The Early Edition: January 5, 2018

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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

North Korea agreed to a South Korean proposal to hold high-level official talks on Jan. 9 on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjom, a South Korean Unification Ministry spokesperson Baik Tae-hyun told reporters today, adding that the two sides would work on the details of the talks which include discussion on improving relations and next month’s Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Euan McKirdy and Taehoon Lee report at CNN.

President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in yesterday agreed to delay joint military exercises until after the Winter Olympics, North Korea had accused the joint exercises as being preparations for war and the announcement has the potential to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The news shortly preceded the announcement by North and South Korea that they would hold official talks, Michael R. Gordon and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S.-South Korea exercises will begin after the Paralympics, the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The inter-Korean talks have the potential to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea as the two countries diverge in their approach to the North Korean threat, however President Trump appeared to take credit for the development, saying in a message posted on Twitter that talks between the two countries were a “good thing” and were happening because he had been “firm” on North Korea. Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.

“I won’t be weak-kneed or just focus on dialogue, as we did in the past,” Moon said today, stating that he would strengthen South Korea’s military even while promoting peace talks with North Korea. Moon, a progressive, made the comments in an apparent bid to reassure conservative voters and those concerned that he would make too many concessions to North Korea, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

Trump is beginning to look like a “bystander in the situation on the Korean Peninsula,” the recent developments have signaled a turning point in the crisis, suggest that the two Koreas have control of the decision-making, and the U.S. may not enjoy the backing of South Korea in its “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy, which seeks to force North Korea into talks with little leverage. Adam Taylor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump instructed White House counsel Don McGahn in March to stop the Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter, the special counsel Robert Mueller has learned of this development during his team’s investigation into whether Trump obstructed the F.B.I.’s Russia probe, Mueller has also received information about how Trump urged former F.B.I. Director James Comey to say publicly that he was not under investigation. Michael S. Schmidt reports at the New York Times.

The circumstances surrounding Sessions’s recusal, including the decision by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller after Sessions recused himself, are explained by Matt Zapotosky and Josh Dawsey at the Washington Post.

The publication of Michael Wolff’s book about the Trump administration has been brought to today after lawyers for Trump sent a letter demanding that Wolff and his publisher “immediately cease and desist from any further publication release or dissemination.” The book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” details the atmosphere within the administration and includes explosive comments from the White House former chief strategist Steve Bannon who called the meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russians in June 2016 at the Trump Tower “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.” Lauren Gambino, David Smith, Sabrina Siddiqui and Edward Helmore report at the Guardian.

“I authorized Zero access to White House … for author of phony book! … Look at this guy’s past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve!” Trump tweeted, stating that the Wolff’s book was “full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist.” The BBC reports.

The attempt by Trump’s lawyers to stop the publication of Wolff’s book is unprecedented, legal experts and historians have warned about the potential damage to freedom of speech. Trump’s lawyers also sent a similar cease and desist letter to Bannon, alleging that he had defamed the president and violated a non-disclosure employment agreement, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

Bannon’s comments labeling the Trump tower meeting as “treasonous” shifts the frame of the Russia inquiry and raises the possibility that Bannon may cooperate, or may already be cooperating, with Mueller’s investigation. Ed Pilkington explains at the Guardian.

The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday rejected the claims in Wolff’s book that he informed Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner that the Trump campaign staff may have been under British surveillance, Blair said that the story was “literally an invention.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The former Trump aide Rick Gates and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort “hold the keys to their own release” from house arrest, the U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said in an order yesterday, setting out that both defendants – who have pleaded not guilty to charges made in the Mueller inquiry – must submit documentation showing collateral to guarantee bail packages reached with Mueller’s team. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

The Trump Tower meeting was not “treasonous,” treason is a unique crime that applies to a foreign power in open hostility with the U.S., although Russia may be a competitor, it is not an “enemy.” Danny Cevallos writes at NBC News.

Wolff’s book reveals few new details and the fallout between the president and Bannon could help the Trump Presidency and the Republican Party, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

IRAN

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned five entities linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program yesterday, when announcing the measures, the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the Iranian government and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) “fund foreign militants, terrorist groups and human rights abuses” while the Iranian people suffer. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The decision to impose sanctions comes after a week of anti-government protests across Iran which have led to the deaths of more than 20 people, the sanctions also come ahead of a Jan. 15 deadline for Trump to decide whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

The Iranian authorities have arrested more than 1,000 individuals over the past week, according to rights groups and the State Department, earlier in the week the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Court warned that arrested demonstrators could face the death penalty. Loveday Morris reports at the Washington Post.

“We have ample authorities to hold accountable those who commit violence against protestors, contribute to censorship, or steal from the people of Iran,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday. Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

“The President and vice president of the United States, in their numerous absurd tweets, incited Iranians to engage in disruptive acts,” Iran alleged in a letter to the U.N. sent yesterday, Angela Dewan and Marilia Brocchetto reporting at CNN.

