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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.
The Pentagon is weighing the idea of military escorts for vessels in the Gulf – a day after armed Iranian vessels threatened a British oil tanker. White House nominee to become Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley yesterday told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Washington was trying to form a coalition “in terms of providing military escort, naval escort to commercial shipping,” adding “I think that that will be developing over the next couple weeks,” AFP reports.
Discussions on increasing military presence in the Gulf are taking place between the U.K. and the U.S., according to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesperson. “We are talking to the U.S. about building on our presence in the face of recent threats to shipping in the area,” May’s spokesperson announced today, Reuters reports.
Iran has urged the U.K. to immediately release an Iranian oil tanker that was seized last Friday. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told I.R.N.A. news agency “this is a dangerous game and has consequences … the legal pretexts for the capture are not valid … the release of the tanker is in all countries’ interests;” Iran has threatened to take reciprocal measures if its tanker is not discharged, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.
Britain will soon be “slapped in the face for daring to seize the Iranian tanker,” cleric Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian state T.V., Reuters reports.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has reiterated his calls for “maximum restraint” in the Gulf region and cautioned that a new confrontation “would be a catastrophe.” In response to questions yesterday about Britain’s claim that Iranian boats tried to block one of its oil tankers in the Gulf, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq repeated Guterres’ request to avoid any escalation and confrontation, stating “we want, of course, for everyone to allow for the freedom of movement of vessels and we’re hopeful that they will abide by that,” the AP reports.
The U.S. has opted not to impose sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, two sources with knowledge of the matter said yesterday, indicating that Washington “may be holding a door open for diplomacy,” Jonathan Landay Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed report at Reuters.
President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the rising tensions with Iran over the phone Wednesday. “We discussed regional developments and security issues … foremost among them was Iran … I thanked President Trump for his intention to increase sanctions against Iran,” Netanyahu stated in a message sent on Twitter, while the White House told reporters that the call focused on “cooperation between the United States and Israel in advancing shared national security interests, including efforts to prevent Iran’s malign actions in the region,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.
IRAN: OPINION AND ANALYSIS
“What Tehran really wants is to talk,” Sam Kiley writes in an analysis at CNN, commenting on the two different and competing approaches to Iran between Western allies.
“With the help of Russia and China … European leaders can prevent the total collapse of the 2015 agreement — and keep the region safer,” Ellie Geranmayeh argues at Foreign Policy, commenting on the options for European capitals to reverse Iran’s road map.
U.S. allies are at risk of becoming collateral damage in the dispute if the situation in the Persian Gulf worsens, Adam Taylor argues at the Washington Post, commenting that “European allies want to remain in the Iran deal and keep tensions down” and “even countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a reasonably understandable aim of combating Iran’s influence in the region without resorting to war.”
There is a risk that “the U.S. will gently prod [the U.K.] towards a naval bust-up in the Gulf that ends with the U.K. facing no option but to quit the deal and ally with the U.S.,” Patrick Wintour comments at the Guardian, writing that “a chain of events has been triggered that is increasingly exposing the U.K. diplomatically and militarily in the Gulf.”
An analysis of the current status of the “Iran deal” – in light of Iran’s two recent violations of the 2015 nuclear agreement and its attempts to seize a British tanker in the Gulf as well as President Trump’s threat of sanctions, is provided by Peter Kenyon at NPR.
TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS
The House Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to authorize subpoenas for testimony from 12 current and former Trump administration officials who were key figures in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. The vote, which fell along party lines, empowered Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) to issue subpoenas to President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, former attorney general Jeff Sessions and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, amongst others, Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.
“We will not rest until we obtain their testimony and documents so this committee and Congress can do the work that the Constitution and the American people expect of us,” Nadler stated, explaining that “these witnesses also include those outside of government who have critical information in connection with our investigation,” Rebecca Shabad and Alex Moe report at NBC.
“How many bites at the apple do they get … enough already … go back to work!” Trump stated in a message sent on Twitter ahead of the vote, adding “now the Democrats have asked to see 12 more people who have already spent hours with Robert Mueller, and spent a fortune on lawyers in so doing … they also want to interview the highly conflicted and compromised Mueller again … he said he was “done” after his last 9 minute speech, and that he had nothing more to say outside of the No Collusion, No Obstruction, Report.” Siobhan Huges reports at the Wall Street Journal.
2020 CENSUS CITIZENSHIP QUESTION
President Trump yesterday jettisoned his quest to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, instructing government to compile citizenship data from existing federal records instead. In a U-turn from previous statements, Trump announced in the Rose Garden that he was giving up on changing the census, two weeks after the Supreme Court rebuked his administration over its effort to do so, Katie Rogers, Adam Liptak, Michael Crowley and Michale Wines report at the New York Times.
Trump said he would instead sign an executive order requiring all federal agencies to provide the Commerce Department with “all requested records” on the number of citizens and noncitizens in the country. “We will leave no stone unturned,” the president added, Rebecca Ballhaus and Brett Kendall report at the Wall Street Journal.
