The Early Edition: January 13, 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 approved the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani last June if Iran’s increased aggression caused the death of an American, according to five current and former senior administration officials. The revelation undercuts the administration’s stated justification for ordering the drone strike that killed the top Iranian commander in Baghdad on Jan. 3, namely that he was plotting imminent attacks on Americans and had to be stopped. Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube report at NBC News.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday that he had not seen specific evidence from intelligence officials suggesting Iran was planning to strike four U.S. embassies, as Trump claimed last week, though Esper said he shared Trump’s view that such an attack was “probably” in the works. Democrats in Congress, and some Republicans, have criticized the administration, saying a threat against multiple embassies was not mentioned in a classified briefing last week on the strike. Peter Baker and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the New York Times.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien echoed Esper’s remarks, saying Trump’s “interpretation” of the threat was consistent with overall intelligence that justified the killing of the senior Iranian general. Even with the United States’ “exquisite intelligence,” it is difficult “to know exactly what the targets are,” O’Brien said. Allan Smith reports at NBC News.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also defended the Soleimani strike, saying the operation was justified by an imminent threat to United States embassies and other American interests. “We had specific information on an imminent threat,” Pompeo told a news conference at the White House. “And those threats included attacks on U.S. Embassies … period, full stop,” the secretary said, brushing off demands from Democrats for evidence. Karen DeYoung reports at the Washington Post.

The United States on Friday rejected a request by Iraq’s government to start talks on pulling out its 5,200 troops, saying their presence in Iraq was key for the fight against the Islamic State group. Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, asked Pompeo late Thursday to send a delegation to begin withdrawal arrangements in line with a vote by Iraq’s parliament last week, however, the U.S. State Department said any delegation sent to Iraq would not discuss the removal of U.S. troops and would instead be dedicated to “discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership … [and] our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.” AP reporting.

The Trump administration threatened that Iraq might lose access to a critical government bank account if Baghdad expels American forces following the U.S. airstrike that killed a top Iranian general, according to Iraqi officials. The State Department cautioned that the U.S. could “shut down” Iraq’s access to the country’s central bank account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a move that could jostle Iraq’s already unstable economy, the officials said. Ian Talley and Isabel Coles report in an exclusive at the Wall Street Journal.

Four members of Iraq’s military were wounded yesterday in a rocket attack targeting an air base north of Baghdad where U.S. troop are present, Iraqi security officials said. Al Jazeera reporting.

The U.S. military unsuccessfully tried to take out another senior Iranian commander in Yemen on the same day a drone strike killed Gen. Soleimani, according to American officials. Special operations forces executed a strike to target Abdul Reza Shahlai — a Yemen-based financial backer and high-ranking member of Iran’s Quds Force — but the mission did not kill him. John Hudson, Missy Ryan and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration slapped another round of economic sanctions on Iran on Friday in response to its missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq last week and pledged to apply more pressure if Tehran continued “terrorist” acts or pursued a nuclear bomb. Reuters reporting.

Trump said yesterday he “couldn’t care less” if U.S. sanctions forced Iran to the negotiating table. In a message sent on Twitter last night, Trump responded to statements made by O’Brien, who had earlier suggested that sanctions and protests had left Iran “choked off” and would force the country to negotiate. Reuters reporting.

In a rare emergency meeting on Friday, European Union (E.U.) foreign ministers, joined by N.A.T.O. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, backed away from any tough diplomatic response to Tehran in an attempt to ease U.S.-Iran tensions. The nations reiterated their call for Tehran to abide by the limits of the 2015 nuclear arms control deal, opting not to trigger a dispute resolution process that could result in renewed U.N. sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Al Jazeera reporting.

U.S. troops at the al-Asad airbase in Iraq were aware that an attack by the Iranians was coming hours before missiles struck last Wednesday, allowing them to flee the site. Iraq notified the U.S in advance of “which bases would be hit” after Iran warned the Iraqi government. As a result, most of the troops stationed at the base had either been flown out of the base or were taking shelter in the base’s bunkers by the time the missiles hit the base, Tamara Qiblawi, Arwa Damon and Brice Laine report at CNN.

“The operation that took out Gen. Suleimani propelled the United States to the precipice of war with Iran and plunged the world into seven days of roiling uncertainty.” An account of that week, and the confidential planning in the months preceding it, is provided by Peter Baker, Ronen Bergman, David D. Kirkpatrick, Julian E. Barnes and Alissa J. Rubin at the New York Times.

IRAN-IRAQ: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A look at the Trump administration’s “fluctuating” justifications over 10 days for the Soleimani strike is fielded by Chris Cameron and Helene Cooper at the New York Times.

A critical assessment of the U.S. legal defense of the Soleimani strike at the U.N. is provided by Adil Ahmad Haque at Just Security, who comments that “the U.S. letter is legally flawed in many respects.”

An insightful breakdown of the security situation in the Middle East is provided by Simon Tisdall at The Guardian.

“The decision-making process [behind Gen. Suleimani’s killing] was abysmal and ensured that the legal issues would not be properly vetted and that Congress would be denied its statutory and constitutional role,” Just Security’s Harold Koh writes at Foreign Policy.

“If Congress wants to assert its power to declare war, we must take on the hard task of publicly debating a new Authorization for Use of Military Force, the A.U.M.F. … as well as congressional appropriations for military operations,” Reps. Elaine Luria and Max Rose explain why they voted against the War Powers Resolution that the House passed last week at the New York Times.

