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Trump's war of words with Iran; Israel helps evacuate Syria's White Helmets; Interview with chemical weapons watchdog chief. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired July 23, 2018 - 14:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Coming up, it is Iran's turn to be on the receiving end of President Trump's "fire and fury," like the war

of tweets with North Korea. Will this lead to negotiation or to conflict? Expert Karim Sadjadpour joins me for Washington.

Plus, Major Efi Ribner from the Israeli Defense Forces on the operation to rescue Syria's White Helmets heroes.

And they helped prove the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The head of the main watchdog organization, Ahmet Uzumcu, joins me here in London.

Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

President Trump fired off a high-intensity tweet today in emphatic all capital letters, warning Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, "Never ever

threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences, the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before."

His tweet follows President Rouhani's response about disrupting oil shipments in the Persian Gulf if America tries to block Iranian exports.

America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, he said, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.

So, could the escalating war of words lay the groundwork for a new diplomatic overture between the United States and Iran or could the world

be heading to yet another showdown in the Persian Gulf area?

My guest, Karim Sadjadpour, is an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and he is joining me now from Washington. So, Karim,

welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: OK. So, what are we to make of this? Is this some dressed up sort of attempt at bringing Iran to the negotiating table or is this real?

SADJADPOUR: With President Trump, it's always difficult to tell, Christiane, because he is much more impulsive than he is strategic.

If you look at what happened with North Korea, he did taunt Kim Jong-un for a number of months before meeting him in Singapore and then he actually

sang his praises.

And so, it's conceivable that he has a similar vision in mind with regards to Iran and, in fact, Iranian officials leaked last week that President

Trump had actually tried to see President Hassan Rouhani at the UN last fall. He actually tried eight times to see President Rouhani and the

Iranians rebuffed them.

So, it's conceivable that this is a prelude to an overture, which the Trump administration wants to make. The reality is that he's such an erratic

president that you could see him dropping bombs on Iran and you can see him trying to build hotels in Iran.

AMANPOUR: But can you really, Karim, see him dropping bombs? I mean, it is true that the entire Trump hierarchy and the national security sphere,

whether it's President Trump, whether it's Mattis, whether it's Pompeo, Bolton, they are all very hard on Iran. They are Iran hardliners.

Do you see a different tone coming out of the White House, out of the administration on Iran than perhaps you saw coming out on North Korea?

SADJADPOUR: Well, John Bolton has really been the most hawkish American official on Iran perhaps over the last three decades when he was the

private citizen. He had consistently advocated bombing Iran.

Now, you're right, Christiane, that when Trump ran as a candidate, one of the things he talked about was getting out of dumb wars in the Middle East,

and he was very critical of the Iraq war and the Afghan war. So, there is a dissonance.

But on one hand, his instincts are actually to withdraw from the Middle East, but some of his policies and some of his officials have precisely the

opposite instincts.

I would say the big distinction between North Korea and Iran is that North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un is a young man in his 30s. He has a very long

time horizon - three, four decades, he could be in power.

Whereas, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is almost 79 years old. He's been ruling for four decades. He's always been defiant against the

United States and he hasn't left the country since 1989.

So, the likelihood of some type of a summit between Khamenei and Trump is nil and the likelihood that Khamenei would OK a summit between Rouhani and

Trump, I would say, is also very small.

AMANPOUR: So, some have tried to figure out what the actual message of the administration is because we have this tweet from President Trump, but we

had the speech yesterday to a group of really hardline anti-government Iranians - I mean, the exiles in Los Angeles - in which Pompeo was very

strong against the regime.

[14:05:10] But he also had a line at the end, which was about negotiation, and wanting to see whether there was any room for that. Do you put any

store in that last line? Or is it just a last throwaway line?

SADJADPOUR: No. I think that those are President Trump's instincts as well. Remember, when Trump announced he was pulling out of the Iran deal,

he gave a ten-minute speech, nine minutes and 30 seconds of which he trashed the Iranian regime and he trashed the nuclear deal.

