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Israel's Shadow War Against Iran?; Interview With Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE). Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 13, 2021 - 14:00   ET




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MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): If we conclude our investigations and Israel turns out to be responsible, then

Israel will receive its response and it will see what idiocy it has committed.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): As Israel's shadow war against Iran ramps up, Tehran warns it's a very bad gamble.

Israeli reporter and author Ronen Bergman with the inside look at what's actually happening on the ground, and Democratic Senator Chris Coons on the

dangerous challenge it poses for the Biden administration.


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AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

What is going on between Israel and Iran and what is the endgame? Tehran is blaming Tel Aviv for Sunday's attack on Natanz, one of its main nuclear

sites, calling it an act of sabotage. Israel has not confirmed or denied responsibility, but leaks from the Mossad spy agency suggest this was an

Israeli operation.

The incident marks a worrying escalation of the long shadow war between the two countries, including little known tit-for-tat attacks on each other's

shipping in the region. And, today, Iran said it's going to up its uranium enrichment from 20 to 60 percent, this as the Biden administration is

hoping for more diplomacy and less confrontation, with talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal that President Trump pulled out of.

So, what actually is happening? And will, by accident or design, it lead to another war in the Middle East involving the United States?

Ronen Bergman has been covering this for "The New York Times." And he's joining me now from Tel Aviv.

Ronen, welcome back to the program.

RONEN BERGMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Thank you, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: So, OK, walk us through exactly what happened at Natanz in a precis, if you like.

We know there was sabotage. We have heard from the Iranians that it created a hole big enough for an official to fall into and to injure himself. What

happened? How did it happen?

BERGMAN: So, Christiane, the Iranians, since Trump walked from the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, started to reignite their enrichment program.

And their violation of the JCPOA started to enrich more and more to a low level and positioned many or most of the centrifuges for the enrichment of

uranium underground in the bunkers that they have built in the previous decade in Natanz. That's their main enrichment facility.

They built it over there under a an enforced concrete roof that is thick enough to sustain what they feared, an aerial bomb from Israel. After -- in

July, an attack that was another attack, another secret attack that was attributed to Israel by the Iranians in the -- one of the above-the-ground

facilities in Natanz, the Iranians relocated almost all of their enrichment effort to underground, believing that it's safe over there.

They have sustained -- Natanz has sustained numerous cyberattacks. They were able to build walls and air-gapped computers, an air-gapped power

grid. And all that didn't help, because Sunday morning, early morning, someone bombed the internal power grid that the Iranians believed to be

completely safe, and completely shut down the whole of the enrichment process inside Natanz, which is (INAUDIBLE) which is most of what Iran

could do in the terms of enrichment of uranium.

AMANPOUR: OK. All right.

So, the question is, who did it? Because, obviously, the finger is being pointed obviously by Iran, but in many news reports also, as Israel.


You know that journalists in Israel have quoted intelligence sources saying that this was a Mossad operation. Even your army chief has suggested -- and

let me just get this right -- has hinted at the role of Israel in remarks that he made on Sunday. And you know that that's unusual.

So, first and foremost, what do you know? Who did it?

BERGMAN: So, two intelligence officials have spoken with "The New York Times" and confirmed that this was Israel that was behind the attack, that

the attack was aimed at this subterrane power grid supplying the electricity for the centrifuges, that it was totally destroyed, that it was

not a cyberattack.

It was explosives, few detonation, remote detonation, of explosives that were smuggled into the facility, possibly long ago, not just -- not

recently. And they were able to completely destroy the power grid.

And that evolved into the collapse of some of those and the destruction of many of those centrifuges. If you put the damage done to the assembly

centrifuges facility in July on top of what happened on Sunday, you come up with a significant damage that Israeli intelligence was able to could to

inflict the Iranians in the place where they thought that they are totally guarded. And...

AMANPOUR: Right, but the question, again, is, it's obviously human -- it's obviously a human being who is an agent who went in and did that.

And I wonder whether who that might be. And, secondly, I really want to ask you, because Israel never responds to these. It neither confirms nor

denies. But the amount of hinting that it did is strange. And analysts have suggested that that public claiming and boasting of it by Israel requires a

response and retaliation from Iran.

So, do you and does Israel expect a retaliation? And, if so, how and where?

BERGMAN: Well, I'm not too -- I'm not so sure about the retaliation.

Iran has been very careful in retaliation to all the different sabotages and assassinations. Just to remind us, on the 27th of November last year,

Israel assassinated the chief Iranian nuclear scientist who was leading what Israel believed to be the nuclear military path of its project,

Professor Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

And there were many others -- other operations to which Iran did not react. The only operation to which it did react were the naval attacks, the

commando naval attacks on Iranian ships carrying oil and carrying arms to Syria.

