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White House Says U.S. Informed Iraqi Government Prior To Strikes; U.S. Confirms Strikes Against 85-Plus Targets In Iraq And Syria; White House Says U.S. Successfully Struck Three Facilities In Iraq And Four In Syria; U.S. Launches Strikes In Iraq & Syria In Response To 3 Soldiers Killed. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired February 02, 2024 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: Colonel Cedric Leighton, Beth Sanner, terrific conversation on a very important night.
I want to -- all right.
And this is now the top of the hour, 6:00 P.M. here in Washington, D.C. And happening now, breaking news, the U.S. military strikes more than 85 targets in Iraq and Syria, retaliating against Iran-backed militants, hours after the bodies of fallen American soldiers arrived back in the United States. President Joe Biden now warning that the U.S. response is just beginning.
Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Alex Marquardt and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
And breaking news this hour, President Joe Biden and the United States military making good on their vow to strike back after three American soldiers were killed in Jordan. The White House revealing moments ago that strikes on three facilities and in Iraq and four in Syria were successful.
Our correspondents are standing by as our live coverage continues. Right now, let's get straight to Natasha Bertrand at the Pentagon. So, Natasha, what more are we learning about these strikes?
NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: We are getting some additional information just in from the White House National Security Council as well as a senior official at the Pentagon Joint Chiefs. And we are told that the reason why there was kind of a delay here in conducting these 85 different strikes across these facilities, these seven different facilities in Iraq and Syria is because, essentially, they were waiting for good weather to present itself. And that window kind of opened today and it all came together so that they would avoid, of course, unnecessary casualties, according to the military official who's just briefing reporters here.
Now, it is still unclear just whether there were any deaths that resulted from these strikes but what we did hear from General Sims, that senior military official, is that the U.S. does believe that they, quote, hit correctly what they meant to hit. Essentially they are very confident that they managed to degrade and destroy the facilities that they were aiming at.
Now, according to U.S. officials including National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby, the U.S. did inform the Iraqi government beforehand, before they carried out these strikes inside Iraq. That had been a particular sore spot for the Iraqis that the U.S. had previously not consulted with them before carrying out strikes against Iran-backed militias inside the country, prompting them to actually call for the U.S. to remove its forces from the country and so we are learning that they did provide that heads up.
And in these targeting of these facilities, they also encountered secondary explosions that was consistent with these facilities, of course, housing ammunition supplies as well as other weapons supplies. So, they are confident that these facilities were linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, particularly the Quds Force, which is one of the most extreme elements of Iran's military wing.
And so this is a very significant escalation, of course, because it is the first time we have seen the U.S. strike Iran, Iraq and Syria simultaneously and target these Quds Force facilities. It remains to be seen how Iran is going to react to this. However, as we have been reporting throughout the week, it does remain unlikely at this point that the U.S. is going to strike any targets directly inside Iran, Alex.
MARQUARDT: Yes, that much, it seems, to have been made clear.
Natasha at the Pentagon, stand by. I want to get straight to M.J. Lee, who is at the White House. So, M.J., President Joe Biden released a statement on these strikes just a short time ago, warning that this response is not over.
M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Just five days after that strike in Jordan killed three U.S. service members, we are seeing just the beginning what U.S. officials say of these strikes that could take place over the course of multiple days. A senior administration official making clear that for right now, these strikes, this targeting is only happening outside of Iran and will not be happening inside Iran.
And we've gotten strong indications of that in recent days from U.S. officials who have made clear that striking inside Iran would be akin to basically starting a war with Iran, and even tonight, White House officials saying that they have no interest, the U.S. has no interest in starting a war with Iran.
I am told the president, of course, has been being has been updated throughout the evening on these strikes and we did get this new statement from the president just a little while ago. He said this afternoon, at my direction, U.S. military forces struck targets at facilities in Iraq and Syria that the IRGC and affiliated militia used to attack U.S. forces. Our response began today. It will continue at times and places of our choosing. He also said the United States does not see conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world but let all those who might seek to do us harm, know this, if you harm an American, we will respond. The president, Alex, clearly trying to make clear that this, these strikes that we're seeing tonight, had everything to do with the three Americans that were killed and trying to send a message, if you come after one of us, you are going to pay a price.
I should also note just an important note on the timing, even though we are seeing these strikes we saw these strikes take place just hours after that dignified transfer of the three killed Americans.
We are told that that timing was a coincidence, that there wasn't some sort of set orchestration to make sure that these strikes took place after those three Americans had returned home. Though, even though that might have been the case, obviously still striking tonight to see those two things happen in quick succession, this very solemn experience of the president, the first lady going to receive the remains of these three Americans that were killed, and then the U.S. strike that had everything to do with responding to the fact that these three Americans had been killed, Alex.
MARQUARDT: Yes, they are certainly striking side-by-sides. M.J. Lee at the White House, stay with us.
