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CONNECT THE WORLD

Iran Announces Nuclear Advancements; Tensions Mount Between Iran and Israel; Debate Over How World Should Respond; Nicolas Sarkozy Announces Re- election Bid; French Presidential Election; Freedom Project: Children of the Dump; Parting Shots: US Presidential Campaign Goes to the Dogs

Aired February 15, 2012 - 16:00   ET

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


MAX FOSTER, HOST: Iran says it's making great progress towards its goal of nuclear self-reliance. Today, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled what were billed as the first domestically-produced fuel rods. Iran also says it's created new centrifuges that can enrich uranium faster.

Now, the United States is downplaying that news, saying Iran's advances are, quote, "not terribly new and not terribly impressive." But as CNN's Reza Sayah reports, Iran is determined to prove that nothing can stop what it calls its right to a peaceful nuclear program.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Iran calling this a "great day of achievement" for what it calls its "peaceful nuclear program" in a ceremony in Tehran clearly designed for maximum publicity.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the head of Iran's nuclear program making some important announcements about the nuclear program, Iran clearly using this day, using these announcements as a way to send a message to the West and Israel that it's moving forward with its nuclear program, and it's not deterred by the economic sanctions, the pressure, and threats of war.

It's important to point out that none of the announcements from Tehran were surprises. Iran had long ago announced these undertakings to the IAEA, the UN's nuclear watchdog.

In his address, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised the nuclear program and also, in his vintage style, mocked nations who already have nuclear bombs that are expressing fear that Iran is now going after a bomb.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, PRESIDENT OF IRAN (through translator): They have 10,000 bombs and they say they are against bombs. Well, are you making fun of yourselves? The whole of history will laugh at you, will ridicule you. The Iranian nation knows what it is doing.

SAYAH: Even though Wednesday's announcements were no surprise to anyone monitoring Iran's nuclear program, look for the finger-pointing and the war of words to ratchet up in the coming days, Israeli leaders already sounding the alarm that this is Iran taking another step towards the capability of building a bomb.

All this is, of course, taking place against the backdrop of Iranian nuclear scientists being assassinated in Iran over the past few years and attempted assassinations of Israeli diplomats in places like India and Georgia.

Reza Sayah, CNN, Islamabad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOSTER: Let's give you some more context, now, about what Reza just called the backdrop of Iran's nuclear announcement. Perhaps no country has more concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions than Israel. It's been trying to rally global support for tougher action against Tehran.

And now, it's pointing to a series of attacks in world capitals as proof that Iran is a state-sponsor of terror. Israel blames Iran for box explosions in Thailand as well as bombs in India and Georgia that targeted Israeli diplomats.

Today, Thai police charged two Iranians in connection with Tuesday's bombings in Bangkok. Another Iranian suspect was apprehended in Malaysia.

Iran denies any connection to these attacks, but many analysts believe they may be retribution for the recent assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, assassinations that Iran blames on Israel.

As some Israeli commentators put it, a covert war between Israel and Iran is now out of the shadows. The Israeli prime minister had some harsh words for Tehran today. We're going to get more on that, now, from CNN's Jerusalem Bureau Chief Kevin Flower. Kevin?

KEVIN FLOWER, CNN JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Max, while there was no official reaction from Israel today about the nuclear activities that Iran showcased, there was an Israeli official who told me today that if people believe that Iran's nuclear activities are for civilian purposes, then they should also believe in the Easter Bunny.

This source went on to say that to assume the program is benign is to ignore all the facts. So, a fairly clear pronouncement from Israeli officials about what they think about what's going on in Iran.

And while this messaging from Israel is not particularly new, Max -- we've heard these sorts of statements from Israeli officials before -- it comes at -- during a week of escalating sort of tit-for-tat exchanges of rhetoric between the two countries.

