Jan 7, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back, World readers. We're taking you on a 1,572-word (6-minute) global spin this evening.

  • Thanks for joining me! Please tell your worldly friends to sign up, and I'd love your tips and feedback: lawler@axios.com.

You may have noticed that some news broke not long after I sent Thursday's newsletter. Time to catch up on all that...

1 big thing: Ripples of the Soleimani strike

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty Contributor, Adam Glickman/Underwood Archives/Getty Contributor, Mehdi Ghasemi/Getty Contributor, NurPhoto/Getty Contributor

The killing of Qasem Soleimani unleashed immediate fears of war — even of World War III — but if no further shots are fired, Thursday's airstrikes in Baghdad will nonetheless generate momentous consequences.

The big picture: Iran has lost its best military strategist, and America has eliminated a man it saw as a singularly destructive actor in the region. But the current U.S. concerns aren't limited to where and when Iran will strike back.

What to watch...

1. The U.S. military presence in Iraq has quickly begun to look untenable, both due to the threat of Iranian reprisals and because Iraq appears set to revoke its invitation following the American attack on its soil.

Driving the news: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Mark Milley were forced tonight to hastily deny that the U.S. was pulling troops out of Iraq.

  • That followed the emergence of a letter from Brig. Gen. William Seely informing the Iraqi military that the anti-ISIS coalition would be "repositioning forces" and preparing to move "out of Iraq."
  • The letter was reportedly delivered to Baghdad, but Milley said it was a “poorly worded” draft that shouldn’t have been released.
  • It came a day after the Iraqi parliament voted in a non-binding resolution to demand that foreign forces leave the country.
  • Trump responded by declaring that America would not leave unless it was paid for its “extraordinarily expensive air base."

Why it matters: Forcing the U.S. out of the region has been a primary objective of Tehran and Soleimani’s personal mission. A sudden U.S. exit would also give ISIS space to rebuild its strength, particularly as the U.S. would likely leave Syria too.

  • The flipside: International Crisis Group president Robert Malley noted during a briefing with reporters this afternoon that Trump may ultimately embrace this as an opportunity to get out of the Middle East.

2. Iran’s announcement yesterday that it will now enrich uranium “without restrictions” — unconstrained by the 2015 nuclear deal — loomed as a possibility ever since Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018.

  • But Trump's administration for months expressed confidence that Iran would not get to this point, because that would turn the world — in particular the Europeans — against it.
  • Few howls of outrage accompanied Iran’s announcement, though, because the U.S. now looks to many like the aggressor. Iran also tempered some fears by noting it would continue to provide access to inspectors.
  • While France, Germany and the U.K. expressed concern, they’re still attempting to mediate rather than lining up behind their American ally.


3. The Iranian regime is riding a tide of patriotic sentiment just weeks after anti-government protests threatened to rattle its foundations.

4. A deepening crisis with Iran will crowd out other priorities, including a "great power competition" with Russia and China, not to mention ISIS.

5. The killing of a top Iranian official in a foreign country could not only put U.S. generals and officials in the Middle East at risk, it “will be invoked by various parties” in the future to justify assassinations, Malley says.

The bottom line: Even if the most dire predictions of war don't come to fruition, the impact of Soleimani's death will be felt for years to come.

Go deeper:

2. How the Iran crisis turns to war

U.S. and Israeli flags aflame during Soleimani's funeral procession in Tehran. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

The streets of Tehran were filled with mourners today and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wept for a man considered his closest lieutenant.

State of play: “Right now what [the Iranians] are doing is sitting back and accumulating some of the immediate political benefits of what just happened — the vote in the Iraqi parliament, massive demonstrations in Iran and also in Iraq, popular sentiment among the Shiites in Lebanon, strengthening of the Iranian axis and what they’re doing on the nuclear front,” says Malley, a former Obama adviser.

  • “At some point, it’s going to be very difficult for them not to take some type of response,” he adds. “Then, of course, the ball will be back in President Trump’s court.”

The big picture: Most analysts agree that Iran must, in its view, hit back hard enough to assert its strength while aiming to avert a potentially crippling military confrontation with the U.S.

  • Trump has drawn a clear red line over attacks on U.S. personnel and interests, but strikes on allies like Saudi Arabia have not drawn similar ire. That will only add to the concerns of America's regional partners.

Behind the scenes: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Security Cabinet today that Israel was not involved in Soleimani’s killing and must not be dragged into the escalating conflict, two ministers who attended the meeting tell Axios contributor Barak Ravid.

  • Meanwhile, Barak reports, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman urgently dispatched his brother Prince Khalid to Washington today to meet with top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and urge restraint.
  • Both Israel and Saudi Arabia deplored Soleimani, but both are also afraid of being targeted by Iran or swept up in a U.S.-Iran war.

What to watch: Israel’s intelligence chiefs told the Cabinet today that Iran will start developing its retaliation on Tuesday when the period of national mourning ends.

  • Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who is close to Tehran, said Sunday that U.S. military assets should be targeted, but not civilians.
  • Oman and Qatar could both be key to any de-escalation efforts.
3. Pompeo not (interested) in Kansas anymore

Pompeo leaves his meeting with McConnell. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Pompeo met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday and informed him that he will not be running for Kansas' open Senate seat in 2020, the New York Times first reported and Axios has confirmed.