“I’m proud to be a citizen … you’re proud to be a citizen,” Trump said at the late afternoon event in the Rose Garden, adding “the only people that are not proud to be citizens are the ones who are fighting us all the way about the word ‘citizen.’” The 19-month attempt to include a citizenship question has been criticized by opponents as an effort to systematically undercount Latinos and scare immigrant communities from participating in a survey that helps determine congressional districts and the pay-out of some federal funds, Seung Min Kim, Tara Bahrampour and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.
Trump mocked his opponents who have fought the changes to the census. “Are you a citizen of the United States of America? Oh, gee, I’m sorry, I just can’t answer that question,” Trump asked as he launched into his prepared remarks, adding “there used to be a time when you could answer questions like that very easily,” Anita Kumar and Caitlin Oprysko report at POLITICO.
House Democrats will vote on whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt next week – for failing to comply with a congressional subpoena over the 2020 census. The vote, which was announced yesterday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.,) is expected Tuesday, John Bresnahan reports at POLITICO.
“The fight isn’t over — a reality that … Barr nodded to in remarks delivered right after Trump spoke,” Jonathan Allen writes in an analysis of the census question developments at NBC.
Barr and Trump’s previously stated intention to ignore the Supreme Court ruling “would indeed have put the country unequivocally at the razor edge of a constitutional crisis,” Harry Litman comments at the Washington Post, arguing that yesterday’s developments reflect “the administration’s stepping back from the brink of a truly historic rejection of the principle that the courts decide the law under our constitutional scheme.”
“What’s actually meaningful are the two [ongoing] lawsuits over the citizenship question and the congressional investigations over what Trump officials knew and when,” Jay Michaelson comments at The Daily Beast, arguing that while the citizenship question may be finished, “the scandal is just getting started.”
A fact-checker on Trump’s comments in the Rose Garden is provided at the Washington Post.
Turkey has started to receive delivery of Russia’s S-400 air-defense system, the country’s defense ministry announced today, completing a deal that has caused consternation amongst Turkey’s N.A.T.O. allies and may trigger sanctions from the U.S. There was no immediate reaction from the Trump administration, which has given mixed signals about how the U.S. might respond if Turkey went through with the deal, Kareem Fahim and Amie Ferris-Rotman report at the Washington Post.
Trump himself may prove the “wild-card” in the U.S.’ response to Turkey, Lara Seligman writes in an analysis at Foreign Policy, explaining that the president’s “personal relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made for some unexpected policy shifts,” and that he might “choose to delay implementation of the sanctions—or try to waive them altogether.”
A “factbox” on the sources of Washington-Ankara tension is provided at Reuters.
A car bomb killed 11 people and wounded many others yesterday in the Syrian city of Afrin, which Turkey-backed rebels captured from Kurdish fighters last year, according to medical sources and U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The blast reportedly struck an entrance to the city, killing civilians including children, Reuters reports.
While it is increasingly common for people to describe the Syrian war as coming to an end– “the Assad regime has not ‘won’ anything,” Charles Lister comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that the administration “has merely survived at the cost of Syrians’ blood and fear” and so “stability remains far out of reach.”
YEMEN AND The KINGDOM
Saudi Arabia’s military in Yemen moved in to secure two strategic Red Sea ports and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait after coalition ally the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) largely reduced its forces in the country, according to reports yesterday. Saudi officers took command of military bases at the ports of al-Mokha and al-Khokha, which U.A.E. forces had used to back their campaign in nearby Hodeidah and to monitor the coastline, Al Jazeera reports.
“The Emiratis are withdrawing their forces at a scale and speed that all but rules out further ground advances,” Declan Walsh and David D. Kirkpatrick write at the New York Times, describing the move as “a belated recognition that a grinding war that has killed thousands of civilians and turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster is no longer winnable.”
Thirty men were sentenced to death by Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebel authorities in Yemen this week amid credible allegations that many were tortured during three years of politically-motivated detention, the U.N. human rights office announced today. The office urged the Appellate Court in the Houthi-held capital of Sanaa, which is due to review the ruling, to take into account the serious allegations and violations of the men’s right to a fair trial in the lower court, Reuters reports.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said yesterday that the U.S. needs to “reevaluate” its relationship with Saudi Arabia as the kingdom faces bipartisan scrutiny over its involvement in the Yemeni conflict and the killing of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. “We need to really reevaluate our long-term relationship with Saudi Arabia ,,, we have a strategic interest in terms of working closely with them, but they are in complete violation, and specifically the crown prince, of our American values,” Barrasso told reporters, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.
“The question is whether a coalition can come together to pass legislation that will reshape U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia and its brutal and reckless ruler over … Trump’s objections,” The Washington Post editorial board comments in light of new provisions proposed by lawmakers from both parties.
At least six people have been killed and 14 others wounded after a suicide bomber targeted a wedding celebration in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, according to local officials. The attacker, thought to be in his early teens, set off his explosives early today inside the house of a pro-government commander in Pachir Aw Agam district, according to police official Fayz Mohammad Babarkhil, Al Jazeera reports.
