- 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.”
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.
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.
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)
Protests in Iran Continue As Government Shuts off the Internet
- Massive protests have been going on in Iran since Friday after the government said they would hike up fuel prices by as much as 300%.
- The government responded to the protests by launching a widespread internet blackout all over the country, making information about the protests and violence difficult to obtain.
- Iranian officials have said that only 12 people have died, but international organizations and Iranian journalists said the numbers are much higher.
- The Trump administration said it supports the protests, but many have called its claims hypocritical, noting that the sanctions on Iran have played a huge role in the country’s economic downturn.
Protests Break Out
Nationwide protests have erupted in Iran over the last few days, prompting the government to shut down the internet in almost all of the country.
The demonstrations first started on Friday after the Iranian government announced that it would hike up fuel prices from between 50% to as much as 300%.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the increase would raise up to $2.55 billion that would be handed out to about 60 million of Iran’s poorest people.
But because the country only has around 80 million people total, many have argued that the government was basically making everyone pay more for gas to just give that money back to most of the population.
The move was also significant because gas is incredibly cheap in Iran, which has the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. Before the price hikes, people were only paying about 25 cents a gallon for gas.
Even though the new prices are still lower compared to global gas prices, it is a big deal for Iran where many people are struggling due to economic downturn and high inflation.
Similar to other recent protests in countries like Chile and Lebanon, a single decision by the government to raise prices on a population that was already hurting was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Like those other protests, that decision prompted much broader demonstrations against economic issues and corruption.
Following the government’s announcement, drivers abandoned vehicles on highways and protesters took to the streets, blocking roads. While protests in some areas have been largely peaceful, others have become violent.
In some places, protestors set fires and ransacked gas stations, banks, stores, and government buildings. Demonstrators also clashed violently with security forces who responded by using teargas.
Those clashes reportedly escalated Saturday, with some reports that the security forces were opening fire on protesters.
The full extent of both the protests and the violence is not currently clear because of the government’s internet blackout.
Iranian officials first imposed the sweeping internet restrictions on Saturday, and they have remained in place since then.
Internet monitoring service NetBlocks described the shutdown as “near-total.”
Oracle’s Internet Intelligence described it as the “largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.”
Government officials in Iran said Tuesday that they would gradually lift the block once they were sure the internet would not be “abused” during the protests.
A judiciary spokesman also said Tuesday said that the protests had died down, but there are some conflicting reports as to the validity of that claim, as well as other statements made by the government.
Iranian officials have said that 12 people have been killed, including both civilians and security forces, but others say those numbers are much higher.
The United Nations reported that “dozens” have died, while Amnesty International said the number was more than 100, based on credible sources.
Iranian journalists have also reported that there have been well over 100 shootings by the security forces.
But internet blackout makes it uniquely difficult to know what the correct numbers are.
The blackout is also unique compared to other recent protests— specifically similar ones in Iraq and Lebanon— where social media has been essential in organizing demonstrations and sharing what is going on with the rest of the world.
United States’ Unique Role
In addition to the internet blackout, there is another aspect that sets apart the protests in Iran from other global protests over the last few weeks and months: the role that the U.S. has played.
Many of Iran’s economic problems have stemmed from the heavy sanctions the U.S. has placed on Iran.
The U.S., under the Barack Obama administration, had previously lifted sanctions on Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal aimed at curbing Iran’s civilian nuclear program.
But in May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from that deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, including sanctions on their oil exports, which is a huge sector of their economy.
Since then, the Trump administration has continued to ramp up those sanctions, arguing that a “maximum pressure” campaign is more effective to crackdown on Iran’s government.
Many economists and human rights activists have said that the sanctions actually end up hurting Iran’s civilian populations more than they hurt the government.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the protests in a tweet on Friday where he told the people of Iran that “the United States is with you.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned Pompeo’s tweet. In a statement, a ministry spokesperson said that Pompeo’s remarks were “hypocritical” because of the role the U.S. sanctions have played in the country’s economic problems.
“It seems weird to [be] sympathizing with a nation suffering from the US’ economic terrorism and the same person who has already said that the Iranian people should be starved to surrender,” the spokesperson said.
