The Early Edition: July 23, 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

“To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” President Trump said in message on Twitter last night, the strong language following Trump’s decision in May to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and his administration’s reinstatement of sanctions against Tehran. Joshua Berlinger reports at CNN.

Trump’s tweet appeared to be in response to reported remarks by yesterday Rouhani that “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s remarks come within the context of his administration’s attempts to increase pressure on the Iranian government, including a call to cut Iran’s oil exports. The threat to oil exports led Rouhani to suggest that Iran could disrupt regional oil shipments and on Saturday the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he supported Rouhani’s comments on the matter, Austin Ramzy reporting at the New York Times.

“We will never abandon our revolutionary beliefs … we will resist pressure from enemies … America want nothing less than [to] destroy Iran,” the senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) commander Gholamhossein Gheybparvar was quoted as saying today by the I.S.N.A. news agency, accusing Trump of carrying out “psychological warfare” against Iran. Reuters reports.

Trump’s angry message came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed a group of Iranian-Americans in California, saying that the Iranian regime “resembles the mafia more than a government” and called Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif the “merely polished front men for the ayatollahs’ international con artistry.” The BBC reports.

“In light of these protests and 40 years of regime tyranny, I have a message for the people of Iran: the United States hears you. The United States supports you. The United States is with you,” Pompeo said in his California speech, also accusing top Iranian leaders of corruption, saying that Ayatollah Khamenei has $95bn in an off-the-books hedge fund. Oliver Laughland and agencies report at the Guardian.

Pompeo branded Iran’s religious leaders as “hypocritical holy men” in his speech yesterday, adding that “sometimes it seems the world has become desensitized to the regime’s authoritarianism at home and its campaigns of violence abroad.” James Reinl reports at Al Jazeera.

The Iranian foreign ministry today condemned Pompeo’s speech as a “clear interference in Iran’s state matters,” Reuters reports.

The escalation in rhetoric comes three weeks before the Trump administration reinstates the first round of banking sanctions against Iran which were suspended under the nuclear deal. Further, and more extensive, sanctions will take effect in November, Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration has launched a campaign of speeches and online communications to erode support for Iran’s leaders, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said the campaign is supported by Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton and is meant to supplement attempts to put economic pressure on Iran. However, the officials said some of the information was exaggerated, incomplete or distorted, Jonathan Landay, Arshad Mohammed, Warren Strobel and John Walcott report at Reuters.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

The Pentagon has been taken by surprise in the days following President Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, with defense officials finding it difficult to explain the statements coming out of Moscow that the two leaders reached agreements involving military issues. Ellen Mitchell and Rebecca Kheel report at the Hill.

“We almost have two governments,” deputy C.I.A. director John McLaughlin told the Aspen Security Forum on Saturday, adding that “we have the president’s brain and thumb, with his tweets. Then we have the professionals in the government.” There is growing amongst officials that the gulf between the president’s and the security services’ approach to Moscow is impeding the U.S.’ efforts to formulate a coherent Russia policy, Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers are concerned that Putin may use the Helsinki summit to divide N.A.T.O. allies by claiming secret bilateral deals with the U.S., and Congressional Republicans are urging the White House to out-maneuver the Kremlin by defining what was and wasn’t agreed to. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.) has admitted that he  has “no idea” what Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov was referring to when he said Wednesday that Trump and Putin had struck “important verbal agreements, ” Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

The U.S. rejected a proposal from Russia Friday for a referendum to be held to determine the fate of eastern Ukraine– a proposal that emerged in the days following the Helsinki summit. Washington commented that such a referendum would have no legitimacy given that the area is not under control of the Ukrainian government, Reuters reports.

There is renewed interest in Trump’s tax returns following the Helsinki summit, with the president’s comments during the joint press conference with Putin on Monday leading some lawmakers to hypothesize about the president’s possible financial ties to Russia. Democrats have increased calls for Congress to request Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department, with top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) commenting that “I think we have a cloud that hangs over this whole administration at this moment in time,” Naomi Jagoda reports at the Hill.

“My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the president,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a statement Saturday, referring to his apparently genuine surprise on Thursday when he learned of the president’s plan to invite Putin to the White House in the fall, Emily Cochrane reports at the New York Times.

