Saturday, 11 July 2020

John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened a Trump turkey shoot

Former national Security Advisor John Bolton listens while US President Donald Trump speaks to the press before a meeting with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the Oval Office in 2019.
Former national Security Advisor John Bolton listens while US President Donald Trump speaks to the press before a meeting with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the Oval Office in 2019.
There is a time-honoured American expression that accurately describes John Bolton’s reflections on his 2018-19 tenure as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser: “It’s difficult to soar like an eagle when you have to work with turkeys.”
Bolton’s memoir, The Room Where It Happened, might be described as a turkey shoot, as he attacks fellow cabinet ministers ranging from former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and former defence secretary Jim Mattis to incumbent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Few escape the acid in Bolton’s pen, which has been sharpened by copious note-taking during his time close to the Trump Oval Office. Vice-President Mike Pence seems the exception.


Trump has dismissed The Room Where It Happened as a work of fiction, which is curious given his administration challenged the book’s publication on the grounds of breaches of national security. The President has been reported to have ridiculed Bolton as “washed up” or a “wacko”.
Bolton is a lifelong Republican, an abrasive hawk who served in various Republican administrations dating back to Ronald Reagan and including a stint as US ambassador to the UN for George W. Bush. This is a particularly sensitive feature of Bolton’s resume, given Trump regularly attacks the 43rd president as savagely as he does the 44th (Barack Obama).
Bolton positioned himself for senior office in the Trump administration. It is obvious that his first objective was to be secretary of state, where initially he lost out to Rex Tillerson. But he stays the course in blind ambition. The opening of the book is almost a parody of hard-boiled American writer James M. Cain. Does the President actually tweet twice? He does, and Bolton finds himself back in an influential role.
If Bolton appears to have few friends among his Republican peers, he has fewer friends on the other side of the aisle, where he is often loathed. Congressman Adam Schiff (Democrat, California), who led the impeachment proceedings against Trump, once described Bolton as an author but not a patriot. This is a direct reference to Bolton’s failure to testify during the impeachment proceedings, not only about knowledge of the Trump telephone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine but also pleading with President Xi Jinping about what China might do to assist Trump’s re-election.
As Bob Woodward (in his book Fear) and Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker (in their book A Very Stable Genius) attest, the Trump administration is dysfunctional. Even funerals bring needless controversy, exemplified by the arguments about who would attend memorials for former president George HW Bush and senator John McCain. “During the controversy over McCain’s funeral,” Bolton writes,
Trump tweeted that White House counsel Don McGahn was leaving at the end of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle. Although McGahn had often joked to me “We’re only one tweet away”, this was a classic example of Trump’s announcing something already decided without giving McGahn a chance to announce it first.
McGahn’s sin? He was too candid with Robert Mueller’s investigation. Is it any wonder, then, that George W. Bush tells visitors to his office in Dallas that he thinks the President is great because Trump makes Bush look like George Washington?
The US National Security Council was formed in 1947 by president Harry Truman. The first national security adviser took office in the Eisenhower administration in 1953. The job is to counsel the president on security matters both foreign and domestic. Through the years, distinguished Americans such as McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft have occupied the role.
But the Truman Doctrine, essentially based on George F. Kennan’s long telegram from the US embassy in Moscow in 1946, afforded the US an overarching strategic philosophy on which its foreign and defence policy might be based.
Donald Trump, John Bolton and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a working dinner after the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires in 2018.
Donald Trump, John Bolton and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a working dinner after the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires in 2018.
Initially this provided the framework for containment of Soviet aggression. The doctrine routinely was refined through the years, as with the Guam (Nixon) Doctrine of 1969.
No such Trump Doctrine exists, nor is one likely to emerge. If Trump’s presidency may reasonably be described as transactional, then US foreign policy is evermore based on the trading floor.
However, Trump is no broker, despite claims in The Art of the Deal (largely written by Tony Schwartz of New York magazine). Bolton underlines the haphazard nature of Trump policymaking in excruciating detail.
