The Early Edition: May 20, 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

Tensions in the Middle East appeared to ease over the weekend as Saudi Arabia and Iran dialed down threatening rhetoric in an attempt to avoid military conflict. The two nations had lashed out at one another last week following attacks on the kingdom’s oil assets, which Riyadh and some U.S. officials blamed Tehran, which in turn denied the allegations, Jared Malsin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want war in the region and does not strive for that,” Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters, although he added that “if the other side chooses war, the kingdom will fight this with all force and determination and it will defend itself, its citizens and its interests,” Aya Batrawy and Fay Abuelgasim report at the AP.

“If Iran wants to fight … that will be the official end of Iran,” President Trump warned yesterday, issuing the warning in a message sent on Twitter, adding “never threaten the United States again!” in a follow-up message. Despite the president’s stern message and apparent escalation of tensions, earlier yesterday former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (Utah.) joined the commander of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards in dismissing the threat of war; “going to war with Iran? … not going to happen” Romney said on CNN’s State of the Union, Ed Pilkington and Martin Pengelly report at the Guardian.

Trump clarified last night that he does not want to go to war with Iran but emphasized he will never allow the nation to develop nuclear weapons. “I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons,” Trump told Fox News host Steve Hilton, adding “I don’t want to fight … but you do have situations like Iran, you can’t let them have nuclear weapons — you just can’t let that happen,” Zack Budryk reports at the Hill.

Tensions between U.S. and Iran had in fact started easing Friday when Tehran unloaded missiles from at least two small boats in its territorial waters, according to two U.S. officials. Satellite photographs had reportedly shown fully assembled missiles being loaded onto multiple boats in multiple Iranian ports, but according to the two officials –Iranian forces removed the missiles from two of the boats wich had sailed between the Iranian ports of Jask and Chabahar in the Gulf of Oman, Eric Schmidtt reports at the New York Times.

“There will be no war because neither do we want a war … nor has anyone the idea or illusion it can confront Iran in the region,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told his country’s I.R.N.A. state news agency before ending a visit to Beijing yesterday. “The fact is that Trump has officially said and reiterated again that he does not want a war, but people around him are pushing for war on the pretext that they want to make America stronger against Iran,” Zarif added, Reuters reports.

House Democrats will reportedly receive a briefing tomorrow from former C.I.A. Director John Brennan on Iran. Frequent Trump critic Brennan will speak to Democrats during a private caucus meeting, Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

“The President has brought us closer to war with Iran … and now he doesn’t want to own it,” Samantha Vinograd writes in her ‘weekly briefing’ to the president at CNN, arguing that Trump needs to learn how to pick his battles.

“Millions of Americans understand Iran’s threat far better than the ‘progressive’ wing of the Democratic Party does,” Hugh Hewitt argues at the Washington Post, suggesting that the Democrats will be punished at the polls in 2020 should they attempt a “return to the policies that saw America’s enemies grow stronger while the U.S. military budget was sapped during the Obama years.”

Drawing links between al Qaeda and Iran could give Trump the justification he needs to fight Iran under the still-in-effect 2001 use-of-force resolution without congressional approval, Jonathan Allen explains at NBC.

IRAQ

A rocket hit the fortified area of Baghdad which houses the U.S. embassy yesterday evening, after U.S. diplomats were evacuated from Iraq last week because of the rising tensions between the Washington and Tehran. According to the Iraqi military, a “rocket fell in the middle of the Green Zone” — the area of central Baghdad that holds foreign embassies and government buildings – and caused no casualties, Chloe Cornish reports at the Financial Times.

U.S. Central Command has confirmed the explosion outside the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad and that there are no U.S. or coalition casualties. Spokesperson for Central Command Bill Urban claimed in a statement that Iraqi Security Forces are investigating the incident, the AP reports.

Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary group Popular Mobilization Forces has announced that a roadside bomb hit a bus carrying its fighters in the east of the country, killing seven people and wounding 26. The group said in a statement that the bomb hit the bus in the eastern town of Balad Ruz, while traveling from the southern province of Basra, the AP reports.

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]

SYRIA

Syrian government forces have unilaterally ceased firing in the northwestern Idlib province, the last major rebel-held territory, according to Moscow’s defense ministry – which backs the Syrian administration. Opposition activists, however, said shelling and air attacks continued yesterday despite the announcement, Al Jazeera reports.

Turkey had said Friday that Syrian government forces were violating a ceasefire agreement reached with Russia for the province. “The regime is not keeping its promises of a ceasefire despite the agreement and is violating the ceasefire,” Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in a statement on the ministry’s website, adding that an escalation in violence could lead to a humanitarian tragedy, Reuters reports.

The U.N. announced Friday that at least 18 health centers have been attacked in the past three weeks in northwestern Syria, sparking a confrontation between western powers and Russia and Syria at the Security Council over who is to blame for the damage, Reuters reports.

Syrian air defenses targeted projectiles fired from the direction of Israel for the second night in a row, Syrian state media reported Saturday. The projectiles came from “occupied territory” into the airspace in southern Syria, state news agency S.A.N.A. reported, referring to territory held by Israel; Israel’s military declined to comment, Reuters reports.

Syrian rebels yesterday retained their hold over a mountain range in the coastal province of Latakia, the ancestral home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, after government forces were forced to withdraw. “Whoever controls Kubayna [mountain] ensures a large stretch of territory is effectively under their firing range … the regime wants it to protect its coastal villages from rebel fire,” a spokesperson for Turkey-backed rebel group National Army commented, Reuters reports.

