The Early Edition: May 8, 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

Iran has announced its partial withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, a year after President Trump took the U.S. out of the accord. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced today that Tehran will stop exporting enriched uranium stocks as stipulated by the treaty, warning that the country will resume higher uranium enrichment in 60 days if remaining signatories do not honor promises to insulate its oil and banking sectors against sanctions, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

“We are ready to negotiate …  within the boundaries of J.C.P.O.A.,” Rouhani said during televized speech in a reference to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. “It is not us who has left the negotiation table,” Rouhani added, making clear that the move does not amount to withdrawal from the agreement, Tamer El-Ghobashy reports at the Washington Post.

Rouhani said Iran would stop selling enriched uranium beyond a stockpile of 300 kilos and end sales of heavy water beyond 130 tons. As part of the nuclear agreement, Iran reduced its stockpile of low-enriched uranium from 10,000 kilos to 300 kilos to prevent it from seeking nuclear weapons, Sune Engel Rasmussen and Laurence Norman report at the Wall Street Journal.

“The path we have chosen today is not the path of war … it is the path of diplomacy,” Rouhani stated, qualifying the position as “diplomacy with a new language and a new logic.” The decision comes just days after the Trump administration said it was moving bombers and a carrier group into the Persian Gulf as a warning to Iran, after intercepting intelligence that attacks on the U.S. forces or their allies might be in the pipeline, David E. Sanger reports at the New York Times.

The Kremlin stated today that Iran had been provoked due to external pressure which it blamed on the U.S. “President Putin has repeatedly spoken of the consequences of unthought-out steps regarding Iran and by that I mean the decision taken by Washington (to quit the deal) … now we are seeing those consequences are starting to happen,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters, Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday made an unexpected visit to Baghdad, in a move demonstrating Washington’s efforts to shore up ties with Iraq as it pushes ahead with its strategy of “maximum pressure” against neighboring Iran.  Pompeo suddenly canceled talks in Germany and made a detour from a European tour to spend four hours in Iraq, where he met both President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Al Jazeera reports.

“I wanted to go to Baghdad to speak with the leadership there … to assure them that we stood ready to continue to ensure that Iraq is a sovereign … independent nation,” Pompeo said in comments to journalists on his departure to Iraq from Rovaniemi, Finland. Richard Gonzales reports at NPR.

U.S. Central Command confirmed yesterday that the bombers headed to the Middle East will be B-52s. “We continue to closely monitor the activities of the regime in Iran, their military, the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], and their proxies, and we are well postured to defend U.S. forces and interests,” Central Command spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban said in a statement released by the Pentagon, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“The vagueness of the U.S. claims about the Iranian threats — and the fact that [national security adviser John] Bolton … appeared to be leading the charge — sent alarm bells ringing among the administration’s critics,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in an analysis at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration exaggerated the threat arising from the Iran intelligence, according to “multiple sources close to the situation.” Betsy Woodruff and Adam Rawnsley provide an exclusive at The Daily Beast.

“Given Bolton’s long track record of exaggerating and manipulating intelligence to justify the use of force … it might be tempting to dismiss all of this as fake news,” Colin Kahl comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that in any event, “the prospect of Iran engaging in a provocation that sparks a wider military confrontation is very real –  even if it is the Trump administration’s own policy of cornering Tehran that has greatly magnified the danger.”

A U.S. policy of regime change in Iran is “quixotic and reckless,” Aaron David Miller and Richard Solosky comment at CNN, suggesting that the correct approach is to “engage Iran on any number of issues, from the nuclear deal to regional security, to test the limits and parameters of the possible.”

An explainer on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is provided at the BBC.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) threatened late yesterday to ask President Trump to invoke executive privilege over the hidden sections of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia electoral interference – and all of the evidence behind it – if Democrats proceeded today with a vote to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, Nicholas Fandos, Charlie Savage, Catie Edmondson and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

“In the face of the committee’s threatened contempt vote … the attorney general will be compelled to request that the president invoke executive privilege with respect to the material subject to the subpoenas,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd wrote in a letter to the D.O.J., adding: “I hereby request that the committee hold the subpoena in abeyance and delay any vote on whether to recommend a citation of contempt for noncompliance with the subpoena, pending the president’s determination of this question,” Rachel Bade and Matt Zapotosky report at the Washington Post.

Boyd also expressed disappointment that Democrats still refused to review a less redacted version of the report – an offer Democrats turned down as they said it was too rigid in allowing only a dozen to review such information and not allowing them to discuss it. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said that the contempt vote is still scheduled for this morning despite the D.O.J.’s request, and he challenged the legal arguments advanced by Boyd. “The department’s legal arguments are without credibility, merit, or legal or factual basis,” Nadler said, adding: “worse, this kind of obstruction is dangerous … the department’s decision reflects President Trump’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties,” Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

“The only thing I’m going to say is … at the moment … it’s still scheduled,” Nadler told reporters when leaving Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office last night. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The White House has directed former White House counsel Don McGahn not to comply with a congressional subpoena for documents related to Mueller’s investigation, current White House counsel Pat Cipollone said in a letter yesterday. McGahn was subpoenaed last month by Nadler for testimony and documents as part the committee’s probe into possible obstruction of justice by the president and others, Adam Edelman and Alex Moe report at NBC.

