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Can Iranian President Be Trusted?; Syria Negotiations Continue; Interview With California Congressman Ed Royce; Obama: U.N. Must Pass Resolution on Syria; A Wife's Plea for Her Husband's Release

Aired September 24, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Iran, Syria and ObamaCare, issues at the crux of the president's legacy, they all intersect this hour.

I'm Jake Tapper. And this is THE LEAD.

The world lead. Before now, Iran's president has used the U.N. as a forum to fire off at the mouth and insult America, but a new man is in office, and he may take a very different tone when he's scheduled to speak this hour. But can he be trusted?

And while all eyes are on the U.N. floor, the haggling over Syria's chemical weapons continues in the backroom this hour. Key U.S. and Russian diplomats meeting to talk about a U.N. resolution again. What's the holdup here?

And the politics lead. President Obama has called him his unofficial secretary of explaining stuff. This hour, former President Bill Clinton will try to help him do just that for Obamacare, but what can he say to a wary and weary public that has not been said already?

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to this special edition of THE LEAD in New York City.

We will begin with the world lead. A very eventful hour is ahead. It could be a defining one for the Obama presidency and you will see much of it unfold here live. Here's what's happening. In about 15 minutes, Secretary of State John Kerry will hold a bilateral meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

And as they try to hammer out an agreement on a United Nations resolution, one that would require Syria to give up its chemical weapons for good in a verifiable way, then, later in the hour, President Obama will join former President Bill Clinton on stage in New York City at the Clinton Foundation conference. They will reach out to the Obamacare doubters and those who are still confused by the health care law. They are still legion at this late date.

Meanwhile, on the subject of Obamacare, Senator Ted Cruz is on the Senate floor right now back in Washington, D.C., after vowing to speak against the health care bill until his legs give out. Also scheduled this hour, one of the week's most anticipated events, Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, will stand at the same podium President Obama stood at just hours ago and give his first address to the U.N. General Assembly. But that handshake that many were anticipating between President Obama and the Iranian president, well, forget it. Two senior administration officials say they were open to an informal meeting between the two of them on the sidelines of the assembly, but in the end, they say it was all -- quote -- "too complicated for Rouhani back home," so that ain't happening.

The last time an American president met with the leader of Iran, "Saturday Night Fever" topped the box office, 1977. But optimists hope that Rouhani will prove a very different leader than Ahmadinejad and others from the past.

Previously, when Iran's president has addressed the U.N., it's caused more walkouts than that new dance movie with Chris Brown, but this year, this year could be different. Rouhani is considered a moderate and an insider in the Iranian government. He signaled a willingness to defuse tensions with the West, going so far as to extend a hand through an op-ed in last week's "Washington Post."

Rouhani swears that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons, he says, which led to President Obama making this statement during his speech to the U.N. earlier today.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course. And given President Rouhani's stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government. The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.


TAPPER: I want to bring in Congressman Ed Royce, Republican from California and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

Let me start by getting your reaction to the news that President Obama will not be meeting with Iran's president at the U.N. or on the sidelines of the U.N., as many had anticipated could happen. What do you think about that development?

REP. ED ROYCE (R), CALIFORNIA: Well, I think what will happen instead is the secretary of state will have those meetings, and, of course, that's just the announcement today. Things could change tomorrow as Rouhani checks in with the supreme leader, with the ayatollah, but at this point, clearly the ayatollah has said no.

And, ultimately, remember, the ayatollah is the one who calls the shots on the nuclear program and on diplomacy.

TAPPER: President Obama in his speech today said that he had ordered Kerry, Secretary of State Kerry, to pursue a dialogue with Iran. You have been rather hawkish on this issue. You have legislation with a Democratic counterpart pushing even tighter sanctions against Iran, but surely you don't think there's a problem with Kerry meeting with his counterpart to see if there is a diplomatic path out of this crisis?

ROYCE: We need a path, but we need a path in which Iran agrees to give up its nuclear program, give up its enrichment, give up its weapons-making capability.

And it's important we also realize why we're at this point. And that is that the existing sanctions we have on Iran have forced about $600 billion out of that economy over the last two years. Capital flight is rampant. They have mass unemployment, very high inflation. And the bill that we passed, bipartisan, 400 votes in the House of Representatives into the Senate, would compound those sanctions, increase those sanctions on the regime in order to try to force them to give up those weapons.

I think that's why Rouhani is now, you know, making these offers. I think they realize how much pressure is on their regime. And we're basically giving them a choice to capitulate and compromise on their nuclear weapons program or face an implosion of their economy.

TAPPER: Congressman, what do you make of Rouhani's public relations offensive? He's certainly trying to sound and seem different from Ahmadinejad and his predecessors.

