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Iran Vows Revenge For Airstrike; Interview With Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL); Aid Workers Killed in Gaza. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 02, 2024 - 11:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following breaking news out of Gaza.

Several World Central Kitchen aid workers were killed in an Israeli airstrike. I will speak to the director of the World Food Program, Ambassador Cindy McCain. We will discuss that and more. That's just ahead.

Meantime, regional tensions are on the brink of unraveling even further after an Iranian consulate building in Damascus was hit.

And, later, Florida's Supreme Court opens the door for a six-week abortion ban to take effect, but gives voters the final word on abortion rights for women in November. We will explain.

Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington, and you're in the CNN NEWSROOM.

We begin with two major developing stories out of the Middle East. In Gaza, outrage after seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen were killed in an Israeli airstrike, Israel taking responsibility for the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying it was not intentional.

And just a short time ago, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke about the incident. Watch.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: And as we have throughout this conflict, we have impressed upon the Israelis the absolute imperative of doing more to protect innocent civilian lives, be they Palestinian children, women and men, or be they aid workers, as well as to get more humanitarian assistance to more people more effectively.


BLITZER: There was also an airstrike in Damascus, Syria. Iran says seven of its officials were killed, including some top members of the Revolutionary Guard force. Iran is blaming Israel for the attack.

We have full coverage with CNN's Melissa Bell, who's joining us from Jerusalem. Fred Pleitgen knows the story well. He's joining us from Berlin.

Melissa, what else is Israel, first of all, saying about this incident in Gaza?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we're hearing is that they're planning not just a review at the top level, Wolf, but one that's going to be overseen by the IDF's top general, that he's going to be getting an eye on all the information coming to them from the ground.

And they're taking this, of course, all the more seriously. But bear in mind that Israel -- Israeli officials and the IDF, in particular, have been claiming over the course of the last few months to be working very closely with aid organizations to try and get some of that much-needed release to the more than two million Gazans that are currently, according to the U.N., in need of aid and at danger of hunger.

Now, this is what Benjamin Netanyahu had to say a short while ago:


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Unfortunately, in the last day, there was a tragic incident where our forces unintentionally struck innocent people in the Gaza Strip. It happens in war, and we are thoroughly investigating it.

We are in contact with the governments, and we will do everything to prevent such occurrences in the future.


BELL: Now, those who tragically died in the strike, Wolf, came from a wide variety of backgrounds.

There was an American-Canadian involved, a British citizen, a Polish citizen, an Australian citizen as well. And so you have been hearing the outrage not just from the countries that they came from, but all the many United Nations relief agencies that have been trying so desperately to get aid in and urging that more is done by Israel to get aid in through land.

Because remember that the reason that World Central Kitchen was able to make such a difference and play such a crucial role until it announced the suspension of its activities as a result of this strike was that it's been able to get around the blockade by opening up that maritime route with shipments of aid coming from Cyprus to that makeshift jetty that's been made off the coast of Northern Gaza, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Melissa Bell in Jerusalem with the latest from there.

Melissa, thank you very much.

We're going to continue to monitor the fallout from this horrible, horrible attack. Later this hour, I will speak live with the executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, Ambassador Cindy McCain.

In the meantime, let's bring in seeing this Fred Pleitgen.

Fred, I know you have been to that building, that consular building in Damascus that was targeted. First of all, what can you tell us about that?


Well, it certainly is a very large compound that the Iranians have there. What we have to keep in mind in all of this is that the Iranian Embassy in Damascus is one of the most important ones that the Iranians have, simply because they have such large-scale operations still inside Syria.

That dates back to the Syrian Civil War, where, of course, the IRGC did a lot of things on the ground there. You recall some of the militias that were put up by General Qasem Soleimani, who was later assassinated by the United States.


Now, I was in the main building of that building of that embassy back then. And the main building, if we look at some of the footage, doesn't seem to be touched almost by those airstrikes, but an annex building next to it absolutely flattened.

So it certainly seems as though these strikes were pretty precise (AUDIO GAP) some pretty heavy munitions, again, the Iranians right now saying that seven of their what they call military advisers were killed in that strike, including at least two top generals from the Iranian -- from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, which is, of course, the foreign operations wing.

