The Early Edition: September 17, 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

U.S. President Trump said Iran “certainly” appeared to be responsible for a series of weekend strikes against Saudi Arabian oil facilities, but was reluctant to assign blame as the U.S. did not have definitive evidence. Speaking after a briefing from his military and intelligence advisers at the White House, the president also stressed he did not want to go to war, while adding America was “more prepared” for a military conflict, if necessary, than at any point in its history. Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Trump suggested that Tehran’s denial of blame over the recent strikes on the oil facilities could not be believed. “Remember when Iran shot down a drone, saying knowingly that it was in their ‘airspace’ when, in fact, it was nowhere close … they stuck strongly to that story knowing that it was a very big lie … now they say that they had nothing to do with the attack on Saudi Arabia … we’ll see?” the president stated in a message sent on Twitter. Richard Pérez-Peña, David D. Kirkpatrick and Michael Crowley report at the New York Times.

Pentagon officials yesterday endorsed a “restrained” response to the Saudi attacks, making the case against a potentially expensive conflict with Iran. In a message sent on Twitter, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. military and other government agencies were “working with [its] partners to address this unprecedented attack and defend the international rules-based order that is being undermined by Iran.” Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe report at the Washington Post.

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said yesterday that preliminary evidence indicated the weapons used to strike Saudi oil facilities were Iranian-made. Spokesperson for the coalition Col. Turki al-Malki said the attacks “did not originate in Yemeni territory as claimed by the Houthi militias,” adding that investigators were continuing to find the origin of the attacks and that the final results would be publicly shared in the near future. Shane Harris, Erin Cunningham and Kareem Fahim report at the Washington Post.

“The Yemeni people have a right to respond” to Saudi military aggression, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday, calling the Saudi oil attack “reciprocal” and “legitimate defense.” Reuters reports.

The U.S. is reportedly weighing an increase in intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia after Saturday’s attack on Saudi oil facilities. Officials did not specify how wide any increase in intelligence sharing might be; the U.S. previously has only selectively shared intelligence with Saudi Arabia relating to the threats from Houthi militants. Reuters reports.

U.S. lawmakers appeared frustrated by Trump’s deference to Saudi Arabia, after the president suggested this weekend that the U.S. response to the attacks would depend on the Saudi government’s assessment. Peter Baker and David E. Sanger report at the New York Times.

Head of the N.A.T.O. military alliance Jens Stoltenberg said he is “extremely concerned” that tensions will escalate after the strikes in Saudi and asserted that Iran was “destabilizing the whole region.” The BBC reports.

SAUDI OIL SITE ATTACKS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An explainer on the weekend strikes on Saudi oil facilities, including who is believed to be responsible and the likely response from the U.S., is provided by Robbie Gramer, Elias Groll and Amy MacKinnon at Foreign Policy.

It is unclear why Yemen’s Houthi rebels would claim the strike if it was carried out by Iranian proxies in Iraq or even Iran itself, Adam Taylor writes at the Washington Post, in light of assertions that the attack did not originate in Yemen.

“A military response to the attacks would almost certainly disrupt and maybe even destroy the painstaking work … to bring Iran back into compliance with the nuclear deal in return for relief from crippling U.S. sanctions.” Tom Lister at CNN analyzes Washington’s options.

“President Trump should “explore every possibility of a diplomatic resolution before ordering military action … or having Saudi Arabia retaliate,” the New York Times editorial board argues, commenting that “Trump has few options, few allies, a depleted national security team and little credibility.”

“If the weekend attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities were launched by Iranian proxies … they will mark a reckless escalation both of Tehran’s resistance to U.S. pressure and of its struggle for supremacy with its biggest regional rival,” the Financial Times editorial board argues.

“Supporting Iraq in its foolhardy war with Iran in the 1980s proved to be strategically shortsighted in the extreme … supporting Saudi Arabia today in its misbegotten war in Yemen is no less shortsighted.” Andrew J. Bacevich at the New York Times warns that “Trump should be careful about throwing America’s weight behind an unreliable ‘ally.’”

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Attacks against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia over the weekend risk “dragging” Yemen into even greater conflict, the U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security Council yesterday. “This extremely serious incident makes the chances of a regional conflict that much higher, and of a rapprochement that much lower,” Griffiths reported, adding there was “no time to waste” in ending four years of fighting between Houthi rebels and the internationally-recognized Government. The U.N. News Centre reports.

“Most wars appear to have no solution [but Yemen] is a conflict the international community can resolve,” Martin Griffiths argues at the New York Times, presenting seven elements that will “necessarily underpin any agreement” to end the war in Yemen and achieve stability.

IRAN

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today there would be no talks between Iranian and U.S. officials “on any level” in New York next week when President Hassan Rouhani attends the U.N. general assembly, apparently ending speculation about a possible meeting between the pair. Reuters reports.

The U.S. and Iran exchanged jibes over Tehran’s nuclear activities yesterday as the International Atomic Energy Agency’s general conference opened in Vienna. Reading a note from U.S. President Trump, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said that Washington “will continue to apply maximum pressure both diplomatically and economically to deny Iran any pathway to a nuclear weapon; head of Iran’s nuclear program Ali Akbar Salehi denounced the move, saying “the destructive behavior of the U.S. administration and the economic terrorism pursued by it against other countries should be condemned and rejected.” The AP reports.