Trump is said to be exasperated by Coats, but his dismissal would likely lead to a contentious fight over his replacement as the midterm elections approach, Christopher Cadelago and Matishak report at POLITICO.

“The fact that we have to talk to you about Syria or other matters is very different from issuing an invitation,” House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy commented on “Fox News yesterday. Such invitations, Gowdy claimed, “should be reserved for, I think, our allies.” Eli Okun reports at POLITICO.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Saturday brushed aside calls that he should resign following the Helsinki summit, the appeal coming from a newspaper owned by Huntsman’s own family. Jaqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Putin’s attacks on U.S.-funded news organizations threaten democracy, and if his threats materialize they should be countered with sanctions, the Washington Post Editorial Board comments.

Putin gifted Trump a soccer ball at the Helsinki summit. An analysis of the significance and implications of the state gift is provided by Vivian Salama at the Wall Street Journal.

An overview of the events of the Helsinki summit and the ensuing fallout is provided by Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post.

Following the “moral surrender” of the Helsinki conference, elected Republicans must remember that they have the power to pressure the White House and can do so without derailing a conservative agenda, Charles J. Sykes comments at the New York Times.

Trump and Putin are aiming to forge a new world order, and we must counter their vision by proactively crafting our own, Anne-Marie Slaugher argues at the Financial Times.

Putin may regard the Helsinki summit as a victory, but “Trump’s disastrous performance is likely to lead to unintended consequences that ultimately harm Russia,” Alexander Gabuev explains at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election,” Trump stated in a message on Twitter last night, adding “why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!” The message marks another reversal in Trump’s position on Russian interference, Felicia Sonmez reports at the Washington Post.

The weekend disclosure of classified surveillance warrants has kick-started political infighting over whether the Justice Department was justified in monitoring former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, with Trump sending a message on Twitter yesterday claiming that the warrant applications make it appear “more & more likely” that his 2016 presidential campaign was “illegally being spied upon.” Page has denied being an agent of the Russian government, Del Quentin Wilber and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani did not respond to a request for comment, despite the fact that a White House spokesperson referred questions on why Trump believed the documents proved the F.B.I. and D.O.J. demonstrated illegal conduct to Trump’s personal counsel, Reuters reports.

The newly released surveillance warrants were granted and renewed by a number of judges sitting in a court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.), the BBC reports.

The surveillance applications and warrants were included within 412 pages of heavily redacted documents made public by the F.B.I. late Saturday.  The documents include the claim that “the F.B.I. believes that the Russian government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” Trump’s campaign,” and also state that Page “has established relationships with Russian government officials, including Russian intelligence officers,” Oliver Laughland and Martin Pengelly report at the Guardian.

Page yesterday referred to the allegations that he was a Russian agent as “spin,” a “ridiculous smear campaign” and “literally a complete joke,” in comments on CNN’s “State of the Union,” but Page did admit that that he had worked as an informal adviser to the Russian government. Eli Okun reports at POLITICO.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday described government surveillance of Page as “not at all” justified, making comments on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” and adding that the “the whole F.I.S.A. warrant process needs to be looked at.” Eli Okun reports at POLITICO.

Russian woman Mariia Butina – accused of spying in the U.S. for Russia – used her links to a Russian central bank executive to attend meetings with U.S. government officials, including one session with the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Stanley Fischer in 2015. Fischer has confirmed Butina’s presence at a meeting in April 2015, which she allegedly attended as an interpreter for her patron and then deputy governor of Russia’s central bank Alexander Torshin, Bob Davis reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Butina also attended a meeting in 2015 with then Treasury undersecretary for international affairs Nathan Sheets, reportedly to discuss U.S.-Russian economic relations during Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration. The two previously unreported meetings appear to reveal a wider circle of high-powered connections that Butina sought with U.S. political leaders and special interest groups, Reuters reports.

The U.S. and Russia issued contrasting accounts of a call between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov over the weekend, with Russia’s foreign ministry claiming in a statement Saturday that Lavrov had directly raised Butina’s case, appealing that she had been arrested on “fabricated charges” and pointing to “the need for her early release.” The State Department, however, made no mention of Butina in a statement yesterday, claiming that the two discussed “a broad range of issues,” including Syria, counterterrorism, dialogue between US and Russian businesses and “diplomatic access,” the Guardian reports.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has begun a social media campaign calling for Butina’s release, posting a call to action on its Twitter account Thursday, stating that it was mobilizing a digital “flash mob” in her support and urging supporters to change their profile pictures to photos of her. Megan Specia reports at the New York Times.