Today, the Israeli prime minister said before the Knesset, he accused Iran of being the number one exporter of terrorism in the world, and it held them responsible for those bombing attacks you mentioned in New Delhi and Tbilisi, Georgia, and also in Bangkok. This is what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL (through translator): Iran is a threat to the stability of the world. They are targeting innocent diplomats. The international community has to denounce the Iranian actions and to indicate red lines concerning the Iranian aggression. This kind of aggression, if it isn't stopped, will spread to many other countries.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FLOWER: Now, Iran, for its part, has denied these allegations and, in fact, it has said that it is Israel, Israel's Mossad spy agency who, in fact, might be responsible for some of these bomb explosions themselves in an effort to try and tarnish Iran on the global stage.

But as you mentioned, Max, all of this comes within the context of this escalating shadow war, covert war, between the two countries. While neither one will admit anything, there is the sense that this is, indeed, escalating and it could get more violent, Max.

FOSTER: Kevin, thank you. Let's bring in two guests, now, to help us debate what the world should do about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

We're joined by Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. He's also the former director for Counterproliferation Strategy at the US National Security Council.

And we're also joined by Nicholas Burns, he's a former US Undersecretary of State for political affairs. He's now professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. Thank you both, indeed, for joining us.

First of all, Jamie, we're talking here about a covert war. At what point should this come out of the shadows? What do you think the solution is right now?

JAMIE FLY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FOREIGN POLICY INITIATIVE: Well, I think the immediate solution from an American perspective is reassuring the Israelis, because they're most concerned about the initial several months ahead of us, and they feel that this is a problem that cannot be pushed into next year unlike, apparently, the Obama administration.

And so, we should be doing everything we can in terms of additional sanctions. But also ensuring that the Iranians realize that the military option is on the table and that the United States and its allies are serious about pursuing the military option if Iran does not halt its covert and illicit nuclear weapons program.

FOSTER: A military action. So, that should be on the table. What sort of military action are you actually talking about?

FLY: Well, there are different options, obviously. If Israel was to take action in the coming months or in the near future, their military option is probably something that would be much more limited than what the US military would be capable of.

And if the US were to get involved, my main concern would be to ensure that whatever action we would take would make sure that we did not have to go back in and take military action every few years, and it was not focused in just setting back the program.

But we were actually going after regime assets, leadership elements, to really deal with the long-term solution to this problem, which is some sort of regime change in Iran, hopefully brought about by the Iranian people, but perhaps something that we could assist with from the outside.

FOSTER: Nicholas, it would give a very, very clear message, wouldn't it, at a time when many people around the world are very concerned about this issue?

NICHOLAS BURNS, PROFESSOR, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL: Well, I think that the United States is very concerned by the prospect that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability. There's no doubt about that's what they're trying to do.

And we have to stand by Israel, because Israel has been threatened by President Ahmadinejad, and the Israelis, obviously, need the full support of the United States.

I do think that here in the United States, there is a -- in many ways, a bipartisan consensus. President Obama's policy is remarkably similar to the policy of President George W. Bush in his second term. Both presidents have been willing to leave the threat of force on the table. Both presidents have tried to sanction and isolate the Iranians.

We're now on the verge of the toughest sanctions to date, the EU oil sanctions and the US sanctions against Iran's Central Bank. I think that most political leaders in our country of both parties believe we should implement those sanctions, seek to have negotiations with Iran, and do that before we consider the use of military force.

I'm not saying I'm opposed to the use of military force. I'm not. But I think at this point, we've got to accentuate both pressure -- sanctions -- and diplomacy. And in fact, the Iranians' offer today to Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, that they do want to begin negotiations, I think that will be welcomed -- I hope it will -- by the P5 countries.

But we've got to be realistic. This Iranian government is brutal. It in many ways is mendacious --

FOSTER: OK.

BURNS: -- and so we've got to be smart in applying both pressure as well as a diplomatic opening.

FOSTER: The thing is, Jamie, if there are targeted strikes, for example, we don't know the country well enough, do we, to make sure that the threat is taken away by those targeted strikes? Actually, if you have a negotiated solution to this, then you could have a wider solution, as well.

FLY: I would agree. I think everyone would agree that a negotiated solution would be the best outcome. My concern is, as Ambassador Burns referenced, we've tried to talk to the Iranians for years. The Europeans have tried to talk.

