The Early Edition: October 6, 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

President Trump is expected to decertify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement in a speech scheduled for Oct. 12, sources familiar with the matter said yesterday; the action would place important decisions about the future of the deal in Congress’s hands, including the possibility of re-imposing sanctions that would breach the terms of the agreement, however officials warned that the plans could still change. Anne Gearan and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

Trump has decided on a strategy that would challenge Iran’s activities in the Middle East and its ballistic missiles program, but has not decided whether to decertify Iran’s compliance, according to a senior administration official. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Maybe it’s the calm before the storm,” Trump said yesterday after a gathering with military leaders, making the cryptic comments and refusing to elaborate when reporters asked what he was referring to, only saying “you’ll find out” – some have speculated that the “storm” refers to the Iran nuclear deal. Cristiano Lima reports at POLITICO.

Iran has “not lived up to the spirit of their agreement,” Trump also said yesterday during the meeting with military leaders, emphasizing that Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. Reuters reports.

Trump’s refusal to certify compliance would attempt to mollify his supporters, who are hostile to the Iran nuclear deal, while keeping international allies on board, as refusal would not mean withdrawing from the agreement completely, however Congress would be faced with the decision whether to re-impose sanctions against Iran, which would reignite divisive debates about the deal. Mark Landler and David E. Sanger observe at the New York Times.

The nuclear deal is working and “all sides” should “stick to their commitments,” a European Union Commission spokesperson said today, Reuters reports.

“It is very important to preserve it [the Iran nuclear deal] in its current form”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said today, expressing hope that Trump would make a “balanced” decision. Reuters reports.

European business leaders are pursuing all avenues to save the nuclear deal should the U.S. withdraw from the agreement, Saeed Kamali Dehgan explains at the Guardian.

An explanation of the 2015 agreement and Trump’s objections to it is provided by Rick Gladstone at the New York Times.

Decertification would not necessarily mean the end of the Iran nuclear deal as the issue of certification does not form part of the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.), however the Trump administration must explain its reasoning clearly: “that it is not pulling out of the J.C.P.O.A. and is not asking Congress to restore the sanctions that were waived under the deal,” instead it would “put the world on notice” that the U.S. would walk away from the deal if Iran does not amend its behavior. Dennis Ross writes at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump would be wrong to decertify Iran’s compliance, such an action avoids the reality that the deal is working, undermines the trust of U.S.’ allies, sends a bad signal to North Korea and Iran, distracts from the fight against the Islamic State group, ignores the complexity of politics in the Middle East, and threatens America’s credibility as a negotiating partner. The New York Times editorial board writes.

A decision to decertify Iran’s compliance could significantly sour relations between the U.S. and its closest traditional allies, especially coming soon after Trump’s decision on the Paris climate decision, with European officials expressing dismay at the possibility but have also started to lobby Congress to try and convince lawmakers not to re-impose sanctions on Iran should Trump decide to decertify. Karen DeYoung and Carol Morello explain at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration has been trying to have it “both ways at once” but, in reality, decertification would be highly unlikely to force Iran to make unilateral concessions and there is no evidence that it would serve the security interests of the U.S. or Israel. The Trump administration’s approach “needlessly” focuses on the nuclear issue when that problem has been made “manageable,” instead of pursuing other initiatives that address Iran’s expansionism in the Middle East. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration plans to kickstart a public campaign aimed at the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah militia group today, according to administration officials, the campaign intending to undermine Hezbollah’s political legitimacy in Lebanon and as part of a broader strategy aimed at Iran’s “malign activities.” Bryan Bender reports at POLITICO.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

Russian government hackers stole highly classified information from the U.S.’ National Security Agency (N.S.A.), according to sources familiar with the matter, the hackers appearing to have targeted an N.S.A. contractor’s personal computer in 2015 after identifying the files through antivirus software produced by the Russia-based Kaspersky Lab. Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris report at the Wall Street Journal.

The details stolen included information about the N.S.A.’s techniques to break into foreign computer networks to collect intelligence, the sources also said – the revelations coming as the F.B.I. conducts an investigation into Kaspersky Lab products and its possible links to the Russian government. Scott Shane, David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth report at the New York Times.

The breach took place when an N.S.A. employee took the classified material home for work on his personal computer and the incident remains under investigation by federal prosecutors. Ellen Nakashima and Jack Gillum report at the Washington Post.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) urged the Armed Services Committee to schedule a hearing about the breach, in a letter yesterday. Joe Uchill reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team interviewed former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele – who compiled the dossier alleging collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign – in the summer, according to a sources familiar with the matter. Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz and Pamela Brown report at CNN.

“Russia has never interfered and won’t interfere in sovereign nations’ affairs,” the director of Russia’s top domestic security agency, Alexander Bortnikov, said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies yesterday, Bortnikov added that he discussed the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election with former C.I.A. Director John Brennan. The AP reports.

