Fdd's overnight brief

December 15, 2020

In The News


The Trump administration imposed sanctions Monday on two Iranian intelligence officials it holds responsible for the abduction, detention and probable death of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran almost 14 years ago. – Washington Post

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Tuesday condemned U.S. sanctions against Turkey over Ankara’s acquisition of Russian S-400 air defence systems as “contempt for international law”. – Reuters

A tanker chartered by the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) is loading Venezuelan crude for export, documents from state-run PDVSA show, providing evidence of the two countries’ latest tactics to expand their trade in defiance of US sanctions. – Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani defended on Monday the execution of a prominent dissident journalist based in France and captured by Iran last year, saying the death sentence passed on Ruhollah Zam was carried out lawfully. – Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that Tehran’s missile programme, seen by Washington as a threat to regional stability, was non-negotiable and that U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden is “well aware of it”. – Reuters

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday Tehran could move past a diplomatic quarrel with Turkey over a poem recited by President Tayyip Erdogan during a visit to Azerbaijan, which Tehran had called a threat to its territorial integrity. – Reuters

Turkey has detained 11 people involved in the abduction and smuggling to Iran of an Iranian dissident wanted by Tehran in connection with a deadly 2018 attack in southwestern Iran, Turkish authorities said on Monday. – Reuters

Iran would return to compliance with the nuclear deal within an hour of the US doing so, its president said – but he faced further pressure from the outgoing Trump administration after it sanctioned two Iranian officials over their alleged involvement in the abduction of a former FBI agent. – The Guardian

A common criticism of assassinations such as the one that took out Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last month is that those targeted are simply replaced while the regional conflict escalates. In the case of Iran, though, US President Donald Trump’s special representative for the Islamic Republic does not believe that conventional wisdom applies. – Times of Israel

Herb Keinon writes: The imminent changing of the guard in Washington, formalized by the Electoral College balloting on Monday – and the prime minister’s natural desire to want to start off with the president on the right foot – does not change the way he views the JCPOA: as a threat to the survival of Israel. And Netanyahu made clear in his comments alongside O’Brien that he will not shy away, once again, from shouting this from the highest hilltop – even if doing so, once again, puts Jerusalem on a collision course with Washington. – Jerusalem Post


The Trump administration issued sanctions against Turkey’s military acquisitions agency on Monday to punish the NATO ally more than three years after it bought a missile defense system from Russia. – New York Times

Turkey on Monday condemned U.S. sanctions over its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defences as a “grave mistake” and threatened to retaliate over a move it said would harm ties between the NATO allies. – Reuters

Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov said on Monday the sanctions which the United States has imposed against Turkey over the missile system buy from Russia were illegitimate and showed arrogance toward international law, Interfax news agency reported. – Reuters

Turkey will not abandon its rights and interests in the eastern Mediterranean because of possible European Union sanctions or criticism, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday. – Reuters

Turkey’s government-controlled engine maker Tusas Engine Industries has delivered for testing the country’s first indigenous helicopter engine. – Defense News

Turkey and its littoral Black Sea neighbor Ukraine have signed an agreement to broaden their cooperation in space and satellite technologies. – Defense News


In the two weeks since commercial flights began between Tel Aviv and the Emirati cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Israelis have caused a remarkable tourism boomlet in the Gulf nation. Suddenly, Hebrew can be heard throughout the markets, malls and beaches of a destination that was strictly off-limits until the two countries achieved a diplomatic breakthrough in August and established normal relations. – Washington Post

Editorial: If the Bhutan-Israel agreement further strengthens Israel-India ties, that also redounds to the benefit of the U.S. as it tries to balance China’s influence in Eurasia. As Joe Biden begins Middle East diplomacy, he will be engaging with an Israel that is in a stronger strategic position than when he was last in the White House. He says he wants to build on the Trump Administration’s diplomatic progress between Israel and the Arab world, and a November Journal report suggests Saudi Arabia is holding out on recognizing Israel in the hope of using it to improve its standing with the Biden Administration. – Wall Street Journal

Lior Lehrs writes: Israeli efforts to squeeze final concessions from the Trump administration may serve Netanyahu in the short term but risks generating a crisis with the Biden administration in its early days in office. Israel would do well to focus instead on preparations for the incoming administration and on rehabilitating its relations with the Democratic Party upon its return to the White House. – Jerusalem Post

