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Escalating tensions put U.S. and Iran on collision course, experts fear



Attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman have sent tensions soaring between Iran and the United States, and reinforced fears that the two countries could be hurtling toward an unintended war.

With no diplomatic relations between the two countries, no serious dialogue underway despite efforts by other countries to mediate, and no letup in U.S. economic pressure on Iran, former U.S. officials, foreign diplomats and experts said there is a growing risk that a miscalculation, coupled with deep distrust, could trigger a conflict that neither side wants.

“In many ways, I feel like this is a 1914 moment for the region, that a single incident could put the entire region on fire,” Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group think tank, said in an apparent reference to the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that ended up leading to World War I.

“Although this particular incident might not be the one to push the parties over the edge of the abyss of war, each cycle of escalation brings us closer to the brink.”

Hours after the explosions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the incident as a “blatant assault” and said the U.S. had concluded Iran was responsible for targeting the Norwegian-owned and Japanese-owned ships along the vital oil transit route near the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Pompeo cited intelligence reporting, recent similar incidents and the sophisticated nature of the attacks.

Pompeo said a previous attack against four ships last month off the coast of the United Arab Emirates that Washington blamed on Tehran, a drone attack on a Saudi Arabian pipeline, a rocket attack near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and other strikes were allegedly part of a deliberate pattern of “aggression.”

“Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran,” Pompeo said.

Iran denied any role in the attacks. But Pompeo said Tehran was retaliating because of crippling U.S. economic sanctions that have slashed Iran’s oil exports and severely damaged its economy.

“Iran is lashing out because the regime wants our successful maximum pressure campaign lifted,” he said.

The U.S. Central Command released video Thursday night that it said showed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps patrol boat approaching one of the ships, the Kokuka Courageous, hours after the explosion and removing an unexploded mine.

The tanker attacks coincided with a spate of mixed messages from both countries, which former officials said added to the danger that each country could be misreading the other.

Although President Donald Trump has imposed punishing sanctions on Iran since pulling the U.S. out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, he has also repeatedly said he is open to talking to the country’s leaders.

On Tuesday, Iran released a Lebanese businessman and U.S. legal resident who had been imprisoned since 2015, a move that the Trump administration called a “positive sign.” Iran also has so far refrained from entirely abandoning the nuclear agreement it negotiated with world powers, which prohibits the regime from enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels.

But despite efforts by Japan, European and other governments to find ways to defuse the standoff between Iran and the United States, neither side so far has signaled a readiness to back off entrenched positions and make significant concessions.

In a bid to broker talks, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid an unusual visit to Tehran on Wednesday and said he brought with him “a message” from Trump.

But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, dismissed the offer. “I do not consider Trump as a person worth exchanging any message with and I have no answer for him, nor will I respond to him in the future,” Khamenei said in a statement.

The two adversaries are locked in a faceoff and the Iranian regime appears reluctant to take any step that would amount to caving in to U.S. pressure, experts said.

Retired U.S. Navy admiral James Stavridis, who served as NATO commander, said it was unlikely that Iran or the United States would climb down in the high-stakes showdown.

“We’re on a collision course here,” Stavridis, who is the chief international diplomacy and national security analyst for NBC News, told MSNBC.

Further complicating any attempt to find an “off-ramp” to the crisis is the collapse of diplomatic channels that had been forged during the talks that produced the 2015 nuclear deal. Former Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif spoke frequently and defused at least one potential crisis in 2016 when a group of U.S. Navy sailors were captured after straying into Iranian territorial waters.

The attacks Thursday on the two oil tankers drove up oil prices and shipping companies braced for a rise in insurance costs. Two oil tanker owners, DHT Holdings and Heidmar, have suspended new bookings for the Persian Gulf, industry media reported.

No group claimed responsibility for the incident. But some former U.S. officials and lawmakers agreed with the Trump administration’s assessment pointing the finger at Iran, saying Tehran had the necessary guerrilla warfare skills and a strong interest in pushing up oil prices for its own hard-hit economy.

Norman Roule, a former CIA officer who focused on Iran, said “the circumstantial evidence is vast and sufficiently significant that Iran was responsible for these attacks.”

Roule predicted there would be more efforts to disrupt oil shipping routes: “We should be concerned that attacks represent the new normal for the foreseeable future in Iran’s campaign to conduct unconventional attacks to pressure the international community to push back on U.S. sanctions.”

Although Iran had an incentive to drive up oil prices, it did not appear eager for a war with the U.S, Bruce Riedel, a former career CIA officer now at the Brookings Institution, said. Some other group or government keen on provoking a conflict had to be considered a potential suspect, he said. “The possibility of a mysterious third force can’t be ruled out here.”

If Iran was indeed behind the attacks in the Gulf of Oman that sent plumes of smoke billowing into the air, it was not surprising given the degree of economic pressure bearing down on the regime, said Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior official in the Obama administration.