But the final 10, 15 seconds, he said when Iran's leaders are interested in renegotiating this deal, I am ready, willing and able. So, he is actually

not dogmatic. I don't think he's ideological. I think he's open to some type of a renegotiation.

I actually think the administration does have a clear strategy, which is they're trying to subject Iran to enormous pressure in order to force one

of two outcomes.

Outcome number one is, in fact, Iranian capitulation, not only in the nuclear context, perhaps in the regional context, and that would require

some type of renegotiation.

And outcome number two is the implosion of the Iranian regime. So, I do think that they have a strategy. I think there's also a huge gap between

what they're trying to achieve and what they're likely to achieve.

AMANPOUR: Right. I mean, Karim, both capitulation and implosion have been tried for 40 years since the revolution, and neither of which have


And so, one thing has happened, and that is during the tanker wars of the 1980s, there was disruption in the Straits of Hormuz, which is a vital

lifeline not just for Iran.

We just have a map actually and I want to ask you to walk us through the stakes there because if the US is saying to all its allies, OK, no more

buying of Iranian oil and, if Iran is saying, well, if you threaten us, we'll threaten your oil, a third of all traffic goes through those Straits

of Hormuz. Just tell us what's the likelihood of that becoming blocked?

SADJADPOUR: Iran has actually threatened - at moments of tension, they have threatened for decades on closing the Strait of Hormuz. It's always

been an empty threat because I think it's the strategic equivalent of a suicide bombing for Iran.

They would hurt a lot of other people, but they would above all hurt themselves because oil is the lifeblood of the Iranian economy. So, if

they prevent oil from flowing out, they would really be hurting themselves and they would be alienating key partners like China.

So, they've long threatened this as one of the few cards they have to play, but I think the likelihood that they make good on that threat is very low.

AMANPOUR: So, from the US point of view, I mean, Secretary Pompeo is extremely active on his Twitter regarding Iran policy. I mean, all you

have to do is check it out and you'll see exactly - certainly what the State Department is thinking about this. It's pretty aggressive, but it's

also attempting to reach out to the people.

The latest is the United States hears you, the United States supports you, the United States is with you. How is that bound to go down there? Is

that something you think that Iranian people will take to the bank, so to speak, and come out and depose their leaders, hoping the US will support


SADJADPOUR: Well, Christiane, as you know, there's tremendous popular frustration in Iran - political, economic, social frustration - but if you

look at the collapse of authoritarian regimes throughout history, especially more recently, the 20th century, 21st century, it usually has

two key prerequisites. You need pressure from below, but even more importantly perhaps you need divisions from above.

And I would argue what the Trump administration is doing with their policy is that they are trying to incite pressure from below, but they're

simultaneously uniting rather than dividing the Iranian regime.

And I think what that amounts to is that you have a regime, which is willing to use overwhelming force and violence to stay in power, and you

have a society which isn't willing to die en masse to take power.

And so, for that reason, I think that by trying to incite the Iranian people against the regime, they actually do a disservice to the cause of

democratic transformation in Iran.

AMANPOUR: So, very, very quickly - we've got 30 seconds - Iran has kept its agreement under the Iran nuclear agreement. It's abiding by the terms.

When you say it's uniting the top, it's kind of solidifying the hardliners, right?

SADJADPOUR: It's further entrenching the Revolutionary Guards. Whenever there is insecurity in a country, that often plays to the advantage of

security forces.

[14:10:00] So, the Revolutionary Guards, who are already the most powerful institution in Iran, have grown more powerful. And to the extent there

were more pragmatic officials in Iran, they've definitely been weakened over the last year.

AMANPOUR: So interesting. And some have said that, like Pompeo said, there's no such thing as a pragmatic or a moderate in Iran. He

specifically mentioned President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Do you believe that? Are there no moderates in Iran?

