quickly. When you look inside you can't really see through the camera because it is so dark, you see a very visible spiral staircase seven melted away. This spiral staircase when all the way up to a third floor so it creates a chimney effect throughout the center of the building and this is probably why you saw the fire roar into the building so quickly as it did. We spoke to a gentleman who lives just around here and this is essentially a residential area and people live right in front of fear these little small homes that he says he used one of these letters to try to get some of the women Tuesday from the building. They say they were so putrefied on the second floor that he saw them very visibly shaken, unable to take that first step out of that window, this is the third day and as you pointed out the death toll has risen by Juan, taking the total death toll to 34. I can also update you about the suspects, we know the name Shinji Aoba, you know he is 41 and he had severe burns because he came into this building with gasoline and let it on fire with later. We know that he has been airlifted from the hospital where he was initially taken to in Kyoto to another hospital in a bigger city near here near Osaka. We also know that Kyoto Animation receive some death threats in October 2018, they told that to the police and they investigated it but they could not find a suspect in that case and they have not made any connection so far to that threat and the one that happened here on Thursday. I can also tell you that the CEO of the company was here on the scene this morning, he was with firefighters and police and I saw him enter and exit for about 20 or 30 minute, surveying the scene and trying to aid in this investigation that is ongoing, he was trusting close of morning any and this to say and really from the prime minister of Japan, to able to go, to the CEO of Kyoto Animation, everyone seems to be in a loss of words.

People who and freight futures have lost their lives, to put it simply it is indescribable, more than anything it is anger and intolerable and cannot contain how I feel.

Yes, thank you so much for being asked today where you are and the building also understand what is going on.

We are a historic anniversary, 50 years since the first humans walked on the service of the moon, at this moment half a century ago three men were looking down on the lunar surface preparing for that generally viewers later.

Three, to, one, zero. We have a lift off.

NASA the problem and Russian by interviewing one of those two members, Michael Collins describes what it was like to be in a front row seat, here is how he remembers the moment the rocket took off.

As you lift off if there is any imbalance it is compensated for by the swivel laying of your motors below you, you have five engines down there and very slowly and majestically inside it is a different situation you feel yourself juggling left to right and you are not quite sure whether those trickles are as big or small as they should be or how much closer they will put you towards that launch umbilical tower but you do not very much want to hit at that moment.

Collins remained in lunar orbit while his colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin flew down and became the first humans to take those historic steps. Tune in for our special program first steps 50 years after Apollo 11, the program features Michael Collins and members of the mission control teams who made the impossible possible, it is 1:30 in the afternoon today at 8:30 in the evening if you are in Hong Kong. These days the U.S. and Russia are not the only players in space exploration China's now emerging as a powerhouse and it is aiming to dominate. Here is Matt Rivers.


MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A communist country with --


RIVERS (voice-over): -- achievement after achievement amid ambitious plans to dominate space. More than half a century ago, that was the Soviet Union. Today, it is China.

Beijing has made no secret of its plans to become a leader in space and its annual budget backs that up and all that spending is starting to produce results.

Earlier this year, China was the first country to land a probe to Chang'e 4 on the far side of the moon, a major technological feat. NASA sent accolades and more such missions are planned.

BLAINE CURCIO, FOUNDER, ORBITAL GATEWAY CONSULTING: If you look at what they were saying ten years ago what's going to be done in space in the next 10 years by China, They are pretty much hitting those targets.

RIVERS: More impressive than what China has done so far could be what's up next. Plans include a manned space station launched by 2022. Permanent research stations on the moon are likely to soon follow and within just the next ten years, Beijing says it wants Chinese astronauts landing on the lunar surface, walking where only Americans have been before.

CURCIO: They have more people. They have more engineers. They have more scientists. The implication is that if they keep getting better at scale they're probably going to become the biggest or the leading power at some point. It's just a matter of time.

The Trump administration is aware of that possibility and has set the stage for a new space race. NASA plans to send its own astronauts back to the moon by 2024, by the time China people lands on the moon in 2030s, NASA is hoping to do the same on Mars.

But the big advantage the U.S. might have lies in the private sector. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin will play outsized roles if the U.S. is to maintain its technological edge with an impressive list of accomplishments already.

Meanwhile, it was only in 2014 that China opened the space industry to its private sector. Its companies lag far behind U.S. competition though they aim to change that.

MA CHAO, PRESIDENT AND CTO, ONE SPACE TECHNOLOGY (through translator): China's current policies and foundations are very good. So our development will be faster and faster.

RIVERS: Ma Chao is the president of China's first private rocket company. He admits that his company's rocket program are nowhere near the U.S. levels but he says just give it some time. CHAO: I believe if we continue to invest in R&D, China will combine our power and the power of the state to catch up and surpass the U.S. space industry.

RIVERS: Conventional wisdom is that communism doesn't breathe ingenuity and that U.S. capitalistic innovation will always win out. But Beijing is spending billions trying to prove that wrong. Experts generally agree that China's space program does right now lag behind that of the United States. But that the gap is starting to close -- Matt Rivers, CNN, Beijing.


VANIER: That's it from us, thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM, I'm Cyril Vanier, I'll be back with the headlines in just a moment.