- 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)
Wuhan Lifts Lockdown Measures as Other Countries Consider Loosening Their Own
- Wuhan has ended its 76-day lockdown amid concerns that lifting restrictions could cause a second wave of outbreaks.
- At least 65,000 people have already left Wuhan, even though the government has urged people not to leave the city or even their neighborhoods.
- Meanwhile, China has reported new coronavirus cases, most of which are from travelers. Notably, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan all experienced second waves of the virus after an influx of travelers.
- The U.S. and numerous countries are also considering easing restrictions despite continued reports of new cases and deaths increasing.
Wuhan Lifts Restrictions
Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus first started, has officially ended its lockdown after 76 days.
With the reopening, travel restrictions have also been lifted. Residents will now be allowed to leave the city as long as they show authorities a government-sanctioned phone app that indicates whether or not they are a health risk based on their home address, travels, medical history, and other data collected by the government.
According to local reports, within just hours of the ban being lifted, around 65,000 people had left the city by train and plane alone. Thousands more were allowed to leave by car or bus once the roads were open.
However, Chinese health officials said Tuesday that Wuhan residents are still being pushed not to leave their neighborhoods, the city, or the province unless necessary, furthering apprehension about the decision to reopen.
Concerns Over Spread & Travel
While the situation seems to have calmed down, some experts say there is still a risk in ending the lockdown and letting people leave Wuhan.
Although only three new cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Wuhan in the last three weeks, there are still concerning numbers in other parts of the country.
On Tuesday, China reported that new confirmed cases had doubled, rising to 62 from 32 the day before, the highest since March 25. Notably, new imported infections made up 59 of those cases.
Chinese health officials also said Wednesday that asymptomatic cases quadrupled, going up to 137 from just 30 a day earlier. Again, travelers accounted for a high number of those, making up 102 of the cases.
The fact that so many of the new cases are coming from travelers is quite significant because it is something that has happened before.
Last month, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan had all flattened their curves. Then travelers from the US and Europe began bringing the virus back, forcing all four to implement much stricter social distancing and immigration controls.
Other Countries Loosening Measures
Despite these concerns, numerous countries all over the world have said that they will begin easing containment measures.
On Monday, Denmark and Austria both announced that they will slowly start opening up parts of the countries starting next week. The Czech Republic also lifted some restrictions Tuesday and said it will start allowing some travel next week.
Spain’s government announced Wednesday that the country will start returning to “normal life” starting April 26. While officials did not give specifics about how restrictions would be eased, the move would be especially concerning for a country like Spain.
Spain has been one of the hardest-hit countries, with the second-highest number of confirmed cases after the U.S. The country’s reported fatalities slowed last week, but the number of deaths rose again recently, with 757 reported Wednesday and 743 Tuesday.
But Spain is not the only country with alarming numbers that has been looking to open things up again.
Germany and France have also said they are preparing options to ease restrictions in spite of the fact that forecasts show the outbreak is growing rapidly in both countries, which rank fourth and fifth respectively for the highest number of confirmed cases.
Similar ideas have also been floated in the U.S., which on Wednesday reported the largest single-day coronavirus death toll of any country with more than 1,800 confirmed deaths.
But on Wednesday morning, Vice President Mike Pence said that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is considering changing guidelines to make it easier for essential workers who have been exposed to someone infected to return to work.
“Under the proposed guidance, people who are exposed to someone infected would be allowed back on the job if they are asymptomatic, test their temperature twice a day and wear a face mask, said a person familiar with the proposal under consideration,” NBC News reported.
To Plan or Not to Plan
Many experts say that it is far too early to be opening things up.
While speaking during a news conference this morning, Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director for Europe, warned that despite seeing “positive signs,” it is too soon to change the regulations put in place.
“Now is not the time to relax measures,” he said. “It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive toward suppression with the whole support of society.”
That point was also echoed by Bruce Aylward, another top WHO official, who emphasized the need to ensure that the public does not take the situation lightly.
“We have got to ensure that the public understands we’re moving to a new phase,” he said “It’s not lifting lockdowns and going back to normal. It’s a new normal.”
While some experts believe that serious discussion about plans to lift restrictions could undermine the importance of containment measures in the public eye, others believe it is important to plan for the future.
Speaking to Fox News on Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, said that the administration has been working on plans to eventually reopen the country.
