Iran inches away from nuke deal; F-35 price drop; Robot wingmen; Global defense spending spikes; And a bit more.

Iran says it will inch away from the 2015 nuclear deal as it tries for the next 60 days to negotiate some more favorable economic situation despite intensifying U.S. sanctions, which Iranian officials refer to as “economic terrorism.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered the message today from Tehran, exactly one year after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal (aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).

Said Iran’s Rouhani at a cabinet meeting broadcast state-run TV: "We felt the [deal] needed surgery and that the year-long sedatives have not delivered any result. This surgery is meant to save the [deal], not destroy it."

What changes for now: “Iran will stop exporting its excess uranium and heavy water from its nuclear program, as stipulated by the agreement,” the Associated Press reports in a tidy explainer. “If the 60-day deadline passes without action, Rouhani says Iran will resume higher uranium enrichment as well.” Iran officially conveyed this message via letters “to the leaders of Britain, China, the European Union, France and Germany. All were signatories to the nuclear deal.”

Broader context: Rouhani’s message “came as Washington stepped up its rhetoric against Tehran, accusing it of planning ‘imminent’ attacks and deploying an aircraft carrier strike group with several nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the region,” Agence France-Presse reports this morning.

The detail about B-52s came out on Tuesday, as Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman flagged on Twitter — then followed up multiple times throughout the day as more info trickled out about allegedly "credible" new threats from Iran.  

Missiles on boats, or just one boat... Also on Tuesday, unnamed U.S. officials told CNN “Iran is likely moving short-range ballistic missiles aboard boats in the Persian Gulf.” Whether or not those missiles could actually be launched from the boats is not something the U.S. military chose to clarify. Still, this info was just “one of multiple threads of intelligence from various sources that led the US to believe Iran had a capability and intention to launch strikes against US targets,” Barbara Starr reported — despite this particular threat vector being well-known to Iran- and Yemen-watchers for a couple of years already.  

For what it’s worth, the Washington Post reported the intelligence included “imagery of containers on the deck of at least one dhow, a sailing vessel, which were believed to contain assembled ballistic missiles from Iran. Officials were unsure of the intended purpose for the suspected missiles, but they saw it as a worrying departure from Iran’s previous steps to smuggle disassembled missile parts into Yemen.”

In response to the boat missile(s), Pentagon officials told CNN it could send more Patriot anti-missile batteries to the CENTCOM region. But a decision on that has not been finalized just yet.

To its credit, CENTCOM sent out a five-page explainer (PDF) on the USS Abraham Lincoln’s deployment to the Persian Gulf, along with those B-52s, on Tuesday. According to that document, which reveals very little you didn’t already learn in Tuesday’s D Brief, “recent and clear indications that Iranian and Iranian proxy forces were making preparations to possibly attack U.S. forces in the region” compelled the movement of the carrier strike group and the bomber task force — military systems that, as Defense One’s Kevin Baron tweeted Tuesday, carry enough firepower to flatten Tehran.

What you need to know: “The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and the U.S. Air Force bombers are the only forces that have been ordered to the U.S. Central Command region in response to these credible treats, at this time,” CENTCOM said in the document.

But you won’t find specifics about the threats or their credibility, CENTCOM admitted, because:

  • “A number of factors define credibility but they are all related to the sources and methods through which information is obtained, which is not something we are going to be able to talk about.”
  • And a bit lower, “U.S. Central Command has seen recent and clear indications that Iranian and Iranian proxy forces were making preparations to possibly attack U.S. forces in the region. This include[s] threats on land and in the maritime. We are not going to be able to provide detailed information on specific threats at this time.”

And if you want to know what comes next, the U.S. military isn’t gonna say since “For security reasons, we do not discuss future movements of the strike group.”

Mixed-up messaging: Defense One’s Kevin Baron rolls up when and how the various driblets of information emerged, and concludes: “A simple press conference could have avoided 36 hours of confusion and fears of war with Iran.” Read: “How Not to Announce a Ship Deployment.”

Pointing fingers at one nation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the U.S. as he stood beside his Iranian counterpart during a meeting today in Moscow, AP reports separately in a rolling-updates page that began when Rouhani spoke just after midnight on the U.S. East Coast. China’s foreign minister also blamed the U.S. for having “further aggravated” tensions between Iran and the rest of the world.

Asks CNN’s Jim Sciutto, on Twitter: “This re-raises the question: what was the goal of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal? Was it a better deal? Because that didn’t happen. Now Iran has fewer limits on its nuclear program. Military action? Regime change? Or does US live with an active Iranian nuclear program?”

Alternate take: Trump Admin Inflated Iran Intel, U.S. Officials Say,” The Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff and Adam Rawnsley reported Tuesday evening citing unnamed officials.

And on the diplomatic front, U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo made an unannounced stop in Iraq on Tuesday (after cancelling a meeting with Germany’s Angela Merkel), WaPo reported, traveling with the secretary. “We wanted to let [Iraqi leaders] know about the increased threat stream that we had seen and give them a little bit more background on that so they could ensure that they were doing all they could to provide protection for our team,” Pompeo told reporters before flying out of the Middle East to sell the UK on the White House’s anti-Iran and anti-China messaging. (More from those last two angles via AFP, here.)

