Fdd's overnight brief

December 1, 2020

In The News


The Iranian nuclear scientist killed last week was ambushed in a remotely controlled operation, the country’s top security official said Monday, describing an audacious attack that Tehran has blamed on Israel. – Wall Street Journal

Amid vows to avenge the killing of scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s leadership promised Monday to push ahead with its nuclear program while casting doubt on the future of negotiations with the West. – Washington Post

In the wake of the killing Friday of Iran’s top nuclear scientist , the questions have quickly shifted from who carried out the brazen daylight attack to why. Commentators, brushing past Israel’s refusal to comment on an assassination that showed the hallmarks of an Israeli clandestine operation, have moved on to asking what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped to achieve. – Washington Post

The Iranian defense minister vowed on Monday to find and punish those responsible for the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, while another senior official offered an account of the attack radically different from initial reports in the Iranian state news media. – New York Times

Kuwait’s foreign ministry on Friday condemned the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, according to the state news agency KUNA. – Reuters

Lebanon on Monday called for self-restraint following the assassination of a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, to avoid a slide towards the “worst scenario”. – Reuters

Iran has nothing to gain from ending inspections of its nuclear facilities, the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog warned as tensions rise after a top Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated. – Agence France-Presse

A draft bill requiring Iran’s government to pursue uranium enrichment of 20%, and to disregard other restraints put on its nuclear programme by an accord reached with foreign powers in 2015 cleared its first hurdle in parliament on Tuesday. – Reuters

In a faraway prison, an Iranian-Swedish scientist awaits execution.[…] If the European Union is serious about defending the rule of law and the rights of its citizens, it needs to come out strongly in defense of Djalali too. It cannot allow Djalali, like other dual citizens before him, to be reduced to mere pawns in a game of geopolitical chess. – Politico

President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to reengage with Tehran is facing new challenges following the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist. – The Hill

An airstrike killed a commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards at the Iraq-Syria border sometime between Saturday and Sunday, Iraqi security and local militia officials said on Monday. – Jerusalem Post

American and Israeli leaders remained mum over the weekend over the killing of top Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was shot at close range in an ambush on his motorcade in northern Iran on Friday. – Jewish Insider

The Bahraini government on Monday condemned the assassination of nuclear scientist and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was said to be leading Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, joining other Gulf countries traditional seen as rivals of Iran. – Times of Israel

Eli Lake writes: Israel’s sabotage and assassinations have not destroyed Iran’s nuclear program. But they have set it back. As the architect of that program, Fakhrizadeh will be hard to replace. What will be even harder for the regime, however, is persuading its other scientists that they will be safe if they continue the quest for a nuclear weapon. – Bloomberg

Omer Carmi writes: Over his three decades as Supreme Leader, Khamenei has often preferred to play the public role of instructor rather than dictator, defining a vision for his policymakers and implying the rules on what they should and should not do. In this sense, his first major speech since Joe Biden’s election can be seen as a list of directives on how Iran could engage with the West in the coming weeks and months, namely: Do not trust Washington or Europe, Manage domestic expectations about how engagement might help the country’s economic relief, Limit any engagement to subjects that are within the JCPOA’s scope, Invest more resources in improving Iran’s ability to face hardships on its own. – Washington Institute

Seth J. Frantzman writes: In the wake of the assassination of Iranian nuclear military scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, many reports have focused on the alleged weapon used to kill him. The BBC, CNN and other major media outlets have reported that a “remote-controlled machine gun” was used in the assassination. The original source for this was Iranian pro-government media. […]In the arms race to find better and more secretive ways to hunt down enemies, these kinds of weapons, along with remote-controlled machine guns, may be the wave of the future. But one having already been smuggled into Iran this time still seems far-fetched. – Jerusalem Post

Cameron Khansarinia writes: Mr. Biden has spoken out boldly against dictatorships around the world. He should do the same in regards to the Islamic Republic and recognize the unique threat it poses. An emboldened Islamic Republic, unchecked on even the most flagrant crimes against humanity like the Aban massacre, will continue to have a damaging impact across the Middle East and might even draw the region into an uncontrollable conflict. – Middle East Institute