This is something that Iranians are very careful in creating tete-a-tete. You quoted the sources identifying another attack on Israeli ship. And one

of the officials -- Israeli official has told us that Israel is now trying to keep low level, to quiet down the tension, the maritime secret war.

But I'm not sure that Israel will allow Iran to continue with its nuclear project, even if Iran signs a new nuclear deal with the United States. And

the timing, Christiane, the timing is very important. Israel decided to do those things during the negotiation.

And the Iranians probably speculate whether this was American blind eye, whether America, the U.S., ordered Israel to do that, not to do that. I

think the Iranians now are very much confused, first, how Israel is able to infiltrate their ranks again and again and again and again, to the most

guarded places, and, second, what exactly the U.S. point of view is about all that.

AMANPOUR: Well, that obviously begs the question. Israel has long wanted the U.S. to back a war in Iran against its nuclear facilities.

And going back to, I guess, George W. Bush, they have always denied Netanyahu that military support in that regard.

But I'm really interested in what you say about how you don't think Israel will ever allow Iran to have a nuclear program. Let me just read you what

the Iranians are saying.

The foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has tweeted: "Deliberately targeting a safeguarded nuclear facility with high risk of indiscriminate release of

radioactive material is nuclear terrorism and a war crime."

He says the attacks will strengthen Iran's hands at the negotiations.

And I want to play this sound bite, what he said today about all of this.



ZARIF (through translator): I assure you that Natanz will definitely in the near future progress with more advanced centrifuges

And if Israel thought they can prevent Iran and the Iranian people from pursuing the lifting of the sanctions, they have played a very bad gamble.


AMANPOUR: So, how do you think Israel will pursue this? And I also want to ask you about timing, because you talked about timing regarding the nuclear


But there's also timing regarding Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, who is under investigation. He started the court case. He's trying to get a

coalition together. He's also got a lot of domestic pressure that maybe he'd like to avoid for a while with this kind of situation.

BERGMAN: Yes. Well, let me start with the latter, with your permission.

A confrontation with Iran might be very useful for Benjamin Netanyahu, or the other way around. If something is developing to an all-out war,

something that will have Israeli casualties, maybe soldiers, maybe commando troops, this will have a very negative effect on the popularity of Mr.


The other thing is, those operations takes sometimes not just months, but years to prepare. The Mossad has been known for many, many years in the

ability to recruit workers in factories of companies supplying equipment to those places and planting the bombs and the other espionage activity inside

those equipment, and planting them inside the facility, sometimes when they are just being direct.

And so the capability -- even if Benjamin Netanyahu, of course, he needs to approve all operations, but even if he approves something now, the ability

to conduct something from a week term or even a month term, that's -- I think the chances are quite slim.


BERGMAN: On what is happening -- what Israel will accept or not, let me just quote the current chief of the Mossad, Yossi, Yosef Cohen, who said in

some of the meetings that he had with the some colleagues and some foreign colleagues, some directors of intelligence service, he said: I did not

sign the JCPOA. The only contract the only obligation I have is for the state of Israel, the people of Israel and the Jewish people.

And I -- my contract with them is to make sure that Iran that, according to Cohen, has an ongoing military nuclear project, to prevent Iran from

getting a nuclear bomb.

And I think this is a very strong statement. And, as far as I know, this is the Israeli policy. True or not, justified or not, this is the Israeli

policy. And I think Israel, even if a JCPOA, a new JCPOA is signed, Israel will continue its secret war that is not going to happen, is happening now,

its secret war against Iran to make sure Iran nuclear project will end up going nowhere.

AMANPOUR: And you have broken so many of those stories.

Ronen Bergman, we're very happy to have you back. And we will continue to tap your insights and your resources and your knowledge.

Now, despite what the Israeli government might think a new report the U.S. intelligence community has put out says that it does not believe Iran is

taking any steps to build a nuclear weapon, but that it has breached some commitments in response to Donald Trump pulling out of the nuclear deal

back in 2018.

So, how will President Biden deal with this challenge and head off another U.S. war in the Middle East?

Joining us is the Democratic Senator Chris Coons. He's a close confidant of the president, and he is the president's unofficial envoy to the Senate on

foreign affairs.

So, welcome to the program. Welcome back again.

Boy, you have your work cut out for you, if you believe the very, very well-plugged-in and highly informed Ronen Bergman and what the Israelis are

saying. I mean, they don't want to see your president take the route that he wants to take, diplomacy in order to reduce tensions with Iran around a

nuclear program.

