The Early Edition: July 18, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

IRAN

Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, the Trump administration certified to Congress last night, following reports from international monitors and other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.) that Iran is meeting the terms of the agreement. Karen De Young reports at the Washington Post.

“Iran is unquestionably in default of the spirit of the J.C.P.O.A.,” a senior administration official stated yesterday after the re-certification, which was grudgingly given, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif saying before the certification that the Trump administration’s contradictory messages were difficult for Iran to interpret. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration plans additional sanctions to combat Iran’s other “malign activities,” a senior administration official stated yesterday, adding that the administration would take measures against Tehran for its support for terrorism, abuse of human rights, backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and its anti-Israel stance. Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

Trump administration officials also cited Iran’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles as a reason for further sanctions, Al Jazeera reports.

European allies want to work with the U.S. to “interpret” the J.C.P.O.A. “more strictly,” three senior U.S. administration officials said in a call with reporters yesterday, Jeremy Diamond reporting at CNN.

Putting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) on the U.S. terrorist list “can be very costly to the United States and its military bases and forces in the region.” The Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Services Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri threatened to target American bases and forces in the region if the U.S. went ahead with classifying the I.R.G.C. as terrorists yesterday, Saleh Hamid reporting at Al Arabiya.

Two Iranian nationals have been charged by U.S. authorities in an alleged scheme to steal and re-sell software to Iran, which included hacking into a Vermont technology firm, Joe Uchill at the Hill reporting that a third member of the criminal enterprise has already pleaded guilty to the charges.

The third member of the alleged scheme to re-sell computer software will not be punished, despite admitting guilt, due to a pardon granted by President Obama last year as part of the nuclear deal, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Chinese-American student Xiyue Wang detained in Iran is “innocent” of all charges against him, his professor at Princeton has said, the student having been charged for “infiltrating” Iran and passing confidential information about Iran to the U.S. State Department. Adam Schreck reports at the AP.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

An unnamed eight person was at the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya last June, according to Trump Jr.’s attorney Alan Futerfas, who told CNN’s Pamela Brown that the individual, an American citizen who was not employed by the Russian government, was there on behalf of the Agalarovs who had requested the meeting be set up.

“That’s politics!” President Trump described the Trump Jr.-Veselnitskaya meeting last year as routine via Twitter yesterday, an assertion subsequently repeated by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

There was nothing that would lead anyone to believe that there was anything except for “a discussion about adoption and the Magnitsky Act” during the meeting last year, Spicer insisted yesterday, Matthew Nussbaum reports at POLITICO.

The lawyer hired by the White House to handle the Russia probe did not sign off on Trump’s tweet defending the meeting his son held during his campaign, Spicer confirmed yesterday, Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

“Don’t you get it, guys?” The Trumps need to realize that anything potentially damaging to them will come out in the Trump-Russia investigations being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller and the House and Senate intelligence committees and denouncing leaks as “fake news” will not succeed as a counter-strategy. The Wall Street Journal editorial board urges the president to change tactics to a strategy of “radical transparency.”

The master of “kompromat” – the Russian tactic of spreading damaging information to discredit a rival or an enemy – Yuri Y. Chaika is widely considered to have been the source of the incriminating information on Hillary Clinton that Donald Trump Jr. was offered at the meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya last year, which makes it strange that – by the accounts of those present at that meeting – the information fell flat, writes Andrew E. Kramer at the New York Times.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner has filed three updates to his national security questionnaire since he submitted it in mid-January – significant because submitting false information is a federal crime and, through the lens of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of potential Trump-Russia collusion, could be viewed as attempts to cover up meetings with Russian officials, explains Matt Zapotosky at the Washington Post.

RUSSIA

Russia reserves the right to retaliate against the U.S. for its “illegal seizure” of two Russian diplomatic compounds last year, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement today after a meeting in Washington yesterday ended without resolution on the issue, NBC News reports.

“We think that the diplomatic property must be returned without any conditions and talks,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told CNN’s Mary Ilyushina and Hilary Clarke yesterday, while White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer referred reporters to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who he claimed had been “having discussions” when asked to comment on yesterday’s meeting.

President Putin seems never to miss an opportunity to expand Russia’s presence in the Middle East, and President Trump is handing him opportunity after opportunity, from taking to Twitter to help Saudi Arabia split a Sunni Muslim alliance that was supposed to fight the Islamic State, prompting Qatar and Turkey to move closer together and become open to cooperation with Russia and Iran, to agreeing to a cease-fire in Syria that assumed the lasting presence of Russian influence in the Syrian war during his meeting with Putin in Germany two weeks back, writes Vali R. Nasr at the New York Times.

SYRIA

The U.S.-led coalition conducted airstrikes on western Raqqa yesterday, supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) advancing on the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria where approximately 50,000 civilians remain trapped, Al Jazeera reports.

The battle for Raqqa has intensified as the S.D.F. combat militants in the center of the city, the S.D.F. claiming that they have taken positions near Raqqa’s Old Mosque, the AP reports.

A suicide bomb killed four people at a Kurdish-controlled checkpoint in northeastern Syria today, approximately 19 miles from the Syria-Turkish border, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Reuters reports.

There is “no information one way or the other about Baghdadi’s whereabouts or his status,” Pentagon spokesperson Jeff Davis told reporters yesterday, responding to comments from a top Kurdish counterterrorism official that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not dead. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 22 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on July 16. Separately, partner forces conducted nine strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

The U.A.E.’s hacking of Qatar’s government news site was “unfortunate” and represented a “clear violation and breach of international law,” the head of Qatar’s government communications office Sheikh Saif bin Ahmad Al Thani said yesterday, responding to Sunday’s Washington Post story that the U.A.E. orchestrated the hack, the AP reports.

