Fdd's overnight brief

December 22, 2021

In The News


The time left to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is running out and raising the risk of an “escalating crisis,” the United States Special Envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Tuesday. – CNN   

European companies can end contracts with Iranian firms pressured by U.S. sanctions if upholding the deals would lead to “disproportionate economic loss,” the EU’s top court said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Iran practiced with missiles, drones and other weapons during the second day of what it has dubbed the “17th Great Prophet” drills. – Jerusalem Post   

Israel and the US are working on a common strategy for their security and interests, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem on Wednesday, at a key time in world powers’ nuclear talks with Iran. – Jerusalem Post   

Israel could successfully strike Iran’s nuclear program tomorrow if necessary, incoming commander of the Israel Air Force (IAF) Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar said in an interview published on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post  

Pardis Mahdavi writes: When the government is pushed up against a wall, its traditional response has been to turn the focus of the population to women’s bodies. And that’s exactly what appears to be happening now. Those who view the current moment only through the lens of politics and the economy, without understanding the politics of sexuality, are missing something critically important about the nature of today’s Iran. – Washington Post  

James Phillips writes: While Iran has trumpeted its growing ties with China as a game changer, it is clear that Beijing takes a much more cautious and realistic approach to this evolving relationship. Iran needs China more than China needs Iran. The United States should exploit this asymmetry by raising the costs and risks of Beijing’s growing ties to the unpopular and corrupt rulers of Iran while reducing the potential benefits. […]Such a pivot on sanctions would not only enhance the chances for a satisfactory outcome of nuclear negotiations with Iran, but would reduce China’s economic incentives for building closer ties with Iran. – Heritage Foundation 

Bruce Portnoy writes: Iran makes indelible demands seemingly to intimidate others, rather than to launch legitimate negotiations. […]The stakes are too high and the risks too great to ignore or minimize Iran’s budding capabilities, which the US can ill afford; since the relatively recent debacle of seemingly abandoning the citizenry of Afghanistan to the Taliban. – Jerusalem Post  


The United Nations is proposing to pay nearly $6 million for protection in Afghanistan to Taliban-run Interior Ministry personnel, whose chief is under U.N. and U.S. sanctions and wanted by the FBI, according to a U.N. document and a source familiar with the matter. – Reuters 

Congressional Republicans are concerned that the Biden administration is stonewalling their investigation into the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, members of Congress and aides told Foreign Policy, after the State Department launched its own internal review of the withdrawal earlier this month. – Foreign Policy 

Benjamin Parkin and Fazelminallah Qazizai write: Although some nations are providing limited food assistance and other aid through bodies like the UN, broader support to the Taliban-controlled country remains a political red line in the west. […]Taliban-run ministries have done little policymaking in the four months since taking power. Many of the fighters that make up their rank-and-file remain unpaid and are sometimes so poor they rely on non-Taliban assistance for food, housing and clothes. – Financial Times  


Turkey’s opposition parties have demanded early elections and a return to a parliamentary system that would reduce the power of the presidency. They have been buoyed by polls showing flagging voter support for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, as well as for its ultranationalist alliance partner. – Washington Post  

The Turkish economy has been in trouble for several years now, but in the last three months, its currency has lost nearly half its value against the dollar. Turks have been shaken by ily price increases in staples from flour and cooking oil to necessities such as electricity and gas. They are finding that their salaries and pensions can no longer pay for even the basics. – New York Times 

Turkey’s currency mounted a dramatic, partial reversal from a monthslong collapse on Tuesday after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a rescue plan to encourage Turks to put their money back into the lira. – Wall Street Journal 


Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian motorist they suspected of attempting to drive his vehicle into a military checkpoint near a West Bank settlement on Tuesday, the Israeli military said. – Reuters 

For three weeks already, US President Joe Biden has not answered Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s request for a phone conversation on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, Channel 13 News reported. – Arutz Sheva 

A majority of Israelis want Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to meet with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, according to a new poll released Wednesday. – Arutz Sheva 

Ra’am chairman MK Mansour Abbas on Tuesday acknowledged that Israel is a Jewish state and will remain that way. – Arutz Sheva 


Lebanon’s Constitutional Council on Tuesday said an electoral appeal by the country’s top Christian party had not been upheld, further complicating the country’s fragile political balance before elections due next year. – Reuters 

