Fdd's overnight brief

December 24, 2020

In The News


Iran has suffered the double blow of a public health emergency and deepening economic pain, sending many like Mahnaz Parhizkari, a single mother living in Tehran, into crisis. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump warned Iran on Wednesday that he would hold it accountable “if one American is killed” in rocket attacks in Iraq that the Trump administration and military officials blamed on Tehran. – New York Times

Iran’s foreign minister on Thursday dismissed US President Donald Trump’s allegations that Iran was behind the recent rocket attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad. – Reuters

A letter backing U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to reenter the Iran nuclear deal without any new conditions has garnered 150 signatures from House Democrats — enough to prevent any congressional bid to block the move.  – Ynet

President Trump may be pulled from a “spider hole” and hanged in the vein of Saddam Hussein if Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s prognosticator skills are as advertised. – Washington Times

​A top US general warned that Iran poses a “heightened risk” to America as the one-year anniversary nears of the death of the Republic’s leading military commander in a drone strike, according to a report Wednesday. – New York Post

The endless parade of Iran’s martyr posters in Iraq and the region illustrate an attachment to the “martyrdom” of IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani, and Iran’s media are playing this up day after day. – Jerusalem Post

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Reports in late December 2020 that an Israeli submarine is making its way towards Iran through the Suez Canal represent one of the strongest messages yet that Israel has sent to deter Tehran from increasing tensions in the region. […]Israel is generally tight-lipped on any further details about its submarine fleet, which is considered an elite part of the navy and requires years of training and commitment to serve in. That makes the reports on December 21 all the more surprising and illustrates the seriousness with which the Iranian tensions are being taken in the region. – The National Interest


A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced Can Dundar, a former editor of one of Turkey’s largest newspapers, to 27 years in prison on charges of espionage and aiding a terrorist group. – Washington Post

President Tayyip Erdogan accused Europe’s top rights court of hypocrisy on Wednesday for calling on Turkey to release a jailed Kurdish politician, saying it was defending a “terrorist”, a stance rejected by his defenders as a cover to stifle democracy. – Reuters

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that Turkey hopes to “turn a new page” in its ties with the United States and European Union, and that Ankara had been subjected to double standards by both its NATO ally Washington and the bloc. – Reuters

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev is trying to mend relations between Israel and Turkey, senior Israeli officials told Barak Ravid of Axios on Wednesday. – Arutz Sheva

Sarah White writes: As a result of Turkey’s fall from favor, Greece is an increasingly appealing candidate to step in. It has one of the largest NATO airbases in Europe and has long hosted the F-35s of other countries. Iraklion Air Base in Crete is now being eyed by the U.S. as a candidate to replace Incirlik. The rest of Europe also appears favorably disposed to Greece. […]How Ankara will respond in the near future is unclear; however, the foreign minister has made it clear that Turkey will not abandon its claims in the Eastern Mediterranean (nor its EU bid) simply because of sanctions and criticism from Europe. – Real Clear Defense

Seth J. Frantzaman writes: For Israel, Ankara has one narrative to the Western media and another for home consumption. At home, it calls Bahrain and the UAE “sellouts” for having tolerant and friendly relations with Israel.While Hanukkah was celebrated in Dubai and by UAE diplomats, Ankara’s increasingly far-right Islamist worldview has no place for Hanukkah or for Israel. The goal is solely to make Turkey appear less destabilizing as the new US administration takes office. Ankara now feels isolated as it has worked alongside Iran to be Israel’s chief antagonist, while one Arab country after another normalizes relations with the Jewish state. – Jerusalem Post


Israel is working towards formalising relations with a fifth Muslim country, possibly in Asia, during U.S. President Donald Trump’s term, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Israel welcomes a German push to expand the Iran nuclear deal into a broader security agreement once U.S. President-elect Joe Biden moves into the White House next month, its ambassador to Berlin told AFP. – Agence France-Presse

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted that Israel would not shy away from military action against Iran when he spoke at the graduation ceremony for new IAF pilots on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