  • Pompeo's apparent exploration of a Senate bid was a topic of intense speculation for months. Now, he appears likely to stay in Foggy Bottom for a while longer.

Zoom in: Pompeo was a primary driver behind Trump's decision to strike Soleimani, the Washington Post reports. He has also been the face of the decision in a string of TV interviews since.

  • "[R]ecent changes to Trump’s national security team and the whims of a president anxious about being viewed as hesitant in the face of Iranian aggression created an opening for Pompeo to press for the kind of action he had been advocating."
  • "At the State Department, he is a voracious consumer of diplomatic notes and reporting on Iran, and he places the country far above other geopolitical and economic hot spots in the world."
  • "'If it’s about Iran, he will read it,' said one diplomat, referring to the massive flow of paper that crosses Pompeo’s desk. 'If it’s not, good luck.'" 
4. Latin America: Locking out Guaidó

Guaidó climbs a fence while attempting to reach the National Assembly. Photo: Federico Parra/AFP via Getty Images

Venezuela’s government disrupted a National Assembly leadership election on Sunday, forcibly blocking opposition leader Juan Guaidó from entering the chamber so it could swear in a candidate viewed as loyal to President Nicolás Maduro.

Why it matters: Guaidó’s international legitimacy rests on the fact that, as assembly president, he is Venezuela’s highest-ranking official to have been democratically elected. This step could muddy those waters and further strengthen Maduro’s hold on power. 

The big picture: The hope that desperate Venezuelans placed in Guaidó after he proclaimed himself president last January has gradually faded, particularly after an audacious attempt to seize power failed in April.

  • Maduro pressed that advantage Sunday. The move followed allegations that he was attempting to use bribery to fix the vote. 
  • Opposition lawmakers regrouped in the offices of a newspaper, where they voted to re-elect Guaidó. Pompeo congratulated him, signaling the U.S. continues to recognize him.
  • But losing control of what had been the last government institution not controlled by Maduro’s autocratic regime will be a blow. 

Flashback: Asked last month by Axios about this scenario — in which a Maduro loyalist claimed the Assembly presidency by dubious means — Colombia’s ambassador to Washington shook his head:

“We don't even want to think about that.” 

Go deeper: Maduro survives 2019

5. China news roundup: Taiwan, Hong Kong, King Kong

Tsai speaks at a campaign rally. Photo: Chan Long Hei/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

1. Taiwan goes to the polls on Saturday, with President Tsai Ing-wen on course for re-election in part because the unrest in Hong Kong has hampered the Beijing-friendly opposition.

The backdrop: “Twice in 2019 [Chinese President Xi Jinping] declared that Taiwan should reunify with the mainland under a ‘one country, two systems’ formula, as Hong Kong did,” per the Economist.

  • “American talk of ‘decoupling’ from China’s economy, particularly in technology, has helped her, too. Taiwan’s tech giants do not want to risk losing access to Western markets by siding with China.”
  • “Ms Tsai is a pragmatist. She would probably use a new mandate to keep Taiwan on the same course, rebuffing China’s political demands while trying not to pick quarrels that could risk a military conflict."

2. China has replaced its top Hong Kong representative with a senior Communist Party official known for bringing party discipline to unruly provinces.

  • The selection of Luo Huining as top representative likely indicates not a softening of Beijing's position toward Hong Kongers' demands, but rather a further entrenchment of its hardline approach, writes Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

3. The Economist this week compares China to “a powerful juvenile warily sizing up a silverback gorilla” as it reduces its technological dependence on a rival it views with a combination of “impatience and scorn.”

  • “Chinese officials say that America failed to educate workers, allowed inequalities to yawn and never built social safety-nets to help victims of globalisation — and is now scapegoating China for those ills.”
  • Many of those officials want Trump to win in 2020 “so that he can continue to upset allies and cast into doubt decades-long American security guarantees in Asia.”
  • But they fear hawks close to Trump, particularly “the two Mikes” — Pence and Pompeo. Go deeper.

Go much deeper: Evan Osnos in the New Yorker on "The Future of America’s Contest with China"

6. Photo of the day

The skies over Aukland, New Zealand, in vibrant color due to smoke from Australia. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Catch up on the latest on Australia's fire crisis with the Axios Pro Rata podcast.

7. Stories we're watching

Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, Heilongjiang province, China. Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

  1. Australia fires: What you need to know, PM defends response
  2. 3 Americans killed in al-Shabab attack in Kenya
  3. China hunts cause of mysterious pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan
  4. Death toll rises in Indonesia floods
  5. In photos: Anti-war protests held across the U.S. and the world
  6. Bolton will testify if subpoenaed
  7. U.S. will deport Mexican asylum-seekers to Guatemala


“Tasty. I want some more.”
— Kane Tanaka, the world's oldest person, eating cake at her 117th birthday party yesterday in footage aired on a local Japanese broadcaster. She was born in 1903, the year of the Wright Brothers' first flight.
Dave Lawler