Iran protests have left at least 20 dead; Keeping tabs on Yemen air strikes; Where we’re headed in 2018; KJU’s New Year’s speech; and just a bit more…

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

January 2, 2018

Six days ago, anti-regime protests began to spread across Iran. As of this morning, clashes between protesters and security forces have left at least 20 dead, and governments from Tehran to Washington are still struggling to respond.

The protests seem to have been started “by hard-line clerics – rivals of President Hassan Rohani who sought to capitalize on the unrest over unemployment and high prices. If this was indeed the motivation, it seems to have backfired, with protests quickly spreading to dozens of cities across Iran and now targeting not only the relatively ‘moderate’ Rohani government but the more hard-line establishment around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his allies, including the Revolutionary Guards.” That analysis from Haaretz, here.

As of this morning, via the Washington Post: “There was no apparent evidence of cracks in Iran’s ruling network of clerics and security networks…But Iran’s establishment was clearly caught off guard by the speed and ferocity of the protests — the largest outpouring of opposition to the state since the disputed 2009 presidential elections.”

Here’s a suggested response by Obama-era ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro on Dec. 30: “I hope we’ll see a bipartisan coalition, including JCPOA opponents & supporters, backing the human rights and aspirations of Iranian protesters, & doing it smartly so that we do not become the focus of these events. The Trump Admin's early statements have set the right tone.”

Related? This morning, Iran reopened the last two border crossings into Iraqi Kurdistan, closed since September’s Kurdish independence vote, the National reports. (ht Joyce Karam).

From Defense One

Where We're Headed in 2018 // Kevin Baron, Caroline Houck, Patrick Tucker and Marcus Weisgerber: You can bet there will be new crises, weapons, leaders, and technologies to come. And, oh yes, there will be tweets.

When the War Comes, What Should We Civilians Do? // Elisabeth Braw: The military can't do it all. The US needs a national civilian emergency corps, trained and ready to help in case of the next disaster, be it cyber, nuclear, or natural.

ISIS in Afghanistan Is Like a Balloon That Won't Pop // Krishnadev Calamur: Thursday's fatal attack in Kabul highlights the group's resilience.

Russia Is Getting More Confident About Infiltrating UK Territories // Lianna Brinded: Over the past few years, Russian sea units have popped up all over the borders of Britain's territorial waters.

Don't Raise a New Year's Toast for Defeating ISIS Just Yet // Joshua A. Geltzer: Now we must address America's ambiguity on Syria and the Kurds.

Last Year's Top 5 Worst Nuclear Nightmares (That Aren't Going Away) // Joe Cirincione: Each of these threats has only gotten worse. Take one guess what (or who) I think remains the top nuclear threat to us…

What SpaceX's Record-Breaking Year Means for Science (and the Rocketry Business) // Marina Koren: After a triumphant year, the reusable rocketeer is planning 50 percent more launches in 2018.

How Pakistan Is Responding to Trump // Caroline Houck: Pushed by Trump, Tillerson, and Mattis to do more to fight terrorism, Pakistan has instead taken public steps to push back in recent weeks.

Hail the Civil Servant in the Year of Trump // Joshua A. Geltzer: Never before have the roles of government workers taken on such significance. But there could be consequences to using their power to undermine the administration.

3 Predictions for Government Tech in 2018 // John Breeden II: Here's which tech will move from buzzword to implementation.

Congress Rushes Pentagon $4B for Missile Defense Improvements // Marcus Weisgerber: The emergency bill is light on details, but it appears to fulfill the military's wide-ranging November request.

Happy New Year, and welcome to our initial 2018 edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Email us. And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. They can subscribe here for free.

Keeping tabs on the war in Yemen. Track bombs made on an island in the Mediterranean to the battlefields of Yemen — after they were dropped by Saudi Arabia's Air Force on civilians. The tracking project comes to us via The New York Times' Malachi Brown, Barbara Marcolini and Ainara Tiefenthäler. The story begins in Sardinia with the Italian weapons manufacturer RWM.

ICYMI, part one: On December 26, the Saudi-led coalition “killed at least 68 civilians…including eight children” in two air strike attacks on the contested southwestern province of Taiz. That attack raised the two-week death toll on civilians to more than 100, the Times reported separately over the holiday break.  

