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U.S. Points Finger to Iran Without Evidence; Israelis Casting Their Ballots; Boris Johnson Snubbed a Press Conference; ISIS Out with a New Message. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired September 17, 2019 - 03:00   ET




KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN ANCHOR: Hello everyone. I'm Kristie Lu Stout, live in Hong Kong. And you are watching CNN Newsroom.

Ahead this hour, new warnings from Donald Trump following an attack on Saudi Arabia's oil supply and the U.S. president suggest that Iran maybe to blame.

Plus, Benjamin Netanyahu's fight for political survival. The polls are open Israel in an election that is too close to call.

And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson decides he would be better off skipping a press conference with Luxembourg's leader rather than face off against anti-Brexit protesters.

The U.S. president says it's looking more and more like Iran was behind Saturday's attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday that the U.S. was, quote, "locked and loaded" to respond but still wanted to verify who was responsible.

Now here is what he told reporters on Monday.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I don't want war with anybody, but we're prepared more than anybody.

We have a lot of options, but I'm not looking at options right now. We want to find definitively who did this. But I will tell you that was a very large attack and it could be met with an attack many, many times larger very easily by our country. But we are going to find out who definitively did it first.


STOUT: Now Mr. Trump still is not saying it was definitely the Iranians but his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed them almost immediately. Iran denies that it's behind the strikes but its Houthi allies in Yemen claim that they were responsible, hitting the oil sites with drones. Now CNN is covering the story across the Middle East. We have our

international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson in Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, we also have our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh in Iran's capital. Nick, let's start with you in Tehran. I understand that you have new information.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been giving a lengthy speech this morning and there are some key points to take away from this.

Obviously, we have heard Donald Trump kind of threatened military force then back away from it suggesting he doesn't want war. But essentially, this comes down to is that the opening for a negotiation settlement between Iran and America.

And the supreme leader of Iran Khamenei is very clear about this today. He says, officials unanimously believe that there will be no negotiation with the United States at any level.

Everyone should know at notice that this is the American attempt to get negotiations going. It is a trick. He goes on to say, sometimes they say a negotiation without preconditions, sometimes they say negotiations with two conditions. Such remarks are read that due to their turbulent politics or a trick to confuse us. Of course, the Islamic republic is not confused because our part is clear and we know what we are doing.

He also said that he believes the maximum pressure campaign is designed to force Iran back to the negotiating table. Now, obviously he doesn't say that if all sanctions were lifted that might change matters.

And there is the later part in the speech where he goes on to say that if the nuclear deal is returned to then there is a possibility maybe of talks.

But this is the top voice of Iran basically giving a very stark message right now that whatever gaming is going on here, whatever brinkmanship they might think the Americans are up to right now why accusing them of launching these strikes gave the Saudi all facilities that that is not going to result with the Iranian government deciding that they want to sit down suddenly with the Trump administration.

That's a stark message here because we've seen the Trump administration vacillate all over the place, frankly. Certainly, President Trump, himself, locked and loaded one day, suggesting military action. Minutes later one of his vice president's officials turn around and say actually he was talking about oil reserves being ready.

He later said he doesn't want war but he's got the best military in the world. It's very clear really that the Americans aren't clear about what they want to get out of this and slowly people in the region are beginning to ask where is the evidence that Iran was behind this. This was a very sophisticated attack on those Saudi facility right

inside the heart of their territory. It would be very difficult for Iraq to have bunch of rebels to pull something like that off but there is no evidence at this point publicly made by the U.S. government to back up that claim that Iran was behind this.

And today, a stark message from the supreme leader here. You don't get much high voice than that frankly, but there aren't going to be any talks right now. Maybe in the future if things may change. But there is certainly no suggestion that Iran wants talks right now. Kristie?

STOUT: Nick, thank you. So, we have Iran supreme leader offering this stark message. No negotiation, no talks, after earlier denying it had any involvement with strikes in oil sites in Saudi Arabia.


Let's go to Nic Robertson in Riyadh now. Nic, the question is, then what is the response going to be from the Saudis and the U.S., you know. We know after the strikes President Trump sent that tweet saying that the U.S. was locked and loaded. We heard moments ago he is backing away from that, backing away from any military response.

But what are the options for the U.S. and the Saudis to respond to what happened and to prevent another strike?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Kristie, the way the Saudis appear to be responding is sort of through diplomacy, if you will, and through statesmanship. What it appears as if they are doing at the moment, and I say at the moment because this is where we're at.

They're trying -- they appear to be trying to build support for their position and their understanding of the situation.

What they have said very clearly is they've said the attack did not come from the Houthis in Yemen. The weapons used were made in Iran. This is something the Saudis have said before about attacks that have come from Yemen.

