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Obama Speaks at the U.N. General Assembly; Kenyan Troops Among Victims of Terror Attack; American Ties Link Terror Attack to U.S. Soil; Ted Cruz Gets Flak

Aired September 24, 2013 - 11:00   ET


REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He's become pen pals with President Obama, exchanging letters. He's pushed for better relations. He's released scores of political prisoners.

And he's even tweeted, his office has tweeted, happy new year to the world's Jewish community.

It's these types of messages that have a lot of people here optimistic, both in Tehran and Washington.

At the same time, and this is critical, many of Iran's opponents remain skeptical, most notably Israel, and a lot of Iran hawks in the U.S. Congress, and if Iran and the U.S. are going to improve relations, those are two significant obstacles to overcome, wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We should know within the next few hours whether the president of the United States and the president of Iran will actually shake hands, meet, what format that would take place.

There are a lot of signals that it could happen, probably today while President Obama is still here in New York, but we will see.

Reza, if you can, stand by for a moment. Also, try to find out if the president -- President Obama's remarks were televised live in Iran because he was clearly speaking to the Iranian people.

He was speaking to the international community, speaking to the American public as well. I'm just curious to see if anyone in Iran had a chance to watch President Obama.

Speaking of the U.N., let's go to Nick Paton Walsh. He's over there right now. Nick, do you have any indications about this meeting between the president and the president of Iran?

We know their foreign minister will meet with Secretary of State Kerry on Thursday here in New York, but what about the two presidents?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There is the possibility they could choose to meet at the delegates lunch that happens in a few hours from now, although there are suggestions perhaps the Iranians don't traditionally attend that function.

But there are, of course, those saying that it would be unlikely perhaps for Barack Obama to take that gamble ahead of a P5-plus-one meeting with Iran in case that meeting didn't necessarily go so well. It would be more logical for him to take that risk afterwards.

But, broadly, an interesting speech there, and very much more the Barack Obama, law professor than sound byte machine we've seen on occasions like this, laying out a case for American continued involvement in the world while, at the same time, reminding, I think, many at home how exhausted the U.S. is from a decade of military intervention.

One particular thing, though, much as you pointed out with Reza there, he said about Iran, will assist with that one diplomatic relationship, there is another key one going on behind the whole Syria civil war. That's Moscow and Washington.

And a freer point here, he seemed to be delivering almost barbed remarks towards the Kremlin head, Vladimir Putin, a man where if you see their body language, there is not great chemistry there.

Three moments really stood out to me. He referred to the Russian position on the 21st of August attacks on Damascus, in which they say the rebels may have carried out, as an insult to human reason. I'm sort of paraphrasing here out of context.

But effectively going on to say as well, we're no longer in a Cold War. There is no great gain to be won.

But the bit that really stood out to me when he was referring to previous remarks he had made about Americans being exceptional. Vladimir Putin answered that in a piece in "The New York Times," saying he thought it was very dangerous for people to believe they are exceptional.

But Barack Obama hit back at that again today, saying some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional because of their desire to stand up for something outside of the narrow self-interest, for the interests of all.

So clearly the relationship between those two heads of state, through this speech, not something he's really willing to shed ground on. I think just very stark differences in how they view the world.

So, I mean, Kerry and Lavrov -- sorry, the Russian foreign minister is said to have a warmer relationship and, when they meet later today at 4:15 to address the broader issue of that Syrian resolution and how you'll measure Syria's adherence to the chemical weapons convention, I think these comments may be lingering in the background, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see if the U.S. and Russia can reach an agreement on the language for a U.N. Security Council resolution that would enforce the identification then the inspection and then the eventual destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.

Nick Paton Walsh, stand by for a moment.

Here are some of the key comments the president made just a few minutes ago on Iran.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States and Iran have been isolated from one another since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

This mistrust has deep roots. Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs and of America's role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War.

On the other hand, Americans see an Iranian government that has declared the United States an enemy, indirectly or through proxies, taken American hostages, killed U.S. troops and civilians and threatened our ally, Israel, with destruction.

I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight. The suspicions run too deep.

But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.


BLITZER: Part of what the president had to say about Iran.

Jim Acosta is our senior White House correspondent. He's here with us, assessing what's going on.

You've been studying this president now for the last several years, like all of us have, and you know, if he goes ahead, and the drama is building right now with a handshake and a little exchange of words, if you will, with the president of Iran today, it would be not only symbolic. It would be substantively a breakthrough that hasn't happened since 1979.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It would be a huge historic breakthrough, Wolf, between these two countries.

And I came up here thinking there was no way that this is going to happen, that the president of the United States would shake hands with the president of Iran.

But things seem to be moving so rapidly that perhaps this opportunity does now exist.

And it goes against, really, the character of President Obama as president. He's Mr. Cautious about just about everything, and to think that he would go out on a limb like this and do this, it's interesting to note, Wolf, even though he made a lot of gestures and overtures towards the Iranians, towards the rest of the world when it comes to U.S. dealings in the Middle East, he did sort of back the speech with some notes of caution.

Conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions. As Nick Paton Walsh said, the president did reiterate that he believes America is exceptional, almost in a way that, if all of this falls apart and it doesn't work out he can go back and say, hey, remember, I did say some of this might not work out, that we're going to have to trust but verify, in the words of Ronald Reagan.

BLITZER: You know, hovering over this, and the president sort of mentioned this, as well, technically, Iran is still on the State Department's list of countries that sanction and support terrorism and there are legislative rules that sort of bar the U.S. dealing with countries that are on that State Department terror list, if you will.

That could be a complicating factor.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Officially and actually, they support Hezbollah, which is a direct threat to U.S. interests and the interests of our allies in the region.

You know, but it's interesting, the focus on the handshake or bilateral, the truth is in, just our discussion here, even without the handshake, as you listen to that speech, the state of U.S.-Iranian relations are already dramatically different than they were even two weeks ago.

He's just directed his secretary of state, investing an enormous amount of political and diplomatic capital, to pursue a nuclear agreement with Iran.

Plus, in this speech, you saw the continuation of the exchange of meaningful gestures. You mentioned the language, "mutual respect," which also harkens back to his Cairo speech in 2009, very important message in the whole Muslim world.

But also watching the Iranians there, you had an Iranian foreign minister and two deputy foreign ministers remaining for the entirety of the president's 40-minute speech. We didn't have any of these dramatic, melodramatic, walkouts that have become the norm at the UNGA.

That said, we have been here before, 1997, President Khatami, another reformist president who inspired equal excitement inside and outside Iran, and what happened there was the supreme leader Ali Khamenei pulled the plug.

And it's still -- the power, as we know, still lies with him. Clearly he has backed up at least these gestures. He gave his own speech last week about "heroic flexibility" on the part of the Islamic republic.

But it all depends on follow-through from the supreme leader now. So that's what we need to see, and, as you were saying, you referenced the president's comments, he's looking for concrete steps that are verifiable and transparent, much the same language that we've used for Syria.

So that's -- the proof is in the pudding, as they say.

BLITZER: I'm going to bring Fareed back into this conversation in a second, but I want to go to Tehran. Reza Sayah, I had asked Reza a question whether or not President Obama's remarks were seen live in Iran. Reza, you have the answer.

SAYAH: Yeah, according to a couple of sources, they were not broadcast live on Farsi-language state media, but the speech did air live on English-language (inaudible) TV. That's a state-funded international news network available on the satellite.

But, Wolf, it's very likely that President Obama's speech, his statements, are going to be covered by state media today, and tomorrow they're going to be in the headlines.

And I think many of these comments are going to be welcomed by Iranians and analysts here and in the U.S. who say they don't see at this point any reason for these two countries not to sit down and at least talk to one another.

