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EARLY START

Iran Vows Revenge After U.S. Strike Kills Top Leader; President Trump Tweets Photo Of American Flag After Killing of Qasem Soleimani; Israel Assessing Security After Soleimani's Killing. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 05:30   ET

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


[05:30:02]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: Iran is vowing harsh revenge after a strike ordered by President Trump takes out the leader of Iran's Special Forces.

Good morning. This is EARLY START and I'm Laura Jarrett.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Christine Romans this Friday morning at exactly 30 minutes past the hour.

We begin with major breaking news overnight.

Iran's supreme leader vows revenge after a U.S. airstrike ordered by President Trump killed the commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Special Ops Unit. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force and one of the Ayatollah's most trusted advisers, was hit at Baghdad International Airport.

The Pentagon calls it decisive action. U.S. officials say Gen. Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and troops in Iraq and throughout the region. These pictures obtained by CNN show the aftermath of the strike this morning.

The State Department now urging all U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately.

JARRETT: Soleimani was revered by Iran's supporters and proxies across the region and hated by the country's enemies who saw him as the mastermind of state-sponsored terrorism.

His killing marks a huge escalation coming just days after supporters of an Iranian-backed militia stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The deputy head of the group behind those protests was also killed in last night's strike.

ROMANS: Tehran is, of course, furious. The former minister, Javad Zarif, calling it "extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation," adding, "The U.S. bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism." A big question this morning is whether top congressional leaders were notified. CNN's Fareed Zakaria suspects they were not.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": It's not clear what the objective here -- Soleimani is a bad guy -- there's no question -- but we appear to be -- without, by the way -- I'd say without congressional authorization -- entering into another Middle East war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JARRETT: Remember, just the other day, President Trump did threaten Iran during the Baghdad embassy protest to which Iran's supreme leader replied, "That guy has tweeted that we see Iran responsible for the events in Baghdad and we will respond to Iran. First, you can't do anything."

Our coverage around the world begins with senior international correspondent Arwa Damon, live for us in Baghdad. Arwa, what's the latest there?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, this country is still reeling from what transpired in the early hours of Friday morning. That strike taking place still within the perimeters of Baghdad's International Airport.

On the scene, you can see two charred remains of the vehicle that were carrying Qasem Soleimani, as well as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Now, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, that's who you were referring to when you were talking about one of the leaders of one of these other Shia groups here in Iraq. Al-Muhandis was also the number two within the command structure of the popular mobilization force which falls under, ostensibly, the Iraqi Security Forces.

The Iraqi prime minister came out and called this strike by the United States an aggression against Iraq. Iraq, to a certain degree, at least from his perspective, seems to be viewing this as the U.S. not only declaring war on Iran but also to a certain degree, perhaps on Iraq itself.

You have within this paramilitary force a number of very militarily powerful Shia groups. All of them, right now, are getting ready for the next phase.

You also, separately to that, have radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr saying that he is going to unfreeze his Mahdi Army.

Anyone who has been following Iraq from 2003 will remember very well how the Mahdi Army, as well as these other Shia groups, fought the United States. They were in something of a back-and-forth with the U.S. as they were building bigger bombs, using more sophisticated technology, much of it supplied by Iran. And the U.S., in response to that, was trying to build bigger, stronger, and better armor. That is who is being mobilized right now. You also, at the same time, have senior religious figures -- while absolutely outraged at what took place, at the same time calling for cooler heads to prevail. There is a sense that Iraq is on the brink of something -- is on the brink of complete and total chaos, but there are those who are trying to prevent that from taking place.

There's a lot of anger out there when it comes to the supporters of Qasem Soleimani, of al-Muhandis. But at the same time, you do have people within Iraq right now who are celebrating this. But while they're celebrating, still very worried about what this means because the bottom line, Iran is viewing this as a declaration of war against it.

[05:35:12]

It is highly likely -- in fact, unimaginable that Iran wouldn't have planned for something similar to this and right now we are in uncharted territory.

JARRETT: Uncharted territory, indeed. Arwa, thank you so much.

ROMANS: All right. The U.K. foreign secretary is urging all parties to deescalate.

So, who is Qasem Soleimani? The United States believes he's responsible for killing hundreds of Americans.

Let's go live to London and bring in CNN's Nick Paton Walsh -- Nick.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Well, a precise number of American casualties that Qasem Soleimani was behind will never really be known because he operated so much in the shadows, using proxy militia so much of the time to pursue Iran's policy objectives around the region.

He was the man behind Iran's possibly only real aligning with U.S. foreign policy -- the fact that they contributed. And often, Qasem Soleimani, himself, led from the front line some of Iranian militias that tackled ISIS in the past years.

