The Early Edition: January 9, 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

President Trump announced new economic sanctions against the Iranian regime but backed off threats of military retaliation after Tehran’s missile strikes on U.S. troop bases in Iraq caused no casualties, signaling a scaling down of tensions. Trump said Iran appeared to be “standing down” in his first formal public remarks about the conflict since ordering the drone strike of top Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week, but vowed to keep up the pressure with “punishing” new sanctions on top of the heavy economic restraints already in place. Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

The president also called upon the signatories of the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran — China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom — to follow his lead in withdrawing from the deal and work together toward striking a new pact “that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.” Anne Gearan, Siobhán O’Grady, Mike DeBonis and Felicia Sonmez report at the Washington Post.

Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., Majid Takht Ravanchi, rejected as “unbelievable” what he said was Trump’s appeal for cooperation given Washington was issuing sanctions against Tehran, Iran’s state news agency I.R.N.A. reported today. In his address to the nation, Trump said that the U.S. was “ready to embrace peace” and that the two countries should work together on shared priorities. Reuters reporting.

Hours after Trump spoke, Iraqi security officials said two rockets landed in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions are located. In a statement, Iraq’s military said the Baghdad strike caused no casualties. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Later yesterday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, descended on Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the Soleimani strike. G.O.P. Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.) ripped the administration over the briefing, announcing they will now back a measure reining in Trump’s military powers. Rebecca Shabad and Mitch Felan report at NBC News. 

The classified briefing on the Iran crisis from Trump administration officials yesterday did little to convince Democrats that the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was justified. After the briefings, Democrats said the Trump administration failed to present evidence supporting the claim that Soleimani was planning an imminent attack, with Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) saying he was “utterly unpersuaded” by the evidence put forward. Natasha Bertrand and Connor O’Brien report at POLITICO.

The House will vote today on a war powers resolution to limit Trump’s ability to take future military action against Iran without congressional authorization, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday after the lawmaker briefing. “Members of Congress have serious, urgent concerns about the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran and about its lack of strategy moving forward … our concerns were not addressed by the President’s insufficient War Powers Act notification and by the Administration’s briefing today,” Pelosi said. Christina Marcos reports at the Hill. 

“Some analysts suggested that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may have intentionally ordered a symbolic but relatively harmless attack to show Iranian citizens a forceful response without provoking an all-out war with Washington,” David D. Kirkpatrick and Ronen Bergman report at the New York Times, writing that “the ineffectual attack demonstrated the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles … but also their poor accuracy, with several landing well outside their presumed targets.”

Though there is a growing belief among some Trump administration officials that Iran’s missiles intentionally missed places populated by Americans when they targeted the al-Asad base and another that houses U.S. troops in Erbil, Gen. Milley said yesterday he believed the attack was meant to be deadly. The absence of casualties “has more to do with the defensive techniques our forces used than it does with intent,” Milley said, based on his “personal assessment.” Wesley Morgan reports at POLITICO.

Did Iran try to minimize casualties and avoid hitting U.S. facilities? The BBC takes a look.

Satellite photos showing missile damage at the Ain al-Assad air base caused by the Iranian strike are provided by Paul P. Murphy and Zachary Cohen at CNN.

Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday the United States has received intelligence that Iran has asked its allied militias not to attack U.S. targets in the week after Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s death. “We’re receiving some encouraging intelligence that Iran is sending messages to those very same militias not to move against American targets or civilians, and we hope that that message continues to echo,” Pence said in an interview. Justine Coleman reports at the Hill.

Trump urged N.A.T.O. “to become more involved in the Middle East” during a phone call yesterday with the military alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. N.A.T.O. has agreed to “contribute more to regional stability and the fight against international terrorism,” according to a summary of the conversation. Al Jazeera reporting.

Accounts of the tense hours in the White House Situation Room surrounding Tuesday’s Iranian attack, based on interviews with current and former American officials and military personnel in both Washington and Iraq, are available at the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN.

The U.S. is prepared to negotiate “with the goal of preventing further endangerment of international peace and security or escalation by the Iranian regime,” according to a letter sent by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft to the U.N. Security Council. The letter argued that the targeting of Soleimani was “justified” under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which requires states to “immediately report” to the Security Council any actions taken in exercising the right of self-defense. The BBC reporting.

A full transcript of Trump’s speech is available at NBC News.