The president’s pick to be next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley – yesterday claimed that pulling troops from Afghanistan prematurely would be a “strategic mistake.” “I think it is slow, it’s painful, it’s hard, I’ve spent a lot of my life in Afghanistan, but I also think It’s necessary,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee about the 18-year-old conflict, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.
“Talks among Afghans will be longer and messier” than talks between the Taliban and the U.S.,“ but they are the only way to end the country’s decades of agony,” the Economist comments.
Sudan’s ruling military council (T.M.C.) claimed it had frustrated an attempted military coup yesterday, just days after the military and a pro-democracy coalition agreed on a joint sovereign council to rule the country during a transition period until elections take place, Fay Abuelgasim and Samy Magdy report at the AP.
The political transition agreement between the T.M.C. and the country’s pro-democracy coalition is expected to be signed tomorrow, top African Union diplomat Mohammed el-Hassan Labat announced early today. The announcement came just hours after the Sudanese military’s announcement regarding the attempted coup, Fay Abuelgasim and Noha Elhennawy report at the AP.
CHINA AND HONG KONG
Chair of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei – Liang Hua – has claimed that the firm is yet to see any benefit from President Trump’s promise to allow U.S. companies to sell some components to the company and called on Washington to remove it from a security blacklist, the AP reports.
China’s top diplomat Wang Yi today warned the U.S. that it should “not play with fire” on the question of Taiwan, expressing anger about a planned U.S. arms sale to the state. Making comments during a visit to Hungary, Wang said that no foreign power could stop the reunification of China and no foreign force should try to intervene, adding “we urge the U.S. to fully recognize the gravity of the Taiwan question … (and) not to play with fire on the question of Taiwan,” Reuters reports.
CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY
U.S. President Trump has slated the world’s top social media companies and accused them as being “biased” against him and his supporters: “we have terrible bias, we have censorship like nobody has any understanding or nobody can believe … they’re playing with a lot of minds and they’re playing unfairly,” the president stated at the White House’s controversial Social Media Summit yesterday. Cristiano Lima, Margaret Harding Mcgill and Steven Overly report at POLITICO.
Trump vowed that his administration will look for regulations and legislation that could protect free speech online, without specifying details on what measures were being considered. The president also declared he would “summon” major social firms to the White House for discussions in the near future, adding “we’re not going to be silenced … big tech must not censor the voices,” Reuters reports.
Representatives from Facebook and Twitter were not invited to yesterday’s summit – neither was the owner of Google and YouTube Alphabet Inc.. Guests at the event included Donald Trump Jr., cabinet members, Republican members of Congress, conservative groups and social-media provocateurs, Ryan Tracy reports at the Wall Street Journal.
Trump announced yesterday he was “not a fan” of cryptocurrencies – including Bitcoin and Facebook’s proposed Libra coin – and cautioned that the social media network “might be subject to full banking regulation” if it decides to launch the project. In a series of messages sent on Twitter, the president commented that cryptocurrencies were “not money” and enabled illegal activity, adding “we have only one real currency in the U.S.A., and it is stronger than ever, both dependable and reliable … it is called the United States Dollar!” Hannah Murphy reports at the Financial Times.
“By pushing Russian-planted disinformation and indulging America’s own conspiracy theorists … Trump is doing the opposite of what he claims to be attempting with the Social Media Summit,” Joshua Geltzer argues at Just Security, commenting that “rather than rail against what the tech companies are supposedly doing, he should bring his own online activities in line with the requirements of the First Amendment.”
“The ‘summit’ is [likely] just a front for the President’s fan club to get together and complain about the ‘fake news’ press,” S.E. Cupp writes at CNN.
“The likely inability of the United States to demonstrate that economic cyber intrusions violate international law calls into question the legality of the offensive cyber operations the U.S. seeks to deploy in response,” Edwin Djabatey writes at Just Security, in the first part of an international law analysis on U.S. offensive cyber operations against economic cyber intrusions.
Libya’s U.N.-recognized government yesterday demanded “urgent” answers after Paris admitted that its U.S.-made missiles were found at a base used by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are fighting to take over Tripoli. Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala has asked his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian to “urgently explain” how the missiles “reached Haftar’s forces, when they were delivered and how,” Al Jazeera reports.
Israeli soldiers yesterday mistakenly shot a Hamas militant group operative who had been trying to prevent Palestinians from approaching the Israel-Gaza border, the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) announced, Reuters reports.
U.S. sanctions on Venezuela have not been successful in toppling President Nicolás Maduro, while causing crippling famine that has been largely been ignored by Washington, Francisco Rodríguez explains in an Op-Ed at the New York Times.
The president’s pick to be next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley – yesterday promised lawmakers that he would not be cowed by the White House as he provides advice on national security matters, if confirmed. Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe report at the Washington Post.
A senior military officer has accused the Air Force general tapped to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Gen. John Hyte – of sexual misconduct, potentially jeopardizing his nomination. The AP reports.
The House yesterday approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) aimed at reversing the president’s policy banning most transgender people from serving in the military. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.
Congress has the opportunity to repeal Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, and“it should take it,” Senior Editor Tess Bridgeman argues at Just Security.