Neville Teller writes: Is a future Biden administration likely to endorse or renege on it? As president, Joe Biden is unlikely to view the development with much relish, but the balance of US interests probably lies with allowing the deal – and with it US recognition of Morocco’s disputed claim to Western Sahara – to stand. As far as Sahrawi national liberation aspirations are concerned, Israeli-Moroccan normalization has been bought at a high cost. – Jerusalem Post


Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri traded blame on Monday over a delay in the formation of a new government, casting further doubt on whether the badly needed cabinet will be agreed soon. – Reuters

Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, has declined to be questioned by the judge who charged him and three former ministers with negligence over the Beirut port blast, an official source said on Monday. – Reuters

Lebanon’s military prosecution on Monday sentenced an activist to three years in prison for “collaborating” with Israel and traveling to the Jewish state, a judicial source said. – Agence France-Presse

Eli Bar-On writes: Unfortunately, in light of Hezbollah’s modus operandi, and the multiple ways in which it disregards the laws of armed conflict to shield itself with Lebanese civilians, and to deliberately target Israeli civilians, it is inevitable that the Lebanese population will pay a price. The question is whether the international community will recognize the flagrant violations by Hezbollah and its role in all but guaranteeing the suffering of the Lebanese population. – Jerusalem Post

Middle East & North Africa

Italian prosecutors last week pressed charges against four members of Egypt’s security forces over Mr. Regeni’s abduction, torture and death as they laid out the most detailed case to date against the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, for whom it has become a source of severe international embarrassment. – Wall Street Journal 

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has proposed new envoys to mediate conflicts in Libya and the Middle East, who could be given the greenlight by the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday after months of delay, diplomats said. – Reuters

Moroccan authorities on Monday prevented a protest in the capital Rabat against the kingdom’s move to normalise ties with Israel following a deal brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump. – Reuters

Across Syria, Yemen and Iraq, millions have lost their homes in war and struggle to find livelihoods, educate their children or even to feed themselves. Armed factions have proliferated in those countries and Libya, raking in money and recruiting young people who find few other options. Poverty rates have risen around the region, especially with the coronavirus pandemic. – Associated Press

A Norwegian diplomat with extensive experience in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been tapped to become the United Nations’ next special envoy for the Middle East Peace Process. – Times of Israel

In the context of his effort to improve Palestinian relations with the Arab countries, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas began a two-day visit to Qatar, where he met on Monday with the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. – Jerusalem Post

An Australian public health professor and his son have been detained in Qatar for almost five months without charge, and are receiving consular assistance from the Australian embassy. – The Guardian

Andrew Peek writes: In any case, Embassy Baghdad is safer now than it has been at any point since the United States invaded Iraq. Its countermeasures and Iraqi commitment to its safety have increased. Critically, the domestic political cost of attacking the embassy has also increased, dramatically. The threat from Shia militants has also declined from the heyday of the Mahdi Army battles in 2007, though it will never go away, not without also taking away this zero-sum quasi-sectarian balance of power that dominates strategic life in the Gulf. – The National Interest

Anshel Pfeffer writes: The bigger question is how will the new administration use Trump’s unexpected achievements to further its new-old priorities? It won’t be simple. The four normalization deals were fueled by shared enmity toward Iran and a blatant disregard for the Palestinians. Biden’s team will have to find a way to reverse the foreign policy paradigms of both Trump and Obama, if it wants to build on the successes of one to further the goals of the other. – Haaretz


American imports from China are surging as the year draws to a close, fueled by stay-at-home shoppers who are snapping up Chinese-made furniture and appliances, along with Barbie Dream Houses and bicycles for the holidays. – New York Times

China’s Baidu Inc is considering making its own electric vehicles and has held talks with automakers about the possibility, said three people with knowledge of the matter, the latest move in a race among tech firms to develop smart cars. – Reuters

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority labourers in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region are being forced into picking cotton by hand through a coercive state labour scheme, a report has said. – Agence France-Presse

Some 921 lawmakers and political figures ranging across 35 countries signed a statement condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) persecution of Falun Gong to mark Human Rights Day on December 10. – Jerusalem Post