What are you going to do about it? What is he going to do about it?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Well, Christiane, I expect the Biden administration, President Biden and his senior diplomats, to continue

working at the table in Vienna and with our allies and partners around the world and in the region to keep trying to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough

with Iran.

I am clear-eyed about how difficult that will be. I am asking for and am expecting that we will get a classified briefing on recent developments in

Iran, what happened at Natanz, what's happening at the negotiating table in Vienna.

But I think it is gravely concerning that Iran has announced they intend to now increase their enrichment rate to 60 percent, taking them much closer

to weapons-grade. This is a standoff that has to be resolved.


I hope and pray that it will be resolved peaceably, that we will find a path towards a longer and stronger deal that addresses the ballistic

missile program, the support for regional proxies and for terrorism that has long marked Iran's regional actions.

But, frankly, we're in a very tough situation, as the interview you just concluded suggests.

AMANPOUR: So, you're worried, clearly, about those issues you raised about Iran.

Are you worried about your main ally in the region, Israel, using military force, whether it's in the Gulf with that tit-for-tat attacks on each

other's shipping, or whether it's using an operative to go in and blow a hole in a nuclear -- in a nuclear plant? Are you worried about that? And

did you have any advanced knowledge about it?

Did the United States know what Israel was going to do before it did it?

COONS: Christiane, I had absolutely no sensor information that there was an upcoming incident at Natanz.

But I think the Israeli government has been very clear for a long time that they will oppose and take action to prevent Iran developing a nuclear

weapon. The United States has also held that policy for some time. It has broad bipartisan support here in Congress that we will take the actions we

need to take, but we hope those will be diplomatic actions, to prevent Iran from achieving a deliverable nuclear weapon.

These recent developments make that more difficult, less certain. And I think it'll call for some closer conversations and cooperation with our

vital ally Israel.

AMANPOUR: Israel has long tried, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been in office for more than a decade now, has long

tried to suck the United States into some kind of military offensive against Iran.

And it's been denied by U.S. presidents from George W. Bush on to now. Are you concerned, as I posed, by accident or by design, the United States

could be pulled into another war in the Middle East between Israel and Iran?

COONS: Christiane, I am concerned that we might be drawn into any regional conflict, just because I have heard from so many Delawareans so many times

that they are tired of the decades-long wars that we have been engaged in, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, more recently in Syria.

And I think we have to look very carefully at how we balance our national security interests, our values and priorities and the path forward in the


I have recently had conversations with senior leaders in some of the Gulf states. And I think the Abraham Accords were a significant and positive

step forward, as there are now a number of Arab states that are recognizing Israel and normalizing relations with Israel. That hadn't been even a

prospect a few years ago.

So I do think there is an opportunity here that the Biden administration can and will seize, that folks here in the Senate can and will take

advantage of, for us to make some positive progress in trying to resolve some of these longstanding and difficult conflicts.

I think the appetite of the average Delawarean, the average American for new troop deployments, for a new conflict in the region are very low. And a

conflict against Iran would be even more challenging and even more costly than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: Well, you bring me, of course, to Afghanistan.

The news is that the president plans to remove U.S. troops by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. That would be this year, September 11. He's going to

lay it out, apparently, tomorrow.

Are you -- do you believe that that's in the United States' best interest to remove U.S. troops? And, most importantly, do you believe the conditions

have been met in Afghanistan to take this step?

COONS: Well, Christiane, let's be clear about what President Biden inherited.

His predecessor had very abruptly decided to withdraw all of our forces from Syria, even though we were in the middle of combat operations with

close and trusted NATO allies. They only found out about it on Twitter. And this was the result of a call with the -- President Erdogan of Turkey.

President Trump also made, I think, a relatively abrupt decision to commit to a full withdrawal of American troops by May 1 from Afghanistan. That's a

decision that President Biden has very carefully weighed. He's consulted closely with allies. He has had meeting after meeting with senior military

and intelligence advisers, and has only come to this decision after really weighing all the factors.

My first trip overseas as a senator, Christiane, 10 years ago was to Pakistan and Afghanistan. And, even then, when we'd been at war in

Afghanistan 10 years, it did not seem clear to me that we had a path towards a successful resolution on our terms of all the conditions and

actions we were engaged in.

We had succeeded in knocking down al Qaeda and in helping establish a democratic and elected government in Afghanistan. And 10 years later, the

costs that we have invested in Afghanistan lead me to believe that President Biden has made the most responsible decision, given the situation

that he had inherited.


The withdrawal by September 1 will happen in close coordination with our allies, with good planning, and in a safe and responsible manner.

AMANPOUR: You said September 1. Do you mean September 11, or are you telling me something new?

COONS: Sorry. I meant by early September.