He also, too, was behind -- according to the U.S., certainly -- many attacks on U.S. assets and U.S. allies across the region. The Quds Force essentially being the foreign operating wing of the Revolutionary Guard Corp -- really, the elite of Iran's military.

And he rose because of the operations he conducted, because of his sort of celebrity status almost -- wonk as that may sound -- on social media -- rose to become, frankly, one of the most recognizable faces in Iran, period, despite the fact he so desperately sought to remain in the shadows.

But we understand from a U.S. official this list was, quote, "a target of opportunity" -- one the president had authorized at obviously the highest level for quite a number of days, possibly -- but obviously, seizing the opportunity outside Baghdad Airport. It appears quite what does the United States have to prepare for?

Well, Iran's options, to some degree, are limited militarily. It would lose conventional confrontation with the United States if it chose to do that on a large scale.

It may possibly be that the U.S. has calculated that the Iranian response will simply be more of the same. More attacks on embassies, maybe more attacks on shipping lanes, oil facilities. Bids to try and attack the U.S. military possibly, through proxies elsewhere in the region or even attacks on civilians. As I say, essentially, more of what the U.S. has already been enduring, along with its allies, over the past months.

That could have been their calculation but you have to remember -- Iran, deeply strategic -- hasn't experienced a public loss like this, frankly, in its four decades or so of overt and covert confrontation with the United States and will be looking to try and restore its preeminence in the region through something expected at a time most likely when the Americans are not ready for it.

Back to you.

ROMANS: All right, a very good analysis. Nick Paton Walsh in London. Thanks, Nick.

JARRETT: While President Trump ordering that strike that killed the top Iranian general from his resort in Florida where he's wrapping up his holiday vacation. On New Year's Eve, with the embassy protests underway, the president was asked if he foresees a war with Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think that would be a good idea for Iran. It wouldn't last very long. Do I want to, no? I want to have peace -- I like peace -- and Iran should want peace more than anybody. So I don't see that happening.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JARRETT: CNN's Kristen Holmes is live for us in West Palm Beach. Kristen, other than a tweet of the flag, from the president, we haven't seen anything else out of this White House, right?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Laura. I mean, where we are right now is that alarming concern are growing around the world and yet, we haven't heard directly from President Trump. All we've seen is that statement that came out of the Pentagon.

President Trump, himself, only putting out, as you said, this tweet shortly after we'd had reports of these airstrikes, of an American flag.

Now, we want to note what we know about the events leading up the airstrikes and surrounding it. President Trump was seen leaving a secure area at his Mar-a-Lago resort around 6:00 p.m. last night. He was briefed there and then officials say that he continued to get updated as the evening progressed.

And the president was not alone. His national security adviser Robert O'Brien was also seen on the property, as well as the House minority leader Kevin McCarthy.

Take a look at this Instagram post. McCarthy praising the president and then putting out pictures that seem to be from the events surrounding the airstrike. You can see him with several aides, including the deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley, as well as Kevin McCarthy there and Jared Kushner who is, of course, the president's adviser and son-in-law.

And so, not all lawmakers were as on board with this as McCarthy. And not surprisingly, it was really deeply divided between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans coming out and praising the president. Democrats really concerned for a number of reasons, one being the fact that it's still unclear who was actually briefed before this happened and there was no congressional authority at all.

[05:40:03]

The other side here being, of course, the concern over the revenge or the repercussions.

I want to show you a tweet here from the Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy from Connecticut. He said, "Did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second-most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?"

Now, of course, we do know that Speaker Pelosi has called for an immediate briefing -- immediate briefing of Congress. We have heard that some key aides up on Capitol Hill will be briefed later today, keeping our ear to the ground on what exactly that will look like.

But just a reminder here, Laura. This is a president who campaigned on getting our troops out of the Mideast and who has long lamented our big footprint -- the big footprint of the United States in the Middle East, and experts are saying that this is not going to help that cause.

JARRETT: Yes. As you say, this is somebody who has wanted to get out of wars and said that repeatedly.

Kristen, thank you so much.

ROMANS: If Iran does choose to respond with force, Israel would be one obvious target. So, in response to Soleimani's killing, Israel is assessing its security this morning.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is live for us this morning on the Israel- Lebanon border -- Oren.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Defense Minister Naftali Bennett held a security assessment a short time ago that just wrapped up, and that was with the IDF chief of staff and senior security officials, including as we saw in the photos, the head of Israel's Mossad. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was on a state visit to Greece, is now on his way back. That is a sense of how seriously Israel takes the security situation at this point. Although we've just checked with the IDF, as of now, they say Israel and northern Israel, in particular, are not on elevated alert.

Israel knows quite well that Iran could choose to respond not towards the U.S. but towards Israel, and that's because of the proximity of Iran's proxies and Iran's allies. Chief among those would be Hezbollah, here behind me in southern Lebanon. And as if to emphasize that point there is, in fact, a Hezbollah flag I can see from where we're standing here.

Hezbollah has an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets and missiles that it could train on Israel and Israel is well aware of that. So this is one option for a possible Iranian response or it could from Iranian proxies in Syria, towards the Golan Heights or even in the south where Iran has influence with Islamic Jihad inside of Gaza.

Beyond just Israel's borders, Iran could also try to target Israel's embassies and consulates abroad. Local media reporting that those embassies and consulates are on high alert.

Meanwhile, has there been a political statement? Not yet. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, the defense minister, as well as the foreign minister, have, at this point, chosen to remain quiet, perhaps not to poke or instigate Iran or provoke Iran's proxies in any way.

But there is little doubt that this is an action that Israel would very much support. Israel saw Soleimani as responsible for Iran's strategy, Iran's placement, and the aggression of Iran and its proxies in Syria, and this could be an action that they will very much congratulate --

ROMANS: Yes.

LIEBERMANN: -- the Trump administration for.

ROMANS: All right, Oren for us this morning. Thank you.

A programming note for you, too. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be on "NEW DAY" this morning so hopefully, we'll hear more about the strategy here -- what changed, what's the move going forward? Because from now -- from the White House, all we've seen is that flag from the president.

JARRETT: Silence.

ROMANS: No briefing, no primetime address, just the flag on Twitter.

JARRETT: And so many questions this morning. Why did the president act? Did he need approval from Congress? Are U.S. personnel safe overseas? And, does the Pentagon have anything else in store?

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[05:47:06]

JARRETT: Iran is vowing to get revenge for the killing of a top Revolutionary Guard general in a strike ordered by President Trump. The attack on the Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, a huge escalation in an already tense standoff between the U.S. and Iran.

So, what happens next?

ROMANS: Yes.

JARRETT: A big question.

ROMANS: Yes. Let's bring in "Washington Post" columnist and CNN political analyst, Josh Rogin. And, via Skype, CNN military analyst and retired Air Force colonel, Cedric Leighton. Good morning to both of you.

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Good morning.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST, RETIRED AIR FORCE COLONEL (via Skype): Good morning.

ROMANS: Colonel, to you first. Do you -- they vowed revenge -- Iran has vowed revenge. Do you suspect it will be a covert or overt revenge from Iran, and what do you think the U.S. military is bracing for here?

LEIGHTON: Well, Christine, good morning.

I think it's going to be both and some of these events may take place at a time of Iran's choosing.

What I suspect the Iranians are going to do is they are going to want to have a big splash which is something that can be talked about publicly, so we have to be prepared for attacks against U.S. military bases in the region. And we also have to be prepared for covert action, such as a cyberattack against either American interests or allied interests, such as Saudi Arabia's interests or the Gulf States interests. So that's what I think will happen in the next few months or so.

JARRETT: Josh, do you -- I mean, what changed? We've talked before about how the president is almost sort of dovish when it comes to these types of escalations we've seen in the past and Soleimani isn't a new threat. And you've written before about how our adversaries are essentially testing him to follow through on it. So why was it different this time?

ROGIN: Right. Talking to senior administration officials over the last 12 hours, a common theme emerged. They felt that Iran had escalated to the point that it was so dangerous that a response was necessary. And, you know, it's true that President Trump has resisted getting into a hot war with Iran based on his political instincts and it was also his theory that Iraq could be brought back to the table. But he was convinced, apparently, over the last few days that that was no longer possible.

Now, you know, the problem, of course, is that by not escalating, we signal weakness and perhaps embolden Iran to go further. But by escalating, we set off a series of events --

ROMANS: Yes.

ROGIN: -- that we can't prevent and that we can't predict.

And as Cedric explained, we don't know when the response will be and we don't know when our re-response will be. And we see forces mobilizing to the region, both on our side and on the Iranian side. And this escalation ladder is a very tricky thing to manage and the risk here is that while we have taken out a very bad terrorist, we can't actually control what happens next.

ROMANS: Yes, the question is in trying to end something, do you begin something new or escalate something, and that's where they're talking about that escalation ladder that you're talking about.

Colonel, the rules for strikes here. Tell me what are the rules of engagement here because you've got the Iraqis who are upset and they say that this has violated, sort of, our term of agreement with them for being in Iraq. And you've got these Shia militias that are now threatening revenge inside of Iraq.

[05:50:13]

What are the rules for engagement and what's the possible fallout there?

LEIGHTON: Well, Christine, the normal rules for engagement for an event like this are very precise. You have to be very precise in your targeting and what this is called is a high-value target or HVT in military slang. So what an HVT actually is a particular person or a group that is considered to be of such high value that they and only they should be targeted in a strike.

So what you're doing is you're creating a targeting package that includes a precision strike mechanism and you go only after that target when you've got precise intelligence that that target is strikable -- that you could actually get at them to actually have an effect on them.

