The Early Edition: July 22, 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

Iran has released footage it says disproves that an Iranian drone was shot down last Thursday by the U.S. Navy. Iranian state T.V. said the video shows warships in the Strait of Hormuz, and was filmed by the same drone after the time the U.S. claim it had been destroyed, the BBC reports.

President Trump maintained last Friday that there was “no doubt” that the U.S. downed the Iranian drone as a defensive action, despite denials from Tehran. Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump also threatened to respond to any further provocations from the country: “we have the greatest people in the world, we have the greatest equipment in the world, we have the greatest ships — the most deadly ships … ever conceived … and we hope for their sake they don’t do anything foolish … if they do, they will pay a price like nobody’s ever paid a price,” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The U.S. used new technology that had recently been added to naval defenses to bring down the Iranian drone, defense officials have revealed. The counterdrone system, the Marine Air Defense Integrated System (M.A.D.I.S.,) was developed after officials discovered in 2015 that rival drones posed an increasing threat to U.S. Marines globally, Nancy A. Youssef and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration is debating tightening restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, according to two current U.S. officials and a former official with knowledge of the discussions. The administration is considering ending waivers that allow Iran to operate a civilian nuclear program with foreign assistance, a move that would undo a key part of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, Dan De Luce reports at NBC.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday that Iran has to decide if it wants to “behave like a normal nation” but that there is “no indication” Iranians are prepared to change direction amid increasing tensions. Speaking at a news conference with Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, Pompeo declared that if the Iranians do that, the U.S. is “prepared to negotiate across a broad spectrum of issues with no preconditions,” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Iran seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz Friday for apparently “violating international regulations.” The Stena Impero tanker had “turned off its tracker, ignored warnings from the Revolutionary Guards and was sailing in the wrong direction in a shipping lane,” a military source was quoted as saying by Iran’s state news agency I.R.N.A., Reuters reports.

An audio recording has emerged of the moments before Iranian armed forces captured the British oil tanker in which Iranian coastguards can be heard demanding the ship – believed to be the Stena Impero –change its course, saying: “if you obey, you will be safe … alter your course to 360 degrees immediately.” A British naval officer reacted by warning that, under international law, the vessel’s passage “must not be impaired” and asked the Iranian to “confirm that you are not intending to violate international law by unlawfully attempting to board the M.V. Stena.” Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

“We will respond in a way that is considered but robust and we are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters Saturday. Hunt added that Britain was “not looking at military options, we are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation,” Reuters reports.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs Adel Aljubeir criticized Iran’s seizure of a British tanker as a “violation of international law” and called on the international community to take action to deter such “unacceptable” behavior, making the comments yesterday in a post sent on Twitter. Reuters reports.

Iran’s Guardian Council spokesperson Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei described Friday’s seizure of the British ship as a legal “reciprocal action” after Britain assisted with capturing an Iranian supertanker first, according to the semi-official Fars news agency. The AP reports.

Iran has arrested 17 Iranian nationals allegedly recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) to spy on the country’s nuclear and military sites, an Iranian intelligence official told a press conference today in Tehran, adding that some of them have already been sentenced to death. Nasser Karimi reports at the AP.

A reality check is in order for Democrats seeking to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, Nahal Toosi writes at POLITICO, observing that “it won’t be that easy.”

The Trump Administration needs to start talking to Iran, the New York Times editorial board argues, commenting that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent proposal for direct talks between the two nations “should not be dismissed.”

“White House national security adviser and notorious Iraq-era hawk [John Bolton] is a man on a mission … [and] Britain has been co-opted on to the front line of Washington’s confrontation with Iran,” Simon Tisdall writes at the Guardian, commenting on recent events.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Further mass anti-government demonstrations took place yesterday in Hong Kong, as thousands of protestors descended on China’s representative office in the city. Riot police fired multiple rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets in an effort to remove protestors who defied orders by occupying key roads and defacing Beijing’s Liaison Office, Mike Ives reports at the New York Times. 

