Fdd's overnight brief

April 30, 2021

In The News


World powers are working to restore their nuclear agreement with Iran by the middle of May, before a key monitoring deal expires, with talks now in their third week bogged down over which sanctions the U.S. intends to lift. – Bloomberg

Iran on Thursday welcomed what it called a change of tone from Saudi Arabia and said it hoped they could work together to secure peace, amid moves to ease tensions between the regional rivals. – Reuters 

Iran imposed travel bans on 15 people for alleged involvement in a leaked audio recording in which the foreign minister complains about the influence of the Revolutionary Guards on Iranian diplomacy, a semi-official news agency said on Thursday. – Reuters 

Leaked audiotape of Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif indicates he had no knowledge of covert Israeli military strikes before former secretary of state John Kerry provided him with the information, new details that contradict the State Department’s recent defense of Kerry. – The Washington Free Beacon

Iran’s president on Thursday replaced the head of a government think tank after a recording of a conversation with the country’s foreign minister leaked out this week. – Associated Press

The International Judo Federation on Thursday partially upheld an initial ban against Iranian participation in sanctioned events over its refusal to allow its athletes to compete against Israeli opponents. – Jerusalem Post

Charlotte Lawson writes: Zarif is critical in maintaining this notion. As a U.S.-educated, suit-wearing, English-speaking diplomat, he broadcasts “moderation” to Western audiences without stepping on the toes of the institutions actually running the country. […]By manufacturing the perception of Zarif as a reasonable actor—regardless of his wholly unreasonable demands, like his recent request that the U.S. lift all nuclear and non-nuclear sanctions imposed since 2015—the regime demonstrates an acute understanding of Western diplomacy, where niceties can trump practicalities. – The Dispatch

Daniel Roth writes: The simple truth is that President Biden cannot achieve a “longer and stronger” agreement if his strategy is to give up all the power that his predecessor built up. […]It is doubtful we will continue to hear either formulation for much longer, frankly, as the bar for an acceptable deal keeps lowering. As of today, the most accurate depiction of the US strategy could be termed “concede and surrender,” unless the Biden administration changes its approach. – Algemeiner

Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Amin Naeni write: Looking ahead to the June election, it is clear that the rival parties understand the importance of voter turnout for their popular legitimacy. They will, however, work together to avoid a politically costly repeat of the February 2020 parliamentary election, and for the time being they are likely to put their rivalries with one another on the back burner as they seek to drive up voter engagement and turnout, especially through the use of social media. – Middle East Institute 

Mehdi Khalaji writes: The subject of this apparent warning was twofold. First, Zarif made clear that the hidden militarism behind the government’s civil appearance will become much stronger after the next election, perhaps spearheaded by the victory of a candidate affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Second, he revealed the extent of Moscow’s role in Iran’s regional policy and its close relationship with IRGC commanders and conservative politicians, explicitly accusing the Quds Force—the IRGC’s most powerful branch—of being “heavily influenced by Russia and cooperating with it.” – Washington Institute 

Lenny Ben-David writes: US negotiators to the JCPOA walked out of the 2015 Vienna negotiations stripped bare – no decommissioned Arak reactor, no negotiations on ballistic missiles, no attempt to stop regional terrorism or to extend the “sunset” obligations. Even without the leak of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s interview to show us, the negotiators’ misfeasance, gullibility, and malfeasance prove that the next attempt at a deal is bound to sink. – Jerusalem Post

Zvi Bar’el writes: The expectation of lifted sanctions is generating a wave of forecasts on world oil prices. […]A battle is also expected between the government and the Revolutionary Guards, who control more than half the economy and sets its priorities. Getting the lifting of sanctions to trickle down will thus depend on the team that takes over after the June election, but for the public there isn’t much reason for optimism. – Haaretz