ROYCE: Yes, very clever fellow and certainly took credit during his negotiations with the Europeans. His words were during that process, he was able to stretch out the negotiations and get the centrifuges spinning, get them online.

So, today, you have got four times as many and they're spinning four times as fast because they're much more advanced, and he takes credit for doing that. And so I think -- I think that's been his past policy. What we need to do is make it very clear that we're wise to that. We know he's playing the same playbook that North Korea used to get nuclear weapons, to get out from under the sanctions.

So we just need to basically say, look, we will give you 100 days from the day you came into office. Give up your weapons program, stop enrichment. Turn the enriched uranium back and we will lift the sanctions. But we have to see that action. We can't let him play us the way he played the Europeans in the negotiations as he brought the centrifuges online.

TAPPER: When you refer to the North Korean playbook, you mean you think he's going to talk a good game, convince the West and the U.S. to give up these sanctions, to drop some of these sanctions, and then he will go full-steam ahead into a nuclear weapons program?

ROYCE: That's right.

The Treasury Department in 2005 put sanctions on North Korea that just brought everything to a halt, and, unfortunately, in retrospect, we believed the offer from North Korea that they would come back to the table. They were desperate to get negotiations started again, but once they got those sanctions lifted, they were able to get the hard currency to finish their nuclear program. And then, from there, they had the weapons they needed.

I really think that we -- it was a blunder for the United States not to increase those sanctions and keep them on in North Korea, and I think he saw that, and saw an opportunity. I think Rouhani sees an opportunity to stretch this out the same way the North Koreans did, without the type of debilitating sanctions that we can impose.

And the bill that we just passed out of the House over a month ago that's in the Senate truly would bring that economy to a halt. And given what's at stake, given the fact that they're working on three- stage ICBMs, miniaturization of their nuclear warhead, and preparing this, you know, enriched uranium for a weapon, I think we need to make it very, very clear.

TAPPER: Congressman Ed Royce, Republican, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD: his first speech on U.S. soil. Will Iran's new president bash the United States as his predecessors did? Minutes from now, he will take the podium. We will bring it to you live.

Plus, trying to hash out a deal, Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with his Russian counterpart right now. Will they finally agree on a plan to rid Syria of its chemical weapons? We're outside that meeting. That's coming up next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

There is a lot going on at this hour, including, as you see, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who is speaking and speaking against Obamacare. He has vowed to keep it up until his legs go out. We will have more on that in a little bit.

But, first, it was a deal that delayed an attack, at least for the time being. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting again with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to hash out the details of their agreement to push Syria's Bashar al-Assad to give up his chemical weapons to the international community.

Our Nick Paton Walsh is live at the U.N.

Nick, what's at stake at this meeting?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They really have to hash out the massive difference they seem to have on two key issues. How will they monitor the process of Syria giving up its chemical weapons and what will the text be of a resolution that kind of enshrines or confirms the framework they had in Geneva?

We understand the meeting is under way. It's always hard to tell with kind of closed-door diplomacy here, but Sergei Lavrov has come out of the room the two men are supposed to be meeting in briefly and have gone back in again. That suggests the meeting is of course now under way.

But these two men, we talk about I think in many ways the personal rapport they're supposed to have. They have got an awful lot to get through. The Russians seem to want to have the U.N. Security Council be the ones who make the judgment if Syria is failing to comply with handing over its chemical weapons, but the Americans want in fact the U.N. monitoring group the OPCW to make that call instead.

And then there's the next big hurdle they have to overcome. Will that resolution make a suggestion in its text that potentially force could be used if Syria doesn't comply? I understand from diplomats here there's a bit of fudge potentially going to be in the wording. They will make references to the vital part of the U.N. charter called Chapter 7, which potentially would authorize force if Syria doesn't comply, but it will also indicate another vote would be needed to work out what the measure would be against Syria if Syria doesn't disarm fast enough.

But, remarkably so far, Jake, Syria has been going along with the Geneva framework's timetable. They wanted to see progress in a week, the declaration within a week, and they got that at the weekend, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Nick Paton Walsh at U.N., thanks. Keep us posted.

Just weeks ago, President Obama of course went to the Rose Garden asking for Americans and Congress to support military strikes against the Syrian regime. Today at the U.N., no such indication of any pending strike and a much different tone. The president announced the U.S. would be giving an additional $340 million in humanitarian aid for the crisis in Syria.

And he called for the U.N. to take chemical weapons out of the Syrian's regime's hands.


OBAMA: The Syrian government took a first step by giving an accounting of its stockpiles. Now there must be a strong Security Council resolution to verify that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments. And there must be consequences if they fail to do so.

If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.