The Turkish research vessel at the heart of a Mediterranean Sea energy dispute between Turkey and Greece is back in port in an apparent bid to ease tensions ahead of a European Union summit where potential sanctions against Ankara will be discussed. – Associated Press

The chief of Turkey’s national intelligence service has been holding secret talks with Israeli officials, part of a Turkish-initiated effort to normalize relations, well-placed sources have told Al-Monitor. – Al-Monitor

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Turkey is also maneuvering to do new outreach to Saudi Arabia and has toned down rhetoric against Greece. Its government knows that while no human rights groups will do anything about the continued ethnic cleansing and occupation of Afrin, that NATO countries, France, Europe and the US are getting tired of weekly crises involving Ankara and the aggression and wars Turkey has embarked upon, destabilizing Syria, Libya, the Caucasus and other states.  – Jerusalem Post


Saudi Arabia agreed on Monday to let Israeli airliners cross its airspace en route to the United Arab Emirates after talks between Saudi officials and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, a senior Trump administration official said. – Reuters

The second ministerial delegation from Bahrain in two weeks is set to land in Israel Tuesday morning with hopes of deepening the two countries’ budding economic ties. – Times of Israel

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Monday that Egypt supports the resumption of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. – Jerusalem Post

Nimrod Goren writes: Biden’s move into the White House will generate opportunities and hope for the Israeli-Palestinian context and beyond. Renewed U.S. involvement in advancing the two-state solution should be viewed with optimism. Israel must greet it with open arms, rather than engineering provocations such as an expansion of settlements. The measures that the Biden administration can and is expected to take will not in themselves yield the hoped-for peace, but with tailoring and precision, they could serve as a positive and significant turning point. – Middle East Institute

Middle East & North Africa

After a busy November full of military drills, not least of which took place at sea, Egypt is continuing its training efforts into December and throughout 2021, sending a message about its global reach and capabilities. – Defense News

Egyptian prosecutors on Monday slammed their Italian counterparts’ push to have five Egyptian police and intelligence officers stand trial in Italy over the 2016 abduction, torture and killing of an Italian researcher in Cairo. – Associated Press

Kenneth R. Rosen writes: Even so, the Biden-Harris Administration can rethink the short-term wellbeing of those who face the real brunt of U.S. sanctions while a longer-term solution is sought. Despite an apparent confidence within the current administration that prompting an economic crisis will lead to the Assad regime’s fealty to western powers, changing the regime’s behavior is a lost cause. Looking to Syria’s neighbors and offering support to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Northern Iraq in exchange for broader regional pressure on the Assad regime may not only yield the secession of the Assad regime, but also more closely align with U.S. moral and diplomatic objectives in the region. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

Joe Biden has been urged by foreign policy experts to secure an arms control agreement with Kim Jong Un, a potentially radical change after decades of unsuccessful US diplomacy. – Financial Times

China has provided North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his family with an experimental coronavirus vaccine, a U.S. analyst said on Tuesday, citing two unidentified Japanese intelligence sources. – Reuters

Japan “strongly urges” South Korea to follow the World Trade Organization’s rules and swiftly remove duties on stainless steel bars, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said on Tuesday. – Reuters


China accused American officials of harassing Chinese airline and shipping crews that arrive in the U.S. in attempts to single out Communist Party members, and warned that Beijing may retaliate against Washington for what it considers to be provocative behavior. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration on Monday blacklisted a major Chinese government-owned defense company it said sold goods to Venezuela that aided political repression by the regime of President Nicolás Maduro. – Wall Street Journal

China urged the United States on Tuesday to correct its mistake and lift all illegal sanctions, after Washington imposed Venezuela-related sanctions targeting a Chinese firm. – Reuters

The Trump administration plans to add China’s top chipmaker SMIC and oil giant CNOOC to a blacklist of alleged Chinese military companies, escalating tensions with Beijing before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, according to sources familiar with the matter and a document seen by Reuters. – Reuters

A state-owned Chinese group caught up in the country’s spate of defaults owes billions of dollars to lenders, raising concerns that bond market tremors could sweep through the banking sector. – Financial Times

A study backed by China’s environmental ministry has called for polluting Belt and Road projects to be placed on a negative list to encourage the country’s banks to avoid coal and other environmentally harmful investments along the route. – Financial Times

