The Early Edition: January 4, 2019

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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

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday warned Iran against launching satellites over the coming months, saying in a statement that the U.S. “will not stand by and watch the Iranian regime’s destructive policies place international stability and security at risk” and that Tehran should “reconsider these provocative launches and cease all activities related to ballistic missiles in order to avoid deeper economic and diplomatic isolation.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Pompeo claimed that the Iranian spacecraft launches would be in violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolution that enshrined the 2015 nuclear deal and “calls upon” Iran not to test ballistic missiles. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hit back at Pompeo’s statement, arguing that the launch of space vehicles is not in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution and that the U.S. itself “is in material breach” of the resolution and “as such it is in no position to lecture anyone on it.” David E. Sanger and William J. Broad report at the New York Times.

Iran’s navy will send warships to the Atlantic from March this year, a top commander said today. Reuters reports.

President Trump’s comments at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting that Iran “can do what they want” in Syria stood in stark contrast to the position held by his national security adviser John Bolton, who has sought to advance a plan of pushing back against Iran through the Syrian battleground. Missy Ryan and John Hudson explain at the Washington Post.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The U.S. citizen Paul Whelan – who has been detained in Russia on charges of espionage – also holds British citizenship, according to a representative at the British embassy in Moscow. Georgi Kantchev reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Individuals should not be used as pawns of diplomatic leverage [or] being used in diplomatic chess games,” the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said today in response to Russia’s detention of Whelan, adding that Whelan has been offered consular assistance. Reuters reports.

Whelan has “become the latest pawn between Russia and the United States as rising tensions take on the cast of the Cold War years,” and his detention follows the U.S. arrest of the Russian citizen Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to act as a foreign agent and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Julian E. Barnes and Neil MacFarquhar report at the New York Times.

Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, has stated that his goal is to arrange an exchange and bring home “at least one Russian soul” – widely believed to be Butina. Anna Nemtsova and Betsy Woodruff report at The Daily Beast.

Whelan has a deep interest in Russia and was a U.S. Marine, but former intelligence officials say his interesting résumé suggests he would be a highly unlikely choice as an intelligence official. Shane Harris, Paul Sonne and Amie Ferris-Rotman explain at the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. Army’s chief of staff Gen. Mark A. Milley made a surprise visit to Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul yesterday to discuss opportunities for ending the 17-year war with President Ashraf Ghani. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

“After the invasion by the Soviet Union, all presidents of America not only denounced this invasion but remained supporters of this holy jihad of the Afghans,” President Ghani said in a statement in response to President Trump’s comments at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was “because terrorists were going to Russia.” Other top Afghan officials also disputed Trump’s account of the war, Alan Yuhas reports at the New York Times.

India’s Congress has condemned President Trump’s characterization of its role in Afghanistan, countering Trump’s claim that India has not offered significant help with reconstruction of the war-torn country. Krishna N. Das reports at Reuters.

President Trump’s comments about Afghanistan’s history and the role of other nation’s fighting alongside U.S. troops “will be criticized heavily, and deservedly so,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

SYRIA

U.S. forces have intensified airstrikes against the Islamic State group in the eastern part of Syria since President Trump announcement last month that he would withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country, according to a joint investigation by Al Jazeera and The Intercept. Ali Younes and Trevor Aaronson report at Al Jazeera.

Top Senate Republicans yesterday proposed a bill imposing new sanctions on Syria and to increase security cooperation with Israel and Jordan following Trump’s announcement to withdraw U.S. troops, pushing back against the president’s decision; signaling their view that the U.S. should maintain a strong presence in the Middle East and that Congress should have a greater role in matters of national security. Josh Lederman reports at NBC News.

The dominant Washington narrative about Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria doesn’t fit the reality: the State Department and Pentagon had been tasked in March 2018 with planning for eventual withdrawal, so had not been caught by surprise by the president’s announcement. Mark Perry writes at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 208 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec. 9 and Dec. 15. [Central Command]

YEMEN

The U.N. envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, plans to hold meetings this weekend in the Yemeni capital to discuss ways to end the civil war, the AP reports.

Saudi Arabia has been trying to win over locals in Yemen through redevelopment and reconstruction, but many have reacted negatively due to distrust over the kingdom’s intentions. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Saleh al-Batati explain at the Wall Street Journal.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

There has been increasing speculation that the acting North Korean ambassador to Italy, Jo Song-gil, has defected after a South Korean lawmaker said yesterday that Jo had gone into hiding. Frances D’Emilio and Kim Tong-Hyung report at the AP.

A breakdown of other high-profile defections from North Korea is provided by Kim Tong-Hyung at the AP.

President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have indicated a willingness to meet, and a second summit could deliver progress if both sides approach with realistic expectations and an ability to compromise. Josh Doyle writes at Al Jazeera.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

House Democrats yesterday introduced a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by President Trump, aiming to codify existing Justice Department regulations and stipulate that the special counsel must be given written notice of their removal and an opportunity to challenge the decision in court. However, the Republian-controlled Senate is unlikely to take up the bill, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

“There remains a real possibility that Mueller will come up empty, at least in connection with President Donald Trump, his family, and high-level advisers,” Andrew Coan writes at CNN, analyzing the potential consequences of such a finding.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Congressional leaders and President Trump will meet today in a bid to end the partial government shutdown, however progress is unlikely as the president is adamant on the inclusion of $5bn for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, and Democrats are equally insistent that they will not support funding for the wall. Scott Detrow reports at NPR.

Hackers have today leaked the personal details of hundreds of German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the true extent of the mass hack attack not yet known. The BBC reports.

The trial taking place in Saudi Arabia in relation to the killing of U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi is “not sufficient,” the U.N. human rights office said today. Reuters reports.

The U.S. has stopped responding to official complaints from U.N. special rapporteurs, prompting concerns about human rights violations within the country and the message this action sends to authoritarian regimes across the world. Ed Pilkington reveals at the Guardian.

Jim Webb is being considered to be the next defense secretary, according to three officials. Webb’s views, a former Democratic senator and Reagan-era secretary of the Navy, appear to align closely with Trump’s issues such as troop withdrawal in the Middle East and the U.S. approach to China. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

The U.S. State Department has called on Congo’s government to release accurate results of its presidential elections and has warned of potential U.S. sanctions against those who have undermined the democratic process. The AP reports.

The U.S. has warned its citizens to “exercise increased caution” when traveling to China and has stated that U.S.-Chinese dual nationals are at particular risk of so-called exit bans, which can be used to prevent them from leaving China. The BBC reports.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to advance plans for a World War Two peace treaty with Russia when he meets with President Vladimir Putin later this month, telling a news conference today that there had been “absolutely no progress” on the issue for more than 70 years, which has been hindered by a dispute over territory. Elaine Lies reports at Reuters.

Britain’s Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson revealed that the U.K. is considering establishing new military bases in Asia, raising the possibility of a British base in the South China Sea – an area of high tension due to various territorial claims and China’s expansionism. Brad Lendon provides an analysis at CNN.

An interview with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, which includes discussion of political prisoners and his country’s cooperation with Israel, and which the Egyptian government asked not to be aired, is available on CBS.

The recent protests in Sudan bear resemblance to the Arab Spring and the turmoil may bring down President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. The Financial Times editorial board writes. 

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