The Early Edition: January 8, 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

Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles against U.S. military and coalition forces in Iraq, the Pentagon confirmed yesterday, fulfilling Tehran’s pledge to retaliate for the killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani by the U.S.. The missiles were launched directly from Iran and targeted two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. and coalition troops, one at Ain al-Assad and one in Erbil, at about 5:30 p.m. Eastern time. Iran swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack, Alissa J. Rubin, Farnaz Fassihi, Eric Schmitt and Vivian Yee report at the New York Times.

There were no immediate reports of American or Iraqi casualties at either attack site, but Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard claimed, without presenting evidence, that at least 80 U.S. soldiers had been killed in the strikes. Michael Safi, Julian Borger and Patrick Wintour report at The Guardian.

The Iranian regime indicated it had “concluded” the mission to retaliate. Iran does not “seek escalation or war,” the country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in a message sent on Twitter last night, calling the attacks on American forces “proportionate measures in self-defense.” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

President Trump declared in a message sent on Twitter that “all is well!” and that damages and casualties were being assessed but “so far, so good.” The president said that he would make a full statement this morning on the conflict. Karen DeYoung, Paul Sonne and Dan Lamothe report at the Washington Post.

The limited nature of Iran’s retaliation may be to the satisfaction of both sides, with Tehran able to say it has avenged Suleimani’s death and the U.S. able to dismiss it as a comparatively minor incident, Michael Safi writes at The Guardian.

Senior Trump administration officials went before the public yesterday to defend the killing of Gen. Soleimani as U.S. intelligence officials prepared for briefings to Congress late yesterday and today. In rolling appearances, Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien “offered new justifications but little detail,” citing threats to U.S. troops and interests and intelligence suggesting other imminent attacks that helped trigger the strike. Julian E. Barnes, Catie Edmondson, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Rukmini Callimachi report at the New York Times.

“[T]he administration kept any details of the timing of an Iranian attack plot out of public view, largely sidestepping questions about whether a violent action by Gen. Soleimani was imminent, as the president said on Friday,” Gordon Lubold, Nancy A. Youssef and Isabel Coles report at the Wall Street Journal.

An account of the mixed messages offered yesterday in defense of last week’s strike is provided by Karoun Demirjian, Karen DeYoung and Shane Harris at the Washington Post.

Trump appeared to back down yesterday from his threat to target Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliates over the strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Trump told reporters that he wants to obey the law when asked whether he would target Iranian cultural sites, which legal experts have said would likely amount to a violation of international law. “If that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.  Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO. 

Trump yesterday followed up on remarks from Defense Secretary Mark Esper, telling reporters that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was not imminent, but indicating that his long-term intention was to pull out the 5,200 US troops currently there. “I think we’ve done a fantastic job but eventually, we want to be able to let Iraq run its own affairs,” he said, adding “we want to get out … but this isn’t the right point.” The president insisted again Iraq would have to reimburse Washington for infrastructure investments if the U.S. is forced out of the country, as the Iraqi government and parliament have demanded, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

N.A.T.O. is removing some of its personnel from Iraq, in the wake of the U.S. killing of Gen. Suleimani. The organization said in a statement that it would be taking precautions — including “the temporary repositioning of some personnel to different locations both inside and outside Iraq.’’ The official declined to state how many personnel were being moved or to where, but said N.A.T.O. “maintains a presence in Iraq.” Al Jazeera reporting.

U.S. forces at Iraqi bases probably had some warning before missiles fired by Iran hit last night, owing to a facility devoted to detecting and providing alerts about launches anywhere in the world, according to public documents and a former senior intelligence official. Ken Dilanian and Mosheh Gains report at NBC News.

56 people were killed yesterday in the Iranian city of Kerman after a stampede broke out during the funeral procession for Gen. Soleimani. The crowding and subsequent stampede led to the top Revolutionary Guard commander’s burial being postponed, state news media reported; he was buried around midnight, Al Jazeera reporting.

Also in Iran, a Ukrainian plane with more than 170 passengers crashed early today after taking off from the Iranian capital bound for Kiev, killing all on board. In a briefing, Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk called for avoiding speculation about the cause of the crash until the investigation concluded. However, Ukraine’s embassy in Iran withdrew an earlier statement from Iran based on preliminary information that had blamed the accident on engine failure, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Erin Cunningham and Sarah Dadouch report at the Washington Post.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has ordered Ukraine’s prosecutors to open criminal proceedings over the plane crash, Reuters reporting.

Live updates at CNN and the New York Times.

IRAN-IRAQ: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“In effect, Iran called President Trump’s bluff, dismissing his warnings that it should not respond to his own massively provocative move of killing the Islamic Republic’s top general,” Stephen Collinson comments in an analysis at CNN.

Key details about the two Iraqi military bases targeted yesterday are provided by the BBC.

“[T]he administration’s explanation for authorizing last week’s strike has varied depending on the moment,” Peter Baker writes in an analysis at the New York Times.

Both the U.S. strike last week and the Iran strikes yesterday were illegal — as unlawful armed reprisals — and now is moment to climb down, Adil Ahmad Haque argues at Just Security.

“The attack [on Gen. Suleimani] illustrates America’s lack of a clear grand strategy — and why we need one immediately,” Elizabeth Cobbs and Kimberly C. Field argue at the New York Times.

A look at Iran’s arsenal is fielded by Laurence Norman at the Wall Street Journal, who notes that, “Iran has made significant strides in its ballistic-missile technology.”

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced yesterday that Republicans have enough votes to proceed with President Trump’s impeachment trial with no agreement with Democrats on witnesses. The plan put forward by McConnell, which is similar to the one used in President Bill Clinton’s 1999 Senate trial, would feature representatives of the House and the president making opening arguments before senators question both sides; a decision on witnesses would come afterward. John Bresnahan and Burgess Everett report at POLITICO.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told fellow Democrats in a meeting yesterday that she will not send articles of impeachment to the Senate until she learns more about how the chamber would conduct a potential trial. In a letter sent to colleagues after the briefing, Pelosi urged McConnell to “immediately” publish the resolution detailing the parameters and procedures for the trial, arguing that the process proposed by the Senate majority leader is “unfair” and “deprive[s] Senators and the American people of crucial documents and testimony.” Olivia Beavers and Mike Lillis report at the Hill.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“Were it not for Just Security obtaining the emails without the redactions [showing that the order to freeze military aid to Ukraine came directly from the president], that information — and the Trump administration’s obstruction of it — would likely still be unknown,” Austin Evers writes at Just Security, commenting that the Freedom of Information Act (F.O.I.A.) has become the only vehicle to force the release of Ukraine-related records, but the administration still has plenty of opportunities to try to conceal the facts.

“The importance of John Bolton’s offer to testify if subpoenaed in the impeachment proceedings against President Trump cannot be overstated,” Neal K. Katyal and George T. Conway III argue at the New York Times, urging the Senate to take the former national security adviser up on his offer in order for “a fair and impartial trial” to take place.

“The House should subpoena Bolton for testimony and documents immediately … if he refuses, they should hold him in contempt of Congress,” Kurt Bardella comments at NBC News.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Federal prosecutors yesterday asked a court to sentence former national-security adviser Michael Flynn to up to six months in prison, a reversal of their earlier request for leniency for the ex-Trump aide. AP reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday accused Iran of working to defeat efforts to achieve peace in Afghanistan, without providing specific details to support his allegation. Reuters reporting.

Before South Korea will increase its payments to the U.S. for the help it gets from America’s military, the U.S. first has to submit spending plans and expense reports to Seoul, presenting a challenge to cost-sharing negotiators in Washington. Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal. 

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).