The Early Edition: July 11, 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 warned that Washington would “substantially” increase sanctions on Iran in the near future after Tehran exceeded the uranium enrichment level limits laid out in the 2015 nuclear deal. “Remember, that deal was to expire in a short number of years,” the president stated in a message on Twitter, adding “sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Trump did not provide additional details of any new sanctions in his tweet. Additional measures could involve penalizing any bodies still doing business with Iran or issuing sanctions against an Iranian special-purpose vehicle established to sidestep the current sanctions and trade with Europe, a person familiar with Treasury discussions said, Laurence Norman and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. yesterday accused the Islamic Republic of “nuclear extortion,” making the claim in submissions before an emergency meeting of nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) in Vienna. U.S. Ambassador Jackie Wolcott told the meeting that “there is no credible reason for Iran to expand its nuclear program, and there is no way to read this as anything other than a crude and transparent attempt to extort payments from the international community,” Steven Erlanger reports at the New York Times.

Three Iranian vessels tried to block the passage of a B.P.-operated tanker through the Strait of Hormuz but withdrew after warnings from U.K. warship the H.M.S. Montrose, the British government announced today. The U.K. urged Iran to “de-escalate the situation in the region” after the incident involving British Heritage, which is operated by B.P. under an Isle of Man flag, Reuters reports.

The H.M.S. Montrose “was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue to verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels … which then turned away,” the British government statement continued. Iran rejected the claims, with Foreign minister Javad Zarif describing the British allegations as “worthless” in remarks to the semi-official Fars news agency, Bethan McKernan reports at the Guardian.

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps denied that it was involved in challenging the tanker, claiming in a statement carried by Iranian news outlets that there had been no confrontations with foreign vessels in the past 24 hours, Eric Cunningham reports at the Washington Post.

The Guards added they would stop a tanker “without hesitation … decisively and quickly,” should there be any order from higher authorities to do so, Anjli Raval, Andrew England and Najmeh Bozorgmehr report at the Financial Times.

“We have a long-standing maritime presence in the Gulf,” a spokesperson for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May stated, adding that “we are continuously monitoring the security situation there and are committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in accordance with international law.” Reuters reports.

SYRIA

At least nine people were killed and 35 others wounded after a car bomb exploded today at the entrance to a northern Syrian town controlled by Turkish forces and allied Syrian fighters, according to Turkish state-run media Anadolu Agency and Syrian rescue group White Helmets, the AP reports.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has “done little to fulfil its reconciliation promises” after the government and opposition groups in the country’s southern province of Deraa reached a truce last July, observers and rights groups claim, noting that arbitrary arrests and detentions have increased. “In Deraa, like elsewhere in Syria, the reconciliation agreements have not been met on the government’s side,” Syria analyst Emma Beals told reporters, adding “these ongoing violations, which began almost immediately, have caused instability and unrest in Deraa,” Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N.’s special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen declared that “solid progress” was made following talks with officials in the Syrian capital of Damascus yesterday. Speaking to reporters after two meetings with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, Pedersen added that discussions are “very close to an agreement” on forming a constitutional committee, Albert Aji reports at the AP.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) introduced a bill yesterday to require the Trump administration to undertake a “comprehensive review” of U.S.-Saudi relations. Risch cited the war in Yemen, the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights abuses as he presented the legislation to the Foreign Relations Committee, Al Jazeera reports.

“The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been going south for a long time,” Risch explained to reporters, adding “the objective here is to maintain the relationship and at the same time bring [the Saudis] to the realization and change of conduct that needs to be done if the relationship is to be continued … I have met with the Saudis and told them that they are only one Khashoggi-type of event away from having to find a new partner,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration “overstepped its authority” by proceeding with arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies in May without congressional approval, senators from both parties claimed yesterday at the Senate Foreign Relations hearing, promising to restate Congress’s role in reviewing weapons deals. “For whatever reason, the administration – in what seems to me a not fully baked decision-making process – decided to circumvent the law, decided to circumvent the constitutional responsibility of Congress and act unilaterally,” Rep. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex) stated while questioning Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper, Dan De Luce reports at NBC.

