The Early Edition: June 14, 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

The U.S. has released a video that it claims shows Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing an exploded mine from one of the two tankers hit by explosions yesterday in the Gulf of Oman. Washington believes the video clearly shows members of the Iranian elite force approaching the Japanese vessel and removing what the U.S. claims is a limpet mine, Al Jazeera reports.

The footage – released by Central Command late last night – shows a smaller boat coming up to the side of the Japanese-owned Kokura Courageous tanker, with an individual then standing up on the bow of the boat and removing an object from the tanker’s hull. Earlier yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had blamed Iran for attacking the Kokura Courageous and Norwegian-owned Front Altair, Barbara Starr and Devan Cole report at CNN.

Pompeo claimed his assessment of Iran’s involvement was evidence-led, citing “the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication,” Keith Johnson, Robbie Gramer and Colum Lynch report at Foreign Policy.

The U.S. military last night also released two photographs of the ship’s hull, showing damage and what it said was likely the unexploded mine. “Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran,” Pompeo told a news conference in Washington, David D. Kirpatrick, Richard Pérez-Peña and Stanley Reed report at the New York Times.

Pompeo said the motivation behind the attacks was the U.S. administration’s “maximum-pressure campaign” of sanctions geared to force Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program and support of militias in various neighboring countries. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

The fire on Front Altair was extinguished overnight, Norwegian company Frontline said today. “Boundary cooling continues on the tanker, which is stable … there is currently no reported pollution from the vessel,” the company announced in a statement, Reuters reports.

President Trump on Thursday yesterday thanked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his attempt to de-escalate tensions between the U.S. and Iran but said the time was not right for diplomacy, making the remarks moments before Pompeo leveled blame on Tehran for the oil tanker attacks. “While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” Trump wrote in a message on Twitter, adding “I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal … they are not ready, and neither are we!” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said today that the U.S. allegations against Iran were part of “sabotage diplomacy” adopted by a so-called “B Team,” which he has said includes U.S. national security adviser John Bolton. “That the U.S. immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran—w/o a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence—only makes it abundantly clear that the #B_Team is moving to a #PlanB: Sabotage diplomacy—including by @AbeShinzo—and cover up its #EconomicTerrorism against Iran,” Zarif stated in a message sent on Twitter, Reuters reports.

“Every single day Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif’s reference to team B becomes more farcical and his credibility diminishing,” U.A.E. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash hit back in a message sent on Twitter. “Public relations is no real substitute to constructive policies … “de-escalation in current situation requires wise actions not empty words,” Gargash added, Reuters reports.

Saudi Arabia agrees with the U.S. that Iran was behind the suspected attacks, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said yesterday. “We have no reason to disagree with the secretary of state … we agree with him,” Jubeir told reporters, adding Iran has a history of doing this,” Reuters reports.

U.S. actions pose a serious threat to stability in the Middle East, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the leaders of a China-led security bloc including Russia and India today. Rouhani did not mention the oil tanker attacks, focusing instead on U.S. President Trump’s decision last year to pull the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal which Rouhani claimed Tehran continues to honor, adding: “Iran asks the remaining participants in the nuclear deal to immediately [meet] their commitments,” Reuters reports.

“Pictures of both ships ablaze spoke volumes about what is at stake in one of the world’s most strategic waterways,” Martin Chulov writes in an account of yesterday’s events at the Guardian.

“There is a growing risk that a miscalculation … coupled with deep distrust … could trigger a conflict that neither side wants,” Dan DeLuce, Abigail Williams and Robert Windrem explain at NBC, citing experts’ and officials’ fears regarding “no diplomatic relations between the two countries … no serious dialogue underway despite efforts by other countries to mediate … and no let-up in U.S. economic pressure on Iran.”

Trump’s “equivocation reflects divisions in his administration … which has never come to an agreement on a comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran,” David E. Sanger and Edward Wong write in an analysis at the New York Times, commenting that “now, operating largely without allies, [the president] faces an Iran that is escalating nuclear production and retaliating for sanctions the White House has reimposed without a diplomatic path in sight to steer the two longtime adversaries away from confrontation.”

“Zarif and Rouhani probably understand that attacking regional shipping would be to play with fire … but they do not call all of the shots in Iran,” the Economist comments.

Yesterday’s events justify the U.S. decision to send naval assets to the Gulf, and “should make clear that Secretary Pompeo is right to insist that the U.S. proceed with its planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues.

A visual guide to the Gulf tanker attacks is provided by Patrick Wintour at the Guardian.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

President Trump has received a “torrent” of criticism following his assertion that he has the right to use dirt provided by foreign governments on political opponents without informing the F.B.I.. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Trump’s comments “shocking,” adding “to say that it’s O.K. for foreign countries to interfere in our elections, with motives that are not what’s in the interest of the American people? disgraceful,” while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) commented that “everybody in the country should be totally appalled,” AFP reports.