Butina received financial support from Russian billionaire Konstantin Nikolaev, according to a person familiar with testimony she gave Senate investigators. Nikolaev holds investments in U.S. technology and energy companies, Rosalind S. Helderman reports at the Washington Post.

“I did meet her, a few interactions were pleasant,” South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford (R) told CNN Friday, adding “it’s the girlfriend of a guy I’ve known for 30 years. She seemed nice enough.” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

An in-depth look at Butina’s purported romantic partner and U.S. political activist Paul Erickson is provided at the Wall Street Journal.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent federal indictment of Russian intelligence officers lays the foundations for tougher sanctions against Russia, with the administration able to rely on the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, signed into law by Trump last year. A question remains however, as to whether Trump will levy such sanctions, Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Lawyers for Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections want to interview former prostitution tycoon Kristin Davis, who was imprisoned after being tied to former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D). John Bowden reports at the Hill.

The trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, the first to go before a jury in the Mueller investigation, will “create daily reminders of the Mueller investigation, as commentators pile onto cable networks to discuss what the case could indicate about the president’s own exposure,” Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein write at POLITICO.

It is unclear how long the Mueller investigation might continue for, and while “the indictment could be the high point for his team …it could be simply the crest of one of several coming waves,” Katelyn Polantz comments at CNN.

SYRIA

Israel assisted the evacuation of hundreds of rescuers, known as the White Helmets, and their family members from southwest Syria to Jordan yesterday. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained in a statement that “a few days ago President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others approached me with the request to help extract from Syria hundreds of White Helmets,” the AFP reports.

The evacuation was arranged as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces continue their offensive on rebel-held positions in the southwestern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra, making advances with the help of Russian airstrikes. Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The rescuers and their families will be resettled in Western countries within three months following a temporary stay in Jordan, according to a Jordanian government source. Dan Williams and Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

Assad’s supporters and Russia have called the White Helmets terrorists and have accused them of being agents of foreign powers, with state media saying that the Israel’s role in the evacuation demonstrated that the White Helmets collaborated with enemy powers. Patrick Wintour and agencies report at the Guardian.

The U.S. State Department welcomed the rescue of “these brave volunteers” and called on the Syrian government and Russia “to abide by their commitments, end the violence, and protect all Syrian civilians, including humanitarians such as the White Helmets, in areas formerly part of the southwest de-escalation zone and throughout Syria.” Sarah El Deeb and Aron Heller report at the AP.

The Syrian government today condemned the evacuation as a “criminal operation” carried out by “Israel and its tools,” Reuters reports.

Pro-Assad forces have continued to advance of Deraa and Quneitra, and more rebel fighters and their families have evacuated the area for the northern rebel-held province of Idlib. Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli jet fighters struck targets in Syria’s western Hama province yesterday, according to reports by Syria’s state S.A.N.A. news agency and the Lebanon-based Al Mayadeen channel. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said the facility targeted was a missile warehouse used by the Assad regime and opposition sources said there was Iranian presence at the site, Jack Khoury reports at Haaretz.

Israel’s “David’s Sling” air defense system was triggered today by fighting within Syrian territory near the border with Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Reuters reports.

Russia sent a proposal to the U.S. to jointly arrange refugee returns to Syria in accordance with agreements reached by Putin and Trump at their summit in the Finnish capital of Helsinki last week, Russian agencies said, quoting Russian defense officials. Reuters reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed joint humanitarian efforts in Syria on Saturday, according to the Kremlin. Reuters reports.