“Follow the damn law and respect it,” Cruz warned, explaining “the process that the State Department followed for these weapons sales, not to point too fine a point on it, was crap.” Cruz further stated “I voted with the administration on the substance because of the threat of Iran but I’ll tell you from my end, if the administration does it again and there is not a live and exigent emergency, you will not have my vote and I predict you will not have the vote of a number of other Republicans as well,” Zachary Cohen and Jennifer Hansler report at CNN.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Trump administration is swinging for a “home run” in its Middle East peace plan, but it is not going to offer “goodies” to induce the Palestinians to start negotiations, Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt said in remarks to host Ari Shapiro on N.P.R.’s “All Things Considered.” The White House released an investment plan for the Palestinian territories in June, but the money will not be released until there is progress on a political solution – not yet unveiled, Larry Kaplow reports at NPR.

Independent U.N. investigator Michael Lynk is drafting a series of steps the international community can take to deter Israel from building more settlements in the occupied West Bank and any attempts to formally annex the Palestinian Territory. “The international community has to look at the available menu of countermeasures that is commonly used to a wide range of countries involving gross human rights violations and has to decide what are the appropriate ones to consider to use with respect to Israel,” Lynk told reporters, Al Jazeera reports.

CHINA, HONG KONG AND TAIWAN

Taiwan’s democracy faces threats from “overseas force,” the island’s President Tsai Ing-wen declared in an alleged indirect reference to China, as she departed for the U.S. on her way to the Caribbean just days after agreeing a $2.2bn arms deal with Washington. Tsai said she would “share the values of freedom and transparency with Taiwan’s allies,” and that she was “looking forward to finding more international space for Taiwan,” Al Jazeera reports.

Over 20 countries – including Australia and Canada as well as several European nations – have urged China to stop its mass detention of the minority Muslim Uighur group and other minorities in the country’s Xinjiang region, marking the first joint move on and collective international challenge to the matter, according to diplomats. The “unprecedented” letter to the president of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, dated Jul. 8, was signed by the ambassadors of 22 countries – but not the U.S., which abandoned the forum a year ago, Ben Westcott and Jo Shelley report at CNN.

China has slammed the letter – defending the detention centers as “necessary for national security” and accusing the countries of “trampling on China’s sovereignty.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters at a daily briefing today that the letter “disregarded the facts, slandered and attacked China with unwarranted accusations, flagrantly politicized human rights issues and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs,” the AP reports.

Former State Department worker Candace Claiborne was sentenced Tuesday to 40 months in prison for hiding her communications with two Chinese intelligence agents, along with the “extravagant gifts” she received in exchange for giving government information. “Claiborne was entrusted with privileged information as a U.S. government employee, and she abused that trust at the expense of our nation’s security,” Acting Assistant Director John Selleck of the F.B.I.’s Washington Field Office said in a statement, adding “the targeting of U.S. security clearance holders by Chinese intelligence services is a constant threat we face,” Sasha Ingber reports at NPR.

China’s top representative in Hong Kong – Director of the Liaison Office of the People’s Government in Hong Kong Wang Zhimin – today declared that the central government in Beijing continues to support the city’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam. “If we indulge crimes and breaches of the law, even whitewash, exonerate or give them support, that would be a blatant challenge to the rule of law in Hong Kong, which will eventually hurt the interest of all the Hong Kong people,” Zhimin stated, adding “hence, the central government firmly supports Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the Special Administrative Region government continue to govern effectively and actively make a difference in accordance with the law, firmly supports Hong Kong Police to do their duties in accordance with the law,” Reuters reports.

“Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is getting a reelection boost from Beijing’s aggression,” Hilton Yip argues at Foreign Policy, commenting on the other “boosts” Tsai has enjoyed, including from Hong Kong’s protests on Jun. 9 and 12 against the controversial extradition bill.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The Trump administration Monday announced the formation of new advisory committee the Commission on Unalienable Rights, purportedly established to review “the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” Both the nature of the commission and those appointed to serve on it has already raised red flags for several human rights and L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy groups, Tim Fitzsimons writes in an explainer on the new body at NBC.