“Trump is caught between a political imperative to confront Iran — pleasing hawkish Republican supporters and allies Israel and Saudi Arabia — and his own political instincts against foreign intervention and toward cutting a deal.” Anne Gearan at the Washington Post unpacks the presidents’ dual approach on Iran.

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bomber targeted Afghan President Ghani’s rally today, killing at least 24 people and wounding 31 more, according to a hospital chief. The Taliban have claimed the attack. The AP reports.

At least six people were killed today in a separate blast in Kabul, police officials said. Reuters reports.

A U.S. service member was killed in action in eastern Afghanistan yesterday, according to Defense Department officials, who provided little detail of the episode and withheld the soldier’s name pending next of kin notification. The death, the 17th combat death in the country this year, came just over a week after U.S. President Trump called off peace negotiations with the Taliban. The New York Times reports.

An average of 74 men, women and children were killed every day in Afghanistan throughout the month of August, casualty figures identified by the BBC have found. The BBC reports.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hong Kong C.E.O. Carrie Lam announced today her administration would convene public dialogue sessions in the city from next week in an effort to ease tensions following months of demonstrations. At a weekly briefing, Lam said the sessions would be “as open as possible,” with members of the public able to sign up to attend, and expressed hope that “these different forms of dialogue can provide a platform [to discuss the] deep-rooted economic, social and even political issues” that Hong Kong has accumulated. Al Jazeera reports.

Pro-democracy Hong Kong legislator Tanya Chan called on the U.N. Human Rights Council yesterday to investigate “brutal crackdowns” and “police brutality” against protesters in the territory. “Today marks the 100th day of the movement, but there is no sign the police will exercise restraint … this is a direct result of the lack of democracy in Hong Kong, as the government is not held accountable for its endorsement of police abuse,” Chan said, addressing the Council in Geneva. Reuters reports.

“By insisting on all or nothing, the pan-democrats squandered the last good opportunity to bring Hong Kong closer to the “true democracy” to which they rightfully aspire,” Weijian Shan argues at the Financial Times, explaining that the pan-democrat legislators formally voted down government proposals to “democratize” the nomination process, “effectively opting to continue the status quo.”

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israelis are voting today in an unprecedented repeat election, the second national election in five months, that will decide whether longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power after he failed to form a governing coalition following weeks of negotiations. The AP reports.

“Whoever gets elected in Israel this week, it will make no difference to [Palestinians’] future,” Raja Shedadeh argues at the Guardian, commenting that “the expansion of Israeli settlements, the threat of annexation, and the steady tally of death and injury in Gaza” are all “eating away” at Palestine.

U.S. SUPREME COURT

The House Judiciary Committee is too busy with “impeaching the president” to consider a potential probe into sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Committee Chair Jerry Nadler said yesterday. “We have our hands full with impeaching the president right now and that’s going to take up our limited resources and time for a while,” Nadler told interviewers. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — who oversaw Kavanaugh’s confirmation process as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall — yesterday defended his committee’s investigation of allegations against the then-nominee, insisting it was an “incredibly thorough review” into Kavanaugh’s personal and professional life. “My team spoke with 45 individuals and took 25 written statements … in the end, there was no credible evidence to support any of the allegations,” Grassley said on the Senate floor after fresh claims  arose over the weekend, renewing a debate about the scope and extent of the committee’s work and the F.B.I.’s investigation of Kavanaugh. Leigh Ann Caldwell and Heidi Przybyla report at NBC.

The F.B.I. investigation into credible allegations of sexual misconduct “was, in fact, far from thorough and more of a sham than it seemed at the time,” the Washington Post editorial board argues.

A look at the correlation between judges’ political affiliations and their voting is fielded by Adam Liptak at the New York Times  ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision on whether to hear the case, Carney v. Adams, No. 19-309, sometime this fall.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY 

An assessment of France’s recent statement regarding the application of international law in cyberspace is provided by Michael Schmitt at Just Security, who comments that the country “is to be congratulated for providing its views with such comprehensiveness and clarity.”

“The U.S. risks losing to Russia and China if it doesn’t have a clear strategy for pushing back against their attempts to prevail on [cybercrime],” Allison Peters argues at Foreign Policy ahead of next week’s U.N. General Assembly.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The office of Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance yesterday subpoenaed eight years of U.S. President Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns amid an investigation into hush money payments to the pornographic actor Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election. David Smith reports at the Guardian.

Trump yesterday declined to comment on reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had invited him to visit Pyongyang and asserted conditions were not ready yet for such a trip. Reuters reports.

The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran declared yesterday that an agreement has been finally reached on the make-up of a committee tasked with rewriting Syria’s constitution as part of a political solution to the country’s civil war. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told journalists that the committee could begin work “as soon as possible.” Suzan Fraser and Zeynep Bilginsoy report at the AP.

The Islamic State (I.S.) released an audio recording yesterday in which the extremist group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instructed his followers to “redouble their efforts” to further the group’s cause. Isabel Coles reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido said talks mediated by Norway aimed at resolving the political crisis were over, six weeks after President Nicolas Maduro’s government suspended participation. Al Jazeera reports. 

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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).