The Early Edition: June 24, 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

U.S. President Trump yesterday pledged that Iran’s “absolutely broken” economy will face “major” new sanctions today, as Iran countered it would take further measures to expand its nuclear program unless Europe does more to insulate it from U.S. pressure over the coming two weeks. Trump claimed that Iran hoped to negotiate because of the continuing economic pressure from sanctions, even though Tehran has so far rejected any talks while sanctions remain in place, Patrick Wintour and Julian Borger report at the Guardian.

“We’ve done very massive sanctions … we’re increasing the sanctions now,” Trump told N.B.C. over the weekend. Michael R. Gordon, Ian Talley and Laurence Norman report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I’m not looking for war … and if there is … it’ll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before,” Trump said during the course of the interview, though he added “I’m not looking to do that. But you can’t have a nuclear weapon … you want to talk? Good … otherwise you can have a bad economy for the next three years,” Martin Matishak reports at POLITICO.

“We will call it ‘let’s make Iran great again,’” Trump said regarding the program of sanctions. The president later sent a series of messages on Twitter from Camp David, stating: “we are putting major additional Sanctions on Iran on Monday … I look forward to the day that Sanctions come off Iran, and they become a productive and prosperous nation again,” Reuters reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton reportedly said yesterday that Iran should not mistake the Trump administration’s “prudence and discretion” for weakness. Making the comments while in Jerusalem at an appearance alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bolton stated that Tehran does not have a “hunting license in the Middle East,” Kyle Balluck reports at the Hill.

Bolton claimed that military action against Iran remains very much an option even though the U.S. last week called off one military strike. Bolton repeated previous warnings from U.S. President Trump’s warnings that the U.S. military was “rebuilt, new and ready to go,” also echoing the president’s warning that “biting” new sanctions would be imposed by today, David M. Halbfinger reports at the New York Times.

The White House is reportedly pushing for U.S. intelligence and military to come up with fresh clandestine options to counter Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf. According to officials, the White House reportedly wants to deter Iran without escalating into a traditional war, with the president having said that he still believes a direct strike on Iran would be escalatory, Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the New York Times.

The new plans could include more cyberattacks against Iranian intelligence groups, as well as clandestine operations aimed at disabling Iranian boats and operations to create more unrest inside the country. According to U.S. officials briefed on the effort, the plans are reportedly in line with previous tactics used by the U.S. against Iran—which in turn mirror the shadow war the U.S. accuses Tehran of perpetrating, The Daily Beast reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday he will visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) for talks on the crisis sparked by Iran’s downing an American drone Thursday. “We’ll be talking with them about how to make sure that we are all strategically aligned and how we can build out a global coalition” on Iran, Pompeo said ahead of his departure, describing the kingdom and the U.A.E. as  “great allies in the challenge that Iran presents,” AFP reports.

Pompeo accused Iranian officials Saturday of resorting to “violence and disinformation” after the two nations differed on explanations for the downing of a U.S. drone and two oil tankers.   “President Trump did not pass a message through Oman calling for talks with Iran … we have made our position abundantly clear … we are willing to engage when the time is right,” Pompeo announced in a statement, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Trump reportedly bucked most of his top national-security advisers by abandoning retaliatory strikes in Iran on Thursday. In private conversations Friday, Trump allegedly reveled in his judgment, reportedly telling one confidant that some amongst his close circle of advisers “want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting … we don’t need any more wars,” Michael C. Bender and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

The president Friday had confirmed that the U.S. military was “cocked and loaded” to retaliate against Iran after the downing of the drone, but in a series of messages sent on Twitter claimed that he opted not to follow through because he felt the response would not be “proportionate” to the Iranian action. The president said he learned just 10 minutes before the strike that 150 Iranians would die, and decided to call off the mission accordingly, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Iran today described the drone downing as a “firm response” to the U.S. and warned it could be repeated. “Everyone saw the downing of the unmanned drone,” navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi was quoted as saying by the Tasnim news agency, adding “I can assure you that this firm response can be repeated, and the enemy knows it,” Reuters reports.

The president approved a cyberstrike that disabled Iranian computer systems used to control rocket and missile launches, even as he backed away from a conventional military attack in response to Thursday’s drone downing, according to people familiar with the matter. The cyberstrikes – launched Thursday night by personnel with U.S. Cyber Command – were planned for weeks if not months, according to two amongst the sources, who claimed that Pentagon proposed launching them earlier this month following Iran’s alleged attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Ellen Nakashima reports at the Washington Post.

Iran has claimed that that no cyberattack against it has ever succeeded. “The media are asking about the veracity of the alleged cyberattack against Iran … no successful attack has been carried out by them, although they are making a lot of effort,” telecommunications minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said in a message on Twitter today without citing any specific U.S. attack, Al Jazeera reports.