I want to go to our Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour. Christiane, these strikes, as we've been discussing, they're extensive. They target the IRGC, the Quds Force, as Natasha was just saying. How significant do you think it is that the White House has made clear that they are not striking inside Iran?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Alex, you know, for the last several days since this tragic death of the American service people, we've seen nothing but telegraphing by all sides, by the United States and Iran, that they do not want a full-scale direct confrontation with each other. And so this seems to be, for the moment anyway, the way to get the message and the action against the actual militias that are believed to have targeted these soldiers and to have killed them.
So, I think, you know, it reminds me a little bit of all the years I was in Iraq watching waves and waves of bombers from the United States trying to control Sam Hussein and whenever he stepped outside his rules and regulations, outside U.N. resolutions, that these are messages that are sent. It's not necessarily a direct war, but they have to send this very, very strong message.
The Quds Force, of course, of the Revolutionary Guards, is the extraterritorial force, in other words, the force that does operations around the world, not inside Iran. And it is the one that backs and organizes all these militias. So, I think it's, you know, important for the United States to send that message.
Also, it's been telegraphed, a little bit of reporting, and as you've heard, the various spokespeople who have come out, including the president tonight, to say this is just the beginning, reporting that suggests that this will happen over a prolonged period, over, you know, several, potentially several weeks, and on several different levels, not just military.
So, I think there's an unfolding array of response that we might see trying to take this situation it had and, again, try to impose some kind of deterrence in this situation.
But I think we shouldn't forget also that this is not just happening in a vacuum. This is happening as the October 7th war, since the slaughter in Israel and the counteroffensive by Israel. This is what has started all these Iranian proxies around Israel to start, you know, getting involved. So, it's not just in a vacuum.
And, certainly, reporting that I've been able to do suggests that, you know, there's negotiations going on right now. How are these strikes going to affect negotiations to get hostages back, to get some kind of truce or whatever?
But whatever happens, the idea that you're going to defeat Iran or its proxies on your own seems not to be, you know, consistent with experience in the past. And Iran clearly is saying that it wants at least a say in how this resolves in the Middle East, because it is the only one who can turn off its proxies, which are the only ones that are threatening Israel, right, Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq, and in Hamas, and the Houthis as well.
So, the bigger picture in order to resolve this once and for all is to have some kind of negotiation also with Saudi Arabia and all the other states, but that has some kind of buy-in from Iran so that it calls its proxies off for the future and forever.
MARQUARDT: But, Christiane, you know well that when it comes to some of these proxies, notably the Houthis and others, that Iran doesn't necessarily have that full command and control of their activities. Do you expect that Iran will now reach out to make sure that they don't escalate? Or what do you think that the Iranian reaction here is going to be? Because, as you say, there was so much telegraphing this week, there must have been an anticipation in Tehran of what was going to happen.
AMANPOUR: Certainly, there was an anticipation. As you all reported, there was a lot of signaling and probably even in Syria and in Iraq, because it was an open secret that this was going to happen in Syria and Iraq.
They probably all just did whatever they had to do to try to avoid the biggest effect. But when massive B-1 bombers and all the American hardware goes in in the middle of the night and goes after 85 targets, there's not a whole lot you can do about it because it's really overwhelming force.
I do think that it's not going to happen overnight, that Iran is not going to call off its proxies in the bigger context overnight. This is going to be part of -- or if it ever happens, it has to be part of a bigger negotiation and a bigger solution to what the American administration and its allies, including its Arab allies, are trying to do now to end this terrible war in Israel and in Gaza and to make sure that Israel can be secure, make sure that the Palestinians can have some kind of a state, which is the endgame now, which now the U.S. and others are really talking about in a much more strong and determined way than they had certainly over the last 10, 12, 15 years when there wasn't much engagement.
But the only way to get these proxies to stop is if Iran tells them to stop. And I think like Beth thinks, I believe Beth, I heard Beth Sanner said this, that Iran has a huge amount of influence over these proxies. You don't think these ones in Iraq decided to so-called call off their or suspend their operations just because. Where did they get their drones from? Where did they get their weapons from? It's very much -- this is how it works out there.
MARQUARDT: Training their advisers, the list goes on. Christiane, M.J., Natasha, I'm going to ask you to stay with me.
I want to bring in Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. She sits on the Armed Services Committee. Senator Duckworth, thank you so much for joining us this evening.
First, want to ask your reaction to President Biden launching these retaliatory airstrikes on these Iran-linked targets not in Iran, but in Iraq and Syria.
SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D-UK): I think the president thread the needle in terms of showing the commitment of the United States to retaliating against those who might dare to injure American troops abroad. I think the size of the attack that 80-plus targets using the bombers was a clear indication of our military might and our commitment to that.
But also, he thread the needle by making sure that we did not escalate this into a full blown war, first by telegraphing and letting folks know that we don't want to war, but then also by attacking sites that are in Iraq and in Syria, not attacking Tehran, some of my colleagues have very carelessly called for.
I thought that this was a good first step and we'll wait to see what else he has in store for these folks who dare to attack U.S. troops.