A paper published by the Chicago, Illinois-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has estimated that China has 350 nuclear warheads, significantly more than that estimated by the U.S. Defense Department. – Defense News

Josh Rogin writes: Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy got caught last week retweeting Trump’s own election disinformation. Hilariously, the Chinese Embassy claimed its account was “hacked.” To believe that story, you would have to believe a hacker took the time to take over the Chinese Embassy’s Twitter account just to retweet one of Trump’s tweets — and then leave quietly. China is not the biggest winner of the defense bill, as Trump asserted. But China is the biggest winner of our domestic infighting and our government dysfunction, both of which Trump insists on stoking during his final weeks in office. – Washington Post

Henry M. Paulson Jr. writes: The key is to get strategic competition with China right. Competition without unnecessary confrontation should be our goal—because confrontation without effective competition has produced some poor results for the American people. It has damaged our economy. It has stunted our export opportunities. In time, it will threaten the peace of the world and doesn’t make us safer. And so, we will have chaos and conflict if we cannot get this right. – Wall Street Journal 

Walter Russell Mead writes: Russia and China sensed American weakness at the end of the George W. Bush administration, as the U.S. was bogged down in unpopular Middle East conflicts and the financial crisis. The Obama administration wasn’t responsible for this situation, but Washington did fail to address it effectively. The geopolitical conditions grew significantly more threatening over the next eight years as Russia and China moved aggressively against an indecisive and often uncomprehending American government. – Wall Street Journal

Salvatore Babones writes: The fact that the U.S. government could so easily hobble the world’s largest smartphone maker and 5G infrastructure supplier in less than one year is indicative of the fragility of China’s highly centralized high tech sector. China’s electronics industry relies on U.S., Taiwanese, South Korean, and Japanese suppliers for many key components, but the most strategic of strategic technologies is the microprocessor. And despite years of strategic investment, China has (so far) been unable to master the production of these highly specialized but utterly ubiquitous computer chips. – Foreign Policy

Harun Karcic writes: The answer perhaps lies in the fact that Brussels and Washington no longer wield as much influence as they did a decade ago. […]Being neglected by others, yet strategically located along the path of China’s planned Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing eyed its opportunity. In Beijing’s strategic calculus, the Balkans are merely a transit corridor towards more lucrative Western European markets, where real Chinese interests lie and where household consumption per capita is among the world’s highest. – Haaretz


Kabul’s deputy governor and his assistant were killed in a bombing in the Afghan capital Tuesday morning, Afghan security officials said. – Washington Post

South Korea on Monday banned the launching of propaganda leaflets into North Korea, drawing the criticism of rights activists and defiance from a prominent North Korean defector who said he would not stop sending messages to his homeland. – Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said any shift by China away from importing high quality Australian coal would be a “lose-lose” for the environment and their trading relationship. – Reuters

Taiwan may become a supplier of weapons to Western democracies, President Tsai Ing-wen said on Tuesday, praising the island’s ramped up weapons-design ability as she launched an advanced, missile-laden warship and commissioned a new minelayer. – Reuters

Peter Suciu writes: Although nothing has been formalized, the mere talks have been among the most progress made as Beijing was previously unwilling to even discuss the pulling back from the Finger areas of Pangong Tso, while it insisted that the Indian Army vacant the dominant heights. Now it seems with colder weather coming, cooler heads have prevailed. – The National Interest

Michael Rubin writes: That Pakistan should have relations with communist China is not the problem. After all, it was through Pakistan’s offices that Nixon-era “Ping Pong” diplomacy and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing became possible. There is a qualitative difference, however, between maintaining good neighborly relations and the wholesale betrayal of both Pakistani sovereignty and, given the ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs, Islam as well. Perhaps not since Vidkun Quisling has there been a politician who has so willingly and enthusiastically sold out his country’s sovereignty. Sharif came close, but Khan has surpassed even his example. – The National Interest

South Caucasus

Armenia and Azerbaijan have begun exchanging groups of prisoners of war, part of an “all for all” swap mediated by Russia after a bloody conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Azerbaijani authorities say they have arrested four servicemen suspected of desecrating the bodies of dead Armenian soldiers and of vandalizing gravestones at Armenian cemeteries during recent fighting over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Two elderly men who were beheaded by Azerbaijani forces in videos widely shared on messaging apps have been identified, confirming two of the bloodiest atrocities of the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh. – The Guardian