Iranian official Hesameddin Ashena this morning indicated that Iran could be willing to discuss new concessions, if Washington were willing to put new incentives on the table that go beyond those in the deal. “If they want something beyond the J.C.P.O.A. [the 2015 nuclear deal] they should offer something beyond the J.C.P.O.A.; with international guarantees,” Ashena stated in a message sent on Twitter, Reuters reports.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Friday emphasized that U.S. military action against Iran “must not be initiated.” Pelosi told reporters that she was not notified by officials of the president’s decision Thursday to approve the military strike when she and other congressional leaders went to the White House for a briefing that day: “we left with the idea that the president was going to consider some options,” Pelosi told reporters Friday, adding “I did not receive any heads-up that there was a strike that was in the works,” Aris Folley reports at the Hill.

Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen yesterday stressed the importance of avoiding war with Iran, claiming that a conflict “could spin out of control.” “I really would like to know that the American people who feel we should not go to war with Iran are pressing their congressmen, their senators and everybody in the public domain to make sure that no matter what happens with respect to where we are with Iran right now, that we do not go to war,| Mullen said on A.B.C.’s “This Week,” adding “I think the politicians need to figure out a way to achieve the objective, which is Iran without a nuclear weapon … without regime change, without going to war.” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir has warned Tehran there would be more sanctions if it continued its “aggressive polices” in the region, but said Riyadh wanted to avoid war. “Today, Iran is under severe economic sanctions,” al-Jubeir told French newspaper Le Monde in an interview published today, adding “these sanctions will be strengthened … if Iran continues its aggressive policies, it will have to pay the price,” Reuters reports.

Updates on Iran-U.S. tensions are provided at Al Jazeera.

IRAN: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“The uncompromisingly hawkish views [U.S. Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo holds on Iran are starting to clash with the perspective of a president deeply skeptical of military entanglements,” Edward Wong and Michael Crowley write in an analysis of a divide within the administration at the New York Times.

“Trump’s usual shtick is to paper over the problem of his creation and then declare victory,” Jack Shafer comments at POLITICO Magazine, arguing that in the context of Iran the president has taken this strategy to extremes.

“The 11th hour calling-off of military action was the one wise decision Trump has taken on Iran since he took office,” and escalation to armed conflict “would be a war of choice, illusion and irresponsibility,” Roger Cohen argues at the New York Times.

“Has the impetuous President who seems to tweet first and think second finally become more thoughtful?” Dean Obeidallah writes regarding the president’s Iran strike U-turn at CNN, betting that Trump is more likely “beginning to consider the prospect of losing re-election in 2020 and now second-guessing some of his more controversial choices.”

Trump’s approval and then cancellation of airstrikes against Iran “has done little to calm nerves both at home and abroad,” Col. Jack Jacobs comments at NBC, claiming that those who understand the stakes and benefits of military action best are of course those who actually fight our wars,” rather than the divided Trump administration.

The current “mess” with Iran can be traced to Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, “with no real Plan B beyond imposing ever-tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime,” Peter Bergen comments at CNN.

On Iran Trump has adopted a policy goal “favored by hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham but wants to use only the means of isolationist Sen. Rand Paul to achieve it,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments, adding that “if Mr. Trump’s real policy is Mr. Paul’s, then he should be honest with Americans and return to the Obama nuclear deal … in the meantime, Iran appears to be calling Mr. Trump’s bluff.”

“Iran’s leadership … which has insisted to its populace for two years that it will not enter talks with a truculent Trump, requires a narrative of success justifying its turnabout,” Ray Takeyh writes in an Op-Ed on the Tehran regime’s motivations at POLITICO Magazine.

“A ‘connection’ between Iran and al-Qaeda isn’t even close to the relevant legal test for whether the 2001 A.U.M.F. [Authorization for Use of Military Force] authorizes the use of force against Iran,” Editors Joshua Geltzer, Ryan Goodman and Luke Hartig explain in an analysis at Just Security, noting that “by asking the wrong question, we’re giving the Trump administration the chance to provide the wrong answer.”

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

President Trump spoke with Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman Friday to discuss Iranian behavior, shortly after calling off a retaliatory strike against Iran at the last minute. White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement that the two leaders spoke over the phone about “the threat posed by the Iranian regime’s escalatory behavior” and “Saudi Arabia’s critical role in ensuring stability in the Middle East and in the global oil market,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Trump did not discuss the death of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi during his phone call Friday with bin Salman. “I did not because it really didn’t come up in that discussion,” Trump stated yesterday on N.B.C.’s ‘Meet the Press’ program, Reuters reports.