MARQUARDT: Senator, if you're telegraphing that you don't want a war, how much of a deterrence is that actually?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think it is a real strong deterrence. I mean, on the one hand, we're saying, listen, we don't want to go to war, but let us show you and have a little taste of what we can do. Here you go, 85 targets.
And I think that that is part of the balancing act that we need to be engaged in right now, which is to show a determination, to show our might as the United States military, as a nation, a leader of the free world, but at the same time also say, listen, we want peace in the Middle East and, Iran, you better get control. You better take control of your proxy groups because they've gone out of hand.
MARQUARDT: Some of your colleagues on the Republican side of the Senate made clear that they want to see the Biden administration strike Iran directly.
Now, there was no evidence that Iranian leadership or Iran had a direct hand in this attack on Sunday that killed these three American service members. What did you make of what your Senate colleagues, your Republican colleagues, said and what more would you like to see if this is just the opening salvo of what we expect to be a multi- phased operation?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I would like to see more sites that are funding and that are sourcing these terrorists to come under fire. And a lot of them, there are more locations other than the ones that we just attacked today. But I have to say that, you know, my colleagues have recklessly beat the drums of war, trying to get us on that path by saying that we should be attacking Tehran. I don't think that's where we should go.
And I think the president did the right thing here tonight by, again, showing our force, but also clearly making sure that we delineate how far we are going to go, but still saying we have the might to do this. You don't want to go there with the United States of America.
MARQUARDT: There have been some 160, more than 160 strikes against U.S. and coalition targets in Iraq and Syria by a whole variety of Iranian-backed groups.
How linked do you see this to what -- how the U.S. is supporting Israel in the war in Gaza?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think that this is definitely a move by the terrorists all around outside of Gaza to support Hamas and what they're doing in Gaza. The Houthis, in particular, have really stepped forward and are trying to win the support of other terrorist groups as well.
I think that it is certainly linked, but at the same time, Iran has the ability to control these groups, and they need to call these groups back. I think the Hamas was allowed to do what it was doing because Israel and Saudi Arabia were very close to signing an agreement, and it's not in Iran's best interest, as far as their leadership is concerned, to see greater peace in the Middle East. But, again, we have to send a message that you need to pull folks back.
I mean, I think the Iranians, for example, were quite surprised when some of these forces use ballistic missiles, and you saw that they put an end to that already.
So, they have the ability to control these groups. They, after all, have been funding them for decades. And I just want to say that this is, again, a good first step, and we'll be waiting here in the Senate to see what the president does next. MARQUARDT: This is the first step, as we've been saying. We've gotten a couple more details, Senator, that these strikes lasted around 30 minutes, just 30 minutes, this is according to the White House. The National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, saying we believe the strikes were successful. They are not sure how many militants were killed or wounded, but this was seven facilities split between Iraq and Syria. Do you believe that that was forceful enough?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think it was forceful. You can wreck a lot of havoc in 30 minutes. Let me just tell you, the United States military has the capacity to obliterate many things if you get 30 minutes to do so. But I will tell you that part of the destruction isn't just about killing the terrorists, but also about going after their storage of ammunition stores, their capacity, their logistics nodes.
So, we won't know until the next following days to see exactly what was struck. But it's more about than just killing the terrorists themselves. I'm sure there will be many casualties, but more importantly that we managed to strike their ammunition stores, that we managed to strike their logistics capabilities.
MARQUARDT: Yes. I know we're all certainly eager to hear from the Pentagon what their battle damage assessment is, and we'll look to see whether the Pentagon releases any imagery of the strikes that were carried out, and certainly what we can see ourselves in terms of commercial satellite imagery.
Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, thank you very much for your time and your thoughts tonight.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you.
MARQUARDT: I want to bring back Christiane Amanpour, M.J. Lee and Natasha Bertrand, as we get more details about what happened tonight in Iraq and Syria.
Natasha, to you first at the Pentagon, what is DOD saying about the types of targets that were struck? We know that it was some 85 targets across seven facilities.
BERTRAND: Yes, Alex. So, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command, the facilities that were struck included command and control operation centers, intelligence centers, rockets, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicle storages, and logistics and munitions supply chain facilities of militias, and the IRGC Quds Force, as we were discussing earlier, that very extreme arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military wing.
So, these are obviously targets that are meant to degrade some of the key capabilities of these militias, some of the weaponry and supplies and intelligence capabilities that they have been using to carry out these strikes on U.S. and coalition forces across Iraq and Syria, over 160 times since October. We should remind our viewers that the attack in Jordan was far from the first time that these groups have launched these strikes on these U.S. forces, but it was by far the most deadly and the one with the most collateral damage that we have seen. So, that is what the U.S. is responding to here. We are still unclear just how many people, if any, were killed in this attack. They are still doing their battle damage assessment, but you have to imagine that if any IRGC personnel were killed in this attack, then that is obviously going to be seen as a significant escalation.
However, it is important to note that the Iranians have said quite publicly that they are not seeking a war with the United States, something that the U.S. has also reiterated multiple times.
So, we do expect to see more targets hit by the U.S. in the coming days. The president and the secretary of defense made that quite clear in their statements. Just what those targets will be remains to be seen. The U.S. might have to go back, for example, to hit targets that may not have been hit the first time.
