Fdd's overnight brief

February 11, 2021

In The News


Iran has produced a material that is banned under the 2015 nuclear accords and could be used to form the core of a nuclear weapon, as it seeks to step up pressure on the Biden administration to lift economic sanctions on Tehran. – Wall Street Journal 

The Iranian nuclear scientist assassinated near Tehran in November was killed by a one-ton gun smuggled into Iran in pieces by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, according to a report by The Jewish Chronicle on Wednesday. – Reuters 

Iranians staged a socially-distanced commemoration of their 1979 Islamic revolution on Wednesday, parading in vehicles to avoid infection rather than on foot and displaying ballistic missiles in defiance of Western efforts to curtail the programme. – Reuters

Iran’s foreign minister threatened that the country will expand its nuclear program if the United States doesn’t take a “new approach” toward the Iranian nuclear program. – Washington Examiner

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said his country will start fully complying with the nuclear accord as soon as the U.S. and other world powers that brokered the deal do the same. – Bloomberg

Although the Biden administration is seeking to rejoin the deal, Luria said she was encouraged by President Joe Biden’s recent pledge not to lift any U.S. sanctions until Iran first scales back its nuclear program. – Jewish Insider

Moshe Dann writes: Nuclear proliferation, therefore, may be inevitable, but it is not necessarily uncontrollable. Although secret deals can undermine efforts to control the spread, as Barack Obama has shown, a mechanism in place for responding might be a deterrent. So far the Iranians, like the North Koreans, have counted on international disunity and lack of determination – with success. – Jerusalem Post 

Parisa Hafezi and John Irish write: As the nuclear impasse has festered, so has popular disenchantment at home – especially among women and the young, who comprise the bulk of voters – over high unemployment, soaring inflation and restrictions on political freedoms and social life. […]The election outcome in June will have no notable sway on nuclear policy, which is determined by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the myriad privations suffered by voters make a poor turnout more likely and this could bolster critics who say the establishment must moderate domestic and foreign policy. – Reuters

Jimmy Quinn writes: Although Biden doesn’t need the support of congressional Republicans to lift sanctions, Iran has said plainly that it has no intention of making concessions on the issue of its missile program, even if the two sides agree to reenter the JCPOA. […]In other words, if the Biden administration intends to address Iran’s potential pursuit of ICBMs only after it reaches an agreement on restarting the 2015 nuclear deal, it will almost certainly be in for a rude awakening. – National Review


The United States has renewed its call on Turkey to renounce an advanced Russian air-defense system, rejecting a proposal by Ankara to resolve the dispute. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The United States on Wednesday called on Turkey to immediately release philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala, who has been detained for more than three years without conviction. – Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to speak with his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in the coming days, a State Department spokesman said on Wednesday while reiterating that American policy opposing Turkey’s Russian S-400 missiles remains unchanged. – Reuters

News of rapprochement between Israel and Turkey is heating up after years of ebb and flow in their diplomatic ties. According to Turkish officials, the once-close allies are eager to kick-start their renewed relations soon. – Ynet 

Ahmer Khan writes: In 2016, in the Turkish coastal city of Mersin, a LGBTQ pride choir performed for thousands of people. It was the first time such a concert had ever been organized in the city. Yeliz Guzel, a woman who aspired to bring change to her country, was a founding member of the group, and she did everything in her capacity to make it happen. But soon facing pressure from her town, she left the group. – Foreign Policy


Palestinians opened election registration offices in Gaza and the West Bank on Wednesday, one day after rival factions agreed steps to ensure that the first elections in 15 years go ahead. – Reuters

Former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon on Wednesday implored US President Joe Biden to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. – Times of Israel

Around 400 Palestinians, residents of East Jerusalem as well as Palestinians who work in Israel, were vaccinated against coronavirus on Wednesday afternoon at a Magen David Adom station near the Qalandiya checkpoint, a Magen David Adom spokesperson said. – Times of Israel


The number of militia proxies for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps jumped after the 2015 nuclear deal, and they pose the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East, according to research by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. – Jerusalem Post

Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Thursday began a ground forces drill near the Iraqi border, state TV reported. The report said the annual exercise, dubbed the “great prophet,” is ongoing in the southwest of the country and has aimed at readiness and assessment of forces. – Associated Press