But the Trump administration seemed to double down on its position in a statement released by the White House Sunday.
“The United States supports the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime that is supposed to lead them,” the statement said. “We condemn the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators.”
Many people criticized the White House response, also arguing that the U.S. is partially to blame for Iran’s economic problems, and accusing the administration of painting the protests just as demonstrations against the government when that is only part of the equation.
Some pointed out that the Iranian government implemented the fuel price hike in the first place as part of a broader plan to mitigate the huge economic hit from U.S. sanctions, as well as to help the millions of Iranian civilians who have been hurt by those sanctions.
Iranian government officials for their part have continued to downplay the protests.
During a televised statement Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The counter-revolution and Iran’s enemies have always supported sabotage and breaches of security and continue to do so.”
The Ayatollah also said that he still supports the price hike, saying that it “must be implemented” — which is meaningful because he has the final say.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps warned protesters Monday that they will take “decisive” action if the unrest continues.
See what others are saying: (CNN) (Al Jazeera) (BBC)
Protesters Trapped at Hong Kong University After Another Weekend of Violence
- Hundreds of protesters are trapped at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University as police surround the campus following a series of violent weekend clashes.
- Several religious leaders and lawmakers fear Hong Kong may soon see an incident similar to 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre as they wait to see if mainland China will order the widespread use of live rounds.
- On Monday, Hong Kong’s High Court ruled the October ban of face masks unconstitutional after Chief Executive Carrie Lam enacted the ban last month so police could better identify protesters.
Students Trapped on University Campus
Hundreds of protesters remain trapped on Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University Monday after a violent weekend of police clashes that resulted in police completely surrounding the campus.
Earlier in the day, protesters attempted a mass exodus to flee the university, but they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. One reporter described the situation as no less than 10 minutes of nonstop tear gas.
Some protesters were arrested in the clash, but many were also reportedly forced back onto campus.
The clash occurred after protesters ignored riot police’s warnings to leave unarmed at an approved exit zone. Many attendees, however, feared they would be arrested if they used that exit.
Clashes like this over the weekend led to dozens being admitted to the hospital, with four in serious condition.
Students Protest at PolyU
The situation began last week when students began the protest at PolyU. Those protests originally started peacefully, but many protesters prepared for violence by making Molotov cocktails.
Those students then reportedly practiced by throwing them in the school’s empty pool. Other students reportedly practiced using catapult-style slingshots and bows and arrows.
On Saturday, clashes erupted as police started advancing on PolyU. In a scene that has become increasingly common over the last few months, riot police fired tear gas and water cannons while protesters shielded themselves with umbrellas and boards. Those protesters then hurled bricks and Molotov cocktails in retaliation.
Bricks continued to fly well into Sunday morning when protesters flung them at residents who were trying to clear a road.
Also Sunday morning, there were some reports of Chinese soldiers in riot gear monitoring the situation from the base of the university. On Saturday, the Chinese government deployed soldiers into the territory for the first time in the protests nearly six-month history, though that deployment was mostly part of an effort to clean up and clear streets.
Sunday evening, protesters fired catapults and bows and arrows from rooftops, with one arrow reportedly striking an officer in the calf. Later, protesters set fire to a bridge that connects the university to a train station.
A huge fire burning on the bridge that connects #PolyU to Hung Hom MTR station. The smoke is being blown by the wind into campus and protesters are retreating, carrying along their supplies. pic.twitter.com/so7z3B0JJe— Rachel Cheung (@rachel_cheung1) November 17, 2019
Into the night, PolyU administrators asked protesters to end the violence and leave the campus.
“The university is gravely concerned that the spiraling radical illicit activities will cause not only a tremendous safety threat on campus, but also class suspension over an indefinite period of time,” a university statement reads.
Outside the campus, Hong Kong legislator Ted Hui tried to negotiate with riot police by trying to ask police to allow protesters on campus to leave. Police denied the request and Hui was later pepper-sprayed.