Nadler yesterday threatened to begin contempt proceedings against McGahn if he does not comply with a congressional subpoena for documents and testimony. In a letter to McGahn’s lawyer William Burck, Nadler wrote that the committee would have “no choice but to resort to contempt proceedings” if McGahn does not provide testimony before the committee or submit a privilege log laying out documents withheld from production as a result of assertions made by the White House, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and ranking member Devin Nunes (R-Ca.) are threatening to hit the D.O.J. with a “rare” bipartisan subpoena if the department does not hand over testimony and briefing materials produced by Mueller.  In a letter dated April 25, the two lawmakers wrote to Barr, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray to complain that the “Department of Justice and the F.B.I. failed to keep the Committee ‘fully and currently informed’” of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information obtained in the course of Mueller’s investigation, The Daily Beast reports.

Schiff and Nunes set a May 2 deadline, warning that “the Committee will have no choice but to resort to compulsory process on Friday, May 3 to compel production of documents responsive to the Committee’s request” if the deadline is not met. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Mueller fought the release of former F.B.I. Director James Comey’s memos out of fear that Trump and other witnesses in his investigation would use them to alter their stories, according to a court transcript. Mueller’s prosecutors argued in January 2018 that the memos, which were eventually made public three months later, could present a conflict for their investigation if released; at that time, Mueller’s team was negotiating with Trump’s legal team over a potential interview, Katelyn Polantz reports at CNN.

F.B.I. Director Wray defended the bureau yesterday amid fresh accusations that agents abused their powers in investigating the Trump campaign, claiming he was unaware of any illegal surveillance and refusing to describe the work as “spying.” Wray’s defense of the agency put him in direct conflict with Barr, who told lawmakers last month that he believed the F.B.I. engaged in spying on the Trump campaign; “that’s not the term I would use,” Wray told senators during a budget hearing yesterday, Adam Goldman reports at the New York Times. New York State lawmakers say they intend to advance a bill today to allow congressional committees to view the president’s New York State returns. A tax return from New York — the headquarters of the president’s business empire — may well contain much of the same financial information as a federal return, which Trump has doggedly refused to release, Jesse McKinley explains at the New York Times.

The Trump administration’s “’just say no’ approach to congressional requests places them squarely — if not yet technically — in contempt of Congress,” the Washington Post Editorial Board comments.

Congress should not hesitate to use its inherent contempt power if required, former Democratic Senator Carl Levine argues at the New York Times.  

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The E.U. alongside Russia and the U.N. should take action if the U.S. peace plan does not lead to the creation of two independent nations, Palestinian U.N Ambassador Riyad Mansour stated yesterday. Mansour said that support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is welcome but “not sufficient – they have to act on it,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Israel came to a standstill yesterday as the country commemorated its annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. The official memorial ceremony was held at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the AP reports.

The cycle of repeated violence and ceasefire is “amply serving the interests” of Israel and Gaza leaders, David M. Halbfinger explains in an analysis of the “symbiotic” relationship at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Twelve healthcare centers were destroyed and 200,000 people displaced in renewed bombardment of north-western Syria by Syrian government troops and Russian allies in recent days. The attacks have seen dozens of civilians reportedly killed, in violence described by local rescue workers as an “unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe,” Martin Chulov reports at the Guardian.

The U.N. has called for urgent de-escalation in the north-west of country. Secretary General António Guterres has urged parties to recommit to a truce over opposition-held parts of Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces. The BBC reports.

Around 150,000 people have been forced to flee the Syrian regime attacks and Russian airstrikes in recent days, according to U.N. estimates. Nazih Osseiran and Raja Abdulrahim report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 18 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between April 6 and April 20 [Central Command]

VENEZUELA

The U.S. has decided to lift sanctions against Venezuelan Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera who broke ranks with President Nicolás Maduro’s regime, warning Venezuela’s top judges of consequences if they do not lend their support to opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó. Michael C. Bender and Juan Forero report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration will consider sanction relief for other Venezuelan officials who similarly abandon Maduro’s government. Sanctions may be lifted on all those officials “who step forward, stand up for the Constitution and support the rule of law,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stated yesterday, Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

The removal of sanctions on Christopher Figuera “shows the good faith of the U.S.,” according to a statement released by the Treasury Department following Pence’s remarks. The statement claims that sanction relief “may be available for designated persons who take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order, refuse to take part in human rights abuses, speak out against abuses committed by the illegitimate Maduro regime, or combat corruption in Venezuela,” Daniella Silva reports at NBC.

Venezuela’s Supreme Court has reportedly asked the country’s Constituent Assembly to determine if criminal proceedings could be opened against seven opposition politicians. The proceedings would investigate crimes including conspiracy, treason, and rebellion, Al Jazeera reports.

It is not clear why President Trump believes what Russian President Vladimir Putin says about Venezuela, the Washington Post Editorial Board comments, noting that “it’s the opposite of what the rest of his administration believes.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. officials are moving forward on joint efforts to counter Moscow’s interference in democratic elections and other malign activities, military cybercommanders announced yesterday. U.S. officials deployed last year to Ukraine, Macedonia and Montenegro, and U.S. Cyber Command officials stated that their missions included defending elections and uncovering information about Russia’s newest capacities, Julian E. Barnes reports at the New York Times.

The Taliban attacked the offices of an international N.G.O. in the Afghan capital of Kabul today, detonating a substantial explosion and fighting Afghan security forces in an assault that wounded at least nine people, according to officials.  Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah report at the AP.

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner briefed senators yesterday on an immigration proposal intended to boost border security and establish a new merit-based system that would keep the number of legal immigrants coming into the U.S. at current levels, according to administration officials and lawmakers, Andrew Restuccia and Burgess Everett report at POLITICO.

The U.S. Navy plans to increase yearly spending on its nuclear submarine program by $5 billion by 2024, according to a report sent to Congress by the Pentagon. Andrew Capaccio reports at Bloomberg. 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Senior Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).

Nat O'Connell

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).