Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

U.S. Intel Indicates Iran Behind Tanker Sabotage

President Trump is warning armed conflict with Iran would be the country’s ‘official end.’

A picture taken on May 13, 2019, shows the crude oil tanker, Amjad, which was one of two Saudi tankers that were damaged in mysterious attacks off the coast of the Gulf emirate of Fujairah.
A picture taken on May 13, 2019, shows the crude oil tanker, Amjad, which was one of two Saudi tankers that were damaged in mysterious attacks off the coast of the Gulf emirate of Fujairah. KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

What’s on tap today: U.S. intelligence fingers Iran for tanker sabotage, trade restrictions squeeze Huawei, Trump prepares pardons for accused war criminals, and North Korea’s new missile has a name: the “Kimskander.”

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Iran Latest

Tanker sabotage. American intelligence officials have concluded that it is “highly likely” that Iran was responsible for attacks on four oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, NBC reports.

The attacks, which were carried out using explosive charges, have contributed to increasing tensions in the region, with the United States deploying a carrier strike group and B-52 bombers in a bid to deter any Iranian attacks on American interests in the Middle East, in the wake of ramped-up U.S. sanctions pressure.

The attacks struck two Saudi vessels and an Emirati and a Norwegian ship. The Norwegian vessel’s insurers also concluded that Iran was likely behind the attack and observed similarities in the kinds of shrapnel in the attack and previous attacks carried out by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, Reuters reports.

Tweeter-in-chief. President Donald Trump used his favorite medium to issue a dire warning to Iran on Sunday: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

Saudi warning. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told reporters over the weekend that his country is prepared to defend itself against Iran.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want war in the region and does not strive for that,” al-Jubeir said. “But at the same time, if the other side chooses war, the kingdom will fight this with all force and determination and it will defend itself, its citizens, and its interests.”

A simple misunderstanding? The latest flashpoint in Iran-U.S. relations turns on how American officials are interpreting what appears to be fairly hazy intelligence on Iranian plots against American forces and diplomatic compounds. According to an intriguing Wall Street Journal report it may come down to a misunderstanding.

One reading of the American intelligence indicates that Iranian leaders believed the United States was about to attack Iran and made preparations for a counterattack. The United States then observed those preparations, and concluded that Iran was preparing to strike U.S. forces.

While there appear to be differences in how to interpret that intelligence, American officials are describing the underlying material in serious terms.

“The information and warnings that we have collected are of greater concern than the normal Iranian harassment activity that we’ve seen in the Persian Gulf and surrounding area,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said. “I don’t think it’s business as usual. It is cause for greater concern.”

The oil trade. With the United States attempting to increase economic pressure on Iran, China appears to have restarted oil purchases from Tehran, Bourse and Bazaar reports.  


Huawei, Trade War Fall Out

Goodbye, Google. Google is suspending Huawei’s access to some of the company’s products after the Trump administration placed the Chinese telecommunications giant on the so-called “Entities List,” which requires American companies to obtain export licenses for a huge number of transactions with the company.

“Huawei Technologies Co Ltd will immediately lose access to updates to the Android operating system, and the next version of its smartphones outside of China will also lose access to popular applications and services including the Google Play Store and Gmail app,” Reuters reports.

The backlash. Chinese authorities have detained two Canadian men and charged them with espionage in a case perceived as an act of retaliation for the arrest in Canada of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. Reuters has obtained information about the grueling conditions of the men’s detention, including thrice-daily interrogations and no access to laywers.

The big picture. Politico’s Ben White assesses the state of President Donald Trump’s trade war with China and finds the former real estate mogul struggling to deliver on his promise to reassess the American trade relationship with Beijing and American consumers likely to pay the price for a messy tariff fight.

Show of force. An American destroyer sailed near the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, which is claimed by Beijing, on Sunday, Reuters reports.

What We’re Watching

The peace plan. The United States will hold an economic conference in Bahrain in late June as part of its effort to stimulate investment in Palestinian terrorities and eventually strike a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, Reuters reports.

Pardons. President Donald Trump may be preparing to pardon a group of U.S. soldiers convicted or accused of war crimes, the New York Times reports. The cases include Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who is set to go on trial for killing civilians and an enemy captive. The pardons may come as soon as Memorial Day weekend.

Light attack. The U.S. Air Force and Special Operations Command are growing increasingly divided over the immediate need to purchase light-attack aircraft, Defense News reports. The Air Force is experimenting with a range of options, but Special Operations commanders are bullish on the aircraft and would like to move forward more quickly on acquiring the inexpensive aircraft.

The Kimskander. U.S. officials believe a recently fired North Korean missile may be a variation on Russia’s Iskander short-range ballistic missile designed to evade missile defense systems, the Los Angeles Times reports. Informally, some government analysts are calling the missile the “Kimskander,” while the official designation is tentatively the KN-23.

Back in the brig. A federal judge sent former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning back to jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury in Virginia, the AP reports.

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An homage to fact checking. Jared Diamond has made a career writing books that try to explain the world through the lens of a particular theory–he is the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel. But in a scathing review of his new book, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, Anand Giridharadas skewers the UCLA professor’s error-riddled latest.

Rekindling a long-distance relationship. For years, a phone line manned by U.S. military officers at the DMZ between North and South Korea sat silent, but that connection has recently been revived and American officers are now speaking to their North Korean counterparts twice a day, the Wall Street Journal reports. Among the more novel things discussed: Doritos and Choco Pies from the U.S. commissary, the North Koreans’ holiday dinner plans, and a shared affinity for cigarettes and whiskey.

Cyber & Technology

Information operations for sale. Facebook took down some 265 Facebook and Instagram accounts and pages tied to an Israeli firm, Archimedes Group, that appears to have been carrying out Kremlin-style disinformation operations in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

A new back door. Computer security researchers discovered hackers again using the update mechanism of computer maker ASUS to target users for spesionage, Ars Technica reports. Hackers used a similar approach in a breach disclosed in March.  

Cybercrime syndicate. American prosecutors charged a group of 11 men with operating a cybercrime syndicate alleged to have stolen some $100 million from 41,000 victims using a stealthy banking trojan, Brian Krebs reports.

The wormable vulnerability. Microsoft’s unusual move of patching a software vulnerability to operating systems that it no longer supports was meant to close a security gap that posed a particular risk to industrial systems and could have allowed the spread of another computer worm such as the 2017 WannaCry virus, Security Week reports.  

Quote of the Week

“Pirates threaten the open seas, and the same is possible in space. In this same way, I believe we too must now recognize the necessity of a Space Force to defend the nation.” —Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, articulates the pressing need for a Space Force to police the buccaneers of the Outer Rim.  

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