Security Brief

Trump Finds His Red Line on Iran

The U.S. military launched cyberattacks against Tehran in response to the shootdown of a U.S. drone.

U.S. President Donald Trump returns to the White House after a weekend in Camp David on June 23, 2019 in Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump returns to the White House after a weekend in Camp David on June 23, 2019 in Washington. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

What’s on tap today: Instead of launching airstrikes, Trump hit back with cyberattacks against Iran’s intelligence and military apparatus, Pompeo ends up on the losing side of a White House policy debate, the president announces his intent to nominate Army Secretary Mark Esper to be Pentagon chief.

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Cyberattack on Iran

Trump’s move. President Donald Trump pulled back at the last minute from military strikes on Iran, but he did not refrain from entirely hitting back at Tehran, launching cyberattacks on Thursday against the country’s intelligence and military apparatus.

The cyberattacks, which were first reported by Yahoo News, targeted the Iranian intelligence organization that helped plan recent attacks on oil tankers and also struck Iranian missile systems.

An Iranian official claimed on Monday that the attacks were unsuccessful.

Why it matters. The cyberattacks show Trump searching for a way to retaliate against Iran that matches his hardline campaign against the country while at the same time avoiding the kind of military entanglement in the Middle East that he campaigned against.

Covert ops. The White House is pushing the U.S. military and intelligence community to develop additional covert plans, including possible cyberattacks, to strike back at Iran, following the shooting down of an American drone last week, the New York Times reports.  

Blowback. The Department of Homeland Security warned over the weekend that it is seeing stepped up activity by Iranian-linked hackers against U.S. targets.


Iran Latest

Open for talks. The Trump administration isn’t always on the same page, but over the weekend the White House managed to deliver a unified message toward Iran: The United States is open to talks between Washington and Tehran. But John Bolton, the national security adviser, had a stark message for Iran over the weekend: don’t mistake U.S. “prudence” for “weakness.”

The diplomatic beat. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is off on a whirlwind diplomatic tour with stops in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where he hopes to begin building what he describes as a “global coalition” to push back against Iran, the Associated Press reports.

Pompeo-watch. President Donald Trump’s decision to hold back military strikes on Iran leaves Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an unusual position: on the losing side of a White House policy debate. Pompeo has emerged as an architect of Trump’s Iran policy and an astute manager of the president’s fickle moods. But the New York Times profiles the influential secretary of state, and finds Trump growing skeptical of his hawkish views.  

Additional sanctions. President Donald Trump said on Sunday that he expects to impose major new sanctions on Iran as early as Monday. The tightening American sanctions regime has already damaged the Iranian economy, and additional measures may further escalate tensions, but could also force Tehran to the table.

“They can either start coming to the negotiating table or they can watch their economy continue to crumble,” special representative for Iran Brian Hook told reporters Monday.


Why Trump Didn’t Strike

Reading the tea leaves. Trump’s last-minute decision to abort military strikes against Iran left his advisors divided and some even disputing the president’s own account of events.

With key aides–Pompeo and John Bolton, in particular–pushing for military action, Trump now finds himself isolated and opposed to his own lieutenants. “These people want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting,” Trump said of his aides, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The crisis underscores how Trump’s hard-line approach to Iran is butting up against his goal of extricating the United States from costly conflicts in the Middle East, Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer write.


What We’re Watching

A new day, a new SecDef. Monday is Army Secretary Mark Esper’s first day in his new job as acting defense secretary, the Pentagon’s third leader in just six months. In contrast to Patrick Shanahan’s months-long tenure in that tenuous position, the White House quickly announced its intent to nominate Esper to the permanent job. Once the paperwork goes through lawmakers are likely to move quickly on Esper’s confirmation.

Esper didn’t have much time to train up for the new job. Just hours after hearing that he would take over the acting position, he was in the White House Situation Room weighing in on an internal debate over whether to launch missiles against Iran. But experts and former and current officials say Esper’s close ties to the heavyweights on the president’s national security team will likely help him navigate the cutthroat politics of a volatile administration, Lara Seligman writes.

Leadership void at the Pentagon. While a full-on U.S. military strike was aborted, the deliberations over how to respond to Iran’s downing of a U.S. drone highlighted the absence of a top Pentagon civilian leader with the experience and status necessary to influence the commander in chief, writes the Washington Post.

Kush-fail. An investment conference organized by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner meant to help the president’s effort to strike a Middle East peace deal looks likely to be a flop, writes the Washington Post. No Palestinian government representatives will be there, and it looks like that Israeli officials will also skip the event. The gathering opens Tuesday in Manama, Bahrain.

Diplomats approved. For over two years, dozens of senior State Department positions and ambassador posts sat empty, hamstringing the day-to-day work of U.S. diplomacy in an administration accused of sidelining career diplomats. That is slowly, quietly changing as the Trump administration advances more nominees at the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and smaller agencies dealing with foreign aid and development, Robbie Gramer reports.


Technology & Cyber

(Not) made in China. The Trump administration is weighing requirements that next-generation 5G cellular equipment used in the U.S. be designed and manufactured outside China, the Wall Street Journal reports. The proposals could force the biggest companies that sell equipment to U.S. wireless carriers, Finland’s Nokia Corp. and Sweden’s Ericsson, to move major operations out of China to service the U.S.

UFO or a DARPA project? DARPA’s “Adaptable Lighter Than Air” balloons were spotted in the skies above Kansas City last week, immediately sparking speculation about extraterrestrial mischief. But Kelsey Atherton at Defense News sets the record straight: These vehicles were designed to navigate by wind over extended ranges.

Nonstealthy drones. Iran’s downing of an American drone last week highlights a conspicuous weakness in the American fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles: the lack of a stealthy reconnaissance drone that isn’t easy prey for antiaircraft missiles.


Quote of the Week

“I never called the strike against Iran ‘BACK,’ as people are incorrectly reporting, I just stopped it from going forward at this time!” –President Donald Trump, writing on Twitter.


Movers & Shakers

Pentagon musical chairs. Esper’s wasn’t the only Pentagon nomination that moved last week. As the Army Secretary moves up, Trump also tapped Ryan McCarthy, the Army under secretary and a former Army ranger, to take his place. The White House also announced its intent to nominate David Norquist, the Pentagon’s comptroller who has been performing the duties of deputy defense secretary since January, to the permanent job.

That’s it for today. To get 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.

Correction, June 24, 2019: U.S. President Donald Trump intends to nominate Army Secretary Mark Esper to be secretary of defense. A previous version of this article misstated the status of Esper’s pending nomination.

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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