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2022-07-15 09:15:40 By : Ms. Cindy Ren

From the SitRoom to the E-Ring, the inside scoop on defense, national security and foreign policy.

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By ALEXANDER WARD, ANDREW DESIDERIO and QUINT FORGEY 

This Sept. 1, 2014 photo shows a nuclear research reactor at the headquarters of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran in Tehran, Iran. | Vahid Salemi, File/AP Photo

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Iran could make enough material for nuclear bomb in “weeks” if the regime decides it wants one, top U.S. officials told senators today, showcasing just how much its breakout timeline has shrunk since the Trump administration withdrew from a key agreement four years ago.

The assessment, briefed to lawmakers in a classified setting Wednesday, is slightly more rosy than shorter breakout periods — such as three to four weeks — cited by other analysts and senators. But it still adds a sense of urgency to ongoing negotiations in Austria to bring Washington and Tehran back into an agreement resembling the abandoned 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

“I see no way to stop Iran’s progress other than reentering this deal. And I left the briefing more certain than ever that we better be serious about trying to get back into an agreement,” Sen. CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Middle East panel, told our own ANDREW DESIDERIO.

Murphy wouldn’t confirm the exact timeline the NSC’s Middle East lead BRETT McGURK and top Iran deal negotiator ROB MALLEY told lawmakers, but he did note that “public reports” mention a two-month timeframe. A House Democrat, who asked not to be named, affirmed to NatSec Daily that the “weeks” breakout time “is also my understanding.”

President JOE BIDEN’s team is in Vienna for an eighth round of talks with Iran and other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear pact is formally known. U.S. officials insist that negotiations are in the “final phase” but that a renewed agreement must be struck by the end of the month. Otherwise, the painstaking diplomacy might fall apart — putting even fewer constraints on Iran’s nuclear work than exist today.

“That two-month timeline is almost certainly shrinking, and there’s a risk that it gets so short that it would be very difficult for the U.S. to detect and prevent an attempt by Iran to produce weapons-grade uranium. That’s not a place we want to be, even if an Iranian breakout remains unlikely,” said ERIC BREWER, senior director of the nuclear materials security team at the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, D.C.

The briefing is also likely to increase congressional attention on the Iran issue. Most Senate Democrats have mobilized to back the administration’s effort to revive the nuclear deal, though some — namely Senate Foreign Relations Chair BOB MENENDEZ (D-N.J.) — are skeptical of its benefits.

“I don’t think members know exactly what reentry [into JCPOA] means. What is the deal? Is it exactly the way it was? Is it different? If so, how? What are we giving?” he told Desiderio after the briefing. “They should walk away when they see there’s not a good deal to be had. I don’t know what the timing of that is, but whenever that is, the window is closing fast.”

Meanwhile, more than 30 Senate Republicans — led by Sen. TED CRUZ (R-Texas) — sent a letter to Biden this week demanding he give them a say over whether the U.S. rejoins the nuclear deal. “[W]e reiterate our view that any agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program is of such gravity for U.S. national security that by definition it is a treaty requiring Senate advice and consent,” they wrote. “Furthermore, genuinely robust nuclear agreement with Iran would be compelling enough to secure assent from two-thirds of the Senate — and the only reason not to present it for a resolution of ratification is that it is too weak to pass muster.”

NatSec Daily, then, can now confidently assess that the breakout timeline for another large congressional fight over the Iran deal is just “weeks” away.

Read Andrew’s report on senators’ post-briefing reactions here.

WHITE HOUSE APPROVES EVAC PLAN FOR AMERICANS IN UKRAINE: The White House green-lighted a plan to have U.S. troops stationed in Poland help Americans flee a potential war in Ukraine, The Wall Street Journal’s GORDON LUBOLD and NANCY YOUSSEF reported.

