Return to Transcripts main page


U.S. Forces On High Alert For Possible Iranian Drone Attacks; Mark Esper, U.S. Defense Secretary Is Interviewed About Amid Iran Escalation; Esper: "U.S. Will Follow The Laws Of Armed Conflict". Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 13:00   ET




MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: If you're looking for imminence, you need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani. And then you, in addition to that, have what we could clearly see were continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist, to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: National security adviser, Robert O'Brien did tell CNN, the U.S. had intelligence that Soleimani planned to kill diplomats and military personnel but declined to reveal any more details.

Congress is also seeking more information on why the killing was necessary in the view of the President. Administration officials including Pompeo and Defense Secretary, Mark Esper will brief congressional leaders later this afternoon.

Iran's foreign minister is vowing retaliation for the death of Iran's number two man.


JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: This is state terrorism. This is an act of aggression against Iran. And it amounts to an armed attack against Iran. And we will respond. But we will respond proportionately, not disproportionately, because we are committed to law. We are law-abiding people. We're not lawless like President Trump.


KEILAR: And in moments we will hear from Secretary Esper in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. We will bring that to you.

Let's go now to the Pentagon in our Barbara Starr. And Barbara, U.S. forces as we said are on high alert. What's the concern here of military officials?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, before we get to the defense secretary, Brianna, it was a tense night perhaps for the Pentagon, U.S. patriot missile batteries and forces across the Middle East region on a state of heightened awareness, heightened vigilance because there was intelligence that Iran might be sending drones on missile attacks in several parts of the Middle East.

The concern centered around Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. Now, thankfully nothing happened. But Iran has drones with missiles that are missile-equipped and they have used them before, a lot of concern here at the Pentagon. Brianna?

KEILAR: Barbara Starr, thank you.

And let's listen in to Christiane Amanpour and her interview with Secretary Esper.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suggested a withdrawal and he's joining me now from the Pentagon. Secretary Esper, welcome to the program.

MARK ESPER, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Good evening, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Can I start -- because everybody wants to know this and apparently Congress will be briefed today and tomorrow -- you - the administration has talked about an imminent threat, and that is what led to this strike.

As you know, many well plugged in officials, people who apparently have had access to the Intelligence briefings, even after the strike, have reported to our colleagues that the evidence may be razor thin and the chatter was nothing out of the ordinary for what you already know about Soleimani and his plans and activities.

So I guess, can you look the American people in the world down the barrel of this camera straight in the eye and say that there was a ticking time bomb evidence?

ESPER: Well, thank you, Christiane.

First of all, let me send a few messages to the American people and the broader world. First of all to the American people. I want to assure them that they have the best military in the world. And the young men and women who wear our uniform of any service are extremely capable and professional and prepared to defend our homeland, our people and our interests in the region and more broadly.

Secondly, I'd like to say to our service members and our diplomats in the region that we have your back. We thoroughly support what you're doing, we're proud of you, and that we are taking every necessary step to ensure force protection, as I know you ready yourself for what may be ahead. Thirdly, to our partners and allies and directly to the Iranian regime, I'd like to say we are not looking to start a war with Iran. But we are prepared to finish one.

As I've told my many colleagues, as I've spoke to them over the last few days, what we'd like to see is this situation de-escalated, and for Tehran to sit down with us and begin a discussion about a better way ahead.

We think that's the best approach at this point in time.

Now, Christiane, with regard to your question about the Intelligence -- I can assure you that it's more than razor thin, and it's persuasive.

The fact of the matter is, Soleimani was caught red-handed on the ground in Baghdad -- one terrorist leader of a terrorist organization meeting with another terrorist leader to synchronize and plan additional attacks on American forces, diplomats or facilities.

I think we took the right action to remove these players from the battlefield.

AMANPOUR: So ticking time bomb, imminent threat. Is that what you're saying?

