The Early Edition: April 25, 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.

TRUMP-MACRON MEETING

President Trump welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House yesterday, the main issue on the agenda was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the Trump’s upcoming self-imposed May 12 deadline whether to pull the U.S. out of the agreement and reinstate sanctions against Iran. Michael C. Bender and Stacy Meichtry report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump called the Iran nuclear deal “insane” and “ridiculous” while sitting next to Macron, saying that the agreement had not contained Iran. However Trump said at a later news conference that his administration “can be flexible” and made the comments as France, Germany and the U.K. continue negotiations with the U.S. to try and address what Trump considers to be flaws in the deal, Kevin Liptak reports at CNN.

Macron called for “work on a new deal with Iran” to complement the 2015 agreement that would cover other elements as well as Iran’s nuclear program. Nahal Toosi and Quint Forgey report at POLITICO.

It remains unclear whether Macron has made progress in his attempts to persuade Trump to preserve the deal, the French president proposed that the U.S. and Europe agree to block any nuclear activity until 2025 and beyond, address Iran’s ballistic missiles program and include initiatives to contain Iran in the Middle East. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to visit the White House on Friday to also put forward the case for the U.S. remaining in the 2015 agreement, Steve Holland, Marine Pennetier and Jeff Mason report at Reuters.

“I think we will have a great shot at doing a much bigger, maybe, deal,” Trump said, while also criticizing the original deal, suggesting that he would be open to a new agreement, but adding that it must be built on “solid foundations.” The BBC reports.

“If they restart their nuclear program, they will have bigger problems that they have ever had before,” Trump said in response to Iran’s warnings that it may resume nuclear activities if the U.S. withdraws from the agreement, but not specifying what kind of action his administration would take. Peter Baker and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report at the New York Times.

“If the United States were to withdraw from the nuclear deal, the immediate consequence in all likelihood would be that Iran would reciprocate and withdraw,” the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview published yesterday, making the comments as Macron met with Trump. Josh Lederman and Edith M. Lederer report at the AP.

A top Iranian official said yesterday that Tehran was considering withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (N.P.T.) should Trump pull the U.S. out of the 2015 deal. Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Julian Borger report at the Guardian.

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani today criticized President Trump in harsh terms for his comments on the nuclear agreement and dismissed Macron’s attempts to salvage the deal. Reuters reports.

Republican lawmakers have been anxious about Trump’s decision on the Iran deal, there have been divisions within the party over whether the U.S. should withdraw, with some saying that pulling out could send a dangerous message to North Korea and undermine efforts to push for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Alexander Bolton and Jordan Fabian report at the Hill.

Trump gave the impression that he was not swayed by European efforts on the 2015 deal: should the Europeans persuade the president to keep to the deal by offering a complementary agreement, they would need to somehow find a way to keep Iran on board. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post, saying that the “weeks ahead will prove whether the French president’s most significant charm offensive yet actually worked.”

“We have a very special relationship,” Trump said of his friendship with Macron, with the two leaders demonstrating their closeness throughout the visit – including a bizarre moment when Trump brushed off “dandruff” from Macron’s jacket. Julian Borger and David Smith give an overview of Macron’s visit at the Guardian, explaining that the relationship could yield results should Trump decide to preserve the Iran deal.

Macron and Trump put their intimate friendship on display at the White House, the French President noted their unlikely friendship, saying that “we both know that none us easily changes our minds, but we will work together, and we have this ability to listen to one another.” Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Katie Rogers provide an overview of their “bromance” at the New York Times.

“L’affaire dandruff” demonstrates the unique dynamic between Macron and Trump, over the past year, diplomatic approaches have been supplanted by a “competition to establish alpha dominance,” and “Trump is the alpha” this time and “Macron has little to show for his newfound submissiveness.” Dana Millbank writes at the Washington Post.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “has been very open and I think very honorable based on what we are seeing,” Trump said yesterday during a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, saying at a press conference later that his potential meeting with Kim is “going to be very positive,” but did not explain why he had called Kim “honorable.” Zachary Cohen and Kevin Liptak report at CNN.

“I am concerned by the language used by the president today when discussing the North Korean regime,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said yesterday, adding that describing Kim as “honorable” was “beyond comprehension.” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration is planning to nominate the head of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris to be the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Adm. Harris had been put forward to be the ambassador to Australia and, according to a White House official, he has already told C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo – who is the nominee to be Trump’s new Secretary of State – that he is willing to switch roles. Josh Rogin reveals at the Washington Post.

The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull today expressed regret that Adm. Harris would not be the next U.S. ambassador to Canberra, but stated that he understood the decision “given the situation on the Korean Peninsula.” The U.S. has not had an ambassador to South Korea for over a year, Rod McGuirk reports at the AP.

Kim and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in are scheduled to meet on Friday, but many in South Korea have been skeptical about a breakthrough and Kim’s motives. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.  

Trump and Moon are likely to hold a meeting in Washington D.C. before Trump meets with Kim, a senior South Korean official has said, which would include a briefing on the inter-Korean summit. Yoonjung Seo and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

The issue of the unification of the Korean Peninsula has been emotive for North and South Koreans and has been given greater attention in light of the upcoming Kim-Moon talks, however analysts and officials have said that the goal is unrealistic and public support in South Korea for unification has decreased over the years. Josh Smith reports at Reuters.

