Fdd's overnight brief

August 28, 2019

In The News


Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani rejected the possibility of meeting with President Trump as long as the U.S. sanctioned his country, a day after both leaders appeared to be opening up to possible talks following months of heightened tensions. – Wall Street Journal

Iraq is trying to cut its dependence on Iranian energy under pressure from the U.S., moving to connect its power grid to Tehran’s Arab rivals and develop alternatives to Iranian natural-gas imports. – Wall Street Journal

A veteran Iranian journalist is claiming asylum in Sweden after traveling there with Iran’s foreign minister, then fleeing his government detail in what he says was a daring escape. – Washington Post

With tensions between the Unites States and Iran on the rise, US government officials are warning Jewish communities across the country to be on the lookout for threats that could originate with Iran or its proxies, including the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. […]So when Iran threatened a leading Washington think tank with sanctions and other unspecified measures over the weekend, it raised red flags. With tensions between the Unites States and Iran on the rise, US government officials are warning Jewish communities across the country to be on the lookout for threats that could originate with Iran or its proxies, including the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. – Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced on Tuesday that Tehran will further curb its adherence to the international agreement limiting its nuclear program next week unless it can reach an agreement with European powers before then. – Associated Press

Iran is not seeking to increase tension but every country should be able to enjoy its rights under international law, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday. Zarif made the comment in Yokohama, near Tokyo, at the beginning of a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. – Reuters

Iran would need three days to lift its oil production back to the level it was at before U.S. sanctions were imposed, the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh as saying on Tuesday. – Reuters

The IDF has publicly identified the commander behind this weekend’s attempted drone attack on northern Israel, thwarted in an Israeli military operation. According to the IDF, General Javad Jafari, a senior commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force — which directs Iranian terrorist operations overseas — was behind the attempted attack. – Algemeiner

The US would only remove sanctions from Iran after a comprehensive deal was reached on its nuclear program, US National Security Advisor John Bolton told Radio Free Europe on Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

Iran on Tuesday said it sentenced three people — one woman and two men — to lengthy prison terms on security and spying charges. The men were convicted of spying for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. – Associated Press

Adam Taylor writes: If the proposed Trump-Rouhani meeting happens, it’d be thanks to the efforts of the American leader. Trump has been clear for a long time that he would meet with the Iranian president without preconditions; last year’s meeting with North Korea’s Kim shows his willing to ignore the advice of his domestic and international backers for the pageantry of a summit. Instead, the biggest obstacle to this meeting is not in Washington, but in Tehran, where Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly rejected Trump’s personal diplomacy outreach, even though it was his sudden change of heart that allowed the 2015 nuclear deal to take place. – Washington Post

Farzin Nadimi writes: The United States should monitor the quantitative growth and technological advances of Iran’s air defense systems more closely and with more urgency. Under current UN Security Council resolutions, Tehran will be legally permitted to export such systems or otherwise deploy them abroad as early as January 2021, and hostile counties or terrorist groups could be the recipients. Even now there are concerns that air defense or advanced missile technology might have ended up in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq, with unforeseen consequences for U.S. and allied air operations anywhere in the vicinity. – Washington Institute

Steve Inskeep writes: The truth is that Iran, despite its relative isolation, faces many of the global pressures seen elsewhere: urbanization, technological change, climate change, income inequality, populism. Its government must now manage these pressures with the added difficulty of U.S. sanctions. The Iranian public will feel it if the government fails to do so. And there is no doubt that some portion of the population was already disillusioned with the experiment in clerical rule that Iran has sustained since its 1979 revolution. – NPR

David Axe writes: The Iranian navy is about to get a little bit bigger. But it’s still hopelessly outclassed by rival fleets. The naval imbalance could weigh on diplomatic and military strategies in Tehran, Washington, D.C. and other world capitals as tensions escalate in the Persian Gulf region. – The National Interest

Roie Yellinek writes: Beyond nuclear ambitions, Iran’s activist foreign policy differs significantly from that of North Korea, which has a limited footprint abroad. By contrast, American interests clash with Iranian policies across the Middle East from Syria and Yemen to Iraq and Gaza, among other places. […]Moving forward, this divergence in policy under which North Korea and Iran are treated very differently by the U.S. government is likely to continue at least until after the upcoming 2020 elections. – Middle East Institute


