The Early Edition: July 24, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

“COLOR US UNIMPRESSED,” the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a message on Twitter yesterday, responding to President Trump’s all-caps tweet warning Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” It appears Trump’s message was prompted by a reported comment by Rouhani on Sunday that “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” Justin Wise reports at the Hill.

The U.S. and its allies “don’t understand any other language than force,” the Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami said yesterday, while the senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) commander Gholamhossein Gheybparvar called Trump’s threats “psychological warfare” against Iran. Sune Engel Rasmussen reports at the Wall Street Journal.

 “The president’s been, I think, pretty strong since Day One in his language towards Iran,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday. Missy Ryan, Philip Rucker and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

“I spoke to the president over the last several days, and President Trump told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before,” the national security adviser John Bolton – who is well-known for his hawkish stance on Iran – said yesterday, appearing to demonstrate that the president’s message on Twitter was not random, but part of attempts to put pressure on Iran. Patrick Wintour and Saeed Kamali Dehghan report at the Guardian.

The escalation of rhetoric comes amid increased pressure from the Trump administration on Iran following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal in May and the reinstatement of sanctions. Warren Strobel and Parisa Hafezi report at Reuters.

Trump’s bellicose message has raised questions about U.S.’ foreign policy approach and military posture. However, there does not appear to be a move toward increased U.S. military presence in the Gulf despite threats by the Iranian government that it would disrupt regional oil exports in response to the Trump administration’s plans to reimpose oil sanctions, Rebecca Kheel and Ellen Mitchell reporting at the Hill.

Trump sent his tweet a few hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech to Iranian-Americans in California which was strongly critical of the regime and called the clerical leaders “hypocritical holy men.” Remarks by Pompeo, Bolton and other top Trump advisers demonstrate their hardline views and suggests that replicating the administration’s North Korea approach to Iran is less likely to produce results, Mark Landler explains at the New York Times.

Trump’s Twitter outburst was part of his administration’s long-planned Iran strategy, according to multiple administration sources and senior officials, pointing to Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal; a change to his national security team months later; Pompeo’s hard-hitting speech on Sunday that announced plans to help Iranians get around internet censorship; and efforts to impose a global embargo of Iran. Andrea Mitchell, Dan De Luce and Abigail Williams provide an analysis at NBC News.

Pompeo and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley “are laying out a comprehensive and nuanced case for Mr. Trump’s campaign against Tehran’s misrule that will get Iranian attention far more than blustery tweets,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

The Trump administration has been engaged in a wider diplomatic and economic campaign against Iran, and the pressure campaign could prompt Iran to lash out in the Middle East. This could play into the hands of Washington’s hardliners who advocate for regime change or military confrontation, Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

Trump appears to be pursuing an Iran strategy that echoes his approach to North Korea, but it is unclear how such an approach could play out due to the different dynamics when it comes to Iran, including its role in the Middle East. Nahal Toosi writes at POLITICO.

Iran is not like North Korea and provocations from both sides could eventually lead to a military conflict. Scott Lucas writes at CNN.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

“We don’t trust Russia. We don’t trust Putin. We never will. They’re never going to be our friend. That’s just a fact,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told Christian Broadcasting Network yesterday, although Haley downplayed concerns over President Trump’s meeting last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, adding that “whether it’s the president sitting down with [North Korean leader] Kim, or whether the president sits down with Putin, those are things that have to happen.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“I gave up NOTHING, we merely talked about future benefits for both countries,” Trump stated of the Helsinki summit in a message on Twitter yesterday. Reuters reports.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday proposed a new resolution formally denouncing Trump for his comments in Helsinki, where the President appeared to side with Putin in the assessment of his own intelligence officials regarding Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Mike Lillis reports at the Hill.

White House national security adviser John Bolton plans to meet with his Russian counterpart next month as a follow-up to last week’s summit, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters yesterday. Alexander Nieves reports at POLITICO.

“I’m one who thinks that it’s a good thing for leaders of countries to talk, but I would consider putting that one on the back burner for a while,” no. 2 Senate Republican Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said yesterday of the White House’s plans to invite Putin to the U.S. When asked whether he meant that the administration should wait until after the November elections, Cornyn reiterated that the potential meeting should be shelved “for a while,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

A number of other Republican lawmakers have expressed disquiet about the inviting to Putin to attend Washington. Elana Schor and Burgess Everett report at POLITICO.