The U.N. chief warned Tuesday that the international community is unlikely to come forth with much-needed support for Lebanon amid its persistent government paralysis and as the country struggles through a “very dramatic” crisis. – Associated Press 

Lebanon needs to receive 12 to 15 billion dollars from its partners to kickstart its economic recovery and shore up fast-diminishing foreign currency reserves, Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh said Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse 

On December 10, 2021, a Hamas weapons depot exploded in the Burj Al-Shamali Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon. According to reports in the Lebanese media, the depot exploded after a fire that had started in a fuel tank spread to the nearby Ubayy Bin Ka’b Mosque, where the weapons were stored.[1] Hamas, for its part, firmly denied these reports, claiming in an official statement that the explosion was caused by an electrical short-circuit in a storeroom that held oxygen tanks and disinfectants used to treat Covid patients. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

Arabian Peninsula

Attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi militant group against Saudi Arabia have more than doubled this year from their pace last year, according to a recent report that provides details of escalating violence in the Gulf region. – Wall Street Journal 

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said on Wednesday it had helped get Iran’s sick ambassador out of the country before he died, rejecting an Iranian accusation that the envoy’s evacuation had been delayed. – Reuters 

Qatar plans to invest at least $10 billion in U.S. ports and has approached international banks for financing help, three finance sources say, in an infrastructure spree that reflects the Gulf country’s deepening ties with Washington. – Reuters  

A United Arab Emirates (UAE) agency downloaded spyware from Israeli company NSO Group onto the phone of former reporter Jamal Khashoggi’s wife months before Khashoggi’s murder, new findings published Tuesday concluded. – The Hill 

Seth G. Jones, Jared Thompson, Danielle Ngo, Brian McSorley, and Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. write: Iran and the Houthis have demonstrated a persistent ability to threaten Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf. […]This irregular warfare campaign is occurring in a broader context in which Iran is increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium, supporting a growing number of non-state partners in the region, and developing longer-range and more accurate missiles. Without a more effective campaign to publicly highlight and counter these attacks and help Saudi Arabia defend itself, however, Iran and the Houthis will continue to destabilize the region. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 

Middle East & North Africa

Libya’s Parliament declared that it would be impossible to hold a long-awaited presidential election scheduled for Friday on time, a delay that risked further destabilizing the oil-rich North African nation, which has been troubled by division and violence in the decade since the dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was toppled and killed in a revolution. – New York Times  

Armed groups deployed in the suburbs of Libya’s capital on Tuesday, sparking security fears ahead of an expected delay of presidential elections, as three key candidates met in the country’s east. – Agence France-Presse 

Seth J. Frantzman writes: It is unclear now if Turkey, Iran and Russia can come to some agreement to preserve the status quo in Syria, or if more operations by Turkey or the Syrian regime will take place. […]It appears that, as usual, those groups working with America will be excluded, while Washington has not promised them that the US backs them having a future in Syria. – Jerusalem Post   

Rafael Medoff writes: The names Homs, Nasiriyah and Masyaf are not well known in the West. Neither was Auschwitz, or Chelmno, in German-occupied Poland, where the gassing of Jews began in December 1941. Perhaps the next generation will remember the names of those Syrian towns as the places where genocide was stopped in its tracks. – Jerusalem Post 

Anna Borshchevskaya writes: Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia is in the Middle East to stay, preserve its gains, and work where it can to increase influence without over-commitment. As the US continues to shift its priorities, Russia will find more opportunities to gain a foothold and its presence will cement further. Western absence allowed Russia to fill the vacuum and prop up dictators who act with impunity, which can only invite further instability and violence down the road. History has not ended, great power competition waits for no one, and the Soviet Union is still crumbling. – 19FortyFive 


A jury on Tuesday found Harvard professor Charles Lieber guilty on six counts related to payments he received from a Chinese government talent program, delivering a win for the U.S. government. – Wall Street Journal 

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam was meeting with top leaders in Beijing on Wednesday to report to them on the territory’s first legislative elections held under new laws ensuring that only “patriots” loyal to the ruling Chinese Communist Party could run as candidates. – Associated Press 

China’s voracious appetite for natural gas has sparked a wave of deals with US exporters of the fuel, strengthening energy trade between the world’s two biggest economies even as their relationship grows more fraught. – Financial Times  

