Iraqi Kurds and Iran. Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga Ministry has called on peshmerga and Iraqi forces to conduct a joint operation against Islamic State fighters. The ministry claims that the IS fighters are taking advantage of poor security between the peshmerga lines and those of Iraqi security forces to increase attacks. This news isn’t particularly surprising. Despite the Islamic State’s near-complete loss of territory, IS fighters still exist and were bound to take advantage of any security vacuum that may arise. What’s notable is that the call to arms comes alongside another announcement by an Iraqi Kurdish official claiming that the U.S. said it won’t abandon Iraq’s Kurds. Promises are cheap, especially when it comes to U.S. commitments in the Middle East. But with the ongoing standoff between the U.S. and Iran, the focus on Iran’s militias in Iraq, and some evidence that the U.S. is increasing its support of Iraq’s Kurdish insurgents to intensify pressure on Iran, these joint announcements may indicate where the U.S. would focus its military forces in Iraq, if a conflict with Iran emerges.
Iraq and U.S.-Iran tensions. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said Baghdad will attempt to mediate and reduce tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and that Iraq has plans to send delegations to Washington and Tehran. Videos circulating on Iranian social media show the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps transporting S-300 air defense systems through the Persian Gulf. At the same time, the USS Abraham Lincoln and its carrier strike group conducted drills with a U.S. amphibious ready group in the Arabian Sea. The Navy said the exercises were aimed at threats coming from Iran and at increasing the “lethality and agility to respond to threats.” For its part, the Iranian regime’s desire for survival may ultimately help it avoid war: Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi floated the idea that “heroic flexibility,” a concept used in Iran to soften hardline stances in the past and to pave the way for nuclear talks in 2013, could be applied to the current situation.
Ukraine’s president moves on energy. Riding a wave of inaugural momentum, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has set out to tackle the country’s energy issues. Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy supplies and its position as a transit country for European markets makes this a critical issue. Zelenskiy, along with the head of national oil and gas company Naftogaz, met with U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry to discuss natural gas production and delivery. Perry told reporters that the U.S. Congress is still working to pass sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline; his comments appear to be in response to Zelenskiy’s calls for the U.S. to increase sanctions pressure on Russia. Zelenskiy also met with European officials to discuss Crimea and a gas contract involving Ukraine, the European Union and Russia. Naftogaz’s executive director, however, said Russia has so far refused to engage in talks.
Yet another Brexit vote. The U.K. Cabinet agreed that Parliament will vote in early June on Prime Minister Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement – the fourth time the U.K. will have tried to pass some form of a Brexit deal. The current iteration includes a temporary customs relationship with the EU until the next general election. The news comes just after EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc is preparing for a no-deal scenario until clarity emerges from the U.K., and noted that the proposed withdrawal agreement is the only way to secure a transition period for additional negotiations. The bill is not expected to pass. Meanwhile, the Bank of England warned that Brexit uncertainty will likely result in British companies canceling projects and noted the decline in investment over the past year.
- Four warships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet have left Sevastopol for joint exercises in the Black Sea, according to a fleet spokesperson. Russian media suggests the exercises could be in response to late April comments from the U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee, which called on the U.S. to increase military sales and security assistance to Ukraine.
- Indonesia’s electoral commission announced incumbent Joko Widodo as the official victor in the April 17 presidential elections. His rival, Prabowo Subianto, said he will challenge the election results in court.
- Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said it planned to quadruple its stockpile of 3.67 percent enriched uranium, which the Iran nuclear deal limited to 300 kilograms (660 pounds). The agreement permits 3-4 percent enriched uranium for nuclear power projects and mandates nearly all of it be shipped out of the country. (Nuclear weapons require enrichment to 90 percent.)
- South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it was working with U.S. authorities to resume talks with North Korea. The ministry also stressed the need to deliver more food aid to North Korea.
- Saudi Arabia is claiming to have intercepted and destroyed two ballistic missiles, fired by Houthis in Yemen, that were heading toward Mecca and Jeddah.
- Taliban officials have met with Germany’s special representative for Afghanistan in Qatar as part of ongoing peace negotiations.
- Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro suggested the country hold early National Assembly elections, which could help resolve the political crisis. The opposition said this offer was “a farce.”
- The U.S. Department of Commerce will issue temporary licenses, valid through August 19, for specific transactions related to Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei. The grace period is aimed to allow companies to make operational and supply chain changes.
- Turkish media reported that multiple commando troops and armored vehicles arrived at five points in Hatay province on the border with Syria. These forces are considered reinforcements.
- Sweden’s Defense Commission released a report calling for four new regiments, reinforcement of existing units, higher conscription, major acquisitions like submarines, and increased military activity and training. It said Swedish defense forces have deteriorated and need rebuilding.