Trump’s conduct toward Russia could mark the end for American exceptionalism, and as such “the republic risks losing both the world and its soul,” Daniel Sargent comments at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump would agree to an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators, if such an interview were limited to questions on whether his presidential campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said last night. Giuliani claimed that under a proposal the president’s legal team has submitted to Mueller, Trump would demand in return that he is not asked questions about obstruction of justice, Shannon Pettypiece reports at Bloomberg.

Trump is considering revoking the security clearances of six former senior national security officials, the White House said yesterday, in a move that would punish the officials for comments that the White House claims politicized the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders named the six officials at risk of losing their clearances: former C.I.A. Director John O. Brennan, former F.B.I. Director James B. Comey, former C.I.A. Director Michael V. Hayden, former National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice, former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and former F.B.I. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Comey and McCabe no longer have security clearances, according to their representatives, and it was not clear why they were included in the list. Shane Harris, John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez report at Washington Post.

“The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearances because they politicized, and in some cases monetized, their public service and security clearances,” Sanders told reporters. However, the plan to review the officials’ clearances appeared to be an off-the-cuff idea, announced just after it was suggested to Trump by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), rather than a carefully worked out proposal Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Julian E. Barnes report at the New York Times.

Sanders claimed that security clearance “provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence,” denying a reporter’s suggestion that the president wanted to punish the former officials for exercising their right to free speech. The BBC reports.

Sanders refused to provide a timeline for when the security clearances might be revoked, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

“Is John Brennan monetizing his security clearance?” Paul had asked in a message on Twitter earlier Monday, adding: “is John Brennan making millions of dollars divulging secrets to the mainstream media with his attacks on [Trump]?” Justine Wise reports at the Hill.

Revoking security clearances is “a petty thing to do,” commented former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. – one of the officials threatened with revocation – making the comments on C.N.N. where he is a contributor. Clapper added that “the security clearance has nothing to do with how I, or any of us, feel about the president,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The proposed revocation of security clearances is “a dumb idea,” comments the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, proposing that Trump should instead ask his administration to find the person who leaked in early 2017 that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had been wiretapped as he talked with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is set to face a jury next week in the first trial arising from Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, after a federal judge agreed to postpone the trial by several days so the defense team could finish wading through the evidence, Aruna Viswanatha reports at the New York Times.

Manafort’s lawyers had argued that they needed extra time to review more than 120,000 pages of new documents provided by the federal prosecutor, with roughly a third of the documents allegedly taken from devices belonging to former Trump campaign aide and longtime Manafort associate Richard Gates —initially charged with Manafort but now cooperating in Mueller’s investigation. Morgan Chalfant and Lydia Wheeler report at the Hill.

“I’m not going to allow this trial to drag on,” U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said of Manafort’s trial, adding that he would not let the proceedings turn into political theatre: “I’m not in the theatre business.” Reuters reports.

Judge Ellis also granted Mueller’s request to grant immunity for five witnesses in the upcoming trial, having ordered Mueller to release his entire roster of roughly 30 potential witnesses, including the identities of the five individuals granted immunity in exchange for their testimony against Manafort. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Three Senate Democrats yesterday requested documents from the Treasury Department regarding financial ties between the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) and alleged Russian agent Mariia Butina, the request coming from Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.), Bob Menendez and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.)  in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Butina was arrested and charged last week with covertly acting to advance Moscow’s interests by forging connections with powerful groups and individuals close to the G.O.P., Sylvan Lane reports at the Hill.

“So we now find out that it was indeed the unverified and Fake Dirty Dossier, that was paid for by Crooked Hillary Clinton and the D.N.C., that was knowingly & falsely submitted to FISA and which was responsible for starting the totally conflicted and discredited Mueller Witch Hunt!” Trump claimed in a message on Twitter yesterday morning. Both assertions in the message are untrue, Ken Dilanian explains at NBC

A fact-checker for the assertion that the Russia investigation started with the dossier submitted by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele is provided by Linda Qiu at the New York Times.

