The Early Edition: May 11, 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.

ISRAEL-IRAN CONFRONTATION

Iran’s foreign ministry today called Israel’s accusations that it launched strikes on Israeli forces “fabricated” and “baseless,” the Israeli military hit dozens of Iranian military targets across Syria yesterday morning in response to what Israel claimed to be the firing of 20 rockets by Iranian forces at Israeli troops in the occupied Golan Heights. Al Jazeera reports.

“The international community’s silence encourages Israel’s aggression. Syria has every right to defend itself,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by state television. Reuters reports.

Iran “crossed a red line,” the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement yesterday, adding that “whoever hits us will get hit seven times over. Whoever prepares to attack us will be attacked first.” Oren Liebermann, Salma Abdelaziz and James Masters report at CNN.

Iran does not want “new tensions” in the Middle East, the AFP reported Rouhani as saying yesterday evening, with a separate Iranian national security official stating earlier in the day that the country had no connection to the missiles fired at Israel and, if it did, “it would have announced it immediately.” Haaretz reports.   

The Syrian foreign ministry described the Israeli attacks as “a new phase of aggression,” in a statement, with the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that five Syrian soldiers and 18 allied militiamen were killed by Israeli airstrikes across Syria yesterday, but not stating whether the militiamen were Iranian. Loveday Morris, Ruth Eglash and Louise Loveluck report at the Washington Post.

The U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged the “immediate halt to all hostile acts” in the Middle East and to avoid actions that would lead to “a new conflagration in the region,” in a statement issued yesterday, responding to reports of the exchange of fire between Iran and Israel. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday called on all sides to “exercise restraint” following discussions with the French President Emmanuel Macron and an earlier phone call with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, during which she reiterated Germany’s support for preserving the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran also keeps to its commitments. Michael Nienaber and Richard Lough report at Reuters.

An explanation of the reasons for the confrontation between Iran and Israel, and whether it has a link to Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal, is provided by Haaretz.

An overview of the confrontation is provided by Isabel Kershner and David M. Halbfinger at the New York Times.

The issue of nuclear weapons and regional conflict “are likely to become intertwined, each fueling the other,” Shahshank Joshi writes at CNN, providing an overview of the tensions between the two countries and arguing that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 agreement may provoke Iran to once again expand its nuclear program.

Iran and Israel’s confrontation does not mark a new phase in the standoff between the two countries, however the escalation forms part of a pattern of strike and counter attack and the danger is that, further down the line, a war could be sparked by miscalculation rather than a willful act. Martin Chulov writes at the Guardian.

Lebanon could be drawn into a conflagration due to the increased influence of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Lebanese Hezbollah group within Lebanon’s domestic politics and the increased influence of Hezbollah’s militia in Syria. Alex Rowell provides an analysis at The Daily Beast.

IRAN

President Trump said he hoped to negotiate a new nuclear agreement with Iran that would better for Iran and better for the U.S. at a campaign rally yesterday, referring to his May 8 decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and adding that a new deal must have stronger provisions allowing for inspection of Iranian military sites. Jonathan Allen reports at NBC News.

The U.S. Treasury Department and the U.A.E. yesterday acted together to impose sanctions on Iranian companies and individuals that officials said are operating an illegal currency-exchange network in the U.A.E., foreshadowing further U.S. economic measures against Iran following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement. Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian yesterday condemned the U.S. move to re-impose sanctions on European companies trading with Iran, saying in an interview that “Europeans should not have to pay for the [U.S.] withdrawal.” The BBC reports.

Trump sent two private letters to allied Arab leaders calling on them to take further action to counter Iran’s activities in the region, according to a person familiar with the matter. The letters also referred to the amount of funding the U.S. has given to its Arab allies and urged them to take action in Syria and to resolve the ongoing dispute between a Saudi-led bloc and Qatar, Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

Iran-backed militia groups are trying to increase their influence in Iraq in the upcoming Iraqi elections, if successful, it could make it more difficult for the Iraq to balance its relationship between the U.S. and Iran. Isabel Coles and Ali Nabhan report at the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of the upcoming elections in Iraq and Iran’s role is provided by Jeremy Bowen at the BBC.