Three Turkish soldiers were killed in a new Turkish military offensive against a Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said Thursday. – Associated Press

Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabia released Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the country’s most prominent women’s rights activists, from prison on Wednesday in the clearest sign yet that the kingdom’s leaders were taking steps to assuage President Biden’s complaints about human rights violations. – Washington Post

Biden’s halt to support for the Saudi-led coalition was a dramatic break with the air campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, which had brought international condemnation for causing thousands of civilian deaths. […]But reaching peace will be a difficult path. – Associated Press

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group said it carried out a drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport on Wednesday which the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi forces in Yemen said caused a fire in a civilian aircraft. – Reuters 

The Biden administration has told Saudi Arabia it will not stand by after the kingdom came under attack from Houthi rebels, condemning an aerial strike on an airport just days after the US said it would end its six-year involvement in the Yemen war. – Financial Times 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen and bolstering Saudi Arabia’s defenses in a call with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department said. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri on Wednesday dined with French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss the crisis in Lebanon and the difficulties in forming a new government, according to Hariri’s Twitter account. – Reuters 

Qatar is working to de-escalate tension in the region by advocating for a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, state media quoted its foreign minister as saying. – Reuters

Fabrice Balanche writes: Despite its occasional public declarations about reconquering all of Syria, Damascus seems content to submit to this game of foreign powers and hold limited sovereignty over reduced territory for the long term. Even if U.S. troops fully withdraw from the east, the country will remain in the hands of the “Astana triumvirate,” so Assad has little choice in the matter. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered tougher legal supervision to support his development plans and eradicate various economy-related unlawful acts, state media said Thursday, as he works to salvage an economy battered by the pandemic and other challenges. – Associated Press

Washington and Seoul are narrowing in on a new cost-sharing agreement for US forces in South Korea and could be just weeks away from striking a deal, according to five sources familiar with the discussions. – CNN

Victor Cha writes: One opportunity may present itself soon: In the first published interim vaccine distribution forecast last week from COVAX, the World Health Organization-coordinated vaccine program, North Korea is listed as a potential recipient of 2 million doses this year. But that is only 10 percent of the population, and it would require the regime to allow for international verification that doses are going to front-line health care workers (and not to the elite and to the military). The combination of need and lockdown in North Korea may provide opportunities to expand internet access to the outside world, simply to allow health care and vaccination training through telemedicine platforms. – NBC 


President Biden will not immediately drop tariffs on China that were applied by former president Donald Trump, and he and told Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday that the United States will seek to counter Chinese military expansionism and human rights abuses, White House officials said. – Washington Post

For the World Health Organization, its fact-finding mission to China left many questions on the possible origins of the pandemic. In Beijing, however, the outcome was framed Wednesday as something solid: vindication and triumph. – Washington Post

An executive at Tencent Holdings Ltd., China’s most valuable publicly listed company, has been held by Chinese authorities, part of a probe into a high-profile corruption case involving one of the country’s former top law-enforcement officials, people familiar with the matter said. – Wall Street Journal

About 90 people were hospitalized with Covid-19-like symptoms in central China in the two months before the disease was first identified in Wuhan in late 2019, according to World Health Organization investigators, who said they pressed Beijing to allow further testing to determine whether the new virus was spreading earlier than previously known. – Wall Street Journal

China’s ban on Australian coal imports is intensifying a crisis in its coal market, which is battling surging prices, supply shortages, conflicting policy goals and a cold winter. – Wall Street Journal

The Biden administration will look at adding “new targeted restrictions” on certain sensitive technology exports to China in cooperation with allies, a senior official said on Wednesday ahead of the new president’s first call with China’s leader Xi Jinping. – Reuters

President Biden ordered a Pentagon-led review of China strategy on Wednesday as his administration examines the military and national security threat posed by the Asian power. – Washington Examiner

Two U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Groups that teamed-up for dual-carrier drills this week in the South China Sea did not see any abnormal responses from China. – USNI News

The United States will not accept World Health Organization (WHO) findings coming out of its coronavirus investigation in Wuhan, China without independently verifying the findings using its own intelligence and conferring with allies, a State Department official said Tuesday. – South China Morning Post

Josh Rogin writes: The U.S. government should make tearing down China’s Great Firewall a key plank of U.S. policy toward China and then devote the attention and resources needed to get it done. Clubhouse gave Chinese citizens a few weeks of free speech. Those of us living in free societies have a responsibility to make that permanent. – Washington Post