The applications for permission to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page were “serious and substantive,” comments David Kris at the Washington Post, but the F.B.I. now faces an asymmetric dispute in it “will be unable to reveal all the facts … while the president and his proxies are free to distort and fabricate at will.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Satellite images appear to show that North Korea has started dismantling facilities at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which is believed to have been an important testing site for the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

The dismantlement of key facilities is a step toward fulfilling a commitment made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when he met with President Trump last month in Singapore. Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

The moves to dismantle facilities at Sohae “represent a significant confidence-building measure on the part of North Korea,” Joseph Bermudez, an analyst for 38 North – the monitoring group that took the satellite images – said yesterday, although other experts have played down the value of dismantling activity at Sohae. Jonathan Cheng and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

South Korea’s defense ministry announced today that it plans to reduce guard points and equipment in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. Reuters reports.

SYRIA

Pro-Syrian government forces have made further advances against rebels in southwestern Syria with the help of Russia, bringing the fighting closer to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Al Jazeera reports.

Syrian government forces have advanced on the Islamic State group-controlled Yarmouk basin region in the southwest, state media reported today. Once captured, it would bring the whole southwestern area under the control of President Bashar al-Assad, Reuters reports.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met yesterday with the focus of talks being on Iranian presence in Syria. The AP reports.

Israel rebuffed a Russian proposal to keep Iranian forces in Syria at least 100 kilometers from the Golan Heights armistice line, an Israeli official said yesterday. Reuters reports.

“The removal of Iran [from the buffer zone] must include the removal of long-range weapons … Russia has a certain ability to prevent this,” an Israeli official explained. Noa Landau reports at Haaretz.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is on course for a victory “of sorts” in Syria’s civil war and the next battle zone is likely to be the northwestern province of Idlib which is home to displaced civilians, hardline jihadists and secular regime opponents. Simon Tisdall provides an overview of Assad’s gains and the implications for regional and international relations at the Guardian.

Assad has won the war in Syria with the help of Russia, Iran and the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, and its gains have been made in the absence of U.S. leadership. Steven A. Cook writes at Foreign Policy, arguing that now is the time to have a debate about the Middle East and how to pursue U.S.’ interests.

Russia and the U.S. share a key interest in Syria, both countries should work together to “by leveraging the three de facto zones of control that already exist to freeze the conflict and restart discussions on Syria’s political future.” Alexander Bick and Brian Katulis write at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 24 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 16 and July 22. [Central Command]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

U.N. High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Hussein offered sharp criticism of Israel yesterday, describing recent killings along the Gaza border fence as “shocking” and saying that living conditions caused by Israel’s 11-year blockade of the territory are “grossly inadequate.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

“I remind all parties that any disproportionate or indiscriminate use of weapons which lead to the death and injury of civilians is prohibited by international humanitarian law,” Zeid added, warning that the recent escalation in violence could potentially threaten peace across a far broader region. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Israel will partially reopen the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on a statement today. The statement claimed that the crossing – the only passage to the Strip – will only be opened partially as the militant Palestinian Hamas group “has not put a complete end to terrorism, but is trying to maintain a low level of incendiary balloon launches and friction on the border fence,” and made clear that the returning of the crossing to full activity is conditional upon complete cessation of airborne firebombs and provocations on the border, Yaniv Kubovich reports at Haaretz.

The Trump administration’s freeze on Palestinian aid is hampering the work of U.S.-funded humanitarian organizations and civil society in the region, and is serving to hurt ordinary citizens far more than it is impacting on the Palestinian Local Authority as originally intended, according to a Haaretz report. Washington ended Palestinian aid as part of the Taylor Force Act, which stipulates that Palestinian officials must take steps to stop terrorist groups, Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today that Israel’s new “nation-state” law indicates that it is a racist, fascist country where the spirit of Adolf Hitler has re-emerged. The law, passed last week, declares that only Jewish people have the right of self-determination in Israel, Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN

A military operation by Afghan commando units in northeastern Kapisa province Sunday night killed at least 12 insurgents, including Taliban shadow governor Mullah Nasim Mushfaq and district chief Qari Esanullah, a security official said today. The AP reports.