However, we are hearing from a senior military official tonight, Lieutenant General Sims, who is the director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Staff, that they are confident that of all the targets that they were aiming at tonight, they did manage to hit every single one that they were hoping to target.
So, they are pretty confident that they managed to carry out the kind of operation that they had been planning for at least several days.
MARQUARDT: M.J., the area where these strikes took place, this is where the U.S. has responded before to some of these more than 160 strikes that Natasha was just talking about. These are obviously more significant in terms of the scale, the scope, the weaponry that was used. But why do U.S. officials think that tonight's strikes will be different than what they've done in the past?
LEE: Yes, Alex, I think that's such a good question. You know, U.S. officials are now taking the time to sort of explain to reporters the details of these strikes, you know, why these seven facilities in Iraq and Syria that were all being used, according to them, by these proxy groups, why the use of the B-1 bombers, why tonight?
They're saying that weather was actually a huge factor in determining what would give them the best chance of success. And they determined, according to the weather, that it was Friday. White House Spokesman John Kirby just told reporters this wasn't just a messaging exercise, this was about degrading these groups' capabilities.
But the U.S., as you just put so well, has been trying to degrade these capabilities for weeks and weeks now. And I think this really just begs the question, will these strikes be different, and how will they be different?
You know, the reality is that even though, as Natasha just said, the White House is eager to say right now that these strikes were successful, as far as they can tell, that they have gone really well, we won't know for a while what kind of degradation of these capabilities actually took place because of these strikes. And also, I think a big factor clearly is going to be what is to come in the coming days. The White House is making very clear that this is just the beginning, this is just day one, and there will be other strikes.
They're obviously very reticent to lay out in any way when those might come, in what form these strikes might come. But I think we are just in the beginning of this, and we're just going to not know for a while the answer to the question of whether or not these strikes are going to have a different effect, and at least being a little more successful in serving as a deterrence this time around.
MARQUARDT: Christiane, you know, these are targets that are affiliated with the IRGC, with the Quds Force, but we're not hearing any word about, say, senior IRGC commanders. This is not a strike like we saw in January 2020 against Qassem Soleimani. How wary do you think the Biden administration is being here at striking too closely to Iran?
AMANPOUR: Well, certainly close, as you've had your other military analysts say, the closer you get to the border, the more you could make a mistake. If you're not aiming at Iran, something could go awry, and that could, you know, turn the calculation a bit.
And remember, Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the world's force, was actually assassinated. He was deliberately targeted. It wasn't just that he was, you know, in the wrong place. And this was in Iraq. It wasn't in Iran. So, he was killed then.
But I think also in response to what Senator Duckworth said, responding to some of the Republicans who said, you know, you know, hit Iran, hit Iran. I mean, I'm just going all the way back to after 9/11, where if you remember the sort of narrative was, well, first we're going after Afghanistan, then we're going after Iraq, and then we're going after Iran. Well, they never did.
George W. Bush, the president, resisted the pressure, including from Israel at that time, to go after Iranian nuclear sites and the rest. And, as you know, President Trump did not go after Iran either, when there were other sort of issues going on, and he was also being urged to by someone who's even righter than him, he did not.
So, this looks like it's a proportional response, but one that leaves them in no doubt, whatsoever, as to the punishment for the killing of three Americans. And it's going to go on for longer, both militarily and perhaps on diplomatic and sanctions. We'll wait to see what they do, but it's not a one off.
And I think what's, again, important in the context is that all these groups are part of the so-called axis of resistance that Iran and the Quds Force, the international, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard created back in the early 1980s after Israel's invasion of Lebanon. That's what started this axis of resistance. And it grew to make Hezbollah, then eventually Hamas, et cetera.
So, this is also part of a political dysfunction in that part of the world, which now, because of October 7th and the horror that happened, has made our leaders decide that it is really time to get serious about really having a political solution to this, because, otherwise, it will be endless.
It will. All of this will continue. The threats to Israel will continue. These proxies and things will continue all these attacks. It's not going to end at all.
The Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, it doesn't necessarily want to go to war with Iran either. If you remember, again, in the Trump administration, Iran hit with a whole wave of drones undetected, a major oil installation, and, certainly, the United States did not come to the military support of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has tried over the last year to patch things up with Iran. It doesn't want to go to full scale war with Iran.
So, there needs to be a lot of policy happening after this retaliation, which the U.S. believes is proportionate to what happened to its service people in Jordan this past week.
MARQUARDT: Yes, certainly, the message that we've heard from U.S. officials is that Iran doesn't mind being irritant to the U.S., but they are not looking for war.
Christiane and M.J., stand by. I want to go straight back to Natasha quickly. Natasha, I believe you have some news.
BETRAND: Yes, I just wanted to flag here that the Lieutenant General that we have been -- that briefed reporters just a moment ago, he did say explicitly that these strikes were chosen with, quote, an idea that there would likely be casualties.
