The Early Edition: January 7, 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-IRAQ

The Pentagon yesterday denied that U.S. troops are preparing to withdraw from Iraq — after a leaked letter from a U.S. general suggested imminent troop pullout one day after Iraqi lawmakers passed a non-binding resolution calling for their removal. At an impromptu question-and-answer session with reporters, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley said the letter was a mere “draft” and should not have been sent, while Defence Secretary Mark Esper said the document was “inconsistent” with Washington’s position and denied there had been a decision to leave Iraq. Sarah Dadouch, Siobhán O’Grady and Michael Brice-Saddler report at the Washington Post.

The letter sent in error threw America’s military strategy in Iraq into further confusion and “added to an impression among U.S. allies and enemies alike that the decision to assassinate [Iran’s top military commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani] without a clear plan of what to do next had weakened the U.S. in the region,” Julian Borger reports at The Guardian.

At least 32 people were killed in a stampede today during the funeral procession for Gen. Suleimani, forcing the postponement of the burial, Iranian state T.V. reported. Iranians gathered in the south-eastern city of Kerman for the general’s burial after four days of funeral processions in cities across Iran and Iraq, ceremonies marked by calls for revenge and threats of potential attacks from Iran. The BBC reporting. 

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said at a National Security Council meeting that any retaliation for the U.S. strike that killed top general Qassem Soleimani must be a “direct and proportional” attack on American interests, according to three Iranians familiar with the meeting. During the meeting, which was to lay down parameters for any future retaliation, Khamenei said the assault must be openly carried out by Iranian forces themselves, a departure for Iranian leadership since Iran has typically used proxies to attack targets since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Farnaz Fassihi and David D. Kirkpatrick report at the New York Times.

The Trump administration has refused a visa to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to travel to New York to attend a U.N. Security Council meeting scheduled later this week, violating a U.N. headquarters agreement guaranteeing foreign officials access to the U.N. headquarters. Zarif was expected to address the world for the first time after the U.S. conducted a strike killing Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The meeting and Zarif’s travel had been planned before the escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran, Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report at Foreign Policy.

Esper yesterday shot down the possibility of the U.S. targeting cultural sites in Iran, despite President Trump’s threats to do so if the conflict between the two countries escalates. “We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper told reporters; when pressed if that ruled out targeting cultural sites, Esper said pointedly, “that’s the laws of armed conflict.”  Trump previously said in a message sent on Twitter that potential targets the U.S. identified included sites that were “very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” and proclaimed that they were fair game. Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Audrey Azoulay, the director-general of U.N.E.S.C.O., met with the Iranian ambassador to the organization yesterday to discuss the current situation, and issued a statement pointing to international agreements that condemn acts of destruction of cultural heritage which both countries have ratified, including the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Azoulay stressed “the universality of cultural and natural heritage in promoting peace and dialogue between peoples … which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

European Union (E.U.) officials will hold an emergency meeting Friday to discuss possible options for salvaging the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after Tehran announced this weekend it would abandon the deal’s limitations on uranium enrichment. “We must be ready to react to Iran’s breaches of the nuclear deal,” one of the diplomats involved in the planning of the meeting said. Reuters reporting.

Iran is “ready to come back to full compliance” with its nuclear accord with world powers, deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi declared today, according to a message sent on Twitter from the Foreign Ministry, though the post did not provide any further details on possible conditions. Reuters reporting.

Senior administration officials have begun drawing up potential economic sanctions against Iraq after Trump threatened to impose sanctions should the country force American troops to withdraw, according to three officials briefed on the planning. The talks regarding possible sanctions are in preliminary stages, and the Treasury Department and the White House would likely coordinate the sanctions effort on Iraq if it were to advance. Jeff Stein and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

N.A.T.O. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has warned a new Middle East conflict would be in “no one’s interests,” as leading European powers urged de-escalation in the Iran crisis, but stopped short of approving the U.S. assassination of one of the Islamic republic’s top military commanders in Baghdad, emphasizing it was a decision made by the U.S., and not by either N.A.T.O. or the coalition against Islamic State. Stoltenberg declined to say whether the U.S. had shared any intelligence assessments to support claims made by officials in America that Suleimani was plotting attacks on U.S. diplomats likely to take place in the weeks or months ahead. Patrick Wintour and Jennifer Rankin report at The Guardian.

The Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) issued a bulletin this week through its National Terrorism Advisory System warning of Iran’s ability to conduct cyberattacks with “disruptive effects” against key U.S. infrastructure. In the bulletin, sent in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike that killed Gen. Soleimani, D.H.S. noted that while there is at present “no information indicating a specific, credible threat to the Homeland,” Iran is capable of attacking the U.S. in cyberspace. Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

The full U.S. Senate will receive a briefing tomorrow from senior Trump administration officials including the secretaries of state and defense on the situation in Iraq and Iran, according to Senate aides. Reuters reporting.

