Fdd's overnight brief

August 11, 2020

In The News


Iran is watching developments in Lebanon closely, wary of losing any of its hard-won influence after a deadly mega-blast in Beirut sparked angry demands for reforms to its delicately balanced system. – Agence France-Presse

Iran will not compensate Ukraine International Airlines for its plane Tehran accidentally downed in January because the passenger jet was insured by European firms, the head of Iran’s Central Insurance Organisation said on Monday. – Reuters

Iran shut down a newspaper on Monday after it quoted a former member of the national coronavirus taskforce as saying the country’s tolls from the epidemic could be 20 times higher than official figures, state news agency IRNA reported. – Reuters

The U.N. Security Council is preparing to vote this week on a U.S. proposal to extend an arms embargo on Iran, a move that some diplomats say is bound to fail and put the fate of a nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers further at risk. – Reuters

Despite harsh US sanctions, Iran is continuing to export over 600,000 barrels a day, over twice as much oil as a recent Congressional report estimated, according to NBC News. – Jerusalem Post

President Trump promised supporters at a campaign fundraiser in New Jersey that he would reach a quick deal with Iran if reelected. “When we win,” Trump said in a video from the fundraiser on Sunday shared by a Jewish Insider reporter, “we will have a deal within four weeks.” – The Hill

Masih Alinejad writes: Last year, my brother Alireza Alinejad, a father of two small children, was arrested and dragged away to the notorious Evin prison. After 10 months in detention, including physical and psychological torture, he was secretly tried, without the presence of his lawyer, and given an eight-year prison sentence. This thuggish behavior will continue until the international community recognizes that the Islamic Republic is not a normal regime. Kidnapping and hostage-taking are not normal behavior for a state. The Islamic Republic will see the West’s silence as tantamount to a seal of approval. – Washington Post

Eli Lake writes: For voters who have supported Trump’s tough line on Iran, this presents a dilemma. Who would make a better deal with Iran: a mercurial president who has shown little interest in details and policy, or a former vice president whose administration negotiated a weak one in the first place? Put another way: Do you go with the devil you know, or the devil you once knew? – Bloomberg

Amos Yadlin and Ari Heistein write: The unsigned draft agreement was likely leaked by the Iranian government — the document is in Farsi and Tehran seemed eager to publicize it. In contrast, Beijing appears hesitant to address the deal in public, let alone issue any kind of endorsement. China’s unenthusiastic reaction may be the result of annoyance at Iran’s leaking of the document, a cost-benefit calculation that publicly endorsing it could further poison China’s vital relationship with Washington, and/or concerns that it would inflict reputational harm on Beijing among its other partners in the Middle East. Nevertheless, China has not renounced the document either. – War on the Rocks

Farzin Nadimi writes: Notwithstanding the serious safety and security risks of conducting unannounced live-fire missile drills in the middle of a major international shipping route, GP-14 also showed Iran’s continued defiance in the face of pressure, as well as its growing capability to seriously disrupt freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. Iranian military commanders argue that the Islamic Republic is simply pursuing a defensive strategy using offensive operational tactics. Yet this claim offers no solace given the regime’s unaltered, zero-sum grand strategy of ejecting the United States from the Middle East and undermining America’s Gulf partners. – Washington Institute


French MP Meyer Habib, who serves as deputy chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, is demanding that France declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, as Germany has done recently. – Arutz Sheva

Maya Carlin writes: Hezbollah’s grip on Beirut extends to the shadow economy it controls. According to a recent report issued by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Hezbollah seizes between $500 million and $1 billion annually from Lebanon’s economy. […]Lebanon is not the only country in the Middle East struggling under the grip of Tehran’s proxies. – Jerusalem Post

David Kilcullen writes: But the Lebanese people have been signalling for many months, through mass protests on the streets of the capital and elsewhere, that they have had enough of corruption, incompetence and foreign meddling in their country—including by Iran and its proxy Hezbollah—and the destruction of much of beautiful downtown Beirut will only make matters worse. Thus, in the wake of this week’s explosion, if they want to avoid an even worse calamity, Lebanese elites including Hezbollah’s leadership really have only two options: reform or collapse. – The Australian

Jerome Marcus writes: The world has long been notoriously indifferent to announced efforts, on the part of Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and others, to eliminate the world’s one Jewish nation. Perhaps out of the ashes of Beirut, more people will come to realize that Lebanon is the country now being destroyed by Hezbollah. Maybe that will be enough to persuade them that Hezbollah, all of it, really is a terrorist organization. Not many of the world’s governments want to do very much to save the Jews or the Jewish state. Perhaps the Beirut disaster will convince them to try to save the Jews’ next-door neighbors. – Washington Examiner