Michael R. Pompeo writes: Their goal is not to ensure the safety of the American people, but to continue down the path of Iranian appeasement either because they simply want to reverse every tenet of President Trump’s foreign policy or cannot admit that the JCPOA is a fatally flawed agreement. […]Perhaps if John Kerry had not been consulting with the Iranians, the Trump administration could have reached a comprehensive peace agreement with the Iranian people as well. Instead, it seems that Biden administration will be pursuing a deal on Iran’s terms. The losers will be the American people and our allies. – Fox News


At least 44 people were killed in a stampede at a religious bonfire festival in northern Israel early Friday, Israel’s national emergency service said. – Wall Street Journal 

The Palestinian Authority said Friday it would postpone parliamentary elections scheduled for next month amid lingering questions over whether Palestinians in East Jerusalem could participate in the vote and a predicted poor performance by the West Bank’s ruling party, Fatah. – Wall Street Journal 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency and its ambassador to Washington on Thursday, and the Israeli officials expressed “deep concern” about Iran’s nuclear activities, according to a person familiar with the matter. – Reuters 

An Israeli cabinet minister sharpened his country’s warnings against what it would deem a bad new nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, saying war with Tehran would be sure to follow. – Reuters

The US and Israel should establish a new bilateral interagency working group on China to prevent a crisis and enhance the potential for technological partnership, according to the Institute for National Securities Studies (INSS) and other security experts. – Algemeiner

Reports that former secretary of state John Kerry disclosed information about covert Israeli airstrikes to his Iranian counterpart in 2015 could harm Israel’s ability to share sensitive security information with the United States, Algemeiner editor-in-chief Dovid Efune said in a Tuesday interview with The First network. – Algemeiner

Earlier this week, the US-based international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) made headlines when it accused Israel of executing the crime of apartheid and called on the International Criminal Court to allow Israelis to be sued for apartheid, as well as for any other war crimes. – Jerusalem Post

A Palestinian tried to stab an Israeli soldier and police officer at the Efrat Junction in the West Bank in a suspected terror attack, the police said on Friday. – Haaretz

Israel is bracing for a wave of Iranian-inspired cyber attacks that will try to disrupt the Israeli internet and deface local websites on Jerusalem Day, Israel’s cyber authority said Wednesday. – Haaretz

Ruthie Blum writes: Perhaps even more telling is his interview with Goldberg in The Atlantic on August 5, 2015, three weeks after Iran and the P5+1 powers reached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement. In view of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s serious efforts against the JCPOA, in light of Tehran’s flagrant violations of it from the minute that it was adopted and taking into account the Biden administration’s rush to enter into another deal with the devil, the following excerpts are chilling. […]But responsibility for his not being given the benefit of the doubt lies squarely on his own shoulders. – Jerusalem Post

David M. Weinberg writes: One must also ask: How much farther will Biden appointees go to undercut Israel’s diplomatic and military efforts against Iran? Out of pique with Israel, might the Biden administration – in which John Kerry serves as climate envoy with cabinet rank, and Kerry’s protégés oversee Iran policy – “punish” Israel for its resolute stance against Tehran by withholding diplomatic support for Israel on other fronts? Might the administration apply linkage between Iran policy and, for example, US support for Israel at the ICC and other international forums where Israel is or might become under attack? – Jerusalem Post

Amos Harel writes: Hezbollah has stockpiled more than a hundred precision missiles in Lebanon and is working on setting up assembly lines that will convert “dumb” rockets into smart, precise weapons capable of hitting a target at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers with a deviation range of a few meters. The fruition of these efforts could be considered by Israel as sufficient reason for an offensive move. […]The Israeli moves are meant to get Hezbollah and Hamas to conclude that extensive use of steep-trajectory fire will not cause serious damage in Israel but will exact a steep price from them. – Haaretz

Middle East & North Africa

The U.N. Security Council held an informal meeting Thursday focusing on the repatriation of more than 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya, a demand of the country’s transitional government as it heads toward December elections after a decade of fighting and upheaval. – Associated Press

