The Early Edition: July 3, 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.

IRAN

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Switzerland yesterday for two days of talks expected to center on efforts to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord. The AP reports.

Iran will continue to respect the 2015 deal as long as its interests are preserved, Rouhani said today. Reuters reports

The foreign ministers of Iran, U.K., Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China will meet on Friday in Vienna to discuss ways to salvage the nuclear deal, according to the Iranian state I.R.N.A. news agency. Reuters reports.

“We are prepared to work with countries that are reducing their [oil] imports [from Iran] on a case-by-case basis,” the senior State Department official Brian Hook told reporters yesterday, walking back on threats to insist on zero imports by Nov. 4. Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“We have been clear with countries and companies around the world that we are bringing severe economic pressure on Iran until the regime changes its destabilizing policies,” Hook also told reporters, explaining that more than 50 international companies have indicated that they will leave Iran. Katrina Manson reports at the Financial Times.

U.S. officials are conducting traveling “road shows” to explain the Trump administration’s policy to put pressure on Iran, Hook explained, adding that “we will not hesitate to take action when we see sanctionable activity.” Louis Nelson reports at POLITICO.

“The Americans have claimed they want to completely stop Iran’s oil exports. They don’t understand the meaning of this statement,” Rouhani said yesterday, warning that such action would threaten regional oil exports. Reuters reports.

The Belgian authorities arrested two people of Iranian origin and charged them with attempting to carry out a bomb attack on a gathering of the exiled Iranian Mujahideen-e-Khalq (M.E.K.) group in France, which was also attended by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The AP reports.

An Iranian diplomat was arrested along with the two people suspected of planning the attack on the M.E.K. gathering, Belgian authorities said yesterday. The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described the report as a “false flag ploy” and that Iran would work with all concerned to uncover what happened, Robert-Jan Bartunek and John Irish report at Reuters.

Austria said today that it will lift immunity on the Iranian held in connection to the plot against the M.E.K., the AP reports.

The M.E.K. “functions as a fringe exiled group with characteristics of a cult that works for regime change in Iran,” Saeed Kamali Dehghan writes at the Guardian, explaining the nature of the group and its links to U.S. politicians.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

The Kremlin announced yesterday that the Crimean Peninsula will not be on the agenda at the July 16 summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, although Putin is open to looking for compromises with Trump on all other issues, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. Russia annexed the Crimean from Ukraine in 2014, Maria Kiselyova reports at Reuters.

“Recognizing Crimea as part of Russia would undermine the rules-based international order that was created with U.S. leadership and has caused democracy to thrive around the world and made America a safer home for our citizens,” warned Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in a message on Twitter, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is set to meet with a delegation of U.S. Congressmen today, Interfax news agency quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying yesterday, although the exact location or other attendees were not confirmed. Maxim Rodionov reports at Reuters.

“We come here realizing that we have a strained relationship, but we could have a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia, because we have some common interests around the world that we could hopefully work together on,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said today during a meeting with Lavrov. Maria Danilova reports at the AP.

“I hope your visit will be a symbol of restoring relations between the two parliaments,” Lavrov told the delegation during a meeting according to Interfax. Katya Golubkova reports at Reuters.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said today that Putin would be comfortable holding a one-on-one meeting with Trump, adding that this could form the opening session of the summit should the arrangement be confirmed by Washington. Peskov said that Putin was not planning to meet the U.S. delegation currently in Russia, Maria Tsvetkova reports at Reuters.

Trump simply does not care how anyone regards his “baffling, opaque and deferential” relationship with Putin, comments Stephen Collinson at CNN.

Four critical steps Trump must take to avoid being manipulated by Putin are outlined by Samantha Vinograd at The Daily Beast.

N.A.T.O.

President Trump has written sharply worded letters to several N.A.T.O. allies criticizing them for spending insufficient sums on defense, and warning recipients ­ — including leaders of Germany, Belgium, Norway and Canada – that the U.S. is running out of patience with what according to Trump is a failure to meet shared security obligations. The letters, sent in June, come in the context of a growing rift between Trump and N.A.T.O members ahead of the alliance’s meeting next week, Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports at the New York Times.

Germany’s lack of N.A.T.O. spending “provides validation for other allies that also do not plan to meet their military spending commitments, because others see you as a role model,” Trump wrote in his letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Trump used the letters to warn allies that the U.S. will reconsider its troop placement if nothing changes, claiming in the letter to Merkel that “it will … become increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries do not share N.A.T.O’s collective security burden while American soldiers continue to sacrifice their lives overseas or come home gravely wounded.” Marc Rod reports at CNN.

Pentagon spokesperson Col. Rob Manning yesterday pushed back on suggestions that a new Defense Department-initiated audit of U.S. troops stationed in Germany comes in anticipation of orders from the White House to reduce U.S. force presence in Europe, claiming rather that the Department of Defense started its own cost review of U.S. troops stationed in Germany independent from any request from Trump’s National Security Council. Elen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Trump’s trans-Atlantic policy is a “contradiction in terms,” and so it comes as no surprise that that both Europeans and Americans are looking ahead to this month’s N.A.T.O summit with a certain foreboding. Stephen M. Walt comments at Foreign Policy.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

A leaked U.S. intelligence report along with an analysis of satellite data suggest that North Korea may be continuing its nuclear and missile activities despite a pledge to denuclearize, the leak coming ahead of a planned trip by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and three weeks after the summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Kim Tong-Hyung and Hyung-Jin Kim report at the Washington Post.

