The Early Edition: June 21, 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 abruptly called off military strikes against Iran yesterday evening after previously approving the strikes in retaliation for downing a U.S. military drone, Kate Sullivan reports at CNN.

The operation was underway “in its early stages” when it was called off, according to a senior administration official. Planes and ships were in position, but missiles had not yet been fired when military officials received word to stand down, Michael D. Shear, Eric Schmitt, Michael Crowley and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

The military operation was called off around 7.30pm and it is not clear if strikes will go ahead at a later date. The White House and Pentagon are yet to comment on the reports, Patrick Wintour reports at Guardian.

U.S. military assets in the region were placed on a 72-hour standby for a strike on Iran, according to a Newsweek report, which cited a Pentagon official – indicating that a strike in the near future may be possible, Allison Quinn reports at The Daily Beast.

Tehran reportedly received a message from Trump warning that a U.S. attack on Iran was “imminent,” Iranian officials told reporters today. The president apparently commented that he was against war and wanted talks on a range of issues, Reuters reports.

“Iran made a very big mistake!” Trump declared yesterday in a message sent on Twitter, referring to the shooting down of a U.S. drone. He told reporters at the White House that “they made a very big mistake,” adding that “this country will not stand for it, that I can tell you,” raising the possibility that the U.S. may respond, AFP reports.

The president later suggested that the downing may have been an unintentional act: “I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody who shouldn’t have been doing something that they did … I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

Trump indicated that the act could have been carried out by a “loose and stupid” Iranian officer without authorization from Tehran. The president emphasized that the aircraft was unmanned, Julian Borger and Patrick Wintour report at the Guardian.

Iran today claimed to have “indisputable” evidence that the U.S. military drone had “violated Iranian airspace.” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi reportedly provided the Swiss ambassador with the evidence today, AFP reports.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that the U.S. drone had taken off from the U.A.E.: “At 00:14 U.S. drone took off from U.A.E. in stealth mode & violated Iranian airspace … it was targeted at 04:05 at the coordinates (25°59’43”N 57°02’25”E) near Kouh-e Mobarak … we’ve retrieved sections of the US military drone in OUR territorial waters where it was shot down,” Zarif stated in a message sent on Twitter, Reuters​ reports.

It is “important we do everything” to de-escalate tensions with Iran, U.S. envoy on Iran Brian Hook commented today: “Our diplomacy does not give Iran the right to respond with military force, Iran needs to meet our diplomacy with diplomacy and not military force,” Hook told a news conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Reuters reports.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday called for the U.S. to de-escalate tensions with Iran, following a White House briefing on the shooting down of a U.S. drone by Tehran. “It is essential that we remain fully engaged with our allies, recognize that we are not dealing with a responsible adversary and do everything in our power to de-escalate,” Pelosi commented in a statement, adding “this is a dangerous, high-tension situation that requires a strong, smart and strategic, not reckless, approach,” Reuters reports.

U.S. Senators have expressed concern about the escalating standoff between the U.S. and Iran. “Trump promised to bring our troops home … instead he has pulled out of a deal that was working and instigated another unnecessary conflict,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) stated in a message sent on Twitter, adding “we need to step back from the brink of war,” Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

Trump and his national security adviser John Bolton are engaged in an ongoing debate about how to handle Iran, according to a senior White House official, Alex Marquardt, Michelle Kosinski, Zachary Cohen and Nicole Gaouette report at CNN.

Iran yesterday accused the U.S. of a “very dangerous and provocative act” and urged the international community to demand that the U.S. end its “unlawful actions” and “drone spying.” Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi made the comments in letters to the U.N. secretary-general and Security Council, the AP reports.

Ravanchi insisted Tehran will not be forced back into negotiations with the White House: “you cannot negotiate with somebody who has a knife in his hand putting the knife under your throat,” Iran’s ambassador said in an exclusive interview with N.P.R.., adding “that cannot be acceptable by anybody … any reasonable person cannot accept to have negotiations with somebody who is threatening you.” Steve Inskeep and Bobby Allyn report at NPR.

