The Early Edition: June 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

The two tankers hit by explosions in the Gulf of Oman last week arrived safely yesterday at locations off the Emirati coast, following an incident Thursday that the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the U.K. allege was an attack by Iran. U.S. President Trump has claimed that the operation had Iran “written all over it,” rejecting Tehran’s denial of involvement, AFP reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday doubled down on the claim that Iran was responsible for attacks, despite furnishing no new evidence beyond the video distributed last week by the Pentagon. “There’s no doubt,” Pompeo told Fox News Sunday, Daniella Cheslow reports at NPR.

“The intelligence community has lots of data … lots of evidence” Pompeo claimed, adding “the world will come to see much of it, but the American people should rest assured we have high confidence with respect to who conducted these attacks as well as half a dozen other attacks throughout the world,” Bianca Quilantan and Matthew Choi report at POLITICO.

Pompeo said that the U.S. is “considering a full range of options” including military routes, making the remarks in a separate interview with C.B.S.’ ‘Face the Nation.’ “We have briefed the President a couple of times, we’ll continue to keep him updated … we are confident that we can take a set of actions that can restore deterrence which is our mission set,” Pompeo said, Jamie Ehrlich reports at CNN.

“President Trump has done everything he can to avoid war … we don’t want war,” Pompeo added, also announcing that Washington will guarantee free navigation through vital shipping areas, Victoria Bekiempis reports at the Guardian.

Saudi Crown Prince and de factor ruler Mohammed bin Salman (“M.B.S.”) has accused Iran of the attacks, adding he “won’t hesitate” to deal with any threats to the kingdom. “We do not want a war in the region… but we won’t hesitate to deal with any threat to our people, our sovereignty, our territorial integrity and our vital interests,” bin Salman told pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat in an interview published yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

Last week’s attack “confirms the importance of our demands of the international community to take a decisive stance” against Iran’s actions, bin Salman added, Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Owner of the Japanese Kokuka Courageous tanker – Yutaka Katada – Friday offered a different account of the nature of the attack than that provided by the U.S… Katada said the Filipino crew of the Kokuka Courageous tanker thought their vessel was hit by flying objects rather than a mine: “the crew are saying it was hit with a flying object … they say something came flying toward them, then there was an explosion, then there was a hole in the vessel … then some crew witnessed a second shot,” Katada told reporters, Simon Denyer and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Friday that a video released by the U.S. is insufficient evidence to prove Iran was behind the attacks. “The video is not enough … we can understand what is being shown, sure, but to make a final assessment, this is not enough for me,” Maas told reporters, Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

Russia has warned against “baseless accusations” and called for a “sober appraisal of evidence,” with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov stating that: “such incidents can undermine the foundations of the world economy,” Al Jazeera reports.

Iran summoned the British ambassador to Tehran Saturday after London blamed it for the attacks, semi-official Students News Agency I.S.N.A. reported. “During the meeting with Iran’s foreign ministry official, Iran strongly condemned the unfounded allegations and criticized Britain’s unacceptable stance regarding the attacks in the Gulf of Oman,” the outlet reported; a British foreign ministry official said the report was wrong and the ambassador has not been summoned, Reuters reports.

Iran will break the uranium stockpile limit set by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal within the next 10 days, spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (A.E.O.I.) Behrouz Kamalvandi announced today, also warning that Iran could enrich uranium up to 20% — just a step away from weapons-grade levels. The announcement, timed for a meeting of European Union (E.U.) foreign ministers in Brussels, increases pressure on Europe to formulate new terms for the deal, which President Trump withdrew the U.S. from last year, the AP reports.

“We will go further from that [300kg] ceiling [mandated by the deal]” Kamalvandi stated on television from Iran’s Arak nuclear plant, adding: “not only that but we will also increase production drastically. After we pass the limit of 300kg the pace and the speed of enriched uranium production at the lower rate will also increase,” Al Jazeera reports.

The time is short for Europe to save the international nuclear deal with Tehran after Washington’s withdrawal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said today, according to Fars news agency. “It’s a crucial moment, and France can still work with other signatories of the deal and play an historic role to save the deal in this very short time,” Rouhani was quoted as saying during a meeting with France’s new ambassador in Iran, Reuters reports.

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard is maintaining support for armed groups in the Middle East and finding new sources of funding, defying U.S. efforts to stymie its activities abroad. The group has found new sources of revenue, including recent infrastructure contracts in Syria and Iraq as well as expanded smuggling networks, according to advisers to the Guard and the U.S. government, Benoit Faucon and Sune Engel Rasmussen report at the Wall Street Journal.

IRAN: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“For all the Trump administration’s certainty and ire … the international response to the developments … has been rather muted,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in an analysis at the Washington Post.

In leveling blame at Iran for the oil tanker attacks the president is faced with a credibility problem, Peter Baker writes in an analysis at the New York Times, explaining that that “Trump has spun out so many misleading or untrue statements about himself, his enemies, his policies, his politics, his family, his personal story, his finances and his interactions with staff that … many Americans long ago concluded that he cannot be trusted,” and that “all of that can raise questions when international tension flares up, like the explosion of the two oil tankers on Thursday.”

