The Early Edition: May 4, 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.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong will meet with his U.S. counterpart John Bolton today in Washington ahead of the planned summit to be held between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and in an attempt to coordinate Washington and Seoul’s approach to Pyongyang. Song Jung-a reports at the Financial Times.

Trump has ordered the Pentagon to prepare options for reducing U.S. troop presence in South Korea, according to several sources familiar with the matter, causing concern among Pentagon officials and other agencies that such a move could undermine the U.S.-South Korea security alliance and damage Japan’s security interests. Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

A senior Chinese diplomat has said that next week’s South Korea-China-Japan summit will not focus on North Korea, but added that “there will be no off-limit areas.” Ben Blanchard reports at Reuters.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Guiliani said yesterday that Kim would release three U.S. citizens detained in North Korea soon, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the validity of the reports of their imminent release could not be confirmed but the U.S. would see this “as a sign of good will” ahead of the Trump-Kim meeting. Michael C. Bender and Jessica Donati report at the Wall Street Journal.  

Why is Giuliani making announcements on North Korea? Z. Byron Wolf asks at CNN.

Moon has been exploring ways to support the North’s economy without contravening international sanctions, Anna Fifield explains at the Washington Post.

The South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been trying to learn from past mistakes to advance the prospects of peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula by acting quickly and trying to keep the U.S. on his side. Choe Sang-Hun provides an analysis at the New York Times.

IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif yesterday denounced the U.S. for its approach to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, saying in a video that Iran will not “renegotiate or add onto a deal that we have already implemented in good faith.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“If the U.S. continues to violate the agreement, or if it withdraws altogether, we will exercise our right to respond in a manner of our choosing,” Zarif said in the video, adding that the U.S. “will have to accept responsibility” for the consequences of not honoring the deal. Al Jazeera reports.

European countries have been working on ways to maintain business ties with Iran should Trump decide to withdraw from the deal before his self-imposed May 12 deadline, according to sources, explaining that France, Britain and Germany – who are signatories to the deal – are still pursuing efforts to persuade the White House to preserve the deal, including presenting a separate political agreement that commits to a tougher approach to Tehran. John Irish and Robin Emmott report at Reuters.

Russia said today that it would consider any changes to the Iran nuclear deal to be unacceptable and that it would honor its commitments as long as other countries continue to do so. Reuters reports.

“I would not necessarily draw a foregone conclusion that we’re out [of the deal] this month,” the Trump ally Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said yesterday, saying he believes that there would be a “short-term extension as we look to re-negotiate the agreement.” Asawin Suebsaeng and Andrew Desiderio report at The Daily Beast.

An explanation of the likely implications should the U.S. withdraw from the deal is provided by Francois Murphy at Reuters.

The hardliners in Trump’s foreign policy team and the hardliners in Iran are poised to celebrate the collapse of the nuclear deal, Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.  

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump’s chief lawyer Rudy Giuliani has said that any interview between the president and special counsel Robert Mueller must be limited in time and scope, explaining that appropriate questions would focus narrowly on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Karen Freifeld reports at Reuters.

The phone lines of Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen have been monitored by federal investigators, it is not clear how long the monitoring has been authorized as part of an investigation into a payment made to an adult film star Stormy Daniels due to an alleged affair with the president, however information from the calls could be relevant to Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Tom Winter and Julia Ainsley report at NBC News.

Trump and his legal team have decided to pursue a public rather than legal strategy against Mueller, attempting to undermine the special counsel in the eyes of Republican voters and members of Congress. Darren Samuelsohn explains at POLITICO.

SYRIA

The State Department has stopped providing funds to the Syrian Civil Defense team, also known as the White Helmets, the group’s leader has said that U.S. funding for the volunteer rescuers is “under active review.” Kylie Atwood reports at CBS News.

The U.N. and aid groups have warned that the province of Idlib is set to be the next big battleground in the war, the Syrian government has relocated rebels who have surrendered from other parts of the country to the rebel-held province, which is now home to 2.6m people. Rebecca Collard reports at the Financial Times.

“We cannot have a war in Idlib. I keep saying that now to Russia, to Iran, to Turkey, to the United States, to anyone that can have influence,” the U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland told reporters yesterday, warning of the humanitarian implications of an offensive. Tom Miles reports at Reuters.

Rebels in towns near the city of Homs have agreed to surrender and relocate to opposition-held areas of northern Syria, a Lebanese Hezbollah militia group media unit reported yesterday. Al Jazeera reports.

The Egyptian foreign ministry said today that sending Arab troops to Syria would be a possibility, Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 26 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between April 20 and April 26. [Central Command]

YEMEN

Members of the U.S. Special Forces secretly carried out operations alongside Saudi-led forces to counter threats posed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. According to officials, the Green Berets have been working with the Saudis since late last year to secure Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, however there has been little information or congressional debate about the role of American forces in the Saudi-led coalition. Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

The Pentagon and the Trump administration have not been forthcoming about U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led coalition, an end to the conflict in Yemen requires a peace agreement and Congress “could improve the chance of success by cutting off military aid to Saudi Arabia and voting to bar the use of American troops against the Houthis in Yemen.” The New York Times editorial board writes.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

The U.S. has “raised concerns” with China about its “militarization of the South China Sea,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday following reports of a U.S. intelligence assessment showing that China had installed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles at three outposts in the disputed waters. Ben Westcott, Ryan Browne and Zachary Cohen report at CNN.

“There will be near-term and long-term consequences” for China’s militarization, Sanders also said, without elaborating what the consequences might be. David Brunnstrom and Idrees Ali report at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Pentagon has issued a formal warning to China for aiming lasers from its military base in Djibouti at U.S. military aircraft, spokesperson Dana White told reporters yesterday that there have been “two minor injuries” and that the Chinese activity “poses a true threat to our airmen.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Taliban have captured the strategic Kohistanat district in Afghanistan’s northern province of Badakhshan, according to an Afghan official. The AP reports.

The White House has developed five broad talking points to support the nomination of Gina Haspel to be the new director of the C.I.A., Haspel’s nomination has been criticized due to her involvement in the use of brutal interrogation techniques at a C.I.A. black site in Thailand. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The U.K. has been pursuing a strategy to counter Russian disinformation and urge a rethink of diplomatic engagement with Moscow, Patrick Wintour reveals at the Guardian.

Trump has been seeking an end to the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar in order to unify Gulf Arab nations against Iran, marking a U-turn from his previous position when he joined in with Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain’s criticisms of Doha. Steven A. Cook writes at Foreign Policy. 

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