Do they get along? Have they been getting along for 34 years? No. But things have changed. And if you look at this region, many argue that Iran at this point is the most secure, stable country in the region and they can help the U.S. in a lot of the conflicts that it's involved with, so we'll see what happens in the coming days.

BLITZER: All right, Reza, we're going to be checking back to you, Reza Sayah on the ground for us in Tehran in Iran right now.

Fareed, you know, a lot of U.S. analysts have suggested that, if there is a breakthrough, and potentially there could be a breakthrough between the U.S. and Iran right now, the international sanctions led by the U.S. sanctions, they have really made a dent on the life of the people of Iran and maybe that's going to be a major factor in convincing the Iranian people and President Rouhani that maybe it's time for a change.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": There is no question that that has played a huge role.

The White House did an internal study where they tried to understand Iranian behavior over the last 30 years, and they found that the Iranians moved and were more conciliatory, but almost always when they faced pressure, that it was actually a rational behavior, but you had to pressure them.

And so they put together this very impressive international set of sanctions. That's why they took it through the U.N.

Now here's the twist, Wolf, and you alluded to it. The sanctions have been put in place by law, by Congress. The president does not have the ability to unilaterally waive those sanctions.

So if the Iranians start complying, doing the kinds of things he's talking about, transparency, verifiable acts, he actually doesn't have the ability to deliver the carrots, if one may call them that, to the Iranians.

So he's now going to be placed in a very awkward position where he can encourage this process, but it's not clear that he can actually -- you know, we all worry about Rouhani being able to deliver. The Iranians, I'm sure, very smart about this, are wondering whether Obama can deliver.

BLITZER: On the edges, he does have a little flexibility, but you're right. Congress did pass laws that, in effect, will tie his hands to a certain degree.

But on the edges, he's already, without a lot of publicity the last few weeks, he's eased some visits for athletes, some exchanges, cultural exchanges.

He's -- on the edges he's made some subtle, but to the Iranians significant easing of some of those sanctions.

But obviously the financial sanctions, the banking sanctions, those are going to require legislation, and you're right. There could be a fight in Congress.

ZAKARIA: Especially with this Congress. Remember, it has to go through the House.

BLITZER: Even if he shakes hands with Rouhani, there will be plenty of criticism on this president for doing this.

All right, guys, thanks very, very much.

That's going to wrap up our coverage here in New York at least for now.

I'll be back, 1:00 p.m. Eastern in the "CNN NEWSROOM." I'll be over at the United Nations. Much more coming up then, later in "THE SITUATION ROOM," as well.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in New York.

Ashleigh Banfield picks up our coverage right after this.


BANFIELD: Hello everyone. Welcome to LEGAL VIEW. I am Ashleigh Banfield. It is Tuesday, September 24 and we're continuing with a lot of breaking news today. For the first time in a four day onslaught of that Westgate mall in Nairobi in Kenya, the government of Kenya says that among the dead are troops.

Three members of the Kenyan defense forces are said to have died of wounds that they suffered during the rescue operations earlier on in the siege. And not that brings the death toll to 65, the number of known dead since al Shabaab attackers invaded the mall on Saturday. Just as many people are still unaccounted for as well.

Troops are said to be doing a final sweep of the massive four-story complex, detonating bombs that were left behind by the terrorists and looking for anybody, terrorist or hostage, who might still be alive inside that all complex. CNN's Zain Verjee is still keeping watch. She's been watching this breaking story from the scene. She joins me live now. Zain, I know there is a delay between you and me. If you can get me up to speed on the developments of that fire and what kind of damage that has wreaked on that property.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's pretty intense. We're hearing the roof on one side and the whole area of Westgate mall on the right-hand side is completely collapsed. It's totally devastated really. We just saw some footage, we were able to get video of soldiers that indicate that this operation may actually for real be coming to a close and we may be in the final stages.

