Fdd's overnight brief

December 8, 2020

In The News


U.S. economic sanctions on Iran could impede its access to coronavirus vaccines, business and financial analysts say, imperiling efforts to contain the largest outbreak in the Middle East and risking continued spread of the virus throughout the region. – Washington Post

Iran’s Supreme Court has upheld a death sentence against dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam for fuelling anti-government unrest in 2017 on social media, a judiciary spokesman said on Tuesday. Reuters

European powers have warned Iran that its plans to expand its atomic energy programme risk scuppering efforts to revive a landmark international nuclear deal after US president Donald Trump leaves office. – Financial Times

Jake Sullivan, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, expressed guarded optimism for restoring the nuclear accord with Iran even as the country has moved closer to developing nuclear weapons. – Bloomberg

Officials in the Gulf and Europe are preparing for imminent attacks by Iran on Israeli or Jewish sites around the world as revenge for the assassination of its top nuclear scientist, Israeli and European officials and security experts told Insider. – Business Insider

Wang Xiyue writes: To stop the Iranian regime’s hostage-taking, the international community must work together. First, the perpetrators must be held responsible. Western states, including the U.S., the European Union, Britain, Canada and Australia, should ramp up targeted sanctions — using the Magnitsky legislation where possible — against Iranian entities and individuals involved in hostage-taking. These nations should forge a multilateral agreement to make concerted efforts against any state-sponsored hostage-taking, especially that of Iran. They should require the regime, as a precondition for any future political deal, to release all hostages and forswear hostage-taking in future. – Bloomberg

Bret Stephens writes: There is a road toward a credible and durable deal with Iran that can muster the kind of regional support and bipartisan buy-in the last one lacked. It’s a deal that forces the regime to choose between a nuclear program or a functioning economy, rather than getting both. A Biden administration that has the patience to see through Tehran’s bluster can be rewarded with a lasting diplomatic achievement that a future administration, unlike the last one, will not easily erase. – New York Times


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday his country will continue to support Syria, urging Damascus to confront Israel in the occupied Golan Heights. – Associated Press

A senior member of the Syrian civil defense and medical group that operates in opposition-held areas, known as the White Helmets, has been flown to Germany, a German diplomat said Tuesday. – Associated Press

Series of powerful explosions were heard in the southern suburbs of the Syrian city of Quneitra, near the Israeli-Syrian border, Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Manar news reported, quoting Syrian television. – Jerusalem Post


After a request from the Sudanese government, Israel has started lobbying senators and members of Congress to approve a bill that would give Sudan immunity from future lawsuits in the U.S. by victims of terrorism, senior Israeli officials told me. – Axios

Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said Monday that Israel is “very comfortable” with Washington’s proposed $23 billion arms deal to the United Arab Emirates and stressed that he is far more concerned about President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. – Times of Israel

The United Nations General Assembly called on Israel to “renounce possession of nuclear weapons” in a 153-6 vote on Monday, with 25 abstentions. Israel was asked “not to develop, produce, test or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.” – Jerusalem Post

Has the State of Israel made contact with aliens? According to retired Israeli general and current professor Haim Eshed, the answer is yes, but this has been kept a secret because “humanity isn’t ready.” – Jerusalem Post

Middle East & North Africa

Pope Francis will make the first papal visit to Iraq in March, to support the country’s Christian minority and urge peace and reconciliation in a nation racked by years of sectarian violence, including partial occupation by Islamic State militants. – Wall Street Journal

As the Pentagon pulls troops out of the Middle East in the coming weeks, under orders from President Donald Trump, U.S. military leaders are working to find other ways to deter potential attacks by Iran and its proxies, and to counter arguments that America is abandoning the region. – Associated Press

Eastern-based Libyan forces have intercepted a Turkish ship under a Jamaican flag heading to the port of Misrata in western Libya, their spokesman said on Monday, a possible new flashpoint in the conflict after weeks of truce. – Reuters

Turkey has ordered the detention of 304 members of the military in an operation targeting the group that the government claims to be behind a 2016 coup attempt, state-run media reported Tuesday. – Associated Press


China is increasingly flouting international sanctions on North Korea and is no longer trying to hide some of its smuggling activity as it seeks to help Pyongyang endure the Trump administration’s pressure campaign, U.S. officials say. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration added more than a dozen senior Chinese Communist Party officials to its sanctions blacklist on Monday for actions the U.S. says undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy. – Wall Street Journal