Halkbank on Monday urged the dismissal of a U.S. indictment accusing the state-owned Turkish lender of helping Iran evade American sanctions, saying it was immune from prosecution and that U.S. laws did not cover its alleged misconduct. – Reuters

Turkey will issue seismic exploration and drilling licenses in new areas of the eastern Mediterranean by the end of August and continue its operations in the region, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday, amid tensions with Greece. – Reuters

Gideon Rachman writes: Identity politics thrives on division and distinctions between friends and enemies. Often, the focus is on the “enemy within”, such as religious or ethnic minorities, or liberal elites. But strongman leaders also have to be seen to be tough with the nation’s enemies overseas. Mr Erdogan has committed Turkish troops to wars in Libya and Syria. Mr Modi authorised a bombing raid on militant camps in Pakistan, just ahead of the 2019 election. A rejection of secularism and an embrace of identity politics is a potent way of rallying political support. But, both at home and abroad, it is also a recipe for conflict. – Financial Times

Tom Rogan writes: Turkish survey vessels have entered waters in Greece’s exclusive economic zone. In response, Greece has deployed its navy. Tensions are high, and conflict is now a possibility. There is only one person to blame for this crisis — Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader is using his energy survey vessels as de facto pirate ships. These surveys are intended to assert control over undersea resources. – Washington Examiner


Israel on Tuesday closed one of its main border crossings with the Gaza Strip after Palestinians launched incendiary balloons that set fire to areas on the Israeli frontier. – Reuters

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday warned that Israel’s next war against Hezbollah would be more difficult to fight, in light of the terror group’s practice of storing weapons in civilian areas, as was understood from the devastating blast in the Beirut port last week that was apparently caused by improperly stored explosive material. – Times of Israel

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday evening began calling back its reinforcements along the Lebanese border and removing roadblocks from the area following a “situational assessment,” the military said. – Times of Israel

The Palestinian Authority renewed security coordination with the US after receiving assurances that a planned annexation of parts of the West Bank would not occur, according to Channel 12 news. – Jerusalem Post

As tensions continue to rise on the Israel-Gaza Strip border, the coastal enclave’s ruling terrorist group, Hamas, fired a barrage of rockets into the Mediterranean Sea in an apparent “warning” to Israel. – Algemeiner


Lebanon’s prime minister resigned Monday amid public fury about official negligence that led to an explosion so massive that it devastated swaths of the capital, but his announcement failed to quiet the anger on the streets. – Washington Post

An American contractor working with the U.S. Army warned at least four years ago about a large cache of potentially explosive chemicals that was stored in Beirut’s port in unsafe conditions, according to a United States diplomatic cable. – New York Times

Lebanese security officials warned the prime minister and president last month that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port posed a security risk and could destroy the capital if it exploded, according to documents seen by Reuters and senior security sources. – Reuters

Alex Rowell writes: On Monday evening, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation. This was the bare minimum sought by the angry, anguished Lebanese who took to the streets. But unless far more extensive change takes place at all levels of the system, ousting the warlords and mafiosi for whom Diab was a mere frontman, the cycle of death and dysfunction will continue without end. – Washington Post

Middle East & North Africa

The State Department said on Monday that its inspector general had found Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the proper procedures in declaring an “emergency” last year to push through $8.1 billon of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. – New York Times

The U.S. military said Tuesday it was investigating a militant claim by a newly formed Iraqi Shiite militant group of a bombing at the Iraq-Kuwait border. Both the Iraqi and Kuwaiti military denied an attack had taken place. – Associated Press

The United Arab Emirates is “building synagogues for Jews,” Houthi rebel leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi said in a statement published over the weekend in Iranian media. Iran is a major backer of the Houthi rebels who have been fighting a civil war in Yemen. – Jerusalem Post


China said it would impose sanctions on 11 U.S. citizens, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, in retaliation for similar measures by Washington against Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials on Friday. – Wall Street Journal

Even as China continues to return fire at the Trump administration, leaders in Beijing are also signaling they want to ease tensions with the U.S. as the clock ticks down to the presidential election. – Bloomberg

Samuel Chu writes: In other words, every provision of this law — which was concocted in Beijing and enacted without the Hong Kong legislature — applies to everyone outside of Hong Kong. Nobody is beyond the law’s reach, not me in the United States, and certainly not the estimated 85,000 Americans living and working in Hong Kong itself. […]It raises the possibility that it could now ensnare any American. – New York Times