And although the Iranians today may have offered to sit down once again, Ambassador Burns, who was involved in a lot of those conversations, knows the Iranians are not usually serious, even when they get to the negotiating table.

And so, the real question is, will this additional economic pressure and even talk of the potential military option, will this force the Iranians to be more serious than they have in the past, given the way that they are lashing out, assassinating diplomats, plotting assassination attempts on foreign diplomats on US soil, I'm very skeptical that they're going to be serious about negotiating at this point.

FOSTER: Nicholas, obviously America's a big part of this story, but if we're talking about America right now, we need to be talking about the American election, and surely the timing of that will be in President Obama's mind and also in the Israelis minds.

So, in terms of any sort of action, it's actually likely to be towards election day, right, if I'm going to be very sort of cynical about it?

BURNS: Oh, I don't know if that's true at all. I think that the United States -- I think President Obama's going to be very careful, very prudent, as he should be. I think he's handled this exceptionally well.

He's going to try to make sure that countries like India and Russia and China do a lot more than they have done to join these European-American sanctions. That's the key point right now.

There's not a convincing case for the use of military force right now. There's a convincing case for further pressure, and certainly the cynicism of China in trading with India while it votes for sanctions, India now allowing its companies to pay in rupees or have barter deals to circumvent the sanctions, that's very unhelpful.

So, I think you'll see in 2012 that most of the emphasis is going to be in strengthening the diplomatic isolation of Iran and strengthening these sanctions rather than the use of military force.

FOSTER: Nicholas Burns and Jamie Fly, thank you both very much, indeed, for joining us on the program.

When we return, a slice of French politics is on the menu. Ahead, a demonstration of how the presidential race can be compared to a quiche. It is possible.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICHOLAS SARKOZY, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE (through translator): If France is strong, if she takes decision, if she makes the choice to engage with this new world, a world ravaged by three years of crisis, economic, social, financial, from regions all over the world, which have been affected. If France makes this choice, then she will be strong.

But if France is weak, then the French are vulnerable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOSTER: The worst-kept secret in French politics. President Nicolas Sarkozy has declared his candidacy, kicking off his re-election campaign. France goes to the polls in April. President Sarkozy is lagging behind socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, in opinion polls. There's no doubt he has an uphill struggle on his hands. CNN's Jim Bittermann is following the story for us from Paris.

Well, we knew it was going to happen, but why did it take so long for him to come out with it, Jim?

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he kind of answered that tonight. He said that he reflected on it for some time and he said that he felt that he had to run because if he didn't run, it would be like a ship's captain in the middle of a storm abandoning the ship. So, he's going to stay there at the helm.

And I think that's the image that he wants to present to the French, someone who's going to protect France, that what you heard there, that sound bite from him was, in fact, what's going to be the motto of his campaign, the slogan of his campaign is going to be "La France Forte," which is "Strong France." So, that's what he's going to be campaigning on, Max.

FOSTER: Jim, thank you very much, indeed. It's going to be very, very interesting campaign.

Now, the center-right president is lagging behind socialist challenger Francois Hollande, as we were saying, but according to one opinion poll, Hollande has extended his leads for the first election round on April the 22nd, at 30 percent versus 25 percent for President Nicolas Sarkozy. The survey gave far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, 17.5 percent.

Perhaps that's not surprising when you consider some of the economic data. Unemployment is stuck at a 12-year high in France at 9.3 percent. On Monday, credit rating agency Moody's warned it could follow Standard and Poor's and remove France's golden Triple-A rating. But some good news came today. The French economy grew 1.7 percent in the last quarter of last year.

So, will it all be about the economy at the ballot box? Joining me now from Paris is France TV3 journalist Christian Malard. Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Christian.

CHRISTIAN MALARD, SENIOR FOREIGN ANALYST, FRANCE TV3: Good evening, Max.

FOSTER: Is the economy the big debate? Presumably, it is.

MALARD: Well, definitely Sarkozy will have to face the economy. The rate of unemployment, which is quite high in this country. Tonight, of course, he was very satisfied by the growth rate, which is 1.7, which is very satisfactory for him, and quite unexpected in a very agreeable way.