TAPPER: Let's get some reaction now to the president's comments and this meeting between Secretary Kerry and his Russian counterpart with a member of the Syrian opposition coalition, Louay Safi. He joins me on set here in New York.

What did you make of the president's comments today at the U.N.? Did he go far enough? I know you have been disappointed by the president in the past. You called it a failure in leadership when he -- when he basically balked and didn't strike. What did you think of today's speech?

LOUAY SAFI, SYRIAN OPPOSITION COALITION: Overall, it was positive. He emphasized the enforcement of this removal of chemical weapons under Security Council resolution. We look forward to see that under chapter 7, hopefully.

We would have -- I would have -- I would love to see him talk more about stopping the regime from using heavy weaponry like air force and ballistic missiles to deal with the opposition. That has not been addressed.

But overall, it was a positive speech. We did like the focus on political solution, forcing the regime to go to the negotiating table and to transfer power to Democratic government.

TAPPER: Do you think there's any chance that is going to happen, that Assad is just going to willingly give power up? He -- it seems to me like the international community has just backed off and said, just give up these chemical weapons and we'll leave you alone.

SAFI: He will not do that voluntarily. He has to be under pressure. There must be a threat.

Remember that when he was threatened with military action, he surrendered what he called his strategic weapon overnight.

TAPPER: Right.

SAFI: And I think with another forceful action on the part of the United States he would have to negotiate surrendering the power to democratic government.

TAPPER: How much are you filled in on the dialogue between the Russians and Secretary of State John Kerry? We understand things are not going very smoothly. There's really -- it seems like they're having a very tough time coming up with something that both sides can agree on.

SAFI: That's true, because you know, the Russians have made their decision to stand by Bashar. They know the dictatorship stand by the dictator. Remove him and the whole thing collapses.

So they are going to be maneuvering a lot and the regime is very elusive. They are very good at trying to evade and prolong. They want to gain time so that they can punish the opposition further, hopefully -- I mean, they are hopeful that they can see surrendering. That will not happen, but that will prolong the agony of the Syrian people.

TAPPER: Lastly, sir, I want to give you an opportunity quickly if you would to address some of the concerns that have been raised about you in the "Dallas Morning News." There are -- one of the concerns the American people have about the Syrian opposition is who are these people, some of them obviously have ties to terrorist groups, the al- Nusra front, et cetera. There have been questions about some of your friendships, your relationships. How can you assure the American people that you are on the up and up?

SAFI: Yes. Well, actually -- I mean, I personally have been targeted by the far right, I guess part of seeing every Muslim as a dangerous person in this country. They have even targeted President Obama because he had dialogue with us, he kept us, you know, in the loop.

So I think that's their strategy. But if you go after anything they claim, it has no ground, no foundation.

TAPPER: All right. Louay Safi, thank you so much for coming in and sharing your views.

Coming up on THE LEAD: a shot at freedom. One wife's desperate attempt to free her husband from an Iranian jail as she confronts the new Iranian president in a New York hotel lobby. She'll tell me what happened, next.

And later this hour, President Obama finds time in his schedule for an hour-long interview with Bill Clinton. What will the two presidents be talking about? Well, we'll bring it to you, live.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Here in New York City, amid the pomp and circumstance of the United Nations General Assembly. there's another, more personal story unfolding. Meet Naghmeh Abedini, whose husband, a U.S. citizen, and a pastor, has been imprisoned in Iran for a year this week. His crime, well, he's accused of threatening Iran's national security with his, quote, "Christian faith and activities," unquote.

Naghmeh has been fighting for his release but a shift in Iranian leadership has given her some hope something may finally change. So she flew to New York for the U.N. meeting and she found herself coincidentally staying in the same hotel as the new Iranian president. Yesterday, she spotted his entourage with presumably him in the middle in the lobby and she hand delivered a letter to his delegation from her husband, Saeed Abedini, written from inside his prison cell, pleading for his freedom.

And joining me here in New York to talk about this is Naghmeh Abedini.

So, tell me about this letter. First of all, it must have been strange, bizarre, to see Rouhani and his delegation walking through.

NAGHMEH ABEDINI, HUSBAND SERVING 8-YEAR SENTENCE IN IRAN: Yes. I saw -- I could tell they were speaking Farsi but they were securing the area. But I saw a big group which I assumed Rouhani was in the middle, and as I approached them, I was -- there was a few seconds of what will happen, will I get arrested, but as I approached them, I was able to talk to a delegation and hand the letter over to them and introduce myself and ask them if they would make sure President Rouhani would receive a copy.

TAPPER: And you have a copy of the letter.


TAPPER: Can you read us part of the letter?