Dozens of protestors were wounded late yesterday evening following an attack carried out at a train station by suspected triad criminal gangs, AFP reports.

Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam criticized the weekend demonstrations, stating the “attack” on the liaison office was a “challenge” to national sovereignty. Lam also said she was “shocked” by the apparent attack by organized gangs on citizens and protesters, saying authorities would fully investigate the incident, Reuters reports.

Lam will not be making “any more concessions” to the city’s protesters, according to two of her top advisers – notwithstanding the recent mass demonstrations and further protests planned for the near future. Instead, Lam will concentrate on hearing from various sectors of the Hong Kong population and writing a broad policy address that is set to be delivered in mid-October, the convenor of her Executive Council Bernard Chan stated in an interview Friday, Keith Bradsher reports at the New York Times.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow is to hold a meeting with semiconductor and software executives today to discuss the U.S. prohibitions on sales to Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei amongst other matters, according to two sources briefed on the meeting, Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN 

At least ten people were killed and 33 others injured Friday after a suicide bomb exploded near the entrance to Kabul University, in Afghanistan’s capital. The Interior Ministry blamed the Taliban for the attack, however a Taliban spokesperson denied that the group – which has claimed responsibility for many recent attacks – was involved in Friday’s bombing, David Zucchino and Fahim Abed report at the New York Times. 

Air raids by Afghan security forces in the western Badghis province killed at least ten civilians Friday – including three children, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan has stressed that “indiscriminate blasts” in civilian areas “must stop,” stating the “deliberate targeting of educational facilities” during armed conflict is “a war crime”, the U.N. News Centre reports.

The Army has failed to adequately train and equip troops in Afghanistan who join American commandos on high-risk missions in war zones, Thomas Gibbons-Neff writes at the New York Times, commenting on the lack of discussion on Afghanistan and Iraq during Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s confirmation hearing last Tuesday.

SYRIA

An airstrike hit the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib in northwestern Syria today – killing at least 16 people and injuring 30 others, the AP reports.

At least 18 people were killed yesterday following government air strikes in Idlib, according to rescue workers and war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Al Jazeera reports.

State media also reported that a train carrying phosphate in central Syria was derailed yesterday by a bomb blast east of Palmyra – causing injuries among the crew, the AP reports.

PAKISTAN

At least eight people were killed and 30 more wounded in twin attacks yesterday in the northwestern Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan, according to district police chief Saleem Riaz. Gunmen on motorcycles attacked a police post in the west of the city, killing two policemen early yesterday; later, a female suicide bomber set off about seven kilograms explosives at a government hospital as the policemen’s bodies were brought in, killing a further two policemen and four civilians, Al Jazeera reports.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is due to visit the White House today for talks with U.S. President Trump as part of a push to repair relations which have been damaged by the Afghan conflict. The leaders are expected to discuss counterterrorism, defense, energy and trade, the BBC reports. 

“Given the complexities and intricacies of the moment – few expect a significant breakthrough from Trump’s meeting with Khan,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in an analysis at the Washington Post, commenting that “it’s a meeting of two celebrity gadflies turned rabble-rousing, nationalist politicians.”

TURKEY

U.S. President Trump is to meet with a group of senators at the White House this week to discuss the prospect of sanctions against Turkey as pressure builds from lawmakers to penalize Ankara for its recent purchase of Russian S-400 missile-defense system, Vivian Salama and Ian Talley report at the Wall Street Journal.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has warned the country would retaliate against what it termed an “unacceptable” threat of U.S. sanctions over Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian system. “If the United States portrays an adversarial attitude towards us, we will take retaliatory measures, as we’ve told them … this is not a threat or a bluff,” Cavusoglu told reporters today, Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is to lead a U.S. delegation on a tour of the Middle East to conclude details of his proposed $50 billion economic development plan as part of the Trump administration’s Middle East Peace Plan, an administration official said yesterday, Reuters reports.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today declared that the Middle East Peace Plan was a “dangerous plot” to destroy Palestinian identity with money, Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler yesterday said former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report presents “very substantial evidence” that President Trump is “guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors” – an impeachable offense. Speaking with “Fox News Sunday,” Nadler added “we have to … let Mueller present those facts to the American people, and then see where we go from there, because the administration must be held accountable,” Kate Sullivan reports at NBC. 