Demetri Sevastopulo writes: His decision to make China a bogeyman in the 2020 US presidential race has opened the door for security hawks to push policies to clamp down on threats from Beijing that Mr Trump previously ignored. But some officials privately say that they are also racing to enact tough policies in case Mr Trump ends up losing to Joe Biden in November. – Financial Times

Tong Zhao writes: At the same time, the opacity surrounding China’s nuclear program is unhelpful in generating trust with the United States. But cool-headed efforts to address the missile defense dispute can help open the door to serious and broad-ranging arms control cooperation in the future. The two countries should turn their previously superficial and sporadic dialogues into substantive efforts to address the underlying sources of disagreements and clarify ambiguities. There are mutually beneficial options to prevent a costly and dangerous arms race but the window to engage may close soon. – War on the Rocks


Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the Afghan-Taliban peace talks were slated to begin in March. But they were delayed for months by a presidential power crisis in Kabul, increased violence and a controversial prisoner exchange that was finalized only Sunday. The talks are now expected to launch this month in Doha. U.S. officials have said they will bring a decrease in violence. – Washington Post

Michael Rubin writes: Alas, the Trump administration is now making the same mistake with the Taliban that the Obama administration made during its high-profile diplomacy with Iran: Both appear desperate for a deal, and neither will voice what they see as the best alternative to a negotiated agreement should diplomacy fail. By signaling that under no circumstances will U.S. negotiators step away from the negotiating table, the State Department gives its adversaries a license to cheat and erode the substance of its agreements. – Washington Examiner

Roya Rahmani writes: Afghanistan has been seeking peace for decades. Perhaps it is time to embrace the fresh perspective that women can bring. Afghans have already seen the benefit of having all of society, both men and women, contribute to Afghanistan’s progress. – Foreign Policy


China’s campaign to quash dissent in Hong Kong accelerated with the arrest of pro-democracy media baron Jimmy Lai, sending an ominous signal about the future of a free press and the new limits on those challenging Beijing’s tightening grip on the former British colony. – Wall Street Journal

China is trying to turn democratic Taiwan into another Hong Kong, the island’s foreign minister warned Tuesday as he met with a senior US official making a historic diplomatic trip. – Agence France-Presse

Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper has vowed to “fight on” after the arrest of owner Jimmy Lai under a controversial security law imposed by Beijing. – BBC

The Philippines’ navy chief is urging the government of President Rodrigo Duterte to file a diplomatic protest against China over the presence of two Chinese survey ships at an oil-rich disputed area in the South China Sea. – Bloomberg

South Korea decided to develop the Iron Dome-type system in light of the hundreds of thousands of short and medium range missiles directed at them from North Korea, a country which also has many long range missiles with the potential ability to carry nuclear warheads. – Jerusalem Post

India’s border clash with China in June is likely to accelerate a trend where New Delhi continues to build and strengthen strategic partnerships with the United States and others to protect its national interests, experts told CNBC. – CNBC

Editorial: After years of a slow drip-drip, China is now rushing at high speed to end Hong Kong’s legendary freedom and independence. President Xi Jinping appears to have decided that, with a new national security law in place, Hong Kong should be rapidly swaddled in China’s authoritarian straight jacket — no more temporizing. […]The loss of Hong Kong as an island of freedom is a grievous one for all who care about democracy. – Washington Post

Editorial: Early on Monday, the police in Hong Kong arrested Jimmy Lai, founder of the popular tabloid Apple Daily, on charges of collusion with a foreign country, one of the vaguely defined crimes under the anti-sedition law adopted this spring by Beijing. […]“Two systems,” to the pro-democracy forces, meant a free one in Hong Kong and an unfree one on the mainland. All that has long been in peril, no more so than now, and it is terribly sad to see people who had done so much to protect their freedoms fall further challenged again by a system that regards freedom as sedition, free speech as subversion and meeting with foreigners as collusion. – New York Times

Josh Rogin writes: The historic and tragic events unfolding today in Hong Kong are primarily an attack by Chinese authorities on the autonomy of the city and the freedoms of its people. But the Chinese government is also striking back at U.S. support for Hong Kong and trying to intimidate anyone who works with Washington to resist the crackdown. That’s why the United States must respond. – Washington Post

Tom Rogan writes: Lai’s detention, along with arrests of other activists on Monday, provides yet more proof of the underlying truth of China’s new Hong Kong security law. Acting under direction from China’s Ministry of State Security intelligence service, Hong Kong police are no longer a civilian law enforcement agency. They are an adjunct agent of a tyrannical regime. In the same vein, Lai’s arrest shows the law is not, as China claims, about preventing terrorism or secession. It is about subjugating Hong Kong under the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party. – Washington Examiner