Officers from a secret Russian spy unit with expertise in poisonous substances trailed the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny for years and were nearby at the time he was exposed to a highly toxic nerve agent that almost killed him last summer, according to a report by Bellingcat, a research group that specializes in open-source investigations. – New York Times

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia congratulated Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Tuesday on having won the American presidential election — more than a month after the Democrat became the U.S. president-elect. – New York Times

The Russian Air Force has continued to remain on alert and ready to respond to alleged incursions near the nation’s borders. On Friday, a MiG-31 fighter scrambled to intercept a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft approached the Russian borders over the neutral waters of the Bering Sea. – The National Interest

Russia has struck a deal with Sudan to establish a naval base in the country, as Moscow seeks to expand its military reach in the Middle East and North Africa. The deal, made public on Dec. 8, allows Russia to station four ships and up to 300 personnel at Port Sudan on the Red Sea as part of a 25-year agreement. It will be Russia’s first naval base in Africa. – Foreign Policy

Vladimir Kara-Murza writes: Analysts have been forecasting mass protests in Russia for 2024, the year Putin will probably seek another term in violation of constitutional limits. The Kremlin’s change of plan for the Duma election could bring the clock forward. And the test in September will be not just for the resilience of Russian civil society, but also for the West’s adherence to its principles. At a recent European Parliament hearing, Navalny urged Western leaders to refuse to recognize the results of the Duma vote if opposition candidates are blocked from the ballot. An election intended to showcase Putin’s public support for Joe Biden’s benefit might turn out to be the first major foreign policy test for the next U.S. leader. – Washington Post


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will travel to India in January, his first bilateral visit since taking office, to try to strengthen trade and investment ties and work together on tackling climate change, his office said on Tuesday. – Reuters

The head of European planemaker Airbus called for an end to separate diplomatic squabbles over Britain’s exit from the European Union and a transatlantic aircraft subsidy dispute that collectively overshadow its business. – Reuters

Luis Simon writes: All in all, when it comes to rallying European support in competition with China, Trump and Biden may well look like a bad cop-good cop sequence. Europeans have seen what bad cop looks like: He plays divide and rule politics and threatens to leverage security guarantees unless Europeans toe the U.S. line. Now, the good cop still wants European support vis-a-vis China. He will just frame that file in normative (democracy versus autocracy) terms, and as a multilateral endeavor, rather than a naked power contest (United States versus China). Will Europeans bite? In other words, are they willing to tone down their autonomy musings in exchange for a tier-1 partner status to renew their much-beloved multilateral order? That is the essence of Europe’s trans-Atlantic dilemma. – War on the Rocks


Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadist rebels have claimed responsibility for the abduction of hundreds of students in an attack on a boys school in northern Katsina State, a Nigerian online newspaper says. – Associated Press

Southern Africa’s leaders are meeting in the Mozambican capital of Maputo Monday to discuss ways to help fight the Islamist extremist rebels who have killed thousands of people and displaced tens of thousands in Mozambique’s gas-rich north. – Associated Press

Jabbing needles in prisoners’ genitals, pouring melted plastic on their skin and hanging them upside down for long periods: These are tortures allegedly being perpetrated by South Sudan’s National Security Service, according to an international human rights group. Electric shocks, gang rapes, abductions and killings are also abuses carried out by the security agency charged Human Rights Watch in a study launched Monday. – Associated Press

An attack blamed on Boko Haram killed 28 people and burned 800 homes in an attack in Niger’s Diffa region on Saturday, Nigerien authorities and the United Nations said. – Reuters

The Trump administration offered up to $850 million to American victims of terrorist attacks as part of efforts to save a deal with Sudan to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. – The Hill

U.S. Africa Command showed it is not about to scale back the fight against Islamic terrorist group al Shabab in Somalia, releasing its first video of a targeted airstrike Dec. 10 as American soldiers prepare to leave the country at President Trump’s orders. – Washington Examiner

Ethiopia sent civil servants in Tigray back to work on Monday and ordered gun owners to disarm as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government sought to restore normality in the northern region after weeks of war. – Reuters