Iran has told the U.S. – via the Swiss ambassador – that Washington “will be responsible for the consequences of any military action against Iran,” Reuters reports.

Democrats have advised Trump he needs to get congressional authorization before taking military action against Iran. “One of the best ways to avoid bumbling into a war, a war that nobody wants, is to have a robust open debate and for Congress to have a real say … we learned that lesson in the run-up to Iraq,” Sen. Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters at Capitol Hill after yesterday’s situation room meeting, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday warned that a U.S. military attack on Iran would be a “catastrophe:” “it would be a catastrophe, for the region at the very minimum, because it will lead to an increase of violence, and potential increase in refugees from the region,” Putin stated during his annual televised question and answer session with the Russian public, adding “but also, for those who would attempt it, it could have possibly sad consequences,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

The U.K. is in regular contact with the U.S. over the situation in Iran and has “continuously called for de-escalation on all sides,” a spokesperson for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May stated today, Reuters reports.

Key airlines from around the world began rerouting their flights today to avoid areas around the Strait of Hormuz following the downing of a U.S. drone there. The move comes amid warns from the U.S. that commercial airliners could be mistakenly attacked, Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

IRAN: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An assessment of the likelihood of “a new tanker war” is provided by Paul Adams at the BBC.

“Trump’s maximum pressure tactics are incoherent,” Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post, in an analysis of the president’s foreign policy decisions.

An analysis of how President Trump provoked the deepening U.S.-Iran conflict is provided by Peter Bergen at CNN.

The Trump administration’s policy is backfiring – threatening a dangerous confrontation, Michael R. Gordon, Courtney McBride and Laurence Norman comment at the Wall Street Journal.

Congress must be consulted on whether to attack Iran, the New York Times editorial board argues, commenting that “the Trump administration’s campaign of maximum pressure and minimal diplomacy is bringing the two countries ever closer to blows.”

“Iran needs to play a short game and escape the U.S. chokehold before it becomes fatal,” David Ignatius comments at the Washington Post, writing that by contrast, the Trump administration wants to play a “long game, to draw the sanctions tourniquet ever tighter.”

U.S. allies Europe and Japan do not approve of Trump’s hard line toward Iran, William A. Galston writes at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that when it comes to Iran, U.S. allies distrust Washington’s motives.

The Trump administration has at least the beginnings of an Iran strategy – whatever the public may think of it, David Leonhardt writes at the New York Times, commenting that “it’s a high-risk strategy that increases the possibility of both big success and big failure.”

Democrats need to come up with a realist “Plan B” for the U.S. to reenter the Iran deal, Ariane Tabatabai and Elisa Catalano Ewers caution at Foreign Policy.

An essential backgrounder on “Military Action Against Iran and U.S. Domestic Law” is provided by Brian Egan and Tess Bridgeman at Just Security.

Recent key events in the Gulf tensions are provided by Al Jazeera.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

The Senate yesterday voted on three measures to block the Trump administration from using emergency orders to sell more than $8 billion weapons to Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., launching a new obstacle for President Trump’s alliance with the kingdom. The president has promised to veto the legislation, the AP reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had pushed hard for the emergency designation, despite the objections of career Foreign Service officers and legislators, claiming that the sales would support allies like Saudi Arabia to counter Iran and its partner Arab militias — even though some of the munitions would take years to produce and deliver, Catie Edmonson reports at the New York Times.

The Senate voted 53-45 on resolutions to block two of the sales, with G.O.P. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine,) Lindsey Graham (S.C.,), Mike Lee (Utah,) Jenny Moran (Kansas,) Lisa Murkowski (Alaska,) Rand Paul (Ky.,) and Todd Young (Ind.) joining the Democrats. They voted 51-45 to block the additional 20 arms sales, with Murkwoski flipping to vote for the sale and Lee abstaining, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

A bipartisan group of senators – led by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) – had already filed 22 resolutions of disapproval against the sales: one for every contract the administration had expedited by emergency order, effectively sidestepping Congressional opposition. After weeks of negotiations, however, Senate leaders agreed to hold just three votes encompassing the substance of all resolutions seeking to block the deals, Karoun Dermirjian reports at the Washington Post.