Pompeo leaves for Pyongyang on Thursday, with White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders claiming that the U.S. was “continuing to make progress” in talks with the North. Sanders declined to confirm or deny the recent media reports of the intelligence reports, David Brunnstrom and Jeff Mason report at Reuters.

“We see … momentum in the process, and we’ve had good conversations as recently as yesterday, and we’re going to continue those conversations later this week and push forward,” Sanders said in a press briefing regarding the visit. After meetings in Pyongyang, Pompeo is set to spend two days in Tokyo, followed by two-day stops in Vietnam and Abu Dhabi before joining President Trump and the N.A.T.O summit in Brussels. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“I think a number of things have happened. One, in the last eight months you haven’t seen missile launches,” Sanders claimed, in a reference to the North’s former habit of provocative ballistic missile tests. Sanders added: “you haven’t seen nuclear detonations. And again, these conversations are continuing to evolve. I’m not going to get into the details but I can tell you that progress continues to be made,” AFP reports.

Officials from both sides are reported to have met in the demilitarized zone (D.M.Z.) between the two Koreas over the weekend in preparation for Pompeo’s two-day trip, the U.S. officials including Head of C.I.A’s Korea Department and Andrew Kim and U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim. Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

There is still hope for a deal with North Korea, argues former Defense Secretary William J. Perry at POLITICO Magazine, but “it won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick.”

SYRIA

The pro-Syrian government forces offensive in the southwestern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra has displaced at least 270,000 people. Russian airstrikes have supported the advance on the provinces near the borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and more than 130 civilians have been killed since the assault began in mid-June, the BBC reports.

Jordan and Russia are set to hold talks about southern Syria this week, the Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said yesterday, which will include discussion of the pro-Syrian government offensive and the humanitarian situation. Al Jazeera reports.

Turkey has expanded its influence in the northern Syrian region of Afrin nearly four months after Turkish-backed forces captured the area from Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia. David Dolan reports at Reuters.

A U.S. federal judge ruled in an opinion released yesterday that President Trump’s tweet on the C.I.A. program to aid Syrian rebels did not declassify the program, saying in the decision that granting the Freedom of Information Act request filed by the New York Times would permit the courts “to infer whether a President declassified information would transfer the President’s constitutional authority to declassify to the Judiciary, undermining the basic tenets of the separation of powers.” Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Activists have called for help uncovering mass graves in and around the Syrian city of Raqqa, which was formerly the de facto capital of the Islamic State group. Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 29 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between June 25 and July 1. [Central Command]

The SUPREME COURT

Trump has met with four potential Supreme Court nominees to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. He said the candidates were “outstanding people” and that he intends to interview “two or three more” before making an announcement on his pick next week, Vivian Salama and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump is considering 25 candidates vetted by the conservative and pro-life Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society to be his nominee for Supreme Court Justice, the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) writes at the New York Times, arguing that no matter who someone supports, “we should all want a more representative process for choosing the next Supreme Court Justice.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen indicated a willingness to cooperate with prosecutors in an interview broadcast yesterday, raising speculation that he may “flip” against the president. The F.B.I. raided Cohen’s property based on a referral by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the AFP reports.

Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn is set to appear before court for a hearing next week. The court has given no official reason for ordering Flynn to attend, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

AFGHANISTAN

The Islamic State group yesterday claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad that killed at least 19 people, with the victims predominantly comprising Sikh and Hindu minority group members including Sikh leader Avtar Singh Khalsa. The Islamic State group’s statement claimed it had targeted a group of “polytheists,” the AP reports.

A report on the effect of the attack on the targeted minority groups is provided by Mujib Mashal and Fatima Faizi at the New York Times.

A suicide car bombing yesterday evening in eastern Logar province targeting a N.A.T.O convoy has killed a woman and child, also wounding three other women and damaging N.A.T.O armored tanks, according to a provincial police chief spokesperson. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and said that five U.S. soldiers were killed, the AP reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A survey published yesterday found that Israelis have little hope in the Trump administration’s upcoming peace proposal, with nearly three-quarters of respondents of the opinion that the plan has a very low or moderately low chance of success. Concurrently, Israel’s parliament passed a yesterday withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in funds for the Palestinians over welfare payments given to attackers and their families – the step underscoring the dim prospects of peace in the region, Ilan Ben Zion reports at the Washington Post.

Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian and wounded another yesterday near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Israeli military sources claimed that both those shot were part of a group of four who “crossed the security fence equipped with cutters and combustible materials before attempting to light an unmanned snipers’ post,” Ori Lewis reports at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The federal investigation into the harvesting of private Facebook user data by the political research firm Cambridge Analytica has widened, with investigators focusing on Facebook’s statements three years ago when it first discovered Cambridge Analytica’s activities. Craig Timberg, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

The Malian al-Qaeda J.N.I.M. branch yesterday claimed responsibility for carrying out a suicide attack on French forces last week, the AP reports.

The election of Andres Manuel López Obrador as Mexican President offers the opportunity to reset relations with the U.S., although key obstacles remain to a successful relationship. José de Córdoba and David Luhnow write at the Wall Street Journal. 

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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.