The Early Edition: December 15, 2017

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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.

NORTH KOREA

“We are open to dialogue,” the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Joseph Yun, told reporters today, expressing hope that North Korea would accept the offer made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this week to engage in talks without preconditions, comments that were shot down by the White House shortly after they were made. Jerry Harmer reports at the AP.

“We should exercise direct diplomacy as well as sanctions,” Yun said, despite the fact that the White House has said that there could not be talks until North Korea improved its behavior. Amy Sawitta Lefevre reports at Reuters.

Japan imposed additional sanctions against North Korea today, freezing the assets of 19 entities and individuals that have already been sanctioned by the U.S., taking the unilateral action ahead of today’s U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the North Korean situation. The BBC reports.

There is a “lack of communication” and a “high risk of some kind of miscalculation,” the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, said yesterday, making the comments following a recent trip to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean officials, adding that “there has to be some kind of arrangement that’s based on a diplomatic solution.” Mick Krever and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the “very dangerous situation in North Korea” during a phone call yesterday, the White House said in a statement. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

“I would say there’s a three in 10 chance we use the military option” if North Korea carries out another long-range ballistic missile test, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said in an interview published yesterday, Uri Friedman reports at the Atlantic.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for a “new start” in bilateral ties with China during a trip to Beijing yesterday, relations between the two countries had deteriorated due to the deployment of the U.S.-made T.H.A.A.D. anti-missile defense system in South Korea, and the two leaders discussed T.H.A.A.D. and diplomatic measures to deal with the threat posed by North Korea. Jane Perlez reports at the New York Times.

“The peninsula issue must, in the end, be resolved via dialogue and consultation,” the Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted as saying yesterday in comments to President Moon. Ben Blanchard reports at Reuters.

Russia would not be ready to impose new sanctions that would economically strangle North Korea’s economy, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said today, according to the Interfax news agency. Reuters reports.

The U.S. should pursue a “high-level, bad-faith diplomatic initiative with Pyongyang,” Peter Harrell writes at the Wall Street Journal, explaining that sanctions and military and covert options take a significant time to be developed and that the Trump administration needs to “buy time” to establish new solutions.

IRAN

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley yesterday showcased the U.S.’s evidence of what it says are Iranian-made missiles, drones and weaponry, Haley stated that the presentation constituted “concrete evidence of illegal Iranian weapons proliferation gathered from direct military attacks on our partners in the region,” particularly in Yemen to support the Shi’ite Houthi rebels. Gordon Lubold and Farnaz Fassihi report at the Wall Street Journal.

The evidence presented fell short of proving Haley’s claims, defense officials were unable to explain when the Iranian-made weapons were given to Houthi rebels in Yemen, when the weapons were used, or the circumstances in which a drone was handed over to them. John Ismay and Helene Cooper report at the New York Times.

“We must speak with one voice in exposing the regime for what it is,” Haley said, adding that Iran was violating U.N. resolutions and the U.S. would build an international coalition to counter Iran’s aggression. The BBC reports.

“The nuclear deal has done nothing to moderate the regime’s conduct in other areas,” Haley said, stating that not everything had to be tied to the 2015 nuclear deal, “but it does have to be tied to the Security Council resolutions.” Louis Nelson reports at POLITICO.

A report by the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres this month did not firmly conclude that the missiles fired by Houthi rebels came from Iran, the report was distributed to Security Council members today and said that Iran was complying with the provisions of the 2015 nuclear agreement, however it also documented evidence of Iran weapons shipments in the region and noted that the missiles used by Houthis bore similarities to those manufactured by Iran. Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report at Foreign Policy.

Iran denied the allegations made by the Trump administration, in a message on Twitter, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif compared Haley’s accusations to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 presentation on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Missy Ryan and Kareem Fahim report at the Washington Post.

“These accusations seek also to cover up for the Saudi war crimes in Yemen, with the U.S. complicity,” Iran’s mission to the U.N. said in a statement, calling Haley’s claims a fabrication. Reuters reports.

A spokesperson for the Houthis accused the U.S. of making the claims about Iranian-supplied weapons to distract from the Jerusalem announcement, referring to Trump’s decision last week to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Reuters reports.