Intel Corp. is facing criticism in China after it asked suppliers not to use Xinjiang labor or products, threatening to ensnare the U.S. chipmaker in a dispute over human rights in the far western Chinese region. – Bloomberg  

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urged Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to deepen integration with China, after an election installed a legislature of Beijing loyalists in the Asian financial hub. – Bloomberg 

China’s growing naval power is “explosive” and a cause for concern, said German Chief of Navy, Vice Adm. Kay-Achim Schonbach, who urged Beijing to follow the international rules-based order. – CNBC 

Yet Hong Kong has shown a greater willingness to level terrorism charges since China imposed powerful national security legislation on the city last year. Authorities began using its sweeping provisions to round up members of the opposition in the former British colony, arresting 29 people on terrorism-related allegations in the past 18 months — the first just hours after the security law took effect on June 30, 2020. – Bloomberg 

Editorial: China has a new strategy for spreading propaganda to the rest of the world: Get the rest of the world to do the spreading for it. […]The platforms that fail in too many cases to label state media as state media, much less to label individual contributors as their employees, are dupes, too. And the West in general finds itself flat-footed: its commitment to openness and free expression making room for exploitation by a rival that cares for neither. – Washington Post  

Joseph Bosco writes: Four decades of democratic evolution, effective self-government, and international integration put Taiwan on a different and better path than that envisioned by Chinese leaders, Kissinger, and others. Beijing must be told that the prohibition against one China/one Taiwan stated by Haig, Clinton and Campbell “no longer has any practical significance, and … is not at all binding for” U.S.-China-Taiwan relations. As Nixon wrote in 1994, China and Taiwan are “permanently separated politically.” – The Hill 

Hal Brands writes: This isn’t just a European problem. The U.S. has been leading the charge on competition with China in part by calling for greater cooperation among the world’s democracies. Yet Washington has largely proved allergic to steps that could hurt its own economic interests. The countries that have suffered most for tangling with China, then, are smaller ones. – Bloomberg 


High in this corner of the Himalayas, an expanse of snowy peaks and glacier-fed rivers claimed by both China and India, a tense standoff between the two armies is spurring a flurry of infrastructure and military buildup that’s transforming one of the world’s most remote and inhospitable regions. – Washington Post 

Myanmar’s oldest rebel force wants international help to establish a “no-fly zone” near the Thai border, after warning there was a danger of clashes with the army resulting in civilians being targeted by air strikes. – Reuters 

Pakistan’s military test-fired a home-grown Babur cruise missile on Tuesday that has a range of more than 900 kilometers (560 miles), twice the distance of an earlier missile of the same model, a statement said. – Associated Press 

Taiwanese regulators will soon have new powers to block domestic tech companies from selling off their subsidiaries or other assets in China, the latest move by Taipei to prevent the leak of sensitive technologies, including semiconductors, to the mainland. – Financial Times  


Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. expects to hold talks with Russia next month to try to defuse tensions over the country’s military buildup near Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin hardened his rhetoric toward the West. – Wall Street Journal 

U.S. officials are considering tough export control measures to disrupt Russia’s economy should Russian President Vladmir Putin invade Ukraine, a Biden administration official told Reuters. – Reuters 

President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Russia had no room to retreat in a standoff with the United States over Ukraine and would be forced into a tough response unless the West dropped its “aggressive line”. – Reuters 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday blamed the West for escalating tensions in Europe, saying it had incorrectly assessed the outcome of the Cold War. – Reuters 

The U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) office says that Russia is continuing to move away from commitments it made a decade ago to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty  

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write: Russia calls its system for controlling online discourse the “sovereign Internet.” The nationwide system, whose control center is located in Moscow, is designed to suppress traffic the Kremlin doesn’t like. It can isolate specified sections of the Web or cut off entire regions of the country from the Internet in case of protests or unrest. […]The tech companies should not be left on their own when it comes to making decisions about whether they should get into bed with these regimes. – Washington Post  

Michael McFaul writes: There are many other important European security issues that also need new attention. But this list of amendments to the Russian draft treaties is a good place to test whether Putin is serious about an actual negotiation on a new European security architecture — or whether he’s interested merely in issuing an ultimatum, designed purposely to be rejected, as a pretext for greater military action against Ukraine. – Washington Post  