As far as consequences for this go, as Josh mentioned, this is going to be a very key area where escalation is clearly probable. And with that in mind, we can probably see more strikes of this type if those targets present themselves to us.

JARRETT: Josh, obviously, in all of these types of situations the big question is what it congressionally-authorized. And at least from what we know right now is there wasn't a formal request, at least that we know of right now.

Ambassador Bolton, former national security adviser, tweeting out this morning it was long in the making.

TEXT: Congratulations to all involved in eliminating Qasem Soleimani. Long in the making, this was a decisive blow against Iran's malign Quds Force activities worldwide. Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran.

JARRETT: What are your sources sort of telling you about the back- and-forth with Congress on this, and what do you expect to see?

ROGIN: Well, this is the latest in a series of actions by the Trump administration, militarily, that were not properly briefed to Congress as far as we can tell right now. And, you know, the authorization question legally is debatable.

I mean, both the Obama administration and the Trump administration have been zapping terrorists from the sky with drones for many, many years all over the world and it seems clear that that wasn't the original intent of the 2001 authorization. Yet, Congress has failed to act to update that authorization so I think there's blame to go around.

But what's really important here is that if there really is going to be a war to come, that's going to mean that all sides of the American political system must be engaged and the administration must inform, educate, and solicit the advice and the consent of the Congress in order to have an effort -- a military effort that's supported by the American people.

Now, of course, the main goal should be to avoid that war, OK, and that's the -- that should be what all of us in Iran and Iraq and the United States should be thinking about in these next 48 to 72 hours. If at all possible, we have to avoid this war. But if the escalation comes and if we've set off a chain of events that we can't control, well then, yes, it's going to need to be the government, plus the Congress, plus the American people --

ROMANS: Yes.

ROGIN: -- all on the same page.

ROMANS: I think we should circle back to the significance of this particular target as well. I mean, this is someone who is a national military hero inside Iran -- someone who the United States has said is responsible for hundreds of American deaths and sort of wreaking havoc on American interests throughout the Middle East and American allies throughout the Middle East.

Former Gen. David Petraeus has actually corresponded with him, almost as if Soleimani had boasted about his significance in bedeviling U.S. interests in the region. Colonel, how important is this moment that the United States has tried to -- has done this? I mean, our Nick Paton Walsh says we're waking up to a very new reality and a very dangerous morning.

LEIGHTON: Well, Christine, Nick is absolutely right about that. This is a very dangerous situation.

I mean, clearly, Qasem Soleimani was a very legitimate target and he is absolutely responsible for the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of American servicemen in Iraq, and that is a key factor in that.

President Bush, when he was president, had an opportunity to go after him. The Obama administration had an opportunity to go after him -- or several opportunities -- and they chose not to do this.

The fact that we did this at this particular moment in time is very significant because not only did this happen in a very closed kind of environment and in a very specific point in time of our own choosing, but it was also a moment in time when tensions were particularly high with Iran.

And, of course, there's only more thing that needs to happen sometimes for things to escalate, as Josh was mentioning, and this is a critical component where that could, in fact, happen. And as you mentioned, this is something we should absolutely avoid if we can.

JARRETT: Thank you so much.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[05:58:05]

ROMANS: All right, welcome back.

Predictable response in the energy sector here. Oil prices higher after that top Iranian general was killed in the U.S. strike in Baghdad.

For context here, a quarter of daily oil global production flows through the Strait of Hormuz. That's going to be a key flashpoint as tensions remain high in the Middle East.

And it's also being reflected here in global markets. Global markets have stepped back a bit. Japanese markets are still closed for the New Year's holidays and they'll resume trading on Monday.

In terms of stocks on Wall Street, futures are down here more than one percent. Looking like almost a 400-point decline at the opening bell if this holds.

Stocks kicked off the new year with record highs. The Dow was up 330 points yesterday for the first trading day of 2020. The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also ended the day higher. It looks like, though, these new tensions with Iran will likely erase those gains from yesterday. Important data today about the health of the U.S. economy. The December ISM manufacturing index comes out at 10:00 a.m. That will be key for what's happening in manufacturing in the United States. So we'll watch those markets and see what happens there.

Thanks for joining us, everybody. I'm Christine Romans.

JARRETT: And I'm Laura Jarrett. Have a great weekend. "NEW DAY" starts right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Friday, January third, 6:00 here in New York.

Alisyn is off. Poppy Harlow joins me for a significant morning with stunning developments.

The breaking news, the State Department is urging all Americans to leave Iraq immediately. This, after a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad killed Iran's top security and intelligence official. That airstrike was ordered by President Trump.

General Qasem Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, but his title doesn't explain the towering role he played in the region over the last several decades. Imagine the head of the CIA combined with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

END