Protesters Set Fire to Armored Vehicle and Ask for Support
The same night, police attempted to enter the campus by using an armored vehicle. That vehicle charged a barricade protesters had set up on a bridge, but it reversed course as protesters set it on fire using Molotov cocktails.
Students then rushed another armored vehicle following that clash.
#Update: I have never seen so much broken bottles from Molotov Cocktails at a protest as of now, here you see a video footage of Polytechnic University students throwing these cocktails towards riot police vehicles. #HongKong #China #PolyU pic.twitter.com/4LOWQi8zvM— Sotiri Dimpinoudis (@sotiridi) November 17, 2019
All of that happened while students airdropped messages to each other asking protesters to recruit even more protesters to then surround the police.
“The effort to surround the police at PolyU from all four corners is our final hope,” one message read.
It later seemed that message worked because five other significant protests in the city all popped up in an attempt to draw police resources away from the university. Notably, there were reports of some medical professionals being arrested, presumably by riot police.
In a video statement, police said they would use start live rounds on rioters if they continued using lethal weapons to attack officers. Police then tried to storm the campus again but protesters set the entrance on fire.
At the same time, a handful of protesters managed to escape the university on motorcycles.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy lawmakers and religious leaders on the streets urged people to rescue those inside of PolyU because they said that they were afraid the situation could turn into a new Tiananmen Square.
In 1989, the Chinese government ordered the military to use live rounds on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. While the Chinese government reported that only a few hundred died, other estimates climbed well into the thousands.
A few hours later in a video, the president of PolyU tried to de-escalate the situation, saying he had negotiated a suspension of force with the police but only if protesters left campus and turned themselves in.
“The main goal is to protect the campus and prevent people from getting arrested,” one PolyU alum said.
Before last week’s clash between riot police and protesters at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, it had been an unspoken rule that police didn’t go on college campuses. In that sense, students had been able to feel safe and to talk openly.
Face Mask Ban Overturned
Also on Monday, Hong Kong’s High Court struck down a ban that barred protesters from wearing face masks.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam enacted the ban in October in a move she had hoped would de-escalate the situation and make it easier for police to identify individuals.
In its findings, the court said the ban violated Hong Kong’s constitution, known as the Basic Law.
It also said that the ban was too vague and that it endangered the ability of the Legislative Council to make laws.
See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (Axios) (South China Morning Post)
Prince Andrew Addresses Virginia Giuffre Accusations and Epstein Ties in “Car Crash” Interview
- In a recent interview with BBC, Prince Andrew said he did not have sex with a 17-year-old who was allegedly trafficked to him by Epstein in 2001.
- He tried to say that the alleged victim’s description of him as sweaty couldn’t have been right because he had a medical condition that prevented him from sweating.
- He also suggested, among other things, that the photograph of them together was suspicious because he never hugs or displays affection in public.
- Since then, more photos of him embracing women have surfaced, along with a ton of ridicule and criticism over what many are calling a “car crash” interview.
Prince Andrew’s Relationship with Epstein
Prince Andrew again tried to clear his name against claims that he had sex with an underage girl trafficked to him by Jeffrey Epstein, however, he seems to have made things worse for himself.
In a BBC interview which aired Saturday, the Duke of York was confronted with detailed accusations from Virginia Roberts-Giuffre, one of Epstein’s most prominent accusers. Giuffre has claimed that she was a “sex slave” of Epstein’s that was forced to have sex with Prince Andrew, the second son of Queen Elizabeth and one of Epstein’s highest-profile friends.
The prince had been known to stay at some of Epstein’s homes, fly on his private jet, and attend parties with him. Even after Epstein was hit with his sex offense conviction, the two remained in contact. Then in August, Epstein reportedly killed himself while in jail awaiting trial for federal sex trafficking charges involving dozens of young victims.
Giuffre has said multiple times that she was trafficked to the prince in 2001 when she was 17-years-old. She swore on her story in a court deposition and has discussed it in public interviews, saying they had sex on three different occasions.
Both Prince Andrew and Buckingham Palace have denied her claims, calling them “false” and “without foundation.” However, the two are known to have met at some point based on a now-infamous photograph that shows them together.