China will take necessary countermeasures according to the situation after the United States announced a new arms sale package to Taiwan, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday. – Reuters

China has drastically curtailed the overseas lending programme of its two largest policy banks, after nearly a decade of ambitious growth which at its peak rivalled that of the World Bank, new research indicates. – Financial Times

Zhao Lijian thrives on controversy. Aggressive promotion of China’s interests is expected for a foreign ministry spokesperson, but Mr Zhao has pioneered an extreme approach by becoming a populist provocateur who owes his career to a willingness to shock, needle and troll Beijing’s critics on Twitter. – Financial Times

William Alan Reinsch writes: The tragedy of that view is that it misses the point—the United States and the European Union both face the same challenge, which is China, and that challenge is too big for either of us to take on alone. President-elect Biden knows that, which is why he is so focused on building a coalition to confront China’s anti-market activities. The European Union gives lip service to that plan, but though their lips say “yes,” their eyes say “not so fast.” They continue to lag in recognizing the seriousness of the Chinese challenge, although the repressive policies of the Chinese government in Xinjiang and Hong Kong—an affront to democracies everywhere—are pushing them in our direction. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The number of Afghan civilians killed in air strikes carried out by the US and its allies has risen 330% since 2017, a US study says. In 2019 alone, around 700 civilians were killed, the Costs of War Project at Brown University says. – BBC

A Democratic senator is calling on the State Department to prioritize the return of Mark Frerichs, an American contractor believed to have been taken by a Taliban-linked militant network in Afghanistan earlier this year. – Associated Press

The Afghan government has been accused of pandering to the Taliban after it launched a plan to strengthen Islamic identity by insisting all young children are taught at their local mosque. – Telegraph


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern apologized Tuesday for security lapses that preceded New Zealand’s deadliest terrorist attack, as a report found intelligence officials had focused disproportionately on countering Islamist violence rather than threats posed by other extremist ideologies. – Washington Post

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has new powers to veto or scrap agreements that state governments reach with foreign powers under laws that could stymie China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Australia and further inflame tensions between the trading partners. – Bloomberg

Chinese military forces are preparing for a “massive” attack on Taiwan in the coming years, according to the island democracy’s top diplomat. – Washington Examiner

Beijing has spent years turning islands and reefs in the South China Sea into military bases and airstrips — but such territory could be vulnerable to attack and nigh indefensible in the event of war, a new report has warned. – CNN

The acting U.S. secretary of defense met with his counterpart in Indonesia on Monday as part of a visit to Asia in which he will push Washington’s free and open Indo-Pacific policy. – Associated Press


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is to meet senior members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Moscow on December 8 in what the Kremlin terms a “very important visit.” – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution urging Russia to end its “temporary occupation” of Crimea and immediately stop transferring weapons to Ukraine. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Just days after Russian Aerospace Force deputy commander-in-chief made the bold claim that more than thirteen hundred foreign air reconnaissance aircraft had operated near Russia’s borders this year, the Russian Defense Ministry’s official newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda reported that an additional thirty-six foreign aircraft conducted similar flights over just the past week. – The National Interest

Hundreds of people in Chechnya have attended the funeral of Abdullakh Anzorov, appearing to pay homage to the 18-year-old who decapitated the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty last month, a video has shown. – The Guardian


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is “straining every sinew” to get a Brexit deal that works for both sides but the EU must want to do it too, his health minister said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Germany’s Europe minister said Tuesday that further delaying the European Union’s landmark 1.82 trillion-euro ($2.21 trillion) long-term budget and coronavirus recovery package would be “irresponsible” as diplomats envisage a solution without Poland and Hungary, the two EU states holding up the measure. – Associated Press

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will head to Brussels within days for urgent talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, amid growing fears on both sides that Brexit trade talks will fail. – Bloomberg

Romania’s premier Ludovic Orban resigned on Monday night after his ruling centre-right party came second in elections on Sunday that attracted the lowest turnout since the fall of communism. – Financial Times

The EU will impose sanctions on alleged serious human rights abusers around the world under a new law agreed on Monday — but campaign groups called immediately for it to be widened to tackle international corruption. – Financial Times

