War? ‘I hope not’; Nukes getting less predictable; B-52 rises from the boneyard; F-16 crashes through roof; And a bit more.

Newsflash: Iran has been reacting to U.S. threats, according to the latest publicly available U.S. intelligence. American officials now believe Iran’s leaders thought “the U.S. planned to attack them, prompting preparation by Tehran for possible counterstrikes, according to one interpretation of the information,” the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday evening.

“That view of the intelligence,” write the Journal’s Warren P. Strobel, Nancy A. Youssef, and Vivian Salama, “could help explain why Iranian forces and their allies took action that was seen as threatening to U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere, prompting a U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region and a drawdown of U.S. diplomats in Iraq.”

In another indication tensions may be cooling somewhat, President Trump was asked Thursday if the U.S. will have a war with Iran. His reply: “I hope not.” Those public remarks echo private ones the Journal referenced, citing nameless administration officials alleging “President Trump told aides including his acting defense chief that he didn’t want a military conflict with Iran.”

The so-called “Gang of 8” senators heard a classified briefing on Iran’s military Thursday, the Associated Press reported from Capitol Hill shortly afterward. So far, none of the senators said more publicly than additional lawmakers need to be briefed as soon as possible.

Why this matters: “Members of Congress, senior U.S. officials and allies have expressed skepticism in response to warnings from the administration about Iran’s regional threat,” AP writes. “Many lawmakers referenced the role of false intelligence in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq when questioning current intelligence on Iran.”

Next steps: The full House and Senate are expected to receive their own classified Iran briefings next week. Tiny bit more, here.

Said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, on Thursday: “I don’t think there’s faulty intel here necessarily. I think the intel may be accurate,” he told CNN Thursday—though he admitted he still hasn’t seen photographs from U.S. intelligence purporting to show Iranians putting a missile on a boat in the Persian Gulf. He continued, “But the unanswered question, again, is: Are they reacting to our assertions of action in the Middle East or are we reacting to them? That’s an unanswered question for me.”

King’s not the only one in the dark, since there would appear to be no one from the WH at the helm when it comes to coordinated messaging, CNN’s Manu Raju reported separately Thursday. “House Intel had an Iran briefing scrapped, while Senate Intel had one,” Raju tweeted. “Sen. Risch was briefed but House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel was not. But Romney got a briefing yet Lindsey Graham didn’t — and he wants to know ‘what the hell’ is going on.”

This isn’t terribly surprising considering the many recent examples of confusion and contradiction in White House messaging on Iran tensions.

Trump, for his part, “he has expressed his interest in a negotiated solution, even if that means speaking to the Iranians directly,” the Journal reports, calling it “a move that would be counter to the recommendation of some top advisers.”

Also on Thursday: U.S. Navy destroyers, USS McFaul and the USS Gonzalez, passed through the Hormuz Strait in what one nameless defense official called “the quietest transit we have seen in a long time… The deterrence part of this is going pretty well from our perspective,” he or she added.

Said another, approvingly: “This is a case where credible intelligence drove measured, appropriate operations.” Read on behind the paywall, here.

How is Iran viewing all this? It’s not hard to guess. “The actions of American leaders in exerting pressure and launching sanctions … while speaking of talks, is like holding a gun at someone and asking for friendship and negotiations,” according to Rasoul Sanai-Rad, a political deputy of Iran’s armed forces command. More on that angle from Reuters this morning, here.

This week in national security podcasts: Ploughshares’ Joe Cirincione just posted episode five of “Press the Button,” this time featuring one of the Iran deal architects, Wendy Sherman.

“We’re in an escalatory cycle,” Sherman told Cirincione. “We are in a very difficult place. I don’t really think that Donald Trump wants to go to war. He’s beginning to feel like his National Security Advisor is pressing him to go to war with Iran.” Find the latest episode of “Press the Button,” here.

From Defense One

US to Countries: We’ll Pay You to Ditch Russian, Chinese Arms // Marcus Weisgerber: The State Department wants to go global with a program originally aimed at ex-Warsaw Pact members.

Nuclear Weapons Are Getting Less Predictable, and More Dangerous // Patrick Tucker: Facing steerable ICBMs and smaller warheads, the Pentagon seeks better tracking as the White House pursues an unlikely arms-control treaty.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: A brewing storm; HASC markup highlights; Army helo costs; and more…

The US Should Be Strengthening Deterrence. The Opposite Is Happening. // Alexandra Bell and Abigail Stowe-Thurston: Instead of debating no-first-use policies and other potential advancements, Trump is undermining an alliance system built over decades.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! Subscribe here. On this day in 2002, Taliban leader Mullah Omar promised “fire, hell and total defeat” for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Happening today: U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper talks “The Future of the Army in Great-Power Competition” at the Atlantic Council in Washington at 11 a.m. EDT. Details and logistics, here.
Will we get a better definition of “Great-Power Competition” today, since no one at the Pentagon seems to know? Catch the livestream to find out, here.