“A look at the history of Iranian reprisals shows how difficult it will be to predict how, when and where Iran might fight back in response to the drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani,” Drew Hinshaw and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal, noting the nation previously “aimed for soft targets.”

Updates at CNN and the New York Times.

IRAN-IRAQ: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of the “strategic dilemmas” the Trump administration is facing is provided by Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post.

Many experts are left wondering about what President Trump aimed to achieve by killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani and the strategy behind it, Max Fisher comments at the New York Times.

“Trump’s order to take out a top Iranian general may do what his withdrawal from the “horrible, one-sided” Iran nuclear agreement did not: Kill the deal,” Anna Gearan argues at the Washington Post.

“[Iran’s] decision to remove the restrictions on its uranium enrichment, production and research could soon pose a challenge for the Trump administration at least as great as retaliation against the assassination,” Philip Gordon and Ariane Tabatabai warn at the New York Times.

Five ways the Suleimani strike “will likely gut the counter-ISIS campaign” are explored by Luke Hartig at Just Security after U.S. and coalition forces are “hunkered down” in anticipation of Iranian retaliation.

An explainer of the legal issues at play, including Democrats’ attempts to invoke the War Powers Resolution in an attempt to block Trump from taking the U.S. into a war with Iran, is provided by Charlie Savage at the New York Times.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Former national security adviser John Bolton in a surprise announcement said yesterday he would be willing to testify in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Trump — if the Senate subpoenas him. “I have concluded that, if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify,” Bolton said in a statement posted on his website, a declaration that “marks a significant, and potentially dramatic, development in the impeachment process,” Carol E. Lee, Hans Nichols and Kristen Welker report at NBC News.

“It would take a simple majority of the 100 senators to approve any new witnesses, meaning four Republicans would be needed if all 47 senators who caucus with the Democrats backed new testimony,” Natalie Andrews reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Trump’s killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani has overshadowed the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history …. but the twists are still coming at a breakneck pace,” Burgess Everett and John Bresnahan report on recent developments at POLITICO.

Bolton’s announcement “[reignites] the dispute over witnesses and [piles] pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.),” Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis at CNN.

Some of the president’s closest aides, official and unofficial, past and present are withholding their witness testimony in contempt of Congress and the law, Just Security’s Harold Koh argues at the New York Times, proposing four steps congress must take to resolve this “new constitutional crisis.”

“Are McConnell’s fellow Republicans so heedless of their constitutional duty, so committed to a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to Trump, that they would fail to take up the opportunity to hear from Bolton?” Ruth Marcus asks at the Washington Post, while noting, “perhaps this is the ultimate in cynical maneuvers: a canny Washington player making an offer that he knows McConnell can afford to refuse.”

IMMIGRATION

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (C.B.P.) yesterday began a “limited, small-scale pilot program” to compile DNA from “certain” migrants in custody. The pilot program will go on for 90 days, Justine Coleman reports at the Hill. 

The Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) will share citizenship data with the U.S. Census Bureau, the latest development in the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to carry out the executive order President Trump issued in July after courts blocked the administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. AP reporting.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean President Moon Jae-in today called for new talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,  saying he regretted the past year’s lack of progress in negotiations, and invited Kim to visit Seoul “as soon as possible,” despite Pyongyang’s abandonment of its nuclear and missile test moratoriums. AP reporting.

“The decision to kill Soleimani …. proves Trump’s threats are not always bluster, which could give North Korea reason for pause if it was considering doing something provocative, like testing a long-range ballistic missile or nuclear weapon,” Joshua Berlinger writes in an analysis at CNN.

TURKEY-LIBYA

Opposition forces in Libya have apparently taken over the coastal city of Sirte, in what would be an important strategic gain. Sirte has been controlled by forces aligned with Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (G.N.A.) since they ejected Islamic State from the city with the help of U.S. air strikes in late 2016. The BBC reporting.

The U.N. envoy for Libya, Ghassam Salamé, has urged an end to all foreign interference in the country, saying that a military solution is not possible and governments and mercenaries assisting rival forces are hindering a political solution. Al Jazeera reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

U.S. Ambassador John Bass is ending his two-year tenure in Afghanistan, the State Department announced yesterday, as peace talks with the Taliban remain stalled. Jennifer Hansler reports at CNN.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the situation in the Middle East with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky yesterday after the secretary’s planned visit to the region was postponed in the wake of escalating tensions in the Middle East. Laura Kelly reports at the Hill

Eric Chewning, chief of staff to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, will leave the department at the end of the month, the Pentagon announced yesterday, the latest senior defense official to resign in recent weeks. Wesley Morgan and Connor O’Brien report at POLITICO.  

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).