Trump has little respect for democratic allies and unlike official US national security strategy, as devised by former defence secretary Mattis, allies are seen as having little value and routinely are regarded by the President as freeloaders on the American taxpayer.
There is actually some truth in this position, as presidents Bush Jr and Obama argued with respect to certain European allies, especially Germany. But under the current administration a NATO summit almost sees the collapse of the organisation as Trump berates his partners. At breakfast in Brussels with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump, having earlier confused the EU with NATO, decries the value of the alliance, as Bolton records:
On Trump rolled, asking why we should enter World War III on behalf of some country not paying its dues, like Macedonia, which he then acknowledged didn’t bother him as much as Germany, a wealthy country not paying enough. He complained about his own advisors saying we didn’t understand the problem even though he told us the truth. Trump clearly believed that the only way the allies would spend more is if they thought the United States was leaving, which didn’t bother him, because he didn’t think NATO was good for America.
However, the President has a more accommodating view when dealing with dictators, who understand this instinctively and play the great negotiator off a break. China’s Xi tells Trump by phone, according to Bolton, that he would like to see the limiting 22nd amendment to the US constitution repealed, so that Trump could continue to serve indefinitely as President. Trump’s fawning over the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party induces nausea. Bolton reports from the Trump-Xi dinner in Buenos Aires at the G20 in 2018:
Xi began by telling Trump how wonderful he was, laying it on thick. Xi read steadily through notecards, doubtless all of it hashed out arduously in advanced planning for this summit. For us, the President ad-libbed with no one on the US side knowing what he would say from one minute to the next. One highlight came when Xi said he wanted to work with Trump for six more years, and Trump replied that people were saying that the two-term constitutional limit on Presidents should be repealed for him. I was aware of no such chatter.
Vladimir Putin is similarly seductive in dealing with Trump. Robert Gates, defence secretary in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, said of a meeting with the Russian leader that he looked into the eyes of a “stone-cold killer”. But Trump reads things differently.
As recorded in A Very Stable Genius, Trump dismisses the view of his own secretary of state, Tillerson, which was based on many years of dealing with the Russian leader in the oil industry. Trump has one two-hour meeting with Putin and concludes that he knows better.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Bolton during the meeting in the Kremlin in 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Bolton during the meeting in the Kremlin in 2018.
The Helsinki Summit was a fiasco, with Trump appearing to concede that Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 US election was persuasive. The American media exploded.
“This was hardly the way to do relations with Russia, and Putin had to be laughing uproariously at what he had gotten away with in Helsinki,” Bolton writes.
Condi Rice [secretary of state in the Bush 43 administration] called to tell me she was not going to make any public comment on Helsinki, but she said, ‘‘You know, John, that Putin only knows two ways to deal with people, to humiliate them, or dominate them, and you can’t let him get away with it.’’ I agreed.
The Room Where It Happened is unlikely to win a Pulitzer prize and disturb the status of Jack Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, nor will it rival the memoirs of president Ulysses S. Grant. But it does afford an unfiltered view of the Trump presidency.
This book should be read by a very broad audience but not necessarily by “Never Trumpers”. It should be read by “Trumpeteers” who have boisterously applauded Trump’s journey from Charlottesville, Virginia; through COVID-19 “cures”; to St John’s Episcopal Church, also known as the Church of the Presidents, opposite Lafayette Square in Washington, DC. Bolton will vote for neither former Democratic vice-president Joe Biden nor Trump, but he remains an avowed Republican.
Richard Nixon always maintained that the US did not need a domestic president, but it was essential in foreign and defence policy. He was right. For US allies, the next four years are of critical significance if Trump is re-elected. With liberty in Hong Kong disappearing, Taiwan is the democratic canary in the coalmine of the new cold war. Bolton argues:
After I left the White House, when Trump abandoned the Kurds in Syria, there was speculation about who he might abandon next. Taiwan was right near the top of the list and would probably stay there as long as Trump remained President, not a happy prospect.
Nor is the prospect happy for Trump, in this American summer of toxic Trump biographies. Next up is a lacerating book by his niece, Mary Trump, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. She aims to expose core Trump family values. In this light, we might consider Bolton’s effort to be just the opening barrage from the USS New Jersey. Hand-to-hand fighting will begin soon.
Stephen Loosley is a senior visiting fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney

Uighurs reflect on 2009 violence that set off Chinese crackdown

By Aysha Khan

July 11 at 9:04 am AET

It was 11 years ago that Gulruy Asqer began praying for a chance to escape China.
Asqer, a Uighur poet now living in Memphis, was back then living in Urumqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang region of China that is home to the mostly Muslim Uighur minority.
She witnessed the state’s suppression of an uprising triggered by ethnic violence against Uighurs that tore through the city in early July 2009, leaving her family living in constant fear that they might be detained or disappeared.
“The whole city was different,” she said, recalling the plainclothes officers who began knocking on doors and investigating members of her family. “That was the most difficult year of my life. I was so helpless.”
Experts say that month’s unrest and the state’s aggressive response marked a major turning point in China’s brutal crackdown against the Uighur minority.

The unrest began with a student-led Uighur uprising on July 5, 2009. Human rights activists and Uighur eyewitnesses say the initial protests were peaceful. Violence only broke out, they say, when Chinese paramilitary — called in to quell the riots — fired live ammunition into protesters.
Ads around the city were replaced by posters from law enforcement seeking information about and the capture of young Uighur men suspected of involvement in the protests. Asqer’s neighbor’s sons, high school students at the time, were taken and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“I could tell what would happen in the future,” Asqer said. “I was so aware that if I just made it to the U.S., I would never return to this bloody land.”
Discord between the Hans and the Uighurs, indigenous to the Xinjiang region, had been common since the Han-majority government took control of the region after the Communist revolution in 1949.
The impetus for the 2009 protests came that June, at a toy factory in the city of Shaoguan, about 2,500 miles from Urumqi.
A factory worker posted an unsubstantiated rumor online that Uighur migrant workers had raped Han Chinese women there. Some Han Chinese workers responded by beating Uighur workers in a brutal attack captured on camera. At least two died in the attacks.
When the gory video footage spread online, long-simmering ethnic tensions in Xinjiang rose to a boiling point.
“It is a very clear depiction of men being hunted down and beaten to death,” said University of Nottingham historian Rian Thum, who researches Islam in China. “The clarity of that video is what made it so powerful in mobilizing people.”
Peaceful student-led protests for justice soon turned deadly.

Young Uighur men rampaged through the streets on July 5, beating and stabbing Hans and attacking Han businesses. For days afterward, Han mobs armed with sticks and metal bars carried out violent reprisals.
And in the weeks and months following, thousands of Uighurs, mostly young men in their 20s, disappeared from the region.
“I now think of it as the beginning of the era of disappearances,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, which published a report documenting the “enforced disappearances” of 43 Uighur men and teenage boys detained by Chinese security forces as part of what researchers described as a “massive campaign of unlawful arrests.”
Richardson and other experts on the Uighur crisis spoke during a July 2 webinar organized by the Uyghur Human Rights Project and World Uyghur Congress to explore how the 2009 events “paved the way from systematic assimilation to today’s cultural genocide.”
“In many ways, that was a pivotal day in terms of ethnic tensions erupting in Xinjiang itself,” said Adrian Zenz, a Washington-based anthropologist whose research helped uncover the vast scale of China’s “reeducation camps” for Uighurs. “No matter who died or who started what . . . that is when the underlying rupture became visible and ethnic relations were changed forever.”
Zenz described a “great deal of consistency” between the state’s aggressive response to the Uighur uprising and today’s repression of Uighurs. But what’s surprising, he said, is the “speed and intensity” with which this repression multiplied in scale.
In the years since 2009, Asqer’s brother, brother-in-law and two nephews — one of whom participated in the protests — have joined more than a million Uighurs and other Turkic minorities who have disappeared into China’s shadowy network of mass detention camps.
Reports suggest that constant surveillance, brainwashing, forced labor, forced sterilizations and abortions, and even organ harvesting are likely taking place at a systemic level within those camps.
Prominent exiled Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer, the World Uyghur Congress leader whom Chinese officials later blamed for instigating the violence, claimed that month that nearly 10,000 Uighurs went missing overnight after the protests.
It was the Chinese government’s silence when Han Chinese people — not just the state, but fellow civilians — killed Uighurs in Shaoguan that finally forced Uighurs to the breaking point, said Jevlan Shirmehmet, a Uighur who has lived in Turkey since 2011.
Chinese officials say that nearly 200 people, most of them Han Chinese, died in what they described as riots “instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country in the region.” Another 1,700 people were injured and 1,000 arrested, according to government records.
Human rights advocates say those numbers, which cannot be independently verified, obscure the violence and abuses perpetrated by police and Han civilians against Uighurs.
Shirmehmet compared the events to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