Social media companies are scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 1 to testify about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the hearing will take place the same day that Executives from the social media companies are due to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Reuters reports.

References to Russia were cut from Facebook’s public report released in April in relation to Russia’s use of its platform around the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook deeming their findings about Russian activity to be too speculative at that point, according to sources familiar with the matter. Robert McMillian and Shane Harris report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Senate Intelligence Committee produced interesting information in relation to Steele and plenty of questions arise regarding how the information was gathered – Congress must break through the dossier “wall” to find answers. Kimberley A. Strassel writes at the Wall Street Journal.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

White House chief of staff John Kelly’s personal cellphone was possibly compromised, three U.S. government officials believe, raising concerns that hackers or foreign governments may have had access to his phone from December 2016. Josh Dawsey, Emily Stephenson and Andrea Peterson report at POLITICO.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a “wounded figure” whose credibility has been undermined by the president, to many it seems like only a matter of time before he resigns from his position, especially as he exerts little influence in the White House, has few allies and a poor relationship with Trump. Peter Baker writes at the New York Times.

IRAQ

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the “liberation” of Hawija from Islamic State militants yesterday in a televised appearance, the Islamic State militants now only maintain control of one stretch of territory in Iraq near the border with Syria. David Zucchino and Rod Nordland report at the New York Times.

The U.S.-led coalition congratulated the Iraqi government and Iraqi forces for their victory in Hawija in a Centcom statement, adding that while the liberation is a “significant milestone,” Islamic State militants maintain a presence in Iraq and the coalition would “continue to stand side-by-side” with Iraqi forces in their “collective mission” to defeat the Islamic State group.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 28 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on October 4. Separately, partner forces conducted nine strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

SYRIA

At least 10 medical facilities in Syria have been hit over the past 10 days, the International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday, expressing alarm at the reports of hundreds of civilian casualties and the destruction of hospitals and schools. The BBC reports.

Russian submarines fired 10 cruise missiles at Islamic State positions near the town of Mayadeen in the eastern Deir al-Zour province, the Russian Defense Ministry said yesterday. The AP reports.

Sarin or sarin-like gas was used in an attack on the rebel-held town of Latamneh on March 30, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) told Al Jazeera yesterday, the O.P.C.W. shared its initial findings with U.N. member states on Wednesday. Farah Najjar reports at Al Jazeera.

NORTH KOREA

The U.S. must take the implications of a war with North Korea seriously and the Trump administration has failed to answered basic questions about its strategy toward Pyongyang, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said in an interview published yesterday. Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

“Far more than when I previously visited, North Korea is galvanizing its people to expect a nuclear war with the United States,” Nicholas Kritof writes about his recent trip to North Korea and fears about a “catastrophic confrontation” at the New York Times.

China’s military role in the Korean peninsula, should a major crisis unfold, remains unclear. Christopher Bodeen explains the possible scenarios and China’s priorities at the AP.

NIGER

The Pentagon suspects that Islamic State militants ambushed US. Army Special Forces soldiers during a mission in Niger on Wednesday, the Pentagon confirmed yesterday that the attackers killed three U.S. soldiers and wounded two others. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The ambush draws attention to the U.S.’s increasing role in Africa to help allies in their fight against Islamist militants, Paul McLeary explains at Foreign Policy.

RUSSIA

The meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman yesterday sought to strengthen ties between the two countries, marking a change in their relationship that would likely have implications for the Middle East and the world. Ivan Nechepurenko and Ben Hubbard report at the New York Times.

Iran may be helping Russia to develop its drone technology, demonstrating Russia’s intent to catch-up to the U.S. and China’s advanced drone programs through cooperation with foreign countries. John Kester reports at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. halted some joint exercises with Gulf Arab allies “out of respect for the concept of inclusiveness and shared regional interests,” U.S. Central Command spokesperson Col. John Thomas said in a statement yesterday, taking the decision amid the Gulf crisis which began June 5 when Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt diplomatically isolated Qatar of its alleged support for terrorism and its relationship with Iran. Al Jazeera reports.

The A.C.L.U. filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus yesterday, challenging the U.S.’s detention of a U.S. citizen captured in Syria who was allegedly fighting with Islamic State militants. Deb Riechman reports at the AP.

N.A.T.O. nations have agreed to increase funding for counterterrorism programs, the increased budget according with the Trump administration’s desire for the alliance to focus more on counterterrorism. Julian E. Barnes reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The A.C.L.U. and the state of Hawaii called on the Supreme Court to still consider Trump’s travel ban, in separate letters to the justices yesterday, Lawrence Hurley reports at Reuters.

The U.N. blacklisted the Saudi-led military coalition yesterday for causing the deaths and injuries of hundreds of children in Yemen, Al Jazeera reports.

The Trump administration should not have expelled Cuban diplomats from Washington before there was more evidence that Cuba was behind the mysterious “sonic weapon” allegedly used against U.S. and Canadian officials in Havana. The New York Times editorial board writes. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

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