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SitRep: Mattis, Tillerson Slam Tehran; Carrier Drama Making Allies Uneasy; ISIS Chemical Attack Targets U.S., Aussie Grunts

SitRep: Mattis, Tillerson Slam Tehran; Carrier Drama Making Allies Uneasy; ISIS Chemical Attack Targets U.S., Aussie Grunts

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Fuel, meet fire. In the midst of a crisis with North Korea that has seen warlike rhetoric being tossed about between Pyongyang and Washington, the Trump administration on Wednesday rattled its sabers in a new direction, looking squarely at Tehran.

“Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said while traveling in Saudi Arabia. Mattis was in Riyadh to discuss a range of issues with the Saudis, including its war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who receive some backing from Iran.  

Speaking of that conflict, the secretary said that “we’ll have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilize yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah.” But he insisted that Washington’s goal is push all sides into a U.N.-brokered negotiation to end the fighting even as the Trump administration weighs selling more arms to the Saudi regime, despite a long list of Saudi strikes in Yemen that have showed little regard for civilian casualties. The Trump administration has also increased the number of U.S. air strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen in recent weeks.

Mattis landed in Cairo Wednesday for talks with the military and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was feted by President Donald Trump earlier this month during his visit to Washington, a sharp reversal of the chilly relations between the two countries under the Obama administration.

Adding on. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a press conference where he explained that while the Trump administration had certified Tehran was complying with the 2015 nuclear deal, Washington remained suspicious.  “An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it,” he said.

Tillerson pointed out that Iran hasn’t curbed its provocative behavior since the deal took effect, including its support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Houthis in Yemen. The secretary said the nuclear deal was “another example of buying off a power who has nuclear ambitions.”

“We just don’t see that that’s a prudent way to be dealing with Iran, certainly not in the context of all of their other disruptive activities,” he added, before adding a swipe at the Obama administration: “The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran  The United States is keen to avoid a second piece of evidence that strategic patience is a failed approach.”

Where we’re headed. The press conference came just after Tillerson spoke at a meeting of U.S. and Saudi business execs, where he pushed for  more cooperation between the two countries. “The joint appearances by Mattis and Tillerson showcase a warming of U.S.-Saudi relations under Trump after eight years of tension with former President Barack Obama’s administration, fueled in part by Obama’s outreach to Iran to ink the 2015 nuclear accord,” writes FP’s Robbie Gramer. “The diplomatic offensive also underscores what appears to be the administration’s foreign policy theme: counterterrorism and business take pride of place over traditional U.S. concerns including human rights.”

Saying, and doing. “The president said we have an armada going toward the [Korean] peninsula,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s a fact. It happened. It is happening, rather.” The White House and Defense Department are still struggling to explain the messaging SNAFU they created with the garbled announcement of the USS Carl Vinson’s travels, and what the ship is doing while deployed to the Western Pacific.

About two weeks ago, the U.S. Pacific Command said the ship was cutting short a port visit to Singapore, scuttling a visit to Australia, and heading north to station itself near the peninsula. Spicer, Defense Secretary Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and the President himself all backed that timeline up in subsequent interviews, until it was discovered this week that the ship was actually on a training mission with the Australian navy, about 3,500 miles away. Turns out, that was part of the plan all along. The training before steaming north makes perfect sense, as former naval aviator Herb Carmen lays out in a great Twitter thread, but the question remains why so many in government had such a hard time explaining what was happening.

Own goal. But the flub did more than keep reporters busy. In South Korea, Hong Joon-pyo, a leading presidential candidate in next month’s election, said in an interview that the misdirection has caused damage. “What Mr. Trump said was very important for the national security of South Korea. If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says.”​

Chemical weapons. It looks like Islamic State militants used a chemical agent in an attack on Iraqi forces — along with their American and Australian advisors, according to some reports — in Mosul over the weekend. American forces in the country have sent the agent for testing, the U.S. general commanding coalition ground forces in Iraq said on Wednesday.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, speaking to Pentagon reporters on Wednesday, said ISIS hit the unit with “indirect fire” — mortars or rockets — but the attack “had no impact” on operations. “The Iraqi security forces were in vicinity of one of the strikes,” Martin said. “They were taken back for the appropriate level of medical care…Nobody’s died.” He wouldn’t confirm how close U.S. advisors were to the strike.

Arms for the Pesh. The State Department has signed off on a $295 million arms sale to the government of Iraq, which Baghdad will use to arm two Kurdish Peshmerga infantry brigades and two artillery battalions. The deal includes 4,000 M16 rifles, about 100 Humvees, 36 howitzers, and other vehicles and equipment.

One U.S. official confirmed to SitRep that the gear will be sent to Baghdad for distribution to the Kurds, a deal the Kurds have complained about in the past, but which U.S. officials say has been ironed out. The sale was hatched under the Obama administration, and the official said it hasn’t been sped up under the Trump administration. Since 2015, the Kurds have received over $800 million in U.S. military aid, according to State Department documents.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Reorg. Chinese President Xi Jinping is continuing his plan to restructure China’s military, announcing a slimmed down organizational structure based on 84 new units. Reuters reports that the new units will be commanded by major generals and rear admirals. The move follows previous reforms announced by Xi, including shaving 300,000 troops off the People’s Liberation Army’s total end-strength and restructuring its forces into five combatant commands.

Leak hunt. The CIA and FBI believe that an insider and not a hacker likely leaked a trove of Langley’s tools for hacking and spying on adversaries and intelligence targets. CBS News reports that the two intelligence agencies are on the hunt for either a CIA staff or contractors who had access to the espionage software, a population that numbers in the thousands. The leaker shared thousands of pages of documents detailing tools developed by and for the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence. WikiLeaks published documents containing the data in a release dubbed “Vault 7.”

Sarin. Investigators for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) say that there’s “incontrovertible” evidence that sarin nerve agent or a similar substance was used in the attack against the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria earlier this month. OPCW chief Ahmet Uzumcu says four different labs analyzed blood samples from victims of the attack and the results “indicate exposure to sarin or a sarin-like substance.” On Wednesday, an anonymous senior Israeli military official told reporters that the Assad regime still has “a few tonnes of chemical weapons,” despite a 2013 deal with the U.S. to eliminate its stockpile. France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also pointed the finger at the Assad regime for launching the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, saying “we will prove that the regime has indeed organized these strikes with chemical weapons.”

Yemen. The Trump administration’s uptick in the air war over Yemen appears to be continuing with what locals tell Reuters was a fresh drone strike in Marib. Locals say a munition from a drone hit a car carrying four al Qaeda suspects as they moved through Marib province, which is home to an active presence from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Trump administration has taken a more active role in the war in Yemen, authorizing a controversial special operations raid that killed several civilians and a Navy SEAL and carrying out more drone strikes against the growing ranks of AQAP members there.

Israel. Israel’s navy now says it urgently needs three German-made Dolphin AIP-class submarines, marking an about face from previous statements by Israeli military officials. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially negotiated a $1.3 billion deal with Germany to buy Dolphin AIP-class submarines without the blessing of since-ousted Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. Police have launched an investigation into whether Netanyahu improperly favored ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems in negotiations for the submarines.

Marines. The Navy and Marine Corps announced that sharing nude photos without consent is officially and specifically against regulations for Marines, Navy Times reports. The move amounts to a lawful order, allowing the services to prosecute those who share revenge porn for failure to follow orders without having to go through Congress to add revenge porn sharing as an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The move comes in the wake of a growing revenge porn scandal among active-duty and retired Marines, hundreds of whom were caught sharing nude images of female Marines on social media.

 

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