The Iran-backed Houthis have made significant gains in the battle against the Yemeni government to overtake Yemen’s last northern stronghold, Marib, formerly a place of refuge for Yemeni civilians fearful of the Houthis indiscriminate attacks.  – United Against Nuclear Iran

France will restrict Lebanese officials suspected of corruption or obstructing the formation of a government from entering the country, the foreign minister said Thursday. – Associated Press

John Saleh writes: More than anything, however, U.S. efforts in the region need to help establish a more effective military presence in northeastern Syria. The return of a greater U.S. military presence in Syria, and particularly a presence that forces the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Kurdish-held areas would help restore confidence with Kurdish allies, prevent the return of ISIS, and allow Kurdish, Christian and Muslim Arab civilians to return to their homes. – Washington Institute 

Korean Peninsula

President Biden will meet with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in Washington on May 21, the White House announced on Thursday. – New York Times

A South Korean activist said Friday he launched 500,000 propaganda leaflets by balloon into North Korea this week in defiance of a contentious new law that criminalizes such actions. – Associated Press

Hundreds of South Korean fishermen across the country held protests on Friday calling on Japan to reverse its decision to release contaminated water from its crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea. – Reuters 


President Biden has justified his broad vision to remake the American economy as the necessary step to survive long-run competition with China, a foot race in which the United States must prove not only that democracies can deliver, but that it can continue to out-innovate and outproduce the world’s most successful authoritarian state. – New York Times

Official gauges across China’s economy fell short of expectations in April, hit in part by semiconductor shortages, suggesting that the economy’s strong pandemic bounceback is starting to lose some momentum more than a year into the recovery. – Wall Street Journal 

China’s Belt and Road initiative, which aims to connect Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe through Chinese-funded ports, bridges, 5G networks and other infrastructure, is built on the backs of people like Ding, who researchers say face exploitation that is exacerbated by the pandemic. – Washington Post

China’s top diplomat in Canberra blamed Australia for deteriorating ties between the nations, accusing it of economic coercion and “provocations” in a wide-ranging speech that painted Beijing as a victim. – Bloomberg 

The Biden administration has begun to flesh out an overarching strategy to compete with China that relies on renewing relations with partners like India and allies like Japan and South Korea, and heavy domestic investment. – Reuters 

Activity by U.S. military ships and surveillance planes directed at China has increased significantly under President Joe Biden’s administration, a spokesperson for the Chinese Defense Ministry said Thursday. – Associated Press

Hal Brands writes: If Washington were to promote the idea that China is America’s problem and Europe’s interests lie elsewhere, it would play into China’s preferred narrative, which is that Washington is simply seeking to hold Beijing down. As the danger of war in the Western Pacific grows, America’s challenge is to make the price of aggression as prohibitive as possible for Beijing. That requires Europe to have global defense horizons, not focus on its own backyard. – Bloomberg

John Barraso writes: China pretends it’s a developing country, steals technology, uses forced labor, and manipulates markets to its advantage. During his speech to Congress, President Biden said he wants to make “sure every nation plays by the same rules in the global economy, including China.” Yet his administration seems determined to fall for China’s grand deception. China is playing the United States for the fool. – USA Today


Violence surged in war-torn Afghanistan in the first quarter of the year as U.S. forces prepared to leave the country after two decades. – Bloomberg

America’s longest war, the two-decade-long conflict in Afghanistan that started in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, killed tens of thousands of people, dogged four U.S. presidents and ultimately proved unwinnable despite its staggering cost in blood and treasure. – Associated Press

Announcing a firm withdrawal deadline, President Joe Biden cut through the long debate, even within the U.S. military, over whether the time was right. Starting Saturday, the last remaining 2,500 to 3,5000 American troops will begin leaving, to be fully out by Sept. 11 at the latest. – Associated Press