But while the student-led Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations are known globally, grabbing major media attention because they took place in Beijing and because they lasted two months before the government successfully suppressed them, the conflict in Urumqi is not so widely known.
The Urumqi protests were crushed within hours, Shirmehmet said. On top of that, he said, many witnesses of the Tiananmen crackdown are now overseas telling their tale. Those who saw the Urumqi massacre “can’t even move from one city to another,” he said.
The Chinese government cut off Internet access in Xinjiang until April 2010. When access returned, residents could no longer use global social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. CCTV and other forms of surveillance became ubiquitous.
Daily life has been transformed. “For Uighur teenagers, finding jobs became difficult,” Shirmehmet told Religion News Service, the Islamic call to prayer echoing behind him. “Even [a] driver’s license is very difficult to get for Uighur people. The passport, even more difficult.”
But for some Uighur activists, the 2009 uprising remains a hopeful reminder of Uighur unity in the face of intensifying state suppression.
“Always, Chinese wanted to assimilate Uighur culture and Uighur identity into a Chinese culture and identity,” Shirmehmet said. “They want to brainwash us, indoctrinate us. But it is not going to work. . . . Our pride and our identity is in our blood.”

Friday, 10 July 2020


Professor Michael Pettis has a new book out, titled "Trade Wars Are Class Wars", whose main thesis is consistent and consonant with our own discussion of these matters in this Blog. Of course, for that reason alone we strongly recommend it. No need for us to revisit the main components of the overall thesis - we have argued them ad nauseam on these pages. - Just a couple of observations will do here. First, Pettis focuses on China and Germany as national economies (our allusion here is to Friedrich List) that exasperate domestic wage suppression so as (a) to accumulate trade surpluses and hard-cash reserves, and (b) to keep their currencies low through low wage-push inflation and their economies competitive - which leads to greater trade surpluses. The point to be made here is that these domestically autarkic and externally mercantilist policies are mostly adopted by nation-states that are either current dictatorships (China) or recent dictatorships (Japan, Germany, Taiwan, Korea). The reason for this is that the ruling elites and bourgeois classes in each of these "dictatorial or authoritarian or command or dirigiste" nation-states either in the past or still in the present have developed political institutions and legal rules that successfully suppress emancipatory democratic and progressive movements (working-class or liberal middle-class) within their borders. That is why, as Pettis gloriously labels the thesis, "trade wars are [also] class wars".

But our next point concerns this notion of "class wars". Does the sociological notion of "class" still withstand critical analysis in the type of global capitalism that we are experiencing now? This is a moot point that we ought to study and discuss in greater detail. It is important because it is vital to the question of "what is to be done", of how we proceed to emancipate our societies and the entire world: in other words, what is the historical agency that can lead us forward to a better social existence?

That is for a later day. For now, just one last point: Professor Pettis correctly and justly observes that Western bourgeoisies have practised similar strategies to those of the present and past autarkic-mercantilist dictatorships. True. But as Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, this is valid for the first phase of "primitive accumulation of capital" (e.g. the enclosure period in Britain) and also to the expansionist or imperialist period of Western capitalist accumulation (the first volume of Arendt's great work on totalitarianism is appropriately titled "Imperialism"). For the advanced industrial capitalist nation-states, this period of "formal empire" is over broadly speaking: "globalisation" or "world-market" capital movements have replaced it. (Incidentally, on many of these themes, we recommend my mentor's Marcello De Cecco's invaluable Money and Empire now mercifully available at Enough for now, but once again a huge "well done!" to our inestimably far-sighted Prof!