“I think it’s been heavily investigated,” the president commented, referring to Khashoggi’s murder, when asked whether he would order the F.B.I. to investigate, as the U.N. has recommended. Kayla Epstein reports at the Washington Post.

At least one person has been killed and 21 wounded yesterday in an alleged “terrorist” attack by Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels on Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia. The strike took place as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the country for talks on Iran, AFP reports.

A statement made by the Saudi-led military coalition did not specify what type of weapon was used in the attack, Al Jazeera reports.

“The Khashoggi report clarifies that this was an international crime that compels the U.N. and the U.S. to take immediate action,” Courtney Radsch argues at CNN, commenting it is “imperative” that Khashoggi’s death is criminally investigated and those responsible held to account.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Trump administration revealed the economic part of its long-awaited Middle East peace plan Saturday, outlining its “economic vision” for Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab countries. The “Peace to Prosperity” plan will be unveiled at the U.S- organized Middle East conference in Bahrain next week, Gabby Orr reports at POLITICO.

The plan calls for $50 billion in foreign investment to improve economic opportunities in the Palestinian territories – however, there are no solid monetary commitments from the U.S. and the majority of the money is expected to come from countries in the Gulf, Mark Landler and David M. Halbfinger report at the New York Times.

The economic plan attracted praise from Israelis and rejection from Palestinians: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to hear the U.S. proposal “fairly and with openness” and criticized the Palestinian government for rejecting it, commenting “that’s not the way to proceed.” Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Palestinian leaders have dismissed the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner’s proposals: “we reject the ‘deal of the century’ and all its dimensions, the economic, the political and the security dimensions,” a senior Hamas official commented, adding “Palestine isn’t for sale, and it is not an issue for bargaining … Palestine is a sacred land and there is no option for the occupation except to leave,” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi today declared the Middle East peace plan is “shameful” and “doomed to failure”. “This conference and the sale of Palestine will lead nowhere,” Mousavi was quoted as saying by I.S.N.A. news agency, Reuters reports.

“We don’t need the Bahrain meeting to build our country … we need peace … and the sequence of [the plan] – economic revival followed by peace is unrealistic and an illusion,” Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bishara said yesterday, Reuters reports.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed his disapproval of the conference in Bahrain Saturday, commenting that focusing on economic issues between Israel and the Palestinians “is unacceptable before the political situation is discussed, Josh Lederman reports at NBC.

“I laugh when they attack this as the ‘Deal of the Century,’” Kushner said in an interview Saturday, discussing Palestinian leaders who have rejected his plan. “This is going to be the ‘Opportunity of the Century’ if they have the courage to pursue it,” Kushner added, Yuliya Talmazan reports at NBC.

Expectations are low for the diplomatic conference in Bahrain that will likely not be attended by either Palestinian government representatives or Israeli officials, Anne Gearan, Souad Mekhennet and Loveday Morris report at the Washington Post.

A useful “factbox” of the Trump administration’s Palestinian policy is provided by Reuters.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. and the Taliban are due to open a new round negotiations in Qatar in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to Afghanistan’s 18-year-old war. In a message sent on Twitter, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad stated that “rapid progress” is needed in negotiations and that the seventh round of U.S.-Taliban talks will begin on Jun. 29 in Doha, Al Jazeera reports.

The upcoming peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban will focus on working out a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan, as well as a Taliban guarantee that militants will not plot attacks from Afghan soil, sources said today. Reuters reports.

SUDAN

Sudan’s ruling Transitional Military Council (T.M.C.) has rejected Ethiopia’s proposal to end the political impasse over the composition of the country’s transitional government. Ethiopia’s proposal – which the opposition coalition has agreed to – recommends that a ruling sovereign council would be made up of seven civilians and seven members of the military, with one additional seat reserved for an impartial individual, Reuters reports.

T.M.C. spokesperson Lt. Gen. Shams al-Din Kabbashi instead declared yesterday that he agreed in principle to the African Union (A.U.) plan. “The African Union’s initiative came first,” Kabbashi said at a news conference at the presidential palace, explaining that the council had not studied the Ethiopian proposal, Al Jazeera reports.

Sudanese authorities must grant human rights monitors access to the country and end “repression” against protesters and restore the country’s Internet, U.N. human rights boss Michelle Bachelet said today. Bachelet added that her office has received reports that more than 100 protesters were killed and many more injured during an assault by security forces on a peaceful sit-in outside the defense ministry on Jun. 3, Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump sent North Korean leader Kim Jong-un an “excellent” letter, Pyongyang’s state media Korean Central News Agency (K.C.N.A.) said yesterday. The White House confirmed Trump’s letter: “a letter was sent by President Trump and correspondence between the two leaders has been ongoing,” outgoing press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, Timothy W. Martin and Dasl Yoon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim “said with satisfaction that the letter is of excellent content,” K.C.N.A. reported yesterday, adding that the North Korean leader appreciated Trump’s “extraordinary courage,” and that he “would seriously contemplate the interesting content” of the letter, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday expressed hopes that the letter sent by Trump to Kim “can pave the way for new talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program,” Reuters reports.

Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached an agreement on “important issues,” and agreed to build on their countries’ friendly relations “whatever the international situation,” according to reports by K.C.N.A., Reuters reports.

Trump is to visit South Korea this week to discuss ways to recover nuclear talks with North Korea, the South’s presidential Blue House said today. Trump plans to begin his two-day visit on Saturday, and will hold a summit with President Moon Jae-in on Sunday, following the G.20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Reuters reports.

An analysis of Xi’s two-day state visit to North Korea is provided by the Economist.

An insightful Q&A on Kim is fielded by Jefcoate O’Donnell at Foreign Policy.

Kim “pulled out all the stops” for Xi – possibly sending a message to Trump, the New York Times editorial board argues.

The focus on nuclear weapons and China’s trade war with the U.S. “obscures the real significance of Xi’s trip,” John Delury comments at the New York Times, arguing that “the Chinese president did not travel to North Korea to prove to Trump that only the Chinese government can broker a deal with Kim or to gain bargaining power in the trade dispute.”

CHINA AND HONG KONG

The Commerce Department placed five Chinese technology groups on its “entity” list Friday – effectively blocking the organizations from buying components from U.S. companies unless they secure a waiver. Amongst the entities added were high-performance computing group Sugon and semiconductor company Higon, Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

Hong Kong protesters are anxious about leaving a digital footprint: “everyone is in deep fear of having their own identity exposed on Telegram … and all were trying to help each other to hide our identities,” one protestor commented. Veta Chan reports at NBC.

“A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be a bloody logistical nightmare,” Ben Westcott argues at CNN.

 

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

President Trump said yesterday that he “may” talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G.20 summit this week about Russian interference in the upcoming 2020 U.S. election. In remarks to N.B.C. News, the president said “I may … I may if you’d like me to do it, I’ll do that,” Reuters reports.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee will vote to authorize a subpoena for White House adviser Kellyanne Conway Wednesday if she does not appear for the panel’s hearing on her alleged violations of the Hatch Act, according to a memo sent to lawmakers. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has cited Conway for multiple violations of the Act – which bars federal employees from participating in political speech while performing their official duties – and earlier this month, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner recommended that President Trump terminate her White House employment, Andrew Desiderio reports at POLITICO.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

President Trump will nominate Army Secretary Mark Esper to be the next secretary of Defense, the White House announced Friday night. Esper was already set to become acting defense secretary when Patrick Shanahan’s resignation took effect yesterday, Jacqueline Feldscher reports at POLITICO.

Esper “cannot go through a Senate confirmation process for a job he is holding temporarily,” the Economist writes in a preview of the new appointment, explaining that Esper is therefore expected to be replaced as acting secretary of defense by the navy secretary, Richard Spencer.

“Since taking office, Trump has blown through West Wing staffers and Cabinet secretaries at a rate unprecedented in modern U.S. politics,” Zachary B. Wolf comments at CNN, writing that “despite [the president’s] repeated claim that plenty of people want to work in his administration, it has a lot of empty spaces.”

National security adviser John Bolton risks following in the footsteps of Regan-era national security adviser William “The Judge” Clark, sacked in 1983 over the U.S.’ role in the Middle East, John Gans comments at Foreign Policy, noting that Bolton’s “push to use the big stick effectively against Iran, North Korea, and other countries has led to speculation over his job security.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The main Turkish opposition party – the Republican People’s Party (C.H.P.) – has won the rerun of Istanbul’s mayoral election, in a setback for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Isil Sariyuce and Ivana Kottasová report at CNN.

The chief of staff of Ethiopia’s army has been killed along with a regional governor in an attempted coup, the Guardian reports.

“The Venezuela crisis is going to get much worse – and President Trump will get the blame,” Jackson Diehl comments at the Washington Post.

The U.S. military has “drastically” ramped up its secret hacking of foreign computer networks in a new effort to keep China and Russia on their heels, according to current and former U.S. officials. The military’s elite cyber force – under new legal authority from both Congress and President Trump – has conducted more operations in the first two years of the Trump administration than it did in eight years under former president Barack Obama, Ken Dilanian reports at NBC.

Thousands of relatives of former foreign fighters in Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) should be repatriated, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet stated today, insisting children in particular have suffered “grievous violations” of their rights — in a rebuke to those countries that have been reticent about taking back jihadis and their families, the AP reports. 

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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).