Prince Andrew Denies Claims
In Giuffre’s account of their encounter, she mentioned that the Duke of York was sweating profusely while they danced at Tramp nightclub in London. She says Prince Andrew got her alcohol and eventually took her back to Ghislaine Maxwell’s home. Maxwell, who is also pictured in the photo, is one of the women accused of helping round up underage girls for Epstein and his friends.
In the interview with BBC journalist Emily Maitlis, Prince Andrew said there are issues with those claims.
First Andrew insisted he had “no recollection” of ever meeting Giuffre. “I’m convinced that I was never in Tramps with her. There are a number of things that are wrong with that story, one of which is that I don’t know where the bar is in Tramps. I don’t drink, I don’t think I’ve ever bought a drink in Tramps whenever I was there,” he said.
He added that it “couldn’t have happened because the date that’s being suggested I was at home with the children.”
When asked how he remembers that so clearly, he said he remembered going to a Pizza Express in Woking with his daughter earlier in the day, which was “a very unusual thing for me to do.”
Then he addressed Giuffre’s comments about his sweating. “There’s a slight problem with the sweating because I have a peculiar medical condition which is that I don’t sweat, or I didn’t sweat at the time,” he said.
“Yes, I didn’t sweat at the time because I had suffered what I would describe as an overdose of adrenalin in the Falkland’s War when I was shot at and I simply… It was almost impossible for me to sweat,” he added.
The prince went on to say that because of certain steps he has taken in the years since, he can now sweat again.
Prince Andrew stopped short of saying that 2001 photo was fake, as his friends have suggested. Instead, he said that he never remembers it being taken and said that though it is clearly an image of him, he is not convinced that it is his hand around Giuffre’s waist.
As a member of the royal family, he said: “Public displays of affection are not something that I do…I don’t believe that photograph was taken in the way that it’s been suggested.”
He also said he is not sure the picture of him was taken in London because he usually wears a suit and tie when traveling there.
The prince went on to say that he did not regret his friendship with Epstein, adding that their relationship has some “seriously beneficial outcomes.”
“The people I met and the opportunities I was given to learn, either by him or because of him, were actually very useful,” Andrew said.
“Do I regret the fact that he has quite obviously conducted himself in a manner unbecoming? Yes.”
“Unbecoming?” Maitlis replied, adding, “He was a sex offender.”
The duke quickly backtracked, saying: “Yeah, I’m sorry, I’m being polite. I mean, in the sense that he was a sex offender.”
Flood of Backlash Against Prince Andrew
His comments in the interview were received with a slew of backlash and by the following day, more photos emerged showing him publically embracing women, contradicting his previous claims. According to the NY Post, in one 2007 photo, American socialite Chris Von Aspen licks Andrew’s face. In another 2008 picture, he appears to have his hand on the butt of Canadian socialite Pascale Bourbeau as she wraps her arm around his neck. The Daily Mail also released a video of him with women at a party on the French Riviera in 2008.
A newspaper report from 2000 also began circulating which twice referred to the prince sweating profusely.
The prince has also been met with ridicule from British media and internet users.
“I expected a train wreck,” tweeted Charlie Proctor, editor of the Royal Central website. “That was a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion level bad.”
Andrew even faced calls for U.S. law enforcement to question him. “I think he’s made things much worse for himself. And it’s much more likely the authorities will want to speak to him now. And they should,” Lisa Bloom, who represents two of Epstein’s alleged victims, told the BBC on Monday.
Also on Monday, it became public news that the Duke of York’s former PR adviser, who only took up his position in September, had resigned two weeks ago after warning against doing the TV interview.
Things further escalated for Andrew when a former senior British government official claimed that the prince used the N-word during a meeting back in 2012.
Rohan Silva, who was David Cameron’s key aide on the tech economy, claimed that the prince used the N-word in his presence during a 2012 discussion about trade policy.
Silva, who is of Sri Lankan descent, told the Evening Standard that when he asked Prince Andrew whether the government department responsible for trade “could be doing a better job,” the Duke of York responded: “Well, If you’ll pardon the expression, that really is the n***** in the woodpile.”