“If, in fact, we are successful, it makes sense to at least plan what a reentry into normality would look like,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to do it right now. But it means we need to be prepared to ease into that. And there’s a lot of activity going on.”
See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)
India Lifts Ban on Hydroxychloroquine to the U.S. as Confusion Mounts Around Trump’s Investment in a Major HCQ Company
- India will now partially lift a hydroxychloroquine ban after it said Saturday that it would enact that ban to keep domestic stores from depleting.
- The ban reportedly cut off nearly half of the United States’ supply of hydroxychloroquine, and Monday night, President Donald Trump threatened to retaliate.
- Also regarding hydroxychloroquine, #Sanofi trended on Twitter Tuesday after the New York Times reported that Trump had a “small” investment in the company, which makes the drug.
- Despite many online believing this to be a major cash grab by the president, those holdings are likely less than $1,000.
India Agrees to Export Limited HCQ
Hours after President Donald Trump threatened retaliation, India lifted its recent ban on all hydroxychloroquine exports as demand for the drug surges.
Late last month, India implemented a partial ban on hydroxychloroquine exports; however, it said it would still honor existing contracts and certain shipments on humanitarian grounds on a case-by-case basis. On Saturday, India took that measure one step further by implementing a total ban on hydroxychloroquine exports.
The move was reportedly an attempt to protect domestic stocks, especially as hydroxychloroquine gains attention all over the world.
“Like any responsible government, our first obligation is to ensure that there are adequate stocks of medicines for the requirement of our own people,” a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said.
India is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical producers and is a major manufacturer of hydroxychloroquine.
As of Tuesday, it has recorded just over 5,100 cases of COVID-19, according to John Hopkins University. That’s compared to India’s massive population of 1.3 billion. While the number of infected people is likely already much higher than what’s being reported, India is also bracing for a potential surge.
The Trump Administration has heavily promoted hydroxychloroquine despite reservations from doctors wanting to make sure it’s safe and effective first. Still, the U.S. has been preparing by stockpiling the drug. Part of that has included buying it from India; however, that ban reportedly cut off half of the U.S. supply of hydroxychloroquine.
On Saturday, the same day as that total ban, Trump said he had spoken with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and had appealed for the release of shipments the US has already ordered. Trump also noted that India was giving the request “serious consideration.”
By Monday night, Trump ramped up that pressure, saying, “I spoke to him Sunday morning, called him, and I said we’d appreciate your allowing our supply to come out. If he doesn’t allow it to come out, that would be OK, but of course, there may be retaliation. Why wouldn’t there be?”
Hours later, India announced that it had enough hydroxychloroquine pills for a domestic supply and that it would partially lift the drug’s export ban.
“Given the enormity of the COVID19 pandemic, India has always maintained that the international community must display strong solidarity and cooperation,” the spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said.
“In view of the humanitarian aspects of the pandemic, it has been decided that India would licence paracetamol and HCQ in appropriate quantities to all our neighbouring countries who are dependent on our capabilities.”
“We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic,” he added, though he didn’t refer to Trump or the U.S. specifically. “We would therefore discourage any speculation in this regard or any attempts to politicise the matter.”
Trump’s “Small” Stake in Sanofi
Hydroxychloroquine also made headlines Tuesday after a report from The New York Times led to confusion about Trump’s investment in a company that makes the drug.
“If hydroxychloroquine becomes an accepted treatment, several pharmaceutical companies stand to profit, including shareholders and senior executives with connections to the president,” the article about Trump’s “aggressive advocacy” for the drug mentioned several paragraphs down.
“Mr. Trump himself has a small personal financial interest in Sanofi, the French drugmaker that makes Plaquenil, the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine.”
“As of last year, Mr. Trump reported that his three family trusts each had investments in a Dodge & Cox mutual fund, whose largest holding was in Sanofi,” the article read several more paragraphs lower.
#Sanofi then began trending on Twitter, with many people believing that Trump stood to gain serious cash from his investments in Sanofi.
“1. Trump is relentlessly pushing hydroxychloroquine for #COVID19,” one person tweeted. “2. Sanofi manufactures the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine. 3. Just guess what comes next…”
Others were angry at the New York Times because these investments weren’t the focus of the article. Because of that, they accused the New York Times of burying the lede.
However, it seems The New York Times might have put that mention so low for a reason. According to Business Insider headline on the situation, “Trump has a distant financial link to a pharma giant that makes the drug he’s been pushing to fight COVID-19 — but it’s probably worth less than $1,000.”
