The Early Edition: September 16, 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.  

SAUDI OIL SITE ATTACKS

A wave of drone attacks claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels hit two key oil plants inside Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Aramco petroleum processing facility Saturday, increasing tensions in the Persian Gulf. Ben Hubbard, Palko Karasz and Stanley Reed report at the New York Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of leading the attacks, stating there was “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen,” despite the Houthis claiming responsibility for the strikes. “Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo stated in a message sent on Twitter, asserting “Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while [Iran’s President Hassan] Rouhani and [Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad] Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy.” Bianca Quilantan reports at POLITICO.

Iran yesterday rejected claims by the U.S. it was responsible for the attacks. “Having failed at ‘max pressure’, [Pompeo is] turning to ‘max deceit’,” Zarif wrote in a message on Twitter, adding “U.S. & its clients are stuck in Yemen because of illusion that weapon superiority will lead to military victory … blaming Iran won’t end disaster.” Summer Said, Dion Nissenbaum and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi told state T.V. that the allegations that it had a role in the attack were “unacceptable” and baseless,” while senior Revolutionary Guards commander Amirali Hajizadeh warned that the Islamic Republic was ready for “full-fledged” war and that U.S. military assets in the region were within range of its missiles. Michael Safi reports at the Guardian.

The U.S. government issued satellite images and cited intelligence to back its claim that Iran was behind attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Officials said there were at least 17 points of impact on the targets and the attacks had come from the north or north-west, from the direction of the northern Persian Gulf, Iran or Iraq — rather than from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, which lies to the south-west of the Saudi oil facilities. Eric Schmitt, Farnaz Fassihi and David D. Kirkpatrick report at the New York Times.

Iraq denied that its territory was used for an attack on the kingdom and Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said his government would “deal firmly” with anyone trying to attack neighboring countries from Iraq. Kareem Fahim, Anne Gearan, Erin Cunningham and Steven Mufson report at the Washington Post.

U.S. President Trump said yesterday the U.S. was “locked and loaded” for a potential response to the drone attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, after a senior U.S. administration official said Iran was to blame. In a message sent on Twitter, the president said that he had “reason to believe that we know the culprit” behind the series of attacks on the Abqaiq facility, adding “[we] are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] as to who they believe was the cause of this attack and under what terms we would proceed!” Paul LeBlanc, Kylie Atwood, Jeremy Diamond and Sarah Westwood report at CNN.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Trump in a phone call that the Kingdom had the will and capability “to confront and deal with this terrorist aggression,” according to the official Saudi Press Agency (S.P.A..) Trump reportedly told the Crown Prince that the U.S. was prepared to cooperate with the kingdom “to protect its security” in the wake of the drone attacks. Al Jazeera reports.

Saturday’s attack on two major Saudi oil facilities “is a dramatic escalation in the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia — even if the Iranians didn’t fire the drones or missiles responsible,” Tim Lister writes in an analysis at CNN.

“It’s impossible to dismiss the Iranian hand in the equation,” Ishaan Tharoor comments at the Washington Post in an analysis of the drone strikes and Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

The attack “offers yet more evidence that Trump’s Middle East policy has failed,” Max Boot argues at the Washington Post, commenting that “at the root of the problem is Trump’s decision to outsource Middle East leadership to Israel and Saudi Arabia — unlikely allies united by their mutual (and understandable) antipathy toward the Iranian regime.”

IRAN

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will not meet with U.S. President Trump at the U.N., Iran declared today. “Neither is such an event on our agenda, nor will it happen … such a meeting will not take place,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi was quoted as saying by state T.V.. Reuters reports.

Trump denied reports that he had been willing to meet with Rouhani with “no conditions.” “The Fake News is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, ‘No Conditions.’ That is an incorrect statement (as usual!),” Trump said in a message sent on Twitter yesterday, contradicting reports from a number of top administration officials in recent days. Brandon Conradis reports at the Hill.

SYRIA

At least 10 people were killed and 15 others were wounded after a rigged car exploded near a hospital in the Syrian town of al-Rai at the border with Turkey yesterday. Reuters reports.

The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey are to meet in the Turkish capital of Ankara today for talks on Syria, with the aim of ending fighting in the country’s northwestern province of Idlib and finding a lasting political solution to Syria’s civil war. Suzan Fraser and Zeynep Bilginsoy report at the AP.

AFGHANISTAN

U.S. and Afghan forces launched joint airstrikes in northern and western Afghanistan Saturday, killing two senior Taliban officials and dozens of members of the militant group, officials said. Reuters reports.

Taliban representatives held talks with Russian officials in Moscow on Friday, just days after U.S. President Trump declared months-long peace talks between Washington and the group “dead.” Taliban’s Qatar-based spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said the group’s delegation held consultations with Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov. AFP reports.

The threat of the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.)’s rise in Afghanistan looms large even as U.S.-Taliban peace talks appear to have faltered, Farhan Bokhari and Stephanie Findlay write at the Financial Times.