Senate Republicans appear keen to distance themselves from Trump’s foreign election comments; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) labeled the president’s comments “wrong,” explaining that he spoke to Trump yesterday about the interview and reiterated that Trump should contact the F.B.I. if a foreign government tries to offer information on an opponent. “Basically what I just told him is … you need to call the F.B.I. when somebody is trying to provide something of value to you that you think is inappropriate … when it goes down the road of ‘I’ve got dirt on your opponent,’ that’s a bright line … the answer is no,” Graham told reporters yesterday, Jordain Carney reports at The Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has downplayed Trump’s comments, distancing himself from Republicans in Congress. McConnell, who seemed frustrated over the backlash the president has received, depicted the comments as a “non-story,” telling a Fox News’ reporter “they just can’t let it go … I said weeks ago, case closed … we got the Mueller report, the only objective evaluation that will be conducted,” Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

The House Intelligence Committee has issued subpoenas for former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign aide Richard Gates. “As part of our oversight work, the House Intelligence Committee is continuing to examine the deep counterintelligence concerns raised in Special Counsel Mueller’s report, and that requires speaking directly with the fact witnesses,” Committee Chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement yesterday, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The two men “refused to fully cooperate with Congress,” according to Schiff. The subpoenas require Flynn and Gates to provide documents to the Committee by Jun. 26 and appear for sworn testimony on Jul. 10, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The kind of attempted foreign election interference that Trump alluded to would need to be reported to federal law enforcement under the proposed Anti-Collusion Act, introduced Wednesday by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), Jennifer Daskal writes at Just Security, commenting that it is vital that such efforts do not also inadvertently label all foreigners suspect or stamp out all foreign speech.

“Trump’s professed willingness to accept foreign intelligence on domestic political foes represents more than just another shocking and outrageous outburst,” Michelle Goldberg comments at the New York Times, arguing that an “unbound president” invites more foreign election interference.

McConnell’s opposition to his colleagues’ election-security proposals is driven by a desire to win – even if he compromises and corrupts our democracy, Jamelle Bouie writes at the New York Times.

“The 2020 White House race is looking like the ‘the lock him up’ election – with President Trump’s legal fate on the ballot,” Stephen Collinson writes at CNN, commenting that there is “almost no chance” a Democratic president would have the political incentive to pardon Trump.

“The real reason Pelosi is ducking impeachment is almost surely politics,” Todd Stern comments at the Washington Post, urging Democrats to open an impeachment inquiry without delay.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will leave her position at the end of the month, President Trump announced yesterday, CNN reports.

“After 3 1/2 years … our wonderful Sarah Huckabee Sanders will be leaving the White House at the end of the month and going home to the Great State of Arkansas,” the president stated in a message sent on Twitter, adding “She is a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job! I hope she decides to run for Governor of Arkansas — she would be fantastic … Sarah, thank you for a job well done!” NBC reports.

“I’ve loved every minute … even the hard minutes,” Sanders commented at an East Room event, calling the job “an honor of a lifetime;” “it’s truly the most special experience.” In response to questions over whether she is considering a run for Arkansas governor, Sanders told reporters, “I learned a long time ago never to rule anything out,” Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“No … I don’t [have any regrets],” Sanders commented, adding “I still contend that we are the most accessible White House … [it’s] far more important for me to have played a role in facilitating direct contact with the President of the United States and the American people. Sanders also did not apologize for making herself less available from the briefing room, Hallie Jackson, Hans Nichols and Kristen Welker report at NBC.

“Sanders has failed in almost every aspect of the job,” Joe Lockhart comments at CNN, arguing that her legacy of dishonesty is “enshrined” in Mueller’s report.

The Office of Special Counsel (O.S.C.) yesterday recommended that White House adviser Kellyanne Conway be removed from federal office for violating the Hatch Act – which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity during the course of their work. The report submitted to Trump found that Conway violated the Hatch Act on “numerous occasions” by “disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media,” Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Lisa Rein and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

“As a highly visible member of the Administration … Conway’s violations … if left unpunished … send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions,” the O.S.C. wrote to Trump, adding that “her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law,” Brian Naylor and Peter Overby report at NPR.

The White House rejected the recommendation, commenting that the actions against Conway are “deeply flawed and violate her constitutional rights to free speech and due process.” The White House added that the O.S.C.’s decisions “seem to be influenced by media pressure and liberal organizations—and perhaps O.S.C. should be mindful of its own mandate to act in a fair, impartial, nonpolitical manner, and not misinterpret or weaponize the Hatch Act,” Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Conway must do what Trump will not — remove herself from government service,” Virginia Canter argues at NBC, commenting that “no high-level White House official who openly and continually flouts federal law can be tolerated in a democracy.”

