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Security Brief

Can Pompeo Rally Allies to Counter Iran?

The Secretary of State is in the Middle East this week, but may find allies reluctant to take on Tehran.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes part in a meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on September 18, 2019.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes part in a meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on September 18, 2019. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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What’s on tap: Trump dispatches Pompeo to the Middle East to rally support for a coalition to deter Iran, the new national security advisor’s Navy connection, Khalilizad to testify before Congress, and Sean Spicer’s “Dancing with the Stars” debut.

Pompeo Seeks Coalition

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday accused Iran of carrying out an “act of war,” the strongest condemnation yet from an American official of the attacks Saudi oil facilities last weekend.

Pompeo made the remarks en route to Saudi Arabia, where he is attempting to rally support for an international coalition to deter Tehran. Pompeo met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Thursday and travelled on to the United Arab Emirates.

Trump’s trust problem. But the U.S. administration may find its allies reluctant to raise the temperature in the Middle East. Although consensus is building in the intelligence community that Iran was behind the attack, the administration has so far declined to release any evidence to back up that claim.“Painfully, the word of the president will be suspect,” Wendy R. Sherman, who helped negotiate the 2015 Iran deal, told the New York Times.

The Saudi view. Meanwhile in Riyadh, Saudi military officials showed off drone and cruise missile wreckage that a spokesman said demonstrated that the weapons used in the attack were of Iranian origin.

But Saudi military spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki stopped short of accusing Iran of firing the weapons, saying the attack “was unquestionably sponsored by Iran.” The Saudi military is working to determine the launch site of the weapons. Al-Malki said Wednesday that the weapons were launched north of the facilities they targeted.

Tehran pushes back. Iran continues to deny that it was involved in the attack on Saudi oil facilities and warned Wednesday that it would retaliate against any strikes on the country. Retaliation would be “rapid and crushing” and “more extensive areas than the origin of the attack,” state media reported. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif went further and said Thursday that American or Saudi retaliation would result in “all out war.”

More sanctions. In the absence of a U.S. military response, the United States is readying additional sanctions against Tehran, a move that would bring Washington closer toward an economic blockade of Iran, Keith Johnson reports.

Trump Taps Low-Profile Bolton Replacement 

President Donald Trump elevated his hostage envoy Robert O’Brien to serve as his new national security advisor, a move that appears to solidify Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s position as Trump’s most influential foreign-policy aide, Elias Groll, Robbie Gramer, and Lara Seligman report.

A win for Pompeo. With O’Brien’s scant government experience, his promotion all but ensures that Pompeo will have no major rival in the White House jockeying with him to influence Trump. “Of the last 30, 40 years, it’s hard to think of somebody with less experience taking this job,” said Brian McKeon, who served as chief of staff for the national security council.

Navy connection. O’Brien, who served in the Army Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps, has written extensively on expanding the Navy, and was reportedly on Trump’s shortlist to be Navy Secretary. In April 2017, he co-authored a piece for Politico on how to get to Trump’s 350-ship Navy by the end of his second presidential term, and later in Defense One called for a “revitalization” of the defense industrial base to build a new frigate.

World leaders soon convene in New York for the 74th U.N. General Assembly and from Sept. 23 to 27, Foreign Policy will publish a one-week-only newsletter devoted to on the ground coverage and in-depth analysis of the goings-on at UNGA. Sign up here for U.N. Brief, written by FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer.

What We’re Watching 

Trump’s troubling ‘promise.’ The acting director of national intelligence is refusing to turn over to Congress a whistleblower report that involves a conversation between Trump and a foreign leader in which the president made a “promise” that prompted an American official to file a formal complaint, the Washington Post reports.

Afghan envoy to testify. Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, will hold a private briefing for lawmakers on Thursday, after the House Foreign Affairs Committee subpoenaed him in frustration at his refusal to meet with its members. The announcement comes just a week after Trump declared negotiations with the Taliban for a potential peace deal dead, angering many in Congress.

Investment review. The Treasury Department released rules detailing how it plans to tighten reviews of foreign investment in the United States, a move aimed primarily at increasing scrutiny of Chinese acquisitions of American companies and technology.

Erdogan’s new plan for Syrian refugees. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday floated a new proposal for what to do with the two to three million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey and Europe: resettle them in the “safe zone” emerging on the border between Syria and Turkey.

DOJ sues Snowden. The Justice Department is attempting to seize the proceeds from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s newly-published memoir, alleging that he failed to submit it to the required pre-publication review mandated by the non-disclosure agreements he signed while working for the U.S. government.

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

Technology & Cyber 

U.S. military still buying Chinese drones. More than a year after then-Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan banned the purchase and use of all commercial-off-the-shelf drones, a move specifically aimed at Chinese-made systems that U.S. officials worry are vulnerable to espionage, a new investigation by Voice of America reveals that the U.S. military is continuing to purchase Chinese drones. Documents reveal that the Navy spent nearly $190,000 and the Air Force spent nearly $50,000 on drones made by Chinese company DJI, which dominates the global market for small unmanned aerial systems.

Iran cyber angle. Hackers that may be tied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have targeted Saudi IT companies over the last year in an apparent bid to gain access to customer computer systems, CyberScoop reports.

Backdoors. The FBI attempted to force a company that made an encrypted telephone catering to the black market to install a backdoor in its products, Vice reports.

Hack a satellite. The U.S. Air Force will be bringing a satellite to the Defcon hacking conference next year and will be selecting a group of hackers to compete breaking into the system, Wired reports.

Facebook takedown. Facebook announced it had taken down a group of accounts posting about political issues and targeting users in Iraq and Ukraine.

Movers & Shakers

Dancing with Spicer. Former White House Press Secretary and commander in the Navy Reserve Sean Spicer made his much-anticipated debut this week on “Dancing with the Stars,” where he drummed on a pair of bongos and danced salsa to the Spice Girls’ hit “Spice Up Your Life” in a lime-green tunic. His energetic performance quickly became a meme–but the judges didn’t like it nearly as much as the internet did.

Quote of the Week 

“After any peace deal, now, later, in another decade, we’ll still be fighting the war in one place. Our heads.” –Reporter and Marine Corps veteran Thomas Gibbons-Neff reflects on his 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. 

FP Recommends 

Inside Trump’s Turnberry Layover.  A five-day visit to Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland revealed that the regular visits from Air Force crews on layovers have become a major facet of life, writes Politico’s Ben Schreckinger. The deep-dive reveals the perks airmen could expect during their stay at the resort–VIP lapel pins, Scottish shortbread, and access to a world-class golf course.

Documents show that the Pentagon has spent more than $184,000 at the property since August 2017, Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee wrote in a letter this week. Members are now demanding more information from Defense Secretary Mark Esper on why taxpayer money is being used to fund the lavish stays.

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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