SADJADPOUR: I do think that there is a debate amongst Iran's elites about whether they should be a nation or a cause, as Henry Kissinger put it. And

I think President Rouhani does aspire for Iran to be more of a nation-state rather than a revolutionary cause, but the reality is that those forces

were already weak in Iran and have only grown weaker.

AMANPOUR: And so, where do you think - I mean, I know we started this by saying we're not quite sure what the strategy is, or if there is a

strategy. The two elements that you pointed out have been tried before.

Let's just go back to the Bush administration, when the idea of military intervention in Iran probably reached its height, but it didn't happen.

Walk us through, for the sake of viewers, what it would take to have a successful military intervention in Iran.

SADJADPOUR: Well, when you talk to former US officials, even current US officials - or Israeli officials, for that matter - about military conflict

with Iran, what they say is that it wouldn't be a full-scale intervention like Iraq, but it would be more targeted military strikes against Iran's

nuclear facilities, which are dispersed around the country and, in some case, embedded under mountains in Iran.

I think the danger Iran faces is that it's a country which is simultaneously fighting three cold wars, three proxy wars with Israel,

Saudi Arabia, and the United States, which could all potentially turn hot.

And so, Iran, in some ways, can afford a military conflict much less than the United States because they have a downward spiraling currency. They

have social crises. They have political crises, economic crises, environmental crises.

So, I think President Rouhani's instinct is to try to avoid a military conflict. And with President Trump, it's very difficult to get inside of

his head and ascertain whether he is simply being impulsive or he actually has a strategy behind his bluster.

AMANPOUR: We will wait and see. Karim Sadjadpour, thank you so much, from the Carnegie Endowment, for joining us tonight.

And moving on to some of these regional aspects, the Trump administration does want Iran to stop its support for the Assad regime in Syria. Indeed,

after more than seven years of war, Assad seems to be emerging the winner now, taking back large swathes of territory in the southwest along the

borders with Israel and Jordan.

The situation for the opposition has grown so dire that even the White Helmets have had to flee. More than perhaps any other group, they have

brought the war's horrors to the world, with videos like this of their daring civilian rescues.

Their bravery was the subject of an award-winning documentary and even earned them the backing of many Western governments, including the United


So, when those governments realized the White Helmets were under imminent threat, they turned to the Israeli military for a dramatic extraction.

And we turn now to Major Efi Ribner of the IDF to give us a little bit of how you've got them out. You were in that operation.

Thanks for joining us. Just tell us major how you got hundreds of these White Helmets and their families and civilians out of Syria proper.

MAJOR EFI RIBNER, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: Good evening. It was actually a very special operation. And as you pointed out, we were approached by the

United States, Canada and a couple of European countries with a request to please assist in the extraction of the White Helmets.

We, in coordination with the organization and our neighbors here in Israel, coordinated with them, a time and a place, where they could approach the

fence. We were waiting for them, prepared to receive them and assist them in evacuating themselves from Syria and taking them to a safer place.

AMANPOUR: So, you took them through where you are now, which is actually occupied Syria, the Golan Heights, right? And then, down into Israel and

across, right? Is that how you did it?

RIBNER: That is correct. We brought them into Israel on the fence -


RIBNER: - between Israel and Syria and then took them down through Israel, into one of our neighboring countries.

AMANPOUR: OK. I know you don't want to say it.

RIBNER: As you put it.

AMANPOUR: We understand that they went to Jordan. But I just want to ask you because this was an exceptional situation, right? You're not in the

business of evacuating Syrians, are you?

[14:15:03] RIBNER: No. We are not in the business of evacuating Syrians. But we have been in the business for many years already in assisting the

Syrian population and giving them humanitarian aid.

Operation Good Neighbor has been going on for a couple of years already and we have been assisting, in any way we can, the civilian population who have

been suffering from the Syrian civil war. And this is just another chapter in that very significant operation that we've been doing for a couple of

years already.

AMANPOUR: So, tell me, you know the story of the White Helmets. How did you feel about being able to rescue them? I mean, what part in your mind

have they played in the resistance in Syria?