Unclear what exactly they were doing there. Again, they say that this was part of their diplomatic compound. The Israelis, of course, are saying that they consider this to be a military facility used by the IRGC, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, as you know, Fred, Iran is publicly vowing to retaliate. I know you were recently there in Iran covering the elections that were going on.

Is there an appetite within Iran for a larger-scale conflict that potentially could come out of all of this?

PLEITGEN: I think, for a larger-scale conflict, would be -- it would be pretty difficult.

But, certainly, the Iranians definitely have the means at their disposals for some sort of response. It could be quite painful, not just for the Israelis, but possibly for the U.S. as well. And you're absolutely right. The supreme leader has come out and spoken about retaliation. The foreign minister has said that the Iranians also hold the United

States accountable as well. And, of course, what we know, what you, of course, know very well from traveling so much in that region, what the Iranians have is militias on the ground.

One of the things that the Revolutionary Guard has actually said to me is, they say, look, the United States needs to understand that next to every American military base in the region, there is a militia that is loyal to Iran on the ground there.

Of course, we know that one of the things that the Israelis have said is, on the very morning before that strike took place, they say that the Iranians launched a drone to attack an Israeli military base in the port town of Eilat on the Red Sea.

So, for a limited response, the Iranians certainly have means at their disposal. Whether or not they would be up at this point in time for some sort of major, larger response, for a wider conflict, that certainly would be a lot more difficult, especially since we have seen some of the instability inside Iran as well with some of the protests that have been taking place over the past two years, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen reporting for us, excellent reporting. Thank you, Fred, very much.

Let's get some analysis on these very important and very worrisome developments.

I'm joined now by CNN military analyst retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton and CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen.

Peter, first of all, do you expect that Iran will quickly retaliate for what happened in Damascus?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, if you think about how they reacted to the assassination of Soleimani, who was their main military leader, by the United States in early 2020, there's a reason that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and also the former National Security Adviser John Bolton both have 24/7 security details, Secret Service.

So they certainly wanted to react to that. How they will react -- they need to react, in their own minds, I think, because these are the leaders of sort of their Praetorian Guard who've been killed. How they react, to be -- TBD. Might well involve Hezbollah, because, obviously, Hezbollah has the most capacity.

So I expect they will -- there will be some form of retaliation.

BLITZER: Because they have a lot of proxy groups in the region, not just Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, but the Houthis in Yemen, and Hamas, of course.

All these groups have been supported by Iranian funds and Iranian leadership.


And that's one of the key things. And you mentioned the Houthis. They are going to be a critical component to this. They can cut off a lot of the world's commerce if the Iranians try to use them for something. And we also, of course, have those militias that Fred mentioned in various places within the areas that the United States has bases.

So, for the U.S., this is going to be a force protection issue for the troops that are already in the Middle East.

BLITZER: What does Israel achieve strategically by launching an airstrike against this building in Damascus where these Iranian military leaders were based?

BERGEN: That's a great question, because if you look, what did the U.S. achieve when they killed Qasem Soleimani, the overall military commander, their most important leader?

Did it really deter Iran? I don't think so. I mean, there were more than 170 attacks on U.S. bases in Syria and Iran just since the October 7 war began. So, I think taking out a couple of generals, obviously, Israel thought that it was worth it.

But, I mean, ultimately, I don't think it brings a huge strategic benefit.

BLITZER: What do you think?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think one of the possible scenarios here is that the Israelis either thought or knew through their intelligence that these Iranian generals were planning something against Israel, or perhaps with Hezbollah. That might be a possibility.

So, preemptively, the Israelis may have chosen to strike at this particular target in Damascus. But Peter's absolutely right. This is -- these types of decapitation attacks don't always achieve their desired ends. And this is going to be a real problem for the Israelis, because, once they eliminate one general, another one takes that general's place.


BLITZER: Israeli intelligence seems to have been pretty good knowing where these three top Iranian military officers were holding out.

BERGEN: I mean, I'm reminded of the head of Hezbollah, Imad Mughniyeh, was assassinated in Damascus. He was very, very careful about his security. And, eventually, the Israelis, with some CIA help, found him.