The walls of the Old City of Jerusalem were illuminated on Wednesday evening with Israeli and Moroccan flags, in honor of the signing of the peace agreement between the two countries. – Arutz Sheva

Prime Minister Netanyahu is due to meet today with the US ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, who is currently in Israel. – Arutz Sheva

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a Christmas greeting on Wednesday, using the holiday message to highlight Israel’s recent normalization agreements with Arab countries. – Times of Israel

US Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday said an order requiring goods made in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank to be labeled as “Made in Israel” has come into effect. – Times of Israel

The attack on Shirbit was one of the first of the attacks, the most prominent of which has been the Pay2Key attack attributed to Iranian cybercriminals. – Haaretz

A new campaign on social media platform Twitter appears to include more than one hundred pro-Palestinian accounts that are attacking posts about Israel by claiming that all of Israel is “Palestine.” – Jerusalem Post

Ahmed Chara writes: To consolidate these gains, America must equip Arab allies to roll back generations of anti-Semitic messages in state-run media, mosques and schools. […]The coming months offer an opening for Arab states to reshape the international discourse and agenda on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Biden’s presidency may provide an opportunity, Arab leadership will be needed to seize it. – The Hill

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The whole nature of the conversation about Israel over the last decades has been tainted by accepting as normal a situation that was inherently abnormal. It became normal in Western universities to debate the very existence of Israel, and to advocate for a “one-state” solution without even consulting the eight million people in Israel and millions of Palestinians. […]These are symbolic changes that speak volumes about a new normal that is banishing the intolerance of the past. It feels like a revolution is happening in the Middle East. – Newsweek


The barrage of rockets launched at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad Sunday was the largest attack on the capital’s Green Zone since 2010, numbering 21 missiles, the top U.S. military commander for the Middle East said. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump’s pardon of the Four on Tuesday reopened many of those disputes. The men, all military veterans working in Iraq for the private security contractor Blackwater, were convicted of massacring 14 civilians in an unprovoked and unjustified rampage of gunfire and grenades that day in Baghdad. – Washington Post

Top U.S. national security officials agreed on Wednesday on a proposed range of options to present to President Donald Trump aimed at deterring any attack on U.S. military or diplomatic personnel in Iraq, a senior administration official told Reuters. – Reuters

The hoisting of the national flag in Sinjar, home to Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, is the result of a deal months in the making for the federal government to restore order from a tangled web of paramilitaries, who sowed chaos in the district during the bedlam following liberation from IS three years ago. – Associated Press

Gulf States

The Trump administration has formally notified Congress that it intends to sell nearly $500 million in precision bombs to Saudi Arabia, a transaction that is likely to fuel criticism from lawmakers who object to arming the Persian Gulf nation over its record of human rights abuses and stifling dissent and role in the war in Yemen. – Washington Post

International port operator DP World signed a deal Wednesday to develop a new deep-water port in Senegal worth over $1 billion, the company announced, its biggest ever investment in Africa. – Associated Press

Qatar’s foreign minister has called for a de-escalation of tension in the Gulf region and for dialogue between Arab countries and Iran, Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday. – Reuters

A group of 11 young Emiratis and Bahrainis Facebooked, tweeted and Instagrammed their way through Israel this month, part of an influence campaign funded by Americans and Israelis aimed at marketing Israel in light of the recent Gulf normalization deals. – Times of Israel

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The security and stability that Menon mentions is one that the leadership in Abu Dhabi constantly says underpins the country’s approach to its neighbors and the region. In a region that has now seen 10 years of conflict since the Arab Spring, and has seen decades of other wars and extremism, this message is important. From my experience in Dubai and seeing what Israel has achieved in recent decades, it is clear that this is the way forward and that there is potential. If people such as Menon have their way, it will be the future. – Jerusalem Post

Middle East & North Africa

The King of Morocco sent a letter to Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in which he reiterated his country’s support for a two-state solution, Kan 11 News reported. – Arutz Sheva