The U.N. investigated those claims and found in favor of those claims. This is something new. The Saudis are saying right now that these were Iranian made weapons but they don't know yet where they were fired from. And they are continuing to investigate that they will find the location.

But significantly, what they are doing here is inviting the international experts and the U.N. to join the investigation. And this really seems an effort to broaden support for their position.

But they say they should be very clear as well, that once they -- once they have investigated this, and depending on what the conclusions draw they will respond appropriately or accordingly.

They also say that no one should doubt their capabilities, their capacity and their resolve to strike back. And this is a significant word, to strike back forcefully at these aggressions.

Again, they say these aggressions, they didn't say Iranian aggressions just at these aggressions.

So, I think the situation now that we have from the Saudis is one that they're trying to build this broader base of support for what they appear to be sort of on a path to here which is pointing the finger towards Iran.

STOUT: And let's go back to Nick Paton Walsh in Iran. Nick, Iran has strongly denied any involvement in the incident. But the Houthis, you know, the rebel group in Yemen are claiming that they are behind this. Are they capable of doing an oil strike like this without the involvement of Iran?

WALSH: Iranian officials say that they are. And they haven't released sort of a detailed explanation that they (Inaudible).

But there are other independent analysts who agree that the Houthis after years at war against Saudi-backed Yemeni government that they oppose. They're predominantly based in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a and have had Iranian backing which Iran has often sort of played down.

They say, that there has been a substantial leap forward in their own drone technology that they were able to pull something like this off. And we've seen over the past year or so they are launching drone attacks near the Saudi southern border using missiles.

Their way of inflicting pain they say on the Saudi population because of the Saudi area bombardment of Yemen which has caused a devastating civilian toll, quite barbaric frankly, in the minds of independent investigators. Even the United Nations at times.

So, it's been obviously a difficult ask for many analysts to work out whether this drone technology has leapt forward fast enough to work, actually evade hundreds of miles of air defenses inside Saudi territory.

It's a very low distance from Yemen to places where Nic is talking about the oil refineries in question. And whether or not these drones happened to be so low-tech or so low altitude in their approach, that they're very expensive tens of billions of dollars' worth of U.S. supply of air defense simply didn't see them heading towards the most prime possessions of Saudi Arabia energy structure.

We do not know that. I'm sure that's something which the Saudis have researched intensely. And you have to also remember, getting to the truth of this probably isn't going to be that hard in the long run.

Because we are talking about a part of the world where monitoring is happening on a fairly intense level, certainly in the direction in which the United States is claiming these missiles were fired.

That sort of Persian Gulf area they have been flooding that with assets to try and monitor various build ups that they say the Iranian government is doing, to be sure that they can protect the U.S. shipping interests in that area.

So, there's a lot of information to be poured through there. Iran's position though, from the beginning has been we have nothing to do with this. They initially called it irresponsible. They asked for evidence.

Frankly, there was no evidence coming in the first two tweets on Saturday from Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State leveling this first blame, he said there was no evidence that it was from Yemen. He didn't say that there was evidence that it was from Iran.


And now here we are three or four days later still waiting for convincing details from the U.S. government to lay out exactly how they came to this conclusion. Now it may involve sensitive technology, sensitive intelligence, being declassified.

Donald Trump has said they're doing a lot of very good studies on all of this and it's being suggested that in the days ahead we may see more of this evidence. But it is startling given the gravity of the accusation from the United States towards Iran, that we are still here waiting for something convincing.

Still getting anonymous briefings from U.S. officials to various parts of the media, suggesting they think they know the direction in which these particular attacks were launched.

But, you know, as this continues, it has done nothing to remove the sense of, I think, concern in the region here. It was already extraordinarily tense before these attacks occurred. And nothing to this point has occurred on the gravity of the attacks on those Saudi oil refineries.

So, it's a dangerous moment and I think the uncertainty, possibly about U.S. policy here means those enemies of the United States in the region here see a greater latitude to act. Because they probably think that Donald Trump isn't willing to be a military interventionist in a region like this.

He once decided not to retaliate when a U.S. drone was blown out of the sky, publicly saying that he hold air strike back because he feared 150 Iranian casualties.

Now of course nobody in the world really wants war at all, but there is certainly I think possibly a growing body of thought here as to exactly where is the U.S. red line. When it comes to this particular region and Iranian officials, I think possibly staggered by how inconsistent U.S. foreign policy has been.

Maybe they thought the departure of John Bolton, the Iranian hawk of the Trump administration, his national security adviser herald at a moment for diplomacy while Mike Pompeo stepped right into Bolton's shoes on Saturday morning with that tweet blaming Iran for the Saudi Arabian oil attacks. And now as we heard today, Iran supreme leaders saying there aren't

going to be talks whether you have preconditions or no preconditions, we are not interested.