Reminder: The U.S. still maintains some 5,200 troops in Iraq to ensure the “lasting defeat of ISIS,” according to the U.S. military’s latest Inspector General report (PDF) from the counter-ISIS war, which was just released to the public Tuesday.

Acting SecDef Shanahan also cancelled a trip to Europe this week; but he’s not heading to Iraq (far as we know). Rather he’ll be dropping by the U.S.-Mexico border and the roughly 2,900 active-duty and 2,000 National Guardsmen deployed there.

He’ll also be keeping an eye on developments in Venezuela ahead of the hospital ship, USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), upcoming June deployment “from Naval Station Norfolk to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America to conduct humanitarian medical assistance missions in support of regional partners and in response to the regional impacts of the Venezuela political and economic crisis,” according to a Pentagon announcement Tuesday. For more on all that, the Defense Department referred folks to this page maintained by the State Department.

From Defense One

Price Drop: Lockheed Pitches $80M F-35A to Pentagon // Marcus Weisgerber: That’s the cheapest price yet for the Air Force version of the fifth-generation jet.

How Not to Announce a Ship Deployment // Kevin Baron: A simple press conference could have avoided 36 hours of confusion and fears of war with Iran.

US Military Testing Whether Human Pilots Can Trust Robot Wingmen in a Dogfight // Patrick Tucker: DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution program aims to find out — and so shape America’s future arsenal.

The Pentagon Still Buys Software Like It's 1987 // Brandi Vincent, Nextgov: The Defense Innovation Board recently discovered that a 32-year-old report pretty much said it all.

The Many Ways Iran Could Target the United States // Kathy Gilsinan and Krishnadev Calamur, The Atlantic: The White House is citing unspecified threats from Iran. The specifics are murky, but the potential for escalation is real.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! Subscribe here. On this day in 1945, VE Day and the fall of the Nazi regime was celebrated by allied troops and citizens across the U.S., Great Britain and cities in western Europe.

The Taliban carried out a complex attack on an NGO in Kabul today, injuring at least nine people, the Associated Press reports from the Afghan capital.
Targeted: “an international aid group called Counterpart International, which has offices near those of the Afghan attorney general,” an Interior Ministry spox told AP.
Why they were attacked: For their “harmful Western activities,” according to the Taliban, whose spox did not elaborate.
Meanwhile for the Taliban, if the sun’s out, their guns are out during Ramadan. The group said they would continue their attacks during the extended Islamic celebration, which ends on June 4, but would be “very careful of civilians during any operation.” A bit more, here.

“The world is arming itself to the teeth,” the Economist reported last week, and it’s “driven, above all, by the contest between America and China for primacy in Asia.” Using late April numbers from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the Economist writes global military spending it at “the highest level in real terms since reliable records began in 1988, during the cold war, and 76% higher than in 1998.” More behind the paywall, here. Or check out SIPRI’s data for yourself (not behind a paywall) here.

How will Boeing’s 737 MAX problems affect its defense business? NPR’s Tom Bowman looked into the matter for Tuesday’s “All Things Considered.” And you can listen to or read that three-and-a-half minute report, here.

Is President Trump’s approach to foreign policy best described as a “Crazy Uncle” strategy? That’s the idea put forward by CSIS’s Scott Kennedy in a commentary ostensibly focused on U.S.-China trade tensions — but which is also but so much more.
An excerpt: “Some observers in think tanks, industry, and governments have been willing to overlook the intellectual weaknesses of Trump's arguments because his claims and strategy support a larger underlying truth, emphasized by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, about the deeply discriminatory and damaging nature of China's industrial policy system and the need for it to be uprooted. Their grudging support has given this approach more staying power. But the president's ‘Crazy Uncle’ strategy may be wearing thin, not only through fatigue but also as listeners become accustomed to his outbursts and have difficulty differentiating between momentary complaints and genuine threats.”
The problem, according to Kennedy: “Ever more tempestuous language is needed to generate the desired anxiety and subsequent concessions, and at some point, targets either don't get the message or decide to break this anxiety-compliance spiral by not giving in. This strategy vis-a-vis China may be nearing the end of its shelf-life.” Read on, here.

Apropos of nothing, here’s a story about the people obsessed with fighter jets who gather at an overlook in Death Valley to see them flyby, LA Times’ Ruben Vives reported Tuesday in a fun little (it’s actually rather large) multimedia feature.

And finally today: A quick correction from Tuesday’s D Brief. We mistakenly said Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon’s incoming public-affairs assistant to the defense secretary, participated in a roundtable discussion last week — when in fact the roundtable took place as Hoffman ran for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st District in 2013.
Why this matters: Because of Hoffman’s 2013 remarks on immigration in light of the Pentagon’s growing 2019 mission on the U.S.-Mexico border, as Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams suggested in Tuesday’s D Brief. Find her rollup of all that, here.