Security Brief

Where Is Trump Headed on Iran?

Lawmakers and American allies are growing skeptical toward the White House’s efforts to counter Tehran.

An Iranian military truck carries surface-to-air missiles past a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a parade on the occasion of the country's annual army day on April 18, 2018, in Tehran.
An Iranian military truck carries surface-to-air missiles past a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a parade on the occasion of the country's annual army day on April 18, 2018, in Tehran. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

By Elias Groll and Lara Seligman

What’s on tap today: Lawmakers want answers about Trump’s escalation toward Iran, the White House opens a new front in its war on Huawei, and a bonanza of computer security flaws.

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March to War?

Lawmakers want answers. As President Donald Trump’s national security team continues barreling toward a confrontation with Iran, U.S. lawmakers are trying to pump the brakes. Senators on Wednesday demanded that the administration explain why it evacuated the U.S. embassy in Iraq and that it brief lawmakers on the threat from Iran that prompted increasingly aggressive moves in the region.

Allies are getting nervous. Meanwhile, there are signs that U.S. allies, too, are starting to balk at the administration’s hard-line stance against Tehran, as fears mount that the United States is headed into another ill-advised conflict in the Middle East. Spain recalled a frigate from the U.S. Navy strike group in the Persian Gulf, as Germany and the Netherlands announced they would suspend military training operations in Iraq due to regional tensions.

Team Trump divided. Trump is growing increasingly frustrated with his advisers’ approach to Iran, which he views as potentially rushing the country to war when he would prefer to negotiate with Tehran, the Washington Post reports.

The Iran intelligence. The American intelligence reports indicating that Iran may be about to strike U.S. forces in the Middle East centers on photographs of missiles being loaded onto boats believed to be controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the New York Times reports. Much of the debate within the administration over its approach to Tehran centers on how to interpret these images and intercepts of IRGC orders, according to the paper.

How does this end? Sen. Tom Cotton, once a candidate to be Trump’s secretary of defense, fanned the flames on Wednesday, predicting that, if provoked, the U.S. would win a war against Iran in two strikes: “The first strike and the last strike.”

But Trump hinted that a diplomatic resolution may still be in the cards, tweeting: “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.” (The majority of the tweet thread was aimed at discrediting “fake news” reports of infighting within his national security team.)

Another flashpoint. Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline on Tuesday, the Associated Press reports. Saudi Vice Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman described the strike as “terrorist acts ordered by the regime in Tehran” in a series of Twitter posts on Thursday, a departure from the Kingdom’s previously low-key response to attacks on oil infrastructure.

[$AD1]


Huawei Banned

Escalation. The Trump administration escalated tensions with China by adding Chinese telecom giant Huawei to a list of companies with which American firms are banned from doing business. Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment company, relies on Google’s Android operating system for its mobile phones and uses some American chipsets in its technology.

The move comes amid a breakdown in trade talks between the United States and China, and the Trump administration may be using the Huawei designation as a bargaining chip in those talks. Last year, the Trump administration briefly banned Chinese telecommunications company ZTE from buying U.S. gear, only to remove the firm at the personal request of Chinese officials.

Response. China levelled formal espionage charges against two Canadians detained in China, in what appears to be an attempt to use the two men as bargaining chips in negotiations with the United States.


What We’re Watching

Another hack. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been briefed by the FBI on at least two counties in his state targeted by Russian hackers as part of their 2016 operation to meddle in American politics. But the governor won’t say which counties, and says he had to sign a nondisclosure agreement in order to get briefed by the FBI, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Information operations. Researchers exposed a major Iran-linked fake news operation this week that impersonated major news outlets and used fake Twitter personas to promote entirely made up stories that attacked Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. The operation can’t be definitively attributed to Iran, but it marks a major advance in the sophistication of information operations linked to Tehran. It illustrates that propaganda operations are only going to increase in sophistication as more countries begin to invest in the capability, Elias Groll reports.

Fireworks. A Senate hearing on arms control got unusually heated as a Democratic lawmaker sparred with a top Trump official. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, fumed at Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson when she dodged his questions on New START, the nuclear arms control treaty.

“The disdain that the State Department shows when they come here, I do not appreciate. I am asking legitimate questions, [seeking] answers so that I can make policy decisions. I am not asking Russia about our national defense, I am asking you!” he yelled. Watch the full exchange here.

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Quote of the Week

“It’s not popular in Europe to go die for Donald Trump,” — Jim Townsend, a former senior Pentagon official, describes the prevailing attitude on the continent about Washington’s military deployments to counter Iran.


A Vulnerability Bonanza

WhatsApp vulnerability. Messaging giant WhatsApp revealed that a vulnerability in its software allowed an attacker to install a surveillance tool on a user’s phone simply by calling her number–and the software installs even if the user didn’t answer.  

WhatsApp, whose platform is used by 1.5 billion people, told human rights groups that it believed the Israeli surveillance firm NSO, whose software has been linked to surveillance of activists and dissidents around the world, had exploited the vulnerability, Reuters reports. Researchers at the security company Checkpoint have a technical analysis here of how the attack was carried out.

An unusual patch. Microsoft made the rare move of issuing a patch for a critical software vulnerability on operating systems that it no longer supports. The vulnerability affected a range of the company’s operating systems, including Windows 2003 and XP, for which the company has ended upgrades. In a blog post, the company warned that the vulnerability was “wormable” and that it could result in a similar outbreak as the highly damaging WannaCry virus of 2017.

Speculative execution. A group of computer security researchers have revealed a set of four new security vulnerabilities that exploit the basic architecture of Intel chips in order to grab sensitive data, Wired reports. The attack exploits a technology known as “speculative execution,” which is used by modern computer chips to predict a user’s actions in order to speed up processor performance.  

A bad one. A computer security firm has discovered a pair of vulnerabilities in Cisco’s router technology that provide some of the most basic, essential connecting points on the internet, Wired reports.  


Movers & Shakers

Heather Wilson’s last stand. In her final interview as U.S. Air Force Secretary, Heather Wilson tells Oriana Pawlyk at Military.com that it was James Mattis, then Defense Secretary, who asked her to take the job–and that his resignation made it easier to leave it. Wilson, who has had a testy relationship with Mattis’ presumed successor Patrick Shanahan, is set to leave the Pentagon at the end of the month to become president of the University of Texas.

Who is going to run the Air Force? While the White House searches for a new SECAF, Wilson’s deputy, Matt Donovan, will assume the responsibility of Acting Air Force Secretary. Donovan is a former F-15 pilot who worked for the late Sen. John McCain.


Recommendations

Chronicle of an assault foretold. The New York Times’s Rod Nordland and Thomas Gibbons-Neff reconstruct how a Taliban force managed to infiltrate a massive Afghan army base in Helmand Province by turning corrupt commanders to the insurgent’s side and infiltrating a strike team by hiding them in a sewage tanker truck.

The failed coup. Since the failure of last month’s coup against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, analysts have wondered how the opposition underestimated its level of support among the military. A fascinating new report in theWashington Post suggests that Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno was the key player–and that his vacillation ultimately doomed the military uprising.

That’s it for today. To receive this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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