Morocco’s foreign minister is urging the incoming Biden administration to preserve a deal by President Trump to establish relations with Israel, according to a report. – New York Post

Hamas has expressed “disappointment” with Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Dine El Otmani, the leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party, for signing Tuesday’s normalization agreement with Israel on behalf of his country. – Jerusalem Post

Israel and Morocco on Wednesday signed a financial and investment cooperation agreement during the visit of an Israeli delegation to Rabat. – Ynet

Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita, one of the primary actors in formulating the normalization deal with Israel, revealed to i24NEWS on Wednesday that his country began talks with Jerusalem in 2018. – i24 News

One of the worst years in Lebanon’s tumultuous history is drawing to a close with the country reeling from the aftermath of a massive chemical explosion and an economic meltdown that looks set to cause even more trouble in 2021. – Reuters

Samia Nakhoul writes: As a reporter for Reuters, I covered the civil war, the invasion and occupation of Lebanon by Israel and Syria – and the assassinations, air strikes, kidnappings, hijackings and suicide attacks that marked all these conflicts. But the blast has left me, and many other Lebanese, questioning what has become of a country that seems to have abandoned its people. This time, the lack of answers over the catastrophe is making it difficult for an already crippled nation to rise from the ashes again. – Reuters

Judah Ari Gross writes: As a result, in the eyes of Morocco, the trilateral declaration that was signed on Tuesday night was not a monumental, historic shift, but something of a return to what once was — though there are clear, stated intentions by Morocco to develop these ties beyond what they were before, to full diplomatic relations with proper embassies and ambassadors. – Times of Israel


Apple Inc. is booting thousands of videogame apps from its platform in China as the government clamps down harder on such content, illustrating the tech giant’s vulnerability to state pressure on its business. – Wall Street Journal

Mr. Xi’s swift reversal of more than three decades of apparent movement toward collective leadership and a less intrusive party has surprised both U.S. officials and much of the Chinese elite. – Wall Street Journal

China is coming down hard on one of its biggest and most powerful business empires. – Wall Street Journal

Navy officials say China’s claims that it used naval and air forces to expel a U.S. destroyer from its territory this week are false. – Military.com

David Rosenberg writes: China is the up-and-coming world economic power and since Israel’s strength is technology, that’s where the fighting will take place. The Chinese may have lost interest in startups, but they remain keenly interested in Israeli agriculture, water, environmental and other technologies where Chinese companies lag, according to another SIGNAL conference participant, Zhao Hai, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. So, while Trump may be gone, Biden is no trade-war peacenik and Xi Jinping remains – and indeed seems likely to remain for some time. Israel will remain in the crossfire. – Haaretz

Kris Osborn writes: All of these factors, the strategy explains, are fundamental to China’s massive ambition to emerge as the preeminent global power through military modernization and what some have termed a kind of economic imperialism. The strategy explains this as “predatory lending” and visible attempts to control access to strategic maritime locations. – The National Interest


On Wednesday morning, Rasheed became the latest victim in an intensifying surge of lethal bombings and shootings that have targeted a variety of individuals, including government officials, medical doctors and journalists, in Kabul and other cities. – Washington Post

Sahar believes the recent attacks on women in the security services are part of a wider campaign to silence progressive voices and undermine the precarious peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban under way in Qatar. – The Guardian

Lynzy Billing writes: With international support waning, Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. As the harsh winter sets in, bringing more patients to the MSF clinic, it will soon face more operational challenges. […]As Afghans hold their breath for the outcome of the peace negotiations, millions of vulnerable women’s access to the most basic of human services hangs in the balance. – Foreign Policy

South Asia

Nepal’s call for early elections could hurt China’s ambitions in the country as a split in the Himalayan nation’s ruling Communist Party could open the way for a less pro-China party to take control. – Wall Street Journal

A Pakistani court Thursday ordered the release of the British national convicted in 2002 as the mastermind of the kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, according to the suspect’s lawyer and a government attorney. – Wall Street Journal