The U.S. just pulled a B-52 from the “boneyard” to put it back in use, AP reported Thursday from Tucson. “Officials said it was the bomber’s first flight since 2008 and only the second time that a B-52H has taken from the storage area and returned to service. It took months of work to make the bomber airworthy again, and additional restoration work is required to put it back in service.” Tiny bit more, here.

Needed: Nuclear weapons clarity at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The State Department’s Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, Andrea Thompson, dropped by Capitol Hill Wednesday to talk about “The Future of Arms Control Post-Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty” with the Pentagon’s Undersecretary for Policy, David Trachtenberg.
Trachtenberg managed to keep a low profile, not drawing too much attention via his answers and preparation for the hearing. Thompson, however, was not so fortunate.
SFRC Ranking Member, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., asked Thompson if the arms control treaty, New START, expires in 2021 with no replacement, could Russia target the U.S. with “hundreds or perhaps thousands of additional nuclear warheads?” Thompson smiled and replied, “That’s a good question for Russia.”
“No, it’s a good question for you,” Menendez immediately snapped back. “You know, the disdain that this State Department has when they come here — I don’t appreciate it. I’m asking for legitimate questions with answers so that I can make policy decisions.” And raising his voice considerably here, he continued, “I’m not asking Russia about our national defense. I’m asking you.” Watch the exchange in video, here.
Beside Menendez was SFRC Chairman Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho. Risch, writes Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, “said some strange things that indicate he is confused or ill-informed about key arms control treaties and nuclear weapons issues.”
What kind of strange things? Contradicting himself on Russian compliance with New START, inaccurately understanding Russia’s weapons requirements under New START at least twice, misrepresenting what “modernizing” Russian nuclear forces means compared to U.S. nuclear forces, referencing reports no one seems to be aware of regarding China’s nuclear forces, and seemingly going out on a limb regarding China’s eagerness to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. Find the full hearing at SFRC’s website, here.
And yet it’s more important than ever to understand the issues, D1’s Patrick Tucker reports in “Nuclear Weapons Are Getting Less Predictable, and More Dangerous. Facing steerable ICBMs and smaller warheads, the Pentagon seeks better tracking as the White House pursues an unlikely arms-control treaty.” Read on, here.

The more you know: changing Arctic edition. “Only 2 percent of [the Arctic Ocean’s] waters are charted to international standards,” according to a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But what is truly unchartered,” they write, complete with animations and reams of data, “is its rapid transformation.” Dive in, here.

F-16 crashes through the roof of a California warehouse. The Air Force pilot ejected safely during a training mission near March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, and no one was hurt on the ground. Officials have yet to say why the jet crashed. See video of the (surprisingly small) hole in the roof, here.

Trump’s pick to lead ICE: I can tell future gangsters by their eyes. Mark Morgan to Fox’s Tucker Carlson in January: “I’ve looked at them and I’ve looked at their eyes, Tucker — and I’ve said that is a soon-to-be MS-13 gang member. It’s unequivocal.” Via Politico, here.

And finally this week, some illuminating weekend reading on the phenomenon that has swept across the U.S., Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere this decade: Princeton University’s Jan-Werner Müller and his historical analysis of international populism, “Populism and the People,” in next week’s edition of the London Review of Books, but available now online.
Among some of the interesting pullouts:

  • “Authoritarianism goes hand in hand with kleptocracy…The straightforward explanation is that the absence of legal and political constraints makes self-dealing much easier, which in turn reinforces the leaders’ need to keep a tight grip on the judiciary and the political system in order to avoid punishment when their power ebbs.”
  • “It’s true that authoritarian-populist regimes constantly seek to divide their societies, in particular by holding up ideals of the ‘real Turk’, the ‘real Hungarian’, ‘the real Indian’, and also the ‘real American’. But these attempts at securing cultural hegemony go hand in hand with something much more mundane: a tendency among their leaders to seek self-enrichment.”
  • “Contrary to the domino theory propounded by pundits, and by the populists themselves – first Brexit, then Trump, then Le Pen etc – the fact remains that no right-wing populist has yet come to power anywhere in Western Europe or North America without the collaboration of established conservative elites.”
  • And one dominant takeaway: “Authoritarians, it used to be said, couldn’t innovate or adapt to changing environments; they were fated to end as the Soviet Union did. The new Populist International – whose members borrow, try out and refine techniques of populist rule – should disturb that complacent liberal-democratic notion.” Read the rest of Müller’s essay, here. (h/t to WaPo columnist Anne Applebaum)

Have a good weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!

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