Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Tuesday, January 5, 2016, 7:01 PM

Bahrain, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait—all four Sunni-led countries—have joined Saudi Arabia in cutting off or downgrading relations with Iran after protesters, enraged by Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, ransacked and set fire to part of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, along with the country’s consulate in Mashhad. The Wall Street Journal reports that Turkey also joined in “condemning Iran on Tuesday.” The Gulf Cooperation Council has called an emergency meeting in Riyadh this Saturday to discuss the crisis.

For its part, the Obama administration has attempted to walk a neutral path between its traditional ally Saudi Arabia and Iran, a move meant to keep both parties at the table as the international community looks to settle the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and move forward a nuclear deal with Iran. However, some commentators expressed concern to the Journal, suggesting that the appearance of U.S. neutrality would instead provoke Saudi Arabia “to take more aggresive steps to confront Tehran in ways that will undermine U.S. efforts.”

The Associated Press provides a rundown of where countries around the world stand on the diplomatic crisis.

In the New York Times, Thomas Erdbrink writes that as the crisis unfolds, Iranian leaders, who originally stoked the nationalist flames and called for demonstrations in front of the Saudi embassy, “are suddenly forced to reckon with whether they played into the Saudi’s hands, finding themselves mired in a new crisis at a time they had been hoping to emerge from international sanctions as an accepted global player.” Iran has arrested dozens of protesters suspected of involvement in the assault and a commander of a Tehran-based unit of the Revolutionary Guards Corps called the raid on the Saudi embassy “a very wrong move and a mistake.” In the Daily Beast, Shane Harris speculates that Tehran’s overreaction may have been part of the House of Saud's plan all along, as “the decision comes at a moment when the Saudis have several reasons to feel vulnerable to rising Iranian influence.”

Yet back in the Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov argues that the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr “is as much about domestic politics in both nations as it is about their regional tussle” and why the Islamic State may actually be the big winner from the diplomatic discord.

For more on Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s views, see this Wikileaks cable dug up by the folks at Foreign Policy.

As the sectarian crisis in the Middle East continues to deepen, Iran appears intent on aggravating the United States. Yesterday, Tehran released images on state television depicting an underground missile depot containing Emad precision-guided missiles, “which the United States says can carry a nuclear warhead and violate a 2010 U.N. Security Council resolution.” The decision to broadcast the images comes after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered Iran’s defense minister to expand its missile program last week. Reuters has more.

The cleanup operation in Ramadi continues and Iraqi security force are beginning to uncover gruesome indicators of the barbarity of life under the Islamic State. NBC News reports that a regional Iraqi official confirmed yesterday that security forces had uncovered a mass grave containing the bodies of roughly 40 civilians and that the government expected to uncover several more in the coming days.

For the second straight day, Islamic State militants attacked the Libyan oil port of Es Sider, setting an oil storage tank on fire. Reuters reports that two guards were killed and 16 wounded in the fighting after clashes yesterday killed seven guards and wounded 25. Es Sider is one of Libya’s biggest oil ports.

Frequent readers likely know that ISIS jihadists love the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which has largely replaced Twitter as the primary recruiting grounds for the group. But Defense One shares that researchers in Denmark have found what may be one of many security flaws in the program, which Johns Hopkins University Professor Matthew Green compares to “a submarine where the doors are made out of saran wrap.”

For the first time, says Defense One, the national security strategy of the Russian Federation has named the United States on a list of threats to the country. The document, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on New Year's Eve, suggests that the United States and its allies will likely apply “political, economical, military and informational pressure” against Russia. It also accuses the United States and the European Union of sponsoring an “anti-constitutional coup d’etat” in Ukraine.

Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar announced today that Indian security forces killed the six militants that launched an assault of a military airbase in Pathankot, 16 miles from the Pakistani border, four days ago. The attack killed seven security personnel and injured 22 more. The assault has prompted concerns that Indian leaders might call off talks with their Pakistani counterparts that started last month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Lahore. However, Reuters notes, “in a sign that both want the incipient dialogue to continue, [Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz] Sharif called Modi on Tuesday to convey his ‘sorrow and grief’ at the losses from the air base attack.” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said that Pakistan “must continue to target all militant groups.”

Radio Free Europe reports that Afghan officials have confirmed that the siege near India’s consulate in Mazar-e Sharif, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan, ended after all the attackers were killed. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

As security forces cleared Mazar-e Sharif, in Kabul, a Taliban truck bomb attack near the Kabul airport wounded at least 30 Afghan civilians.

The Daily Beast reports that the Chinese Navy recently commissioned a new high-tech spy ship, the fourth of its kind produced since 1999. As the Chinese Navy’s technological prowess and overall ship count increases, the Associated Press notes that regional powers are raising questions about whether “the U.S. has enough ships to meet challenges posed by a fast-growing, increasingly assertive Chinese navy.” For his part, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Admiral Scott Swift says he’s “very comfortable” with the resources he has.

Like the ground outside of the federally owned wildlife sanctuary in Burns, Oregon, the standoff between the federal government and a group of anti-government protesters—calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom—appears to be frozen for now, with the Department of Justice in a “wait-and-see mode.” For their part, the group of protesters announced that they did not plan to leave until their conditions were met by the government. According to the New York Times, those conditions include the federal government giving up “its unconstitutional presence” in Oregon and for state and local officials to hold a hearing on what they believe is the abuse of federal authority against Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom were arrested for committing arson on federal lands.

While the current protest in Oregon appears to be little more than a low-level nuisance at the moment, Foreign Policy reports that many of the protestors are part of a series of local militias that are spreading across the United States, raising an interesting question: at what point do these groups become a national security threat?

President Barack Obama announced today a series of executive actions to expand gun control by requiring anyone making a living by selling guns to register as a licensed gun dealer and conduct background checks before completing a purchase. Moreover, the New York Times reports that the Administration will “hire more personnel to process background checks in a timely manner, direct officials to conduct more fun research, improve the information in the background check system, encourage domestic violence prosecutions and order better tracking of lost guns.” Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Kontorovich calls the actions “minor and symbolic administrative steps,” noting that they are likely designed to “create a chilling effect on sales” by issuing a “vague standard that seems designed to create regulatory uncertainty.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Zoe Bedell provided a primer on recent Iranian missile tests and sanctions.

Susan flagged the Department of Justice’s motion to vacate the preliminary injunction in Klayman v. Obama.

Ben reviewed the latest Guantanamo Bay exclusive from Rolling Stone, which he calls “very long and very uninteresting.”

Herb Lin provided some reflections on FBI Director Jim Comey’s comments that strong encryption “is not a technical issue” but is instead “a business model question.”

Cody shared The Week That Will Be, Lawfare’s weekly roundup of events and employment announcements.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.