China’s economic offensive against Australia is partly designed to warn countries against vocally opposing Beijing’s interests, particularly with Joe Biden looking to unite U.S. allies. Yet it’s already showing signs of backfiring. – Bloomberg


NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that the military alliance is grappling with a dilemma over its future in Afghanistan, as the United States starts pulling troops out while attacks by the Taliban and extremist groups mount. – Associated Press

A breakthrough on an initial agreement reached between Taliban and government negotiators has been held up at the last minute after the insurgent group balked at the document’s preamble because it mentioned the Afghan government by name. – Reuters

Jim Golby writes: Perhaps by design, perhaps by incompetence, perhaps out of sheer spite or arrogance, Trump has created the circumstances for another Bay of Pigs, Black Hawk Down, or Benghazi—situations where the United States inserted itself into overseas conflicts enough to draw lethal opposition but without sufficient strength to protect its people. Afghanistan was already in a dire state before Trump announced the latest round of troop withdrawals, but the departing president has made a bad situation worse—and probably untenable. The new administration will have to act fast to clean up Trump’s mess. – Defense One

South Asia

Despite a government ban and arrests of hundreds of activists, Pakistani opposition supporters rallied in a central city on Monday, calling on Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign over alleged bad governance and incompetence. – Associated Press

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday resisted calls for the repeal of farm reforms that have ignited the biggest protests by farmers in years around the national capital, saying they were being misled and that deregulation would benefit them. – Reuters

Neil Hyatt and Sarah Burkhard write: Satellite imagery available on Google Earth show that an interesting and previously undocumented expansion of the nuclear fuel reprocessing / plutonium separation facility at the Chashma nuclear complex in Pakistan began in mid-2018. The extension’s exterior appears completed as of September 2020. The reprocessing plant was first identified by ISIS in 2007 and considered to be potentially operational in 2015 2,3 The development of this extension and allied facilities at the Chashma reprocessing plant are analysed herein. – Institute for Science and International Security


Pro-democracy campaigners from Hong Kong are championing President Trump’s claims of an electoral victory. Human rights activists and religious leaders in Vietnam and Myanmar are expressing reservations about President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s ability to keep authoritarians in check. – New York Times

New Zealand has joined Australia in denouncing a graphic tweet posted by a Chinese official that shows a fake image of a grinning Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to a child’s throat. – Associated Press

Australia demanded an apology after a senior Chinese official posted a fake image of an Australian soldier holding a knife with blood on it to the throat of an Afghan child, calling it “truly repugnant” and demanding it be taken down. – Reuters

China’s embassy in Australia said politicians there had “misread” a tweet showing a digitally-altered image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child, and were trying to stoke nationalism. – Reuters

Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Monday condemned the brutal murder of four villagers by suspected Islamist militants as “beyond the limits of humanity”, as the military chief prepared to deploy special forces to join the hunt for the killers. – Reuters

China has accused Australia of trying to “deflect public attention” from alleged war crimes by its soldiers in Afghanistan after Canberra expressed outrage over a “repugnant” tweet. – BBC

Asia-Pacific nations are embracing the use of unmanned solutions for maritime missions, with several nations bordering the Pacific Ocean and with extensive littorals either operating or planning to acquire unmanned systems for use in the domain. – Defense News

Editorial: In Australia, moderate views on China have diminished quickly, even among business interests, as Beijing’s bullying grows more brazen. The same is happening in the U.S., and the trend will continue if China doesn’t change course. – Wall Street Journal

David Fickling writes: The risk for America is a situation in Asia similar to the one it faces in the Middle East: Committing blood and treasure to a place it’s unable to shape; resented but weak; shouldering the blame for its allies’ own inability to work out their regional rivalries. Responsibility without power, it’s often said, is the prerogative of the eunuch. The U.S. will have to work hard to ensure that’s not its fate in Asia. – Bloomberg

Bobby Ghosh writes: He should start by looking to Asia. For decades, Asian countries have been building smarter and better governments in the same way that Toyota and Honda once built smarter and better cars. Just as U.S. industry (not only carmakers) copied Japan’s lean manufacturing, Washington’s politicians should learn from the efficient governments of Asia. – Bloomberg


The vicious war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has settled into a tense truce enforced by heavily armed Russian troops. For Russia, long a provocateur in the broader Caucasus region, the peacemaker role is a switch — a new test and opportunity for a country struggling to maintain its influence in the former Soviet lands. – New York Times