But the people want to talk about jobs, about their future, at a time when, of course, the crisis, the world economic crisis, is striking France and the rest of the European countries -- and we even say the rest of the world.

So, Sarkozy will have to face that, but at the same time, I think the most important things he will have to do also is to regain the weight -- the confidence of the French. Their lost confidence. He has lost with the electorate of the center, with the far-right electorate, and even with the workers.

He has a problem of delivering the messages and to hold the promises. So he has to be -- he was low-profile tonight, and we understand that. It was not the show that we had five years ago. Sarkozy was very low- profile, as I said. It was not like the kind of Hollywood show we had five years ago. He is going to be tough in this campaign. He has to tackle all the problems.

And he knows that Mr. Hollande, even if he is promising, as a lot of French think, the moon, right now, he is going very slowly, quietly, surely. He is ahead in the polls. He has probably to work and to rely upon the rejection.

There is a big rejection of the personality of Sarkozy. And the problem will be Sarkozy versus Sarkozy and his personality. He has to change. And once more, it's a matter of confidence with the French electorate.

FOSTER: It's a major economy, of course, but this election matters particularly this time around for Europe and the world because Sarkozy's played this lead role in the euro crisis. I'm wondering, if Hollande gets in, is he going to change French policy towards the euro crisis, in which case, European policy to the euro crisis?

MALARD: Well, what a lot of observers and even Sarkozy himself reproach Hollande with is to be a kind of -- to have a kind of outdated program, dating back to Mitterrand's era.

And it is true, as you could see these last few weeks, the relationship with Germany, the key actor of Europe, the main partner of France -- we always speak about the Franco-German axis -- I think it might be different with Hollande, whose approach until now has not been very skillful, very clever.

But when you become president, what you said before sometimes has been erased. You become more pragmatic and probably Hollande, if he is elected, will have to adjust himself to his relationship with Madame Merkel. This is the way everybody does politics.

FOSTER: And would you say in terms of personality, they're pretty well-matched, him and Merkel? Because obviously Sarkozy and Merkel have a very strong relationship.

MALARD: Yes. At the beginning, if we try to talk about the future, I tried to have some prospect of the kind of relationship that Sarkozy and Merkel will have. Definitely people will still think that Sarkozy and Merkel have the best kind of relationship. Even if they disagree, sometimes they have some bones of contention.

But we will see. Hollande has to be very careful, as I said. He promises a lot of things. Will he be able to deliver? I'm not so sure about that. The French will have to decide.

And I still maintain -- I still think myself, but it's only myself -- that the main -- most important thing, the most fundamental things will be the debate between the two men if they get to the second round, as we expect, but we never know. We may get some surprises as we got five years ago.

It will be the debate. The French will see the two candidates, so fundamentally different from one another, with totally different programs, with a vision of the future which is totally different. The French have no right to lose confidence in the future, but at the same time, they cannot make mistakes. They have to make the right choice in a world of crisis, which is far from being over.

FOSTER: Christian Malard, thank you very much, indeed. You're going to have a busy few weeks ahead of you.

MALARD: Thank you, Max.

FOSTER: You're watching CONNECT THE WORLD. When we come back, our CNN Freedom Project series, the Children of the Dump continues. Find out how one organization's putting a big smile on these kids' faces.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(CHILDREN SQUEAL IN EXCITEMENT)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOSTER: All this week on CNN and the Freedom Project on CNN, it's -- we're showing you how a dedicated group of volunteers is making a big difference in Vietnam.

In the town of Rach Gia, just 22 kilometers from Cambodia, refugees are so poor, they're forced to live on a rubbish dump. Utter desperation means human traffickers prey on the vulnerable children living there, but one organization is helping to protect them and improve their lives, as Natalie Allen reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If you're a child who lives on a dump, this is your playground. Despite filthy conditions, the ground covered with garbage, the children, being children, just want to play.

CAROLINE NGUYEN TICARRO-PARKER, CO-FOUNDER, CATALYST FOUNDATION: The kids would all come here and climb up this little pole and bounce on the bags and call it a playground.

