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Overnight Defense: Trump ramps up pressure on Iran, international courts | Arrest made after suspicious letters sent to Trump, Mattis | US to offer NATO cyber capabilities

Overnight Defense: Trump ramps up pressure on Iran, international courts | Arrest made after suspicious letters sent to Trump, Mattis | US to offer NATO cyber capabilities

Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: The Trump administration went on a full-court press Wednesday after an international court ruling against the United States.

First, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo reaffirms to Saudi crown prince US will hold Khashoggi’s killers ‘accountable’ Trump, Erdogan discussed Khashoggi Trump honors French and American soldiers of World War I in Armistice Day remarks MORE announced in a press briefing that the United States is terminating a 1955 treaty with Iran that was the basis for the court ruling.

Later, national security advisor John Bolton spoke at the beginning of the White House press briefing to reiterate Pompeo's announcement and add that the United States is also withdrawing from the optional dispute resolution process to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

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The decisions played into several themes of the Trump administration. First, coupled with the harsh rhetoric Pompeo used in his announcement, it ratchets up the U.S. pressure campaign against Iran.

Second, it follows the administration's disdain for international organizations that don't fit the "America first" mantra.

"This really has less to do with Iran and the Palestinians than with the continued, consistent policy of the United States to reject the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, which we think is politicized and ineffective," Bolton said. "It relates obviously in part to our views on the International Criminal Court and to the nature of so-called purported international courts to be able to bind the United States."

The cases: On Wednesday morning, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations's highest court, ordered the United States to lift some sanctions against Iran.

Iran had brought the complaint to the court, sometimes called the World Court, based on the 1955 Treaty of Amity, a pre-Iranian Revolution accord that regulates and promotes economic and consular ties between the two countries.

Tehran charged that President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichael Cohen: I pray Michelle Obama's words will unite country again Michelle Obama: ‘I stopped even trying to smile’ during Trump’s inauguration Trump wants to end federal relief money for Puerto Rico: report MORE's decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimpose sanctions violated the decades-old treaty.

In a preliminary ruling, the court said the United States must "remove, by means of its choosing, any impediments arising from" sanctions that affect humanitarian goods and services and services that affect civilian aviation safety. U.S. assurances that sanctions won't hurt humanitarian aid "were not adequate," the court said.

By limiting the order to humanitarian aid and civil aviation, the ruling did not go as far as Iran requested. Still, it is being seen as a victory for Tehran.

Bolton also cited a separate ICJ case brought against the United States by "so-called State of Palestine" over President Trump's decision to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Iran pressure: In addition to announcing the termination of the treaty, Pompeo upped the pressure on Iran over its alleged activity in Iraq.

Last week, Pompeo ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in Basrah, Iraq, alleging that militias under the direction of Iran are targeting the consulate.

On Wednesday, Pompeo said U.S. intelligence "is solid" that Iran is the origin of attacks on the mission in Basrah and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, without elaborating on the intelligence.

"We can see the hand of Ayatollah and his henchmen supporting these attacks on the United States," he said. "These latest destabilizing acts in Iraq are attempts by the Iranian regime to push back on our efforts to constrain its malign behavior."

Jeers: Those who supported the Iran nuclear deal were, expectedly, critical of the Trump administration's moves Wednesday.

"The ICJ ruling could prompt the U.S. to think seriously about how make sure that Iran and other sanctioned countries have realistic access to humanitarian goods, not just paper exceptions," Jarrett Blanc, the Obama administration State Department's lead coordinator for the deal's implementation, said in a statement. "Of course this administration is instead just withdrawing from a 60 year old treaty that has provided the grounds for previous complaints about problematic Iranian policies.

"And the next time the administration claims they would have abided by the JCPOA if it had been a treaty, ask how they consulted the Senate before announcing this withdrawal."

Robert Malley, Obama administration White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf, said in a statement Bolton "again showed why the Trump administration is increasingly isolated on the world stage."

"This bellicosity undermines U.S. interests and, by escalating tensions and forfeiting diplomacy, risks putting us on a path towards conflict in the Middle East," he said.

 

ARREST IN SUSPICIOUS LETTERS CASE: The FBI arrested a Navy veteran Wednesday in connection with sending letters containing a suspicious substance to the Pentagon and White House.

The suspect has been identified as William Clyde Allen III, of Logan, Utah, said Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman at the Utah U.S. Attorney's Office.

Charges against Allen are expected to be filed Friday.

Not quite ricin: The suspicious substance found in the letters sent to the Pentagon was the seed to make ricin, but not ricin itself, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

"According to our preliminary analysis, the substance was castor seeds, from which ricin is derived. The FBI is still investigating," chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement to The Hill.