ICYMI, part two: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis dropped by the Pentagon press bullpen on Friday to speak with reporters. He broached a number of topics — summarized on Twitter by Military Times’ Tara Copp, here. But Mattis also took issue with a question about the U.S. military’s involvement in the Yemen conflict, in particular as concerns the number of civilians believed to have been killed from Saudi-led airstrikes.
Mattis: “The civilian casualties is why we have gone in to be very — to be helpful where we can in identifying how you do target analysis and how you make certain you hit the right thing,” he told reporters.
Asked Reuters' Idrees Ali, "So are you okay with that level of civilian causality?"
Mattis: "I'm never okay with any civilian casualty. Don't screw with me on this."
Instead, Mattis said he wanted to draw reporters’ attention to what he called, “a much larger issue,” which is “people are being held to a standard today that warfare can seldom permit achieving. “We are being held to a standard – ‘we’ being us and anyone associated with us – that has never been achieved before in warfare,” he said. More on all that from the Washington Post, here.  
For an alternate perspective — Here’s one soldier’s perspective on Mattis’s remarks, via Doctrine Man’s Facebook page: “Yes, we are held to a higher standard. Yes, Secretary Mattis is a very competent man of integrity. Maybe, the journalist was (intentionally or not) pushing his buttons. But, no, he should not be dismissive and flippant with those whose job it is to remind the public of our high standards and to hold us to those standards.”

More airstrikes in Somalia as the ISIS affiliate there releases its first video. U.S. Africa Command says it killed 13 al-Shabaab fighters on Christmas Eve in southern Somalia, according to a statement released three days later.
One day after the strike on Shabaab, ISIS in Somalia released a video calling on supporters to “hunt down” nonbelievers and attack churches and markets while taking advantage of people’s “drunkenness” over the holiday season, the Associated Press reported.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has sacked his military chief, as well as his ministers of information and industry, AP reported from neighboring Beirut. State-run SANA media reportedly gave no reason for the staffing changes, but AP writes the moves come “at a time when Assad's forces have been gaining ground over the past two years under the cover of Russian airstrikes and with the help of Iran-backed fighters.” More here.

New York City, San Francisco and Philadelphia are suing the Pentagon for “allegedly failing to report criminal convictions of people in the military to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its national gun background check database,” Fox News and a host of others reported last week. “The lawsuit… seeks a court order to force the Pentagon to submit to federal court monitoring of its reporting requirements.”

South Korea seized at least two ships, including one allegedly out of China, “suspected of transferring oil products to North Korea in violation of international sanctions,” Reuters reported. The first occurred in October and wasn’t revealed publicly until last week, The New York Times reported. That vessel was a “Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker accused of transferring 600 tons of refined oil to a North Korean ship.”
A month later, South Korea seized “the Hong Kong-flagged Lighthouse Winmore, which is suspected of transferring as much as 600 tons of oil to the North Korea-flagged Sam Jong 2.”
A third vessel — a Panama-flagged ship — was seized in December at the west coast port of Pyeongtaek-Dangjin, south of Incheon, Reuters writes. “The ship can carry 5,100 tonnes of oil and has a crew mostly from China and Myanmar, Yonhap News Agency reported, adding that South Korea’s intelligence and customs officials are conducting a joint probe into the vessel.”
And not to be left out, “Russian tankers have supplied fuel to North Korea on at least three occasions in recent months by transferring cargoes at sea, breaching U.N. sanctions,” Reuters reported separately. “The transfers in October and November indicate that smuggling from Russia to North Korea has evolved to loading cargoes at sea since Reuters reported in September that North Korean ships were sailing directly from Russia to their homeland.” Read on, here.

North Korea’s Kim used his New Year’s address to declare his intention to start mass-producing nuclear weapons and ICBMs in 2018 — and to invite his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in to talk about the upcoming Winter Olympics. The latter is seen as an attempt to drive a wedge between “Mr. Moon, a liberal, [who has] argued for economic and diplomatic openings with the North” and Trump, who “has worked hard to squeeze the North with increasingly punishing sanctions.” More from the NYT, here.

Looking ahead: (1) Australian security researcher Van Jackson: “I went back and looked at KJU New Years speeches since 2013—every year has some kind of dovish overtures toward ROK, but never translated into anything later. If this time is different, it's because of Moon.” And (2) Michael Lammbrau, professor at Mercyhurst University, says the verbiage in North Korean official statements changes before significant weapons tests — enough to predict them. Read that, here.

And finally today: With much of our holiday air travel now over, it may be encouraging to learn “There were zero passenger fatalities from commercial passenger jet crashes, anywhere in the world, in 2017,” making it the safest year for aviation “ever,” The Independent reports. They took their jump from the “Civil Aviation Safety Review for 2017,” published by Dutch-based aviation consultancy, To70. Read more over at the Independent, here; or check out the full report for yourself, here.

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston // Ben Watson is news editor for Defense One. He previously worked for NPR's “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now” in Washington, D.C. Watson served for five years in the U.S. Army, where he was an award-winning combat cameraman and media advisor for southern Afghanistan's special operations command during the 2010-11 surge. // Bradley Peniston is deputy editor of Defense One. A national security journalist for two decades, he helped launch, served as managing editor of Defense News, and was editor of Armed Forces Journal. His books include No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf, now part of the Chief of Naval Operations' Professional Reading Program.

January 2, 2018