The Early Edition: January 6, 2020

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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

President Trump doubled down on threats to target Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliated for the killing of Iran’s top military commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, last Thursday. The president first raised the prospect of targeting Iranian cultural sites in a message sent on Twitter on Saturday where he said the U.S. had 52 targets in its sights, some “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” Trump insisted yesterday that Iranian cultural sites were fair game for the U.S. military, batting off concerns within his own administration that doing so would constitute a war crime under international law; “they’re allowed to kill our people … they’re allowed to torture and maim our people … they’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people,” the president said. “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.” Catherine Lucey reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The president also threatened “very big” sanctions against U.S. ally Iraq after its parliament called on American troops to leave the country. Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Trump said that if Baghdad followed through on a parliamentary vote to oust U.S. troops from Iraq, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever,” adding, “it’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.” The president also said if troops did leave, Baghdad would have to pay Washington for the cost of the air base there. AP reporting. 

Iraq’s parliament voted yesterday to force the U.S. military out of the country after Trump ordered the killing of a top Iranian military commander and an Iraqi militia leader on Iraqi soil. In an extraordinary parliamentary session, lawmakers passed a resolution requiring the government to end all foreign troop presence in Iraq and saying that the Iran-aligned Shi’ite-led government should cancel its request for assistance from the U.S.-led coalition which had been working with Baghdad to fight the Islamic State. Reuters reporting.

The Trump administration tried to stop yesterday’s parliamentary vote to expel American troops from Iraq, according to two sources familiar with the discussions. U.S. officials tried to persuade top Iraqi officials to quash the parliamentary effort, claiming it would be harmful for Iraq to follow through on such a move and hold the vote at all. Jonathan Swan reports at Axios.

The House will introduce and vote on a war powers resolution this week to limit Trump’s military actions regarding Iran, according to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In a letter to colleagues yesterday, Pelosi called last week’s strike on Soleimani “provocative and disproportionate,” saying the House would hold a vote on a resolution to have “military hostilities with regard to Iran cease within 30 days” unless authorized by lawmakers. Democrats have complained that Trump did not notify lawmakers or seek advance approval before carrying out a U.S. airstrike on Baghdad that killed Iran’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani. Donna Cassata reports at the Washington Post.

Earlier yesterday, Trump sent a message on Twitter claiming that he had no legal duty to inform lawmakers of any impending military moves. “These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner … such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!,” the president wrote, drawing swift criticism from Democrats. The Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs committee shot back at Trump’s post in their own message yesterday night, stating, “This Media Post will serve as a reminder that war powers reside in the Congress under the United States Constitution … and that you should read the War Powers Act … and that you’re not a dictator.” Rishika Dugyala reports at POLITICO.

The White House sent Congress a classified letter Saturday under the War Powers Resolution, which requires that Congress be notified within 48 hours of presidential action introducing U.S. forces into hostilities. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the letter raised more questions than it answered: “this document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran,” Pelosi said in a statement, adding, the “highly unusual” decision to classify the entire document compounded her concerns and “suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security.” Evan Semones reports at POLITICO.

Congressional Democrats yesterday expressed apprehension toward the evidence cited by U.S. officials as the reason Trump ordered the killing of top Iranian commander Gen. Soleimani. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) demanded that the administration publish more information regarding the intelligence that brought about Trump’s unexpected decision last week. The Trump administration claims it killed Soleimani in response to an “imminent threat” to American lives, a position Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reiterated in multiple TV appearances. Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s decision to authorize the drone strike targeting Gen. Soleimani followed repeated efforts by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to urge the president to take more aggressive against Iran. The secretary spoke to Trump every day last week leading up to the killing of Iran’s top military commander on Thursday, U.S. officials said. Vice President Mike Pence was also part of the effort, John Hudson, Josh Dawsey, Shane Harris and Dan Lamothe report at the Washington Post. 

Iran’s government said yesterday it would no longer abide by a commitment it made under a 2015 nuclear deal that limited its enrichment of uranium, pushing the accord with world powers closer to collapse. In a statement broadcast on state T.V. late yesterday, Tehran said it would no longer observe restrictions on uranium enrichment, production or nuclear research and development. However, the statement noted that the steps could be reversed if Washington lifted its sanctions on Tehran, Alissa J. Rubin, Ben Hubbard, Farnaz Fassihi and Steven Erlanger report at the New York Times. 

