The Early Edition: September 27, 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.

U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY

President Trump returned to the U.N. yesterday to chair the Security Council –the organization’s most powerful body. Trump was set to lead the group’s session on non-proliferation, but used his opening remarks to raise the issue of U.S. sanctions on Iran and accuse China of electoral interference, the New York Times reports.

“Regrettably … we’ve found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration,” Trump said in his opening, adding “they do not want me—or us—to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade.” A senior administration official supported Trump’s claims, suggesting during a press call that China’s behavior had “reached an unacceptable level” that went “well beyond how most other countries interact with each other,” Dustin Volz and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We did not and will not interfere in any country’s domestic affairs … we refuse to accept any unwarranted accusations against China,” Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi told the Council in response to Trump’s allegations. Reuters reports.

The Security Council session saw members unanimously pledge support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and laud it as an accomplishment of international diplomacy, after Trump began the session by describing the accord as “horrible” and claiming that “the Iranian regime exports violence, terror and turmoil.” Trump threatened severe consequences for anyone violating U.S. sanctions on Iran, but his stance toward Tehran was rejected wholesale by the other heads of state present, Farnaz Fassihi reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday that Tehran does not want a war with the Washington, and believes the U.S. will “sooner or later” support the nuclear deal once again. Rouhani used a news conference on the sidelines of the General Assembly to suggest that Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal in May was “a mistake” providing no benefits for the peoples of the U.S., Iran or Europe, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Trump endorsed a two-state solution as the best way to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict as he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the General Assembly. For the very first time in his presidency, Trump told reporters that he believes that two states — Israel and one for the Palestinians — “works best,” Matthew Lee reports at the AP.

The President gave a “remarkable and rambling” 83-minute news conference on the fringes of the General Assembly late yesterday, touching on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, U.S.-Canada relations and the laughter that met his opening address Tuesday. Julie Hirschfeld Davis provides a breakdown at the New York Times.

Trump used the press conference to suggest that he does not want to “play the time game” with North Korea, adding that he does not mind if Pyongyang takes years to denuclearize. “If it takes two years, three years or five months, doesn’t matter,” Trump said, adding “there’s no nuclear testing and there’s no testing of rockets,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“Europe would get better results—and maybe a better deal with Iran—if it coordinated with Washington to apply pressure on Iran to reopen the 2015 deal,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

Trump’s conduct at the U.N. this week sets the U.S. “on an ever more dangerous course in which we are courting conflict with powerful countries that don’t seek it,” former national security adviser Susan E. Rice argues at the New York Times.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

A third woman – Julie Swetnick – has come forward to accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in the 1980s on the eve of the Senate Hearing that could decide the fate of his nomination. Swetnick’s allegations, issued in a sworn statement through her attorney Michael Avenatti, have sent shockwaves through Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers hold only a 51-49 advantage in the nomination battle, Rebecca Ballhaus and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

Ahead of today’s Senate hearing, the opening statement from Kavanaugh and the prepared statement from California Professor Christine Blasey Ford – the first woman to accuse the judge of sexual misconduct –are both provided at the New York Times.

The confirmation process must now be put on hold to allow the F.B.I. to investigate the allegations, the New York Times editorial board comments.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump has said that he does not want to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – responsible for overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election – and may postpone his “highly anticipated” meeting with Rosenstein that was scheduled for today. “My preference is to keep him and let him finish up,” Trump said at a news conference in New York yesterday, highlighting the fact that Rosenstein has denied accusations about discussing the possibility secretly recording the president in an attempt to remove him from office, Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

California man Richard Pinedo who admitted to unknowingly facilitating Russian electoral interference and has subsequently cooperated with the Mueller probe, is now in fear for his safety, Pinedo’s lawyer said in a court filing yesterday. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Trump will not put an end to the “headache” of the Mueller investigation by opting to fire Rosenstein, Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein comment at POLITICO, explaining that “Trump’s leading candidate to become the acting No. 2 at the Justice Department can expect significant scrutiny from Democrats […] whoever ends up in Rosenstein’s position is hardly landing a dream job.”

SYRIA

Israel should think carefully before attacking Syria again once the country obtains its sophisticated S-300 defense system from Moscow, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad commented late Tuesday. Baseem Mroue reports at the AP.

Syrian rebels said today that they are growing more confident that their jihadist rivals will abide by the requirement to leave the demilitarized buffer zone established by Turkey and Russia in their deal to prevent a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive in the northwestern province. Reuters reports.

Senior Pentagon officials struggled yesterday to strike a consistent message with U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who claimed earlier in the week the U.S. will not leave Syria until Iran does, implicitly extending the U.S.’ strategy in the country beyond defeating Islamic State group. Spencer Ackerman explains at The Daily Beast.

“Whatever happens to the rebels in Idlib province … Russia is determined to keep Syria solidly anchored in its sphere of influence over the long term,” Angela Charlton explains in an analysis at the AP.  

An account of the three fronts of the Syrian war: in Idlib, near the Golan Heights, and in the country’s east, is provided by Steven Simon at Foreign Policy, who claims that the war is far from over.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 78 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 17 and Sep. 23 [Central Command]

IRAN

A spokesperson for Islamic State group has said that the attack on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards –claimed by Islamic State group on Saturday – would not be the last of its kind. The group made the claim in an undated recording released yesterday, Reuters reports.

The elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards force could turn Saturday’s attack to its advantage, harnessing public sympathy to strengthen itself at the expense of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.  Babak Dehghanpisheh and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin provide an analysis at Reuters.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accepted an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to visit Pyongyang next month to plan a second summit with President Trump and “make progress on … the final, fully verified denuclearization of the D.P.R.K [North Korea]” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Whether or not North Korea is indeed a “nuclear power” presents a “crucial but often overlooked question,” Foster Klug explains in an analysis at the AP.

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

The real identity of one of the men charged by the U.K. for the novichok nerve agent attacks on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter is Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga – a  decorated colonel in the Russian G.R.U. intelligence agency,  The Daily Telegraph and the BBC reported yesterday, citing investigative reporting by intelligence website Bellingcat. “The true identity of one of the Salisbury suspects has been revealed to be a Russian Colonel … I want to thank all the people who are working so tirelessly on this case,” U.K. Defense Minister Gavin Williamson said in a message on Twitter that was later deleted, Reuters reports.

Russian officials and pro-Kremlin media have pushed back on the identification of Chepinga. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed in an online post: “there are no proof … they continue this information campaign, the main goal of which is to distract attention from the main question: WHAT HAPPENED IN SALISBURY?” Andrew Roth reports at the Guardian.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Election machines employed in more than half of U.S. states carry a flaw –one that was known of over a decade ago – that leaves them vulnerable to a cyberattack, according to a report set to be delivered today on Capitol Hill. Robert McMillan and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

China has demanded the U.S. “dispels obstacles” to improving military ties and stop slandering it, amid growing tensions over trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea. Reuters reports.

The Pentagon is to remove some U.S. missile systems from the Middle East in October, according to U.S. military officials. Gordon Lubold reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said yesterday that he is willing to meet President Trump and to speak about anything the U.S. government wants to discuss. Reuters reports. 

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About the Author(s)

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).