He said, I would tell you that we know that there are militants that use these locations, IRGC, as well as Iranian-aligned militia group personnel, who use these locations, and they specifically made these targeting decisions with the idea that there would likely be casualties associated with people inside those facilities.
Now, National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby, he did say that the U.S. has taken great pains to make sure that there were no civilian casualties in those areas, but the senior military official tonight telling us that there are likely to be casualties among the personnel affiliated with these militia groups, Alex.
MARQUARDT: All right. Natasha, M.J., Christiane, thank you all so much.
I want to bring in former Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, along with the former commander of U.S. Central Command, retired General Joseph Votel.
General Votel, this was your area of operation. This is where Central Command run things. I want to get your thoughts right off the top of your reaction to what we've learned about these strikes in Iraq and Syria tonight, seven facilities across those two countries.
GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL (RET.), FORMER U.S. CENTCOM COMMANDER: Yes, thanks, great to be with you and with Secretary Panetta.
You know, I think this is about what we would have expected. It looks like this strike was -- these strikes were really oriented on going after the infrastructure, the locations, possibly facilitators associated with this, and was designed by its scope and scale to have as big of an immediate impact as it could possibly have.
Certainly, it probably hasn't gotten all the leaders and others that are associated with that. Perhaps that will come in the coming hours or days. But it looks to me to be a pretty good strike against those persons, those facilities, most directly linked to the attack last Sunday.
MARQUARDT: And, Secretary Panetta, we just heard Natasha, the Pentagon, reporting that the Pentagon designed these strikes, essentially, with an idea that there would be casualties. So, they were hoping it appears that there would be casualties in response to the deaths of these three Americans last weekend. Do you think what happened tonight, in just half an hour, we're told, will be at least a first attempt at, or will it be an effective way to deter these groups, at least with this first salvo?
LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Yes. Look, I think the whole point here was to send a very strong and clear message to Iran and to the proxies that Iran has that we, United States, will not tolerate the killing of U.S. forces.
This was a stronger response than what we've seen in the past, using B-1 bombers hitting 85 targets and targeting the IRGC, the Iranian forces there. And I think it had to make the point that, yes, we are going to send a message that you're going to pay a heavy price. And, hopefully, that's the case. But we won't know until we get all the damage assessments, but I think this was an important first step.
MARQUARDT: General Votel, if you were still in your former position as the head of Central Command and you were talking with Secretary Austin about the path forward, what would you be recommending?
VOTEL: Well, first off, you know what we should expect is in the next few hours here, 24 hours, there will be a lot of evaluation of the strikes we made to make sure we understand exactly what happened, and if some of those need to be re-struck than they are.
But certainly now moving on to perhaps continue to go after the broader network here of leaders and others that will respond to this.
It's really important to appreciate that the way that we target these networks is we do learn by how they respond to this. They'll clearly be talking about this, we'll learn something about this, and that will inform hopefully the next series of strikes that we're going after. And, of course, we've got lots of tools in the kit bag here. We're talking largely about the military tools. We've got diplomatic, we've got economic, we've got informational tools, we've got great cyber capabilities, we've got an extraordinary intelligence community that can be brought to bear.
So, there's a lot that we can do in the coming days and we would be -- I would be trying to encourage us to look broadly at all these capabilities we have to create the biggest effect that we can on Iran, ad as the secretary says, send the unambiguous message that this is unacceptable and that Iran -- we are holding Iran responsible for this.
MARQUARDT: That that balance what was struck in terms of ratcheting things up to send the message to Iran but not going so far as to provoke an Iranian response?
VOTEL: Well, certainly I think that --
MARQUARDT: I'm sorry. Secretary Panetta, to you.
PANETTA: Yes. Look, nobody wants to have a war. That's pretty clear. I don't think the United States clearly has said we don't want a war, and I don't think Iran wants a war either. But there's a line here between deterrence and war, and what we did was to try to make very clear that we're going to deter Iran from striking U.S. forces.
I think the issue as to whether or not this goes further is largely in Iran's hands. They can basically back off and make clear that they are not going to kill American forces. And that would be a clear message that this is not going to escalate. But if they continue to strike at U.S. forces, then make no mistake about it, this will escalate.
MARQUARDT: And, General, you know Iran very well. The U.S. has said that it would not strike inside Iran, but we have hawks, notably on the Hill and Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans, who said that the Biden administration should directly target Iran because of the strike last weekend. What do you think the consequences would be if the Biden administration did that?
VOTEL: Well, Iran has a military that does have unique capabilities. They have a very sophisticated air defense system. They've demonstrated they've got extraordinary drone capability. They've got missiles that largely range the region. So, any decision to actually strike into Iran has to also include the calculations for how they're going to respond to that and the impacts that that will have on the broader region.
So, it's not just as satisfying as it might seem to strike Tehran or somewhere in Iran. I think you'd really have to think through very carefully the consequences of that and then be prepared to accept the risk that comes along with that.