A look at what Democratic candidates said they would do about the war in Afghanistan is fielded by Siobhán O’Grady at the Washington Post.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.S. Treasury Department on Friday placed sanctions on three North Korea government-sponsored hacking operations which it said were responsible for the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars and destructive cyber-attacks on infrastructure. The Treasury said the three groups Lazarus Group, Bluenoroff and Andariel stole around $700 million in the last three years as part of North Korea’s targeting of banks and cryptocurrency exchanges to fund its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. Ian Talley and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Treasury is taking action against North Korean hacking groups that have been perpetrating cyber attacks to support illicit weapon and missile programs,” Treasury under secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker said in a statement. “We will continue to enforce existing U.S. and U.N. sanctions against North Korea and work with the international community to improve cybersecurity of financial networks,” the statement continued. Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un invited U.S. President Trump to visit Pyongyang in a letter sent in August, a South Korean newspaper reported today, citing diplomatic sources. The letter, the second Trump received from Kim last month amid stalled denuclearization talks, pre-dates North Korea’s latest launch of short-range projectiles a week ago. Reuters reports.

North Korea has said that diplomatic talks with Washington could continue in a “few weeks,” but warned it would not weigh abandoning its nuclear weapons “unless external threats are fully removed,” according to a statement made today by a North Korean foreign ministry official. The AP reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

Turkey’s defense ministry said yesterday that Russia had completed a second delivery of its S-400 missile defense systems. In a statement, the ministry said it intends to activate the system in April 2020. Reuters reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would meet with U.S. President Trump later this month to discuss the potential purchase of American-made missiles, despite ongoing tension with Washington over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian system. In an interview, Erdogan said he discussed buying the surface-to-air Patriot missiles in a phone call with Trump two weeks ago, and would “follow up” on those talks when the pair meet at the U.N. General Assembly, which opens next week. Reuters reports.

The SUPREME COURT

U.S. President Trump defended Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh yesterday, who faces fresh allegations of sexual misconduct after a New York Times report. In a message sent on Twitter, the president suggested Justice Kavanaugh should sue for libel, or that the U.S. justice department should “rescue” him, stating “the lies being told about him are unbelievable.” David Cohen reports at POLITICO.

Democrats have called for the judge to be investigated or impeached, after the report raised new questions about whether Kavanaugh perjured himself.  Max Burman, Allan Smith, Heidi Przybyla and Leigh Ann Caldwell report at NBC.

An analysis of how Justice Kavanaugh’s impeachment could work, amid growing calls for an inquiry, is provided by Deanna Paul at the Washington Post.

“The right wing’s determination to control the Supreme Court is undermining its legitimacy as well as confidence in the U.S. Senate’s approach to confirming nominees,” E.J. Dionne Jr. argues at the Washington Post, commenting that the Trump administration’s “wreckage” goes beyond the president and “involves the other two branches of government as well.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are seeking testimony from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions as part of their impeachment probe into U.S. President Trump. Democrats would like to question Sessions on his relationship with the president, including pushback over his decision to recuse himself from the federal investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign. Rachael Bade and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) Inspector General Michael Horowitz has concluded an internal review relating to whether the F.B.I. adhered to the law and its own policies while applying for a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page during the 2016 election. In a letter to members of Congress on Friday, Horowitz wrote that he is in the early stages of finalizing its report and has submitted a draft of the “factual findings” of the inquiry to the D.O.J. and F.B.I. for a classification review. Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

IMMIGRATION 

Top immigration judge David Neal announced his retirement Friday from his position as head of the judges’ appeals board effective Saturday. Neal did not give a reason for his departure, which follows a string of exits at the top of the immigration system, and called on his colleagues to “keep true to your commitment to fairness and justice;” a replacement has not yet been announced. Katie Benner reports at the New York Times.

“As a first step … the United States should eliminate the “metering system” … abandon the punitive “Remain in Mexico” policy [and] reinstate and expand the Family Case Management system,” Ambassador Donald Steinberg at Just Security reports on a California-Mexico border visit to a detention center, immigration courts and migrant shelters, comparing the asylum system to a “Kafka-esque labyrinth designed to punish migrants who dare to exercise their rights under U.S. law and international agreements.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.) and the Geneva Academy this morning released Guidelines on the conditions under which militaries must conduct investigations into possible international humanitarian law violations. Three principle authors of the report introduce the Guidelines in a short essay at Just Security.

President Trump on Saturday confirmed one of Osama bin Laden’s sons — Hamza bin Ladin — had been killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation. The BBC reports.

Trump said he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the phone on Saturday to discuss a potential defense treaty between the U.S. and Israel. In a message sent on Twitter, Trump said any such treaty “would further anchor the tremendous alliance between our two countries,” adding “I look forward to continuing those discussions after the Israeli Elections when we meet at the United Nations later this month!” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

“There is no reason for the Group [of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen], or for anyone else, to entertain a consequentialist theory of the law of armed conflict so divorced from actual consequences,” Adil Ahmad Haque argues at Just Security, commenting on the Group’s discussion of indiscriminate attacks under international humanitarian law and international criminal law in its latest report to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

Hong Kong police fired chemical-laced blue water and tear gas to disperse protesters throwing bricks and petrol bombs at government buildings in central Hong Kong yesterday, in the 15th weekend of demonstrations in the Chinese territory. Mike Ives, Elaine Yu and Ezra Cheung report at the New York Times.

An account of the violence and abuse perpetrated by soldiers and militants in the disputed Kashmir region is provided by Suhasini Raj and Jeffrey Gettleman at the New York Times.

A detailed look at national security developments at the U.N. last week, including U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ denouncement of Israeli plans to annex the West Bank, is fielded by Sahrula Kubie at Just Security 

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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).