Trump has not articulated what should follow his decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and the administration needs a clear strategy that begins with a realistic assessment of Iran and a means to avoid a U.S. confrontation with Europe over conducting business with Tehran. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Trump announced that his summit with North Korea will be held on June 12 in Singapore, sending a message on Twitter claiming that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!” Michael C. Bender and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

The announcement came just hours after Trump welcomed home three Americans held captive for more than a year in North Korea, and preceded a rally yesterday evening during which Trump mocked those in the media who had criticized his strategy as too risky. David Nakamura and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

During the rally Trump claimed that the U.S. did not pay North Korea for the release of the hostages, suggesting that Kim “did a great service to himself and to his country by doing this…. But those hostages came out, with respect, we didn’t pay for them.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The president took the opportunity to admonish the Obama administration for a roughly $1.7 billion payment in 2016 linked to the release of American citizens imprisoned in Tehran, and laid out his stance for the upcoming summit, telling the crowd at the North Side Middle School that “I think it’s going to be a very big success…But my attitude is: And if it isn’t, it isn’t. OK? If it isn’t, it isn’t.” Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

The choice of Singapore for the upcoming summit represents a victory for Trump’s advisers, who persuaded him not to meet Kim in the Demilitarized Zone (D.M.Z.) between North and South Korea. Mark Landler and Katie Rogers report at the New York Times.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is the key issue expected to be discussed at the summit, although there has been no word from Pyongyang on its specific offer for the summit. Reporting at the BBC.

North Korea has informed a U.N. aviation agency that it will not conduct unannounced missile tests or further intercontinental ballistic missile launches as its nuclear program is now complete, making the pledge to officials from U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization in Pyongyang this week, according to an ICAO statement today. The statement said North Korea is seeking the reinstatement of suspended air services and hopes to open new routes through its airspace for overflight traffic. The AP reports.

The damage to the nuclear test site that Kim promised to shut down is more extensive than previously thought, according to new research – information that will feed into an international debate as to the value of Kim’s commitment to close the test site in the run-up to last month’s inter-Korean summit. Jeremy Page reports at The Wall Street Journal.

Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed North Korea and the upcoming summit on Wednesday, affirming the “shared goal of North Korea abandoning its illicit weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs” and jointly expressing commitment to cooperating with South Korea, the White House said in a statement released yesterday. Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann report at Reuters.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) commented yesterday that the release of the three detained American citizens was “no great accomplishment” and that Trump was weakening U.S. foreign policy by exalting the release, expressing the worry that “this president, in his eagerness to strike a deal, and get the acclaim and a photo op, will strike a quick one and a bad one, not a strong one, not a lasting one”. Susan Cornwell reports at Reuters.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang was shrouded in uncertainty and unpredictability, claims Carol Morello who accompanied Pompeo on the visit, reporting at the Washington Post.

Kim is aiming to trap Trump and drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, comments Anthony Rugierro at POLITICO.

Trump’s foreign policy maneuvers are shoring up his support amongst his domestic political base, comments Stephen Collinson at CNN.

Removing roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as part of Trump’s deal with Kim would pose a major danger to the region, comments Y.J. Fischer at CNN.

HASPEL CONFIRMATION PROCESS

Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the C.I.A, presents senators with a difficult choice, with her experience on the one hand and her oversight of the C.I.A.’s interrogation program and role in the destruction of potentially incriminating videotapes on the other, reports Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post, querying whether Haspel would “stand up to the president’s worst instincts, or enable them?”