The Saudi and Emirati-led blockade of Qatar is failing, forcing Qatar closer to Turkey and Iran rather than succeeding in bringing Qatar to heel, and the four Arab nations neglected to consider what would happen if Qatar refused to acquiesce to their demands, Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post.

Egypt insisted that it would maintain measures against Qatar until the demands made by four Arab nations have been met, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said yesterday in a meeting with his Kuwaiti counterpart Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah, Al Jazeera reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to visit Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar next week to discuss the ongoing crisis, according to Erdoğan’s office. Al Jazeera reports in rolling coverage.

Egypt announced the end of visa-free entry for Qatari citizens yesterday, Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid stating that “[it] does not make sense to keep making exceptions for Qatar and giving it privileges in light of its current positions,” Al Jazeera reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The Trump administration’s forthcoming Afghanistan strategy will include a Pakistan angle, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters yesterday, adding that the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has a key role to play in formulating the strategy, Anwar Iqbal reporting at DAWN.

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul are almost twice as high as in the war-torn Helmand province due to a rise in large-scale militant attacks, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.), Jessica Donati reporting at the Wall Street Journal.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Now is the time for increased pressure on North Korea, not dialogue with it, in response to the “new level” of threat it presents following its launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4, Japan said yesterday, Edith M. Lederer reporting at the AP.

Russia is not very worried about North Korean missiles despite U.S. efforts to involve Russia in the search for a solution to the North Korea crisis, one reason for this being self-interest – there are a “surprising” number of economic ties between Russian and North Korea –  another being that Moscow’s view of North Korea is far more sanguine than the U.S.’, and another being the fact that the Kremlin – like Beijing – has no interest in seeing the North Korean government replaced by a unified Korea allied with America, writes Chris Miller at Foreign Policy.

There is no deal to strike with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Daniel Blumenthal and Derek Scissors writing at the Wall Street Journal argue that the only solution to the North Korea crisis is to remove Kim, the only question being how: war would be costly, and the best approach would be to put serious pressure on China to cut off its trade with North Korea.

The STATE DEPARTMENT

The U.S. campaign against mass atrocities is being downgraded by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who is shuttering the Foggy Bottom office that has worked for the past two decades to hold war criminals accountable, several former U.S. officials have disclosed, a State Department spokesperson neither confirming nor denying the office was being shuttered, but a senior State Department official claiming that it was “pure speculation” that the war crimes office was closing, reports Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy.

Tillerson’s plans to restructure his department involve five committees that will analyze different aspects of the department, including one committee dedicated to ensuring that foreign assistance programs are aligned with national priorities, with Tillerson enlisting the help of two consulting groups, according to a cable issued to embassies around the world, Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

A letter urging Tillerson not to eliminate the State Department office that deals with refugees, arguing that a decision to transfer responsibility to other agencies would undercut U.S. diplomatic leverage in dealing with foreign crises was sent to the secretary of state by former U.S. diplomats and national security officials yesterday, Reuters reports.

The MUSLIM BAN

Grandparents of U.S. citizens are now eligible to receive U.S. visas under the Trump administration’s revised travel ban restricting entry to the U.S. by citizens of six Muslim-majority countries, according to a State Department memo reflecting the latest court ruling on the executive order seen by Reuters’ Arshad Mohammed and Yeganeh Torbati.

The Trump administration has already begun imposing its travel ban through deceptively boring alternative means that have been obscured amid the furore over the ban and the impending showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court: increasing administrative hurdles and cementing or expanding existing travel restrictions that are not currently being reviewed by the courts, the collective impact of which will be that “a permanent Muslim ban is enshrined into American immigration policy,” write Farhana Khera and Johnathan J. Smith, president and executive director and legal director respectively of civil rights legal organization Muslim Advocates writing at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump joined other world leaders in calling for Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro to discard plans for a “constituent assembly” that could dissolve parliament, rewrite the country’s constitution and cement Maduro’s grip on power yesterday, Trump issuing his strongest statement yet on the issue in which he said that if Mauro pressed ahead the U.S. would “take strong and swift economic sanctions,” Gideon Long reports at the Financial Times.

Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. “requires” U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen to be “immediately arrested,” Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş said yesterday, stating that Güllen, who is accused of being behind last year’s failed coup in Turkey, continues to pose a threat. Hürriyet Daily News reports.

Jordanian soldier First Sgt. Ma-arik al-Tawayha was convicted of the murder of three U.S. soldiers, whom he shot at an air base in November, and sentenced to live in prison yesterday following a trial which lasted over a month and which failed to establish a motive for the killings. Rana F. Sweis reports at the New York Times.

Gag order issues with warrant-like national security letters do not violate the First Amendment, the Federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday, Joe Uchill reports at the Hill.

A new state was announced by separatists in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine today, casting further doubt on the 2015 cease-fire deal that was intended to stop fighting and bring the areas concerns back into Kiev’s fold, Nataliya Vasilyeva reports at the AP.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte asked the Philippine Congress to extend martial law on the southern island of Mindanao until the end of next year to give him time to subdue an Islamic State-inspired rebel movement today, Reuters’ Martin Perry reports.

The U.N. expressed concerns that people taken prisoner by members of the Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) after recent fighting in Benghazi may be “at imminent risk of torture and even summary execution” and called for the L.N.A., which is fighting for control of central and southern Libya with forces linked to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli and others, to investigate. Reuters reports. 

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About the Author(s)

Zoë Chapman

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security, Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK