The Early Edition: August 1, 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.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS 

The U.S. will officially withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) Treaty tomorrow, paving the way for a fresh arms race with Russia. “The withdrawal without a follow-on is the invitation for an arms race,” ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) stated, adding “Russia will clearly spend money on updating and amplifying its weapons systems … and the last thing we need is another arms race … so I’m hoping there can be some effort to move us in the right direction,” Rebecca Kheel and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

The Senate introduced bipartisan legislation yesterday targeted at changing the Trump administration’s course on nuclear arms control, calling on President Trump to extend the New Start treaty with Russia or provide reasons for allowing it to expire. The bill urges New Start to be extended until 2026 unless it can be proved Russia was in material breach of the treaty, or a new agreement is signed which “provides equal or greater constraints, transparency, and verification measures;” the treaty, which reduces strategic nuclear warheads, was signed by then U.S. and Russian presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Two former top staffers to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) – Hunter Bates and Brendan Dunn – lobbied Congress and the Treasury Department on the development of a new Kentucky aluminum mill supported by the Russian aluminium giant Rusal, according to a disclosure, which comes as Democrats are pressing the Trump administration to review Rusal’s $200 million investment in the Kentucky project, Natasha Bertrand and Theodoric Meyer report at POLITICO.

“In failing to implement the law effectively over the last two years … the Trump administration missed its opportunity to stop Turkey’s S-400 acquisition and has likely emboldened other countries to make similar deals with Russia,” Mark Simakovsky and Edward Fishman argue at Foreign Policy, cautioning that Kremlin likely continues to use arms sales to extend its influence.

“The demise of New Start … after the I.N.F. deal … would not just remove constraints on a new arms race but leave the two big nuclear powers for the first time in decades without the ability to verify each other’s weapons,” the Financial Times editorial board writes, commenting that pillars of nuclear arms control are “teetering.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA 

North Korea has announced that its leader Kim Jong-un supervised test firings of a new multiple rocket launcher system that Kim regards as soon playing a “main role” in the North’s military’s combat operations. A report by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency (K.C.N.A.) today disputed the assessment by South Korea’s military, which had concluded that yesterday’s launches involved two short-range ballistic missiles, Al Jazeera reports. 

“It would be an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon,” Kim said following the launch, according to the K.C.N.A. report.  Although the North’s short-range multiple rocket launchers do not represent the kind of threat that its nuclear ballistic missiles do, South Korean and United States military strategists have long been anxious about their ability to strike Seoul, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times. 

The U.S. and South Korea will press ahead with joint military drills, according to a Pentagon official – in spite of the North’s missile test yesterday and two similar launches last week, one of which Pyongyang described as a “solemn warning to the South Korean warmongers” over the planned exercises. The joint drills are set to begin on Monday and last for just over two weeks, after the Washington and Seoul scaled them down earlier this year amid nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang, AFP reports.  

The U.K. along with Germany and France have asked the U.N. Security Council to meet in private today to discuss Pyongyang’s latest missile launches, according to diplomats. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres believes that the missile launches were “just another reminder of the importance of restarting talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters, Reuters reports. 

The South’s military detained a Northern soldier who crossed the demilitarized zone (D.M.Z.) separating the two Koreas, the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (J.C.S.) announced today. The unidentified active-duty soldier – first detected by thermal imaging equipment moving south near the Imjin River late yesterday – expressed his intention to defect to South Korea, the J.C.S. later added, Reuters reports. 

CHINA, HONG KONG AND TAIWAN

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has blamed the U.S. for influencing the recent violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. “As you all know, [the demonstrations] are somehow the work of the U.S.,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a press conference in Beijing Tuesday, cautioning that China would “never allow any foreign forces” to interfere in the semi-autonomous city, and that “those who play [with] fire will only get themselves burned,” Ben Westcott reports at CNN.

Head of the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) garrison in Hong Kong Chen Daoxiang spoke about the protests for the first time yesterday – saying the uproar has “seriously threatened the life and safety” of the people and should not be tolerated. Chen declared the P.L.A. was “determined to protect national sovereignty, security, stability and the prosperity of Hong Kong,” making the remarks at a reception celebrating the 92nd anniversary of the P.L.A., Laurel Chor reports at the Guardian.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen criticized China today over its move to block individual travel permits for Chinese visitors to the self-ruled island, saying the ban intended to “manipulate” presidential elections in January. “Using tourists as political tools would only create antipathy in Taiwanese people,” Tsai told reporters in the presidential palace in Taipei, adding “tourism shouldn’t be politicized,” Reuters reports.