 Anton Troianovski, Ivan Nechepurenko, and Valerie Hopkins write: Some analysts fear that the escalating rhetoric is laying the foundation for what Russia would cast as a defensive intervention to protect its security and Russian speakers in Ukraine. […]The effectiveness of the state’s militarized messaging is up for debate. Polls show that young people have a more positive view of the West than older Russians, and the pro-Kremlin sentiment prompted by the Crimea annexation appears to have dissipated amid economic stagnation. – New York Times  

Daniel Kochis, Alexis Mrachek, and Luke Coffey write: Under the current circumstances, President Biden is wrong to suggest that Moscow should be awarded a high-level meeting with NATO. […]The Russian people will continue to suffer, and Russian influence on the international stage will continue to be marginalized. Now is the time for U.S. leadership and strength—not weakness and meekness. – Heritage Foundation 

Peter Rough writes: Putin has probed Biden’s commitment to Ukraine and discovered it hollow. For all of Biden’s emphasis on democracy, the world is awaking to the realization that his commitment to a Europe whole and free may end where Russia says its sphere of influence begins. Far from deterring Putin, Biden is emboldening him — and, at some point, Ukraine will pay the price. – The Hill 

David Fickling writes: China may ultimately have the stronger hand. By building Power of Siberia 2, Russia will give itself a substitute market for the gas that it would otherwise ship to Europe. […]Russia would dearly love to have the sort of leverage over China that it’s enjoying over Europe right now. China will do everything it can to resist that situation. – Bloomberg 

Sergey Radchenko writes: It is important to unpack the Russian proposals and perhaps salvage something from them that will give Putin a dignified way out of the unpleasant situation he presently finds himself in. Such negotiations are unlikely to deliver breakthroughs. At best, we can perhaps reach a stalemate that will persist for 10, 20, even 30 years. But if the Cold War has taught us anything, it is that it often pays to be patient. – War on the Rocks 

Benjamin Arbitter and Kurt Carlson write: Any direct involvement of uniformed Russian military personnel in small wars abroad presents a significant risk to the Kremlin, with its well-documented aversion to Russian casualties. Exploitation of these potential vulnerabilities requires a coherent international strategy between the United States and its allies. The more expansive the Russian efforts abroad, the more pressure points become available to U.S. policymakers seeking to influence behavior in Moscow. – War on the Rocks 

Melinda Haring writes: Washington is pretending that Russian president Vladimir Putin is bluffing about invading Ukraine. He isn’t, and he may strike before the new year. There are at least four reasons why. Putin, as I wrote in November for Foreign Affairs, is thinking about his legacy. Great Russian leaders grab land. Second, he doesn’t see anyone stopping him. Third, he’s convinced that Ukraine isn’t a real country. Fourth, Putin hasn’t been able to get a deal out of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Putin sees approval for NATO membership in Ukraine only growing. – The National Interest 


A Russian pipeline carrying natural gas to Germany is emerging as a potential point of leverage for the U.S. to deter Russia from invading Ukraine. It is also a sore spot between Berlin and Washington. – Wall Street Journal 

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte on Tuesday discussed U.S. support for Lithuania in response to Chinese economic pressure with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, her office said. – Reuters 

The U.S. State Department has approved the potential sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to the government of Lithuania in a deal valued at up to $125 million, the Pentagon said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Bulgaria does not see a need for deployment of NATO troops on its territory as a response to Russia’s troop build-up near the border with Ukraine, its defence minister said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Ukraine’s armed forces are heavily outnumbered and outgunned by Russia’s but could put up a level of resistance that would force Russian President Vladimir Putin to pay a price of many thousands of Russian lives for any new invasion. – Reuters 

The leaders of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia met Tuesday to discuss and agree on furthering their Open Balkan initiative to promote political and economic ties. – Associated Press 

Editorial: Targeting an American investment is doubly insulting. The U.S., through NATO, is treaty bound to send Americans to fight and die for Polish security. Washington will have to be stern in its condemnation without blowing up the relationship with its most important ally on NATO’s eastern flank. – Wall Street Journal 