ESPER: I think the threat was being orchestrated by Soleimani. That's what the Intelligence reported. That's what he was doing on the ground in both Baghdad and Damascus and elsewhere, and I think it was only a matter of days, certainly no more than weeks.

AMANPOUR: So that's days, weeks, rather than the immediate.

Let me ask you this --


ESPER: Well there (ph) --

AMANPOUR: Well, presumably we'll hear more from Congress.

And I guess I want to ask you what you're picking up now, because you've seen the scenes inside Iran. You can see that that's not just a outpouring of grief from the people there and rallying around a regime that had been unpopular, but that it's also a message.


I mean, that is a message, and you know that better than anybody. You commanded troops on the ground in the first Gulf War. And you have to know your enemy.

What do you think they're going to do? And what will the United States tolerate?

ESPER: Yeah. Let me answer that in a moment here. But let me go back one second. You know, much of this discussion about the strike we made on Soleimani has to look at context, too. Here's a person, for over 20 years has conducted terrorist acts around the world, specifically in that region. He has (ph) the blood of hundreds of American soldiers and service members on his hands and the wounding of thousands more.

In the last 12 months alone he directed, approved or resourced attacks on United States' forces, culminating in the late December strike that resulted in the death of an American.

And then, of course, he was responsible for the siege of the American embassy in Baghdad. So this is no innocent man. This is a terrorist leader of a terrorist organization, and his time was due.

Now, with regard to the Iranian people, and the question you asked -- what you see is what you see. I will tell you that the Iranian people - many are upset with the regime, that for 40 years now has tried to export its revolutionary zeal.

And instead of focusing its time and attention and resources on enabling the -- the Iranian people and giving them the -- the liberties and freedoms that they want, has rather suppressed them. And in some cases -- in this case, led by the IRGC Quds Force and Soleimani -- oppressed or killed Iranian citizens.

So we'll see what happens next. We're prepared for the worst. We hope that cooler heads in Tehran will wisen up and decide to de-escalate the situation.

AMANPOUR: OK. So you're sending a very strong message of de- escalation.

Obviously you say the United States doesn't want this to launch into war. I asked you what would be tolerable to the United States for a response from Iran, but I also want to read this to you, because it's news just in.

And that is even though you've answered the so-called confusion about this leaked letter, suggesting any -- a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, that is not the message that the Iraqi prime minister is giving to his people tonight.

He has said publicly, tonight I received a letter from the U.S. leadership speaking about the withdrawal. After four or five hours it was said to be a mistake. The message was clearly indicating a withdrawal from Iraq. We directly sent the letter to the foreign ministry, to our ambassador in Washington and to other parties.

And as you know, he's been quoted of saying, we interpret that as calling for a withdrawal.

Wouldn't that precisely be what the Iranians have wanted? And could an unintended consequence of this strike actually end with U.S. forces somehow withdrawing from Iraq and from the region? ESPER: Well, first of all, Christiane, a draft, unsigned letter that was acquired by an Iraqi official has no import. It has no value whatsoever.

So the fact that anybody would take it seriously or respond to it -- I would say this, the United States is not withdrawing from Iraq.

In fact, in my conversations with my counterpart, the Iraqi defense minister, I conveyed to him that we do want to stay in Iraq. We want to continue the important Defeat ISIS mission that we're there partnering with them -- by helping train the system, which also has the salutatory benefit of also helping enable more strong and more independent, a more prosperous Iraq. That's what the Iraqi people want.

In fact, in the last few days, Iraqis are still protesting their government's corruption in other parts of the country. That's not being focused on.

Also in my conversation with allies and partners, both in the region and outside the region, in Europe, I have assured them that the United States is committed to the Defeat ISIS mission. And to do that, we need to be -- retain a presence in Iraq, to be there to enable the Iraqi government and to enable that mission.

AMANPOUR: OK. So two points there.

One, obviously Secretary Pompeo has said that everybody will be much safer since this attack, and yet the American (ph) are being told to withdraw from Iraq and other such places -- the American, you know, people from the embassy.

