The Early Edition: July 23, 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 denied the Iranian government’s claim that it had arrested 17 people accused of working as spies for the C.I.A. and had sentenced some to death. “The Report of Iran capturing C.I.A. spies is totally false … zero truth … just more lies and propaganda (like their shot down drone) put out by a Religious Regime that is Badly Failing and has no idea what to do,” Trump stated in a message sent on Twitter, adding “Iran is a total mess!” Aresu Eqbali and Sune Engel Rasmussen report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also cast doubt on the arrests: “the Iranian regime has a long history of lying … it’s part of the nature of the ayatollah to lie to the world,” Pompeo commented in a T.V. interview early yesterday, cautioning “I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertion about actions that they’ve taken,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“If they want to make a deal … frankly it’s getting harder for me to want to make a deal with Iran because they’ve behaved very badly,” Trump told reporters yesterday afternoon at the White House, indicating that tensions between the two nations continue to rise. “They’re saying bad things, and I’ll tell you it could go either way, very easily … and I’m O.K. either way it goes,” the president added, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“Iran does not seek confrontation with Britain amid a row over seized tanker ships,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said yesterday. “It is very important for [incoming Prime Minister] Boris Johnson as he enters 10 Downing Street to understand that Iran does not seek confrontation, that Iran wants normal relations based on mutual respect,” Zarif told reporters in Managua, AFP reports.

Zarif also warned the West against “starting a conflict,” commenting that “starting a conflict is easy, ending it would be impossible.” Reuters reports.

Britain yesterday appeared keen to distance itself from the Trump administration’s increasing confrontation with Iran. Speaking after an emergency cabinet meeting yesterday over Tehran’s seizure of the British oil tanker Friday, Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt declared that British efforts to boost maritime security in the Persian Gulf “will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran,” adding that “we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement,” David D. Kirkpatrick reports at the New York Times.

Iran announced its plans to meet with diplomats from countries still party to the 2015 nuclear deal Sunday, in an effort to save the landmark agreement. “It was agreed to convene an extraordinary meeting of the J.C.P.O.A. [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] joint commission in Vienna on July 28,” Iran’s foreign ministry said in a statement released today, which added that the meeting was requested by the European parties to discuss the “new situation,” referring to Iran’s reduced nuclear commitments under the deal following Washington’s withdrawal, AFP reports.

Iran’s assertion that it had discovered and dismantled an elaborate U.S.  spy ring is designed to project an image of power and control in its standoff with Washington and its allies, Ruby Mellen writes at the Washington Post.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

The U.S. has issued sanctions against one of China’s largest state-backed oil companies for transporting Iranian crude oil, as Washington ramps up its campaign of pressure on the Islamic Republic. Beijing voiced its opposition to the unilateral sanctions, with a spokesperson from the Chinese embassy in Washington stating yesterday: “we urge the U.S. to immediately correct its wrongdoing and earnestly respect other parties’ legal rights and interests,” Courtney McBride and Ian Talley report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. President Trump yesterday hailed Beijing’s handling of recent antigovernment protests in Hong Kong, asserting he considers Chinese President Xi Jinping has acted “very responsibly.” “I know that that’s a very important situation for President Xi … I hope that [he] will do the right thing,” Trump stated during a White House meeting with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, adding “China could stop them if they wanted,” referring to the demonstrations, AFP reports.

China’s state media released images from Hong Kong’s latest protests, representing a change in tactic possibly geared toward provoking public anger against the demonstrations – Chinese officials usually censor or downplay reports of public unrest for fear of inciting further outbursts. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang stated that local authorities should use “all necessary measures to … safeguard the rule of law in Hong Kong and punish criminals” after protesters vandalized a Chinese central government office in the region Sunday, Chun Han Wong and Eva Dou report at the Wall Street Journal.

Hong Kong police were criticized yesterday for an apparent failure to protect protesters and civilians from attack by suspected gang members at a train station over the weekend. The Hong Kong government is now under pressure from lawmakers to “guarantee public security” following the incident, Primrose Riordan and Nicolle Liu report at Financial Times.

Trump promised to make “timely” licensing decisions on requests by U.S. companies to sell to blacklisted Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei at yesterday’s meeting with the heads of seven technology companies such as Google, the White House said. “The C.E.O.s expressed strong support of the President’s policies, including national security restrictions on United States telecom equipment purchases and sales to Huawei,” a White House statement said, adding  “they requested timely licensing decisions from the Department of Commerce, and the President agreed,” Reuters reports.

Huawei secretly helped build and maintain North Korea’s commercial wireless network, documents obtained by the Washington Post have revealed. According to the papers, Huawei teamed with Chinese state-owned firm Panda International Information Technology Co. Ltd. on a variety of projects there lasting at least eight years, Ellen Nakashima, Gerry Shih and John Hudson report at the Washington Post.

Fear is growing that China and the Hong Kong government will use the recent demonstrations as an “excuse for a crackdown that could inspire still more violence,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

PAKISTAN

President Trump yesterday appeared optimistic that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan could help strike a political settlement to end the 18-year-old U.S. war in neighboring Afghanistan, following peace talks with Khan at the White House. “We’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple of weeks, and Pakistan has helped us with that progress,” Trump declared, AFP reports.

