The Early Edition: June 26, 2017 – Just Security

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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

Senior officials and key Trump allies are pressing the administration to take steps to topple Iran’s clerical regime as the White House formulates its official policy on that country, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and others saying it’s the only way to stop Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support for terrorism, Michael Crowley reports at POLITICO.

A regime change policy toward Iran would benefit neither American short-term nor long-term interests, writes Eric Pelofsky at Just Security. The Trump administration must move quickly and decisively to clarify its policy toward Iran after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement that U.S. policy toward Iran would include support for “peaceful” regime change there in a public congressional hearing earlier this month which may have gone unnoticed in Washington but which was certainly picked up on in Iran.

Iran is a state to be “smartly managed,” not “assumed to be an implacable enemy.” President Trump’s demonizing of Iran could result in a widening of the American military mission, from defeating the Islamic State to preventing Iran’s regional influence from growing, which would be dangerous and which puts at risk the “momentary thaw” in U.S.-Iran relations represented by the 2015 nuclear deal, writes the New York Times editorial board.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

While a list of demands delivered to Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the ongoing diplomatic standoff against its smaller neighbor are a starting point for discussions “[Some] of the elements will be very difficult for Qatar to meet,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement yesterday, Felicia Schwartz reporting at the Wall Street Journal.

Tillerson called for a “lowering of rhetoric” to defuse tensions and confirmed that the U.S. would support a Kuwaiti-led mediation effort in yesterday’s statement, which marked the first formal response from the state department to the Gulf-Arab dispute since the list of demands were released, Al Jazeera reports.

Qatar dismissed a list of demands Saturday, the director of Qatar’s communications body Sheikh Saif Al-Thani stating that the demands demonstrate that “the illegal blockade has nothing to do with combating terrorism.” Nicholas Parasie reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned the list of demands yesterday, stating that requiring the removal of Turkish troops from Qatar – one of the demands tabled – is “disrespectful toward Turkey,” Zeynep Bilginsoy reports at the AP.

“We don’t need permission from anyone to establish military bases among partners,” President Erdoğan said yesterday, throwing Turkey’s weight behind Qatar’s position of non-compliance with the Arab countries’ demands. Martin Chulov writes at the Guardian.

Qatar urged the U.S. to put pressure on Arab countries to help resolve the Gulf crisis, a Qatari defense spokesperson suggesting that the U.S. should place a hold on the sale of military training and equipment to Saudi Arabia to exert its influence in the region, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The “siege of Qatar is not acceptable to us,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a conversation with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani yesterday, according to the office of the presidency’s website, the AP reports.

The U.S.’ mixed messages over Qatar has worsened the Gulf crisis and demonstrates the significant and open foreign policy divergences between the White House and the Pentagon and the state department, Julian Borger writes at the Guardian.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s actions as behind-the-scenes mediator in the Saudi-Qatar dispute has put him in public disagreement with the president who appointed him, write David E. Sanger, Gardiner Harris and Mark Landler at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak at the center of the F.B.I. probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. election is being recalled by the Kremlin,Buzzfeed News’ John Hudson reports, citing three sources.

White House senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s association with Deutsche Bank in the lead-up to Election Day is among a number of financial dealings that could come under scrutiny as his business activities are reviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of Mueller’s wider investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, writes Michael Kranish at the Washington Post.

Kushner’s ties with ailing Russian state development bank Vnesheconombank (VEB) are also part of the “Russiagate” investigation, Max Seddon explains at the Financial Times.

Homeland Security officials testified that they have evidence that Russia targeted election-related systems in 21 states as it tried to influence the outcome of the presidential election last year before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week as increasing concerns about threats to election systems are putting heat on the D.H.S. and its efforts to bolster national cybersecurity, writes Morgan Chalfant at the Hill.

The hope that post-election campaign Trump would finally speak declaratively about Russian interference in the election and recognize the threat that Russian cyberattacks constitute, without “askerisks, wisecracks, caveats or obfuscation” has dissipated with the president’s latest tweets trying to focus attention on the former Obama administration or attempts to protect campaign opponent Hillary Clinton, writes Maggie Haberman at the New York Times.

A report from deep within the Russian government detailing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt the U.S. election delivered to the White House last August as “eyes only” C.I.A. intelligence was the first moment of genuine foreboding at the highest levels of government about Russia’s intentions with regard to the U.S. election, the Washington Post reveals in a detailed exclusive.

What exactly is the basis in law on which special counsel Robert Mueller has been appointed? An obstruction charge against the president would face two hurdles: one is the decision whether to charge former national security adviser Michael Flynn in relation to his dealings with Russia and subsequent possibly false statements to investigators about them; the other is the statutory requirement for the president to have acted “corruptly,” former attorney general Michael B. Mukasey writes at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump’s “Twitter bluff” that he had tapes of conversations with fired F.B.I. director James Comey led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller and are further proof that the biggest obstacle to a successful Trump presidency is Trump himself, writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

SYRIA

The U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab coalition the Syrian Democratic Forces has captured a western district of the Islamic State’s de-facto capital Raqqa after three days of intense fighting, Al Jazeera reports.