Russia came under renewed pressure Monday to explain the nerve agent attack on opposition figure Alexei Navalny as the annual meeting of the global chemical weapons watchdog got underway amid measures aimed at reining in the spread of coronavirus. – Associated Press

While Mr Putin’s regime is generally popular, propped up by powerful security services, huge state control over the economy and a largely obsequious media, it remains hypersensitive over potential threats and paranoid about instability and is rushing to smother any elements of independence in the tightly controlled political system. – Financial Times

George Barros and Joseph Kyle write: The Kremlin will likely exploit SoP’s poor electoral performance to impair Zelensky’s reelection campaign in 2024. Zelensky is more vulnerable to Russian pressure and subversion following the October 25 elections. Ukraine backslid on a key anti-corruption reform, a development that could undermine Ukraine’s efforts to become a liberal democracy and join Western structures. Kremlin pressure is likely compelling Ukraine to disengage from positions close to the frontline in Donbas. – Institute for Science and International Security


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization should devote much more of its time and resources to security threats posed by China even while seeking to deter Russian aggression, a high-level assessment of the alliance’s future says in a report to be made public Tuesday. – Wall Street Journal

More than 180 police officers raided homes in three German states early Tuesday after the German government banned a far-right group, the interior ministry said. – Associated Press

The U.S. Embassy in Budapest on Monday condemned an article published by a Hungarian official that drew parallels between American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros and Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. – Associated Press

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that Britain and the European Union would set a bad example if they fail to reach a deal on their future relationship, but again insisted that the EU doesn’t want a deal at any price. – Associated Press

Brexit trade talks are still stuck on fishing, governance rules and dispute resolution because the European Union is asking too much, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit supremo, Michael Gove, said on Tuesday. – Reuters

The European Union will launch contingency measures on Wednesday or Thursday if it has been unable to reach agreement by then with Britain on a trade deal, a senior EU diplomat said on Monday. – Reuters

Europe must stand up for its values in its dealings with China, but given the country’s sheer population and economic importance, there will always be a trade-off between the EU’s values and its interests, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. – Reuters

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg praised President-elect Joe Biden following a Monday phone call, sending a message of optimism for the alliance following a turbulent Trump era. – Washington Examiner

The Baltic states are safer and better defended than they were when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 as Europe has woken up to the need for it to be “assertive” in dealing with Moscow, according to Estonia’s president. – Financial Times

Nicolas Sarkozy denied allegations that he abused his power as the former president of France to woo a senior court official into giving him a helping hand in a legal dispute. – Bloomberg

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is setting the groundwork for a showdown with two eastern European Union countries that have threatened to veto a $2.2 trillion spending package in a dispute over democratic standards. – Bloomberg

But in a sign of just how eager Brussels is to move past the acrimony created by President Donald Trump, the European Commission and Council have put forward competing policy papers outlining how they would like the EU to team up with the new U.S. administration on a wide array of policy issues. – Politico

Brexit-watchers are used to “crunch” weeks coming to nothing. Most weeks since the European Council summit in October — which the U.K. insisted was a deadline, before it wasn’t — have been tipped as the week a deal could be done. But still negotiations continue. This week, however, could be different. There are numerous signs suggesting a deal could come together in the next few days, and a feeling among observers that things are finally getting serious. – Politico

Slovenia on Monday designated Hezbollah in its entirety a terrorist organization, joining a growing number of European states who have taken similar steps in recent weeks to end differentiation between the group’s political and armed wings. – Times of Israel

Germany has joined a European Union-endorsed project aimed at intercepting a new generation of hypersonic missiles too fast for existing defensive systems. – Defense News

Walter Russell Mead writes: Mr. Costa and his fellow Europeans aren’t wrong to care about social spending or the needs of the poor. They aren’t even wrong to point out that doctrinaire versions of laissez-faire policies often fall short in the real world. But where they do go seriously and grievously wrong is in forgetting that economic value is the value on which the others ultimately depend. A Europe that fails to excel economically cannot excel socially. The Frugal Four aren’t infallible when it comes to policy choices, but they aren’t betraying Europe when they talk about responsible budgeting and conditionality. They are trying to save it. – Wall Street Journal