“If Trump doesn’t trust his own intelligence community or the media … why should we?” Samantha Vinograd comments at CNN, also exploring the president’s “credibility problem.”

“Tehran still has cards to play … and leaders who know how to hold a hand,” Martin Chulov writes at the Guardian in an analysis of how Iran have sought to defend their interests rather than “wilting under the barrel of a global superpower’s guns.”

“Iran is in no shape for a prolonged confrontation with the U.S.,” Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh comment at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that U.S. and European mainstream media has “swallowed a narrative” that “the mullahs are ready to trap America in another Middle Eastern quagmire.”

An explainer on “five things to know about the oil tanker attack” is provided by Rebecca Kheel at the Hill.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has apologized to the public after massive protests demanding she step down over her administration’s handling of a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China. Lam “admitted that shortcomings in the government’s work has led to a lot of conflict and disputes in Hong Kong society and has disappointed and distressed many citizens,” a statement from her office said yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

Beijing will not allow Lam to step down “even if she wanted to,” a senior city government official close to the Chief Executive stated today, adding that the divisive extradition law Lam delayed on Saturday was “effectively withdrawn,” Reuters reports.

President Trump is expected to raise the Hong Kong protests with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G.20 talks in Japan this month, according to remarks made yesterday by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “I’m sure this will be among the issues that we discuss … we have a wide range of very important issues in the way China and the United States interact,” Pompeo told interviewers, Ben Westcott writes at CNN.

The U.S. – along with other western countries – has objected to a visit by U.N. counterterrorism official and Russian national Vladimir Ivanovich Voronkov to China’s remote Xinjiang region. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan spoke with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres Friday “to convey deep concerns” about Voronkov’s visit because “Beijing continues to paint its repressive campaign against Uighur [minority Muslim group] … as legitimate counterterrorism efforts when it is not,” Al Jazeera reports.

Japan is protesting what is calls an “unauthorized Chinese maritime survey” within its economic waters near disputed East China Sea islands. Japan’s Foreign Ministry reportedly lodged a protest with Beijing after a Chinese maritime research ship was seen dropping a “wire-like” object into the water off the northwestern coast of Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands yesterday, the AP reports.

“Hong Kong and Taiwan may be able to keep the flame of a more liberal China alive until the mainland itself begins to change … with luck, persistence and international support,” Gideon Rachman comments at the Financial Times, arguing that “there are no cultural or historical reasons why an ethnic Chinese society cannot also be a democracy.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

President Trump has stepped back from comments he made about reporting foreign interference in a U.S. political campaign. During an interview on “Fox & Friends” Friday, the president insisted that while he would still look at incriminating information provided by a foreign power about an election opponent he would “absolutely” report such an encounter: “of course, you give it to the F.B.I. or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that … but of course you do that … you couldn’t have that happen with our country,” Trump told interviewers, Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

The president explained that he would alert the F.B.I. in such a case – but only after reviewing it first, “because if you don’t look at it, you won’t know it’s bad,” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Trump will “do the right thing” if offered foreign dirt on an opponent in 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday when speaking on C.B.S.’ “Face the Nation,” without specifying what the right thing might be. “The president made very clear he is going to do the right thing … I have enormous confidence,” Pompeo stated, adding “I have watched him do the right thing every time we have had an important national security decision to be made,” Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

Trump has stated that he did not fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller because firings “backfired” on former president Richard Nixon. During an interview with A.B.C. News yesterday, Trump insisted that the Constitution gives him the authority to “do whatever I want,” adding “but I wasn’t gonna fire [Mueller] … you know why? because I watched Richard Nixon go around firing everybody, and that didn’t work out too well,” Justin Baragona reports at The Daily Beast.

The Justice Department (D.O.J.) Friday backed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s decision to refuse to provide Trump’s tax returns to Congress on the basis that it lacked “legitimate legislative purpose.” The department issued a 33-page memo of its legal rationale for the refusal, dated Thursday, that was released as House Democrats were preparing a lawsuit as the next step in their effort to gain access to the president’s returns, Alan Rappeport reports at the New York Times.

“The push to impeach Trump has stalled amid Democrats’ deference to – and fear of – Pelosi,” Rachel Blade writes at the Washington Post

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Prosecutors and attorneys for former national security adviser Michael Flynn have asked for a further delay in his sentencing in a joint status report filed Friday. “The parties propose filing another status report within 60 days … the government believes 60 days should provide sufficient time for the defendant to complete his cooperation,” the filing states, also acknowledging that Flynn’s new attorney has a “massive amount of information to process” related to his case before he is sentenced, Morgan Chalfant reports at The Hill.

“President Trump is now accusing news outlets of ‘treason’ when he doesn’t like the stories they publish,” Brian Stelter writes at CNN, commenting that Trump’s casual use of the word is a relatively new development.

“Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders allowed herself to become an instrument of propaganda and an amplifier of extremism – that is her legacy,” Kurt Bardella comments at NBC, arguing that Sanders “lied openly, flagrantly and repeatedly to the American people while serving Trump.”