“Some of the 1,700 troops from the 82nd Airborne Corps being deployed to Poland to bolster that ally will in coming days begin to set up checkpoints, tent camps and other temporary facilities inside Poland’s border with Ukraine in preparation to serve arriving Americans, U.S. officials said. The troops aren’t authorized to enter Ukraine and won’t evacuate Americans or fly aircraft missions from inside Ukraine, officials said,” they wrote. “Instead, the officials said, the mission would be to provide logistics support to help coordinate the evacuation of Americans from Poland, after they arrive there from Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine, likely by land and without U.S. military support.”

A senior administration official told us that this is “one of many possible missions they could do,” insisting that no plan is fully in motion yet. “The situation is always evolving,” the official added, but hinted this plan could be executed if conditions in Ukraine deteriorated.

Per a White House official: “these are multi-mission forces, trained and equipped for a variety of missions to deter aggression and to provide reassurance to NATO Allies. We are constantly evaluating the evolving security situation and planning for a range of contingencies as we always do, but to be clear we are not planning for a mass evacuation of American citizens from Ukraine.”

More wishful thinking on intel? Another aspect of the WSJ story caught our eye: “Ukraine’s government and military, by contrast, is unlikely to fall as Afghanistan’s did, should Russia launch a full-scale invasion, U.S. officials said.”

Note: military and intelligence officials last week briefed lawmakers that Russia could overthrow the government in Kyiv within days.

Seems like there are some wildly different assessments within the administration about what a Russian invasion might look like.

Read more here from our colleagues in Europe on how Poland is bracing for a flood of refugees.

‘WHEN GUNS GO SILENT, PEOPLE SUFFER LESS’: Ahead of what could be a larger fight in Ukraine, NatSec Daily wanted to get a sense of what the humanitarian impact might look like. We called up DANIEL BUNNSKOG, the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Ukraine deputy head of delegation, who has worked for years in the country’s war-ravaged east and recently spoke to top officials in Kyiv about humanitarian issues.

What he and his team have witnessed since Russia’s 2014 invasion is horrible: Injuries from mines and unexploded ordnance, damage to homes and critical infrastructure, and increasing difficulty for Ukrainians to receive adequate healthcare and education. One water company now has to serve 3 million people, he said, making it harder for people to have unfettered access to potable water.

Bunnskog described children he met with blown-off fingers, and families lacking heat to warm themselves in the bitter winter cold.

Bunnskog also detailed the mental toll many Ukrainians, including children, suffer after eight years of persistent conflict. Some 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, though the intensity of the fighting has dropped in recent months. “We’ve seen an increase in anxiety and depression,” he told us, which is why the ICRC and other groups have upped their psychosocial programming.

While he wouldn’t comment on the possibility of another war in Ukraine, he said his team is preparing to provide immediate assistance if necessary — all part of the group’s routine contingency planning. Such a shift wouldn’t be needed, though, if there was no larger battle.

“When guns go silent, people suffer less,” he said.

TOP RUSSIAN COMMANDER IN BELARUS: A top Russian commander has arrived in Belarus ahead of a joint military exercise many analysts fear is just a cover for a planned enhanced invasion of Ukraine, The Washington Post’s ROBYN DIXON, RACHEL PANNETT, SHANE HARRIS and ASHLEY PARKER reported.

“Russia’s chief of the armed forces’ General Staff, Gen. VALERY GERASIMOV, arrived in Belarus ahead of a 10-day Russian-Belarusian drill beginning Thursday, as senior Russian Foreign Ministry officials accused the West of ‘blackmail and pressure’ and of stoking tensions by arming Ukraine,” they wrote. “Russia has launched a series of simultaneous rapid-fire military exercises and has deployed warships to the Black Sea, while Ukraine announced its own 10-day military drills … using unmanned aircraft and antitank missiles supplied by Kyiv’s Western partners.”

“Three Russian amphibious landing vessels from Russia’s Baltic Fleet entered the Black Sea on Wednesday, with three more to follow. The Russian navy said Tuesday the ships would take part in an exercise, but the military has used that as a bluff before past invasions,” they continued.