RIBNER: I think it's not about the resistance in Syria. It's, I think, more about the very significant humanitarian effort that they had in Syria

and trying to assist in saving lives of the population who were suffering from the Syrian civil war.

And their lives were in danger. And we, as the request was given to us by, as I said, the United States and other countries, we were fully committed

to assisting these people who had risked their lives to save other Syrians and trying to help them to save their own lives.

AMANPOUR: So, major, we just heard from the White Helmets earlier today because, apparently, nearly 300 of them have been unable to evacuate.

And one of the volunteers, Abu Mohammed, says, "The Syrian regime checkpoints did not allow the majority of us to reach the evacuation point.

The situation is getting worse by the minute, especially after the batch of White Helmets who've managed to leave yesterday morning, the regime is

looking for us." Do you have any other plans to try to get any more out?

RIBNER: We, as of now, have no other plans to get any out. We were approached, as I said, and with the groups that came to the fence in

coordination with us, we were able to extract everyone who came to the fence Saturday night, early Sunday morning. And whoever arrived, we were

able to take them out.

We don't have any other knowledge of any other White Helmets right now. So, as of now, there are no other plans to extract any more White Helmets

and no request has been - no such request has been submitted to the State of Israel yet.

AMANPOUR: Major Efi Ribner of the IDF, thank you so much for joining us from the occupied Golan Heights after that dramatic extraction. Thank you.

Now, the White Helmets, as we said, have often been the canary in the coal mine of the Syria conflict, even helping to uncover the use of chemical

weapons used by the regime, working with the United Nations body dedicated to their eradication, which is the OPCW, which is the Organization for

Prohibition Of Chemical Weapons.

Now, it's outgoing Director General, Ahmet Uzumcu, told me that Syria was in many ways a test case for trying to beef up the laws and trying to seek

accountability against the use of these banned substances.

And he joined me here to talk about it in the studio just a little earlier today. Mr. Uzumcu, welcome to the program. So, you have been head of

this organization for eight years, essentially the duration of the war in Syria, which concentrated the world's mind again on chemical weapons,


So, how helpful was the war for your efforts to hold people accountable?

AHMET UZUMCU, DIRECTOR GENERAL, OPCW: At the beginning, no one. In fact, they rejected the results of our fact-finding mission reports. These are

science-based reports. In fact, they collect samples, both biomedical samples, as we call them, blood or tissue, as well as environmental samples

from places where they are used.

I think all these reports are objective, science-based, impartial and they couldn't be contested.

AMANPOUR: Yet, of course, they were, including in the Security Council, including by Syria, obviously. But, interestingly, because we're talking a

lot about the evacuation from Israel of the White Helmets, I looked up, I found this in the research.

Russia, Syria's most powerful ally in the six-year conflict, described the OPCW report as politically motivated and grounded in doubtful data obtained

from opposition and notorious NGOs like the White Helmets.

So, they hated those people on the ground, who could actually tell them the truth, right?

UZUMCU: White Helmets are one of the NGOs with which we worked actually, our teams worked. So far, we didn't see any evidence of actually the White

Helmets cheating or providing us with false information and so on.

AMANPOUR: Right. But the OPCW has just won the power to assign blame for these chemical attacks, despite protests from Russia and Syria. How

significant is that because for a long time you weren't able to do that?

UZUMCU: I think it's a good thing because there was a gap. And I don't think the international community could afford to continue with this gap.

And it's good that now there is a mechanism for attribution. And this is the first step towards accountability. And without accountability, you

cannot ensure the deterrence.

[14:20:14] So, our goal our goal should be, our collective goal, by the international community should be to deter further use of chemical weapons

and to hold accountable those who have already used. That's the only way to do it.

AMANPOUR: I'm going to play a soundbite from a journalist who we talked to in Syria, but this is what he said about the main killing machine in Syria.