The White House issued a veto statement, saying the resolution “would hamper our ability to sustain and shape critical security cooperation activities and would significantly hinder the interoperability between our nation.” Several Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), also opposed the move, noting Saudi Arabia’s role in countering Iran’s influence in the Middle East, Marianne Levine reports at POLITICO.

It is unclear whether there would be sufficient votes to overcome a likely Trump veto of the measure should it make it to his desk. Senate Republicans, however, are reportedly preparing legislation to impose new limits on the U.S.-Saudi strategic relationship, including potential financial sanctions on persons involved in the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Al Jazeera reports.

The Kingdom has expressed concern over the U.K. ruling that temporarily suspended new weapons sales to the kingdom, claiming that the move will only serve to benefit its regional rival Iran. Saudi Minister for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir made the comments after England’s Court of Appeal yesterday ruled that the U.K. government had acted illegally by permitting arms sales to Riyadh that might have been used in the Yemeni conflict, Al Jazeera reports.

The Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen announced today that it had struck targets around the strategic Red Sea port city of Hodeidah belonging to the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels, after the Houthis fired a missile at a utility plant in southern Saudi Arabia. In a statement carried by Saudi state media, the coalition stated that its targets included booby-trapped boats that the Houthis had prepared for terrorist acts and to threaten international shipping, Reuters reports.

The Houthis have launched military operations against Jizan airport in southern Saudi Arabia, the rebels’ Al-Masirah T.V. reported yesterday, although there was no immediate comment from Saudi authorities. Al-Masirah also tweeted comments from a Houthi military spokesperson, who repeated the group’s threats to strike the kingdom, Reuters reports.

The U.N. has partially suspended aid to parts of Yemen controlled by the Houthis, accusing them of misappropriating supplies. The World Food Program (W.F.P.) described the move as a last resort, the BBC reports.

The U.S. yesterday added Saudi Arabia and Cuba to its blacklist of countries that it alleges are not doing enough to fight human trafficking, a designation that could bring sanctions. In an annual report, the State Department pointed finger at the kingdom for widespread violations against its huge foreign labor force, Al Jazeera reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

“Anxious chatter” about escalating U.S.-Iran tensions is drawing attention away from the U.S.-organized Middle East conference in Bahrain next week – the first plank of the Trump administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan, Nahal Toosi explains at POLITICO. Many observers are reportedly describing the Bahrain meeting as a “pointless exercise,” with neither Palestinian leaders nor an Israeli government delegation expected to attend.

Developments in the Middle East cannot be detached from neither Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory and settlement-building, nor militant Hamas group’s hold over Gaza and its militant activity, U.N. Special Coordinator on the Middle East Peace Process Nickolav Mladenov told the Security Council yesterday, warning that these elements “collectively erode the prospects of a two-State solution.” Mladenov updated the Security Council on the situation in the Middle East between Mar. 25 and Jun. 10 2019, highlighting that the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (U.N.R.W.A.) “continues to face significant financial challenges,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

Israel uses a number of diplomatic and security tactics to counter B.D.S. – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against it. Linah Alsaafin provides an account at Al Jazeera.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Pyongyang lauded its ties with historic ally China today as Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a two-day visit to the North, with both countries facing deadlock in their respective negotiations with U.S. President Trump.North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told Xi that his visit had provided an opportunity to demonstrate “the immutability and invincibility of the D.P.R.K. [North Korean]-China friendship before the world,” according to K.C.N.A, AFP reports.