It’s of course possible Gerasimov arrived just to ensure the exercise goes off without a hitch. Or, you know, he’s there for another reason entirely.

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IT’S WEDNESDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected] , and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.

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U.S. AND JAPANESE OFFICIALS DOWNPLAY PERCEIVED SUMMIT SNUB: Tokyo is upset Japanese Prime Minister KISHIDA FUMIO didn’t get an in-person meeting with Biden while Qatari Emir TAMIM BIN HAMAD AL THANI did, Nikkei Asia’s HIROFUMI MATSUO reported — but U.S. and Japanese officials we spoke with tried to play down that annoyance.

“Since Kishida became prime minister in October, the Foreign Ministry and the Japanese Embassy in Washington have been scrambling to secure an early White House visit, as is custom for new Japanese leaders. Unable to lock in a visit during January, Kishida settled for a virtual meeting on Jan. 21. The American president was overwhelmed with domestic priorities, Tokyo was told,” Matsuo wrote. “Just 10 days later, Biden shook hands with the Qatari leader in front of the fireplace at his office.”

"After all that effort we put in," a Japanese official told Matsuo. That official can’t have been thrilled to see Biden welcome German Chancellor OLAF SCHOLZ to Washington just two days ago.

Another Japanese official, however, told us the aggrieved staffer in Tokyo has it all wrong.

“We decided to have an online summit meeting instead of an in-person one, taking into account the severe Omicron situation at that time not only in the US but also in Japan, which I mean was Japan's own decision. So there is no reason for our government to be upset,” this official said on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about a sensitive topic.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ SHEILA SMITH agreed: “I would not elevate this to a crisis,” noting Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN is in the region and will meet with his Japanese and Korean counterparts on Sunday.

Biden and Kishida have met twice, once in person on the margins of the COP26 summit and for the virtual meeting last month. Biden will head to Japan in late spring for an official visit and a Quad summit.

Smith didn’t think much of the dust-up news and pointed to a coordinated response on Ukraine: Tokyo agreed to send liquified natural gas to Europe to stave off the effects of a possible Russian invasion.

U.S. AND EUROPEAN BANKS PREP FOR RUSSIAN CYBERATTACKS: The European Central Bank has told banks to steel themselves for possible Russian-backed cyberattacks during the Ukraine crisis that Moscow caused, Reuters’ JOHN O’DONNELL and HUW JONES reported.

The bloc’s banking regulator “is on alert” and has diverted its attention from normal online scams to Russian cyberthreats, they wrote. “Banks were conducting cyber war games to test their ability to fend off an attack,” a person familiar told them.

This follows a January alert issued by the New York Department of Financial Services warning of potential cyber challenges emanating from Russia.

‘NOT A TRADE-OFF’: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) noted how Gen. DAVID BERGER, the Marine Corps commandant, yesterday said the U.S. can add a new class of Light Amphibious Warships while maintaining the rest of the current fleet.

“There's not a trade-off,” Berger told our own PAUL McLEARY at NDIA’s Expeditionary Warfare Conference yesterday. “Our capacity in the industrial base can handle both, and in my conversations with the leadership at places like Huntington Ingalls [they say] they have the capacity.”

Berger also said the new ships and the current large amphibs are complementary. “A traditional amphibious ship has all the attributes that we know and love so much,” he said, such as carrying Marines and operating AV-8B and F-35 combat jets. He also predicted the light ships will have the “tactical mobility to move a smaller element organically.”

SSCI WANTS INTEL SHARING WITH UKRAINE: The bipartisan members of the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a letter to Biden urging the administration to share as much intelligence with Ukraine as possible.

“[W]e request that the United States share intelligence with Ukraine to the fullest extent possible. Russia is the aggressor, and we need to arm Ukraine with critical information needed to defend their country. This is in the interest of U.S. national security, as well as that of our allies and partners in the region. Russia’s threats to Ukraine are a threat to democracies around the world, and we urge you to do as much as possible to support Ukraine at this critical moment,” the lawmakers wrote.