Castor seeds are only dangerous if swallowed, but they can be used to make a poisonous pure form of ricin.

What happened yesterday: The Pentagon revealed yesterday that two letter, one addressed to Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisPompeo reaffirms to Saudi crown prince US will hold Khashoggi’s killers ‘accountable’ With no alternatives, military’s tribalism must go US to stop refueling Saudi planes in Yemen MORE and one to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, were found during mail screenings Monday at the department's remote screening facility.

The Secret Service also said it intercepted suspicious envelopes Monday addressed to President Trump. And in Texas, two people were taken to the hospital after they were exposed to a piece of mail sent to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSchumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress Cruz raises constitutional concerns over legislation to protect Mueller Dem wins leave behind a more conservative GOP conference MORE's (R-Texas) Houston-based campaign headquarters containing a white powdery substance.

 

ANSWERS ON SYRIA?: As the administration sends mixed message on the future of U.S. involvement in Syria, Congress is poised to take a look at what U.S. policy is and should be.

Congress is mandating an examination of the U.S. policy in Syria via a provision tucked into the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that easily passed the Senate on Wednesday.

The bill previously passed the House and now needs to be signed by President Trump.

Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCongress should broaden legislation to curb medical price gouging Pro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems Democrat Chris Pappas wins New Hampshire House seat MORE (D-N.H.) has been pushing for a while for the creation of the Syria Study Group, modeled after the Iraq Study Group that Congress established in 2006.

"I'm particularly glad to see the bipartisan, bicameral support for my provision to establish a Syria Study Group that will bring outside experts together to finally develop a U.S. strategy in Syria, and pave a path forward to end the conflict," Shaheen said in a statement Wednesday.

What it will do: The group's task is to "examine and make recommendations on the military and diplomatic strategy of the United States with respect to the conflict in Syria," according to the bill.

The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, and the Speaker and minority leader of the House will each appoint one member to the 12-member panel.

A final report is due 180 days after the bill is enacted.

Timing: The creation of the group comes as the Trump administration has been sending conflicting signals on the future of U.S. military operations in Syria.

National security advisor John Bolton said last week U.S. military presence in Syria is dependent on Iran.

"We're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias," he said.

Later that day, Mattis said U.S. troops are in Syria for "one purpose," to defeat ISIS.

Still, Mattis denied he and Bolton were at odds, saying "I think we're on the same sheet of music."

 

MATTIS TRAVELS: Mattis is in Brussels, where he is attending a NATO defense ministerial.

There, he is expected to offer allies the use of U.S. offensive and defense cyber capabilities if they want.

"We will formally announce that the United States is prepared to offer NATO its cyber capabilities if asked," Katie Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told reporters traveling with Mattis, according to Reuters.

The offer comes amid increasing concern about Russia's cyber activities, including its election meddling.

"It sends a message primarily aimed at Russia," Wheelbarger said of the offer.

Readouts: The Pentagon put out statements Wednesday on meetings Mattis had with the defense ministers of Germany and Georgia.

On Georgia, Mattis and Defense Minister Levan Izori "agreed to continue deterring Russian aggression through U.S. security assistance, and support defense initiatives to develop long-term readiness and NATO interoperability."

On Germany, Mattis and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen "agreed to enhancing NATO readiness, military mobility and command structure reform." Mattis also "acknowledged her ongoing efforts to increase defense spending to meet Wales pledge commitments and improve the readiness of Germany's armed forces."

 

PENTAGON GETS ANIMATED: The Pentagon launched a redesigned website Wednesday.

As part of it, the "Our Story" page includes a cartoon explaining the five branches of the military. The Internet was having a good chuckle at the video Wednesday.

If you're interested, take a look here.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Heritage Foundation will release its "2019 Index of U.S. Military Strength," featuring remarks by Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstDemocrats won’t let Kavanaugh debate die Overnight Defense: Trump ramps up pressure on Iran, international courts | Arrest made after suspicious letters sent to Trump, Mattis | US to offer NATO cyber capabilities Admiral defends record after coming under investigation in 'Fat Leonard' scandal MORE (R-Iowa), at 9 a.m. https://herit.ag/2DWEgCk

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for the nominees to be ambassadors to Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Cyprus at 10 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 419. https://bit.ly/2O0QJJW 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Security firm says North Korean hackers have stolen millions from banks worldwide

-- The Hill: Graham on Trump's North Korea rhetoric: 'This love crap has to stop'

-- The Hill: Opinion: Potential for huge profits may prompt North Korea nuclear deal

-- Associated Press: Pompeo backs away from denuclearization goal for North Korea

-- The Washington Post: South Korea reveals plan to break stalemate in U.S.-North Korea talks