SitRep: Trump’s Iran Warning; SEAL Raid Disaster; Putin Testing Trump; Inside the New NSC
Wikileaks Targets French Election; Mexico and Australia Messes; SEALs Fly Trump Flag
Iran “on notice.” National security advisor Michael Flynn made a surprise visit to the White House briefing room Wednesday, where he delivered a stern rebuke to Iran for their recent missile test, and quickly walked off.
The White House was “officially putting Iran on notice” Flynn said, without going into detail. The announcement marked the harshest language from the Trump administration yet, and signaled a major shift in how Washington will deal with Tehran. Trump has long railed against the 2015 deal with Iran to curb its nuclear weapons program, a deal many Iran hawks — including Flynn, and to a lesser degree Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — thought gave too much away for too little in return.
Again with the Tweets. On Thursday morning, Trump Tweeted, “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!” and “Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the U.S. came along and gave it a life-line in the form of the Iran Deal: $150 billion.”
The missile. On Sunday, Iran launched a medium-range Khorramshahr missile, which flew about 600 miles before exploding in the air. The launch didn’t violate the nuclear deal, but there’s plenty of debate over whether it violateed U.N. resolution 2231, which solidified the international community’s acceptance of the pact.
The Iranians had announced late last year they were going to conduct such a test, Matthew McInnis, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute told SitRep. “They’re trying to do a signaling game here” he said, and noted the muted nature of Tehran’s announcement of the test. “They’re not being in-your-face provocative,” which indicates that the Iranians are treading somewhat carefully because they’re unsure about how the new administration will react.
Yemen. Another major point of contention is Iranian support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. “We assess Iran seeks to leverage this relationship with the Houthis to build a long-term presence in Yemen,” a Trump administration official told reporters during the background briefing. “This support risks expanding and intensifying the conflict in Yemen.” The official added, “there are a large number of options available to the administration. We are going to take appropriate action.”
There have been rumblings that the new administration is open to taking more direct action in Yemen, which was borne out last weekend in the disastrous raid by Navy SEALs on an al Qaeda camp in the country. The raid left one SEAL dead, and six other U.S. troops wounded. In a statement released Wednesday, the U.S. Central Command said it “has concluded regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed in the midst of a firefight during a raid in Yemen Jan. 29. Casualties may include children.”
Blame. The operation, planned by the Obama administration but approved by President Trump, is a matter of concern for the Pentagon. Reuters reports “U.S. military officials” have said “Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations. As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.”
The New York Times notes that Trump’s “new national security team, led by Mr. Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a retired general with experience in counterterrorism raids, has said that it wants to speed the decision-making when it comes to such strikes, delegating more power to lower-level officials so that the military may respond more quickly. Indeed, the Pentagon is drafting such plans to accelerate activities against the Qaeda branch in Yemen.”
Grown ups. Coming into Trump’s inauguration, there was a consensus that new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly “were supposed to be the ‘grown-ups,’ the rational elders who would bring a note of caution and experience to the Trump administration,” write FP’s Dan De Luce and John Hudson. “But after less than two weeks in office, doubts are growing among lawmakers and career government officials that those seasoned hands have much say in White House decision-making or much influence over the impulsive president and his inner circle, led by the anti-globalist, right-wing ideologue Stephen Bannon.”
Putin testing Trump. The Trump administration is facing its first major test in Europe “as volleys of Russian artillery and rockets continue to pound Ukrainian forces in the country’s contested east, reigniting the frozen conflict and killing about a dozen Ukrainian soldiers since Sunday,” FP’s Paul McLeary writes. A Pentagon official told FP they had expected Russian aggression in Ukraine this spring, and Alexander Vershbow, until late last year was deputy secretary general of NATO, added, the Kremlin “may be trying to test the new administration to see if they distance themselves from Kiev, and tell [Ukrainian president] Petro Poroshenko that he has to make the best deal with Russia, which of course would destroy him politically.”
Wikileaks turns to French elections. On Tuesday, Wikileaks promoted 3,630 documents from its archives on center-right presidential candidate François Fillon. “None were of the salacious variety,” FP’s Emily Tamkin and Elias Groll report. “Yet the move has stoked fears among European security officials that WikiLeaks will repeat its U.S. electoral influence performance in France — and perhaps elsewhere in Europe. Some even worry that the propaganda apparatus will partner again with Russian operatives with the aim of tilting the outcome of elections in favor of Kremlin-friendly candidates.”
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President Trump has gotten himself into a diplomatic spat with one of America’s closest allies, Australia. The Washington Post reports that Saturday’s phone call between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly descended into acrimony. Trump was reportedly upset at a deal between Australia and the U.S. in which his predecessor, President Obama, agreed to take in 1,250 refugees currently seeking shelter in Australia, proclaiming that “I don’t want these people.” Trump told Turnbull it was “the worst call by far” of his day and cut the talk short, ending what was expected to be an hour long call in just 25 minutes.
There are dueling accounts of another Saturday phone call between President Trump and a head of state. The AP reports on what is says is an internal White House transcript of Trump’s call with Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto in which Trump threatened to unilaterally send the U.S. military to Mexico to deal with “bad hombres,” saying “I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.” Mexico’s foreign relations department denied the account of the conversation, saying it was a “constructive” call. CNN reported a different version of the conversation, saying a transcript depicted a more cooperative tone, with Trump “willing to help with [the bad hombre problem] big-league.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis gave some of the first clues about his budget priorities in a budget guidance memo on Wednesday. Breaking Defense reports that despite President Trump’s big pledges on modernization and increasing the number of active duty troops, Mattis’s memo mostly punts on those issues until 2019. In the meantime, Mattis plans to prioritize readiness and the war against the Islamic State.
Russia has now charged four men “with treason in favor of the United States,” CNN reports. The arrests of three of the men — two former employees of Russia’s Federal Security Service and a cybersecurity expert at Kaspersky Labs — but a fourth man has been charged as well. A lawyer for the man, Ivan Pavlov, wouldn’t say who his client is but said that the man is charged with passing information to American intelligence. The acts behind the charges are still unclear but the context of the arrests, coming in the midst of US intelligence reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, have lead to speculation that they could be related to the hacks of the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaigns.
Russia is providing medical care to 70 wounded militants loyal to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar in a sign of Moscow’s growing involvement in the Libyan conflict and warming relations with Haftar. Reuters reports that the 70 fighters traveled to Egypt before flying to Moscow for treatment. Russia has been courting Haftar for some time, most recently flying him out from Libya to the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov for a video conference with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The Trump administration is changing the focus of the Department of Homeland Security’s countering violent extremism, dropping efforts to fight other kinds of extremist ideologies in favor of a sole focus on Islamist extremism. Reuters reports that the program has changed its name to Countering Radical Islamic Extremism following suggestions from Trump’s transition team. The program awards grants to various community organizations, but Trump administration officials may be looking to halt the delivery of funds for previously-awarded grants.
A group of Navy SEALs drove down a Kentucky highway showing their partisan political colors by flying a Trump campaign flag from a military vehicle. Footage of the vehicle flying the flag surfaced on social media but the vehicle’s ownership couldn’t immediately be identified. ABC News managed to track down the vehicle and its owners, with a Naval Special Warfare Group 2 (NSWG2) spokesperson telling the outlet that the vehicle belonged to an “East Coast-based” unit, which would be SEALs.
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary