The Early Edition: September 19, 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 said yesterday he had ordered a substantial increase in sanctions against Iran, the latest escalation in tensions between the two countries as U.S. officials work to pin the blame for a weekend attack on Saudi oil sites on Tehran. “I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury [Stephen Mnuchin] to substantially increase sanctions on the country of Iran!” the president announced in a message sent on Twitter; Trump told reporters that he would provide more details about the sanctions within 48 hours. Ian Talley and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to slam the new sanctions, accusing Trump of escalating economic pressure on “ordinary” Iranians. “@realDonaldTrump ordered SoT ‘to substantially increase sanctions against the country of Iran!’ …  it’s admission that [the] U.S. is deliberately targeting ordinary citizens,” Zarif said in a post, which ended with: “stop war and terror.” James Politi, Demetri Sevastopulo and Ahmed Al Omran report at the Financial Times.

Zarif also suggested that U.S. and allies’ assertions that attacks on Saudi oil sites were “an act of war” could be intended to deceive Trump into a war against Tehran, making the remarks in a message sent on Twitter. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the attack as “an act of war” yesterday. Reuters reports.

Trump said he has “many options” short of war with Iran after reporters asked about a possible retaliatory U.S. attack on the country. “There are many options … there’s the ultimate option and there are options a lot less than that,” explaining that by “ultimate option” he meant “war.” AFP reports.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and his delegation are unlikely to attend next week’s U.N. General Assembly after Pompeo suggested yesterday that the Iranian delegation should be denied visas, Iranian state media reported. “If the visas aren’t issued in a few hours, this trip will probably be cancelled,” I.R.N.A. reported. Al Jazeera reports.

“For the Trump administration … short of military action … about the only major economic response left would be a full secondary sanctions ban that would amount to a virtual economic blockade of Iran,” Keith Johnson argues at Foreign Policy, commenting that “further incremental sanctions on a country already in economic free fall would be seen as a weak response to the weekend attacks.”

“The Trump administration has a more coherent policy on Iran than it does on many other issues,” David Leonhardt argues at the New York Times, warning “that doesn’t mean the policy will necessarily work.” 

“The best place for [Trump to respond to Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia] would be in Syria … where Iran’s military and its proxies are committing war crimes and where Iran’s regional aggression needs to be stopped anyway,” Josh Rogin proposes at the Washington Post.

SAUDI OIL SITE ATTACKS

Rihyadh unveiled new evidence yesterday it said showed the attack on its oil facilities was “unquestionably” sponsored by Iran, but did not directly accuse the country of conducting them. At a press conference to reveal the military’s findings, Saudi defense ministry spokesperson Col. Turki al-Malki said the weekend attacks on the kingdom’s oil facilities were launched “from the north” and that Iranian cruise missiles and drones were used, adding “the attack was systematically and intentionally planned to destroy civilian infrastructure.”   Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said today that the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia’s “right to defend itself” and that Iran’s behavior would “not be tolerated,” according to a message posted on Twitter today. Pompeo is in Saudi Arabia to consult with the kingdom’s rulers on next steps and is scheduled to travel to neighboring United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) next.  The AP reports.

The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) said it has joined a U.S.-led coalition to protect waterways across the Middle East after Saturday’s attack on Saudi oil installations. The state-run W.A.M. news agency quoted Salem al-Zaabi at the Emirati Foreign Ministry as saying the U.A.E. joined the coalition — formed by the U.S. after attacks on oil tankers that U.S. officials blame on Iran, as well as Iran’s seizure of tankers in the region — to “ensure global energy security and the continued flow of energy supplies to the global economy.” Reuters reports.

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels said yesterday they had identified “dozens” of sites in the U.A.E. as possible targets. “To the Emirati regime we say only one operation [of ours] would cost you dearly,” military spokesperson for the movement Yahya Saria said in a televised speech, adding: “we have dozens of targets within our range in the U.A.E., some are in Abu Dhabi and can be attacked at any time;” Saria stated that the Houthis have new drones, powered by “normal and jet engines” that are able to reach targets “deep in Saudi Arabia.” Reuters reports.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said U.N. experts were traveling to Saudi Arabia to investigate Saturday’s attacks. Guterres told reporters the experts were sent under the U.N. Security Council resolution that endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers. The AP reports.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote to Secretary of State Pompeo and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry yesterday urging the Trump administration to discontinue recent talks with Saudi Arabia about nuclear power development following the attacks on oil facilities there. Reuters reports.

“Saturday’s strike on Saudi Arabia is surrounded by uncertainties … [but] what we know for certain is that the attack points to crucial changes in the technology of war and its consequences that the United States should prepare for better than the Saudis did,” P. W. Singer warns at the New York Times.

WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT

A whistleblower complaint at the centre of a dispute between Congress and the Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) reportedly involves President Trump and a foreign leader, The Washington Post reported, citing two former officials familiar with the matter. The communications also apparently involve a  “promise” that an intelligence official found concerning enough to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the intelligence community (I.C.)’s inspector general Michael Atkinson; it was not immediately clear which foreign leader Trump was speaking with or what he pledged to deliver. Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Shane Harris report at the Washington Post.

“The ill-advised, most likely illegal decision [to withhold a whistleblower’s credible disclosure of wrongdoing from Congress] could destabilize the entire Intelligence Community accountability system,” Irvin McCullough argues at Just Security.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

U.S. President Trump named Robert O’Brien —  who served as the nation’s top hostage negotiator — as his new national security adviser yesterday. “I have worked long & hard with Robert … he will do a great job!” Trump said in a message sent on Twitter. Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“O’Brien represents a stylistic — but not necessarily an ideological — shift from the man he is replacing,” Natasha Bertrand, Daniel Lippman and Caitlin Oprysko write at POLITICO, explaining that sources close to O’Brien describe him as “similarly aggressive” as his predecessor John Bolton on issues such as Iran.

“America needed someone to check the president’s worst foreign-policy instincts … instead, we got Robert O’Brien,” Jonathan Stevenson comments at the New York Times.

“The untested O’Brien … enters the White House at a time of turbulence,” Elias Groll, Robbie Gramer and Lara Seligman write at Foreign Policy, suggesting that O’Brien’s “lack of profile may be an asset in the Trump administration.”

AFGHANISTAN

At least 20 people were killed and 95 others wounded today after a truck packed with explosives was detonated by Taliban militants outside a hospital in southern Afghanistan. Reuters reports.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) yesterday announced he had withdrawn the subpoena for the Trump administration’s lead Afghanistan peace talks negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad to openly testify before the committee, explaining that a classified briefing is being planned instead. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

“The sooner American diplomats get back to the table the better.” Borhan Osman at the New York Times makes a case for restarting U.S.-Taliban talks.

ISRAELI ELECTION

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to win a ruling majority in Tuesday’s repeat general election that seems to have produced a virtual tie between the two main political parties. Nearly all votes have now been counted, the AP reports.

A look at Netanyahu’s likely next steps in light of the election results is provided by Oliver Holmes at the Guardian.

“For the first time … the country’s Arab minority could wield some leverage in the political process.” Joshua Mitnick at Foreign Policy comments on the “unlikely winner” in Israel’s election.

“If Israelis have indeed brought down the curtain on the Netanyahu show … they will have saved not only the last faint chance of a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians … but also their precious democracy itself,” Roger Cohen argues at the New York Times.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

U.S. congressional committees will start voting next week on a Bill supporting human rights in Hong Kong. Proposed measures in the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019” include annual reviews of the Chinese territory’s special economic status and the imposition of sanctions on those who undermine its autonomy. Reuters reports.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists visited Capitol Hill yesterday as American politicians publicly supported them and their campaign. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) welcomed the activists and thanked them for “challenging the conscience” of the Chinese government and the world. The AP reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) introduced legislation yesterday intended to combat foreign influence in U.S. elections through the creation of a response center that coordinates intelligence sharing between agencies including the F.B.I., and the departments of Homeland Security, Defense and State. Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

The Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday approved President Trump’s nominees to lead the Air Force and Army, including Barbara Barrett to be Air Force secretary and Ryan McCarthy to be Army secretary, advancing them to the full Senate for a vote. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The U.S. military spent more than $184,000 at Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland between 2017 and 2019, according to documents released yesterday by the House Oversight Committee. John Wagner and David A. Fahrenthold report at the Washington Post.

Trump expressed dismay yesterday with the cost of keeping open a prison at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay. The president said it was “crazy” that the U.S. spends about $13 million a year for each terrorism suspect held at the detention center, adding that he would look for alternatives. Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

“Lewandowski’s performance [at Tuesday’s hearing] requires a serious response,” Michelle Cottle argues at the New York Times, commenting that Trump’s former campaign manager “had no interest in shedding light on any of the troubling episodes cited in the Mueller report [and] instead, he worked to make a mockery of the proceedings.”

The U.N. Security Council is likely to vote today on rival resolutions calling for a cease-fire in Syria’s last rebel stronghold in Idlib. The texts, put forward by Germany, Belgium and Kuwait and separately by Russia and China, argue that a cessation of hostilities is needed “to avoid a further deterioration of the already catastrophic humanitarian situation.” The AP reports.

Do States have an obligation to prevent the execution of their own nationals abroad, when fair trial guarantees are not ensured? Margherita Stevoli at Just Security looks at the case of French I.S.I.S. members in Iraq.

Sudan’s political leaders “have met some, but certainly not all” of the expectations laid out in a Revitalized Agreement to ease conflict in South Sudan, one year on from its signing, the top U.N. official for the country David Shearer told the Security Council yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.N. and Red Cross chiefs António Guterres and Peter Maurer yesterday appealed to countries and warring parties for an end to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The U.N. News Centre 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).