ABEDINI: Yes. Towards the end of the letter, Saeed writes, "My wife and children as well as over a billion Christians in the world seek God's justice in your consideration of this matter. Please take immediate action in this regard and do not let me and a lot of people in my ward become the victims of the fire that extremists have made, those who have turned Iran into a vortex of crisis. Considering the fact I came to Iran to serve the orphans, please do not let them make my children orphans and my wife without a guardian."

TAPPER: Basically, he's accused of proselytizing. You deny that and he denies that but how hard has this year been for you? It must be just awful.

ABEDINI: Yes. Actually, he wasn't accused of that.

TAPPER: Right.

ABEDINI: His charge was undermining the Iranian government.

TAPPER: Right, right.

ABEDINI: The basis for the charge was Christian gatherings.

TAPPER: Right.


TAPPER: I'm sorry. I was simplifying --



ABEDINI: It has been a very difficult year. My daughter just celebrated her seventh birthday and this is the second year without him. And she says, "How many more birthdays, mom." I don't know what to tell her.

It's been very emotional. It's been a lonely road for all of us. I have been traveling, mostly my kids have been with people, different people taking care of them, especially my parents have helped. And you know, they -- it's been a very emotional, very trying time, especially for them. They're 7 and 5 and they don't understand that --

TAPPER: He was sentenced to eight years in prison?

ABEDINI: Yes, which the thought of it is horrible. We don't know if he will survive the eight years. We don't know if the Iranian government would up that.

And just the anniversaries coming up --

TAPPER: On the 26th, I think?

ABEDINI: Yes. The 26th is the one year but the second birthdays and second Christmases remind us that really, the kids are growing up without him in our family and it's different. And, you know, looking back to that last year, we were together, we were a family and this year, they spent father's day alone, graduation from kindergarten, they were alone. I was in Geneva speaking before the U.N., Saeed is imprisoned, and our whole family has been torn apart physically.

TAPPER: It's horrible.

I want to bring in your lawyer, you and your husband are represented by the American Center for Law and Justice and its executive director. Jordan Sekulow joins us now from Washington.

Jordan, you have been receiving some support from the Obama administration in calling for Saeed's release. Secretary of State John Kerry put out a few statements recently. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, tweeted last week, quote, "those missing or unjustly contained including Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini and Bob Levison must be returned home." She's referring to two other Americans being held or missing in Iran.

Now, you have been working on this case for -- since it happened, basically.


TAPPER: Do you feel like Naghmeh and Saeed are getting enough help from the Obama administration?

SEKULOW: Well, we did believe, Jake, and thanks for having us on today, that the president, any preconditions that were set and obviously it looks like this meeting won't be happening between the president of Iran and the president of the United States, should be as Samantha Power, our top ambassador to the U.N., U.S. ambassador to U.N., tweeted must be the release of these people. Obviously the meeting is not happening.

But on September 26th, when those vigils are occurring across the country, people can find out about them at It's interesting. Right before coming over here, I got a note from the State Department, the U.S. State Department, even though John Kerry will be meeting with a delegation from Iran and the Iranian foreign minister on this date, on Thursday, the State Department is sending an assistant deputy secretary of state to join our vigil here in D.C. that I'll be at -- Naghmeh will be in Boise, Idaho -- to join us at the vigil in front of the White House to pray for Saeed.

So, that is a very positive sign. I want to thank the State Department. I hope Secretary Kerry is reminded of Saeed when he's meeting with that foreign minister on Thursday.

TAPPER: I want to give you the opportunity right now, what would you say to President Rouhani if he granted you an audience? What would you ask?

ABEDINI: I would say that this is the best platform for him to prove his words, that he is -- he is moderate and that he wants to bring more freedom to the Iranian people, and he does want to free a lot of the political prisoners. This would be the best -- and his relationship with the West, this would be the best avenue.

Recently, Billy Graham wrote a letter telling him the exact same thing, if you want to work, this would be the best chance for you to start working with a good relationship with the U.S. would be to release these prisoners, especially an American citizen who is imprisoned based on simple violation of human rights. Really, just freedom.

TAPPER: We've had you on before. I hope I don't have to have you on again.

But if he stays in prison, we will have you on again.

ABEDINI: Thank you. Thank you.

TAPPER: And we will keep talking about Saeed until he's out.

ABEDINI: We appreciate it. We appreciate your coverage.

TAPPER: Thank you, Naghmeh. Appreciate it.

Coming up on THE LEAD: We're still waiting on the most anticipated speech of the day, the new Iranian president, as we have been talking about, is set to take the podium shortly. Does he have the support of his people back home? We're going to go live to Tehran next.

Plus, one person will miss that speech. Senator Ted Cruz. He's on the Senate floor and he's vowed to talk about Obamacare until he can't stand. We will check in on him and talk about him, coming up.