Lebanon’s Hezbollah is preparing a “calculated strike” in response to the drones but seeks to avoid a new war with Israel, two sources allied to the Shi’ite Muslim movement told Reuters earlier on Tuesday. – Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday warned Lebanon, Hezbollah’s chief and the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force to “be careful” with their words and actions. – Agence France Presse

The target of a drone attack on a Hezbollah facility in Beirut early Sunday that has been attributed to Israel was an expensive and rare industrial mixing machine used in the creation of solid fuel, and the raid set back the terror group’s plans to develop long-range precision missiles by at least a year, according to Hebrew media reports late Tuesday. – Times of Israel

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated that the terrorist groups is not in a hurry to respond to recent Israeli attacks, according to the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper. – Jerusalem Post

The deputy leader of Iran-backed Lebanese terror group Hezbollah on Tuesday night warned that his movement would deliver a “surprise” response in the coming days to a series of alleged Israeli raids. – Times of Israel

Israel and Hezbollah have reached an unwritten agreement in which both will avoid attacking Lebanese and Israeli territory due to the risk of war, the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat reported. – Arutz Sheva

Seth J. Frantzman writes: So, Aoun says that the drone incident also violates the resolution. This is to create a legal pretext and cover should hostilities begin. Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon, including President Aoun, are thus already creating the context for the post-war scenario. […]none of them seem to want to fight the war they have declared, despite their assertions that Israel and the US are behind attacks across the region. Nasrallah’s movement is not the movement of 2006, it is more closely linked to issues in Syria and Iraq today than in the past. It understands this linkage and has to weigh it against its desire to react with a response in the wake of the drone incident. – Jerusalem Post


The leaders of Russia and Turkey said Tuesday they shared deep concerns over fighting in northwestern Syria, with Ankara warning it would take the steps necessary to protect its troops there. – Agence France Presse

The Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria said Tuesday their forces had started to withdraw from outposts along the Turkish border after a US-Turkish deal for a buffer zone there. – Agence France Presse

Syrian rebels on Tuesday launched a wide-scale attack against a five-month Russia-backed Syrian army campaign aiming to take back the opposition’s last major bastion, opposition officials, rebels and residents said. – Reuters


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Russia to persuade Vladimir Putin to rein in his Syrian allies, whose offensive on rebels’ last stronghold is threatening to drive thousands of refugees into Turkey. – Wall Street Journal

Russia and Turkey said they’ll deepen defense cooperation after President Vladimir Putin showed off his latest stealth fighter jet to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s locked in a dispute with his NATO ally Donald Trump over buying new U.S. warplanes. – Bloomberg

Members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee are pressuring President Donald Trump to sanction Turkey for the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. – Bloomberg


Explosions hit two police checkpoints in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, killing three officers and wounding several other Palestinians, the Hamas-run interior ministry said, declaring a state of emergency after the blasts. – Reuters

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and his wife will travel to Israel this coming weekend to open a trade office in Jerusalem. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said this marked a step toward Honduras relocating its embassy to Jerusalem. – Algemeiner

Hamas has declared a state of emergency and on Wednesday morning began arresting supporters of the Islamic State and other Salafist organizations in the Gaza Strip en masse, hours after three policemen were killed in a series of blasts in the coastal enclave, according to Palestinian reports. – Times of Israel

Egypt has warned Hamas it will stop mediating truce negotiations with Israel if the Palestinian terror group does not put a lid on rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, the Al-Arabiya news site reported Tuesday. – Times of Israel

Jonathan Spyer writes: Israel is largely alone in this fight. The U.S. is certainly aware of Israel’s actions against Iran and may tacitly support them. Yet the Trump administration shows no signs of wishing to play an active part in the military challenge to Iranian infrastructure-building across the Middle East. […]So it is war between Israel and Iran, prosecuted over the ruins of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. But it won’t necessarily stay that way. A single kinetic and successful Iranian response to Israel’s airstrikes could rapidly precipitate an escalation to a much broader contest. State-to-state conflict has returned to the Middle East. – Wall Street Journal

Ilan Berman writes: In this context, Israel’s recent airstrikes in Iraq are likely just the beginning.  […]Israel’s activism, showcased in the mid-July airstrike in Iraq as well as other recent sorties against Iranian-linked targets in neighboring Syria, is understandable. Over the past several years, Iran’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in support of its strategic ally, Bashar al-Assad, has allowed Tehran to entrench itself deeply along Israel’s northern border. While officials in Jerusalem initially hoped that the United States or Russia (which also heavily backs the Assad regime) might be able to force Iran’s exit from the Syrian theater, they have gradually reconciled themselves to the notion that the Iranian presence there is becoming more and more permanent. – The Hill