Trying to map the long war in Afghanistan has become an increasingly challenging task ahead of the planned withdrawal of all U.S. forces. – Associated Press

With U.S. troops committed to leaving Afghanistan completely by Sept. 11, women are closely watching the stalemated peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the post-withdrawal future, said Mahbouba Seraj, a women’s rights activist. – Associated Press

The Pentagon is preparing for possible Taliban attacks on U.S. and coalition forces as they withdraw from Afghanistan, a prospect that complicates the outlook for winding down America’s longest war. – Associated Press

NATO has started the withdrawal of its mission from Afghanistan following a decision by President Joe Biden to bring US forces home, an alliance official said Thursday. – Agence France-Presse

The German military in Afghanistan will finish training local forces on Friday and turn its attention to withdrawing from the country, as the United States and NATO wrap up their mission after almost two decades, the defence ministry in Berlin said. – Reuters

South Asia

The Myanmar military’s disinformation was crude but effective. […]But another transformation is quietly underway: a growing acceptance of the nation’s ethnic diversity, something that was notably absent during an earlier political transition. – New York Times

Thousands of ethnic Karen villagers in Myanmar are poised to cross into Thailand if, as expected, fighting intensifies between the Myanmar army and Karen insurgents, joining those who have already escaped the turmoil that followed a Feb. 1 coup. – Reuters

The European Union is ready to offer its support to all parties to help restore democracy in Myanmar, the bloc’s high representative told ASEAN states on Friday. – Reuters  

Pakistan on Thursday recalled its ambassador to Saudi Arabia following complaints by expat Pakistani laborers working in the kingdom who said their embassy had mistreated them. – Associated Press

Rockets were fired at two Myanmar government air bases on Thursday, causing minor damage and no injuries, the military junta said. – Associated Press


Fighting broke out on Thursday between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over control of an irrigation canal and an access road to an ethnic enclave, raising the specter of instability in Central Asia as the United States prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan. – New York Times

Japan will aim to strengthen regional financial cooperation with China, South Korea and ASEAN countries on May 3 when their financial leaders meet on the sidelines of the Asian Development Bank’s annual meetings, Finance Minister Taro Aso said. – Reuters 

Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong was among four people who pleaded guilty on Friday of participating in an illegal assembly on June 4 last year to commemorate the 1989 crackdown on protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. – Reuters 

Taiwan commissioned into service a new coast guard flagship on Thursday to help counter China’s “grey zone” war tactics against the island. – Reuters

A Kazakh court has sentenced a blogger and journalist to one year of “restricted freedom” — a parole-like limitation — and 100 hours of forced labor on what the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called “trumped-up charges.” – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Kyrgyzstan raised to 13 the number of people killed in clashes along a disputed segment of its border with Tajikistan before a cease-fire was announced by both sides. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


Associates of Aleksei A. Navalny said they were shutting down their nationwide network of regional offices on Thursday even as the imprisoned Russian opposition leader vowed, in an online court appearance, to keep fighting the “emperor with no clothes” in the Kremlin. – New York Times

Russian authorities have jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, arrested his staff and supporters and even independent journalists who covered protest rallies last week in his support. On Friday, about 6.40 a.m. agents from Russia’s internal security agency, the FSB, knocked on the door of his attorney, Ivan Pavlov. – Washington Post

TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance Ltd., is among the global social media companies coming under increasing pressure to remove anti-government posts in Russia as President Vladimir Putin cracks down on dissent. It has even won praise from Russian officials who say it’s more willing than some other companies to remove content. – Bloomberg

The U.S. State Department says press freedom in Russia is under growing threat as authorities slap RFE/RL and other media organizations with restrictive “foreign agent” labels and fines. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Most of the expulsions involve countries in eastern Europe with historic connections to Russia, from the Baltics to Bulgaria, underscoring both the dire state of the region’s ties with Moscow, and the difficulty in rebuilding relations for the diplomats who remain. – Financial Times 