IRAN

The U.S. imposed sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif yesterday, the latest move by Washington in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. The Treasury Department announced that it was sanctioning Zarif for acting on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader, and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement, adding “the U.S. is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable,” David E. Sanger and Michael Crowley report at the New York Times.

A senior administration official said the Trump administration made the move because it concluded Zarif was serving as a “propaganda minister” rather than a diplomat: “Today, President Trump decided enough is enough,” the official said. In a mixed message to Tehran, the announcement came as U.S. national security adviser John Bolton revealed yesterday that nuclear-related sanctions on Iran would again be waived, notwithstanding objection from some of the administration’s most hardline officials, Carol Morello and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

The official told reporters that Zarif’s office “functions as an extension” of Khamenei’s office as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.,) which the U.S. has designated as a foreign terrorist organization. “While the United States has historically placed a high priority on preserving faith for diplomacy, there are limits to our patience when a regime so routinely floats these protocols,” the official said, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The measures against Zarif will block any property or interests he has in the U.S.. Under the financial sanctions “all property and interests in property of this individual that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported” to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (O.F.A.C.,) according to a Treasury release, Jennifer Hansler and Betsy Klein report at CNN.

Zarif brushed off the new sanctions, saying the measures would not affect him and suggested Washington saw him as a “threat.” “The U.S.’ reason for designating me is that I am Iran’s ‘primary spokesperson around the world’,” Zarif stated in a message sent on Twitter, adding “is the truth really that painful? it has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran … thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda,” Reuters reports.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned the administration’s move as “childish” and a barrier to diplomacy. “They have started doing childish things,” Rouhani said in a speech in western Azerbaijan province, adding “every day they claim: ‘we want to negotiate with Iran, without any pre-conditions’ … and then they put sanctions on the country’s foreign minister,” the AP reports.

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards also slated the U.S. sanctioning of the Iranian foreign minister as “ridiculous … illegal and unwise”, the semi-official news agency Fars reported. ‘The Americans … are exposing their anger over how widely the message… of the Islamic revolution has been spread [by Zarif],” the Revolutionary Guards remarked in comments carried by Fars, Reuters reports.

“The Trump administration is not closing the door to potential nuclear talks with Iran by sanctioning Zarif … who it does not consider a significant decision maker,” a U.S. official said yesterday, Reuters reports.

Germany’s foreign minister yesterday declared the nation “will not take part” in a naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz led by the U.S.. The U.S. had requested Germany join a coalition including Britain and France intended to secure shipping through the strait but Foreign Minister Heiko Maas yesterday commented that despite tensions in the region, “there is no military solution” and it considered the U.S. mission would potentially “escalate the friction,” Zack Budryk reports at the Hill.

IRAQ

At least seven members of Iraq’s security forces were killed and 16 wounded overnight in two separate attacks by Islamic State group militants, police announced today. Reuters reports.  

“Rather than enhancing the government’s control over the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) … [Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s] order is more likely to have the opposite effect … further entrenching Iran’s chokehold on the Iraqi state,” John Hannah writes at Foreign Policy, commenting on Mahdi’s Jul. 1 decree directing that the P.M.F. take a series of steps to subdue themselves to the Iraqi state.

YEMEN

A rebel missile struck a military parade in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden as coordinated suicide bombings targeted a police station in another neighborhood of the city today, killing at least 40 people and wounding dozens, according to security official and witnesses. The missile hit the neighborhood of Breiqa where a military parade was underway by forces loyal to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.,) a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Iran aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels, Maggie MIcahel and Ahmed Al-Haj report at the AP. 

The Houthis claimed that they had launched a medium-range ballistic missile and an armed drone at the parade, which they described as having been staged in preparation for a military move against the provinces under rebel control, Reuters reports. 

The Houthis also today also claimed to have targeted a military site in Dammam in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province with a long-range missile, according to Al Masirah, Reuters reports. 

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) has announced that a Palestinian man crossed from Gaza into Israel overnight and shot at Israeli troops, prompting return fire in a shootout that left the man dead and wounded three Israeli soldiers. During the incident, an Israeli tank also targeted a military outpost belonging to Hamas militant group, which controls the Gaza Strip, Al Jazeera reports. 

Palestinians identified the slain gunman as Hani Abu Salah, a member of the armed wing of Hamas. Mosques in the southern Gaza Strip announced Abu Salah’s death and called on Gazans to attend his funeral, Sahar Golan reports at the AP. 

U.S. President Trump reportedly intends to outline his Middle East peace plan to Arab leaders at a summit at Camp David in September, according to reports. Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth yesterday said that the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner plans to invite the leaders to the conference during his visit to the region this week, Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill. 

AL QAEDA

Son of former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden – Hamza bin Laden –is dead, according to two U.S. officials. The U.S. government played a role in the operation but it was not clear exactly how, according to the officials, who discussed bin Laden’s death on the condition of anonymity, Julian E. Barnes Adam Goldman and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times. 

Hamza bin Laden was viewed as an eventual heir to the leadership of Al Qaeda and had repeatedly threatened to attack the U.S. In February the U.S. State Department described him as an “emerging” leader in the movement, offering a million-dollar reward for information leading to his capture; the officials claimed he was killed before this announcement, Evan Perez and Ryan Browne report at CNN. 

“I don’t want to comment on that,” U.S. President Trump said when asked reporters yesterday whether the U.S. had intelligence that Hamza is dead. Hamza bin Laden’s last known public statement, in which he threatened Saudi Arabia and called on the people of the Arabian peninsula to revolt, was released by al Qaeda’s media arm in 2018, Courtney Kube reports at NBC. 

Jordanian financier and former “henchman” of Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law Mahmoud Afif Abdeljalil was arrested in the Philippines in July, officials announced today, reinforcing concerns that Islamic militants are making a base in that country. Daniel Victor reports at the New York Times. 

SUDAN

Head of the Transitional Military Council’s (T.M.C.) security committee –Lieutenant General Jamal Aldin Omar Ibrahim – has claimed that a security force assigned to guard a bank in the town El-Obeid was responsible for the killing of the child protesters, official S.U.N.A. news agency reported today. “The force which was guarding the Sudanese French Bank fired the live rounds that led to the regrettable losses in the state of North Kordofan,” Ibrahim was quoted as saying, Reuters reports.

Sudanese activists have called for mass protests across the country as tensions between the ruling generals rise following violence in a central province, the AP reports.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

U.S. ambassador to Canada Kelly Knight Craft was yesterday confirmed as the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N. The Senate approved the appointment in a 56-to-34 vote largely along party lines, with only five Democrats voting in Craft’s favor, Jacey Fortin reports at the New York Times. 

Craft vowed during her confirmation hearing to continue the efforts of her predecessor Nikki Haley to push for reform at the supranational body and to fight against its anti-Israel resolutions and actions. Democrats criticized Craft for previous remarks she had made doubting the causes and severity of climate change, also concerned about possible conflicts of interest given Craft’s investments in fossil fuels, Al Jazeera reports. 

The Trump administration’s intelligence watchdog has declined a request from four top Senate Democrats to investigate how the White House has handled security clearances for senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner as well as other employees, according to a letter obtained by NBC News. Inspector General of the intelligence community Michael Atkinson wrote to the senators that he would be happy to conduct such an investigation, but could only do so at the request of the president, Ken Dilanian reports at NBC.  

The Senate yesterday confirmed nine more of President Trump’s judicial nominees to the federal bench. The judicial confirmations come as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called for the Senate to confirm 19 judges before it embarks on a monthlong recess at the end of this week, Marianne Levine reports at POLITICO. 

“The law on this is very clear: The I.R.S. “shall furnish ” the Ways and Means Committee with the requested tax returns,” the panel’s chair Richard E. Neal (E-Mass.) writes in an Op-Ed at the Washington Post on why his committee is entitled to the president’s returns. 

U.S. MILITARY 

Seven park visitors were injured yesterday after a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet jet crashed during a training mission in Death Valley National Park, according to Navy and park officials. Rescue teams continue to search for the pilot, whose condition is not known, Richard Gonzales reports at NPR.

“Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley can work with General Counsel Ney to … engage in a constructive dialogue that would benefit the Department and the American public more broadly,” Luke Hartig argues at Just Security in an analysis of Ney’s May speech in light of the Pentagon’s new leadership team.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least two policemen were killed and three more wounded after a bomb exploded today near a police checkpoint in the Afghan capital of Kabul, according to Interior Ministry spokesperson Nasrat Rahimi; no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, the AP reports.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) aims to appoint a new Director General in October to assume office by January, the body announced today. The agency had announced last week that Romanian diplomat Cornel Feruta will lead the agency until member states agree on a permanent successor to deceased Director General Yukiya Amano, Reuters reports. 

The House Judiciary Committee’s fight for grand jury material underlying former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign is unlikely to be resolved until October, according to the proposed scheduling order. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill. 

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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).