Wells bans TikTok from some staff devices over security concerns
Move comes after Amazon says email telling staff to do the same with video app was ‘sent in error’ India has banned TikTok along with dozens of other Chinese-owned apps. The US says it is looking into doing the same

Wells Fargo has ordered some of its staff to delete social network TikTok from their work devices over “privacy and security” concerns, while Amazon said an email instructing employees to do the same was “sent in error”. Corporate staff at the ecommerce group had received a memo early on Friday demanding TikTok be uninstalled from any device that accessed corporate email, citing “security risks” related to the Chinese-owned viral video app. “If you have TikTok on your device, you must remove it by 10-Jul to retain mobile access to Amazon email,” the email said. It added: “At this time, using TikTok from your Amazon laptop browser is allowed.” Several hours later, an Amazon spokesperson said the email had been a mistake. “There is no change to our policies right now with regard to TikTok,” the spokesperson said. The company would not say how and why the email came to be written, or whether it had been intended for a smaller audience within Amazon. We are open to engaging with [Wells Fargo] constructively and sharing the actions we take to protect data security for our users TikTok spokesperson Shortly after the U-turn, it emerged that Wells Fargo had asked what it said was a small number of employees to remove the app from their devices.

 Wells Fargo said the decision, first reported by The Information, was taken earlier this week “due to concerns about TikTok’s privacy and security controls and practices, and because corporate-owned devices should be used for company business only, we have directed those employees to remove the app from their devices”. The day of confusion comes as the use of Chinese-owned apps, particularly TikTok, comes under intense scrutiny over data gathering and other possible security implications. A TikTok spokesperson said the app had “not been contacted by Wells Fargo”, adding “but as with any organisation that has concerns, we are open to engaging with them constructively and sharing the actions we take to protect data security for our users”. The TikTok spokesperson had said earlier Amazon “did not communicate to us before sending their email” and that it did “not understand their concerns”. TikTok, owned by one of China’s largest private companies, ByteDance, has exploded in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, breaking the quarterly record for installs in the first quarter of this year for any app to date. But its Chinese roots have prompted concerns over privacy, security and the censorship of content.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said earlier this week that the country might look to block Chinese-owned apps, including TikTok, over national security fears. When asked by Fox News whether Americans should use the app, Mr Pompeo replied: “Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist party.” 

 A person familiar with the Democratic National Committee said it had for months advised staff to refrain from using the app on personal devices, and that campaigns were urged to use a separate phone and account if using the app for work. In India, TikTok was one of 59 Chinese-owned apps banned at the end of June over accusations from the country’s ministry of electronics and information technology of data privacy breaches. TikTok has long insisted its business outside China, including content moderation and data policies, is not dictated by its managers within the mainland. ByteDance said this week it was “evaluating changes to the corporate structure of its TikTok business” as global regulators pressure it to prove its independence.  In particular, it said it was weighing options such as building a TikTok management board separate from the existing ByteDance one, as well as establishing headquarters for the app outside of China — an apparent U-turn just weeks after it told the Financial Times that such measures were not under consideration. ByteDance also recently hired Kevin Mayer, former Disney executive, as TikTok’s chief executive, in an effort to bolster the app’s reputation in the US and expand its growing advertising business. TikTok earlier this week said it would pull out of Hong Kong in order to protect users, after Beijing imposed a sweeping new national security law that has raised concerns about how data is handled in the city.
 Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington and Laura Noonan in New York  