Missing from that statement is what would happen if sanctions were perhaps lifted. We don't know if that would change matters, but for now the very stark message is the Iranian government is unanimous there won't not be talks. Kristie?

STOUT: No talks, as the Iranians wait for concrete evidence on who is behind these strikes.

Let's go back to Nic Robertson in Riyadh. And Nic, more on the evidence. You know, we've heard the Saudi's and the U.S. through different officials lay out their case on who they believe is behind these oil Saudi attacks.

But, you know, how are they going to lay out concrete evidence as to what happened, and also just in so doing de-escalate the situation?

ROBERTSON: Well, what they are trying to do is build international support for their claims, and one of the mechanisms for doing that will be to invite these international inspectors and U.N. inspectors to help with the investigation.

They also say that they plan to take journalists to the site to sort of journal the evidence. So, it appears that the Saudis want to make public their evidence.

They are working on many things here. And one of the most significant things that they're working on, and this sort of significant globally, if you will, is restoring the oil supplies from these damaged facilities. Repair these damaged facilities.

Initially, they'd estimated that it would -- they would get a third of halted capacity backup online in a day. Now it appears that that's really going to be a matter of weeks rather than days.

So, they do have a very pressing issue here as well in parallel to finding out who is responsible and deterring future attacks. They do have this pressing issue of trying to get that oil capacity back up to where it needs to be.

And not only that, but to do it in such a way that the oil markets and the investors in Saudi Arabia and the region at large feel confident that there aren't going to be future strikes. There's a huge amount of vulnerability.

So, the way that the Saudis are approaching this at the moment does seem to be from what they're saying, is to make this information public through international experts, through the U.N. and through reporters going to these sites.

Again, in the past, they have claimed that Iran has been behind some of these huge Scud missiles that have been fired hundreds of miles from Yemen all the way to around the outskirts of Riyadh, trying to target the airport, to Jeddah, across the other side of Saudi Arabia to other airports inside Saudi Arabia that Some of those have been hit.

They supplied that evidence to United Nations investigators. The U.N. investigators concluded that Iran had manufactured these massive ballistic missiles and their conclusion went on to say that Iran should do more to stop its weapons systems getting into the hands, in this case, of the Houthis.

At the moment, it doesn't seem the Houthis are in the frame for this attack because the Saudis have ruled that out. But in essence, Iran has form for weapons systems that have been fired here, proven form, proven at the U.N.


STOUT: Nic Robertson reporting live from Riyadh. Nic Paton Walsh from the Iranian capital. Big thank you to you both.

You're watching CNN Newsroom coming to you live from Hong Kong. We'll be back after this quick break.


STOUT: Welcome back. Now in a matter of hours Britain's highest court will determine whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson acted legally when he suspended parliament.

It follows what can only be described as a blue Monday for Mr. Johnson after he was attacked by the prime minister of Luxembourg over Brexit.

Nina Dos Santos has more.

NINA DOS SANTOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A day of diplomacy in Luxembourg saw the U.K. prime minister come away empty handed and leave a podium empty as well.


XAVIER BETTEL, PRIME MINISTER OF LUXEMBOURG: I repeat, Brexit is not my choice.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Prime Minister, who is picking up the bill?


DOS SANTOS: Arriving for his first face-to-face meeting with the E.U. Commission president, Jean Claude Juncker, Boris Johnson didn't talk up the prospects of a deal with the E.U. After a two-hour working lunch, one which Downing Street described as constructive. Johnson made it clear that he wouldn't ask for an extension to Brexit.

The E.U. for its part issued a statement insisting that the ball was still in Britain's court.

He's supporting that Boris Johnson wanted this meeting to take place in a neutral location. And as such the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg sandwiched between France and Germany. They are being access of power in the E.U. was chosen. But even here protesters against a no deal Brexit made their presence firm.


DAVID PIKE, PROTESTER: This is my first demonstration, I've never been to any demonstration. We feel so strongly about this matter, and about how our rights are going to be destroyed by Brexit even with the deal. Even with the withdrawal agreement our rights of free movement go out the door.

DOS SANTOS: Mr. Johnson, CNN, how confident are you on the deal?


DOS SANTOS: Avoiding questions became a recurring theme for Johnson. With the P.M. pulling out of what was supposed to be a joint press conference with his counterpart from Luxembourg who spoke regardless.


BETTEL: Our people need to know what is going to happen to them in six weeks' time. You can't hold a future hostage for party political gains.


DOS SANTOS: Addressing reporters later and whom would bound, Johnson reverted to his usual optimism.


BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Yes, there is a good chance of a deal. Yes, I can see the shape of it. Everyone can see roughly what could be done. But it will require movement. And it will require a system by which the E.U. can control the U.K. after we leave the so- called backstop to go from that treaty.



DOS SANTOS: Until it does, with 50 days left Brexit negotiations appear for now to be going nowhere.