At a time when “serious and complicated changes are happening in international and regional situations,” the two leaders agreed to “promote close strategic communication” and develop their “common interests,” K.C.N.A.’s reporting continued, Al Jazeera reports.

Xi reportedly offered encouragement for North Korea’s focus on economic development in a speech at a banquet in Pyongyang last night. Xi noted that the nation under Kim had “initiated a new strategic line of economic development and improving people’s livelihoods, raising socialist construction in the country to a new high tide,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency, Christopher Bodeen reports at the AP.

A selection of photographs illustrating the “pomp and propaganda” of Xi’s North Korea visit are provided at the New York Times.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Thousands of people gathered in Hong Kong today calling for the territory’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam to resign and for the government to scrap its controversial extradition bill, after the administration missed a 5pm deadline yesterday to respond to the protestors’ demands. Demonstrators started arriving outside the Legislative Council Complex at about 7am local time, in response to calls on social media, Al Jazeera reports.

The protestors have moved to concentrate their forces around different government departments in the city center with the aim of disrupting official business, also blocking the roads surrounding the police headquarters, Nicolle Liu and Alice Woodhouse report at the Financial Times.

A satellite image obtained Wednesday suggests that China has deployed at least four J-10 fighter jets to the contested Woody Island in the South China Sea, marking the first known deployment of fighter jets there since 2017. Brad Lendon reports at CNN.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks refused to answer 155 questions from House Democrats Wednesday about her time in the role, according to a transcript of her closed-door testimony to the Judiciary Committee released yesterday. Andrew Deisderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

Hicks told House investigators that officials on the 2016 campaign felt “relief” when WikiLeaks released hacked information damaging to Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton – in one of the few questions she did answer during the eight-hour session – apparently highlighting the extent to which Trump associates welcomed the dissemination of the material even after Russia was identified as the likely culprit behind the hack. Hicks defended the Trump campaign’s use of private Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails that were stolen by Russia, arguing that they were “publicly available information.” Rachel Bade, Rosalind S. Helderman and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

Hicks told the panel that Trump was not joking about his readiness to accept derogatory information on political opponents from a foreign government, the transcript released yesterday showed. Lawmakers asked Hicks about comments Trump made in a recent A.B.C. News interview, in which the president said he saw nothing wrong with reviewing damaging information about political opponents from a foreign government; “I don’t think that was a joke, based on what I saw,” Hicks told the committee, adding that she would not accept such information from a foreign source today and would report any such offer to federal authorities. Reuters reports.

A House Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday reportedly became heated, as Republicans accused Democrats of wasting time examining special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference, with one G.O.P. lawmaker labeling the hearing a “farce.” Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) had called the hearing to obtain expert testimony on the first volume of Mueller’s report, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

President Trump’s former associate Roger Stone is violating the terms of his pre-release by commenting on his legal case, federal prosecutors told a judge yesterday. Stone is awaiting trial on charges brought by Mueller and was slapped with a gagging order in February, after he posted a photo of Judge Amy Berman Jackson on social media platform Instagram with what appeared to be crosshairs next to her head. Pete Williams, Tom Winter and Rich Schapiro report at NBC.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Sudan’s ruling Transitional Military Council (T.M.C.) has sacked the country’s prosecutor general Alwaleed Sayed Ahmed, just days after charges of corruption were brought against ousted President Omar al-Bashir, Al Jazeera reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that he expects to resolve disagreements with the U.S., particularly relating to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, during a planned one-on-one meeting with President Trump at the end of the month. Carlotta Gill reports at the New York Times.

The deaths of 298 people in the downing of passenger flight Mh17 in 2014 “are murders by the Kremlin’s agents in a dirty war,” the New York Times editorial board comments, arguing that the West must not go back to “business as normal” with Russia as Moscow hopes it will.

The Trump administration is finally advancing nominees for diplomatic posts at the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and smaller agencies dealing with foreign aid and development – with posts having sat empty for the past two years, Robbie Gramer writes at Foreign Policy. 

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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).