Morning Brief

Pentagon Waters Down Trump’s Iran Threat

How an Iranian satellite launch led to an order to stop Iranian gunboats.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the coronavirus task force at the White House on April 22, 2020 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the coronavirus task force at the White House on April 22, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: President Trump lashes out at Iran—and the Pentagon walks it back, clashes between Taliban and Afghan forces lead to multiple casualties, and coronavirus cases surge in Singapore.

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Pentagon Walks Back Trump’s Twitter Outburst On Iran

Faced with the new challenges of a crumbling economy and the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world, the Trump administration appears to be returning to old grievances.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter, “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” U.S. defense officials were reportedly surprised by the tweet, as they had not been briefed on any change in policy toward Iran.

In response, the Pentagon sought to manage up, downgrading the commander-in-chief’s announcement to a warning. “What he was emphasizing is all of our ships retain the right of self-defense, and people need to be very careful in their interactions to understand the inherent right of self-defense,” David Norquist, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, said at a Pentagon press briefing. Norquist added that the president’s tweet was “very useful.”

Iran’s military spokesman, in a reference to the U.S. Navy’s coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt, hit back at the president’s threat, “Today, instead of intimidating others, the Americans would do better to save their troops infected by the coronavirus,” he said.

Oil markets, sluggish for the past week, jumped after the president’s tweet, with the battered June WTI crude oil futures increasing by 4.72 percent over the course of the day to end at $14.43 a barrel.

What prompted Trump’s Twitter outburst? It appears this specific threat came from indulging in a great American pastime: watching television. A report that morning on Fox News highlighting an Iranian military satellite launch used U.S. Navy footage from April 15 of Iranian boats circling U.S. Navy warships in the Persian Gulf. It’s likely the week-old footage provoked the president. Fox News Defense Correspondent Lucas Tomlinson appeared to acknowledge as much on air shortly after the president’s tweet.

Trump has a history of shooting from the hip on Twitter when he is agitated by something he sees on the television. On May 19, 2019 Trump tweeted, seemingly out of the blue, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” By analyzing the timing of Trump’s tweets about other issues that hour, Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America—a Democratic party-aligned media watchdog— was able to pinpoint the likely cause of the tweet: a Fox News segment about Iranian proxies targeting U.S. troops.

What about this Iranian satellite? Iran claimed to have launched its first military satellite on Wednesday. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps said the satellite is in a high orbit, approximately 264 miles above the earth.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the launch could be in breach of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Iran not to conduct any activity related to ballistic missiles, including satellite launches. Iran denies that its space launches—which rely on similar technology to put satellites into orbit—are related to its missile research. “I think every nation has an obligation to go to the United Nations and evaluate whether this missile launch was consistent with that security council resolution,” Pompeo said. “I don’t think it remotely is, and I think Iran needs to be held accountable for what they have done.”

Are SLVs and ballistic missiles the same thing? No. As Michael Elleman and Mark Fitzpatrick explained in a 2018 article for Foreign Policy, “While the technologies and components employed in satellite launches and military-use missiles are similar, key features and operational demands differentiate civilian space launchers from military ballistic missiles,” they wrote. That’s why, despite the similar technology, accusing Iran of using satellites as a “cover” for nuclear missile development was “misguided,” Elleman argued in a 2019 article after Iran’s previous failed attempt to launch a satellite.

Moreover, he and Fitzpatrick argued in FP, “given the central role that missiles play in Iran’s sense of defense and deterrence, total abandonment of the missile program is not remotely possible.” Instead of punishing Tehran for pursuing space launches, they pointed to the satellite program as an opportunity to forge a deal. “Iran’s satellite launchers are vulnerable to preemption, lack re-entry protection, employ lower-thrust propulsion systems, and have less demanding all-weather reliability standards. This is why the risks of allowing … civilian satellite launch programs in exchange for a long-range missile flight-test ban are manageable, and doing so advances U.S. security interests.”

What We’re Following Today

Taliban clashes with government forces in Afghanistan. Fighting throughout Afghanistan has killed dozens of Afghan government forces and Taliban fighters over the past 24 hours. The Afghan government reported multiple attacks on government checkpoints in the country’s northern and eastern provinces, killing 19 Afghan forces. In Kandahar, provincial police say they killed 31 Taliban fighters. Taliban leaders have not claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, but the clashes highlight how slow the path to stability under Afghanistan’s nascent peace process is likely to be. Speaking by phone yesterday, U.S. President Donald Trump and the leader of Qatar—the host country for Afghan peace talks—agreed on the importance of reducing Taliban violence and continuing prisoner releases, according to a White House statement. 

Singapore coronavirus cases surge. After appearing to be a success story in the fight against the coronavirus, cases in Singapore are again on the rise. The country reported roughly 1,000 new cases on Wednesday; the vast majority—967—were foreign workers. In FP, Namita Bhandare reports on the challenges facing these workers, whose cramped living spaces can be a strong vector for the spread of the coronavirus, “A single bedroom can accommodate as many as 20 men—making it impossible to implement social distancing,” she writes.

Saakashvili to join Ukraine cabinet. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is to make a return to political life in Ukraine as deputy prime minister  in charge of government reform. Saakashvili, a Ukrainian citizen since 2015, was deported from Ukraine under previous President Petro Poreshenko and was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship after he accused Poroshenko of corruption. New President Volodymyr Zelensky restored Saakashvili’s citizenship last year. It’s now up to the Ukrainian parliament to approve the move. A vote is expected on Friday.

U.S. announces weekly unemployment figures. This morning in Washington, the U.S. Department of Labor will release its weekly report on U.S. unemployment claims. The past few weeks have been record-breaking, with 5.2 million people filing for unemployment benefits last week. According to Bloomberg data, today’s figures should show approximately 4.5 million more people being added to unemployment rolls.

Keep an Eye On

WHO warns against lifting lockdowns. World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that lifting lockdowns could cause the coronavirus pandemic to “reignite” and prepared nations to for a long battle against the virus. “Make no mistake, we have a long way to go. This virus will be with us for a long time,” Tedros told a press conference yesterday. “Early evidence suggests most of the world’s population remains susceptible. That means epidemics can easily reignite,” he added.

In the United States, support remains high for lockdown measures. A new poll conducted by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 61 percent of Americans say lockdown restrictions in their area are “about right,” 26 percent said the restrictions don’t go far enough.

World Bank says remittances will face historic drop. On Wednesday, the World Bank warned global remittances will drop by $128 billion in 2020, a 20 percent decline overall, as the global recession squeezes wages and employment prospects for migrants around the world. The World Bank says the decline is the largest ever recorded and occurs as global remittances reached a record $714 billion in 2019.

Odds and Ends

In a sign that there may not be a “normal” to get back to, cyclists and motorists have found themselves at loggerheads in Berlin, as the aversion to public transport lingers and Berliners seek alternative forms of transportation. The city has begun painting “pop-up” bike lanes to cope with the increased demand for solo transport, a plan that Berlin had on the books before the coronavirus pandemic, but is now fast-tracking. Authorities are using space usually reserved for car parking spaces to free up the roads, angering motorists. Felix Weisbrich, in charge of street planning in one of Berlin’s district, is unmoved by complaints, “There’s no right to free parking on the streets,” he said.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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