Nina Dos Santos, CNN, Luxembourg.

STOUT: Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is offering a mea culpa over Brexit. Now the man who called the 2016 E.U. referendum is making the rounds to promote the release of his memoirs. And he sat down for a candid interview with CNN affiliate ITV.


DAVID CAMERON, FORMER BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I totally -- if you are asking me, do I have regrets? Yes. Am I sorry about the state the country has gotten to? Yes. Do I feel I have some responsibility for that? Yes.

It was my referendum, my campaign, my decision to try and renegotiate. And I accept all of those things. And people, including those watching this program will have to decide how much blame to put on me.


CAMERON: But that being said, you know, I can't put it more bluntly than this. I accept that that attempt failed.


STOUT: Cameron also says he regrets being a member of Oxford's Burlington Club. He says he cringes when he looks back on the group which included Boris Johnson.

Voting is underway in Israel's close high stakes election. Just a short while ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cast his ballot in Jerusalem. And polls suggest it maybe a tight race between Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party and former Israeli military chief of staff Benny Gantz's Blue and White Party.

This is the country's second election in less than six months. Now Mr. Netanyahu force the do-over election after he failed to form a coalition to govern the 126 Knesset seat back in April.

Now CNN's Sam Kiley joins us now from a polling station in Jerusalem. And Sam, again, this is the second general election in what, five months there? Is there voter fatigue or are you seeing a strong turnout at the polls?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are seeing a reasonable turnout, I think, Kristie, given the voter fatigue that you rightly point out. Where that voter fatigue is likely to be most deeply felt, though, will be amongst supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu from the Likud and the main opposition party Blue and White from -- led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid with joint leadership that they have.

They have managed. Well, they have -- the opposition have really not managed to grab hold of the narrative. It's all been driven throughout this election campaign by one man, Benjamin Netanyahu which has left really an opportunity for some of the more fringe groups, some of the other parties in this system of proportion and representation to perhaps get in on the act. Because the act is going to be not in the immediate results of the election according to the opinion polls.

But in the weeks that follow, to see who can knit together a coalition. And that may well be a problem for the center left which may end up having to rely on Arab voters.

That indication from the polls say that they might end up with 12 seats in the Knesset and from Netanyahu's perspective he might well lose some votes to the extreme right parties. And therefore, will have to bring them into his coalition.

Of course, it was his failure to put a coalition together that led to the second round of elections in the first place.

STOUT: Reporting live from a polling station in Jerusalem, Sam, thank you.

Now ISIS has released what it claims is a new audio recording of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with the terror group's ringleader is now urging his followers to do. That story is next on CNN Newsroom.


STOUT: Now ISIS has released a new audio recording that it says it's from its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Now the terror group leader insists that ISIS is still present and calls its recent decline a test from God.


If this recording is authentic it would be the first time we've heard from Baghdadi since April. Now Monday's posting also mentions delegations of new recruits and urges followers to, quote, "do deeds."

Our Ben Wedeman is following developments from Beirut. He joins us now. And, Ben, tell us more on the purpose of this message. If verified, what is the leader of ISIS trying to achieve here?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, more than anything, Kristie, he is trying to remind his followers that he is there. He was heavily criticized by ISIS members for being essentially absent during the final chapter of the caliphate that he announced in July of 2014 from Mosul.

He was not there, not near it. He never put out a message until April which was a month after the fall of the caliphate itself, the physical caliphate that one point was the size of Great Britain with a population of around 10 million people.

So, he is really just trying to prove his relevance. He did claim that in the last 10 days of August that ISIS carried out a series of attacks, but they are minor attacks compared to what ISIS used to be engaged in. He did call upon his followers to try to break their comrades out of prisons and camps.

And certainly, anybody who watched Arwa Damon's reporting from al-Hol Camp in Syria where there are tens of thousands of family members of ISIS followers, and that situation there is clearly disturbing. Where you have all of these people crammed into a very small area where they are essentially recreating the social order that ISIS existed in.

Beyond that, certainly, the question of new recruits is questionable given that certainly when ISIS existed as a physical caliphate there was an attraction. Now there is no physical caliphate. And those who did travel to Syria and Iraq, the parts that were controlled by ISIS, have suffered a very miserable fate. Dead in prison camps, many of them deprived of their nationality.

Unable to go home, and if they do go back to their home countries in Europe, for instance, they will immediately end up in prison. So, the attraction of the caliphate certainly isn't what it used to be. Kristie?

STOUT: Yes. It's a message to prove his relevance, the relevance of ISIS as a terror group after the caliphate has collapsed.

Ben Wedeman reporting live for us. Ben, thank you so much.

And thank you for watching CNN Newsroom. I'm Kristie Lu Stout, live in Hong Kong. I will be back with the check of the headlines in just a moment.