Constanze Stelzenmüller writes: As for Germany, the time when it could plead its history as an excuse to stand aside is long past. Europe’s economic anchor nation is essential to any western effort to deter Putin. Every potential measure — sanctions on Russian entities, cutting Russia out of the Swift electronic payment system, cancelling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — would be financially and politically costly for Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s new government. – Financial Times  


France’s military said Tuesday that it killed an Islamic State-linked militant leader who is believed to have been involved in the murder of six French humanitarian workers in Niger in August 2020. – Washington Post 

Malian leaders have harshly criticised the French for a strategy they say has worsened the conflict and for their decision to halve their 5,000-strong military presence. – Financial Times  

Editorial: When the fighting eventually does end, it may be difficult to put Ethiopia back together again. Even if Abiy achieves the total victory he seems to believe possible, Tigrayans are unlikely to accept being part of a federal union. […]That the Ethiopian project should have so dramatically unravelled is a tragedy not only for Ethiopia but for a continent that looked to it as a plausible model of development. Those in search of an African success story will have to look elsewhere. – Financial Times 

The Americas

El Salvador’s populist president got into a Twitter spat with the White House, accusing the Biden administration of trying to take over his country with communist insurgents. – Washington Examiner 

Anthony Faiola writes: Across Latin America, the left is on the march, capturing the presidencies in Peru, Honduras and, on Sunday, Chile, adding to the ranks of other left-leaning governments already stretching from Mexico to Argentina. […]Still, the new crop of leaders will face steeper challenges than their peers in the 2000s and will need to sidestep their ample mistakes. Back then, Latin America was blessed with a historic commodities boom used to fuel social programs and reduce poverty. – Washington Post 

David Ignatius writes: Being a realist in foreign policy sometimes means being unpopular and facing criticism for not putting enough stress on values. That Kissingerian space — valuing order and predictability over bromides about democracy — is where you sense Biden wants to be. But there’s a disconnect between the private tough guy and the public pussycat we sometimes see in Biden’s foreign policy. – Washington Post  

Michael Mazza writes: While the United States is understandably uncomfortable with China’s deepening influence in its own backyard, perhaps the greatest risk in Beijing’s expanding reach is that it will spark a conflagration in Asia that could draw Washington and Beijing into direct confrontation. Better to prevent that fire than seek to fight it after the fact. – Newsweek 


Poland on Tuesday rejected accusations that it had used Pegasus spying software for political ends after a top lawyer opposed to the current government said he had been targeted. – Agence France-Presse 

Kim Jong Un marked a decade as supreme leader of North Korea in December. Whether he can hold on to power for another 10 years may depend on state hackers, whose cybercrimes finance his nuclear arms program and prop up the economy. – Bloomberg 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is expanding its recently announced bug bounty program for cyber vulnerabilities to include incentives for hackers to hunt down issues related to the Apache logging library log4j vulnerability. – The Hill 

Andrew A. Szarejko and John Arquilla write: Like any other tool of statecraft, diplomacy is not a cure-all. But if accidents are going to happen — in cyberspace or in elsewhere — it is worth taking steps to mitigate the risks associated with them. This is clearly a concern on Biden’s mind. It should also be on the minds of all whose duties consist of ensuring the national security. – War on the Rocks 


The prospect of increased weapons costs and rising wages are already causing significant problems for Pentagon planners as they craft President Joe Biden’s upcoming budget proposal for fiscal 2023, defense experts say. – Defense News  

The prototype satellites that will help the U.S. Missile Defense Agency track hypersonic threats have passed a critical design review, meaning the contractors can move forward with manufacturing. – Defense News 

Aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush has spent the past two weeks showing off the future of naval aviation, hosting the U.S. Navy’s first MQ-25A Stingray unmanned tanker for an at-sea demonstration and conducting that carrier’s first F-35C Joint Strike Fighter flight operations. – Defense News   

Soldiers will drive the Army’s Robotic Combat Vehicle through major testing in 2022. In 2021, the Army received both the light and medium variants of the RCV and started work in small teams before a planned company-level evaluation this coming year. – Defense News  

A relatively small company is getting a $32 million contract to develop sensors to help protect U.S. and allied satellites from Russian and Chinese spacecraft. The award that appears to exemplify the kind of transaction the Pentagon wants more of: affordable, innovative technology from companies, regardless of size. – Defense One