In mid-June, as Australia began to open up, a report landed that, on the face of it, had nothing to do with Covid-19 or Australia’s response.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report on what it described as a “DNA dragnet” and the development of the “world’s largest police-run DNA database”. It described a massive Chinese police operation to collect and analyse DNA samples from millions of men and boys who had no serious criminal history and had no control over how their samples were collected, stored and used.
Several private companies were named as having involvement.
One of those was a wholly-owned BGI subsidiary, Forensic Genomics International. The company, ASPI said, had struck a strategic partnership with the Public Security Bureau of Xi’an in August 2018 and worked with other such agencies to build genetic databases as part of the national program.
“These ordinary citizens are powerless to refuse DNA collection and have no say over how their personal genomic data is used,” the report said. “The mass and compulsory collection of DNA from people outside criminal investigations violates Chinese domestic law and international norms governing the collection, use and storage of human genetic data.”
BGI, for its part, denies the allegations contained in the ASPI report, saying it has “never been involved in the collection, storage or analysis of personal genetic information with the potential for or the purpose of violating human rights for special regions or groups”.
It also denies ongoing concerns about links to the Chinese government, saying it has no government ownership or funding.
“It is owned by cofounders and core employees,” a spokeswoman said.
Concerns about the company have been enough to turn some jurisdictions away entirely. In California, authorities were concerned enough about the company’s background that it decided to refuse its Covid-19 tests.
The Washington Post reported that the decision was based on an inconclusive, one-page intelligence report that raised concerns about BGI being potentially subject to Chinese influence.
Any such concerns failed to deter Australia, where security agencies briefed government about the arrangement.
“The Australian government has sought and obtained advice from security agencies about appropriate installation and use of the new platforms and is implementing this advice through contractual arrangements with the Australian pathology providers,” a spokesman for Hunt said.
One of the ASPI report’s authors, La Trobe University’s James Leibold, said Australia should be taking ethical concerns into account when deliberating on its future involvement with BGI.
“It’s one of those things where you have to balance up ethical concerns with security concerns, economic concerns, and public health concerns,” he said. “Admittedly it’s a complicated series of issues to work through, but I think it’s important that we raise the ethical and security concerns so that they’re considered here in Australia.”
An inflatable Covid-19 testing lab in Beijing provided by BGI that is capable of running 30,000 nucleic acid test daily
 An inflatable Covid-19 testing lab in Beijing provided by BGI that is capable of running 30,000 nucleic acid test daily. Photograph: Chen Zhonghao/AP
BGI, though, says it holds itself to the highest of ethical standards. It is also at pains to point out that it is independent of the Chinese government.
It says any suggestion that Covid-19 testing data could somehow be handled inappropriately is fundamentally wrong and neglects to understand the fact that it has no access to Australian health data.
“BGI only provides the products and know-how for Covid-19 testing, but does not receive, process or manage patient data,” a spokeswoman said. “The labs in Australia are operated entirely by local staff according to national regulations.”
Other experts agree there is little risk to Australians’ privacy and data from Covid-19 testing.
The Belgian computational biology expert Yves Moreau, a professor at the University of Leuven, has concerns about its separate gene-sequencing business, however.
He says he is not convinced it is possible to guarantee that a copy of the data generated by BGI’s gene sequencing services in western countries will not end up in China, though he has no evidence to suggest that has happened.
Regardless, he says genomic data is incredibly detailed, personal, and valuable, and must be treated with care.
“Genomic data is extremely intimate because it reveals key information about your identity, your health, and your family,” he said. “It must be afforded strong privacy protections, while also trying to leverage this information for genomic research for the common good. This is a delicate balance to find.”
“While genomic data can be economically valuable, it should not be considered as an ordinary commodity that can be traded without restraint.”

Long-Planned and Bigger Than Thought: Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Some officials say that a joint American-Israeli strategy is evolving — some might argue regressing — to a series of short-of-war clandestine strikes.
Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps during a military parade in Tehran last year.
Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps during a military parade in Tehran last year. Credit... Iranian Presidency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
David E. SangerEric SchmittRonen Bergman
As Iran’s center for advanced nuclear centrifuges lies in charred ruins after an explosion, apparently engineered by Israel, the long-simmering conflict between the United States and Tehran appears to be escalating into a potentially dangerous phase likely to play out during the American presidential election campaign.
New satellite photographs over the stricken facility at Natanz show far more extensive damage than was clear last week. Two intelligence officials, updated with the damage assessment for the Natanz site recently compiled by the United States and Israel, said it could take the Iranians up to two years to return their nuclear program to the place it was just before the explosion. An authoritative public study estimates it will be a year or more until Iran’s centrifuge production capacity recovers.
Another major explosion hit the country early Friday morning, lighting up the sky in a wealthy area of Tehran. It was still unexplained — but appeared to come from the direction of a missile base. If it proves to have been another attack, it will further shake the Iranians by demonstrating, yet again, that even their best-guarded nuclear and missile facilities have been infiltrated.
Although Iran has said little of substance about the explosions, Western officials anticipate some type of retaliation, perhaps against American or allied forces in Iraq, perhaps a renewal of cyberattacks. In the past, those have been directed against American financial institutions, a major Las Vegas casino and a dam in the New York suburbs or, more recently, the water supply system in Israel, which its government considers “critical infrastructure.”
Officials familiar with the explosion at Natanz compared its complexity to the sophisticated Stuxnet cyberattack on Iranian nuclear facilities a decade ago, which had been planned for more than a year. In the case of last week’s episode, the primary theory is that an explosive device was planted in the heavily-guarded facility, perhaps near a gas line. But some experts have also floated the possibility that a cyberattack was used to trigger the gas supply.
Some officials said that a joint American-Israeli strategy was evolving — some might argue regressing — to a series of short-of-war clandestine strikes, aimed at taking out the most prominent generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and setting back Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The closest the administration has come to describing its strategy of more aggressive pushback came in comments last month from Brian H. Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran. “We have seen historically,” he concluded, “that timidity and weakness invites more Iranian aggression.”
The next move may be a confrontation over four tankers, now making their way to Venezuela, which the United States has vowed will not be allowed to deliver their cargo of Iranian oil in violation of United States sanctions.
The emerging approach is risky, analysts warn, one that over the long term may largely serve to drive Iran’s nuclear program further underground, and thus make it harder to detect.
But in the short term, American and Israeli officials are betting that Iran will limit its retaliation, as it did after an American drone in January killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, one of Iran’s most important commanders.
While some American officials expressed fears that the killing of General Suleimani would lead Iran to initiate a war against the United States, the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, reassured them that the Iranians would settle on limited missile attacks against American targets in Iraq — which so far has turned out to be correct. Iran’s limited response could be an incentive for further operations against it.
In addition, some American and Israeli officials, and international security analysts, say that Iran may believe that President Trump will lose the November election and that his presumptive Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., will want to resurrect some form of the negotiated settlement that the Obama administration reached with Tehran five years ago next week.
A satellite image of the destruction at Natanz, as seen on July 4.
A satellite image of the destruction at Natanz, as seen on July 4. Credit... via Institute for Science and International Security
“Today, if you are Iran, why compromise with an administration which may only have a few months left?’’ asked Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But in the short term, he noted, the new offensive has put Iran under “extreme internal and external pressure,” as its oil exports continue to be squeezed and its efforts to revive the nuclear program, retribution for Mr. Trump’s decision in May 2018 to abandon the 2015 accord, falter amid sabotage.
“Think about it,’’ he said. “Geographically, Iran is greater in size than Germany, France and the United Kingdom combined. But they have never managed to pursue a clandestine nuclear program without getting caught, or protected their program from sabotage. Are there defectors or traitors inside the system?”
When the Mossad raided a warehouse in Tehran in January 2018, and emerged with tens of thousands of pages of nuclear-weapons planning documents dating back nearly two decades, it clearly had the help of insiders. The killing of General Suleimani, the mastermind of Iran’s actions in Iraq and attacks on Americans — which was also based on intelligence, much of it given by live agents — was perhaps Mr. Trump’s most aggressive military move as president.
The Natanz explosion occurred inside the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center, where the country was building its most advanced machines, designed to produce far more nuclear fuel, far faster, than the old machines used until Iran dismantled most of its facilities in the 2015 accord.
While research on those machines was permitted under the agreement, they could not be deployed for years — and Iran’s crash effort to mass produce them was an ambitious effort to show that it could respond to Mr. Trump’s rejection of the deal by speeding up.
A study by the Institute for Science and International Security published Wednesday concluded that while the explosion “does not eliminate Iran’s ability to deploy advanced centrifuges,” it was “a major setback” that would cost Iran years of development.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who always leaps at any opportunity to denounce the Iranian government, twice declined on Wednesday to discuss the issue at a news conference.