Assad forces and opposition fighters are engaged in intensified fighting in the southern Syrian province of Quneitra, inside the portion of the Golan Heights under Syrian control, Al Jazeera reports.

A series of Syrian government targets were targeted by Israel’s military after several projectiles from neigboring Syria landed in the Israeli-controled part of the Golan Heights, Israel’s military said yesterday, the second round of strikes by Israel over the weekend. Josef Federman reports at the AP.

Syria is quickly devolving into a “free-for-all” with a high chance of further friction between regional powers as Americans, Russians and those they support scramble to meet “mutually incompatible” objectives, Jonathan Spyer looking at how events in the war-torn country came to reach this pass at Foreign Policy.

An insight into the handful of secret and increasingly dangerous commando raids of the equally secretive almost three-year American ground war against the Islamic State in Syria is provided by new details being revealed about a failed April operation to capture Islamic State supreme leader associate Abdurakhmon Uzbeki and another, similar episode in January, writes Eric Schmitt at the New York Times.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces have repelled counter-attacks by the Islamic State in Mosul including large numbers of suicide bombers in northern parts of the city, the insurgents now reduced to a square mile of territory as the offensive to liberate the city reaches its final phase, the BBC reports.

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

Palestinian officials were greatly disappointed by their meeting with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and U.S. Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt last Wednesday, the Americans beginning the meeting by raising Israel’s complaints over Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to condemn a terror attack in Jerusalem last week and other incitements, they told Jack Khoury at HAARETZ.

Kushner’s meeting with Abbas was “tense,” according to U.K.-based Arabic daily al-Hayat, which also reports that President Trump is weighing whether to pull out of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations following the meeting in Ramallah last week as translated by Yasser Okbi and Maariv Hashavua at the Jerusalem Post.

The Abbas-Kushner meeting was “in-depth and frank” and the two “exchanged views very clearly,” according to the news agency of the Palestinian National Authority, WAFA.

The Palestinian diplomatic strategy remains to engage positively with Kushner and Greenblatt, a senior officials close to Abbas told Al-Monitor’s Uri Savir.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

“[Stopping] the North Korea threat” will be a top priority, the new U.S. ambassador to China Terry Branstad said in a video message to the Chinese people released today setting out his approach to U.S.-China relations and highlighting his experience of engaging with China over three decades, Christian Shepherd reporting at Reuters.

The role of the Young Pioneers Tour group in the recent death of U.S. student Otto Warmbier and the tour company’s disregard for the safety of tour participants is analyzed by Isaac Stone Fish at POLITICO.

TRUMP-MODI MEETING

President Trump will meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi later today, Modi telling a gathering in Virginia earlier that India had “proved its power” to the world when it conducted “surgical strikes” on militant bases in Pakistan last September, the BBC speculating that his speech could be an effort to strike a chord with the “tough-talking” Mr. Trump ahead of their meeting.

“I return to the U.S. confident in the growing convergence between our two nations” stemming from shared values and the stability of both nations’ systems, Modi writes at the Wall Street Journal ahead of today’s meeting with President Trump.

The Trump administration will have to sort out its own foreign policy before India can be reassured that strategic interests remain aligned, for instance on whether Trump shares India’s concern over Chinese expansion in South and Central Asia or whether the president is prepared to aggressively confront Pakistan on its support for radical groups, writes Josh Rogin at the Washington Post.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

U.S. government websites in Ohio have been hacked to display pro-Islamic State messages by a group calling itself Team System DZ, the BBC reports.

The Russian government is deemed the most likely culprit behind a “sustained” cyber-attack on the U.K. parliament that began Friday, which sought to gain access to accounts protected by weak passwords, Evan MacAskill and Ranjeev Syal write at the Guardian.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce today whether it will take up the appeal of lower court orders on Trump’s travel ban, allowing the government to enforce the executive order while the appeal is pending, Pete Williams writes at NBC News.

There are no definite arrangements on a meeting between President Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said today, Reuters reporting.

The Afghan government needs to “increase the credibility of the security institutions,” the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto said in an interview Friday, setting out the need for security and stability, progress on political issues and meaningful action on the peace process with the Taliban, the U.N. News Centre reports.

New Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s aggressive foreign policy initiatives are proving self-defeating – and damaging to U.S. interests – despite which Salman has acquired a lot of admirers in the Trump White House and beyond, writes the Washington Post editorial board, citing his close association as defense minister with Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen and the recent blockade of Qatar, a Saudi-led initiative.

Recent attacks in Europe demonstrate a new phase of Islamist terror whereby attackers lack training to carry out more sophisticated attacks, making an increase in small-scale attacks more probable, and a lack of direct connections to terror networks, making it difficult for intelligence services to track potential attackers, Julian E. Barnes and Noemie Bisserbe write at the Wall Street Journal.

The acting director of the State Department office dedicated to policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan stood down Friday as the Trump administration ponders a decision whether to close down the stand-alone office and absorb it into the larger division responsible for South and Central Asia, Anne Gearan and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

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