Tom Rogan writes: Britain is a net importer from the EU, and in the context of coronavirus-related economic challenges, many of the EU’s 27 different national governments are putting heavy pressure on the bloc’s leaders to reach a deal. These governments don’t want to lose a valued export market in a situation in which their economies are already struggling. Britain knows this. In part, Johnson’s hard-line negotiating stance flows from his access to British intelligence reports, which give him behind-the-scenes insight into the great internal pressure on his EU opposites to make a deal. – Washington Examiner


Ethiopia’s government denied on Monday that northern forces whom its troops have fought for a month would be able to mount a guerrilla insurgency, while diplomats said a United Nations team was shot at while trying to visit a refugee camp. – Reuters

A United Nations security team seeking to visit a camp for Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray region was denied access and shot at, two diplomatic sources said on Monday. – Reuters

The Trump administration for the first time on Monday designated Nigeria as a country of particular concern (CPC) for violations of religious freedom, one of 10 highlighted by the State Department for failing to stem the persecution and discrimination of faith groups. – The Hill

The Americas

The election of Joe Biden as U.S. president will raise pressure on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to step up the country’s effort to curb growing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. – Wall Street Journal

Two whistle-blowers have accused contractors building President Trump’s border wall of smuggling armed Mexican security teams into the United States to guard construction sites, even building an illegal dirt road to speed the operation, according to court documents unsealed by a federal judge on Friday. – New York Times

President Nicolas Maduro hailed a “new dawn” in Venezuela on Monday as he celebrated his now total grip on power following a predictable triumph in polls boycotted by the opposition and slammed as a farce by international powers. – Agence France-Presse


The U.S. National Security Agency warned that Russia’s hackers are exploiting a flaw in products made by the software company VMware Inc. – Bloomberg

A federal judge on Monday fully blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to ban TikTok in the U.S., the latest defeat in the White House’s legal crusade against the video-sharing app. – NPR

Amid renewed tension between the U.S. and Iran, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a warning to be vigilant for activity from Iranian hackers. – Defense One


President-elect Joe Biden is expected to name Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general who was in charge of military operations in the Middle East under President Obama, as his defense secretary, according to people familiar with the matter, which would make him the first Black defense chief in U.S. history. – Wall Street Journal

In an October request for information, Naval Sea Systems Command’s Submarine Combat and Weapons Control Program Office asked industry for input into a “Submarine-Launched Unmanned Aerial System,” or SLUAS, currently in development. – Defense News

Boeing, General Atomics and Kratos will create prototypes for the Air Force’s Skyborg program and have a mere five months to build the first test vehicles of the autonomous combat drone. – Defense News

The Russian ambassador to the United States said there is still time to extend the Strategic Arms Control Treaty, due to expire in early February, even despite the upcoming presidential transition. – USNI News

The Democrats’ 2020 platform was unambiguous: Donald Trump had damaged the civil-military balance and Joe Biden would repair it. But the president-elect has quietly slotted his own coterie of former military officials into key transition positions and is now ready to tap a retired general to run the Pentagon. – Politico

Bradley Podliska and Donnie Hodges write: The survey data we conducted confirms and explains why officers do not want to work there — for many officers, working at the Maxwell Air Force Base is not an attractive option. But it does not need to be this way. If the Air Force offers geographically distributed Squadron Officer School campuses, co-located with university partners, as well as career opportunities and Air University leadership recruitment, then Squadron Officer School can become a desirable instructor assignment choice. It is a choice that not only allows Squadron Officer School leaders to select the best and brightest as the next cadre class, but also puts the Air Force on target to fight its next fight. – War on the Rocks

Geoffrey F. Gresh writes: Though promoting the spread of navalism for allies and partners comes with certain risks, larger and more capable regional navies will help offset some of the global burden that the U.S. military faces as it continues to adapt to a new global strategy, especially in a financially constrained environment. Greater multilateral maritime cooperation among like-minded powers will do much to help manage China and Russia’s growing maritime presence amid the arrival of the new Great Game at sea. – War on the Rocks

Long War

As the Taliban and the United States were finalizing their February deal, Taliban leaders were in frequent communication with al-Qaeda, consulting with their counterparts on the terms of the agreement and assuring them that they would not be betrayed, according to U.N. monitors. – Washington Post

French authorities said Monday that the main suspect behind October’s deadly Nice church attack has been handed terror murder charges. – Associated Press

Six supporters of Indonesian Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab were killed in a shootout on Monday, police said, raising worries the clash could reignite tensions between authorities and Islamist groups in the world’s biggest Muslim majority country. – Reuters