“The Trump administration’s claim – that the Office of Special Counsel’s (O.S.C) actions violate White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s constitutional rights – is risible,” Just Security Editor-in-Chief Steve Vladeck comments at NBC.

Commentary on the recent “shakeups” in the White House, including Sander’s departure and Conway’s violations, is provided by Richard Galant at CNN.

SUDAN

Sudan’s former president Omar Hassan al-Bashir was charged with corruption-related offences yesterday, as he appeared in public for the first time since he was overthrown by the military and detained in April. Al-Bashir was escorted from a maximum security prison in Sudan’s capital Khartoum to the prosecutor’s office, where prosecutors informed him he faced charges of “possessing foreign currency and acquiring suspicious and illicit wealth,” according to the official S.U.N.A. news agency, Al Jazeera reports.

Al-Bashir’s appearance suppressed months of speculation among many Sudanese who suspected that the former leader was being “quietly detained in luxury” or had even managed to escape the country, Declan Walsh reports at the New York Times.

Top Sudanese general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo vowed yesterday to send to the “gallows” those who carried out a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters earlier this month that killed dozens and left hundreds wounded. “We are working hard to take those who did this to the gallows,” Dagalo said in a speech broadcast live on state television, adding “whoever committed any fault [will be held accountable],”AFP reports.

Top U.S. diplomat for Africa Tibor Nagy has pressed for Sudan to carry out an “independent and credible” investigation into the military crackdown. Nagy described the attack in the capital, Khartoum, as “just devastating,” telling journalists in Ethiopia “we believe very strongly there has to be an independent, credible investigation to figure out what exactly happened, why it happened, who gave the orders, how many victims there were,” Paul Schemm reports at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet today officially moved to rename a settlement in Golan Heights after U.S. President Trump. The settlement, currently known as Bruchim, will be rebranded “Ramat Trump,” or “Trump Heights,” Al Jazeera reports.

Israel captured the territory from Syria in 1967 and annexed it in 1981 – a move considered illegal by the bulk of the international community. In March, Trump signed an executive order recognizing the land as Israeli territory, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt has hinted at a further delay to the unveiling of the long-awaited White House Middle East peace plan until early November. “I think the logic would still dictate that if we wanted to wait until a new [Israeli] government is formed, we really do have to wait until potentially as late as November 6,” Jason Greenblatt said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post interview yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz yesterday claimed that his country would have a “key role” to play in an upcoming economic summit in Bahrain, organized by the White House as the first step in its peace plan. It remains unclear, however, whether Israeli officials are invited, Souad Mekhennet and Loveday Morris report at the Washington Post.

Activist groups in more than 20 countries have joined an international day of action against the German sports brand Puma, urging it to cancel a deal with Israel’s football association. The groups on Saturday responded to a call from over 200 Palestinian football clubs and sports organizations to boycott Puma until it withdraws its sponsorship from the Israel Football Association (I.F.A.,) Al Jazeera reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels launched a new drone attack targeting the Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia, the group’s Al Masirah TV announced today. The new drone attack comes days after the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition bombed Sanaa, as part of an escalation of “tit-for-tat” attacks, Al Jazeera reports.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has warned against “exploiting” the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi for political gains, in an apparent “veiled attack” on Turkey. “The death of Jamal Khashoggi is a very painful crime,” bin Salman told interviewers, adding “those accused of carrying out the crime are government officials” and the kingdom is seeking to “achieve full justice and accountability, without getting distracted by positions taken by some for their own domestic considerations that are known to everyone,” Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. military yesterday said Iran helped Houthi rebels shoot down a U.S.-operated drone in Yemen. U.S. Central Command spokesperson Lt. Col. Earl Brown explained in a statement that the altitude at which the MQ-9 drone was shot down on Jun. 6 – “an improvement over previous Houthi capability” – led the military to conclude the rebels were assisted by Iran, Zack Budryk reports at The Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least seven civilians have been killed by Syrian government air raids on the rebel-held northwest province of Idlib, according to opposition rescue group White Helmets. The group reported a total of 15 others wounded, Al Jazeera reports.

European nations are palming off their Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) fighters onto Iraq, Pesha Magid writes in an analysis at Foreign Policy, explaining that “sources from both the Iraqi and U.S. sides have alleged that Iraq wants to be paid for the trouble of trying foreigners.”

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].

Mexico has published the terms of the Jun. 7 supplementary agreement it made with the U.S.. The document, which was released Friday, outlines additional measures the country would take if it fails to stop a surge in migration from Central America to the U.S., including becoming a “safe third country,” Santiago Pérez reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Analysts are warning that Europe’s air forces are increasingly outpaced by U.S. and soon Chinese aerospace industries that are “swimming in cash,” AFP reports.

Social media giant Facebook’s failure to respond swiftly to the spread of doctored videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “hardly marks the first time the social media giant has faced backlash,” Colum Lynch writes in an Op-Ed at Foreign Policy, focusing on the network’s response to racist, anti-immigrant posts that spread in Germany in 2015.

An analysis of six themes to pay attention to in upcoming Supreme Court decisions is provided by Domenico Montanaro at NPR. 

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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).