Seth J. Frantzman writes: What is Israel’s strategy in all this? The goal is to draw Iran and its allies out of the shadows. […]The Israeli air strikes couple well with the Washington-led campaign of “maximum pressure.” Iran now faces two fronts, the sanctions and strikes, that together are designed to blow the lid on its regional strategy. Tehran will be tempted to make a misstep in its otherwise calculated reactions. – National Review

Arabian Peninsula

The Trump administration is preparing to initiate direct talks with Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen in an effort to end the four-year-old war, a conflict that has become a volatile front line in the conflict with Tehran, according to people familiar with the plans. – Wall Street Journal

A younger brother of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in Washington this week, with President Donald Trump’s evolving policy toward Iran and Yemen expected to be on the agenda for talks with the administration. – Bloomberg

Fighting resumed in the Yemeni port city of Aden on Wednesday, when government forces stormed its eastern suburbs and exchanged heavy artillery fire with southern separatists, residents said. – Reuters

Korean Peninsula

Japan’s downgrading of South Korea’s trade status took effect Wednesday, a decision that has already set off a series of reactions hurting their relations. – Associated Press

It was deeply regrettable that Japan’s decision to scrap fast-track export status for South Korea has taken effect, Seoul said on Wednesday, adding that it was up to Tokyo to take action to reverse a sharp deterioration in the neighbors’ ties. – Reuters

The United States hopes a damaging row between the leaders of U.S. allies South Korea and Japan has hit rock bottom but believes recent military exercises by Seoul have not helped, a senior State Department official said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Editorial: Surrounded by a nuclear-armed Russia, China and North Korea, South Koreans live in a threatening neighborhood. Their government’s first goal should be to lessen the risks they face. By withdrawing from a three-year-old military information pact with Japan, the administration of President Moon Jae-in has done just the opposite. […]The U.S. should already have intervened more forcefully. Although no compromise imposed from outside is likely to last, diplomatic pressure from Washington would at least help to get the principals talking. Let this foolish and dangerous feud drag on, and it will only get worse. – Bloomberg


China has denied an American warship permission to visit a Chinese port, the United States Navy said on Wednesday, an apparent reflection of flaring trade and military tensions between the two countries. – New York Times

More than a year into the deepening commercial conflict, Chinese officials and analysts say they’ve got a handle on the tweeter-in-chief and are no longer fazed by his unpredictable initiatives. – Washington Post

Foreign agents are exploiting social media to try to recruit assets, with LinkedIn as a prime hunting ground, Western counterintelligence officials say. Intelligence agencies in the United States, Britain, Germany and France have issued warnings about foreign agents approaching thousands of users on the site. Chinese spies are the most active, officials say. – New York Times

While officials in Beijing are still willing to engage in trade talks, they are concurrently girding for a decoupling from the world’s biggest economy — an effort made all the more acute when Trump “ordered” U.S. companies via Twitter to look for alternatives to China. After trade talks broke down in May, Xi renewed calls for China to pursue “self-reliance” in key technologies and even called on citizens to join a “new Long March.” – Bloomberg

Chinese facial recognition technology is spreading to cities around the world, heightening the risk of travel for U.S. government officials and even private citizens, according to a top lawmaker. – Washington Examiner

One of China’s only independent thinktanks has been ordered to shut down, another sign of the dramatically shrinking space for public debate under the government of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. – The Guardian

Michael Schuman writes: Not too long ago, China “taking your job” meant its wages were far lower than Western alternatives, thus allowing it to “steal” blue-jean and iPhone factories. But what if it meant getting you fired for what you believe? That’s apparently what happened last week to Rebecca Sy, a long-serving flight attendant at a subsidiary of the Hong Kong–based airline Cathay Pacific. Her crime: supporting the pro-democracy protests engulfing Hong Kong on her Facebook page. – The Atlantic

Benjamin Studebaker writes: Regardless, for all the discussion spawned by Trump’s tariffs on Chinese products, its big-picture ramifications remain undiscussed. The ongoing trade war augurs a potential shift away from the globalization of the last half-century, toward a world once again split into two systems. These changes have vast consequences, far beyond next quarter’s growth rate. The entire world system is being reordered. We face a question of global governance, and we need to take it seriously. – The New Republic

