The Early Edition: June 25, 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 Trump administration yesterday ordered new “hard-hitting” sanctions against Iran – targeting the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other high-ranking officials. The sanctions will deny access to “key financial resources and support” by Khamenei’s office and eight Iranian military commanders – including the head of a unit that the U.S. claim was responsible for shooting down an American drone Thursday, Ian Talley and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We will continue to increase pressure on Tehran,” President Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, explaining that the announcement “follows a series of aggressive behaviors by the Iranian regime in recent weeks.” The president, who described the sanctions as “a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions,” further commented that “the Supreme Leader of Iran is one who ultimately is responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime,” Alexander Smith, Abigail Williams and Adam Edelman report at NBC.

The expanded powers “will lock up literally billions of dollars in assets,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters yesterday, without specifying what assets Iran’s leaders might hold either in the U.S. or in the global financial system, Merrit Kennedy reports at NPR.

The U.S. economic sanctions form part of President Trump’s strategy to drive “a weakened Iran” to the negotiating table for fresh talks over its nuclear plans. The new sanctions order also includes proposals to target Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif later this week, John Hudson, Anne Gearan and Erin Cunningham report at the Washington Post.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani denounced the new sanctions “a sign of U.S. desperation” and described the White House as “mentally retarded” – an insult Iran has used previously about Trump. “The White House actions mean it is mentally retarded … Tehran’s strategic patience does not mean we have fear,” Rouhani commented in a speech broadcast live on state television, adding that penalties against Khamenei would “fail” because he had no assets abroad, Reuters reports.

“Imposing useless sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader and the commander of Iran’s diplomacy is the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeperson Abbas Mousavi commented in a message sent on Twitter today, adding “Trump’s desperate administration is destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security,” Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

“Sanctions announced today officially closed all the windows and doors for U.S. and Iran talks,” Editor-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guards’ Mashregh News Agency Hassan Soleimani stated in a telephone interview from Tehran, adding “if Trump was hoping for negotiations with Iran, he can now only dream about it,” Farnaz Fassihi and David D. Kirkpatrick report at the New York Times.

“[I]t’s now clear that the #B_Team is not concerned with US interests – they despise diplomacy … and thirst for war,” Zarif stated in a message sent on Twitter, Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

Iran’s U.N. ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi has stated that talks with the U.S. are “impossible” in light of escalating sanctions and intimidation, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Trump is open to negotiations and “all that Iran needs to do is walk through that open door,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton declared today, the AP reports.

Iran’s Ambassador to the U.N. Majid Takht Ravanchi has called for “maximum restraint” around the Gulf, explaining there is a need for “genuine regional dialogue” to address rising tensions in the region. “The U.S. decision … to impose more sanctions against Iran is yet another indication of continued U.S. hostility against the Iranian people and their leaders,” Ravanchi commented yesterday outside the Security Council chamber in New York, where a closed-door meeting was being held to discuss the deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Iran, The U.N. News Centre reports.

Iran’s government has plans to protect the country against U.S. economic pressure, according to Iran’s Economy Minister Farhad Dejpasand: “we have our plans and options to counter the enemy’s pressure and sanctions … but I will not reveal more details about our plans, Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi King Salman bin Abudalaziz al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman yesterday to discuss “the heightened tensions in the region and the need for stronger maritime security to promote freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement, adding “they also agreed on the importance of working together with the Gulf Cooperation Council to counter the Iranian threat throughout the region and to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its malign behavior,” Zack Budryk reports at the Hill.

Pompeo yesterday began recruiting allies to help place cameras on tankers and other ships in the Gulf region in order to monitor and corroborate threats from Iran. A new program named Sentinel is being developed in response to the competing accounts that have arisen since Iran downed a U.S. drone last week, Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

Bolton will meet with his Israeli and Russian counterparts today in Jerusalem to discuss Middle East security, including Iran’s military position in Syria, according to U.S. and Israeli officials. The officials hope that the effort could “widen cracks that have opened between Iran and Russia in Syria,” Felicia Schwartz, Thomas Grove and Sune Engels Rasmussen report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump yesterday declared that he does not need congressional approval to strike Iran, making the comments in an exclusive interview with “Hill.T.V.” “We’ve been keeping Congress abreast of what we’re doing … and I think it’s something they appreciate,” the president commented, adding “I do like keeping them abreast, but I don’t have to do it legally,” Saagar Enjeti and Jordan Fabian report at the Hill.

Iran should not interpret Trump’s restraint over the downing of a drone as “weakness,” U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood stated today at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, adding  “we will not initiate a conflict against Iran … nor do we intend to deny Iran the right to defend its airspace but if Iran continues to attack us, our response will be decisive,” Reuters reports.