But also, you talk about continuing the fight against ISIS, and surely that's an immediate casualty. I mean, you've announced publicly that that will be limited or suspended.

Most military people, commanders who I've spoken to, say that your forces are going to be hunkered down in Syria and Iraq. You won't be fighting ISIS. You will be fully in force protection mode. Surely that's a victory for the terrorists there.

ESPER: Well, we continue to gauge ISIS in Syria and elsewhere. Of course, ISIS is a threat that is operating all the way from Africa across the Middle East and Afghanistan.

With regard to Iraq, our mission there is to train, advise and assist the Iraqis. So I don't see any material impact right now in the short term on that mission.

Again, the broader message is that we are there to help the Iraqi people.

I think it's evident in the vote that was held the other day.

[13:10:00] If you look at it, nearly all the Kurds and all the new Sunni council representative members either abstained or did not vote, because they recognize the strategic importance of the relationship between the United States and Iraq.

And those Shia who did vote, in many cases did so because they were threatened by these Iranian-sponsored Shia militia groups who said either vote our way or else.

And so I think, again, when you look at the broader message, the broader needs and wants of the Iraqi people, what they want is what we want - a strong, independent and prosperous Iraq that is free from malign, Iranian influence.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you about the 52 sites that President Trump tweeted about once and then doubled-down on -- and you have responded by saying the United States military will abide by the code of uniform and armed conflict.

As you know, it is illegal -- it is a war crime just to give such an order. Again, you were a commander on the ground, and you know that a general or commander cannot even give such an order, because that would be a war crime -- even if it's not carried out.

You would have to, as the senior civilian in the Defense Department, you would have to refuse that order and make sure it wasn't given. Are you prepared to do that?

ESPER: Look, as we always have, the United States will follow the laws of armed conflict and international law.

And I have no doubt in my mind at the end of the day that we will follow the laws of armed conflict, if we end up in a situation with Iran and that the commander-in-chief will only give us legal orders.

AMANPOUR: So the cultural targets, the cultural sites are off the table. Is that correct?

ESPER: We do not violate the laws of armed conflict.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask you what you make of even your allies, even those who are let's say anti-Iranian, like the Saudis, like the others, like the

Israelis -- many, many allies in the region have told you publicly, privately -- and the Saudi deputy defense minister's been meeting with you, meeting with other high officials, to call for restraint.

Your other allies -- the British, the Germans, the French, NATO allies -- are calling on you and Iran to de-escalate. You are being put in the same boat as Iran.

I don't recall this ever happening before, where the United States and a nation like Iran, are both being put in the same boat, both being asked to de-escalate.

How does that make you feel?

ESPER: Well, I guess I disagree with your premise, Christiane. I will tell you -- and I've talked to all these allies and partners -- the ones in the region are fully, 100 percent supportive of what we've done and what we're prepared to do.

They see the removal of Soleimani, this known terrorist and head of a terrorist organization, his removal from the battlefield as a great victory. And they know what it means -- and it's a game changer for the region. So they are fully behind us. They are saying, beyond that, much like we are, is it's time for this situation to be de-escalated.

The Iranian government, the Iranian regime, has been escalating now for 40 years. It's peaked in the last several months. I was very clear in my public messaging to the media and elsewhere that these attacks need to stop.

The escalation in scale and scope, many of which, if not all of which, were orchestrated or directed or approved by Soleimani. I did the same messaging as well when I met with my counterparts in Iraq and elsewhere. So this has been -- the escalation has been driven by Iran, not by the United States.

We have now responded in self-defense, and now what we're saying at this point in time is it's time to de-escalate the situation. Let's get back on a different path, a path where we sit down across the negotiating table and find a better way forward in terms of how Iran can start behaving like a normal country.