So, it's not an easy decision. It just highlights the complexity of this whole situation in terms of how our government is trying to respond from Iran to it. MARQUARDT: Secretary Panetta, in the next waves, because we do expect there to be more strikes, do you expect them to be still localized in this border area between Iraq and Syria? Could you see the Defense Department broadening it out, their target list geographically?
PANETTA: Well, it is important to remember that this is the first step. This is a multi-pronged response, and there are going to be additional strikes that take place.
So, I think the important thing is that the Pentagon will be looking at the targets, targets we struck today. They'll be looking at other targets. I think it is possible that they'll be looking at the routes for providing supplies that Iran has been using to supply the various proxy forces.
So, I think you're going to see a number of other very different targets that could very well be hit.
MARQUARDT: All right. Secretary Leon Panetta, General Joseph Votel, we have to leave it there. I appreciate your thoughts and your time this evening.
VOTEL: Thank you.
MARQUARDT: Joining me now is Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
He, too, sits on the Armed Services Committee.
Senator Sullivan, the Defense Department, the Biden administration making it clear that this is the beginning of a series of strikes against these Iran-backed targets, not Iran itself. They've made that clear. We know that tonight there was nothing done inside Iran. What do you make of what we know so far, 85 strikes, 7 facilities, Iraq and Syria?
SEN. DAN SULLIVAN (R-AK): Well, Alex, it is early, and of course, our men and women now are in danger, right? These are dangerous combat missions.
Look, I think the Biden administration made a big mistake by coming out and immediately saying we're not going to do anything inside Iran. I think even if that's their policy, which I don't agree with, that's just bad signaling, right? Why would you signal to the Iranians?
Let me give you an idea. You know, it doesn't have to be inside Iran, but I think the strikes need to make sure that it's bringing meaningful pain to the Iranian leadership.
Right now, the Houthis are targeting American warships with Iranian weapons and Iranian intel from Iranian warships. My own view is we should be targeting these Iranian warships. Let's sink the Iranian warships and say, if the Houthis are targeting American warships with Iranian missiles and Iranian intel from Iranian ships, those ships should be sunk.
So, these are the kind of things that I think ramp up the deterrence. But, you know, Secretary Panetta, who I have a lot of respect for, he said multi-pronged. I couldn't agree more multi-pronged. But multi- pronged actually needs to be not just kinetic military strikes, but non-kinetic.
I had a discussion with Secretary Austin on Thursday about this -- or I'm sorry, Wednesday. I had a long meeting, actually breakfast with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on Wednesday. And one of the things that I said, and actually some of my Senate colleagues who are with me, Democrats and Republicans, is we need to unleash sanctions again.
These are non-kinetic ways to re-establish deterrence, particularly with regard to the oil and gas regime. Essentially, the Biden administration has lifted the Trump administration's sanctions.
I'll give you one statistic that's really important. At the end of the Trump administration, Iranians had about $4 billion in foreign reserves. That's not a lot. Right now, they have about $70 billion. That is what they fund Hamas, the Houthis and Hezbollah with. We need to really crush them once again with these sanctions.
And, by the way, the president would get bipartisan support on this. I've directly raised this with the president of the United States, Jake Sullivan. They say they're interested. They need to do this. That's multi-pronged.
MARQUARDT: You heard General Votel there just talking about how capable the Iranian military is. How worried are you that if the U.S. were to take the fight directly to Iran, do what you're saying, striking those Iranian vessels, those ships, and sinking them, that suddenly we'd be off to the races in a conflict that engulfs the entire region and draws the U.S. yet again into another war in the Middle East?
SULLIVAN: Look, I think, and, again, I've talked to -- you can talk to members of the Pentagon on the Armed Services Committee, on the intel we read, Iran is not looking for a broader war.
But here's an issue, and I raised this with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on Wednesday. You know, the language that we're using about, well, we worry about escalation with regard to Iran. Think about, Alex, what they're doing. They're the ones who are escalating, right? They're the ones who are killing Americans. They're the ones who are unleashing the Houthis to fire on American warships. They're the ones who killed -- their proxies killed American soldiers last week. So, the escalation is occurring.
What we need to do, in my view, is re-establish deterrence. You do that by making it painful for their leadership, direct pain, like killing their Quds Force leadership, like President Trump did with Soleimani, but also, really importantly, undertaking these non-kinetic actions. And I guarantee you, our military would be very supportive of that. You know, a lot of times on these issues when they say let's re- establish deterrence, everybody goes to the Pentagon. All right, guys, go after them. But there're many other tools we have that will help re-establish deterrence.
I'll give you one other. The Iranian people right now, millions of Iranian citizens hate their leadership, right? They have had these ayatollahs, this theocracy imposed on proud people. We should be doing so much more to help the Iranian people with their struggles against a dictatorship that they actually hate. And these are all kinds of different tools that I think can bring pressure on the regime.
MARQUARDT: But you point out that the strike against Qassem Soleimani, which was in Iraq, carried out by President Trump, you know, he was a legendary Iranian commander.
That was obviously designed to deter.