“This is purely a function of Trump’s escalatory ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. You can’t just keep poking someone & expect them to sit around & take it,” Goldenberg, now a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security think tank, said in a tweet.

Supporters of the Trump administration said that Iran will eventually come to the negotiating table as the sanctions steadily strangle the country’s economy.

Pompeo vowed that the U.S. would “defend its forces, interests and and stand with our partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability,” though he did not explicitly threaten a U.S. military response.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a staunch supporter of the administration’s tough line on Iran, said he wanted to see Trump slap more sanctions on Iran as a result of the attacks that Pompeo blamed on Tehran.

“They need to feel pain for this escalation and additional sanctions would be the appropriate response,” Graham said.

It’s not clear whether the relatively small-scale strikes on foreign oil tankers are enough to prompt the president to approve military action.

Some more hard-line lawmakers and officials in the Trump administration, including national security adviser John Bolton, believe that the Iranian regime could collapse from the economic pressure caused by the U.S. sanctions, and they have not ruled out limited military action if Iran or its proxies attack Americans in the region.

However, U.S. military strikes designed to give Iran a “bloody nose” and force the regime to rein in its proxies could lead to a wider, unintended conflagration, with Tehran mobilizing its vast network of proxies and partners from Beirut to Sanaa, Bruce Reidel, a former CIA officer, and other experts said.

Some officials in the administration “have exaggerated expectations of what a bloody nose will lead to,” Reidel said.

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Voters’ support for Trump grows, residents see race relations improving



President Donald Trump’s approval ratings in the South have ticked upward, with 54 percent of voters giving a thumbs-up to the way he’s handling his job, according to a new NBC News|SurveyMonkey online poll.

The survey of voters in 11 southern states found 38 percent said they “strongly approve” of the way Trump’s handling his job, and 16 percent who said they “somewhat approve.” That’s up slightly from a poll in September of last year, which put his total approval at 52 percent.

Those numbers are higher than his national approval rating, which NBC News reported Friday had risen to 48 percent.

The approval ratings swung wildly in some individual states in the polling. Trump has a 60 percent approval rating in Alabama, but just 48 percent approval in neighboring Georgia, the polls showed.

The polling was conducted between July 2 and July 16, so much of it was completed before Trump’s tweets on July 14 calling for four Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” The error estimate for registered voters is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

The survey also found slightly more support for former Vice President Joe Biden in the South than the rest of the country. Twenty-seven percent of Democrats said if the primary or caucus was being held in their state today, they’d vote for Biden vs. 25 percent nationwide.

The second most popular candidates were Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Both had 14 percent of respondents say they’d vote for them. Thirteen percent said they’d vote for Sen. Kamala Harris, and 8 percent said they’d vote for former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Southerners said they were happy with the current state of the economy, with 72 percent of respondents saying the national economy is “very good” or “fairly good.”

More Southerners also said they think race relations in their states are improving. Twenty percent said they’re getting better, compared to 14 percent in September. The number of people who said relations are getting worse dropped significantly, from 44 percent in September to 34 percent in the current poll. A plurality of respondents, 44 percent, said they’re “about the same.”

Fifty-one percent of voters in Mississippi, where earlier this year Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law a bill prohibiting abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, said they’d like to see the Supreme Court overturn its decision in Roe v. Wade. Forty-six percent of respondents said they’d like the 1973 ruling, which established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, to stand.

The numbers were the exact opposite in Alabama, where Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed the most stringent abortion ban in the country in May. Fifty-one percent of voters there said Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, while 46 percent said it should.

In Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a bill that was similar to Mississippi’s in May, 59 percent of respondents said the ruling should stand, while 37 percent said it should be overturned.

More poll data is here: Alabama; Georgia; Mississippi; Tennessee; and nationwide.

The NBC News|SurveyMonkey polls were conducted online among a regional sample of 4,869 adults ages 18 and over, including 4,203 who say they are registered to vote. The Southern region includes those who live in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas or Virginia. The poll was conducted from July 2 to July 16. Respondents for this survey were selected from the more than two million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day.

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Swedish PM warns Trump rapper ASAP Rocky won’t get special treatment



Sweden’s Prime Minister on Saturday warned that American rapper ASAP Rocky will not be getting special treatment despite President Donald Trump’s public intervention in the case.

Trump raised Rocky’s detention from the Oval Office and in a tweet on Friday after First Lady Melania Trump and a number of celebrities asked that he intervene.

On Saturday the president said he had “a very good call” with Prime Minister Stefan Lofven on the subject. He said he told Lofven that Rocky was not a flight risk and “offered to personally vouch for his bail.”

Trump added: “Our teams will be talking further, and we agreed to speak again in the next 48 hours!”

The Swedish leader said earlier that he was aware Trump “has a personal interest in the case.”

But Lofven said while he would welcome a conversation with Trump, it was not his place to sway the prosecutors or courts.

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“I will explain that the Swedish judicial system is independent,” he said of a possible call with the president. “In Sweden, everyone is equal before the law, and this includes visitors from other countries.”

Prosecutors announced Friday that Rocky will remain in jail while police finish their investigation into a fight in downtown Stockholm.

The rapper, whose real name is Rakim Mayers, 30, was detained on “probable grounds for serious assault” July 3. Stockholm’s District Court granted prosecutor Daniel Suneson’s request that Rocky should continue to be held in pretrial detention until July 25, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

Trump said in the Oval Office later Friday that “Many, many members of the African American community have called me, friends of mine, and said, ‘Can you help?’”

The president added: “So, I personally don’t know ASAP Rocky, but I can tell you that he has tremendous support from the African American community in this country and when I say African American I think I can really say from everybody in the country because we’re all one.”

“Actually, the one who knew about A$AP Rocky was our first lady. She was telling me about, ‘Can you help ASAP Rocky?’” he said.

The first lady added: “We’ll be working with the State Department and we hope to get him home soon.”

Singer Justin Bieber thanked Trump for intervening early Saturday, while seeming to criticize the president’s immigration policies.

Rocky was arrested with three other people a day after headlining the Smash x Stadion hip-hop festival in the Swedish capital.

The two-time Grammy nominee and members of his entourage were alleged to have been involved in the brawl June 30 in which authorities said a person was beaten and cut with broken bottles. He has denied the assault accusation.

His detention was extended by six days on Friday after the prosecutor requested more time for the police to complete their investigation.

Rocky’s lawyer Slobodan Jovicic called the extension “unjust” and added the rapper was “tainted” by the experience.

Jovicic has maintained Rocky and his entourage were acting in self-defense when they were approached by two men on the street in the Swedish capital.

Rocky has had to cancel several shows in his European tour while he remains in custody.

Associated Press and Dartunorro Clark contributed.

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Latino votes could swing the Democratic primary. And the candidates know it.



LAS VEGAS — Last December, a series of presidential hopefuls began courting Yvanna Cancela.

At 31, the former political director of the state’s legendarily powerful culinary workers’ union and campaign operative for then-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is Nevada’s first Latina state senator.

Ultimately, it was former Vice President Joe Biden who won the sweepstakes: When he called shortly before announcing his candidacy in April to talk about the state’s politics, Cancela cut him off and offered her endorsement, citing his “leadership” qualities as the determinative factor.

Any campaign would kill to have her making its case in this city’s union halls and community centers because her endorsement comes with much more on-the-ground political know-how and muscle than most, and, as a young woman of color who has fought for workers and gone to war with drug companies, she’s both a practitioner of the David-vs.-Goliath populism that ignites the party’s base and an embodiment of sought-after demographics.

“Nevada is the early state that most reflects what what the rest of the country really looks like,” Cancela said in an interview at a hipster coffee shop just outside her district Friday — the day before she was scheduled to campaign with Biden here.

Specifically, it’s the first state on the primary calendar with a mix of white, black and Hispanic voters, and it figures to have even more importance than usual as both a potential bellwether and influencer in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

For the first time, Latino elected officials and voters — here, and in other key primary states — are getting a real full-court press from Democratic contenders during the early stages of the primary process. The reason for the shift is simple: this time around, they could play a much more prominent role in picking the nominee.

Depending on how the race unfolds, Latinos might even end up being the key to the contest.

That’s a function mostly of heavily Hispanic states, including California and Texas, moving up on the primary calendar at the same time that the chances for a protracted, delegate-by-delegate fight among several candidates appear to be more likely than ever. The possibility of African American voters splitting among several candidates for the first time in several presidential primary cycles also raises the stakes for candidates in trying to get an edge with Latino voters.

“What’s exciting is that by March 17 of next year, 70 percent of all eligible Latinos will have been able to cast a vote,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino. “That’s unprecedented.”

But for the campaigns, that also presents a tremendous logistical challenge — and one that may be prohibitively expensive for all but the best-funded among them. That helps explain why they have been eager to reach out to potential organizers and surrogates early on and to use national platforms as much as possible to communicate with Latino audiences.

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Candidates who want to win simply can’t afford to wait to build a following among Latino voters.

Together, California and Texas, where Hispanics account for nearly 40 percent of the overall population, account for more than 15 percent of the elected delegates to next summer’s Democratic convention. Both states wrap up voting next year on March 3 — Super Tuesday — which is the same day that several southern states with heavily African American Democratic electorates and a smattering of other states vote.

To win any delegates in those states, a candidate has to win either 15 percent statewide or at least 15 percent at the district level. In California, there are 53 congressional districts that award delegates, and in Texas there are 31 state Senate districts that do so.