AMANPOUR: With respect, Mr. Secretary, senior Americans have told me that Intelligence officials in -- you know, your own Intelligence officials -- predicted precisely this kind of Iranian escalation after the maximum pressure campaign that followed the withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

They predicted attacks on shipping in the Gulf -- it happened. They predicted attacks on Saudi Arabia -- it happened. They suggested it might happen against U.S. bases, U.S. targets -- it did happen.

You talk about Soleimani, but what is the strategy here? I mean, you knew that this was possibly going to happen. Was it wise -- you talk about Soleimani -- nobody is claiming that he was a good guy, no (ph) -- none of your allies are -- and everybody knows what his role in the region was.

But by the same token, previous U.S. administrations, when they could, did not take him out. Israel, when it could, did not take him out, for fear of the consequences.

I guess I want to ask you, do you regret putting that extreme option on the table for the president? Wouldn't some of the other options have sufficed in this period to send a very strong message of deterrence?

[13:15:00] ESPER: Well, Christiane, I would say many experts, going back a few years now, predicted and were proven true, that in the wake of the JCPOA, which did not cover ballistic missiles, which did not cover Iran's hostage- taking, which did not cover Iran's malign behavior, that such activities would pick up -- particularly when we opened up the economic spigots (ph) and we returned to them tens of billions of dollars -- we saw this activity pick up across the region, again, spanning from Africa, through the Middle East to Afghanistan.

And what's happened in the last few years, in Iraq in particular, in the last 12 months, is just a manifestation of an Iranian regime that is bent on exporting its revolutionary beliefs. And so that was predicted.

But what we felt, as an act of self-defense and response to this, was enough is enough. They did not heed our warnings. It was time America responded. So -- and it was the first time we've done so forcefully, in as long as I can remember.

So the message has been delivered. I think at this point it's time for the Iranians to step back and realize that the game has changed, and we're not going to put up with this bad behavior.

AMANPOUR: So you stand by that advice, that sort of -- the ultra option, so to speak?

ESPER: Well, I don't characterize anything. My obligation and duty is to present to the president a series of military options that achieve an end state -- a political end state -- and when we do that, we present him with the pros and cons, the pluses and the minuses, and we go in there fully aware of what it may mean.

And again, in this case, given the facts on the ground, seeing the escalatory behavior of the Iranians, their unwillingness to heed our warnings, it was time that we took an action that would take a terrorist leader of a terrorist organization off the battlefield. He is the orchestrator of all that has been malign behavior throughout the region for two-plus decades now.

AMANPOUR: Secretary Esper, I know you have to go. Thank you for joining us from the Pentagon.

ESPER: Thank you, Christiane.


KEILAR: That was CNN's Christiane Amanpour interviewing U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

And joining me now for more on this is CNN's Arwa Damon from Baghdad, Frederik Pleitgen is in Tehran, we have Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, and CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger here in studio with me.

Fred, I want to go with you in Tehran. We just -- what we heard a lot, I want you to generally react to that interview with Esper. But also, he said near the beginning, we're not looking start a war, we are prepared to end one. What did you make of that, and how will that be received by Iran?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, no doubt it won't be received very well by Iran. But the interesting thing, Brianna, is that over the last couple days here in Iran, I've actually heard exactly the same thing from the Iranian side both from protesters at Qasem Soleimani's funeral procession here in central Tehran from Iranian military leaders as well.

And then last but not least today in an interview that I did with Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, where he also said that the Iranians don't want a war essentially with the United States. But he also said the Iranians will strike back, will hit back after this killing of Qasem Soleimani that happened there in Baghdad.

It was quite interesting because one of the things the secretary of defense said is that he said that this somehow meant a de-escalation. But one of the things that the foreign minister of Iran told me today is that the Iranian see this as a direct attack on the Iranian nation as he put it. He called it state terrorism. And said, there's no doubt that the Iranians will retaliate for that.