Mohamed A. El-Erian writes: The difference is that, based on recent comments from both American and Chinese leaders, markets are less worried about the further escalation of trade tensions between the world’s two largest national economies. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the current thaw in tensions is more likely to be yet another temporary cease-fire as opposed to a meaningful step toward resolving issues such as intellectual property theft, the forced transfer of technology and unfair competition. – Bloomberg

David Axe writes: In a couple of decades, China’s economy has grown to a size 20 times the size of Taiwan’s own economy. All that new wealth has fueled rapid military modernization. China reportedly has deployed more than 1,000 land-attack missiles within range of Taiwan. Still, an invasion of Taiwan would be a daunting challenge for China. Beijing would have to win quickly or risk political and military retaliation by the United States that could doom the attack. – The National Interest

South Asia

US and Taliban negotiators moved closer Tuesday to a deal, the insurgent group said, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced guarded hope for a deal under which Washington will withdraw large numbers of troops from Afghanistan. – Agence France Presse

Now an expected United States-Taliban agreement to end nearly 18 years of fighting raises questions about whether the foreign aid largely propping up the country will drop as troops withdraw. Much depends on the Taliban, who have indicated they want that aid to continue even as they call for armed “invaders” to leave. – Associated Press

Taliban militants killed at least 14 members of a pro-government militia in Afghanistan on Wednesday, officials said, just as the Taliban and U.S. officials are finalizing a deal aimed at ending the 18-year war. – Reuters

Prime Minister Imran Khan is considering closing Pakistan’s airspace to India and blocking its eastern neighbor’s land trade route to Afghanistan, the science and technology minister in Islamabad said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Victor Begg writes: Kashmir is a ticking time bomb. A nuclear exchange is more likely to occur on the Indian subcontinent than on the Korean Peninsula, resulting in billions of casualties. Our world, facing a present and immediate danger, must find ways to diffuse this time bomb. – USA Today


Across the border from Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party screams its presence with banners and slogans on nearly every street. Yet in the former British colony, where China’s ruling party confronts what it calls a “life and death” struggle against a turbulent protest movement, it is invisible: It is not registered and has no publicly declared local members. – New York Times

Washington approved the $3.3 billion sale of anti-ballistic missiles to Japan Tuesday, following close behind a series of new ballistic missile tests by North Korea that could threaten the US ally. – Agence France Presse

The global economy could be hit by a second wave of damage from the U.S.-China trade war — and it will be much more severe than the first, Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said. – Bloomberg

When China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong from the British in 1997, it was under an agreement to allow the city a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. That arrangement, known as “one country, two systems,” is almost halfway to its expiration date. Months of turmoil on Hong Kong’s streets, with hundreds of thousands demonstrating against the perceived erosion of the city’s freedoms, have sharpened the focus on one question: What will happen in 2047? – Bloomberg

Australia announced Wednesday that it has formed a task force to crack down on attempts by foreign governments to meddle in Australian universities. The move comes as concerns grow over Chinese influence at Australia’s universities, where Chinese students are by far the largest group of foreign students. – Associated Press

The Pentagon is in early talks with Australia’s government about a deal that would lead to that nation processing a significant portion of rare earth materials required by the U.S. Department of Defense, according to the department’s top acquisition official. – Defense News


Russian government officials have barred two American senators critical of the Kremlin from visiting the country as part of a bipartisan congressional trip, according to the two lawmakers. – New York Times

Tensions between Russia and the Senate are rising after President Donald Trump’s latest outreach to Moscow, with the Kremlin barring senators in both parties from visiting and Democrats urging Trump to keep Russia out of the G-7. […]Russia’s barring senators and Schumer’s letter, taken together, heighten the already fraught relationship between Congress and Putin even as Trump pushed for Putin’s inclusion into the G-7. – Politico

Russia is attempting to gain influence in Africa and earn billions of pounds by selling developing nations nuclear technology that critics say is unsuitable and unlikely to benefit the continent’s poorest people. – The Guardian

Samuel A. Greene and Graeme B. Robertson write: This reliance on popularity makes Putin vulnerable. Being too harsh on protesters could easily lead to a backlash in public opinion. But being too soft might encourage even more demonstrations against the evident corruption and mismanagement across Russia. As a result, the Kremlin often acts tough then backs off. – Washington Post


President Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson want to quickly strike a free-trade pact after Britain leaves the European Union. Resistance is already rising on both sides of the Atlantic. – Wall Street Journal

Mr. Macron missed no opportunity to wring every advantage from his role as host of the summit in the southern resort city of Biarritz. It gave him the perfect stage to pursue his ambition, both grandiose and self-serving, to position France, and himself, as candidates to fill the vacancy left by Mr. Trump’s retreat from traditional Western values. – New York Times

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro threatened to refuse $20 million from Group of Seven countries to help fight fires in the Amazon rainforest unless French President Emmanuel Macron apologizes for calling him a liar about his commitment to the environment. – Wall Street Journal

United States

U.S. prosecutors will seek the death penalty for a Pennsylvania man accused of bursting into a Pittsburgh synagogue last year with a semi-automatic rifle and shooting 11 people to death, according to court papers filed on Monday. – Reuters

Arye Mekel writes: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to bar US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering Israel was sound policy. Israel’s quarrel with the Democrats will likely be brief — not only because the Democratic leadership is not entirely behind the squad, but because it understands Israel’s need to stay on the good side of the American president. That is how it has always been, and it will remain that way if and when a Democratic president is elected. – Algemeiner

Moshe Phillips writes: Putting Tlaib’s hypocrisy aside, the most important aspect of Tlaib’s tweet is how she rushed to bring in “the Israeli occupation” and “equal rights.” She was insinuating, loud and clear, that Israeli policies are to blame for the violence. […]Rashida Tlaib managed to issue a “condemnation of Palestinian terrorism” that does not have in it the words “condemn,” “Palestinian,” or “terrorism.” And she managed, once again, to make an utter mockery of the truth. – Algemeiner


The Army is looking to provide its units, commands and installations with new critical defensive cyber tools and platforms. – Fifth Domain

The majority of ransomware attacks in the U.S. in 2019 have targeted state and local governments, a report published Wednesday by cybersecurity group Barracuda Networks found. – The Hill

As the Defense Department continues its push to speed up and simplify acquisition, it’s doing so in part by allowing select subsystems within larger programs to be exempt from more stringent rules on acquisition and cybersecurity. – USNI News

Will Baird and Claude Barfield write: There will certainly be an economic cost to banning Huawei from 5G networks. While policymakers around the world should make that clear to their constituents, they should also emphasize that the alternative is allowing an authoritarian country access to their nation’s telecommunications, exposing it — and connected infrastructure — to espionage and sabotage. In the end, the question becomes: What price are nations willing to pay for trustworthy 5G networks? – American Enterprise Institute


The Pentagon wants to know what its adversaries are up to in the area immediately beyond geosynchronous orbit, and the Space Development Agency has a plan to deliver. – C4ISRNET

Oracle has appealed its claims court loss to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in yet another escalation in the Pentagon’s troubled acquisition of its general services cloud. – Federal Times

The Coast Guard’s ability to fold into the U.S. joint armed forces to protect America’s interests globally has “never been more relevant,” a senior Coast Guard officer in the Pacific region told a Navy audience. – USNI News

The Pentagon is evaluating how to expand its Indo-Pacific region presence, including freedom of navigation operations and adding new bases, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Tuesday morning. – USNI News

Long War

Two men found guilty of terrorism charges in 2015 for an attempted bombing aimed at derailing a VIA Rail passenger train two years earlier, have been granted a new trial, a provincial court in Canada said on Tuesday. Canadian police had arrested and charged Raed Jaser, now 41, and Chiheb Esseghaier, 36, ahead of the planned attack, saying the operation was backed by the al Qaeda militant group in Iran. – Reuters

Ellen Ioanes writes: While the Islamic State’s caliphate — the idea of a land ruled by its radical interpretation of Islamic law – ended with US-led coalition campaigns in Iraq and Syria, the group is very much alive and regrouping in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. And its alliances with extremist groups internationally show that the group is adaptable, strategic, and not going anywhere soon. – Business Insider

Hal Brands writes: The goal of this investment should not be to “win” the war on terrorism, but simply to suppress the worst aspects of the threat until a more stable governing model emerges in the Middle East. […]So critics of U.S. counterterrorism strategy are right, in a sense: Washington does need to meter its military involvement in the Middle East. Yet the best way of doing that, over the long term, is to continue taking the threat of safe havens seriously. – Bloomberg