Russia has military intelligence showing that the U.S. drone was in Iranian air space when it was downed by Iran last week, according to Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev. Patrushev further commented today that U.S. evidence alleging Iran was behind tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman was “poor quality” and “unprofessional,” Reuters reports.

Senate Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell has shut down the possibility of a vote on an amendment on the defense bill that would require congressional approval for the use of military funds in Iran and restrict Trump’s ability to go to war with the country. Senate Min. Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday called on Republicans to delay passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) in order to vote on the amendment, POLITICO.

The latest updates to the U.S.-Iran tensions are provided by Al Jazeera.

IRAN: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The Trump administration’s high-risk Iran policy has entered “even more dangerous territory,” Stephen Collinson argues at CNN, outlining critics’ concerns that the “relentless U.S. battering may leave the Iranians little incentive to return to a diplomatic process.”

The new “hard-hitting” sanctions have put airstrikes on hold – but nuclear risks remain, Bennet Ramberg writes at NBC, assessing whether “the presence of reactors in an enlarged conflict zone might open a Pandora’s box to history’s first radioactive war.”

“The key to the president’s Iran policy is that his nose for power tells him Iran is weaker and the U.S. stronger than the foreign-policy establishment believes,” Walter Russell Mead argues at the Wall Street Journal, commenting that Trump seeks a deal with Iran that “matches his sense of the relative power of the two countries.”

An assessment of Iran’s options in the standoff with the U.S. is provided by Peter Kenyon at NPR.

An in-depth expert analysis of the aborted U.S. strike on Iran and the recent cyber operation in relation to international law is fielded by Michael Schmitt at Just Security.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

A World Food Program (W.F.P.) spokesperson has announced that Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have blocked a shipment intended to feed some 100,000 families, The aid was reportedly blocked after the W.F.P. partially suspended aid last week after accusing the Houthis of looting aid; the rebels responded with a fierce media campaign against the W.F.P, accusing it of sending spoiled food, Maggie Michael reports at the AP.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not discuss the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi when he met Saudi Arabia’s king yesterday, a senior State Department official told journalists travelling with Pompeo in the region. “It did not” come up, the official said, although they could not confirm whether the case had been raised with Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman whom Pompeo met with later in the day, Al Jazeera reports.

President Trump has not followed through on his promise that Khashoggi’s murder would be met with “very severe consequences,” the Washington Post editorial board comments, arguing that instead “the care and feeding of the dictatorial kingdom that sent the killers gets [Trump’s] lavish attention and slavish devotion.”

A English and Welsh Court of Appeal ruling “could provide guidance for other European Union members and the United States on how they view their own weapons sales to partner nations,” Kristine Beckerle and Dearbhla Minogue explain in a legal analysis at Just Security.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Bahrain is today set to host the so-called “Peace to Prosperity” workshop to discuss what the U.S. has described as the $50 billion economic portion of its long-awaited Middle East peace plan. The Palestinian leadership is boycotting the two-day meeting in Manama, leading critics to question the credibility of the event. Updates at Al Jazeera.

“I think we all have to recognize that if there ever is a deal … it’s not going to be along the lines of the Arab peace initiative,” U.S. President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner claimed in an interview ahead of the workshop, adding that “a deal will be somewhere between the Arab peace initiative and between the Israeli position.” Reuters reports.

Hundreds of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are protesting against the U.S.’ Middle East peace plan. Palestinian leaders have stated that the Manama gathering circumvents a political settlement based on a two-state solution, describing it as a hapless attempt by the U.S. administration and some of its regional allies to “liquidate” the Palestinian cause, Al Jazeera reports.

“Putting economics first … before a political process … is more than a tactical error,” Ami Ayalon, Gilead Sher and Orni Petruschka comment at the POLITICO Magazine, arguing that the current U.S. approach could stymie Israel-Palestine negotiations before they even begin.

“What Kushner and his colleagues don’t seem to realize is that Palestinians don’t need or want handouts,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh writes in an Op-Ed at the Washington Post, arguing that  “we need freedom and our rights and for Israel to end its domination over our lives and economy.”

“What’s wrong with Palestinian surrender?” Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. Danny Dannon writes in an Op-Ed at the New York Times, arguing that “the Palestinians have little to lose and everything to gain by putting down the sword and accepting the olive branch.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. President Trump is considering visiting the demilitarized zone (D.M.Z.) between North and South Korea, during a scheduled trip to Seoul after the G.20 summit, according to a South Korean government official. “We’re not going into details of the President’s schedule yet … there are some things that are still coming together,” a White House official stated when asked about the D.M.Z. visit, Yoonjung Seo and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

There are no plans for Trump to hold a trilateral meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during his visit to the Peninsula this weekend, Reuters reports.

