Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN National Security Analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. This commentary has been updated to reflect the news.
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues the President needs to know about to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
Iran: Fire and fury expected
After your decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran deal), we are continuing to assess Iran’s trigger points across several vectors, including when Iran will feel its best course of action is to restart its nuclear program. In the interim, the Iranian regime will pursue a strategy to solicit support at home and abroad, which will include:
Rallying around the flag: Images of hardliners burning American flags predated your withdrawal from the JCPOA, but we will see the regime rally against the US flag and around the Iranian one in the coming weeks. Selling the deal domestically in Iran wasn’t easy, and the regime will try to focus attention on you – rather than place blame on itself for signing a risky deal in the first place.
Iranian leaders will use harsh and insulting rhetoric against you (the Supreme Leader talked about snakes and insects feeding on your corpse), try to embarrass you, support more protests against the United States and attempt to scapegoat the United States for any economic malaise in the country.
This blame game is a domestic distraction from the government’s inability to deliver on various economic promises, as well as a means of expressing its anger against being convinced to sign an agreement that you walked away from.
Any inflammatory rhetoric by the United States will only feed the regime’s narrative about you and its desire to stoke antipathy toward the country as a whole.
Peeling off our friends: Like in some breakups, our friends aren’t on our side. Our European allies lobbied you hard to stay in the deal. After you pulled out, Iran is going to amplify the message that in this break up, it did nothing wrong. In other words, Iran will play the victim card, particularly when Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with European signatories in Brussels on Tuesday.
We will probably hear escalatory statements from Iran while Zarif is in Europe. The regime will want to send a clear message that the stakes are nuclear: if the Europeans are unsuccessful in getting sanctions waived, Iran will potentially restart its program because its economic incentive for signing the deal will be gone.
Promoting fire and fury: Iran will use your decision to stir up fire and fury against the United States and our interests in the region. Iran has proxy forces in countries including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and Israel even said it was targeted by Iran from Syrian bases just last week. Israel pushed us to walk away from the deal (and has an ongoing standoff with Iran), so it may feel the brunt of an Iranian operational response to your decision. Pulling out of the deal can also be used as a way to inspire attacks against the United States and our allies because it feeds the narrative that the United States is evil and untrustworthy.
Israel on high alert: Celebrations alongside demonstrations
As we prepare for the opening of the new US Embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, we are continuously tracking several threats that could affect the situation on the ground. We should consider the threat level elevated on multiple fronts. Our enemies in the region may use the embassy opening as a pretense for action against the United States and our interests.
After tensions escalated between Israeli and Iranian forces in Syria last week (Israel said that Iranian forces sent rockets into Israel from Syria and Israel responded by striking more Iranian-linked targets in Syria), Israel claimed that it destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria. We supported Israel’s right to act in self-defense, which could lead to retribution against us. Iran has proxies throughout the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and various militias in Iraq. So we may see other Iranian-backed forces in the region take action against Israel and against us if they’re constrained in Syria.
Notably, Vladimir Putin did not condemn Israel’s actions, potentially signaling tacit approval for the operation (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Putin the day before the Israeli operation). This could signal some kind of shift by Russia – its redline against Iran could be direct attacks against Israel from within Syria.
Domestically, in Israel, we are also monitoring flashpoints. As we have briefed you before, the day after the embassy opening marks the annual observation of al-Nakba – or as many Palestinians and others call it, the “catastrophe” that was the creation of the state of Israel and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. We have seen clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces during past Nakba demonstrations, and this year some Palestinian leaders have already called for a day of rage on the day the embassy opens.
Meanwhile, violence on another one of its borders – Gaza – is ongoing. Israel closed a border crossing, citing damage caused by riots. The Israeli military also said that it destroyed a tunnel near the border that Hamas was building.
Also, protests broke out in other countries when you announced your decision to move the embassy, so we may see similar ones occur on Monday when the embassy actually opens.
North Korea: Red herrings get fishier over time
There is a lot of momentum going into your June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un, including the release of three US prisoners last week.
We assess that North Korea will continue to try to create a positive environment to ensure that you are comfortable coming to Singapore and meeting Kim in front of the cameras. He’s counting on it. But, remember, he’s also got his own bona fides to promote, and he’s banked a lot on his nuclear credentials.
We’re noticing a pattern of red herrings, however, and as you know, red herrings get fishier over time.
North Korea has told the International Commercial Aviation Organization (ICAO) that it won’t make an unannounced missile test. The less missiles flying, the better, but this is as much a pragmatic decision as a diplomatic carrot. North Korea hosted the ICAO in Pyongyang because it wants to open up a new air route that would pass through its airspace. And if North Korea wants to focus on economic development, it needs companies and investors to feel safe flying to Pyongyang. The fear of unannounced missiles makes that dicey. Plus, the North Koreans have already said that they don’t need to do more tests because they’ve achieved their goals. So they’re announcing they’re not going to do something they say they don’t need to do anyway.
Similarly, we’re hearing more about North Korea’s plans to dismantle a nuclear test site, the Punggye-ri complex. Journalists from China, Russia, South Korea, the UK and United States will reportedly be invited to conduct “on-the-spot coverage in order to transparently show dismantlement with a ‘ceremony’ scheduled for as early as May 23.”
On its surface, this could look like Kim taking steps to get rid of nuclear infrastructure – a decision you called a “smart and gracious gesture.” But again, red herring alert. Official North Korean statements have said that “under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission.” So they’re getting rid of something that they don’t need anyway.
And to make matters worse, there are reports that the nuclear testing site is damaged and largely unusable anyway, so dismantling it doesn’t mean as much as dismantling a fully operational site. Let’s also keep in mind that we’ve seen this “destruction” game before. North Koreans destroyed a nuclear cooling tower in 2008, and we all know how that turned out. Their program accelerated rather than slowed.
In short, dismantling this nuclear site isn’t a concession; it’s a celebration of what the North Koreans were able to do even in the face of an international pressure campaign.