It's quite interesting to see because the secretary of defense was there saying, telling the Iranians, don't respond to this. Let it end here. The Iranians are saying, we are going to respond to this. But we want it to end there and not have another -- a large war start between these two countries.

So right now, it's really unclear which side is going to stop the cycle that seems to be going on of escalation that of course is such a big threat to the entire Middle East. Brianna.

KEILAR: And Arwa, you're there in Baghdad. We heard Secretary Esper address this letter. It was a draft letter. But it was official. It was as he pointed out, he said, unsigned. And he basically said that looking at that no one should have given it credence. But this was a letter that looked official enough spelled U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, U.S. troop withdraw from Iraq following an Iraqi parliament vote that said the U.S. troops needed to leave. What did you make of that answer and what Esper said about Iraq?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, and it's actually even more confusing today than it was some 24 hours ago when this letter was initially leaked because Iraqi prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, addressed this to his cabinet today saying, look, we received this letter through the normal channels. We looked at the English and Arabic text. There was a translation issue. We sent it back for a correction. We then received it once again. And we notified our appropriate channels so it was distributed to the Iraqi Ministry Defense, it went to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington and other partners as well, presumably to those Shia paramilitary groups because they had absolutely no reason to think that it was anything but America signaling its intent to begin withdrawing its forces.

[13:20:35] And if you look at the text of the letter it does really seem to indicate just that. Then the prime minister goes on to say, how surprised they were when four to five hours after receiving this letter, they then were hearing that it was a mistake. So he goes on to question. How are they supposed to handle things moving forward? Every single time they receive a letter, are they supposed to call up and say, hey, did you guys send these us on purpose or was this a mistake again?

It's really added a lot more confusion and distrust to a relationship that is on shaky ground right now at best. And in reaction to all of this perhaps even more so in reaction to the U.S. coming out declaring it a mistake in saying no, right now, we're not actually withdrawing our forces. We've then heard from some of the groups on the ground here saying that they're going to be starting a resistance force, as they're call it.

Who makes up this resistance force, Brianna? The vast majority of these fighters are going to be drawn from Shia militias whether they are currently active or not either way, Shia militias who gained extreme levels of experience fighting U.S. forces on the ground here in Iraq. So that's what the Americans are up against here right now.

KEILAR: And, Fred, Secretary Esper was asked about the U.S. possibly targeting cultural sites which is an open question because the President threatened to do it both on Twitter and in person when he was asked about this by a reporters on Air Force One.

And it was interesting to here what Esper said because he was indicating that in order to do that, wouldn't be followed or certainly that's what I took away from it, we do not violate the laws of armed conflict which experts say is very clearly the case when it comes to targeting cultural centers. What did you think of that?

PLEITGEN: Well, it was certainly interesting to hear him say that. And I have to say that the tweet from the President about these cultural sites is probably one of the things that caused some of the most outrage aside from obviously the killing of Qasem Soleimani itself over the past couple of days.

And it was really, if you will, a unifying factor for many Iranians as well. As we know there have been deep divisions here in the society for a very long time. There are big demonstrations here in the street.

But when it comes to Iranian culture, it certainly something that all Iranians can agree on that that it's not something that they want blown up by the United States or by anybody else. This is a nation that really prides itself on its culture as the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, told me its several thousands of years old culture that all Iranians really want to preserve.

So that certainly something we're -- it seemed to me as though the secretary of defense was very much aware of the fact that this is something that did not go down well at all, not just in Iran but certainly internationally as well. It seemed as though he was trying to say, look, an order like that would not be followed, anyway the U.S. military would never do anything like that. Well, at the same time, not trying to get on the bad side of the President as well, Brianna.

KEILAR: And I want to come in studio here for my next question. Gloria, just as you were listening in general to what Esper said over the course of this 15-minute interview, what was he trying to communicate? What is the takeaway that he has for Iran and also for domestic audience?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it was trying to do is say, don't pay any attention to the questions of whether the threat was imminent or whether it was not imminent, that what you have to do is look at the killing of Soleimani in a larger context. And that was the message I think he was trying to get across.