Republican senators expressed deference to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) yesterday but gave little indication that his opposition to Haspel would sink her nomination, with Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) becoming the first Democrat to confirm his support. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Haspel looks increasingly likely to be confirmed, having returned to the Senate yesterday for meetings with three still-undecided Democrats: Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) in addition to Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

White House official Kelly Sandler dismissed McCain’s opposition to Haspel in a closed-door staff meeting yesterday, saying that McCain, who is currently battling brain cancer, is “dying anyway”. Philip Rucker reports at the Washington Post.

The Senate should not confirm Haspel as Director of the C.I.A. due to her failure to make a clear statement that the C.I.A.’s program of interrogation was wrong, the Washington Post editorial board writes.

The apology of the British Government for its part in the rendition and torture of Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, Fatima Boudchar comes at a particularly unwelcome time for Haspel, comments Declan Walsh at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence has urged special counsel Robert Mueller to “wrap up” his investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, claiming that the White House has “fully co-operated” with the probe and describing the reports regarding Michael Cohen – Trump’s personal lawyer – receiving millions of dollars in payments from companies as a “private matter” and “something I don’t have any knowledge about”. The BBC reports.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has retreated from open confrontation with the Justice Department after a private meeting yesterday with senior intelligence officials who told Nunes that they would not be able to give him classified information about an intelligence source who had aided Mueller. Devlin Barrett reports at the Washington Post.

Nunes and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) issued a statement describing the meeting as “productive,” claiming that officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Justice, and FBI had “committed to holding further discussions of these matters.” Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has resigned from his job at Manhattan law firm Greenberg Traurig in order to focus exclusively on representing the president in the Mueller investigation, despite the fact that he had originally left the firm on a short leave of absence. Stephanie Ruhle, Kristen Welker, Geoff Bennett and Dartunorro Clark report at NBC.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The head of the Palestinian Hamas’s Gaza branch, Yehya Sinwar, suggested yesterday that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians may break through the border fence with Israel, ahead of protests on the border scheduled for May 14 and 15 – which includes the day the U.S. Embassy relocates from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the day that Palestinians mark as a day of their displacement, known as the “Nakba.” Daniel Estrin and Abu Bakr Bashir report at NPR.

An overview of Sinwar’s comments is provided by David M. Halbfinger and Iyad Abuheweila at the New York Times.

Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner is scheduled to attend the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, Kushner’s attendance appears to be an opportunity to revitalize his role in negotiations on a Middle East peace deal and also an indication that he would share the Israel-Palestine brief with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Annie Karni explains at POLITICO.

SYRIA

Syrian rebels have been leaving areas close to the capital Damascus as part of evacuation deals agreed with the Syrian government and its allies. According to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 8,400 fighters and civilians have left the area since May 3, the AP reports.

Russia has apparently u-turned on a proposal to supply S-300 surface-to-air missiles to the Syrian government, according to comments by a top Kremlin aide, which follow a meeting between the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Andrew Osborn reports at Reuters.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 27 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between April 27 and May 3. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger in October was down to multiple “individual, organizational, and institutional failures,” Pentagon officials said yesterday, following the release of an eight-page report summarizing an internal Defense Department investigation into the ambush. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee yesterday released a cache of 3,000 Facebook ads purchased by the Russia-linked Internet Research Agency, showing that it improved its tactics to target voters and American citizens before, during and after the 2016 U.S. election. Deepa Seetharaman, Georgia Wells and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s harsh criticism of the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday has prompted her to consider resigning, according to two sources familiar with the matter, Nielsen has drafted a resignation letter but has not submitted it. Michael D. Shear and Nicole Perlroth report at the New York Times.

Pakistan has announced that it would restrict the movement of U.S. diplomats in the country following similar measures taken by the U.S. against Pakistani diplomats. The AP reports.

At least seven were killed and four wounded by a Taliban attack on a security post in Afghanistan’s Farah province last night, according to a provincial governor. The AP reports.

A U.S.-Iraqi intelligence operation led to the capture of five Islamic State group leaders yesterday, Julia Manchester reports at the Hill. 

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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

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).