The Russian military said Thursday that its troops have returned to their permanent bases after concluding massive drills near Ukraine that alarmed Western countries. – Associated Press


Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he will be visiting Ukraine next week amid tensions with Russia. – The Hill

British trade minister Liz Truss will on Friday press the case for sweeping World Trade Organization (WTO) reforms aimed at countries who distort trade with state subsidies when she meets the trade body’s new head in Geneva. – Reuters 

Two Italians convicted of left-wing domestic terrorism in Italy decades ago turned themselves in to French justice authorities Thursday as part of a decisive operation by Paris and Rome to move ahead on a justice issue that had been stalled since the 1980s. – Associated Press

U.S. prosecutors said Thursday that German software giant SAP will pay more than $8 million in penalties in acknowledging that it illegally exported its products to Iran. – Associated Press

Thousands of Czechs rallied Thursday in the capital against President Milos Zeman, accusing the pro-Russian leader of treason over the alleged participation of Russian spies in a huge 2014 ammunition explosion in the Czech Republic. – Associated Press

The French military command and the government have vowed to punish active officers and force rightwing reservist generals into full retirement for signing an incendiary declaration mourning the “disintegration” of France because of Islamist radicalism and immigrant “hordes” in the suburbs and hinting at a coup d’état. – Financial Times

Luke Coffey writes: Like with the rest of Moldova, Russia focuses more on grassroots politics by funding political parties and candidates. Russia also uses its more recent historical connections to the region to its advantage. On the other hand, Turkey prefers to use soft power in Gagauzia. Ankara places an emphasis on deepening cultural cooperation between Gagauzia and Turkey while expanding economic ties as well. This resonates well with the people living there. One thing is certain: the Russo-Turkish rivalry is not going away, and Gagauzia could become a focal point by both sides. – Middle East Institute 


Nigeria’s central bank warned its employees to take extra precautions against kidnappings because of deteriorating security in the West African nation. – Bloomberg

Burkina Faso’s security sector, already struggling to stem a violent jihadist insurgency, is undertrained and ill-equipped to disrupt the expansive network of recruiters, traffickers, and pimps. – Associated Press

Rebels seeking to overthrow Chad’s new transitional government claimed Thursday to have shot down a military helicopter, while the junta in power warned political opponents not to renew protests after violent demonstrations earlier in the week left at least six people dead. – Associated Press

Gunmen killed at least 20 people last week in western Ethiopia, a regional government official said on Thursday, in what he and two residents described as an attack on civilians from the Amhara ethnic group. – Reuters

United States

The FBI warned Rudolph W. Giuliani in late 2019 that he was the target of a Russian influence operation aimed at circulating falsehoods intended to damage President Biden politically ahead of last year’s election, according to people familiar with the matter. – Washington Post

Then the two members of an extremist anti-government group, Adam Fox and Barry Croft, allegedly looked for the optimal spot to “mount an explosive charge” underneath — all so they could blow the bridge up to stall police trying to reach Whitmer’s home. – Washington Post

U.S. officials are investigating a suspected directed-energy attack on federal government personnel in Miami last year, as well as at least two other incidents involving U.S. officials on American soil, according to people familiar with the investigation. – Politico

Jon Lerner writes: Biden’s initial foreign policy and security decisions undermine deterrence. They might make China’s leaders think they could capture Taiwan without much American resistance other than post-action sanctions they could easily live with. The president should consider the picture he has painted in his first 100 days and adjust accordingly, or risk finding out who really means business. – The Hill


For at least the third time since the beginning of this year, the U.S. government is investigating a hack against federal agencies that began during the Trump administration but was only recently discovered, according to senior U.S. officials and private sector cyber defenders. – Reuters 

Political hand-wringing in Washington over Russia’s hacking of federal agencies and interference in U.S. politics has mostly overshadowed a worsening digital scourge with a far broader wallop: crippling and dispiriting extortionary ransomware attacks by cybercriminal mafias that mostly operate in foreign safe havens out of the reach of Western law enforcement. – Associated Press