“[The U.S. operation] reflects … the presence of a new group of top national security advisers who are more hawkish on Iran, more willing to provide [Trump] with aggressive options and less inclined to check his instincts,” Paul Sonne, Greg Jaffe and Josh Dawsey write at the Washington Post.

The differences between an assassination, an extrajudicial execution, and a targeted killing, in the light of growing confusion about the legality of the premeditated killing of Gen. Suleimani on Jan. 3, are explored by Charli Carpenter at Foreign Policy.

TEHRAN AIR CRASH INVESTIGATION

The Iranian government admitted that its military unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane outside Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard, in an abrupt about-turn after initially denying international claims it was struck by a missile. President Hassan Rouhani said a military probe into the tragedy had found “missiles fired due to human error” brought down the jetliner, calling it an “unforgivable mistake.” He stated that his government was prepared for international co-operation including issuing visas for concerned foreign delegations to deal with issues connected to the crash. Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Monavar Khalaj report at the Financial Times.

Top Iranian security official Ali Shamkhani said yesterday Iran had no intention to hide the cause of the crash of the Ukrainian plane which the Iranian military admitted it had mistakenly shot down, the state-run I.R.I.B. news agency reported. “From the start, there was no intention to conceal the causes of the accident, especially since its nature and technical characteristics … make it virtually impossible to conceal,” Shamkhani was quoted as saying. Reuters reporting.

The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said on Saturday it is probing possible wilful killing and aircraft destruction in its investigation of the Tehran plane crash. Reuters reporting.

President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to Twitter to weigh in on Iran’s admission. Trump voiced support for the “brave, long-suffering people” of Iran, and urged the Iranian authorities to allow human rights groups to monitor the protests. Pompeo said that Iranians “are fed up with the regime’s lies, corruption, ineptitude and brutality,” and described the government led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “kleptocracy.” The New York Times reporting.

The admission triggered large-scale protests in parts of Tehran as thousands of people took to the main squares to express their anger. Gatherings that were originally planned to mourn the 176 victims of the downed plane turned into protests over the government, with some calling for the resignation of Khamenei. Aresu Eqbali and Sune Engel Rasmussen report at the Wall Street Journal.

The protests turned violent in Tehran with anti-riot police using tear gas and opening water cannons at the crowd, videos showed. AP reporting.

A look at what’s at stake for Iran after admitting it downed the Ukraine airliner is fielded by Miriam Berger at the Washington Post.

The admission by Iranian authorities could be a “watershed moment,” Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi comments at the BBC.

Live updates at CNN.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

An impeachment trial against President Trump will be set in motion in the Senate this week, according to a letter sent on Friday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to colleagues. Pelosi said that she would consult with House Democrats tomorrow on how to go ahead, but indicated that the House could name its managers, who will act as the prosecutors for the Senate trial, and send the two articles of impeachment against Trump as soon as this week. Allan Smith reports at NBC News.

Pelosi defended her decision to withhold the formal charges, and accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of attempting to “cover up” any wrongdoing in the president’s dealings with Ukraine. The speaker cited McConnell’s support for a measure that would allow lawmakers to dismiss articles of impeachment without a trial, witnesses or documentation for proceedings. Stephanie Armour reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump indicated in an interview Friday that he would invoke executive privilege to prevent former national security adviser John Bolton from testifying at the Senate impeachment trial after Bolton said in a statement that he was “prepared to testify” if subpoenaed by the Senate. When asked whether he would invoke executive privilege to block any potential testimony, Trump said: “I think you have to for the sake of the office.” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Trump yesterday called for dismissal of the House’s charges of high crimes and misdemeanors against him with no trial, inserting fresh uncertainty into final preparations for the Senate’s impeachment trial. “Many believe that by the Senate giving credence to a trial based on the no evidence, no crime, read the transcripts, ‘no pressure’ Impeachment Hoax, rather than an outright dismissal, it gives the partisan Democrat Witch Hunt credibility that it otherwise does not have … I agree!” the president said in a message sent on Twitter. Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

Trump’s legal team is determining who will defend the president on the Senate floor. White House counsel Pat Cipollone is expected to lead Trump’s defense, with the president’s outside counsel Jay Sekulow at his side. Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The F.B.I. told a secretive court on Friday that it was increasing training and oversight for officials tasked with national security wiretap applications after a scathing inspector general report last month revealed a number of serious failings, including botched surveillance targeting a former Trump campaign adviser. Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

Two U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan on Saturday in a roadside bombing attack that was claimed by the Taliban in the southern part of the country. The service members were identified as Staff Sgt. Ian P. McLaughlin from Virginia, and Pfc. Miquel A. Villalon from Illinois. Rebecca Klar reports at the Hill.

The U.N. Security Council voted to adopt a resolution Friday that drastically cut the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria in a diplomatic win for Russia. U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft described the resolution as “watered down,” since it curtailed the number of crossing points for aid deliveries from four to two and cut the year-long mandate for cross-border deliveries to six months.  The U.N. News Centre reporting.

Both sides in Libya’s conflict agreed to a tentative ceasefire from yesterday to end nine months of fighting, following weeks of international diplomacy and calls for a truce by power-brokers Russia and Turkey. Patrick Wintour reports at The Guardian.

The Trump administration has reached out to North Korea to resume diplomacy, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in an interview published yesterday. Justine Coleman reports at the Hill. 

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).