Slovakia said on Monday it has expelled three staff at the Russian embassy in Bratislava whilst citing an abuse of Slovak visas, which local media said was linked with a murder of a Georgian man in Berlin last year. – Reuters

Russia’s foreign ministry said on Monday it will respond in kind to Slovakia’s expulsion of Russian diplomats, RIA news agency reported. – Reuters

Protesters in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk , where rallies against President Vladimir Putin’s role in a regional political crisis have been going on for almost a month, have voiced their support for demonstrations against the presidential vote in Belarus. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on August 11 for talks expected to cover the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


As anger grew in Belarus over the handling of the weekend’s presidential election, Russia moved swiftly to congratulate President Alexander Lukashenko for his electoral win and press for stronger ties with its neighbor ahead of a second night of protests. – Wall Street Journal

The United States is deeply concerned about the conduct of the presidential election in Belarus “which was not free and fair,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday. – Reuters

Germany and France are determined to prevent the U.S. from leading efforts to improve the World Health Organization. – Bloomberg


France’s counter-terrorism prosecutor said on Monday it had opened an investigation for murder after gunmen killed six French aid workers in a wildlife park in Niger on Sunday. – Reuters

At least six prisoners were killed and another six injured when Somali security forces beat back an uprising in Mogadishu’s central prison on Monday, state radio reported. […]Somalia has been trying to re-establish the rule of law in the past decade but still suffers from frequent attacks by al Shabaab militants. – Reuters

Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria in west Africa are predicted to see displacement as a result of the increasing conflict, unemployment and human rights abuses brought on by fallout from the coronavirus, the analytical tool developed by the humanitarian group Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has found. – The Guardian

The Americas

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he is interested in hosting a Group of Seven summit in a “calmer atmosphere” after the November presidential election, and that he has not decided whether to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin. – Reuters

A Venezuelan opposition party said government sympathizers who had taken over its headquarters threw tear gas at those who attempted to enter on Monday, as the country heads toward legislative elections the opposition plans to boycott. – Reuters

Argentina on Monday joined calls from Latin America for a delay in the election of a new president for the region’s leading development finance lender, citing logistical complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. A delay in voting would be a potential setback for U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the institution. – Reuters

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said Monday that he has subpoenaed the FBI to produce documents to his committee related to the Trump-Russia investigation. – Associated Press

Joe Parkin Daniels writes: Maduro, as is common practice for dictators in times of crisis, has been furthering repression. […]But pugnacious words and actions out of Washington tend to favor Maduro, who is comfortable both leveling blame on the United States for his country’s woes and mocking it for its own challenges – Foreign Policy


The U.S. military has updated its handbook on electronic warfare, changing it to a more all-encompassing, cross-branch approach for planning, executing and assessing operations on the electromagnetic spectrum. – C4ISRNET

U.S. Cyber Command is using unclassified networks and publicly available communication platforms as it works to prevent foreign interference in the next presidential election, a CYBERCOM official has revealed. – C4ISRNET

Congressional Democratic leaders on Sunday called for an intelligence report on foreign interference in the 2020 election to be made public so, they said, voters can be more informed about such efforts than they were in 2016. – USA Today

Aaron Huang writes: The United States has less than three months until one of its most consequential elections in our lifetime. It must secure its political and informational systems so that Americans alone — not the Chinese, Russian or Iranian governments, or any other foreign entity — can decide the nation’s fate. To do so, it can learn from Taiwan. – Washington Post

Adam Segal writes: Over the next decade, China and Russia are likely to continue close technical and diplomatic cooperation. Beijing now appears more willing to adopt information operations techniques historically associated with Russian actors to shape the narrative on the responsibility for and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the two sides are unlikely to coordinate on offensive cyber operations. To counter these efforts, policymakers should revitalize U.S. cyber diplomacy, providing an alternative framing to cyber sovereignty and building a coalition of like-minded partners to define and enforce norms of behavior in cyberspace. – War on the Rocks


The U.S. Navy Saturday commissioned its latest littoral combat ship amid a top-level push to fix the ship’s nagging reliability issues and forge a path to make the small surface combatants useful in the years ahead. – Defense News

The next U.S. defense secretary must be prepared to invest heavily in game-changing technology, even if it comes at the cost of existing capabilities, in order to maintain a credible deterrent for China and Russia, according to former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy. – Defense News

The Air Force moved one step closer to a hypersonic weapon last week, with the final captive-carry test of the Lockheed Martin AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW. – Military.com