Mike Rogers writes: We should realize the diversity and challenges of these countries in Africa, and use all the levers of statecraft to enable economic development, build stronger education and health systems, and end political corruption. So a smart and comprehensive foreign policy toward Africa must be part of our national security and economic strategy. At the end of the day, it is part of the great power competition that the United States must win. – The Hill

Uriya Rosenman writes: Until Israel’s government finally leverages our business and technological advantage in favor of political processes vis-à-vis African countries, the private sector must seize the opportunity and lead the way. Israeli companies from various fields produce innovative and creative solutions regularly, many of them answer major pain-points which African countries face, and which China cannot solve. – Jerusalem Post

Latin America

Donald Trump was clear with Latin America during his four-year administration: don’t do business with China. The message failed to hit home. – Reuters

Michael Bustamante writes: Washington should listen to the protesters and their sympathisers. Many insist that US policies of hostility and blanket sanctions damage the cause of a more democratic Cuba. History has long shown that the more that events inside Cuba are mixed up with the interminably knotty theme of US relations, the more Havana will have an excuse to dodge its citizens’ calls for dialogue and reform. – Financial Times

Tim Kaine writes: The Summit of the Americas will be hosted by the United States next year. What an opportunity this could be for Biden if he took time in his first nine months as president to deliver an “all Americas” foreign policy. Indeed, his inauguration would not just be seen as a turning point for our country but as a turning point for the Western Hemisphere as a whole. – The Hill


The Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the National Institutes of Health on Monday joined the list of known victims of a months-long, highly sophisticated digital spying operation by Russia whose damage remains uncertain but is presumed to be extensive, experts say. – Washington Post

The far-reaching Russian hack that sent U.S. government and corporate officials scrambling in recent days appears to have been a quietly sophisticated bit of online spying. Investigators at cybersecurity firm FireEye, which itself was victimized in the operation, marveled that the meticulous tactics involved “some of the best operational security” its investigators had seen, using at least one piece of malicious software never previously detected. – Washington Post

Two-and-a-half-years after going into effect, the European Union’s new privacy law has its first fine for a U.S. tech company in a cross-border case—an overdue development, critics say. – Wall Street Journal

The reported cyber breach through an IT contractor’s software used by the military highlights the risks the Department of Defense takes when it increasingly must rely on third party vendors for digital services. – C4ISRNET

Joseph Marks writes: A Russian hacking campaign that breached the Treasury and Commerce departments and ran roughshod through critical companies across the globe is a final stain on the Trump administration’s cybersecurity legacy. […]It likely represents the largest known Russian data theft in half a decade and is a sign Trump administration efforts to constrain Russian hacking have been spotty at best. – Washington Post


The U.S. Navy test-fired its new Block V Tomahawk from the destroyer Chafee in December, introducing the newest generation of the venerable Tomahawk cruise missile to its arsenal. – Defense News

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, launched a Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday, carrying with it a new radio satellite that will broadcast to Sirius XM subscribers in the US, Canada, and the Caribbean from orbit. – Business Insider

Edward Lucas writes: We can take counter-measures to boost our resilience, lifting the veils that protect dirty money and hardening our computers and networks. But we need to rethink deterrence too. Putin’s nukes are useless because he fears retaliation. What can we do to make him — and the Chinese Communist Party — feel the same way about their secret arsenals? Until we can answer that question, our foes will continue to use these weapons against us, and we will continue to lose. – Center for European Policy Analysis

Robert Wright writes: If by “progressive idealists” he means left-of-center people who wax idealistic about America’s global mission — who think our foreign policy should emphasize spreading democracy and defending human rights abroad — then progressive idealists pervade liberal foreign policy circles and will be running the show in a Biden administration. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s picks for secretary of state and national security adviser, respectively, are progressive idealists. – Washington Post

David Axe writes: The Navy wants by 2020 to decommission three Avengers based in the United States in order to free up spare parts for the right minesweepers sailing from Bahrain and Japan. LCSs are still scheduled eventually to handle some minehunting missions, but the Navy also is experimenting with so-called “vessels of opportunity.” Under that initiative, sailors embark on transport ships, amphibious auxiliaries or other non-combat vessels and use them as bases for minehunting divers, underwater drones and helicopters. – The National Interest