ALLEN: Caroline Nguyen Ticarro-Parker came to Vietnam as a volunteer from the US and discovered this community of Cambodian refugees. She noticed whatever the kids played with, ate, or wore often came from the trash.

TICARRO-PARKER: It came with matching flip-flops, and they were like, "Oh! Really?" They'd never had a matching pair of flip-flops before.

ALLEN: Today, they have matching shoes, clean uniforms, and a school.

(CHILDREN RECITING SCHOOL LESSON IN VIETNAMESE)

ALLEN: Caroline raised enough money from her volunteer work to create Catalyst School. So these children are the first in generations of families from the dump to get an education.

The fight is not only against illiteracy and poverty. These children face constant danger of being sold or kidnapped into the slave trade. Trafficking of young children for the sex industry is rampant in Vietnam and just across the border in Cambodia.

So, Catalyst goes beyond teaching in a classroom by holding community meetings to teach parents, too. They give them basic parenting skills and the cold, hard truth about what will happen to their children if they sell them.

And it's not just their daughters who are at risk. Their sons are vulnerable, too.

(APPLAUSE)

ALLEN: I'd come to Vietnam with an adventure-philanthropy group called Roadmonkey. We've already biked for a week in the country -- that's the adventure part.

Now, we're in the Mekong Delta to build support, the philanthropy part. In just a few days, we'll transform this empty plot of sand next to the school into the first real playground the children of the dump have ever seen.

ALLEN (on camera): I'm a little more in my element, here. Biking was tough for me. Give me power tools, I'm good to go.

ALLEN (voice-over): Architects Marty and John designed the playground. The rest of our group built it, with help from the local community, like this Vietnamese mother. She has her own story to tell.

She fell prey to traffickers who made big promises, and the school wound up paying to get her daughter back. Now, she's volunteering her time. Her way of paying back the school.

We worked through the delta downpours, frequent power outages, and the language barriers.

ALLEN (on camera): So, there's no word for "teeter-totter" in Vietnam.

TICARRO-PARKER: No.

ALLEN (voice-over): The adventure group's founder, Paul von Zielbauer, speaks the language, so that helps. He's traveled in Vietnam for years.

PAUL VON ZIELBAUER, FOUNDER, ROADMONKEY ADVENTURE: Seeing my group engage with the local people and culture is one of my favorite parts of doing this. It's why I do this.

ALLEN: It's rewarding for the local community, too. One little boy showed his appreciation in a note.

TICARRO-PARKER: "And I'm very happy that you're here and that we'll all work hard together."

ALLEN: And after four days and nights, the playground was ready.

(CHILDREN SQUEAL IN EXCITEMENT)

ALLEN: From all over town, all of the children, Cambodian and Vietnamese, come together to play.

(CHILDREN PLAYING)

ALLEN: To see their smiles and joy, you might not know they live here. Winning hearts, one girl and boy at a time. Even after dark, the children stay to play on their playground.

Natalie Allen, CNN, Rach Gia, Vietnam.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOSTER: Well, CNN has reached out to the Vietnamese government to talk about what it's doing to fight human trafficking within its borders. We'll of course keep you up to date with our discussions.

For more on this story and to see an amazing photo gallery from Natalie's trip, do head to cnn.com/freedomproject. There, you'll also find a link to the Catalyst Foundation.

In tonight's Parting Shots, politics can be an ugly business, so what better way to soften a candidates image than to pose with some cuddly animals? Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich took out from fundraising for a behind-the-scenes tour of the San Diego Zoo. He talked with staffers and watched a panda feeding, as you can see.

But it's a dog-eat-dog world on the campaign trail for rival Mitt Romney. Dogs Against Romney protested outside the Westminster dog show in New York on Tuesday. Their complaint? Romney took his family on vacation back in 1983 and put the family pooch in a carrier tied to the car's roof. Romney insists the dog enjoyed it. Critics aren't buying it.

I'm Max Foster, that is CONNECT THE WORLD for you. Thank you so much for watching. The world headlines and "BackStory" are up next after this short break.

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