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BLACKWATER USA | DAILY BRIEF


Guyana

  • The U.S. finally threw its weight into Guyana’s ongoing political mess. SecState Pompeo called on Guyana’s government to “step aside” and slapped visa restrictions on members of the ruling party for “undermining democracy” by refusing to heed the outcome of March elections (specifically, the recount showing that opposition candidate Irfaan Ali won).

Venezuela

  • Venezuela’s opposition worries that the country’s weak health system will be easily overwhelmed by a rapid rise in coronavirus cases. The opposition challenges the government’s low case count of 10,010.

China

  • Amidst a backdrop of rising U.S.-China tensions, SecState Pompeo posted a photo to his personal Twitter account of his adorable dog surrounded by “all of her favorite toys”—including a stuffed Winnie the Pooh (seen and banned in China as a derogatory caricature of Pres. Xi because of a striking resemblance between the two). Netizens speculate the post was a deliberate jab at Xi.

  • Pompeo also announced that the U.S. will diplomatically—rather than militarily—support countries that feel China has violated their maritime rights in the South China Sea.

Iran

  • Former U.S. officials said that Pres. Trump authorized the CIA to carry out several “very aggressive” clandestine cyber operations targeting Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea in 2018.

  • Iran is investigating a fire that damaged at least seven ships at a port in Bushehr, southern Iran—near Iran’s only nuclear power plant. That’s just the latest in a series of mysterious explosions and fires at key nuclear and military sites in Iran, and the pattern is definitely starting to look suspicious.

  • Israel may be responsible, but is playing coy with cryptic comments like those made by its Foreign Minister: “We take actions that are better left unsaid.” An Economist article pasted below has more.

Yemen

  • The UN is worried about an abandoned and decaying oil tanker sitting in Houthi-controlled waters with over a million barrels of oil aboard. If the tanker were to rupture or explode, it would be devastating for Yemen’s biodiversity and fishing industry.

Libya

  • AFRICOM accused LNA-aligned Russian mercenaries of planting land mines and IEDs in and around Tripoli, in contravention of international law.

U.S.

  • The Trump Administration reversed its new policy that would have blocked visas for foreign students whose universities went online only in the fall, after Harvard and MIT sued over the policy.

  • A European court overruled a 2016 decision ordering Apple to pay $14.9 billion in taxes to Ireland.

Other News

  • Researchers concluded that man-made climate change made Siberia’s extraordinary heat spell 600 times more likely to occur.

  • Ethiopia started filling the Grand Renaissance Dam atop the Nile, and its downstream neighbors Sudan and Egypt both condemned the unilateral move. The three parties had been trying to come to a mutually acceptable solution, but talks ended without an agreement.

What to make of a series of odd explosions in Iran (Economist)

Do they augur a return to the shadow war over its nuclear programme?

In the early hours of July 2nd a building caught fire in the grounds of the nuclear plant at Natanz in central Iran. Officials downplayed it as an accident in an unfinished shed. But photos showed a building with machinery on the roof. Satellite images added more doubt: scattered debris looked consistent with an explosion, not a fire. The cover story was short-lived. A spokesman for Iran’s nuclear agency soon admitted it was a factory for centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The damage, he said, could slow work on advanced models.

The apparent blast was one in a string of unusual incidents around Iran this summer (see map). On June 26th there was an explosion near Parchin, a military base south-east of Tehran that produces ballistic missiles. It was big enough to light the night sky in the capital. There have also been fires or explosions at power plants, clinics and other facilities. Some have innocuous explanations, like gas leaks.

But others look intentional. The blasts at Parchin and Natanz raise suspicions of an Israeli hand. For months the conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme has been overshadowed by covid-19. Now the virus may have helped resurrect it. President Donald Trump’s botched handling of America’s outbreak has put his re-election in doubt, and Israel may feel the clock is ticking on an administration committed to “maximum pressure” on Iran.


Not that anyone will confirm this. Save for rare exceptions, Israel does not take responsibility for covert operations in Iran. Officials settle for cryptic remarks like those made by Gabi Ashkenazi, the foreign minister, on July 5th: “We take actions that are better left unsaid.” That same day Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, extended the tenure of Yossi Cohen, the Mossad chief. Ten days before, the army had awarded medals to Unit 8200, which oversees high-tech warfare, for “secret operational activity”; in May Iran’s main port was paralysed by a cyber-attack.

Even without these sly jabs, the explosions would have been ascribed to Israel, which has spent years fighting a low-intensity war against Iran. Stuxnet, a computer worm thought to be a joint effort by American and Israeli spies, sent Iran’s centrifuges spinning out of control. Israel has allegedly assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists with “sticky bombs” planted on their cars.

The deal that Iran signed with world powers in 2015, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (jcpoa), was meant to replace these tactical bites with a durable arms-control regime. Mr Trump withdrew from it two years ago and restored economic sanctions. After a year of restraint, Iran began to lash out last summer. It downed an American drone and attacked Saudi oil facilities. The new year brought the American assassination of Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s top commander, and a retaliatory missile strike by Iran on airbases in Iraq. Since then the conflict has gone quiet.

Mr Netanyahu is anxious to draw attention back to Iran, which has begun to shirk its own obligations under the jcpoa. It has exceeded both the deal’s limit on its heavy-water stockpiles and the cap on enriched uranium. It has also boosted enrichment to 4.5% purity, above the prescribed 3.67% threshold, though far below the 90% level at which it becomes weapons-grade.

The Israeli prime minister is mindful of the changing mood in America. “Netanyahu has finally realised that Trump won’t be around for much longer, and it’s more important for him to use this time to push Iran, rather than annex the West Bank,” says an Israeli intelligence official.

He may also wager that Iran will find it hard to retaliate, with its regional allies in a mess. Bashar al-Assad won the war in Syria but is losing the peace: his regime can barely feed its people. Lebanon defaulted in March and is struggling to keep the lights on. Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is taking on pro-Iranian militias.

Mr Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, supports re-entering the jcpoa (if Iran starts complying again). Though even if America elects Mr Biden, Iran may be heading in the other direction. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate by Iranian standards, will leave office next summer. Voters are frustrated with his camp, because of a miserable economy and a sense that “reformists” are not actually allowed to reform much.

That could augur well for Iran’s hardliners, who have already taken control of two branches of government. Parliament’s new speaker is a former Revolutionary Guard commander, and the chief justice was Mr Rouhani’s opponent in the past election. In a speech to Iran’s new parliament on July 5th, Muhammad Javad Zarif, the pragmatic foreign minister, was heckled. Several mps chanted “death to a liar”.

When Mr Trump left the jcpoa, critics feared he would fail to replace it. If he leaves office in six months they will probably be proved right. He will have achieved little except raising tensions to their highest level since the 1980s. Mr Biden may find Iran in little mood for concessions. And he will have other problems to occupy his time. That leaves a return to covert war—and more booms in the night.

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