To date, the administration has publicly leaked a lot of intelligence about Russia’s alleged plans, concerning some in the spy world that the U.S. is going too far.

TIME RUNNING OUT ON RUSSIA SANCTIONS DEAL?: Our own Desiderio reports that it’s increasingly murky if a bipartisan grouping can get a massive Russia sanctions package to the Senate floor in February.

“Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER left the Russia-Ukraine push out of his list of the upper chamber’s agenda through the Presidents’ Day recess. Those to-do items include postal reform, forced arbitration, and government funding,” he wrote. “[E]ven if senators can strike a deal, Schumer will likely have to carve out an entire week of floor time, or more.”

Sen. Menendez told Desiderio that negotiators are “at an inflection point” and will have to soon decide on a path forward. Sen. JIM RISCH (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Foreign Relations panel, put it this way: “We are running out of runway. This has got to be done, and it’s got to be done soon. And we’re all aware of that.”

TUBERVILLE PROPOSES STREAMLINE OF POST-9/11 GI BILL: Sen. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-Ala.), the Senate Armed Services Committee member who goes by “Coach,” today introduced a bill to clarify when a service member elects to have their GI Bill benefits transferred to a dependents.

In a news release, Tuberville’s office said “[t]here are multiple examples of service members misreading the information requested in the GI Bill benefit transfer forms, resulting in eligible dependents being barred from education benefits due to an easily amendable error. The VA and DoD cannot amend the information on the form without this statutory authority.”

“It isn’t right that confusing paperwork can get in the way of a dependent receiving education benefits after the tragedy of losing a loved one,” Tuberville said in a released statement.

Sens. JOHN THUNE (R-S.D.) and MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.) are original co-sponsors of this effort, and there’s a companion bill already introduced in the House.

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REPORTERS DEMAND MILITARY EMBEDS IN EUROPE: Defense reporters urge the administration to allow journalists to embed with U.S. troops deployed to Eastern Europe on the ally assurance and Russia deterrence mission.

In an open letter to Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN and national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN, the Pentagon Press Association board of directors wrote that they should “lift the ban on news coverage of American military members deploying to Europe,” adding the persistent denial of requests “is contrary to the basic principle of press freedom. It is a disservice to an American public in whose name these troops are deploying abroad, and it runs counter to President Biden’s pledges of transparency.”

The board — consisting of the Associated Press’ BOB BURNS, Defense One’s MARCUS WEISGERBER, ABC News’ LUIS MARTINEZ and CNN’s BARBARA STARR — also said their colleagues in “the White House Correspondents Association agree and have expressed support for our position.”

Regular briefings have returned to the Pentagon, but it’s continued some of the less-than-transparent actions of the Trump administration, such as providing limited access to the secretary and troops in the field.

On Monday, chief Pentagon spokesperson JOHN KIRBY took the blame. “I'm the one responsible for decisions that are made about media access to our operations and to our people,” insisting “the buck stops with me on this.”

“We're still working our way through what would be the appropriate level of media access here to what our troops are doing,” he said.

— MIKE BLOOMBERG was nominated to chair the Defense Innovation Board.

— Rep. MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.) was appointed to the House Intelligence Committee, taking the spot voided by former Rep. DEVIN NUNES (R-Calif.). Gallagher, formerly an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps, said in a released statement he’ll use his perch to help the U.S. “win this New Cold War” against China.

— JOHN R. BASS, undersecretary for management at the State Department, has been designated as the department’s chief sustainability officer.

— SAHAR HAFEEZ has joined the National Security Council as director of international economics. She most recently was a senior adviser to the Office of the Undersecretary in the Bureau of Industry and Security at the Commerce Department.

— PAUL ARCANGELI, who’s served as the Democratic staff director on the House Armed Services Committee for a dozen years, will leave in the coming weeks. BRIAN GARRETT will succeed him.

— ERIC EIKENBERRY and SAM RATNER have joined the activist group Win Without War. Eikenberry will be the government relations director while Ratner will take over the policy director role.