RAMI JARRAH, SYRIAN JOURNALIST: The truth is, in Syria, if you look at the numbers, over half a million people have been killed in Syria. That wasn't

being done with chemical weapons, that wasn't being done using sarin gas.

The truth is, in Syria, when the United States makes a statement and says that we're not going to allow you to use chemical weapons and sign a deal

with Russia to withdraw those chemical weapons, they're basically giving the greenlight to the Syrian regime and to all the other parties involved

to use any other means of violence to kill Syrians.


AMANPOUR: What do you think of that? I mean, in truth, very few people were killed by chemical weapons, as horrible as that is, and hundreds of

thousands, as he says, were killed otherwise.

UZUMCU: It's true that approximately 500,000 people were killed during the Syria war. But as far as the chemical weapons use, this is, in fact, a

norm which is established after 100 years old after the extensive use of chemical weapons during the First World War.

And in view of all this, in view of the fact that these weapons were found immoral, repugnant and even the military, in fact, during the Second World

War didn't want to use chemical weapons. They were totally against it.

So, that's the consensus which developed over decades. That's why probably the use of chemical weapons does attract more attention than the losses

through conventional weapons.

AMANPOUR: Do you feel that throughout this process, those who were responsible for the attack in Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun. So, 2013 and 2017.

Have they been held responsible, the perpetrators?

UZUMCU: Not yet. I hope they will be.

AMANPOUR: And to the best of your knowledge, who are the perpetrators?

UZUMCU: In the case of Khan Shaykhun, the FFM of the OPCW determined the use of sarin siding and the JIM mechanism by UN Security Council did

establish the Syrian Arab Republic being responsible of the use.

AMANPOUR: So, that's the Assad regime.


AMANPOUR: So, I want to play for you this set of soundbites. It's from President Obama and President Trump. President Obama famously said that

there would be a red line. If the Syrian regime moved chemical weapons around, there would be a redline. Let's just play this and then the other



BARACK OBAMA, THEN PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground that a red

line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would

change my equation.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical

attack was launched.

It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.


UZUMCU: So, describe for me a little bit, how did your heart feel when President Obama did not enact his redline? That was in 2013. And then,

when President Trump actually did.

UZUMCU: When, in 2013, the use of sarin was determined and non-military action was taken, but there was a lot of pressure. And due to this

pressure, the Syrian Arab Republic, in fact, accepted to join the chemical weapons convention and to give up its chemical weapons program.

And this was not really a small, in fact, stockpile of chemical weapons. That was huge. And our experts found this chemical weapons, in fact, much

more sophisticated than we initially thought.

So, all these chemicals, were taken outside of the country, were destroyed elsewhere under the verification of the OPCW, as well as the delivery


We are talking about declared chemical weapons.

AMANPOUR: I was just going to say because, clearly, they did not give up all their stockpile.

UZUMCU: These are declared chemical weapons, but these were huge stocks.

AMANPOUR: After eight years of doing this, what would you say was the biggest success and the most dispiriting failure or disappointment?

[14:25:00] UZUMCU: Actually, I wish that the OPCW could do more to prevent any use of chemical weapons. I wish that the international community could

stay united in confronting or countering such threats.

And we are also concerned about the use of chemical weapons by terrorists now, which is also an immediate threat given the fact that ISIS used sulfur

mustard both in Syria and Iraq.

But on the other hand, I think we should feel fortunate that we have such institutions like the OPCW which can look at the matter and provide some

science-based evidences.

AMANPOUR: You keep saying science-based evidence. Is that because you feel that you are under attack politically and people are ignoring the

science and the evidence?

UZUMCU: I repeat this point frequently, Christiane, because the issues are politicized, but not because of the OPCW or myself, but because of

political issues which are involved.

AMANPOUR: Yes. That is a diplomat's answer.

Ahmet Uzumcu, thank you so much for joining us, the outgoing director general of the OPCW.

UZUMCU: Thank you, Christiane.

And that is it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at and you can follow me on

Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.