Now, in this case, the U.S. is saying they had no preknowledge of this attack and they did -- were not involved in any way. They have already said that to Iran. But, yes, Israel obviously has very good intelligence just to pinpoint that particular building with those two particular generals. BLITZER: Would Israel normally coordinate or consult with the United

States in advance of a strike like this?

LEIGHTON: Not always.

There have been instances where the Israelis have done so, but there have also been a lot of instances where the Israelis have informed the U.S. after the fact. And that has created some problems in the Israeli-U.S. relationship. And those difficulties may manifest themselves again not only because of what has happened in Damascus, but, of course, what has happened in Gaza as well.

BLITZER: So, you and I have covered these terrorist-related incidents in the region for many, many years.

What's your anticipation right now? Is this going to explode the -- even further the entire region?

BERGEN: I mean, Iran has a lot of reasons not to go to war with the United States, not least that they have massive protest movements that they have put down very violently. They have an economy that's in terrible shape. They do have oil, but they also have a lot of sanctions.

They don't want to go to war with the United States. They want to kind of keep turning up the heat a little bit. I mean, the -- what's difficult about all this, Wolf, is, no one really knows what the real red lines are, right?

I mean, there are -- at a certain point, somebody's going to cross them. But, right now, everybody's sort of creeping up to these red lines without actually knowing what might trigger something bigger.

BLITZER: Yes, I mean, I suspect Iran doesn't want to go to war with the United States, but what about with Israel?

LEIGHTON: Well, that's perhaps a different story.

I think most of us looking at this from an analytical point of view are going to say that they don't want to direct confrontation with Israel, but they're willing to do it either through proxy forces or through other means, asymmetric means, such as cyber warfare or something like that.

And, of course, the Iranians are smarting because many of their nuclear scientists have been killed by the Israeli intelligence services over the course of the last few years.

So, there are different aspects to this where, at some point, as Peter said, there's going to be some area where we reach this point of no return. And whether we're there or not, of course, is an open question. I don't think we're there yet, but it's certainly a possibility.

BLITZER: And even as this is going on in the Middle East, let's not forget there's a war still in Ukraine. I want to ask you, Colonel, about this drone attack on a refinery more

than 700 miles' deep in Russian territory. What does this attack tell you?

LEIGHTON: So, it tells us, I think, Wolf, that the Ukrainians have a major capability that allows them, independently of the weapons that they're getting from the West, to attack Russian targets.

And the Ukrainian plan or the Ukrainian strategy seems to be to go after the infrastructure that Russia has, the most vulnerable infrastructure being their oil. All the oil refineries, all the pipelines, all the things that are part of that Russian structure for their oil business, those are all legitimate targets in the Ukrainian view.

And the Ukrainians are basically trying to do to the Russians in the form of oil, cut off the oil, just like the Russians tried to cut off the food exports from Ukraine earlier in this war.

BLITZER: All right, very important developments. We're watching all of these developments unfold, and they're all so worrisome indeed.

All right, guys, thank you very much, Cedric Leighton, Peter Bergen. Appreciate it very, very much.

Still ahead this hour: A judge in New York just expanded a gag order against Donald Trump just as the former president heads back to the campaign trail.

Plus: The Supreme Court in Florida is allowing a six-week abortion ban to take effect next month, but the Biden campaign says it will turn Florida blue in November by fighting for reproductive rights.

Stay with us. You're live right here in the CNN NEWSROOM.



BLITZER: Florida's six-week abortion ban will go into effect next month, but voters will have the final say on the issue this November.

The state's conservative Supreme Court has ruled that a proposed amendment to the state's Constitution can appear on the ballot this fall. Amendment 4, as it's called, states -- and I'm quoting now -- "No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient's health as determined by the patient's health care provider" -- close quote.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is joining us right now. She's a Democrat from Florida.

Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us.

An amendment to the Constitution of Florida would require, as you know, a 60 percent supermajority of the voters in November in Florida. Can this proposed change make it through?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-FL): Wolf, thanks for having me on this really important topic.

The answer is, yes, it most definitely can make it through, especially when Florida voters -- and, by the way, more than a million Florida voters signed a petition to get this constitutional amendment on the ballot, including 20 percent of the signatories were Republicans.