Iran’s statement on the nuclear deal came as hundreds of thousands of Iranians gathered in two cities to mourn Gen. Soleimani as his remains were carried through the cities of Ahvaz and Mashhad, ahead of a burial in his hometown tomorrow. AFP reporting.

The leaders of Germany, the U.K. and France late yesterday called on Iran to refrain from further escalation and urged Iraq to continue to back the presence of coalition forces in that country. The three leaders in their joint statement also urged Iran to respect arrangements laid out in the 2015 nuclear deal. The BBC reporting.

The United States is deploying nearly 3,000 more soldiers to the Middle East as a preventative measure amid heightening threats to American forces in the region following the killing of Iran’s top general in Iraq, the Pentagon said Friday. Al Jazeera reporting. 

The American-led coalition in Iraq and Syria yesterday suspended its operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) as troops prepare for retaliation from Iran over the killing of Gen. Soleimani, military officials said. “As a result [of repeated strikes by Iran-backed militias on coalition bases] we are now fully committed to protecting the Iraqi bases that host Coalition troops,” the American command said in a statement, adding, “this has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against Daesh and we have therefore paused these activities, subject to continuous review.” This suspension will leave 5,200 troops in Iraq and several hundred in Syria in defense mode instead of fighting ISIS, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

Live updates are available at CNN and the New York Times.

IRAN: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“Iran’s announcement [that it will no longer abide by its commitment to limit its enrichment of uranium] essentially sounded the death knell of the 2015 nuclear agreement,” David E. Sanger and William J. Broad write in an analysis at the New York Times.

Key legal questions about the U.S. strike that killed Gen. Soleimani, including whether the president has to consult Congress, are answered Tess Bridgeman at Just Security.

President Trump’s threatened attack on Iranian cultural sites could amount to a war crime if carried out, Eric Levenson argues at CNN.

“The targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani … [reveals] the abject dysfunction and deterioration of the national security process under Trump,” Jonathan Stevenson argues at the New York Times.

The assassination of Iran’s top military commander could open the door to diplomacy, Patrick Winter argues at The Guardian, drawing attention to the “narrowest window of opportunity to try to de-escalate the crisis.”

The Iraqi Parliament’s vote yesterday to expel U.S. troops from the country “was not decisive,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board explains.

A visual representation of where U.S. troops are located in the Middle East and Afghanistan, in the light of threats of confrontation from Iran, is provided by Miriam Berger at the Washington Post.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The Trump administration is withholding 20 emails connected to frozen Ukraine military aid between Robert Blair, a top aide to President Trump’s acting chief of staff and and Michael Duffey, an official at the White House Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.), according to a letter from the Office in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The New York Times in late November. Charlie Savage and Eric Lipton report at the New York Times.

The U.S. Senate remains at a stalemate over how to proceed with the impeachment trial of President Trump, as the chamber’s leaders continue to argue over the terms and length of a trial, and lawmakers debated the way forward on Iran. Siobhan Hughes and Lindsay Wise report at the Wall Street Journal.

“If Trump has nothing to hide, if his own decision to withhold Ukraine aid was based on a similar concern for the national interest, and not made for personal gain, then he should be demanding that every administration official involved in the Ukraine machinations testify under oath, in a Senate trial,” the New York Times Editorial Board argues, commenting, “[Republicans’] silence only strengthens the case that the president is abusing his power.”

TURKEY-LIBYA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday that Turkish military units had began deploying to Libya to support Fayez al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord (G.N.A.) in Tripoli. The move came after a vote in the Turkish parliament backing deployment and further deadly attacks in Tripoli by an airforce commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa, who has been trying to expel the government since April. Patrick Wintour reports at The Guardian.

Haftar on Friday urged “all Libyans” to bear arms in response to the prospective military intervention from Turkey aimed at backing the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli. Al Jazeera reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

An attack by Somalia’s al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab group on a key military base used by U.S. counterterror forces in Kenya yesterday killed three Americans, the U.S. military said. A U.S. service member and two U.S. military contractors were killed in the attack, while two American military contractors were also wounded. Max Burman, Charlene Gubash and Doha Madani report at NBC News. 

Nearly 300,000 Syrians have been displaced from Idlib since mid-December, the U.N.’s most senior humanitarian and political affairs officials told the Security Council in a closed-doors briefing Friday. The U.N. News Centre reports. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate 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).