The U.S. intelligence community does not believe Kim is ready to denuclearize, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Robert Ashley told Fox News in an interview yesterday. Al Jazeera reports.

CHINA AND HUAWEI

China hopes a meeting later this week between U.S. President Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will help build trust and resolve “outstanding issues,” foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang stated today. The AP reports.

Hackers believed to be backed by the Beijing administration have infiltrated the cellular networks of at least 10 global carriers, gathering data on users’ whereabouts, text-messaging records and call logs, according to a new report. The continuing, longstanding campaign reportedly targeted 20 military officials, dissidents and spies, with a scope covering Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Timothy W. Martin and Eva Dou report at the Wall Street Journal.

Lawyers for the C.F.O. of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei – Meng Whanzhou – yesterday urged Canada’s Justice Minister David Lametti to withdraw extradition proceedings against Meng, who has been detained in Vancouver since December on U.S. fraud charges. “The extradition proceedings are without merit and cessation of the proceedings would be in the best interests of Canada’s national interests,” the lawyers’ statement read, Reuters reports.

“The politics of the Meng case are particularly complex — and its implications far-reaching,” Emily Rayhala writes in an account at the Washington Post.

VENEZUELA

Venezuela’s former intelligence chief Cristopher Figuera – who fled the country after backing the failed uprising against President Nicolás Maduro in April – has claimed Maduro’s regime could still fall. “I’m proud of what I did,” Figuera said in an interview published online late yesterday, adding: “for now, the regime has gotten ahead of us … but that can quickly change,” AFP reports.

A Russian air force plane has landed in Venezuela’s principal airport, according to a witness and a website that tracks plane movements. An Ilyushin 62 jet with tail number RA-86496 was reportedly parked at Simon Bolivar International Airport of the Venezuelan capital Caracas yesterday – three months after a similar arrival prompted verbal sparring between Washington and Moscow, Al Jazeera reports.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The White House is reportedly directing the president’s adviser Kellyanne Conway to reject an order to testify before House Oversight and Reform Committee about her repeated violations of the Hatch Act – a federal ethics law that bars government officials from engaging in political activities at work. In a letter sent last night to Committee Chair Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.,) White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone cited “longstanding precedent” in declining the invitation for Conway to appear, Annie Karni reports at the New York Times.

House Democrats are contesting that the White House has no right to claim executive privilege or immunity for Conway because the alleged violations deal with her personal actions rather than her duties advising the president or working in the West Wing. John Wagner, Rachel Bade and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

Trump yesterday declined to say he has confidence in F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray, and maintained that he disagrees with Wray’s assessment that spying on his 2016 campaign did not take place. “Well, we’ll see how it turns out,” Trump said during an interview, when asked about his level of confidence in Wray, adding: “I mean, I disagree with him on that and I think a lot of people are disagreeing … you may even disagree with him on that,” Jordan Fabian and Saagar Enjeti report at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings is demanding information from the White House about its compliance with federal records laws related to communications between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a letter to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney yesterday, Cummings accused the White House of failing to address questions he raised in February in a way that has “obstructed” his committee’s review of the White House’s compliance with the Presidential Records Act (P.R.A.,) Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Only three rank-and-file members of the House are allowed to view former special counsel Robert Mueller’s confidential files, following his investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio provide an analysis of the implications of such limited access at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Russian military launched a massive exercise yesterday to simulate a response to possible security threats in Central Asia.  Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu commented that the five-day drills will “check the armed forces’ ability to ensure security in the Central Asian region that faces serious terrorist threats,” the AP reports.

Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. Asad Majeed Khan yesterday praised the new round of peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in Afghanistan, a day after the parties announced plans to resume negotiations, making comments at an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Josh Aaron Siegel reports at the Hill.

President Trump has been talking with his aides about withdrawing from the Postwar Japan Defense Pact, a longstanding defense treaty with Japan that the president believes is unfair to the U.S. Jennifer Jacobs reports at Bloomberg.

Officials are currently tracking efforts by nations including Russia and Iran to influence Americans through social media platforms on issues including the 2020 election, a senior intelligence official told reporters yesterday. The official said during a press conference that agencies are tracking attempts by Russia to “pit Americans against each other” through posting on social media, while China is using social media platforms to “influence the U.S. political environment,” Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

Trump will meet a number of world leaders on the sidelines of this week’s G.20 summit in Japan including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a U.S. official announced yesterday. Trump will also meet: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, AFP reports. 

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About the Author(s)

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).

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).