IRAN-IRAQ: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of the Iran-U.S. conflict and President Trump’s public address is provided by Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt at the New York Times.

Five things to note from Trump’s remarks yesterday are provided by Anthony Zurcher at the BBC.

A look at Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)’s summary of the administration’s Iran briefing is provided by Aaron Blake at the Washington Post.

An essay framing the questions that Congress and the public should be asking to determine whether the U.S. strike on Soleimani was lawful is written by leading experts and former U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force JAGs Geoffrey S. Corn and Rachel VanLandingham, Lt Col, USAF (Ret.) at Just Security.

“[Proclaiming Trump] victorious for having eliminated the architect of Iran’s foreign adventurism while avoiding a more damaging response … [is] premature and shortsighted,” the Washington Post editorial board warns.

Trump’s Iran speech was not “a guarantee against war,” Julian Borger comments at The Guardian.

TEHRAN AIR CRASH INVESTIGATION

Ukraine is investigating multiple possible causes of yesterday’s deadly plane crash that killed 176 passengers and crew shortly after takeoff in Tehran. Ukraine’s National Security and Defence council chief, Oleksiy Danilov, wrote in a Facebook post that a meeting is taking place today with Iranian authorities, where various causes behind the crash are “being studied.” It is still not clear what caused the crash and several explanations, including technical failure, have not been ruled out. Aresu Eqbali, Rory Jones and Georgi Kantchev report at the Wall Street Journal.

Danilov said that Ukrainian investigators are considering a missile strike and terrorism as possible causes of the crash. Reuters reporting.

The Ukrainian jetliner flying to Kiev was trying to return to the airport when it crashed and the crew “never made a radio call for help,” Iranian investigators have said. An initial probe found that the jet encountered a technical problem as it was leaving the airport zone, and was on fire as it hit the ground and exploded. The report also confirmed that both of the black boxes that hold data and cockpit communications from the plane had been recovered, “though they had been damaged and some parts of their memory was lost,” The Guardian reporting.

Iran’s aviation authority has previously said it will not provide the aircraft’s manufacturer or the U.S. access to the black box flight recorders recovered from the plane. The announcement, by Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization head, Ali Abedzadeh, came yesterday as the leaders of Ukraine and Canada, from which dozens of citizens died, vowed to determine the cause of the crash amid contradictory statements and speculation. The BBC reporting.

Key questions about the plane crash are answered by Jacey Fortin at the New York Times.

Live updates at CNN.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Democratic senators are growing impatient over the delayed start of Trump’s impeachment trial, with some members of the caucus urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to send over the articles of impeachment. “The longer it goes on, the less the urgent it becomes,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, adding, “So if it’s serious and urgent, send them over … if it isn’t, don’t send it over.” Burgess Everett and Heather Caygle report at POLITICO.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell yesterday accused Pelosi of “shameless game-playing” as he criticized her delay in transmitting the articles of impeachment to the Senate. ‘There will be no haggling with the House over Senate procedure … the House Democrats’ turn is over,” McConnell said after Pelosi called on the leader to publish a resolution outlining rules for the impeachment trial first before the House sends over the articles. Reuters reporting.

G.O.P. leaders continue to spar over who should defend Trump in a Senate impeachment trial, Rachael Bade, Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

A federal appeals court has given permission for the Trump administration to advance with its plans to use $3.6 billion in military construction funds to build a wall along the border with Mexico. Michelle Hackman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration is seeking to delay the disclosure of costs for the Secret Service to protect President Trump and his family until after the 2020 election. Carol D. Leonnig and David A. Fahrenthold report at the Washington Post.

A United States federal appeals court in New York yesterday declined to lift an injunction preventing the Trump administration from enforcing a ‘public charge’ rule that would have allowed it to tie the use of public benefits with whether immigrants could be granted visas or become permanent residents. Al Jazeera reporting.

Turkey and Russia yesterday urged Libya’s warring parties to declare a ceasefire on Sunday as European Union officials increased diplomatic efforts to ease tensions in the North African nation by holding talks with its prime minister amid continued clashes and air strikes. AP reporting.

A report by U.N. sanctions monitors has said Yemen’s Houthi rebels did not carry out an attack in September that set on fire two major Saudi oil facilities. According to the confidential report, the independent U.N. experts to the Security Council Yemen sanctions committee said, “that despite their claims to the contrary, the Houthi forces did not launch the attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais on 14 September 2019.” Reuters reporting. 

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).