MARQUARDT: It didn't necessarily work. Strikes continued against U.S. facilities in the Middle East. U.S. service members, two of them, were killed two months later. So that really wasn't --
SULLIVAN: Well, I would actually respectfully disagree with you. I think when you read the intel and you saw what the Iranians were up to after that strike, I think it did bring back a significant level of deterrence.
As a matter of fact, I think the Trump administration's policies, where you had serious strikes like that, you had very massive sanctions, I talked about what kind of foreign reserves they had at the end, and then you also had a peace initiative, right? The Abraham Accords was an initiative that was really positive in the region, every country in the region was supportive, even the Saudis were supportive, with one exception, Iran. So, that's another strength that we have with regards to the Middle East right now.
Our Israeli allies, of course, but our Gulf Arab allies, all really despise the Iranian regime. That's another element of American comparative advantage relative to them. But bringing all of those elements to bear on Iran, I think, is the real critical thing. We'll see what happens over the next several weeks, but it needs to be sustained and multi-pronged.
MARQUARDT: In terms of normalization, that's certainly something that the Biden administration wanted to continue. They're still hoping that they can resuscitate that normalization between Israel and Saudi, which has been temporarily -- well, at least they hope temporarily derailed.
SULLIVAN: But you know the Hamas attacks, there's a lot of good reporting that says those attacks, in many ways, were launched when they were to actually derail that normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
MARQUARDT: Right, and President Biden has said as much.
Senator Dan Sullivan, I really appreciate your time.
SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.
MARQUARDT: Thanks for coming in.
I want to bring back in our Christiane Amanpour. Christiane, what's your reaction to what we've just heard from these former military leaders, the former head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, as well as Senator Dan Sullivan, who I just spoke with from Alaska?
AMANPOUR: Well, look, I think the idea of really not just sending a message, but actively for the Biden administration, for the United States, try to stop the actual wherewithal with which these militias are able to attack Americans, you know, that's self-defense, that's deterrence, that's all, you know, the things that the president has said that he wants to re-establish and to make sure that they are not able to do it again.
I just think that it's really important for people to remember the facts, and that is that President Trump, you know, he thought that he could do exactly what many others thought they could do and somehow defeat Iran his way. So, what he decided to do, if you remember, was pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal to the extent that it then collapsed.
Now, that was an arms control deal. There were plenty of things wrong with it. It wasn't a complete, you know, overarching political and all the other bits, but it was an arms control deal on the nuclear matter, and it actually worked.
Since President Trump brought the United States out, Iran has been enriching a pace and is much, much, much closer, very close, if it wants, to the nuclear weapon that the United States, Israel and all the others didn't want it to happen. That's one thing. Then President Trump thought that maximum pressure would beat Iran, and it didn't.
So, the problem is that these are tried and tested, but didn't work methods. And there is just a huge political crisis in that region that has to be really solved.
And don't forget right now, whatever people think in the United States, in the Middle East, in the Arab and Muslim world, they look at the war in Gaza, frankly, as Biden's war as well. So, yes, they're trying to get the peace and negotiations and get normalization, but this is the crux of it. This is the crux of it.
MARQUARDT: Christiane, thank you so much. And we'll be right back.
[18:48:12] MARQUARDT: Let's get back to the breaking news. The United States now making good on its vow to retaliate and seek revenge for Sunday's deadly drone strike on a U.S. military base in Jordan that left three American service members dead.
Joining me now is the chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee, Democratic senator of Virginia, Mark Warner.
Senator Warner, thank you so much for coming in.
We just spoke with your colleague from Alaska, Senator Dan Sullivan, who said that the U.S. needs to be much more forceful that the Biden administration needs to take further steps against Iran directly. And he talked specifically about sinking Iranian ships in the Red Sea.
What do you make of those sort of more hawkish comments that we've heard from some of your Republican colleagues?
SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA): First of all, this is a beginning of a process. There are seven sites here, 85 separate locations and the president's indicated that there will be more to come. And let's see the damage and remember, there are Iranian forces not only inside Iran, but around the region.
I do like to remind my colleagues that I remember a meeting with President Trump where he indicated at that point that he was going to strike Iran itself. He thought better of it and decided a time and place where he could affect the most damage without breaking into full-fledged war with Iran, and it was literally six months later before we took out General Soleimani, a bad guy who was the head of the Iranian Quds Force.
MARQUARDT: In Iraq though.
WARNER: In Iraq. So I think there ought to be the same kind of notion that we ought to look at what we can do to deter what we can do to bloody the nose of Iran. I was just in region on a bipartisan trip and Saudi, Jordan, Israel, I heard nobody say, we want to get a full fledged full on shooting war with Iran at this moment in time, particularly as when we think about not only our ally in Israel, but those Sunni Arab states who are in the region.
So let's see how this campaign plays out the one place. I do hope that we will see more action and that is what the Houthis. The Houthis are, I think has been reported in publicly that they are frankly, they get funded by Iran, but they don't follow their lead.