What we saw from a slightly different vantage point were soldiers clearing areas. That's consistent with what the government has been staying which is basically they're in control, they're in the final stages. They've been diffusing explosives. They were concerned earlier about booby traps, there were fears of snipers around, so we saw a crane come in a few hours ago, and the reason that would occur, as security analysts told me, would be to insert special forces into the building simply because of the fear of snipers. The president of the country, Uhuru Kenyatta is expected to speak shortly, in about 20 minutes or so, and we are area hoping for good news.

BANFIELD: The fact that there is still 65 people unaccounted for, I'm curious whether there is any idea as to some of those people, might they've been affected by that massive fire and that collapsing roof?

VERJEE: They could have because that smoke was pretty thick. It started yesterday. If anyone was in there they would have had issues with smoke inhalation. We're really trying to figure out whether there are any hostages, whether anyone is alive, what their condition is, if any bodies came out, what the casualties are. There are a lot of unanswered questions here. I talked to the Red Cross officials. They said they have been on stand by since 7:00 a.m. local time, but no one is telling them to come and help or pick up or do anything. Emergency medics I've been told were also to be on standby but they haven't received any calls. We're hoping once we get more information from the president things will become a lot more clearer.

BANFIELD: Zain Verjee, live for us, keeping watch in Nairobi. Keep us updated if you will, please. Thank you.

Also, like most malls on a Saturday afternoon, Westgate was like a city unto itself. Among the activities that were underway when this terror assault began was a children's cooking contest. It had been sponsored by a Nairobi radio station and the hosts were there at the time and they sat down with CNN's Arwa Damon.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kids running around in their little aprons, chopping up. We heard a series of gunshots. We called everyone to the corner, all the kids and moms and parents and everyone. We said get down, get down, get down on the floor. Just as we did that, the gunman tossed a grenade to where we were. The guy with a white shirt spoke first and he said we're from Somalia and we don't normally kill women and children. But then again you've killed our women and children. His colleague next to him, --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thin, tall, skinny face, black,

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He opened fire.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I got shot here. I had so much blood everywhere. I thought she was dead and I was holding a dead baby.


BANFIELD: Understandably Americans horrified by the events in Nairobi, not only for the sheer barbarity of the them, but also for the possibility that Americans may have been involved, or people with American roots may have been involved.

Kenya's foreign minister is corroborating this claim that was made by al Shabaab itself that the attackers, in fact, included two or three Americans. Here's what she told PBS.


AMINA MOHAMED, KENYAN FOREIGN MINISTER: The Americans -- from the information we have are young men, about between maybe 18 and 19.


MOHAMED: Of Somali origin, or Arab origin, but you know lived in the U.S. or Minnesota and one other place. So, basically, look, I mean that was just goes to underline the global nature.


BANFIELD: You heard the foreign minister Amina Mohamed say Minnesota. There the Somali population is very big and the pipeline to al Shabaab has been well established. CNN's Martin Savidge has that.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At the Abu Bakr mosque men bow at midday prayer. In this Minneapolis neighborhood home to the nation's largest Somali-American population. Seventeen-year-old Barhan (ph) Hasan was a straight-A student who wanted to be a doctor. Then he disappeared in 2008. Miss mother, who at the time didn't want to be identified, told CNN she had no idea where he had gone until he called.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mom, I'm in Somalia. Don't worry about me. I'm okay.

SAVIDGE: But he wasn't okay. Hasan was fighting for the terrorist group al Shabaab. Not long after, she was told he was dead.

This weekend's terror rampage in Kenya has many Americans wondering how long until those behind it come to the U.S. Omar Jamal a Somali diplomat tells me al Shabaab is already here.

How many young people do you think have been taken from this community by recruiters?

OMAR JAMAL, SOMALI DIPLOMAT: Approximately 30 to 40, and that has been most often asked question, and I think nobody can nail down exact figure.

SAVIDGE: Even as we sip coffee in middle America, he's sure terrorists are nearby.

Hasan's uncle says teens here, often raised in single-parent homes, with no hope (ph) become perfect targets.