Business Insider then goes on to explain that each of Trump’s three family funds are valued between $1,000 and $15,000. Those funds are managed by JP Morgan, with Trump not providing any input.
According to data from December, those funds have Sanofi holdings at 2.9%. Using that information, Business Insider then calculates that at most, Trump has an investment of $1,305, and at minimum, his investment is $87.
Even though The New York Times calls it a “small” investment, such a number is probably a lot less than most people would imagine. Without seeing any extra context, however, those lines from The New York Times likely led many to believe that Trump has been touting hydroxychloroquine as a business move.
See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The Guardian) (Business Insider)
Countries Consider Loosening Coronavirus Lockdowns as Japan Moves to Declare State of Emergency
- Austria is set to be the first country in Europe to loosen lockdown restrictions, with smaller businesses allowed to open their doors on April 14.
- They are not the only European country with hopeful news regarding the virus. Both Spain and Italy have seen cases grow at a slower rate.
- In China some restrictions have already been lifted, leading to massive crowds in national parks and tourist spots. Some fear this will cause a second outbreak.
- Meanwhile, Japan, which is just now seeing cases surge, is set to announce a state of emergency starting on Tuesday.
Austria to Lift Lockdown
As countries like Austria are poised to loosen lockdown measures, others are just starting to ramp up their efforts to combat coronavirus outbreaks.
Austria is set to be the first country in Europe to ease its lockdown measures. On Monday Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that smaller businesses will be allowed to open up on April 14, and that others can resume on May 1. This, however, is contingent on the fact that citizens continue to practice social distancing efforts. Kurz told Austrians to cancel their Easter plans and stay inside, or else the country could “gamble away what we have achieved in the past few weeks.”
Cases Slow in Spain and Italy
Austria is not the only country feeling an ounce of hope during this ongoing pandemic. In the past 24 hours, Spain has reported a slower increase in both deaths and fatalities. In one day, there were 674 new deaths in the country, which is the lowest increase in fatalities in nine days, according to Fox News. Over the course of the day, confirmed cases went up just five percent, the lowest increase since the outbreak began.
Italy, which is home to one of the worst outbreaks in the world, has also seen cases slow down a bit. While the country might still be miles away from a return to normalcy, options as to how to get people back out are now being discussed. According to the New York Times, politicians are looking at the potential for people who have recovered from the virus to head back to work first.
“Having the right antibodies to the virus in one’s blood — a potential marker of immunity — may soon determine who gets to work and who does not, who is locked down and who is free,” the Times explained. Many researchers are hesitant about this idea, but politicians seem eager to explore it as a potential strategy for when the time comes to resume normal life.
China Sees Crowds After Lockdown Lift
Some places have already begun their lifts on lockdowns, including several areas of China. As cases have slowed in the pandemic’s first home, some places have opened back up and seen massive crowds. National parks and tourist attractions have been packed with people eager to get out after being trapped inside.
According to CNN, on Saturday, one park was so populated that authorities announced that it reached its 20,000 person capacity before 8 a.m.
Major cities also saw crowded streets, despite health experts still warning to avoid crowds. In fact, many experts fear that these crowds could lead to a second wave of the virus in China. One county has already reinstated its lockdown after cases popped up again.
Not everyone is ready to return to normalcy, even if there are signs of positive change. On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced its first daily dip in deaths. The state went from 630 new deaths on Saturday to 594 on Sunday. Still, Cuomo does not believe this is a guaranteed sign of progress.
“We’re not really a hundred percent sure what the significance is, as we’re feeling our way through this,” Cuomo said before calling the dip a potential “blip.”
In fact, the whole of the United States has probably not seen the worst of the outbreak yet. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams spoke to Fox News on Sunday and said that this week is “going to be the hardest and saddest week of most Americans’ lives.”
“This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country,” he added. Currently, the United States has over 357,000 cases and 10,000 deaths.
Japan’s State of Emergency
While many countries are well into their mass responses to the coronavirus, the Prime Minister of Japan has just announced his intention to declare a state of emergency. Compared to many countries, Japan has had a smaller outbreak, with roughly 4,000 cases and 80 deaths. Cases are on the rise though, with capital city Tokyo reporting that infections doubled in just one week.
The state of emergency is set to go into effect on Tuesday and with be in effect at least until May 6. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked for citizens to cooperate “to prevent an explosive surge.”