Security Brief

Zarif Sanctions Dim Prospects for Iran Talks

Trump imposed sanctions on the Iranian diplomat who helped negotiate the 2015 nuclear accord.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif discusses current developments in the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations on July 17, 2017 in New York City.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif discusses current developments in the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations on July 17, 2017 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What’s on tap: Trump sanctions Iran’s foreign minister, but extends nuclear-related waivers, Russia set to deploy new weapons as the United States exits a key arms control treaty, and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to crack down on dissidents.

Mixed Messages on Iran

Trump sanctions Zarif. The Trump administration made good Wednesday on its threat to sanction Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a key architect of the 2015 nuclear deal, freezing the Iranian diplomat’s assets in the United States and banning transactions with him.

The move is likely to further inflame relations with Tehran and may hamper President Donald Trump’s ability to resolve the stand-off diplomatically. Since withdrawing from the 2015 accord last year, Trump has repeatedly raised the prospect of new talks with Iran. But with Zarif sidelined, it is not clear who else might serve as an experienced intermediary for Tehran in any potential negotiations.

Rand’s rebuke. Even Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican ally of Trump who has advocated for diplomacy with Iran, criticized the move to sanction Zarif. “If you sanction diplomats you’ll have less diplomacy,” Mr. Paul tweeted, linking to a report about the new penalties.

Administration officials told reporters on Wednesday that the decision to sanction Zarif stemmed from his role as a spokesperson for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and that Zarif is more of a propagandist than he is a diplomat.

Zarif responds. Zarif mocked the decision as a symbolic one that will have “no effect on me or my family,” since he has no property or interests outside Iran. “Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda,” Zarif wrote on Twitter

Carrot and stick? Even as the White House lashed out at Zarif, the administration extended waivers on nuclear-related sanctions–a pillar of the 2015 deal–despite opposition from some of its most hard-line officials.

National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both Iran hawks, had advocated ending the waivers, which allows Russia, China and Europe to participate in Iran’s civil nuclear program. The Treasury Department raised concerns about the collateral effects on other signatories of the deal of ending five current waivers that were due to expire Thursday, writes the Washington Post.

Osama bin Laden’s Heir Reported Dead

Hamza bin Laden. U.S. intelligence believes Hamza bin Laden, the son and heir apparent of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, has died, NBC first reported on Wednesday. Details of the strike that killed him are scanty; the U.S. government played a role in the operation, but it was not clear how, according to multiple media reports.

Blow to al Qaeda. The news of the younger bin Laden’s death is a boon for the American government and a blow to the terrorist group. But experts cautioned that the victory is more of a symbolic one than the removal of a threat: it’s been years since Al Qaeda carried out a large-scale attack, and “though Mr. bin Laden was being groomed to eventually take over the group, that time appeared to be well into the future,” the New York Times pointed out.

Still, experts said his death will be sorely felt.

“This hurts the Al Qaeda brand,” Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center told the Times. “Even though he was unproven and untested, that name still means a lot to young jihadis.”

What We’re Watching 

The End of INF. With the United States expected to exit the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia on Friday, Moscow is set to deploy new weapons, raising the specter of another nuclear arms race.

North Korea. North Korean state media reported that Kim Jong Un supervised the test of a new multiple rocket launcher this week, contradicting earlier reports that the test had been of a new short-range ballistic missile. Separately, South Korea said a North Korean soldier defected across the demilitarized zone overnight.

Kushner in Israel. White House Adviser Jared Kushner arrived in Israel on Wednesday on a swing through the Middle East, where he plans to cite the threat posed by Iran as a reason why countries in the region should sign on to his forthcoming plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Washington Post reports.

Trump nixes medals. President Donald Trump ordered that the military prosecutors who led the case against the Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher be stripped of awards they received for the handling of his prosecution on charges that he killed a detained Islamic State fighter. Gallagher was acquitted on the most serious charges after the government’s case collapsed.

Israeli F-35 strike. The London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reports that Israel has expanded the scope of its strikes against Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria and that an Israeli F-35 carried out an air strike against an Iranian arms depot northeast of Baghdad last month. The report cites western diplomatic sources.

Afghanistan death toll. NATO and Afghan forces killed more civilians than the Taliban and other anti-government forces in Afghanistan during the first half of 2019, according to new U.N. figures.  

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Technology & Cyber 

Pentagon claps back. The Pentagon is fed up with technology giant Oracle’s persistent complaints about the Defense Department’s exclusion of the company from the final round of competition to secure a $10 billion cloud computing contract. In a statement, the Pentagon accused Oracle of deploying “poorly-informed and often manipulative speculation” to muscle its way into the bidding process.

Hacking planes and ships. The Department of Homeland Security warned that the computer systems of small places are vulnerable to be hacked. Separately, the U.S. Coast Guard revealed details on a malware infection affecting a commercial shipping vessel that left its computer systems crippled.

Bossert’s back. President Donald Trump’s top cybersecurity adviser, Tom Bossert, launched a cybersecurity firm that aims to protect companies by interfering with the communications of hackers that target the firm’s clients.

FP Recommends 

The Hunted. Vanity Fair examines Saudi Arabia’s efforts to crack down on dissidents and “imprison, repatriate, and even murder countrymen who dare to protest the kingdom’s policies.” The campaign, Ayman M. Mohyeldin writes, “has more similarities with, say, the codes of a crime syndicate than it does with those of a traditional, modern-era ally of the United States of America.”

Haspel, profiled. The Washington Post profiles CIA Director Gina Haspel and examines how the agency veteran has managed her relationship with a president who began his term at war with the intelligence community. Haspel has kept a low profile, learned to play to President Trump’s instincts, and kept her distance from the White House and focused on the agency she leads.  

Quote of the Week 

Guess who. “I bet your next senator can take care of that.” –Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked about how to bring more military installations to Kansas, fuels speculation about his next political move.  

Movers & Shakers

New Pentagon no. 2. The Senate on Wednesday confirmed David Norquist, formerly the Pentagon’s comptroller, to be deputy secretary of defense, locking in the department’s top two leaders for the first time in 2019, writes Defense News.

Hyten nomination sent to Senate. Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the nomination of Air Force Gen. John Hyten, Trump’s pick to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by a vote of 20-7, sending it on to the full Senate.

The committee voted overwhelmingly to approve Hyten’s nomination despite allegations of sexual assault leveled by a former subordinate, Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser. Advocates say Spletstoser’s “public shaming” during Hyten’s confirmation hearing is a major setback for efforts to address pervasive problems with the military’s handling of sexual violence, writes Lara Seligman.

Selva retires. Even as Hyten awaited the committee’s vote, the man he aims to replace officially ended his 39-year military career. Air Force Gen. Paul Selva retired during a Wednesday ceremony at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after four years serving as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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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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