Patrick M. Cronin writes: While China’s primary region of concern remains East Asia, the United States cannot afford to ignore South Asia’s rising importance in Beijing’s calculations. Power may be more concentrated in Northeast Asia, and Southeast Asia may be the most pliable and accessible subregion. But China increasingly is looking westward to achieve the level of security and prosperity it desires. – The Hill


Jimmy Lai, the publisher of a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, was granted bail by the city’s high court and placed under effective house arrest ahead of a high-profile national-security trial in April. – Wall Street Journal

For a small country in the South Pacific that joined the UN’s powerful human rights council for the first time in 2019, Fiji has made giant strides within the organisation: right to the very top … almost. – The Guardian

With U.S. help, Taiwan is building its own new, indigenous fleet of attack submarines to protect waters off its shores and better safeguard maritime passageways between the island and mainland China, a move which is being criticized, downplayed and dismissed by Chinese military analysts. – The National Interest


Russians are living through one of the most turbulent times in recent history and yet for the most part, between the holidays and the pandemic, they are putting their heads down – New York Times

A Russian court sentenced a married couple in the Kaliningrad region to long jail terms on Thursday after finding them guilty of spying for Latvia, the FSB security service said, saying the pair had been found guilty of state treason. – Reuters

The United States is urging European allies and private companies to halt work that could help build the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline and is preparing wider sanctions on the Russian project in coming weeks, senior Trump administration officials said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday declared two Colombian diplomats personae non gratae in a tit-for-tat move after the expulsion of two Russians diplomats from the South American country. – Reuters

A Moscow judge on Wednesday convicted a local opposition politician of multiple protest violations and imposed a two-year suspended sentence in a case seen by many as politically motivated. –  Associated Press

Kathryn E. Stoner writes: Russia today isn’t a traditional superpower, but it possesses a diverse set of powerful tools and, under Mr. Putin, the will to use them to remain a formidable global player. The U.S. must face up to the threat that Russia now poses with a sense of urgency and by deploying the full range of American diplomatic, economic and political resources, including a renewed effort to rally the world to our tradition of democratic values. – Wall Street Journal


The U.K. and European Union are on the verge of reaching a post-Brexit trade accord, a few days before the deadline, cementing a deal that would end more than four years of uncertainty about future relations between major U.S. allies. – Wall Street Journal

The announcement this month of a replacement for the flagship Charles de Gaulle cements France’s position as the foremost U.S. strategic ally in the European Union following Britain’s exit. Mr. Macron is also ramping up French military spending and is exhorting neighbors to bolster their armies rather than relying too heavily on the U.S. – Wall Street Journal

Hackers launched a “large-scale cyberattack” on the website of the European Court of Human Rights after it published a ruling critical of Turkey. – Bloomberg

MPs are due to vote in the new year on the Lords’ all-party amendment to the trade bill, which would give the courts a preliminary role in determining whether a genocide is being committed by a country with whom the UK might sign a trade deal. – The Guardian 

Craig Kennedy and Gary Schmitt write: For sure, that agenda will involve more than security matters. But it would be unwise for Germans to think that it will not be a priority of the new White House team as it scrambles to deal with an seemingly increasingly ambitious China with its own limited military resources. Indeed, Berlin would do well to look to Stockholm for an example of what Washington might well expect from European partners. – The Hill


The Kankara kidnapping is also raising fears about the evolution of Boko Haram, which has expanded from its base in northeast Nigeria to ally itself with bandit groups in the northwest. – Wall Street Journal

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Thursday he had deployed forces to the western Benishangul-Gumuz region, a day after gunmen killed more than 100 people in the area, which has seen regular ethnic violence. – Reuters

But four government and security officials familiar with negotiations that secured the boys’ release told Reuters the attack was a result of inter-communal feuding over cattle theft, grazing rights and water access – not spreading extremism. – Reuters

But to former Tutsi rebel leader and current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the one-time hotelier is a dangerous political opponent, having used his fame to criticize Kagame’s civil and human rights record, and to openly support a political opposition movement blamed for bloody armed attacks on Rwandan civilians — though Rusesabagina denies any links to that violence. – Time

Moscow has cultivated Mr Touadéra as an ally through arms deals and the powerful Kremlin-connected Wagner Group, whose mercenaries train local soldiers and protect the president and whose national security adviser is a former Russian spy. – Financial Times

Editorial: The Sudan money will soon be on its way to Embassy bombing victims and their families, and international investment will flow to Sudan if its policies are welcoming. The Trump Administration is leaving behind a more stable corner of Africa, and Joe Biden’s challenge will be to build on that momentum. – Wall Street Journal

The Americas

The Trump administration on Wednesday extended a measure blocking holders of crisis-torn Venezuela’s debt from liquidating its U.S.-based Citgo refineries as payment. – Associated Press

Ryan C. Berg and Daniel Runde write: A stagnant region rife with political instability is not in the U.S. national interest, but it is a post-pandemic reality many countries in our shared neighborhood could confront if the Biden administration ignores the importance of the Western Hemisphere in the United States’ broader ambitions. Signaling an understanding that the health of our shared neighborhood affects the success of U.S. foreign policy priorities further afield begins when the Biden administration hosts the Summit of the Americas early next year. – The National Interest

Dominic Green writes: If the world is splitting into American and Chinese spheres, each with its legal norms, then economic and strategic policies must be aligned. But the new administration shows every sign of attacking the legacy of Trump’s foreign policy out of principle—or the lack of it. […]Biden will lose his footing in the first foreign-policy crisis that comes along. He will fall back on his advisers, and the professional bumblers will make it worse. Perhaps this administration will match the Trump administration’s success in avoiding a futile war. Perhaps it won’t. – The National Interest

James Jay Carafano writes: There certainly is no reason for spending on international programs to be part of that package. That said, there is absolutely a place for foreign assistance in federal spending. The U.S. is a global power with global interests and global responsibilities. To look after Americans and their interests, sometimes it makes good sense to spend money over there, for the benefit of folks back home. – The Daily Signal 

Olivia Tasevski writes: It is unlikely that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will sign the treaty or reduce his country’s nuclear arsenal substantially during his presidency. Still, his administration is likely to reverse some of President Donald Trump’s nuclear weapons policies and could promote significant nuclear nonproliferation measures. Like the leadership of all nuclear-armed states, Biden’s administration will face continued pressure to sign the treaty and deeply engage in nuclear disarmament. – Foreign Policy


Now, U.S. officials have accused Moscow of carrying out one of the worst ever hacks of federal computer systems, penetrating the heart of the American government and ensnaring thousands of private companies. – Wall Street Journal

President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday strongly signaled that Russia was responsible for the massive and growing cybersecurity breach and excoriated President Trump for his handling and response to the hack affecting numerous federal agencies as well as U.S. companies. – Washington Post

The U.S. cybersecurity agency said on Wednesday that a sprawling cyber espionage campaign made public earlier this month is affecting state and local governments, although it released few additional details. – Reuters

Some of the country’s leading defense firms are likely among the 18,000 SolarWinds customers that may have been swept up in one of the country’s worst cyber espionage failures, but investigations to determine the scope of the hackers’ reach will take significant time. – C4ISRNET

Paul R. Kolbe writes: In the meantime, until some order or law takes hold in the cyber-Wild West, it’s time for the United States to stop acting surprised and stop posturing. Instead, we must better defend our digital homeland, learn to block and shake off a punch and, when needed, quietly bloody a few noses. We are in for a long fight; the American people deserve to know the nature of it. – New York Times

David Ignatius writes: But make no mistake: The SolarWinds hack, named for the company whose widely used network software was manipulated to plant malware, was a scary snapshot of today’s Internet — a world where personal privacy has all but vanished and nation states or private actors can penetrate systems and steal data almost at will. If you’re used to thinking of the United States as a fortress, forget it. Our information space has become the terrain where people fight their cyberwars: We are the Internet version of Belgium or Lebanon, trampled by so many armies of manipulation. – Washington Post