“This is the closest we’ve been to a peace deal in Afghanistan,” Khan said at yesterday’s White House meeting. “We hope that in the coming days we will be able to urge the Taliban to speak to the Afghan government and come to a settlement—a political solution,” Jeremy Diamond and Kevin Liptak report at CNN.

Trump said he could “win” the war in Afghanistan “in a week” – except that “I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.” “I don’t want to go that route so we’re working with Pakistan and others to extricate ourselves,” the president added, Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

Trump also offered to arbitrate in the Indian-Pakistani conflict in Kashmir, saying: “if I can help, I would love to be a mediator … if I can do anything on that let me know.” The president claimed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate the long-running dispute, however spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs Raveesh Kumar said Mr. Modi had made “no such request,” Rebecca Ballhaus and Saeed Shah report at the Wall Street Journal.

“[Trump] is desperate to salvage peace talks with the Taliban … even if it means cozying up to Pakistan at the expense of America’s newest partner in the Indo-Pacific,” Elias Groll and Robbie Gramer argue at Foreign Policy, commenting on India’s response to the president’s “mediation” remarks.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean warplanes fired hundreds of warning shots after a Russian military plane briefly violated South Korea’s airspace twice today, Seoul defense officials said, in the first such occurrence between the countries, the AP reports.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called the warning shots “absolutely unacceptable,” making the remarks to reporters today, the AP reports.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was today pictured checking a large newly built submarine in images published by state news agency K.C.N.A., raising fears over continued development of a submarine from which a ballistic missile could be launched. “The operational capacity of a submarine is an important component in national defense of our country bounded on its east and west by sea,” Kim stated, Reuters reports.

IMMIGRATION

The Trump administration is introducing a new fast-track deportation process that will bypass immigration courts. Under the new rule, migrants who cannot prove they have been living in the U.S. continuously for at least two years can be immediately deported without judicial oversight, enabling officials to remove undocumented migrants in days rather than weeks, Ted Hesson reports at POLITICO.

The rule is a “dramatic expansion” of an immigration law previously used only along the U.S.-Mexican border and is expected to be implemented with immediate effect after it is published in the Federal Register today, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Caitlin Dickerson report at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) yesterday told former special counsel Mueller that he should limit his highly anticipated congressional testimony this week to the public findings of his report into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. In a letter to Mueller, Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley wrote: “Any testimony must remain within the boundaries of your public report because matters within the scope of your investigation were covered by executive privilege,” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The D.O.J. also informed Mueller that he could not “discuss the conduct of uncharged third parties” – such as President Trump, his family and his closest associates – nor could Mueller elaborate on “the redacted portions of the public version of [his] report,” Katie Benner reports at the New York Times.

Trump claimed yesterday that he had no intention of watching Mueller testify tomorrow before Congress, denouncing Democrats for “wasting their time.” The president conceded, “maybe I’ll see a little bit of it,” before changing his mind again: “I’m not going to be watching Mueller because you can’t take all those bites out of the apple,” Lauren Egan reports at NBC.

The president asserted that Mueller’s upcoming testimony will “be bad for him and the phony Democrats,” and once again indicated that the former special counsel should not answer questions from lawmakers, in a pair of messages sent on Twitter yesterday, Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

“The dam is holding back the floodwaters … but we are one explosive testimony …  one new consequential outrage … from that dam being breached,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D., Va.) stated. Democrats are hoping that Mueller’s five hours of “grilling” from members of Congress will lend support for impeachment proceedings against Trump, Natalie Andrews reports at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“Mueller’s appearance in Congress this week will be a hinge moment — the question is which way it might swing the political trajectory in Washington,” Philip Ewing at NPR explains “what’s at stake” at tomorrow’s hearing.

Mueller’s testimony should expose not only Trump’s wrongdoing – but also Attorney General William Barr’s efforts at deception, Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman and Hon. Elizabeth Holtzman write at Just Security, commenting that members of Congress should ready a call for independent investigation of Barr for lying to Congress.

Tomorrow’s hearing is vital – “not just for 2016 but for the future too,” John Podesta comments at the Washington Post, writing that “Mueller can provide guidance on how Russia operates and how to prevent further attacks.”

Mueller’s appearance is unlikely to produce any shocking revelations … no matter how clever or aggressive lawmakers’ questioning,” the New York Times editorial board argues, while noting “Americans could still learn a thing or two from the former special counsel’s testimony.”

An updated list of 35 questions for Congress to ask Mueller, following suggestions from readers, is provided by Joshua Geltzer, Ryan Goodman and Asha Rangappa at Just Security.

An explainer on “what it would take for U.S. Congress to impeach Trump” is available at Reuters.

A detailed look at “what Mueller can tell U.S. lawmakers that we do not already know,” including the former special counsel’s views on how Barr presented the report, is available at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Afghan government forces “mistakenly” killed seven civilians – including children – Sunday night, in an attack on militants in Logar province, just south of the capital of Kabul, a provincial official announced yesterday. Six people were also wounded according to the official, Reuters reports.

The death toll following yesterday’s airstrike on a vegetable market in the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib in northwestern Syria has risen to 38 people, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. has said that Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes in West Bank is “not compatible” with international humanitarian law, the U.N. News Centre 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).