A series of questions and answers regarding Syria’s “secret torture prisons” taken from journalist Anne Barnard’s post on Reddit – following her New York Times exclusive on the prison network earlier this month – is compiled by Kasia Pilat at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The White House announced yesterday the first plank of its much-anticipated Middle East peace plan, which will involve encouraging investment in the West Bank, in Gaza and throughout the region. In partnership with Bahrain, Washington will host a “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop in the Bahraini capital Manama on June 25 and June 26, which will be geared to bringing together leaders in government, civil society and business to “share ideas, discuss strategies, and galvanize support for potential economic investments and initiatives that could be made possible by a peace agreement,” according to a joint statement, Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Palestinian foreign minister Riad Malki has described the U.S. peace plan as an unacceptable “surrender act.” Malki said the plan that President Trump calls the “deal of the century” is in fact “the consecration of [Palestinians’] century-old ordeal,” telling an audience at London’s Chatham House think tank that all the indications were that “this [U.S.] administration is preparing to give its stamp of approval to Israel’s colonial policies…” the BBC reports.

Trump and Kushner “have decided to take a businessman’s approach to Middle East peace: … they will try to buy their way to a deal,” Peter Baker and Mark Landler write in an account of the developments at the New York Times.

LIBYA

Fighters allied with the U.N.-recognized government in Libya’s capital said they have received armored vehicles and “quality weapons” despite a U.N. arms embargo on the country. A Facebook page linked to the Tripoli government posted photos yesterday appearing to show more than a dozen armored vehicles arriving at port, without saying who supplied them, Samy Magdy reports at the AP.

Two guards and a soldier were killed and four other people were kidnapped early Saturday in a suspected Islamic State group attack targeting Libya’s Zella oilfield, according to a security source. Saturday’s assault took place as Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.), allied to a rival administration in eastern Libya, mounts an offensive to control Tripoli, Reuters reports.

CHINA

The U.S. military said one of its warships sailed near the disputed Scarborough Shoal claimed by China in the South China Sea yesterday at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. “[U.S. Destroyer] Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Reef in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” spokesperson for the Seventh Fleet Commander Clay Doss stated, Reuters reports.
U.S. intelligence chiefs have reportedly held a series of classified briefings with U.S. companies and other groups to warn them of the dangers of doing business in China. Director of Intelligence Dan Coats has given several briefings alongside colleagues from the F.B.I. and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center to large technology companies, venture capitalists and educational institutions; according to those who have attended, the sessions are designed to highlight the risks of trade with China — especially the threat of cyber attacks and intellectual property theft, Kiran Stacey and Dmitri Sevastopulo report at the Financial Times.

Chinese state media today criticized the U.S. for its complaints about intellectual property theft, calling them a “political tool” intended to suppress China’s economic development. Reuters reports.

U.S. tech firm Google announced yesterday it was beginning to cut ties with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which Washington considers a national security threat. The move follows President Trump’s move last week to ban U.S. companies from engaging in telecommunications trade with foreign companies said to threaten U.S. national security; “we are complying with the order and reviewing the implications,” a Google spokesperson told reporters, AFP reports.

Former C.I.A. officer Kevin Mallory has been jailed for 20 years for disclosing military secrets to a Chinese agent, according to the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) Mallory was found guilty of several spying offences following a two-week trial last June, the BBC reports.

Neither the U.S. nor its allies has produced a “smoking gun” proving that Chinese intelligence uses Huawei technology to infiltrate other countries’ networks, the Washington Post Editorial Board writes, arguing that “the administration owes the public more transparency about its intentions” in targeting the telecommunications firm.

“The United States’ dramatic escalation massively disrupts the globalized order,” Charles Rollet comments in an analysis of the U.S.-Huawei developments at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Anti-money laundering specialists at Deutsche Bank flagged multiple transactions involving Donald Trump and his son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner, with the transactions dating from 2016 and 2017. Those specialists recommended the activity be reported to the federal government’s financial crimes unit but top executives at the global financial giant rejected that advice, according to current and former employees, David Enrich reports New York Times.

The transactions that came under review “set off alerts in a computer system designed to detect illicit activity,” according to five current and former Deutsche Bank employees. Allan Smith reports at NBC.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defied a congressional subpoena seeking six years of President Trump’s tax returns Friday, seeming to guarantee a federal court battle with Congress over the records. Mnuchin rejected a demand for the documents from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.,) claiming the panel lacks “a legitimate legislative purpose” for obtaining the tax records; “we are unable to provide the requested information in response to the committee’s subpoena,” Mnuchin said in a letter to Neal, released ahead of a 5 p.m. deadline for delivering the documents, Reuters reports.

Convicted Russian operative Mariia Butina has released a video asking for money to help pay her legal costs. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated yesterday on state TV that “we aren’t financing a lawyer, but we are doing everything so that she will be afforded all rights as a Russian citizen,” the AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

An Afghan official says a gun battle between illegal armed groups has killed at least nine people in the northeastern Takhar province. The AP reports.

North Korea has asked United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to deal with the “illegal” seizure of one of its cargo ships by the U.S., state media reported Saturday. “This act of dispossession has clearly indicated that the United States is indeed a gangster country that does not care at all about international laws,” North Korean ambassador to the United Nations said in a letter sent to Guterres dated Friday, according to K.C.N.A. news agency, Reuters reports.

President Trump has indicated that he is considering pardons for several U.S. military members accused or convicted of war crimes, including high-profile cases of murder, attempted murder and desecration of a corpse, according to two U.S. officials. The officials said that the Trump administration had made expedited requests this week for paperwork needed to pardon the troops on or around Memorial Day, Dave Phillips reports at the New York Times.

Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) Fatou Bensouda released for comment a draft of her Strategic Plan for 2019-2021 dated May 14. Alex Whitting provides an analysis of the document at Just Security. 

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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).