In California, the Hispanic population ranges between 370,000 and 650,000 in 15 of the 53 districts — meaning it accounts for 50 percent or more of the total population in those districts — and there is no district in the state in which it is less than 10 percent of the population. Likewise, in Texas, all of the state Senate districts are at least 10 percent Hispanic, and several are majority-Hispanic.

A Quinnipiac poll released this week showed Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., leading the field in her home state with 23 percent, Biden at 21 percent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont at 18 percent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at 16 percent, and no other candidate with more than 3 percent statewide.

Warren has been in touch with the leadership of Latino advocacy organizations since long before she launched her campaign, according to sources who spoke to NBC News, and Biden’s outreach has included a fully bilingual website, bilingual advertising and the first candidate meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Harris, D-Calif., has put immigration issues at the forefront of her agenda in the Senate since taking office in 2017. One of the co-chairs of her campaign is Dolores Huerta, an iconic figure in civil and labor rights struggles who worked side by side with Cesar Chavez, and one of her top aides, Emmy Ruiz, has earned a reputation for running savvy, effective operations in heavily Latino states.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, the only Latino candidate in the race, gained traction in the first Democratic debate in Miami last month during a tussle with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke — a fellow Texan — over O’Rourke’s reluctance to abandon penalties for people who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

Castro’s early appeal to Latinos included making Puerto Rico his first stop on the campaign trail and putting out the first comprehensive education and immigration plans — the latter of which won praise from Warren.

O’Rourke and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., spoke Spanish at length during the first Democratic debate to try to establish their bona fides in the Hispanic community, even though the event was simulcast in Spanish on Telemundo.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, the only Latino candidate in the race, gained traction in the first Democratic debate in Miami last month.Elise Amendola / AP file

In a Univision poll released earlier this month after the first set of debates, Harris led among Hispanic voters, with 22 percent. Castro was second with 18 percent, followed by Biden and Sanders at 16 percent apiece and Warren at 9 percent.

The results suggest that, as with other Democrats, many Hispanic voters across the country have yet to form opinions about leading candidates. About a quarter of those polled said they either had no opinion of, or hadn’t heard enough from, Biden, Sanders or Harris, with even more saying the same of the other candidates.

That helps explain why it’s so important for these candidates to reach out to potential allies in Latino communities in important states quickly.

While Nevada has been third on the calendar since 2008 — meaning Latino elected officials here have become somewhat accustomed to early interest from presidential candidates — the phenomenon is newer for their counterparts from other states.

Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., said that Biden’s meeting with about a dozen members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus earlier this month may have been the first of its kind ever, not just of this presidential cycle.

“I think all of us are looking for respect, especially in an era when you have a president who referred to some Latinos as criminals and rapists,” he said in a telephone interview with NBC News.

He said his decision is down to Biden and Harris, who contacted him to let him know that she was running.

“I want to continue to see the viability of both candidates,” he said. “I think for Democrats the issue is who has the best perspective on taking back the White House, who has the message that will resonate with that middle voter.”

Biden aides believe his position on health care will appeal to Latino voters because it’s largely aimed at strengthening and expanding on the Affordable Care Act — known colloquially as Obamacare — rather than a “Medicare for All” plan that would replace the law enacted when he was vice president.

Between 2013 and 2017, the rate of uninsured among non-elderly Hispanics fell from 30 percent to 19 percent, a bigger percentage dip than among African Americans or whites, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser tracking polls show that Obamacare’s favorable rating among Hispanics is 52 percent, compared to a 27 percent unfavorable rating — and the favorable number has been above 70 percent at times in recent years.

But Biden’s vulnerability with Latino voters also comes from his time as vice president: Obama was criticized heavily for deporting large numbers of undocumented immigrants and for failing to enact a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. He was asked about that when he met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., pressed him for — and got — a commitment to make immigration reform a priority if he is elected president, according to Correa.

“He said he would expend political capital — my words, not his — to make sure immigration reform would happen,” Correa said.

“I believe that the vice president is committed not only to earning the Latino vote, but to enacting an immigration platform that is comprehensive,” Cancela said.

But she emphasized that Biden’s appeal to her, and to many Hispanic voters, will be the same as it is to non-Hispanic voters: a focus on expanding the ranks of the middle class and making sure that families don’t drop out once they get there.

For now, most of the work is going on behind the scenes, as campaigns work to build alliances with state and local lawmakers and the early seeds of infrastructure in key states.

“It’s too early to make the assessment” of which candidates are doing well with Latino voters in which parts of the country, said Albert Morales, senior political director at Latino Decisions. If the race stays close, the work the campaigns are starting to do now in Hispanic communities now could pay big dividends in the party’s nomination fight.

“It’s going to be a head-scratcher for a lot of folks who don’t understand the nuances behind the delegate-selection process,” he said.

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