SUDAN

Sudan’s ruling Transitional Military Council (T.M.C.) has for the first time admitted it ordered the dispersal of the Khartoum sit-in, which left scores dead, as U.S. and African diplomats intensify efforts for a solution to the country’s political crisis. The T.M.C. “decided to disperse the sit-in … they made a plan and implemented it … but we regret that some mistakes happened,” spokesperson Shams al-Din Kabashi stated yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

Former President Omar al-Bashir has been charged with corruption by the country’s public prosecutor, according to S.U.N.A. state media. Al-Bashir – currently detained – was overthrown and arrested in a coup by the military on April 11 after months of mass protests; S.U.N.A. quoted an official source as saying that al-Bashir “had been charged under foreign exchange possession materials, the heinous and suspicious wealth and emergency orders,” Al Jazeera reports.

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bomber targeted a police checkpoint yesterday in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, killing at least 11 people and wounding 13 others, according to an official. The Afghan wing of Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) claimed responsibility for the attack, which was committed by an assailant on foot, a spokesperson for the governor of Nangarhar province announced, AFP reports.

A firefight on Tuesday between two groups of Afghan and U.S. security forces – followed by U.S. airstrikes – left six Afghan army soldiers dead and seven wounded, U.S. military officials in the country announced yesterday. No details of the incident were immediately available, and it was not clear whether the Afghan army casualties were due in part to “green-on-green” fire among Afghan forces, or whether they were purely the result of the U.S. strikes called in by the ground unit that came under attack, Pamela Constable reports at the AP.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Saudi Arabia announced that its air defense forces intercepted five drones launched by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels at Abha airport and the city of Khamis Mushait, in the latest escalation of conflict in the region. The air traffic and airspace at Abha airport were operating normally, a Saudi-led coalition spokesperson said in a statement released by the Saudi Press Agency said early today, Al Jazeera reports.

Today’s drone strikes came as a “tit-for-tat” response after a series of air strikes by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition against Yemen’s capital Sanaa. Those attacks followed a Houthi missile attack on Abha airport Wednesday that left 26 people wounded, Reuters reports.

U.S. ARMS SALES

The Senate failed to pass two resolutions yesterday intended to U.S. block arms sales to Bahrain and Qatar. The resolutions, introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), form part of a broader attempt to curb the president’s authority on U.S. foreign policy, Marianne Levine reports at POLITICO.

The measure to block arms sales to Bahrain failed in a 43-56 vote while the effort to block arms sales to Qatar failed 42-57. Paul’s resolutions, if passed, would have blocked a $750 million sale to Bahrain of missiles and other equipment tied an aircraft fleet, and a $3 billion sale to Qatar of Apache attack helicopters and related equipment, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill

U.S MILITARY

U.S. Defense Department’s (D.O.D.) top civilian Guy Roberts “quietly” stepped down in April for reasons that remain unclear – one of the latest in a series of high-profile exits from the Pentagon over the past six months. Roberts was in charge of nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

The House Armed Services Committee advanced its $733 billion defense policy bill yesterday. The vote, which passed 33-24 largely along party lines, will send the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) to the House floor, Rebecca Kheel reports at The Hill.

“Congress should make it clear that the D.O.D. is required to report on all ex gratia payments — regardless of the authority used — going forward,” Joanna Naples-Mitchell argues at Just Security, commenting that the (N.D.A.A.) provides the opportunity for Congress do so.

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].

A ceasefire has not been fully secured in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu – despite an announcement by Moscow. “We are working hard with Russia to stop these attacks … it is not possible to say a complete ceasefire has been secured,” Cavusoglu yesterday told a news conference with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in Ankara, AFP reports.

A planned visit to China’s Xinjiang province this week by U.N. counterterrorism official and Russian national – Vladimir Ivanovich Voronkov – has angered human rights advocates and some Western governments – who worry Beijing will use the trip as propaganda. Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report at Foreign Policy.

An initial review by Brussels reveals that Russian sources engaged in “continued and sustained” disinformation activity in order to “suppress turnout and influence voter preferences” at last month’s European Union (E.U.) parliament elections. The report is due to be published today, Michael Peel reports at the Financial Times.

The Defense Intelligence Agency yesterday escalated accusations against Moscow over low-yield nuclear testing, saying that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons tests that resulted in nuclear yield. Paul Sonne reports at the Washington Post.

There have been no visible signs of forces at the Mexico-Guatemala border – despite the Mexican government’s claim that the deployment of its National Guard members to the southern border region began this week after President Trump’s threat of tariffs. Government officials have also reportedly made contradictory announcements over the status of the force in southern Mexico, creating confusion, Al Jazeera reports.

The man accused of killing 51 people in mass shootings at two New Zealand mosques in March has pleaded not guilty to terrorism, murder and attempted murder. Scott Neuman reports at NPR.

The House Intelligence Committee heard “alarming” testimony yesterday that deepfake videos could be exploited by foreign adversaries to sow divisions in the U.S. Olivia Beavers and Maggie Miller report at the Hill. 

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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).