David V. Gioe writes: Further, there are a bevy of think tank initiatives and academic research efforts focused on combatting malign foreign interference. These are promising foundations, but, like terrorism, there will always be measures we must keep in place, and we must update our defenses in response to adversary innovation. As the recent Russian hack has shown, after the 2020 election it might have seemed that the danger had passed, but that was only a mile marker on a much longer journey. – The National Interest

Milton Bearden writes: With this latest, massive electronic intrusion by the Russian foreign intelligence service (SVR) into American cyberspace have come the usual uninformed demands for instant, decisive retaliation. There are inflammatory cries that the SVR cyber intrusion constitutes an act of war, pushing the United States toward a confrontation with Russia. The Russian hack is not an act of war. At least not yet. – The National Interest


President Trump vetoed a $740.5 billion defense-policy bill and demanded last-minute changes to coronavirus-relief legislation, adding fresh uncertainty to the closing days of 2020 as a government shutdown loomed. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump vetoed a $740.5 billion defense-policy bill, known as the NDAA, objecting to some of its provisions related to the renaming of bases honoring Confederate figures and overseas troop levels, and that the legislation didn’t end Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Here’s a look at what’s in the bill and what’s next. – Wall Street Journal

President-elect Joe Biden has said that he will reduce “excessive” expenditures on nuclear modernization. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2017 that the Pentagon’s plans for updating and sustaining the nuclear triad of air, sea and land-borne weapons would cost $1.2 trillion, and some lawmakers say the eventual cost might exceed $1.5 trillion. Here are some of the weapons that might be reviewed. – Wall Street Journal

The incoming Biden administration is planning a review of the nation’s $1.2 trillion nuclear-modernization program with an eye toward trimming funding for nuclear weapons and reducing their role in Pentagon strategy. – Wall Street Journal

An effort to pursue a mid-range missile capable of going after maritime targets using the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) has been terminated, according to the fiscal 2021 defense spending bill released Dec. 21. – Defense News

Despite a push from a group of powerful House lawmakers, the final defense spending bill for fiscal year 2021 — released Dec. 21 — slashes the Marine Corps’ efforts to develop long-range precision fires capabilities. – Defense News

The U.S. Navy’s new shipbuilding plan shows that over the next five years it plans to decommission 11 cruisers with more than 1,340 vertical launch tubes, but Congress doesn’t think the Navy has a serious plan to replace them with a new generation of large surface combatants, according to the text of a recent funding bill. – Defense News

Congress increased the Missile Defense Agency’s budget by $130 million to fund a new satellite constellation capable of tracking hypersonic weapons. – C4ISRNET

Congress granted partial funding for an Army tactical network program to modernize command posts after the effort hit delays. – C4ISRNET

The U.S. Navy’s plan to deliver the first vessel in its $128 billion next-generation submarine program on time is at risk by a dependence on inexperienced contractors with spotty quality control track records, according to a congressional watchdog. – Bloomberg

James Jay Carafano writes: The NDAA is arguably one of government’s singular most important responsibilities — and it is a job that never ends. Now more than ever, America can’t afford a time-out from providing for the common defense. We are faced with a rising China, a restive Russia, an aggressive Iran and a dangerous North Korea. Efforts to improve military readiness and sustain the advances we’ve made in building better armed forces under Trump can’t stop now. We will need to continue that effort for years to come. Washington must meet this test and the ones surely to come. – Fox News

Trump Administration

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday granted pardons to former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former adviser Roger Stone, sweeping away the most important convictions under the long-running Russia election probe. – Reuters

President Donald Trump granted a full pardon on Tuesday to George Papadopoulos, a former campaign aide who pleaded guilty as part of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. – Reuters

President Donald Trump gave national security awards on Wednesday to several top advisers for their role in helping broker agreements aimed at normalizing relations between Israel and four countries in the Arab world. – Reuters