AMANPOUR: OK. All right.

I guess my question to you, though, is, are you prepared? Because U.S. intelligence, again, and also other government officials who deal with

Afghanistan and have done over the years do not believe that the U.S.- backed government there can sustain itself in the absence of troops, and that the advances that the Taliban are making and the complete disregard of

the American demands for a peace accord could put the Taliban back in charge.

In other words, the very thing you went into Afghanistan 20 years ago to eliminate may happen right now, again, right after the 20th anniversary of


COONS: Christiane, to be clear, I was not here in the Senate at the time. But my strong impression was the very thing we went into Afghanistan to

prevent was al Qaeda having a base of operations.

A decades-long war to build a successful independent democratic republic and to help ensure their security is an effort that I have concluded would

have no reasonable end in the next five to 10 years.

So, for those who say we should stay, we should stay for another year or another two, they have to look clearly at just how much we have invested

over the last 20 years, and just how much the world has changed in those 20 years.

The several trillion dollars that we have poured into the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, our now competitor, China, has instead poured into

rebuilding and modernizing their armed forces, into being our peer competitor in manufacturing and innovation.

We face an aggressive Russia and an aggressive Iran and an ascendant China. We're in a different place in the world than we were 20 years ago. And I

respect President Biden and trust that he weighed all of these things carefully in making what I'm sure was a very hard decision about this

timing to make a decision to responsibly withdraw, in consultation with our allies.

AMANPOUR: I'm sure it's a hard decision. I know it's America's longest war. But the Taliban are the ones who hosted al Qaeda. And there's no

guarantee that they won't allow those anti-American terrorists to regroup.

But let me just move on, because the president has sent you to another part of the world, to Ethiopia in Africa, where you have just returned from, to

try to rein in and get a stop to the atrocities that have been committed in the war there.

Can you tell us about it? And I believe you have had exchanges of letters from one president to the next and from the prime minister back to

President Biden.

COONS: That's right, Christiane.

I was asked by President Biden to serve as a special emissary to Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia, who I will remind you just a few years ago won

the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing to a conclusion the longstanding war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

In a conflict that began in November in Tigray, his federal forces, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, have been fighting the TPLF, a regional

army or militia that really was dominant in Ethiopia for decades.

There were a few pressing issues that I raised with the prime minister. He met with me for five hours over two days. He was very generous with his

time. I delivered a letter directly to him from President Biden, and I brought a letter back to President Biden from Prime Minister Abiy.

A couple of key developments. He made commitments about humanitarian access throughout Tigray. He made commitments and then publicly stated he

recognized there have been human rights violations committed by his own troops, by Eritrean troops, by the Amhara militia, by the TPLF, and

committed to an international investigation, in partnership with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

Most importantly, he recognized publicly for the first time the presence of Eritrean troops in his country, and then made a trip to Asmara to meet with

President Isaias of Eritrea to demand that he withdraw his troops. That was a significant step forward.

We are looking for action across these three key commitments. And there are also other regional concerns about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and

a border dispute with Sudan. There was progress made on all of these fronts.

But there is still more that has to be done. The prime minister made some important commitments. I'm going to be working closely with the Biden

administration to make sure that those commitments are followed up on.

AMANPOUR: That would be really important, because, as you say, there's some terrible atrocities that are being committed, and we have been

following them with our correspondents, and we will continue to do so.

So, thanks for that, Senator.

I just want one last question.


The Russian foreign minister is in Iran. He is hoping to tamp down tensions. He says that it is in their interests and all of your interests

to see the nuclear deal revived.

I want to ask you, as a U.S. senator, is the nuclear deal and for the U.S. to get back into it of national security interest to the United States?

And, if so, would you tolerate an ally Israel, trying to disrupt it by any means necessary, as we heard from our previous interview?

COONS: I do think it's in America's vital national security interest to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

And I think, if we can accomplish that by diplomatic means, that is far preferable. And if we can accomplish a broader and bolder deal that puts to

rest the legitimate concerns of our partners and allies in the region, that is the best possible outcome.

And I think it's important that we continue to have respectful public and private conversations with our close partners and allies in the region,

and, in particular, that we understand the legitimate and unique concerns of Israel, given how many times Iran has threatened Israel's security.

This is a tough road for us going forward, Christiane. But I look forward to working with my partners here in the Senate and with the Biden

administration to make sure that there's full consultation, and that the path forward ultimately is one that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear


AMANPOUR: Lots and lots of challenges on your plate.

Senator Coons, thank you so much, indeed, for joining us.

And we return the network to Minneapolis, where the trial is under way, as we know, against Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd.

And, today, the defense has started to present its case.