The Early Edition: May 17, 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

President Trump has reportedly sought to slow the intensification of possible confrontation with Iran, telling Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan Wednesday morning that that he does not want to go to war with Tehran, while his senior diplomats began searching for ways to soothe the tensions. Trump’s statement, made during a morning meeting in the Situation Room, served as a signal to his more hawkish aides that the president does not want the intensifying U.S. pressure campaign to boil over into open conflict, Mark Landler, Maggie Haberman and Eric Schmidtt report at the New York Times.

Intelligence collected by the U.S. government shows Iran’s leaders believe the U.S. planned to attack them, possibly prompting preparation by Tehran for possible retaliation, according to people familiar with the matter. That interpretation of the intelligence could help explain why Iranian forces and their allies took action that was seen as threatening to U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere, precipitating the recent U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region and a pullout of U.S. diplomats in Iraq, Warren P. Strobel, Nancy A. Youssef and  Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran has accused the U.S. of instigating an “unacceptable” escalation of tensions. Speaking in Tokyo yesterday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced that Tehran would not hold talks with Washington but added it would act with caution following the recent deployment of U.S. military hardware to the region; “we believe that escalation by the United States is unacceptable and uncalled for,” Zarif told reporters, Al Jazeera reports.

Leader of Iran’s Quds force Qassem Suleimani reportedly recently met Iraqi militias in Baghdad and told them to “prepare for proxy war.” Suleimani allegedly summoned the militias under Tehran’s influence three weeks ago, amid the heightened state of tension in the region, Martin Chulov reports at the Guardian.

Congressional leaders emerged from a classified briefing on Iran yesterday reluctant to give details on what was discussed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters only that she “asked for a classified briefing for all members, but we’ve been asking for that for two weeks,” while top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), said that while sensitive information needs to be safeguarded, “more members need to hear the story,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Chairs of three House Committees—Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Armed Services Committees—sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding a hearing on the the “politicization of intelligence regarding foreign threats, and specifically Iran.” Reuters reports.

A trio of Democratic Senators alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have also sent a letter to the president expressing concern that he was “inflating threats and bending intelligence” on Iran. Robbie Gramer provides an account at Foreign Policy.

“The Trump administration must be more transparent about its complicated, risky strategy” in Iran, even if it is not recklessly trying to provoke a war, Josh Rogin comments at the Washington Post.

YEMEN

U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition warplanes bombed Iran-aligned Houthi rebel targets yesterday following drone strikes on a key oil pipeline that Riyadh claimed were ordered by the Iranian administration. Yesterday’s bombardment came after U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths warned against provoking further escalation in the country, AFP reports.

The air raids on residential areas and Houthi military targets in the capital Sanaa killed at least six civilians, including women and children, and left dozens wounded. The coalition carried out 11 attacks on the capital in all, out of a total of 19 across rebel-held territory yesterday, Houthi-run Masirah T.V. reported, blaming the “aircraft of the [Saudi-led] aggression,” Al Jazeera reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The Trump administration wanted to reimburse the Taliban for their expenses attending recent peace talks, according to a congressional aide. A Capitol Hill committee, however, denied the request to cover the militants’ costs such as food and lodging; the Pentagon confirmed it “requested the authority to use funds to facilitate [the] meetings,” the BBC reports.

An account from the ground in Afghanistan, where civilian deaths are escalating as Washington “tries to pressure the Taliban into peace talks,” is provided by Andrew Quilty at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said yesterday that the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has missed a deadline to comply with a subpoena for special counsel Robert Mueller’s full report and counterintelligence files linked to the investigation. Schiff told reporters that the committee has “reluctantly scheduled” a business meeting next week to take an “enforcement action” that would compel the D.O.J. to turn over the files, though he offered no details on what that action would be, Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

House Democrats yesterday held a “marathon” reading of the redacted version of Mueller’s 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. The reading began at 12.00 E.D.T. and was expected to take 12 to 14 hours, Reuters reports.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn told investigators that people linked to the Trump administration and Congress reached out to him in an effort to interfere in Mueller’s probe, according to newly-unredacted court papers filed yesterday. The court filing from Mueller is believed to mark the first public acknowledgement that a person connected to Capitol Hill was suspected of engaging in an attempt to impede the investigation into Russian election interference; “the defendant informed the government of multiple instances … where either he or his attorneys received communications from persons connected to the Administration or Congress that could’ve affected both his willingness to cooperate and the completeness of that cooperation,” the court papers state.  Tom Winter, Adiel Kaplan and Rich Schapiro report at NBC.

A supplemental list of questions that lawmakers should ask Mueller when he testifies before Congress, building on the 60 questions already posed by the 10 Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is provided by Joshua Geltzer, Ryan Goodman and Asha Rangappa at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 10 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq between April 21 and May 4 [Central Command]

An analysis of the measures taken earlier this week by the Trump administration against Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is provided at the Economist.

An international cybercrime network that used malware to steal an estimated $100 million from victims in the U.S. and Europe has been dismantled by the cooperation of the U.S. and multiple European countries, the D.O.J. announced yesterday. Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

An account of President Trump’s plans for the look and design of his long-promised wall at the Southern border is provided by Nick Moroff and Josh Dawsey at the Washington Post.

“I cannot understand that the world still has not done anything about this,” fiancée of murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – Hatice Cengiz – said yesterday during a testimony to a U.S. Congress hearing on press freedom and the dangers of reporting on human rights. Hatice told lawmakers “we still don’t know why he was killed … we don’t know where his corpse is,” and called on Washington to impose sanctions to punish Saudi Arabia, Reuters reports. 

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).