Iranian officials yesterday issued a series of statements accusing the U.S. and other foreign enemies of causing the unrest, Thomas Erdbrink reports at the New York Times.

The situation in Iran “will stabilize within a day or two, there’s no need to be worried, that’s what they told me,” the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdğan said, relaying his discussion with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in an interview broadcast yesterday. Reuters reports.

The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to hold an emergency session today about the unrest in Iran following a request from the U.S., which has sought to demonstrate support for the anti-government protestors, the AP reports.

The Security Council emergency session on Iran is “harmful and destructive,” the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying yesterday, Denis Pinchuk reporting at Reuters.

U.S. senators met with Trump administration officials yesterday to discuss possible bipartisan compromise legislation to increase pressure on Iran while keeping the U.S. in the 2015 nuclear deal, the meeting included the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the panel’s top Democrat Ben Cardin (Md.) and Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

The U.S. and Israel have increased their criticism of Iran’s role in conflicts across the Middle East, Israel has accused Iran of supporting terrorists in the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the Trump administration has used the protests as part of its efforts to ostracize Iran. Rory Jones and Dion Nissenbaum explain at the Wall Street Journal.

The Iranian Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi urged the U.S. and the international community to support the protestors through political sanctions rather than economic sanctions, adding that she supported the protestors “one hundred percent” and urged the people of Iran to protest peacefully and engage in civil disobedience. Bozorgmehr Sharafedin reports at Reuters.

The West should careful about its statements on the protests, but is clear that silence is “wrong,” Trump has been right to condemn the Iranian regime and the West should help keep communications open in the country. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

The protests have been driven by economic grievances and the U.S. and others have been exploiting the protests to suit their own agendas, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also resorted to predictable clichés blaming “foreign enemies” for the unrest. Simon Tisdall writes at the Guardian, saying that Trump and his allies, and Khamenei and his followers “look as foolish as they are ignorant.”

PAKISTAN

The Trump administration yesterday announced that it would freeze more than $1bn in security funds to Pakistan, in addition to the $255m in U.S. military aid that the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said earlier this week that they would withhold. Felicia Schwartz, Nancy A. Youssef and Saeed Shah report at the Wall Street Journal.

The suspended aid would remain in effect until Pakistan takes “decisive action” against the Taliban and the Haqqani network, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said, officials have acknowledged that the measure is mostly symbolic in the short term, but it reflects the deteriorating U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Missy Ryan, Annie Gowen and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

The State Department announced yesterday that it has placed Pakistan on a watch list for “severe violation of religious freedoms,” Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bomb attack in the Afghan capital of Kabul killed at 20 people yesterday and wounded 30, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack. Fahim Abed reports at the New York Times.

Police officers and civilians were among the victims, according to the deputy spokesperson for the Afghan interior ministry, Al Jazeera reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Islamic State group’s branch in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has called on its followers to attack the Palestinian Hamas group based in the Gaza Strip, saying that Hamas has cracked down on Islamist militant groups in Gaza and failed to prevent the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Loveday Morris reports at the Washington Post.

Right-wing politicians in Israel have been taking measures to undermine the two-state solution, hardliners have taken advantage of the recent U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the political damage that has ensued following the corruption investigations into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move further to the right. The New York Times editorial board writes, calling on Trump to “reaffirm America’s longstanding commitment to a two-state solution and tell the Israeli right that it is going too far.”

SYRIA

At least 25 civilians were killed in airstrikes in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the Syrian capital of Damascus yesterday, according to witnesses the strikes were carried out by Russian jets, and the Eastern Ghouta area has been besieged by pro-Syrian government forces since 2013. The BBC reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 46 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between December 22 and December 28. [Central Command]

HILLARY CLINTON

The Justice Department is reviewing Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state in an attempt to gather new details about how Clinton and her aides dealt with classified materials. Betsy Woodruff reveals at The Daily Beast.

The Justice Department has launched a new investigation into the Clinton Foundation, according to anonymous sources the inquiry will examine whether the Clintons promised or performed any policy favors in return for support for the Foundation. John Solomon reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. officials have said they have considered the dangers of the U.S. decision to send weapons to Ukraine and the risk of the weaponry falling into enemy hands, the weapons have been designated for units away from the eastern Ukraine frontline and will be stored at training centers – however concerns remain in light of past experiences. Thomas Grove and Julian E. Barnes report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Turkish foreign ministry has called the jury’s decision to convict a Turkish banker of conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran an “unprecedented interference in Turkey’s internal affairs.” Carlotta Gill reports at the New York Times.

The European Union is a “predictable and solid” partner to Cuba, the E.U. Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini said at the end of a two-day visit, seemingly making a dig at the Trump administration’s policies toward Cuba. The AP reports.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has embarked on a plan to disarm Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in the country, the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) played an important role in defeating the Islamic State group in the country. Ahmed Rasheed explains at Reuters. 

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