He said, look, the evidence was more than razor thin. It was per say -- persuasive after weapons of mass destruction, nobody said, slum dunk any more. So they -- it was persuasive. We caught him red- handed on the ground in Baghdad. But then he went out of his way and said, take a step back. His time was due.

So what he tried to do was say this is a bad guy, and I think everyone agrees this was a really bad guy. Other Presidents knew he was a bad guy and decided not to take him out because of the repercussions. But he was making the case to the American public here, there was a larger context. He had the blood of soldiers on his hand and that's why we did this, so stop talking about whether a strike was due in a week or a day.


KEILAR: The uncomfortable calculation with that that I think it's hard for a lot of people to sit with admiral is, yes, he has the blood of so many Americans on his hands. But what does this mean for other Americans going forward? And Secretary Esper is very aware of that. There was a calculation of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama made because there was a thought that it can get worse than what Soleimani is doing, which is terrible, of course, but this is the concern moving forward.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: You know, I think there was a general understanding in previous administrations that that was a step that didn't need to be taken for the potential for larger repercussions inside the region. And now we're dealing with that. Whether you agree with the decision or not to take him out, we are now dealing with that.

And I think in the interim, obviously the folks is going to be on military targets, military troops in the region. And so you're already seeing the Defense Department increase posture, increase presence, increase force protection measures to deal with that in the hopes that the pressure will ease over time and they can restore, you know, getting back to some of the business of other missions in the region. BORGER: Can I say one more thing on these 52 sites, the targeting of the 52 sites --

KEILAR: The cultural sites.

BORGER: -- the cultural?

KEILAR: So 52 Iranian sites, some of which are cultural, yes.

BORGER: Right. His discomfort, tell me if you agree with me, his discomfort was clear because, you know, Christiane asked him directly, you know, would you not take an order --


BORGER: -- from a Commander-in-Chief who told you to do something you know is illegal. And his answer was, the Commander-in-Chief will only give us legal orders. When we know what Donald Trump has said publically.

KEILAR: But even then --

KIRBY: Yes. And that was the only answer he could give at the time. He didn't want to go on a national network and refute the President directly. So I think he had to give that answer.

BORGER: He sort of did.



KIRBY: He did it in a -- he did it in what I think the most measured way he could which is look, we follow law of order. We follow the law of arm conflict. Pompeo said the similar thing today. I think they're trying to walk back without offending the President directly. And I think that's appropriate.

I also wanted just quickly go back to something Gloria said about him, pulling back the argument from the imminent intel. And so I think that's wise on his part. I mean I think our troops are in the --

KEILAR: How do you put it that back in the bag on that?

KIRBY: Well, I don't think he can put it back in the bag necessarily, Brianna. But do I think it's wise for him to remind everybody to take a step back and remember who this man was. And how nearly irreplaceable he will be inside the Iranian regime.

Yes, there will be a response. We don't know what that will be. We don't know when it will come. But clearly, him no longer walking around on the face of the earth is a good thing in the long term for our troops and our partners in the region because he was so critical to the foreign policy, the militant foreign policy of the Iranian regime.

KEILAR: I guess we will see, right? Because some of this is an academic conversation until we see where all of these leads.

KIRBY: Right.

KEILAR: The U.S. and Iran and the region and U.S. allies. Thank you so much, Admiral, Gloria, Arwa, and Fred for us overseas. We appreciate your perspective.

So why is the Trump administration refusing to offer specific evidence of an imminent threat. Congresswoman Jackie Speier joins me live to talk about that in respond to what she just heard from Secretary Esper.

Plus, the U.S. blocking the Iranian foreign minister from entering the country for a visit to the U.N., hear how he is responding and how unusual that is. And just a short time from now, the President faces reporters as tension escalate. This is CNN special live coverage.