The personnel files of some Washington Metropolitan Police Department officers were obtained by hackers in a ransomware attack earlier this month, the department’s acting police chief said Thursday. – CNN

Shira Ovide writes: A lot of essential services are operated by small organizations that don’t have the resources or the capabilities to even do the basics. American hospitals, schools and governments are common ransomware targets because they tend to use older software with security holes that can’t be repaired. This sounds grim. I don’t want people to feel hopeless. But yes, ransomware and other cyberattacks are only going to get worse. The central problem is America’s lack of urgency and investment to protect digital systems. – New York Times

Jack Bandy and Nicholas Diakopoulos write: While more drastic policy proposals may also be at hand, we believe that transparency can be one effective lever for governing platform algorithms. Algorithmic transparency policies should be developed in collaboration with the rich community of grassroots organizations and scientists who study these platforms and their associated harms, including those who study misinformation, content moderation, as well as the algorithms themselves. Policies should also focus on the outcomes experienced by end users: the ways that algorithms can affect us as individuals, as communities and as a society. – The Hill


As the Navy approaches the first-ever deployment of its advanced carrier air wing – with the fifth-generation F-35C Joint Strike Fighter paired with the CMV-22B Osprey to serve as the carrier onboard delivery plane – leadership from USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) and Carrier Air Wing 2 say they’ve ironed out many integration issues between the ship and the two new aircraft types and are ready for a final exercise this summer to prove they can deploy. – USNI News

The U.S. Government Accountability Office is skeptical the Navy’s SM-3 Block IIA interceptor would work as part of a new plan for a layered homeland defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles. – Defense News

Senate work on the annual defense authorization bill will be delayed until midsummer because of the ongoing wait for President Joe Biden’s federal budget outline, a delay that could complicate a host of military personnel policy and procurement plans. – Defense News

Coders who create software for anything from streamlining warehouse operations to improving soldiers’ battlefield performance take advantage of the cloud’s shared storage, databases and networking that make computing resources more powerful and flexible than those available in on-site data centers. – C4ISRNET

The Missile Defense Agency canceled all 17 planned cybersecurity operational assessments last year opting instead for a new approach designed to improve cyber requirements, a new watchdog report says. – C4ISRNET

Not since the Cold War era has the demand on Navy shipbuilding been so high, but the difference now is a flat defense budget and a decade of lost buying power, a top service official told lawmakers. – Washington Examiner

Army Futures Command’s latest modernization effort, enhanced night vision goggles-binoculars, gives soldiers the ability to fire at targets at distances over 400 feet without even shouldering their weapons. – Washington Examiner

Robert Soofer writes: U.S. plans to build limited homeland missile defenses against rogue nations like Iran and North Korea, or even missile defenses deployed abroad to protect allies against such threats, should not be incompatible with future nuclear arms control agreements with Russia. To be sure, given the gamut of intractable issues, such as non-strategic nuclear weapons, space strike systems and hypersonic capabilities, the next round of nuclear arms control negotiations will not be easy. But missile defense, as history shows, will not be the deal breaker. – War on the Rocks 

Long War

Administrators must decide whether to acknowledge Islamic State’s occupation of Mosul and assault on the museum in a future exhibit as a way of commemorating its recent trauma. – Wall Street Journal 

Three men whose social media posts allegedly encouraged extremist attacks against French targets are in custody in Spain after Spanish police and the European Union’s crime agency traced them to the southern city of Granada. – Associated Press

Three members of an Iranian Arab opposition group have pleaded not guilty to Danish charges of financing and promoting terrorism in Iran with Saudi Arabia’s backing. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

A plane carrying the bodies of three Europeans killed by jihadists in Burkina Faso this week while they were filming a documentary on wildlife poaching has landed in an airport near the Spanish capital. – Associated Press