When they hear over the course of the next six months the harrowing stories like the one I just heard at our public field hearing here in Broward County from Deborah Dorbert, who is a woman in my community who found, when she was partway through her pregnancy, that her fetus was going to be born with no kidneys.

And she testified that she had no amniotic fluid at all and was forced -- because of our 15-week abortion ban that is in effect now, she was forced to carry that pregnancy to term without amniotic fluid, with horrific physical impact, and then give birth to her son at -- after being induced, and had to wait until 37 weeks.

And he died in her arms 94 minutes after birth. That is outrageous that the decision about deeply personal health care choices should be made by anyone other than the doctor and the family, and not politicians, and not judges, and not the government. And that's what voters will have an opportunity to decide in November, and I think more than 60 percent of them will make sure that we can restore abortion rights here in Florida.

BLITZER: And so this amendment, if it passes with the 60 percent-plus majority, would allow women to continue to have abortion rights in Florida; is that right?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Up through viability, yes, that's what the -- the constitutional amendment spells out that a right to an abortion in our state would be granted up through viability, which is statutorily defined in Florida law.

BLITZER: Donald Trump's team gave a statement to CNN, Congresswoman, on Florida's upcoming amendment vote, saying he supported the voters having the last word.

Last September, he had this to say about Florida's six-week abortion ban for women. Listen to this. This is last September.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (R) AND CURRENT U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I mean, DeSanctis is willing to sign a five-week and six-week ban.

QUESTION: Would you support that? You think that goes too far?

TRUMP: I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.


BLITZER: But, as you know, it was his Supreme Court picks, the three of them, that allowed Roe v. Wade to be overturned, which in turn allowed these laws to go into effect.

So what's your reaction to all of this?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Let's remember, as you just said, Donald Trump bragged, has bragged about the fact that he appointed an anti-Roe majority on the U.S. Supreme Court that just a little over a year-and- a-half ago overturned a 50-year precedent that allowed women to make their own reproductive decisions and ensure that those decisions are not interfered with by a judge, by a politician, by the government, that you're not going to have the government at our pharmacy counters.

And that's what Donald Trump's main priority was when it came to health care, stop women from being able to make those personal private decisions. This is on him, and he certainly can't be trusted to be given another four years, where he could make life even worse, potentially ban in vitro fertilization, which is clearly the next step in the abortion -- in the reproductive -- anti-reproductive freedom extremists that put us in this situation in the first place, like Donald Trump did.

BLITZER: President Biden's reelection team is now calling Florida winnable after being fairly red in the last few election cycles, as you know.

Do you think that's true? How does the Biden team use this issue specifically to drive voter turnout come November?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Even before this decision was handed down by our court yesterday, Florida was already going to be in play.

The Biden campaign was -- announced their team that they are putting in place for the coordinated campaign here. Having this amendment on the ballot is going to bring a flood of voters who believe that reproductive health care decisions should be made between doctors and patients, that medical decisions are deeply personal, and that it is not the government or judges that should be interfering with them.

And that's going -- and that's going to cut across the breadth of voters, whether they're Democrats, Republicans, or independents, who want to make sure that we can keep the government out of our most personal health care decisions.

And, as a result, that's why, in addition to already being in play because of the extreme policies and danger that Donald Trump represents if he gets another term, ensuring that we can have a pro- reproductive freedom president of the United States in place in the White House, as Joe Biden has been, is going to be something that Florida voters will go to the polls and choose to do.

[11:25:04] In addition, Wolf, we have one of the most unpopular U.S. senators in Rick Scott, who is virulently, vehemently anti-reproductive freedom, and we have a great candidate, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who will certainly be drawing that contrast, which will help as well.

BLITZER: Yes, lots going on.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, thank you so much for joining us. We will, of course, continue this conversation down the road.

A much-needed delivery of food aid in Gaza turned deadly after an Israeli airstrike hit a World Central Kitchen truck. I will speak to Cindy McCain, the executive director of the World Food Program, about the crisis that's going on in Gaza. That's coming up next.

Stay with us. You're in the CNN NEWSROOM.