Multiple explosions hit the Afghan capital Kabul today, with two confirmed to have been caused by rockets striking residential area of the city, wounding at least four people, according to officials. The cause and precise location of a third blast were not immediately clear and there has been no immediate claim of responsibility, Reuters reports.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan has condemned Sunday’s suicide bombing outside Kabul airport that killed 14 people, shortly following the arrival into the airport of First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum. The U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto commented that “this was a senseless attack that served no purpose other than to spread terror and try to promote division,” The U.N. News Centre reports.

Gunmen opened fire on worshippers inside a mosque in eastern Nangarhar province Sunday night killing four people, according to a provincial official who said that three others including the mosque’s religious leader were wounded. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack although both the Taliban and Islamic State group militants are in the area, the AP reports.

IRAQ

No group has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack on a local government building in Iraq’s northern semiautonomous Kurdish region. Isabel Coles and Ali Nabhan report at the Wall Street Journal.

Security officials believe Islamic State group militants were responsible for the attack. Azad Lashkari reports at Reuters.

The Islamic State group in Iraq has reverted to guerilla style tactics to undermine the Baghdad government. Ahmed Aboulenein reports at Reuters.

EXTRADITION OF ISLAMIC STATE GROUP FIGHTERS

There is outrage in the U.K. over leaked documents indicating that British officials are not requiring their U.S. counterparts to provide assurances that two alleged British jihadis linked to the Islamic State group will not face the death penalty if they are eventually put on trial in the U.S. Gregory Katz and Nishat Ahmed report at the AP.

The U.K. government came under attack from Members of Parliament and experts, with its apparent change in policy described as “secret and unilateral.” Security Minister Ben Wallace was forced to answer an urgent question after it emerged that Home Secretary Sajid Javid had written to U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, confirming the U.K.’s position on Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh – accused of being members of the Islamic State group known as “the Beatles,” Jamie Grierson reports at the Guardian.

“Foreign fighters detained in Syria could be released from detention without facing justice,” said Wallace by way of justification, adding that “we have been working closely with international partners to make sure they face justice for any crimes committed.” The explanation was met with a barrage of criticism, Robert Wright reports at the Financial Times.

A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Theresa May claimed that May wants the two accused men to be tried in the most appropriate jurisdiction, adding “it’s a long-standing position of the government to oppose the death penalty … as a matter of principle … we are continuing to engage with the U.S. government on this issue and our priority is to make sure that the these men face criminal prosecution.” Reuters reports.

NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT

A provision in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) sets out certain conditions before the U.S. can refuel Saudi Arabian and Emirati planes carrying out airstrikes on Yemen. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“[The N.D.A.A.] establishes a policy that the United States should employ all instruments of national power … to deter if possible, and respond when necessary, to cyber attacks that target U.S. interests,” according to a conference report on the N.D.A.A. released yesterday. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The final version of the bill “prohibits military-to-military cooperation with Russia,” according to a summary of the N.D.A.A. released by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). The bill also takes a hardline on China, Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

A provision in the final version of the N.D.A.A. sets out a requirement for the Pentagon to report to lawmakers on the “overall strategic relationship with Turkey” before F-35 fighter jets can be sold by the U.S. to Ankara. The provision contradicts calls from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who urged lawmakers earlier this month not to block the sale of F-35s. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The final version of an annual defense bill would lay down criteria for waiving sanctions on countries that have bought Russian weapons but now want to turn to U.S. arms – a provision that had been included in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) at the request of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis but that came under scrutiny last week following Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lawmakers have been keen to stress that the bill would not reduce sanctions on Russia, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russian hackers working for a state-sponsored group penetrated the control rooms of U.S. electric utilities last year, according to officials at the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.), adding that the campaign is likely continuing. Rebecca Smith reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in October about guilty-plea negotiations in the 9/11 trial at the war court in Guantánamo Bay, according to an investigation by defense attorneys, who have called on Sessions and Mattis to testify at the war court. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.  

A provisional ruling by the International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) has found that measures taken by the U.A.E. as part of the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar amount to racial discrimination. Al Jazeera reports. 

Filed under:
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).