Ferdinando Giugliano writes: For years, Italy has demanded solidarity from its neighbors. The pandemic fund is a tangible response to these calls, at a time of acute need. Rome now needs to show it can spend the money effectively. At stake is more than its own credibility, it’s the future of the EU. – Bloomberg


Long-simmering tensions between Ethiopia’s federal government, led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and defiant authorities in its northern Tigray region have erupted into a military confrontation. Hundreds of civilians have died, while tens of thousands have sought refuge in Sudan from airstrikes, as the conflict threatens to further destabilize the strategic Horn of Africa region. – Wall Street Journal

They were tired of Boko Haram extremists stealing their money and crops, a local official said, so when they saw a chance to capture one of their tormentors, they tied him up to face justice. In response, gunmen on motorbikes stormed the village of Koshobe on Saturday, killing at least 110 people in one of the region’s deadliest attacks in years. – Washington Post

The fugitive leader of Ethiopia’s defiant Tigray region on Monday called on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to “stop the madness” and withdraw troops from the region as he asserted that fighting continues “on every front” two days after Abiy declared victory. – Associated Press

Somalia expelled Kenya’s ambassador and recalled its own envoy from Nairobi after accusing its neighbour of interfering in the electoral process in Jubbaland, one of Somalia’s five semi-autonomous states. – Reuters

Al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters rocketed French military bases in Kidal, Menaka and Gao in northern Mali within the space of a few hours on Monday morning, a rare sign of coordinated raids on international forces. – Reuters

Widespread conflict in Ethiopia that has driven tens of thousands of refugees from their homes, killed hundreds — possibly thousands — and dragged in neighbouring countries is prompting questions in Europe about whether to hold back tens of millions of euros in aid to the country. – Politico

James Barnett writes: Washington’s approach to Africa need not be stuck in the intellectual and strategic frameworks of the past. New policies and dialogues are possible if the US recognizes Africa’s importance within broader global affairs and seeks a clearer understanding of the challenges and opportunities the continent presents. While it will presumably not be a priority during the new administration’s first 100 days, a rethink of US-Africa policy is long overdue. – Hudson Institute

Latin America

Armed men laid siege to a southeast Brazilian city early Tuesday, robbing bank branches, taking hostages and shooting at least two people, according to the mayor and the police. – New York Times

A few hundred people marched in central Mexico City on Monday to protest the killing of a French businessman and his Mexican colleague over the weekend, the latest violent crime to inflame concerns about security in the country. – Reuters

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s diplomatic envoy to the UK has resigned from her post in the latest sign of trouble for the fractious western-backed coalition trying to unseat socialist President Nicolás Maduro. – Financial Times

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden spoke by phone Monday for the first time with Argentine President Alberto Fernandez, marking the start of a relationship key to Argentina’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. – Bloomberg


Huawei’s cutting-edge 5G wireless technology will continue to face skepticism in Europe following President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, despite Beijing’s desire for Western policies to soften following President Trump’s departure. – Washington Examiner

Facebook and Google have aided the Vietnamese government in censoring criticism and repressing dissent, says rights group Amnesty. – BBC

China has introduced tough new laws which restrict the export of “controlled items”. The rules primarily focus on the export of military technologies and other products that might harm China’s national security. The export controls are widely believed to be in response to similar actions by the US. TikTok, Huawei and Tencent are among the casualties of Washington’s Chinese technology crackdown. – BBC

Europe on Monday proposed teaming up with incoming U.S. President Joe Biden to squeeze China out of the global technology trade. – Politico


The short list for Joe Biden’s defense secretary is getting longer. Once described as a shoo-in, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy is facing new competition from at least three other candidates. – Washington Examiner

Twenty-nine arms control and human rights organizations have signed a letter opposing the sale of $23 billion worth of missiles, fighter jets and drones to the United Arab Emirates and asking the U.S. Congress to block the deal. – Reuters

The rapid pace of rocket launches from the eastern range is more than just a commercial space boon. It means a greater capacity to defend America’s space architecture against aggressive adversaries developing space weapons, said the commander of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. – Washington Examiner

Australia and the United States are partnering to develop and test an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile under the bilateral Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment program, or SCIFiRE, the two countries announced Monday. – Defense News