— MERON GEBREANANAYE, SABA MAH’DEROM, KIROS TEKLAY and WINTANA TSEGAI, African Arguments: “Tigray Needs Aid Now, With or Without the Ethiopian Government’s Consent”

— JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, Grid: “Terrorists, U.S. Forces and a Brutal Dictator: Whatever Happened to Syria?”

— NAN LEVINSON, The Nation: “We Still Need an Anti-War Movement”

— U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea SUNG KIM heads to Hawaii: He will travel to Honolulu on Feb. 10-15 to host a trilateral meeting with Japanese Director-General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs FUNAKOSHI TAKEHIRO and South Korean Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs NOH KYU-DUK.

— The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Northern Virginia Chapter, 8 a.m.: “2022 Space Force IT Day — with ADAM BURNETTA, STEVEN BUTOW, LLOYD MCCOY, AL MINK, DAVID THOMPSON and more”

— The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, 9 a.m.: “Advancing Digital Evolution: Working Together to Fuel a New Era of Health IT for Veterans Services — with PAUL BRUBAKER, DAVE CATANOSO, LAURA PRIETULA and RYAN VEGA” 

— The Stimson Center, 9:30 a.m.: “Assessing the Arms Trade Treaty’s Impact on Diversion and Prevention Efforts — with SANG BEOM LIM, ANNA MENSAH, HIMAYU SHIOTANI and RACHEL STOHL”

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, 10 a.m.: “U.S.-Korea Defense Cooperation in the Biden Administration — with KANG EUN HO”

— The National Security Innovation Network, 10 a.m.: “NSIN Hacks: Off the Beaten Path — with MAYNARD HOLLIDAY and JARET RIDDICK”

— The Heritage Foundation, 11 a.m.: “Delivering U.S. Army Modernization — with JAMES MCCONVILLE”

— The Intelligence and National Security Alliance, 11 a.m.: “Challenges and Opportunities of Black Women Within the Intelligence Community — with SANDRA AUCHTER, LIKIA HAWKINS, ALEX MCCARGO, KRISTI SCOTT and DEBRA SMITH” 

— The American Security Project, 12 p.m.: “Global Trends: Forces Shaping National Security in Coming Decades — with GREGORY TREVERTON”

— The Atlantic Council, 12 p.m.: “Where is Iran’s Economy Headed? — with AMIR ALI AMIRI, SARA BAZOOBANDI, NADEREH CHAMLOU, ALI SADEGHI HAMEDANI and KATAYOUN SEPEHRI”

— The United States Institute of Peace, 12:30 p.m.: “Conflict and Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific — with CARLA FREEMAN, DANIEL MARKEY, ANDREW SCOBELL and VIKRAM SINGH”

— Defense One, Nextgov and Route Fifty, 1 p.m.: “Cyber Defenders: Securing 2022 — with LARRY FRAZIER, MEGHAN GOOD, NICK MARINOS and CHRIS PAINTER”

— The Future of Privacy Forum, 1 p.m.: “12th Annual Privacy Papers for Policymakers — with PHIL WEISER”

— The American Nuclear Society, 2 p.m.: “Black Excellence in the Nuclear Field — with JEFF HARPER, J’TIA HART, CHRISTINA LEGGETT, LISA MARSHALL and WARREN ‘PETE’ MILLER” 

— The Hudson Institute, 2 p.m.: “Russian Aggression Against Ukraine: The View from Kyiv — with HANNA HOPKO, NOLAN PETERSON, PETER ROUGH and SVITLANA ZALISHCHUK”

— The Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, 2 p.m.: “Russia’s Aggression Toward Ukraine: The German View — with TOBIAS LINDNER”

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 3:30 p.m.: “What Can the Cold War Teach Us About the U.S.-China Rivalry? — with HAL BRANDS”

Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.

And thanks to our editor, Ben Pauker, who’s always on the verge of an explosive breakout.