There is debate within the Trump administration regarding the Syria conflict and potential cooperation with Russia, with the head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel saying: “I’ve watched some of the things that Russia has done, it does give me some pause.” Dion Nissenbaum and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

In the Syrian capital of Damascus there is hope that the seven-year civil war is almost over in light of gains by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the past year. Bassem Mroue explains at the AP.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 14 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 9 and July 15. [Central Command]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A deal between the Palestinian militant Hamas group and Israel was reached Saturday morning to help restore calm following exchanges of fire. However, the fragile ceasefire may have been threatened yesterday by the Israeli military firing toward a group of Palestinians launching incendiary balloons toward Israeli territory, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Gaza’s essential services are on the verge of shutdown, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jamie McGoldrick, warned at the weekend, calling on Israel to end restrictions to the import of fuel and urging donor to fund emergency fuel which may run out by early August. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and U.S. special representative Jason Greenblatt appear poised to abandon plans to rebuild Gaza as it suffers a dire humanitarian crisis and economic collapse. Kushner and Greenblatt have made indications about a change in stance in recent opinion pieces and Kushner said yesterday that the militant Palestinian Hamas group “has driven Gaza to a state of desperation” and that “provocations will not be rewarded with aid.” Mark Landler explains at the New York Times.

A Palestinian teenager in the West Bank was fatally shot in the chest by Israeli fire today, according to Palestinian health officials. The Israeli military said its troops were carrying out a raid at the Dheisheh refugee camp and a “violent riot” broke out, the AP reports.

“The Arab Republic of Egypt announces … its rejection of the law passed by the Israeli Knesset [parliament] on the ‘national state for the Jewish people’ law,” the Egyptian foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday, referring to legislation that was passed Thursday and adding that it “undermines the chance for achieving peace and reaching a just and comprehensive solution for the Palestinian issue.” Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump has been frustrated with the lack of immediate progress since his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last month, according to accounts from within the administration, despite the fact that the president has publicly hailed the summit in Singapore as a success. John Hudson, Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

International sanctions against North Korea must continue until it delivers on its promise to denuclearize, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday, speaking alongside the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and after briefing U.N. Security Council envoys. Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

“Our challenge now, candidly, is to continue to make progress but to make that progress in an environment that is essentially void of trust, and without trust we’ll find it difficult to move forward,” the commander of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula, Gen. Vincent Brooks, said on Friday. Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

A “bold move” from Washington to agree a peace treaty with North Korea is needed for continued negotiations, according to an official with knowledge of Pyongyang’s views on the matter. Will Ripley, Kevin Liptak and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

The U.S.-North Korea negotiations have not been going well at all, Christopher Dickey and Donald Kirk write at The Daily Beast, noting the lack of progress on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the return of the remains of U.S. service members killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korean state media has been harshly critical of Japan and toned down its attacks on the U.S. and South Korea. Eric Talmadge explains at the AP.

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bomber detonated explosives at the exit to Kabul airport yesterday, killing 20 people including nine members of a security detail assigned to Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and wounding 90 others, according to police and health officials. Dotsum was returning to Afghanistan after a year in exile, and faces criminal charges of rape and kidnapping along with accusations of brutality, human rights abuses and the killing his first wife. Rod Nordland reports at the New York Times.    

Dostum traveled from the airport in armored transport was unharmed in the blast, which has been claimed by the Islamic State group, Al Jazeera reports.

Dostum’s return and safe passage on arrival was given the green light by President Ashraf Ghani, who is hoping to stabilize the north of the country – the site of Dostum’s power base – and secure Uzbek support before next year’s presidential election. AFP reports.

“You are aware that I had health problem,” the General told supporters and political allies at his office in Kabul, who had attended in their hundreds to greet him at the airport.  Dostum claimed that “I visited Turkey where I was under treatment…and had to stay for a year and three months,” Habib Khan Totakhil reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. should honor its offer to talk to the Taliban, with negotiation providing the only way to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, the Financial Times comments.

YEMEN

A suspected U.S. drone strike killed four alleged al-Qaeda militants in Yemen’s central province of Marib, tribal leaders said yesterday. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

Yemen’s government said yesterday that the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels should release all prisoners before peace negotiations take place. The AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. Defense Department announced Friday that the Trump administration plans to send an additional $200m defense funds to the Ukrainian government to support “ongoing programs and operational needs” in the conflict with pro-Russian separatists. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

China “would be thinking about starting scenarios when they would be able to take Taiwan over” if it sees the U.S. not supporting Taiwan, the Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said yesterday. Matt Rivers, Steven Jiang and Ben Westcott report at CNN.

“A narrow agreement between elites will not solve the problems plaguing South Sudan,” the White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday, expressing skepticism about prospects for peace. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

Unrest in Iraq has raised fears of instability months after the Iraqi government declared victory over the Islamic State group. Andrew England explains at the Financial Times. 

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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).