A suspected North Korean cyberattack last month was much larger than originally believed, according to analysts. Timothy W. Martin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

China has become increasingly concerned about the developments on the Korean Peninsula, the prospect of a deal could change the dynamics of power in East Asia, in particular should there be reunification under a U.S. security alliance relationship. Charles Clover explains at the Financial Times.

A feature on the South Korean President’s chief of staff Im Jong-seok and his role in Seoul’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea is provided by Andrew Jeong and Jonathan Cheng at the Wall Street Journal.

The TRAVEL BAN

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Trump’s third version of the travel ban today, Pete Williams reports at NBC News.

The travel ban blocks entry to the U.S. of most people from several majority Muslim countries. The ban also targets Venezuela and North Korea, but these restrictions have not been challenged in court, Lawrence Hurley reports at Reuters.

SYRIA

Trump said yesterday that he wants U.S. troops to leave Syria “relatively soon” but to also “leave a strong and lasting footprint,” during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron. Reuters reports.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria has changed its approach in a bid to eliminate the remaining pockets of extremist fighters. The coalition offensive had been stalled for two months due to the U.S. partners on the ground, the Syrian Kurdish militia, turning their focus to countering Turkish attacks in northern Syria and the new tactics include increased surveillance followed by strikes in Eastern Syria, Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. and Israel have been concerned that Iran has been flying weapons systems to Syria to be used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Iranian forces, and potentially to be used at a later stage to threaten Israel. Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

The Assad regime offensive against the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk near Damascus has resulted in significant destruction, according to activists, at least 15 civilians have been killed and more than 100 wounded since the operation against jihadist and rebel groups began on April 19. The U.N. Palestinian refugee agency (U.N.R.W.A.) says that only 1,200 people remain inside Yarmouk and around 5,000 have been displaced. Farah Najjar reports at Al Jazeera.

Two top U.N. officials have warned that the Syrian province of Idlib may become an Aleppo-style humanitarian catastrophe, the province is the last major rebel territory, but is also partly controlled by the extremist Tahrir al-Sham alliance. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Evidence from witnesses appears to show that Russians have been involved in covert missions in Syria beyond air strikes, the Kremlin has consistently maintained that Russian civilians fighting in Syria are not part of Russia’s armed forces. Maria Tsetkova and Anton Zverev reveal at Reuters.

The E.U. foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini yesterday called on Russia, Iran and Turkey to establish a ceasefire in Syria, saying that the three countries have a “special responsibility” and the escalation of military activities was “exactly the contrary” to what they had promised. Lorne Cook reports at the AP.

The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, also criticized military escalation yesterday, saying that “real, meaningful political negotiations … are clearly the only way forward.” Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott report at Reuters.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 30 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between April 13 and April 19. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan Taliban today announced its annual spring offensive, saying in a statement that they would use “new and intricate tactics” aimed at “crushing, killing and capturing American invaders and their supporters.” The AP reports.

The suicide bomb attack on a voter registration center in Kabul on Sunday has led to some members of the Shi’ite Hazara minority to reconsider their participation in upcoming elections. Sharif Hassan, Sayed Salahuddin and Pamela Constable explain at the Washington Post.

POMPEO CONFIRMATION PROCESS

The Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday that he would oppose the nomination for C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo to be the new Secretary of State, citing Pompeo’s approach to the Trump-Russia investigation and his approach to Trump’s comments on Muslim-Americans and people from South Asia as reasons for his decision. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“Pompeo’s rhetoric and actions raise major concerns,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) writes at the Washington Post, explaining why he cannot support Pompeo’s nomination.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“If the Taiwan independence forces continue to act however they wish, we will take further actions,” China’s spokesperson for the Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office told reporters today, referring to recent Taiwanese military exercises and comments from the Taiwanese premier about formal independence. Today’s comments come amid increasing tensions which have also damaged relations between the U.S. and China, who have diverging views on Taiwan, the AP reports.

The Supreme Court yesterday ruled 5-4 to limit foreign victims’ ability to sue corporations in U.S. courts for their part in alleged human rights abuses. Jess Bravin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Lt. Gen Paul Nakasone was confirmed by the Senate yesterday to be the head of the U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency (N.S.A.), Reuters reports.

The U.N. Palestinian refugee agency (U.N.R.W.A.) has said that it is still short of $200m following the U.S. decision to cut funding, warning that food aid may run out from June. Robin Emmott reports at Reuters.

The Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif mocked the Trump administration’s “proof” that Iran was arming Yemen’s Houthi rebels, saying that the missile demonstrated by U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley in December used markings that appear on Iranian consumer goods, but added that he was not saying that Haley had fabricated the evidence. Josh Lederman and Edith M. Lederer report at the AP.

Congress must step up and ensure that presidents do not have a “blank check to wage war,” the New York Times editorial board writes, warning that the proposed bipartisan legislation on a new authorization for the use of military force may actually give the president broader authority and that the Senate Foreign relations Committee should hold hearings to ensure there is “a more effective congressional check.” 

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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