Security Brief

Iran Undeterred as U.S. Calls for Coalition to Police Key Waterways

Audio of the latest tanker incident shows the difficulty of protecting commercial vessels transiting through the Gulf.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrol around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero on July 21, 2019, as it's anchored off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrol around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero on July 21, 2019, as it's anchored off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas. Hasan Shirvani / MIZAN NEWS AGENCY / AFP

What’s on tap today: The United Kingdom has few good options after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf on Friday, China signs a secret agreement allowing its armed forces to use a Cambodian naval base, and Maverick’s mysterious getup in the new Top Gun trailer.

Tanker Tit-for-Tat

Britain weighs response. British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to chair a meeting of an emergency response committee on Monday, days after a British-flagged tanker was seized by Iran in the Gulf. But London has few obvious options at a time when the United States has already imposed the maximum possible economic sanctions, writes Reuters.

The latest seizure was widely seen as retaliation for Britain’s seizure of an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar that was allegedly transporting oil to Syria, as tensions skyrocket between Tehran and the West. It occurred the same day as the United States said it used electronic warfare to take down an Iranian drone that was harassing a US warship in the Strait of Hormuz, and separately a mysterious drone attacked Iran-backed militia in Iraq.

U.S. calls for coalition. Just hours after the incident, the U.S. military called on regional and international partners to participate in Operation Sentinel, which officials say is a multinational maritime effort aimed at securing the Gulf’s vital shipping lanes.

But audio of the incident, which shows a British warship trying unsuccessfully to stop Iran’s seizure of the tanker, Stena Impero, illustrates the difficulty of protecting commercial vessels transiting through the Strait of Hormuz–especially with a shrunken Royal Navy.

“It isn’t possible simply to escort each and every single vessel,” said British Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood.

Iran allegedly breaks up spy ring. Meanwhile on land, Tehran said it had broken up a CIA spying ring and captured 17 Iranian citizens, all of whom confessed to acting as spies for the US agency. The country’s Ministry of Intelligence said some of the 17 would be executed.

Time to strike a deal? President Donald Trump confirmed that he authorized Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as a go-between with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and one unconfirmed report claims the two met last week. The news comes as Iranian hardliners, who have resisted talks with Washington, are beginning to break ranks to push for engagement with Washington.

But talks could be a long way off. In a move that would dismantle a key pillar of the 2015 nuclear deal, the Trump administration is considering whether to end waivers that allow Iran to operate a civilian nuclear program, NBC reports.

The Trials of John Bolton

Talking to the enemy. Amid escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington, Trump has made it loudly known that he would like to solve the dispute at the negotiating table, in what amounts to a rebuke of the hawkish advisors who conceived his aggressive policy toward Iran.

That defeat is taking a toll on National Security Adviser John Bolton. Almost 16 months into his tenure as national security advisor, Bolton is frequently finding himself on the losing side of policy debates, and that has led the veteran Washington operative to feel frustrated in his job as Trump’s top foreign-policy aide, Elias Groll reports.

Inside the Oval Office. Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports that President Donald Trump has taken to denigrating Bolton in front of visiting officials, including asking him in front of Ireland’s prime minister whether Ireland is “one of those countries you want to invade?”

But that adversarial relationship doesn’t mean Trump is about to get rid of Bolton. According to Swan’s sources, Bolton is a useful tool for Trump, who views his adviser as a kind of bad cop that makes him more effective in negotiations.

What We’re Watching 

Venezuela’s ‘unsafe’ approach. A Russian-made Venezuelan fighter jet “aggressively shadowed” a U.S. Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft operating in international airspace on Friday, marking a significant provocation as the standoff continues between the country’s president, Nicholás Maduro, and U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

North Korea. A South Korean official said that military exercises held by the U.S. and South Korea will go on as planned despite a North Korean threat that the war game would prevent nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang from resuming.  

Countering WMD programs gutted. A Los Angeles Times investigation has found that the Trump administration quietly dismantled or cut back multiple programs that were created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to help detect and prevent terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction

China’s Cambodia outpost. As China works to boost its military influence around the world, the Wall Street Journal reports that Beijing has signed a secret agreement giving its armed forces exclusive rights to part of a Cambonian naval installation on the Gulf of Thailand.

Coming attractions. Special Counsel Robert Mueller goes before Congress on Wednesday to answer questions from the House Judiciary Committee on his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The New York Times has an informative look at his 88 previous appearances before Congress, which is among the most ever.

Top Gun. The long-awaited Top Gun trailer is here! There’s volleyball, lots of jets, and an ageless Tom Cruise on tap. A shot of Maverick donning a mysterious high-altitude pressure suit sparked rumors that he might be piloting a higher-altitude plane than your average F/A-18. Our own Elias Groll has an alternate idea for a sequel.

For more news and analysis from Foreign Policy and around the world, subscribe to Morning Brief, delivered weekday mornings.

Technology & Cyber 

Artificial intelligence. Researchers have figured out how to trick an artificial intelligence cybersecurity system developed by the company Cylance by appending strings from benign software to malicious files, Motherboard reports.

The new research represents a major setback for the use of artificial intelligence in security systems, which private industry has for years touted as the way forward and a possible way to decrease widespread security breaches.

Huawei. The Chinese technology giant Huawei worked with North Korea to set up that country’s mobile telecommunications network, in possible violation of U.S. export controls, the Washington Post reports.

Arms trade. Journalist Sharon Weinberger examines the proliferation of surveillance technology and whether anything can be done to halt the spread of of a weapon capable of recording the most intimate details of its targets’ lives.

Scouring the cloud. The Israeli surveillance company NSO Group claims in pitch documents that its products can obtain data stored by targeted individuals on major cloud services such as Apple, Google, and Facebook, the Financial Times reports.

Leaks. A federal judge in Baltimore sentenced the former NSA contractor Harold Martin to nine years in prison for taking home a massive trove of classified material over a period of two decades.

Election security. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced the appointment of a veteran intelligence officer to oversee election security efforts across the U.S. government.

Movers & Shakers

Esper vote. The Senate is expected to vote this week to confirm Army Secretary Mark Esper to become Trump’s second secretary of defense, ending the longest period in history the Pentagon has gone without a confirmed leader. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has scheduled a unanimous consent vote for Monday, with a Senate floor vote and expected approval scheduled for Tuesday. But his confirmation is not without opposition–Sen. Elizabeth Warren voted “no.”

Another DOD vacancy. David Trachtenberg, the Pentagon’s no. 2 policy official, resigned Friday, leaving yet another hole in the department’s leadership for the next defense secretary to fill, Defense News reported.

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

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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