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.

Trump Team Sends Muddled Message on Iran

National security officials backed away from the president’s claim that Iran was preparing to attack four U.S. embassies.

By Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on Iran at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 3.
U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on Iran at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 3. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Trump’s national security team contradicts the president’s claims on Iran, warring factions agree to a cease-fire in Libya, and how the death of the Omani sultan could affect regional security.

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Officials Play Down Trump’s Comments on Iranian Threat

U.S. President Donald Trump’s top national security advisors appeared on Sunday television shows this weekend to defend the U.S. assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani, which pushed both countries to the brink of war. But the officials backed away from Trump’s assertion on Friday that Tehran planned to target four U.S. embassies in the Middle East, a justification he used for the decision to kill Suleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional security strategy.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said on Fox News Sunday that there were threats to American “facilities,” but he noted the challenges in determining specific targets, even with “exquisite intelligence.” Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on CBS’s Face the Nation that he didn’t see specific evidence “with regard to four embassies.” But he added, “I share the president’s view that probably—my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies.”

Esper’s Sunday TV appearances are yet another sign he is finding his voice as a relative newcomer to the administration, as FP’s Lara Seligman reports.

Congress is still skeptical. The administration’s muddled messaging on Iran has added to the public debate over the Jan. 3 strike against Suleimani. Lawmakers—both Democrats and Republicans—are still not satisfied with the evidence the administration has provided in classified briefings to back up the claim that Suleimani was planning an “imminent” attack. Meanwhile, reports on Monday that Trump authorized the strike on Suleimani seven months ago could further undermine the administration’s justification.

Will Iran negotiate? Despite recent aggression from both sides, the Trump administration hopes that harsh U.S. sanctions and protests in the streets of Tehran will drive the regime to the negotiating table. Trump tweeted support for the protesters both in English and in Farsi, saying the United States will “continue to stand by you.” But the former commander of U.S. Central Command cautions that Washington must remain vigilant, and that it would be a mistake to take Iran’s word that it does not seek further escalation.

NATO scrambles. Senior NATO officials were not told in advance that Trump would call on the alliance to increase its involvement in the Middle East, U.S. and NATO officials told Foreign Policy —leaving U.S. and NATO officials scrambling to come up with policy ideas to respond. Details are sparse on what Trump is asking for, besides a new name for the Middle East expansion. A NATO delegation, led by Assistant Secretary General for Operations John Manza, was in Washington on Jan. 10 for meetings at the State Department to hash out how to respond to Trump’s request.

What We’re Watching 

Protests in Iran. Iran’s government faces a new round of popular unrest after admitting it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 176 on board, mostly Iranian and Canadian nationals. Up to 1,000 people protested in the capital on Sunday, according to the news agency Fars, chanting slogans such as, “They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here.” In a symbolic act of defiance, students at Beheshti University in Tehran were recorded avoiding stepping on painted U.S. and Israeli flags.

This is the second wave of anti-government in Iran since last year. Beginning last November, protesters took to the streets after officials raised fuel prices—with the demonstrations quickly turning into mass protests against the regime. The government used force to quell the protests, and it remains to be seen if it will resort to the same tactics this time.

Cease-fire in Libya. On Sunday, Libya’s warring factions entered a fragile cease-fire agreement brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Though few expect the ceasefire to last—the internationally recognized government in Tripoli has already reported gunfire on the frontlines—the cease-fire illuminates the increasing influence of Moscow and Ankara in Libya. Moscow clandestinely sent 200 mercenaries to Libya in Sept. 2019 to support Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s bid to take Tripoli, while Ankara recently deployed troops to support the government.

Death of the Omani sultan. The longest serving ruler in the Middle East, Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, died on Friday, drawing a global outpouring of grief. Qaboos dominated political life in Oman for five decades, setting the country on the path to development. Qaboos ruled with an authoritarian grip, but he did initiate infrastructure plans that saw the country transform into a  modern power. Known for its neutral stance in foreign affairs, Qaboos’s Oman was a key player in regional diplomacy, helping to broker the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the United States. Qaboos will be replaced by his cousin, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said.

Movers and Shakers

Pentagon moves. Christopher Miller, a senior White House counterterrorism advisor, has moved to the Pentagon and will serve as deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism. Breaking Defense’s Paul McLeary has more details on the move, which comes “as the U.S. braces for a covert Iranian response” to the assassination of Suleimani.

Foreign Policy Recommends

Bagram economy. The residents of the town of Bagram in Afghanistan have long relied on the nearby Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan: It accounts for up to 80 percent of local economic activity. The impending peace deal between the United States and the Taliban—likely to lead to U.S. troop withdrawal—has put locals in a state of uncertainty, the New York Times reports. Adding to their insecurity, they also risk being seen as targets by the Taliban under the new political arrangement.

Odds and Ends

Now accepting applications. Following a recent breakup with his girlfriend, the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is seeking a new “life partner” to come to the moon with him during SpaceX’s first ever tourist voyage to the moon—tentatively scheduled for 2023. “With that future partner of mine, I want to shout our love and world peace from outer space,” he announced in his call for applications.

That’s it for today.

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Dan Haverty contributed to this report.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer