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U.S. Officials Propose Sending up to 120,000 Troops to the Middle East

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  • The New York Times reported that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan proposed a plan to send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacked U.S. forces or advanced their nuclear weapons development.
  • Many U.S. and European officials are worried that expanding military influence could lead to a conflict between the U.S. and Iran, arguing that Washington is promoting the confrontation, which has been escalating in recent months.
  • The State Department ordered all non-essential embassy and consular employees to leave their posts in Iraq Wednesday, also issuing a separate travel advisory warning U.S. citizens not to travel to Iraq “due to terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict.”

Shanahan’s Proposal

Ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Iran escalated Monday when it was reported that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan proposed a plan that would send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacked U.S. forces or sped up their nuclear weapons development.

The story was first reported by The New York Times, which spoke to Administration officials who were present at a meeting of top security aides on Thursday. Officials told the Times that the plan does not explicitly call for invading Iran, a move that would require a lot more troops.

However, many officials were still reportedly shocked by the number of troops called for in the proposal. The Times noted that the 120,000 troops would almost approach the number of U.S. forces that invaded Iraq in 2003.

Many are skeptical that President Trump would want to send so many U.S. forces to the Middle East in the first place. While people high up in his administration like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have pushed for hardline policies against Iran, Trump has been more reluctant.

On May 5, Bolton announced that the U.S. was deploying an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Middle East in an effort to counter Iran.

In a statement, Bolton said that the move was “in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” but did not elaborate. The Trump administration has since said that U.S. intelligence showed Iran’s proxy groups mobilizing in Iraq and Syria to attack U.S. forces.

Trump, however, has made it clear that he does not want to get involved in another conflict in the Middle East and has actively pushed to remove U.S. presence in Syria.

Trump, outright denied the Time’s report on Tuesday but did not rule out military intervention.“It’s fake news, OK?” Trump told reporters.

“Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

Divisions in the Administration

The divisions between Trump and his advisors are representative of broader divisions in the Trump administration.

While some in the administration fall in the same camp as Bolton and Pompeo, others do not agree with their approach, arguing that hard-lines instead of diplomacy will only encourage more aggression.

Some officials have said that deploying troops to the Middle East would just give Iran and its proxies more targets to strike, which could risk drawing the U.S. into a conflict. Others still point out that more troops would reverse efforts of both the Trump and Obama administration to remove U.S. troops from the Middle East.

That said, some officials and experts believe that Pompeo and Bolton actually want a confrontation with Iran. One U.S. official who spoke to the Times said the intelligence Bolton and others have cited as showing an increased Iranian threat was actually just “small stuff.” Even going as far as to say that it did not merit the military plan that has been proposed.

The official also said that the goal of the sanctions on Iran is to draw Iran into an armed conflict with the U.S.

Divisions Abroad

Those divisions regarding the situation with Iran also extend beyond the U.S. and to its allies.

According to the Times, military and intelligence officials in both the U.S. and Europe have said the most aggressive actions have actually come from the U.S., and not Iran. Those same officials also expressed concern that Bolton has pushed Trump into backing Iran into a corner.

During his tour in Europe, Pompeo tried to rally European leaders against Iran, but they did not take the bait. Following a meeting in Brussels on Monday, European officials told reporters they had urged the U.S. to restrain from escalating the situation, out of fear that it could lead to conflict with Iran.

Privately, several European officials said Bolton and Pompeo are pushing Trump to take a series of steps that could put the U.S. on a course for war.

On Tuesday, senior British military official Major Gen. Chris Ghika, who is also the deputy commander of the U.S.-led military coalition against ISIS, pushed back against the U.S.’s claim of an Iranian threat presented in their intelligence.

“There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria,” Ghika told reporters at the Pentagon.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, gave a rare statement in response. “Recent comments from [Operation Inherent Resolve’s] deputy commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region,” the lead spokesman for U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

Iraqi officials have also been skeptical of the intelligence the U.S. said it has on Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria. On Wednesday morning, the State Department ordered that all non-essential diplomatic personnel at the U.S. embassy and consulate in Iraq leave the country.

The State Department also issued a separate travel advisory, warning U.S. citizens not to travel to Iraq “due to terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict.” Again, Iraqi officials have expressed skepticism over this claim.

Continued Escalation

The alleged proposal from Shanahan comes as both the U.S. and Iran have been escalating geopolitical tensions in the region in recent weeks.

On April 8, the Trump administration announced that they were designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization in an unprecedented moved that marked the first time the U.S. labeled part of another country’s government a foreign terrorist organization.

Iran’s parliament responded to the U.S designation of the IRGC by passing legislation labeling the entire U.S. military as a terrorist organization a few weeks later, a move that came just days after the U.S. announced they would no longer allow countries that buy Iranian oil to be exempt from U.S. sanctions.

Then things really started to ramp up when Bolton announced that the U.S. was deploying military forces to the region to counter Iran on May 5.

Iran reacted the news a few days later, announcing that they would stop complying with some of their commitments under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, like restrictions on building stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water, which are used in nuclear reactors.

Iran also said that if the other countries that signed the deal do not work to ease the restrictions imposed by the U.S. in 60 days they would slowly stop their compliance with the restrictions outlined in the deal piece by piece.

Shanahan’s proposed plan appears to be a direct rebuke of Iran’s announcement last week. Shanahan’s posturing seems to explicitly imply that if Iran moves forward with its nuclear development as stated in their ultimatum to the other signatories of the deal, the U.S. could deploy troops to the Middle East, possibly risking an all-out confrontation.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (Fox News)

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Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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Greta Thunberg To Skip U.N. Climate Change Conference, Citing Vaccine Inequality

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  • Young environmental activist Greta Thunberg will not attend the U.N.’s climate change conference set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland this November.
  • “Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem,” the 18-year-old tweeted Friday, adding, “Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions.”
  • Since rollouts began late last year, 40% of vaccines have been administered in wealthy and Western countries, according to The Washington Post.
  • Scientists have warned that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg Points To Vaccine Inequality

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has said she is skipping the UN’s climate change conference.

The COP26 summit is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November, but 18-year-old Thunberg told BBC she won’t attend because she’s concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on attendance.

In a Twitter thread Friday, she responded to a headline about her plans to miss the summit.

“Of course I would love to attend…But not unless everyone can take part on the same terms. Right now many countries are vaccinating healthy young people, often at the expense of risk groups and front line workers (mainly from global south, as usual…),” she wrote.

“Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem.”

“Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions,” the teen continued.

Thunberg went on to say that if the summit is delayed, it doesn’t mean urgent action should too.

“We don’t have to wait for conferences nor anyone or anything else to dramatically start reducing our emissions. Solidarity and action can start today,” she added before noting that digital alternatives for the conference would also be insufficient.

“High speed internet connection and access to computers is extremely unequal in the world. In that case we would lack representation from those whose voices need to be heard the most when it comes to the climate crisis,” she wrote.

Data on Global Vaccine Distribution Efforts

According to The Washington Post, nearly 20% of people in the United States are now vaccinated, but many other countries are unlikely to hit that same metric by the end of the year, even with international assistance through the Covax program.

Current projections predict it could be years before developing countries distribute enough doses to come close to herd immunity, which scientists say requires inoculating around 70-80% of a population.

Since rollouts began late last year, enough shots have been distributed to fully vaccinate about 5% of the world’s population, but The Post reported that the vast majority have been administered in wealthy and Western countries.

Around 40% of vaccines have been given in 27 wealthy nations that include only 11% of the world’s population, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

That’s pretty concerning because scientists also warn that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg’s comments are a blow for U.K. organizers, who have already postponed the conference once from last November because of the pandemic. Even now, there has been speculation that it could be delayed again this year.

Thunberg would not play a formal role at the conference but her decision not to attend is a significant symbolic moment.

At COP25, the young climate change activist gave a headline speech and she typically attends major climate events of this nature. On top of that, reports say this summit was slated to be one of the most consequential climate conferences since the 2015 Paris accord.

On the agenda for this year’s conference discussions were country-level plans for cutting carbon emissions, along with progress on the Paris agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (CNBC) (The Washington Post)

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