SYRIA

The latest round of U.N.-supported talks in Geneva ended yesterday without progress, the U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura said that a “golden opportunity” had been missed and that he was disappointed by the Syrian government’s lack of meaningful engagement. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime “feel perfectly comfortable that they’ve nearly won this war and there’s no need to make political concessions,” one European diplomat said following the talks. The Syrian government carried out airstrikes, made gains on the battlefield and blocked humanitarian aid during the three weeks of U.N.-backed talks, Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The lead negotiator for the Syrian government blamed the Syrian opposition, the West and Saudi Arabia for the failure of the talks, saying that there would be no direct talks with the opposition while they maintain that Assad’s removal be a precondition. Al Jazeera reports.

De Mistura announced that he planned to convene another round of talks in January and said that the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Assad to make concessions was critical to achieving progress. Nick Cumming-Bruce reports at the New York Times.

More than 20 Islamic State militants were killed by the U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian partners near the al-Tanf U.S. base on Wednesday, the coalition said yesterday, the director of operations Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga said in a statement that the militants had found ways to “move freely through regime lines” in spite of the presence of Russian-backed, pro-Syrian regime forces in the area. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The U.S. intercepted two Russian warplanes over Syria on Wednesday, according to the Pentagon, demonstrating the increasing frequency of such incidents despite agreements between the two countries. Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

A report by a weapons-tracking group reveals how the Islamic State group moved weaponry and ammunition across Iraq and Syria, the group used rockets supplied by the U.S., Alex Horton reports at the Washington Post.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 14 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between December 8 and December 10. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Democratic lawmakers have called on the Justice Department to explain why it released anti-Trump text messages shared between top F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok and F.B.I. lawyer Lisa Page, both of whom are under investigation for their work on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Senate Republicans have sought to protect Mueller from attacks by the Republican Party, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) said that he has confidence in Mueller. The comments by Republican senators demonstrate an attempt to separate Mueller from the political storm that has surrounded him since the revelations that members of his team held anti-Trump sentiments, Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

Mueller asked the data firm Cambridge Analytica to turn over the emails of its employees who worked on the Trump campaign and the firm complied with the request. Separately, an individual familiar with the matter said that the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica answered questions put to him by the House Intelligence Committee via videoconference yesterday, Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Relations between the U.S. and Russia are being undermined by the political opposition to Trump, the Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday, claiming that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election were invented and added that he hopes that Trump still wants to improve relations. Andrew Roth and David Filipov report at the Washington Post.

Fourteen former national security, intelligence and foreign policy officials have filed an amicus brief against the Trump campaign and Trump’s adviser Roger Stone, outlining how the Kremlin used local actors to influence politics during the 2016 U.S. election. Natasha Bertrand reports at Business Insider.

Trump continues to reject evidence that Russia interfered in U.S. democracy and his stance undermines the government’s response to a national security threat. Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe and Philip Rucker explain at the Washington Post.

There is a growing body of evidence showing links between Trump associates and Russian operatives, David Ignatius breaks down what is known till now at the Washington Post and says that the president has been blustering because the law and the facts are against him.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

White House officials have been frustrated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, expressing exasperation at Tillerson’s comments this week calling for negotiations with North Korea, with one White House official saying that Tillerson “had not learned his lesson” from the previous instance when he called for talks, the atmosphere of distrust has increased speculation that Tillerson will leave his post in the near future. Josh Dawsey and Anne Gearan report at the Washington Post.

Critics of national security adviser H.R. McMaster have accused him of hurting efforts to recruit members to a key intelligence advisory board, demonstrating the latest apparent quarrel within the Trump administration. Jenna McLaughlin reports at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The general in charge of U.S. Africa Command has requested another investigation into the August raid in Somalia due to media reports of alleged misconduct by U.S. personnel, a spokesperson for Africa Command said yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz extended an invitation to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to visit Israel in an interview with a Saudi newspaper, Katz also said that Israel would act to prevent an Iranian military presence in Lebanon. Noa Landau and Hagar Shezaf report at Haaretz.

China has been expanding its reach in the South China Sea while the region has been distracted by the North Korean threat, a U.S. think tank said in a report yesterday, pointing to satellite images that appear to show work on facilities that can be used for military purposes. David Brunnstrom reports at Reuters.

Turkey has started an initiative to annul the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said today, Reuters reporting. 

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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