Federal Judge Roy Altman has ruled that Florida prosecutors can file classified evidence in the case of alleged Chinese spy Yujing Zhang, arrested while trying to enter President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club with a collection of electronic devices. In his order filed Tuesday, Altman said the disclosure of information contained in government court papers filed under seal last month “could cause serious damage to the national security of the U.S.” Tom Winter and Adiel Kaplan report at NBC.

The “swift downfall” of Britain’s ambassador in Washington Kim Darroch has unnerved diplomats who are warning that the leak of diplomatic cables that led to Darroch’s resignation, as well as President Trump’s bullying reaction to the leak, is harming foreign service work around the world. Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

Trump has an  “obsession with a few priorities — which is strategic behavior of a kind — and a personal force that is difficult to thwart,” Janan Ganesh comments at the Financial Times, questioning Darroch’s assessment that the Trump administration is “inept” and “uniquely dysfunctional.”

2020 CENSUS CITIZENSHIP QUESTION

“The term ‘constitutional crisis’ has been thrown about often during the Trump presidency … but a president who ignores the U.S. Supreme Court on an issue of extraordinary public concern would certainly qualify,” Just Security Editor Renato Mariotti writes in an Op-Ed at POLITICO Magazine in light of the administration’s continuing push to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

“Trump could try to discover (aka create) a new … valid legal reason for adding the citizenship question … or Trump could try to issue an executive order to add the question,” and while “neither of these options are likely to succeed … the longer [Trump] can keep this fight alive, the better it is for him politically,” Jessica Levinson comments at NBC.

“In our system of government … no officer—not even the President—is so far above the rest of us that he is above the law,” David H. Gans comments at CNN, arguing that the president has no legal basis to ignore the ruling of the Supreme Court.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

The Trump administration has not permitted members of Congress to view a classified directive issued nearly a year ago by the president – which sets out new rules for the military’s use of cyber weapons, notwithstanding repeated requests, according to lawmakers and others with knowledge of the matter. The revelation has sparked concern on Capitol Hill that the Pentagon is increasingly organizing offensive cyber operations against adversaries “without keeping congressional overseers adequately informed;” a spokesperson for the U.S. Cyber Command declined to comment, Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. President Trump is set to host several conspiracy theorists and right-wing internet personalities at an event today that the White House claims is aimed at “sharing how they have been affected by bias online.” Disinformation researchers told reporters that the gathering “further legitimizes a network of social media personalities who repeatedly target politicians and social media users with disinformation, trolling and harassment campaigns,” Ben Collins and Monica Alba report at NBC.

Tuesday’s court ruling “cements the marriage of Trump and Twitter in perpetuity,” Kara Swisher writes at the New York Times, commenting that “Twitter is now less likely than ever to throw Trump – the most egregious breaker of its rules, its troll extraordinaire – off its platform.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS                                                                                                     

North Korea slammed South Korea over its ongoing deployment of high-tech U.S. fighter jets, warning today that it will respond by developing and testing unspecified special weapons of its own to “destroy” the vessels, Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

U.S. and Russian senior diplomats met yesterday in Helsinki to search for ways to ease Washington-Moscow tensions, but did not report any immediate progress, with Venezuela remaining a sticking point, the AP reports.

U.S. peace envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is in Beijing for a previously scheduled meeting, an American Embassy spokesman announced today, amidst an apparent boost in efforts to end Afghanistan’s 18-year war and a push by China to expand its influence in the region, Christopher Bodeen reports at  the AP.

France announced yesterday that its U.S.-made missiles had been found at a Libyan base used by forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, in an “embarrassing” admission confirming initial reports, raising fresh questions about Paris’s role in the conflict, AFP reports.

Lebanon regrets the imposition of U.S. sanctions on two members of Iran-aligned Hezbollah militant group in the Lebanese parliament and will raise the matter with U.S. authorities, Lebanese President Michel Aoun announced yesterday. Al Jazeera reports.

Democratic leadership is “exuding confidence” that the $733 billion National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) will pass “despite progressive grumbling.” Rebecca Kheel and Scott Wong report at the Hill.

Nationwide raids to arrest thousands of members of undocumented families across the U.S. have been scheduled to begin Sunday, according to two current and one former homeland security officials. The raids, which will be conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) over multiple days, will apparently include “collateral” deportations, Caitlin Dickerson and Zolan Kanno-Youngs report at the New York Times. 

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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).