WARNER: And so far are pushed back against the Houthis where we've only taken out there missile launching capability has been not enough. So I think we need to go to command and control against the Houthis as well. MARQUARDT: And they, correct me if I'm wrong, according to officials
I speak with, appear to be the proxy group that is perhaps most independent of Iran. But you are the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. You have access to all kinds of intelligence when it comes to not just Iran, but the whole region.
At this moment, what concerns you the most?
WARNER: What concerns me the most is how many different ways this region could completely erupt into full-scale war. What concerns me a lot is -- thank goodness these --
MARQUARDT: Even if they don't want it as you just said.
WARNER: Even if they don't want -- one of the things that concerned me a lot is the fact that until very recently, the Israeli government, for example, was not paying the Palestinian security forces who help keep the peace on the West Bank.
WARNER: And the last thing Israel needs is a second front on the West Bank. What concerns me a lot is Israel's rightful concern about Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the other notion of opening up a full fledge conflict on the north. What concerns me a lot is the Houthis ability, frankly, yes, with Iranian arms, but now appears to be on their own volition.
I mean, the Houthis, one thing they know about them is they're not very good at governing, but they're pretty good at warfare. They stood up to the Saudis and the Emiratis for multiple years in their civil war, but what they're doing in the Red Sea, and frankly, we have 11- nation coalition striking back against the Houthis, British participated in our strike backs. But I think we need to ratchet that up.
So you can't look around the region. But I would also add because the other thing that I'm frankly obsessed about is this border in Ukraine deal. One of the things that people are saying is, we have to look at what America stands for. Will they respond? Will they stand by their allies?
WARNER: We would make a historic mistake but again, in light of the fact that Europeans came up with 50 billion euro of additional funds for Ukraine.
WARNER: If we were to walk away from supporting our Ukrainian allies --
MARQUARDT: And that includes support for Israel as well.
As you noted, you just came back from the region. When you see tonight strike, when you see that the U.S. is trying to be much more aggressive when it comes to the Iranian-backed groups, how much more concerned you grow about Israel's northern border with Hezbollah and what Hezbollah might do because, of course, they are arguably the most formidable Iranian proxy.
WARNER: Well, I think Hezbollah -- it's been clear in this 100 and -- roughly 110 day conflict since October 7th. They know what happens if they get into a full-fledged shooting match with Israel. Israel will have the capacity to push them back at great cost, but it would also be great cost to Israel.
WARNER: So, they have actually been relatively restrained. So I'm -- with all of my colleagues who say we should be punching back firmer against Iran, I would one point to how President Trump dealt with this, where he chose a time and place where he could send that strong message and did effectively. But I'd also urge those same colleagues to say we are being viewed not just in terms of how we respond to Iran, but will we stand with the broad coalition we put together with Ukrainian people, as they have literally taken out close to 80 percent of Russia's ground forces, pre-war.
MARQUARDT: And as we get to the second anniversary of that war.
Senator Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, thank you so much for your time. Thanks for coming on.
WARNER: Thank you.
MARQUARDT: Appreciate it.
And we'll be right back.
MARQUARDT: And we're back with breaking news. Let's get more on these Iran backed proxy groups targeted by the U.S. in today's strikes.
Our Brian Todd has been taking a closer look.
Brian, what did you learn?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alex, at this point, we know that some U.S. airstrikes targeted facilities operated by a group called a Kataib Hezbollah. U.S. officials have said they believe Kataib Hezbollah was responsible for the attack on Sunday, which killed the three American service members in Jordan.
Now Kataib Hezbollah is one of a few groups that are under an umbrella organization called the Islamic Resistance of Iraq, which actually operate in both Iraq and Syria, and who are backed by Iran with weapons, money, and training. Now, Kataib Hezbollah is considered the most powerful of those groups. In a surprise move earlier this week, Kataib Hezbollah announced it was suspending its military operations against U.S. forces in the region and tried to distance Iran from the attack that killed the Americans. That's clearly, that was a sign of nervousness over possible U.S. retaliation, which, of course, is going on right now.
Now, overall, in the Middle East, Iran supports several proxy groups, but Tehran's control over these groups really varies, Alex. Iran's closest ally is the broader Hezbollah organization. That's based over here in Lebanon. Iran supports Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen.
Now as for how much control Iran has over them experts believe Iran has the most opposed to influence with the broader Hezbollah group in Lebanon. Those smaller groups in Iraq and Syria, they seem to operate a little more independently of Iran. And the Houthis down here in Yemen, well, they are seen as a real wildcard, a group that Iran has the least amount of control over.
And, in fact, Iran's leadership has reportedly been concerned in recent weeks over all the attacks that the Houthis have launched on commercial shipping in the region, in the Red Sea here and elsewhere -- Alex.
MARQUARDT: All right. Brian Todd, thank you so much for breaking that down.
And this is just the past few moments, we have gotten this video in. This is from Iraq. It is of some of the strikes that took place tonight. Remember, as we've been reporting, there were seven facilities that were struck by us aircraft tonight between Iraq and in Syria. This is video of some of those strikes from Iraq in retaliation for that drone strike that killed three U.S. service members on Sunday.
That's it from here. I'm Alex Marquardt in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.