But it is hardly a secret inside the State Department that Mr. Pompeo, who served as Mr. Trump’s first C.I.A. director, developed a close relationship with Yossi Cohen, the director of the Mossad, Israel’s external spy service. The two men talk often, making it difficult to believe that Mr. Pompeo had no idea about what was coming, if indeed it was an Israeli operation.
Just as the strike was happening, Mr. Cohen’s term was extended for six months by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, interpreted by many as a sign of things to come, since Mr. Cohen is a veteran of Iran operations. He was a key player in the sophisticated series of cyberstrikes known as Olympic Games that took out nearly 1,000 operating centrifuges at Natanz — near the site of last week’s explosion and fire — a decade ago. And as chief of Mossad, he directed the covert seizure of the secret nuclear archive.
In some way it feels a bit like a decade ago, when the George W. Bush administration handed off the cyberoperations to the Obama administration, part of a broad covert effort to cripple Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, the Israelis were killing Iranian scientists. The idea was not only to slow the program, but also to turn the Iranians against one another, constantly suspecting that there were spies in their midst.
This time, there are several new elements.
Mr. Trump is an unpredictable player, who has often threatened Iran — and just as often pulled back from striking it. And the Iranian leaders who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with President Barack Obama are on the ropes in Tehran, assailed for having given away too much, only to discover that Washington was reimposing sanctions.
At the White House, Mr. Trump’s top national security advisers are hardly of one mind over when and how to confront Iran.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  of Israel at the White House in January with President Trump. Some officials suggested that the joint Israeli-American strategy on Iran was evolving.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  of Israel at the White House in January with President Trump. Some officials suggested that the joint Israeli-American strategy on Iran was evolving. Credit... Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times
Military leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been wary of a sharp military escalation, warning it could further destabilize the Middle East when Mr. Trump has said he hopes to reduce the number of American troops in the region.
Pentagon officials nervously cited at least two potential flash points that could drag American forces into a military clash with Iran or Iranian-backed proxies in the Persian Gulf region.
One focuses on those oil tankers. Justice Department and F.B.I. officials announced last week that they had used a counterterrorism statute to obtain a warrant to seize Iranian oil products aboard the four tankers bound for Venezuela in violation of American sanctions. Investigators determined that the fuel cargo aboard the Greek-owned ships were assets of Iran’s Guards Corps, which the Trump administration last year designated as a terrorist organization. General Suleimani was commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Administration officials said this week that the State, Justice and Treasury Departments were seeking to work with the Greek government to halt the shipments, and have the fuel be offloaded. Iran’s mission to the United Nations immediately declared any such seizure would amount to “piracy.”
Two of the ships are believed to be in the Aegean Sea. But the two others are steaming in the Gulf of Oman, off the coast of Iran, and are under close surveillance, an American military official said.
Some American officials worry that if the two tankers comply with the U.S. court order to give up the fuel, Iranian naval forces could challenge the transfer to another ship. It is not entirely clear what United States Navy warships in the area would do if that happened.
Another potential flash point is in Iraq, where Iranian-backed militia are believed to be responsible for a steadily increasing series of rocket attacks at the American Embassy in Baghdad and on American and coalition forces near Baghdad’s international airport.
After General Suleimani’s death, Tehran and Washington traded modest strikes in March. But then, tensions appeared to ease — until early June.
“We’re seeing a beginning of a spike in unprovoked rocket attacks on Iraqi bases that host U.S. forces in Iraq,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, said last month.
For now, the latest rocket attacks have been more harassing than harmful.
David E. Sanger is a national security correspondent. In a 36-year reporting career for The Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book is “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.” @SangerNYT  Facebook
Eric Schmitt is a senior writer who has traveled the world covering terrorism and national security. He was also the Pentagon correspondent. A member of the Times staff since 1983, he has shared three Pulitzer Prizes.

Source: AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Plans South China Sea Announcement With Tensions Escalating

The Trump administration plans to make an announcement next week related to escalating tensions in the South China Sea, where Washington and Beijing are vying for military supremacy, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The U.S. has raised concerns over China’s decision to conduct military exercises in the contested waters around the Paracel Islands. The Defense Department last week called the actions “unlawful,” and the U.S. plans to lay out its official position next week, said one of the people who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The unspecified move comes as President Donald Trump has intensified his criticism of Beijing over issues from the coronavirus pandemic to trade. A spokesperson for the National Security Council didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Overlapping Claims in the South China Sea

Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, The Center for Strategic and International Studies
Stretching from China in the north to Indonesia in the south, the South China Sea encompasses 1.4 million square miles (3.6 million square kilometers). China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea and backs up its claim with a 1947 map that shows vague dashes -- what became known as the nine-dash line. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan claim parts of the same maritime area.
Beijing has rejected claims that it’s doing anything out of the ordinary in the South China Sea and has indirectly accused the U.S. of trying to sow discord between China and Southeast Asian nations.