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Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal

Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal
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Happy Monday 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: U.S. ships fired warning shots at Iranian boats for the second time in as many weeks in an incident the Pentagon is describing as “significant” in the number of Iranian vessels involved.

What happened: Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Monday that 13 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) speed boats armed with machine guns “conducted unsafe and unprofessional maneuvers,” approaching U.S. ships “at a very fast speed” as the Navy and Coast Guard boats were escorting the submarine USS Georgia as it was transiting on the surface toward the Persian Gulf.

The Iranian armed boats rapidly approached the Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey; patrol coastal ships USS Thunderbolt, USS Hurricane and USS Squall; Coast Guard patrol boats USCGC Wrangell and USCGC Maui; and the guided-missile submarine.

Two of the IRGCN boats broke away from the larger group, moved to the opposite side of the U.S. formation and “approached Maui and Squall from behind at a high rate of speed with their weapons uncovered and manned,” according to a Navy statement released later Monday.

The two ships “failed to respond to repeated warnings” from the U.S. ones, which used horn blasts and radio warnings to ward off their approach, and got within 300 yards of the vessels before the Maui “exercised lawful de-escalatory measures by firing warning shots.”

The two IRGCN boats didn’t respond and closed to within 150 yards of Maui, at which time the Coast Guard ship fired additional warning shots, according to the statement.

In total, the Maui fired “approximately 30 warning shots on a .50-caliber machine gun” over two rounds of warning fire, Kirby said.

Why it’s notable: The number of Iranian ships involved is more than quadruple the amount from a similar encounter late last month, when three IRGCN ships harassed U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf.

Asked about the number of Iranian boats, Kirby described it as “certainly more than we’ve seen in recent past,” adding that “it’s significant.”

The incident also specifically took place in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, with Kirby saying “that it occurred in the strait, an international chokepoint waterway, that too is significant. And they were acting very aggressively.”

Over the weekend: Monday’s news comes after the U.S. Navy said over the weekend it seized a cache of weapons in the Arabian Sea suspected to be bound for Yemen.

In a news release, the U.S. 5th Fleet said the USS Monterey guided missile cruiser seized a shipment that included Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles, thousands of Chinese Type 56 assault rifles and hundreds of PKM machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launchers.

The news release described the boat where the weapons were found as stateless, but U.S. officials have previously accused Iran of providing Yemen’s Houthi rebels with weapons in a similar manner.

FEARS RISE ON AFGHAN WOMEN’S FATE

A horrific attack in Kabul over the weekend is underscoring fears about the fate of Afghan women and girls after U.S. troops withdraw.

Bombings at a high school in western Kabul on Saturday killed at least 85 people, mostly teenage girls leaving school, and injured nearly 150 more.

U.S. lawmakers and other critics had already been sounding the alarm that fragile gains in Afghan women's rights over the last 20 years will disappear as the United States departs and the Taliban either overrun the Afghan government or make a power-sharing deal that brings their repressive views back into the mainstream.

As violence throughout Afghanistan escalates while the U.S. military withdraws its last remaining troops, those warnings are getting louder.

“Horrific and a grim foreshadowing of the future in Afghanistan. Doesn’t take much to imagine what will happen when the US is gone,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) tweeted Monday. “The Taliban regime will restart their war against women, denying them basic human rights, setting the country back in deeply oppressive ways.”

About the attack: At about 4 p.m. Saturday, a car bomb exploded in front of the Sayed Ul-Shuhada school as class was being let out and the street teemed with residents preparing for the end of Ramadan. As students rushed out, two more improvised explosive devices detonated.

The attack left books and backpacks, as well as bodies, strewn across the ground, and shook a country already battered after decades of violence.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban, which have denied responsibility.

The bombings took place in a district of Kabul that’s home to many Hazaras, an ethnic minority of mostly Shiite Muslims who are frequently targeted by the Islamic State.

Administration’s reaction: Noting the school attack, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Monday that “we all want to see the violence come down.” But he added that attacks have not disrupted the U.S. withdrawal plans.

“There hasn't been activity that has degraded our ability to continue the retrograde at pace,” Kirby told reporters. “We're focused on meeting the president's intentions and his orders, which is to be out by early September.”

In a statement after Saturday’s bombings, State Department spokesperson Ned Price condemned the “barbarous attack” and vowed the United States would “continue to support and partner with the people of Afghanistan, who are determined to see to it that the gains of the past two decades aren’t erased.”

DEMOCRATIC PARTY LEADERS PUSH BIDEN ON IRAN DEAL

Dozens of Democrats around the country are offering President Biden “strong support” for rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.

In a letter to Biden sent Monday, 53 state Democratic Party leaders and Democratic National Committee members applauded the administration for entering into indirect talks with Iran to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and urged him to lift “bad-faith sanctions" imposed by former President Trump.

“Lifting Trump’s bad-faith sanctions — which he explicitly imposed on Iran in order to make a return to the JCPOA next-to-impossible — should not be treated as a concession to Iran, but rather as an effort to restore U.S. credibility and enhance American security,” they wrote in the letter, a draft of which was obtained by The Hill before its release.

“We urge you not to cave to pressure from proponents of Trump’s failed approach to Iran,” they continued. “We have seen the net effect of that policy: A larger Iranian nuclear program and a greater risk of war with Iran.”

Who wrote it: The letter was organized by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an anti-interventionist think tank. Among the notable signatories on the letter are Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) and Democratic Ohio congressional candidate Nina Turner.

"Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal and lifting Trump's bad-faith sanctions is not only supported by rank-and-file Democrats in red, purple, and blue states, but also by our Democratic Party leaders from all across the country," Yasmine Taeb, a progressive strategist and an organizer of the letter for the Quincy Institute, said in a statement. "President BidenJoe BidenMilitary must better understand sexual assaults to combat them The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population On The Money: Democrats make full-court press on expanded child tax credit | White House confident Congress will raise debt ceiling MORE pledged to chart a new course and called for a foreign policy for the middle class that will end forever wars and focus on the immediate domestic crises and that begins by rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal and rejecting Trump's failed approach on Iran." 

Context: The Democrats’ stance is unsurprising, but marks the latest in a flood of letters to the Biden administration from Capitol Hill about his efforts to rejoin the nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew in 2018.

Republican letters have warned Biden against rejoining, while Democratic letters have urged Biden to quickly rejoin the agreement, which was negotiated by the Obama administration.

There have also been bipartisan letters from House and Senate lawmakers calling for a “comprehensive” approach to threats posed by Iran and sounding the alarm about Iran’s nuclear program.

The bipartisan letters rankled some progressives who accused the Democrats who signed on of playing into the hands of opponents of the nuclear deal who insist any agreement go beyond the nuclear portfolio.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Michael McCord to be Pentagon comptroller and Ronald Moultrie to be undersecretary of Defense for intelligence and security at 9:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/3eArHNx

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack ReedJack ReedOur new praetorian guard? Progressive groups ramp up pressure on Feinstein Gillibrand: Military must make changes beyond sexual assault cases MORE (D-R.I.) will participate in a virtual event hosted by the Reagan Institute at 4 p.m. https://bit.ly/3exfx86

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