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler stated yesterday he hopes Mueller’s testimony before the House will not be “a dud.” In response to questions from reporters, Nadler stated “we hope it won’t end up being a dud … we’re going to ask specific questions — ‘look at page 344, paragraph 2, please read it … does that describe an obstruction of justice? did you find that the president did that?’  Eleanor Mueller reports at POLITICO.

“Democrats will be up against a witness who didn’t want to testify in the first place — he had to be subpoenaed — and one who … over more than a decade of regular Capitol Hill testimony … has mastered the art of the dodge,” Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney write at POLITICO, as Mueller is scheduled to answer questions Wednesday on his investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. 

“Democrats are hoping to coax Muller into offering testimony that could damage Trump’s presidency … Republicans … meanwhile … are eager to elicit testimony that shows the investigation was biased from its inception,” Devlin Barret comments at the Washington Post, adding that “those who know him best are skeptical he will meet either side’s expectations.”

“In examining the factual findings of Mueller’s report … the House must consider whether as president … Trump abused his power or violated his oath of office,” Kate Martin writes at Just Security.

Mueller’s upcoming testimony presents a “make or break” moment for Democrats, Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis at CNN, commenting that Democrats are “pinning their last, best hopes of proving that Trump committed impeachable crimes on the former special counsel.”

Democrats are better off focusing on 2020 rather than 2016 when they question Mueller this week, Joshua Geltzer writes at Just Security, commenting that Democrats’ current approach to Mueller’s testimony “sets them up for embarrassment.”

“Dozens of hours of Mueller’s congressional testimony since 1990 reveal his complex relationship with legislators,” Noah Weiland writes at the New York Times in an analysis of Mueller’s previous “88 trips to capitol Hill.”

A list of ten questions that lawmakers should ask Mueller Wednesday is provided by Morgan Chalfant at the Hill.

Former F.B.I. Director James Comey has revealed what questions he would ask the former special counsel in a Lawfare Institute blog post, Brooke Seipel reports at the Hill.

TRUMP HUSH MONEY REVELATIONS AND IMPEACHMENT ARTICLES 

Democrats are pressing federal investigators on whether an internal Department of Justice policy “played any part” in their decision not to indict President Trump following an investigation into hush-money payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels. In a Friday letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Southern District of New York House, Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote “if prosecutors identified evidence of criminal conduct by Donald Trump while serving as President—and did not bring charges as they would have for any other individual—this would be the second time the President has not been held accountable for his actions due to his position,” adding “the Office of the President should not be used as a shield for criminal conduct,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters Sunday he assumes the case into hush-money payments “will be reopened when [Trump] leaves office,” adding that the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) “will have to weigh whether to indict the former president, Allan Smith reports at NBC.

“Every American should have an opportunity to scrutinize the complete body of evidence of Trump’s campaign finance crimes … not just these search warrant applications,” Paul Seamus Ryan writes at Just Security, commenting on the now-public evidence of Trump’s campaign finance crimes.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least seven fighters loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) were killed overnight Saturday in a drone strike in southern Tripoli, according to a military source, Reuters reports.

A car bomb detonated this morning in the Somali capital of Mogadishu – killing at least 10 people, the AP reports.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has agreed to hosting U.S. forces in the country to enhance regional security and stability, the state news agency (S.P.A.) reported Friday, Reuters reports. 

The U.S. military yesterday accused a Venezuelan fighter aircraft of “aggressively” shadowing a U.S. Navy plane over international airspace, claiming the Venezuelan action “endangered the safety of the crew.” Al Jazeera reports. 

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).