ABDIRIZAK BIHI, BARHAN HASAN'S UNCLE: When you have young people, young boys, who have never seen their dad, who live in this poverty environment, and need badly to find a male role model, and al Shabaab of course become that father they never had.

SAVIDGE: Unless something is done, Jamal predicts one day instead of leaving the U.S. to fight al Shabaab, they will stay, he says, and fight here, explaining the logic this way.

JAMAL: It's just a fraction of a second. Where should I do that? In Mogadishu City? Well, I'm in Minneapolis, what the heck, might as well do it here.


BANFIELD: CNN's Martin Savidge joins us live now, from Minnesota. This is an area that has the largest concentration of Somalis in America. Is there outrage? Are you hearing backlash to what is transpiring and the information that is coming out of Somalia -- in Kenya?

SAVIDGE: You do. You hear it in a number of ways. First of all community leaders, religious leaders were quick to condemn the violence and say as far as they know no one in this community that's involved. That's a question that is often asked. I asked it directly of the Imam. They say they don't know, and none of that information has been confirmed.

But then on top of that, people on the street will walk up and say how very shocked they are, how very sorry they are for what is happening in Kenya. They know this community is under a cloud of suspicion and it should be pointed out that it's a very small group of young men that have been taken but everyone else here will say that they are American, they believe in this country and this is their home.

BANFIELD: Headlines can be very, very powerful. Martin Savidge, live for us in Minnesota, thank you for that.

Let's check our top stories that we're following right now as well. A powerful earthquake killed at least 30 people in southwest Pakistan today. Officials there are sawing they believe that people are trapped in the rubble and that the death toll could certainly rise. Images coming into us show us what it looked like from inside this building. The quake had a magnitude of 7.7.

U.N. weapons inspectors heading back into Syria. That's the word from a spokesperson for the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Those inspectors are expected to continued the investigation of the suspected use of chemical weapons in that country. Last week the inspectors confirmed, in fact, that the nerve agent sarin was used in an attack in Syria last month.

Turning to the possible government shutdown here in America just a week away, and many people are blaming the Republican upheaval on one man, a senator named Ted Cruz.


SEN. TED CRUZ, (R) TEXAS: If they want to insult me, they can knock themselves out.


BANFIELD: Our Dana Bash on The Hill speaking with the conservative law maker that has many Republicans lashing out.


BANFIELD: The days are flying by as the United States is less than a week away from a possible government shutdown. The spotlight, while there is still electricity, is on a Republican senator by the name of Ted Cruz. You probably know him well by now. He's getting a lot of headlines because he pushed really hard for a measure to defund Obamacare that's now attached to the spending plan that was passed by the House last week, and landed square in the laps of the Senate this wee. It doesn't stand a chance of passing in the Senate. That's no secret, and Cruz himself is now facing quite the backlash from his own party and both houses. Dana Bash spoke with him about it.


CRUZ: Obamacare is a disaster.

BASH: He's simply keeping a campaign promise, do whatever it takes to destroy Obamacare.

CRUZ: That should be our priority, not simply continuing business in Washington.

BASH: Cruz's scorched earth strategy tying defunding Obamacare to a must-pass spending bill is inflaming many fellow Republicans who think if this causes a government shutdown, they're going to get burned. Republican Peter King called him a fraud.

REP. PETER KING, (R ) NEW YORK: The issues are too important, they're too serious, they require real conservative solutions, not cheap headline hunting schemes. BASH: In the Democratic-led Senate the votes are not there. Some of Cruz's Republican colleagues are so miffed it has gotten personal. Bob Corker tweeted, "I didn't go to Harvard or Princeton," the schools Cruz graduated from, "but I can count."

BASH: They don't like what you're doing. They don't like what you are putting them through, these are fellow Republicans.

CRUZ: Individual politicians can choose to say whatever they want and launch whatever personal insults they want. I note in the House, that the Republicans, including those who have criticized me, voted to defund Obamacare. And in the Senate, I think the votes are very fluid.