Four blasts rocked Afghanistan’s capital on Wednesday, killing two people, including a police chief who had been attempting to crack down on the city’s growing insecurity, marked by almost daily assassinations. – Reuters

But when Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet privately with Secretary Lloyd Austin, his newly confirmed deputy Kathleen Hicks, Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, and the rest of the Joint Chiefs, the most urgent agenda item will be what to do about the looming deadline to pull all remaining troops out of Afghanistan in less than 12 weeks. – Washington Examiner

Editorial: The modest increase in troops should coincide with fresh diplomacy involving Afghanistan’s neighbors, the report argues. History suggests skepticism about help from neighboring Pakistan, but regional actors will have to play a diplomatic role. There are few good options in Afghanistan, but a reckless withdrawal is the worst. – Wall Street Journal

Vance Serchuk writes: Above all, American leadership is indispensable—most concretely, in the wherewithal to keep a sustained, sustainable counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan. That’s a measure Mr. Biden rightly endorsed as a candidate. Too often in foreign policy, the instinct of a new administration is to reverse the strategy of its predecessor, provoking a crisis. In the case of Afghanistan today, it is the essential first step toward defusing one. – Wall Street Journal

South Asia

President Biden announced Wednesday that the United States would impose economic sanctions on the leaders who carried out a military coup in Myanmar, and voiced support for crowds risking arrest to protest the ouster of elected officials in the Southeast Asian nation. – Washington Post

Protesters in Myanmar poured into the streets for the fifth straight day Wednesday to oppose last week’s military coup, despite an escalating use of force by authorities. – Wall Street Journal

Key evidence against a group of Indian activists accused of plotting to overthrow the government was planted on a laptop seized by police, a new forensics report concludes, deepening doubts about a case viewed as a test of the rule of law under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. – Washington Post

China and India have begun pulling back their troops from Pangong Lake along their disputed Himalayan border, officials on both sides said, but other areas of conflict between the two neighbors have yet to be addressed. – Bloomberg

Richard M. Rossow writes: This means President Biden and Prime Minister Modi must personally commit to finding positive pathways for economic cooperation. Senior members of their direct teams must have responsibility for holding our respective line ministries accountable. Topics that have been considered “no-go” such as relaxing immigration restrictions and social security totalization cannot be dismissed by U.S. officials as “too hard.” – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Racism, especially against South Asians, is not a new phenomenon in Hong Kong, whose population is 92 percent ethnic Chinese. But a wave of incidents during the pandemic — including comments from an official who suggested minorities were spreading the coronavirus — is bringing prejudice into sharp relief in this city of astronomical housing prices and extreme inequality. – Washington Post

Hundreds of Thai protesters gathered in Bangkok on Wednesday to demand the release of four activists remanded in custody pending trial on charges of insulting Thailand’s king, a crime punishable by 15 years in prison. – Reuters

The Philippines defence apparatus wants to keep a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, its defence minister said on Thursday, as officials met to settle differences over a pact central to Washington’s Asia strategy. – Reuters

Taiwan’s government expressed its thanks to and “admiration” for U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday after he told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping of his concerns about Beijing’s pressure against the island China, which claims as its own territory. – Reuters

A court in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, has sentenced a man to 10 days in jail for picketing the Chinese Consulate to demand information about his brother, who is in custody in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

A Japanese submarine is damaged after colliding with a commercial ship in international waters off Japan on Monday, resulting in slight injuries to three crew members. – Defense News

A French Navy Rubis-class nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) patrolled the South China Sea, the French minister of armed forces announced in a series of tweets. – USNI News

As the U.S. Navy asserts its presence in the South China Sea, Taiwan’s leader says its ties with Washington remain solid over the transition from the Trump to the Biden administration. – Military.com


Russia and the European Union continue to square off over the detention and poisoning of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny as his team prepares for a new round of protests aimed at avoiding the mass and sometimes violent arrests that have occurred at previous events. – Radio Free Europe / Radio liberty

A Moscow court on Wednesday ordered the arrest of a top ally of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but Lithuania, where the associate lives, bluntly rejected the demand to take him into custody. – Associated Press

A senior European Union official is doing damage control, pitching a hard-line policy on Russia after his excessive meekness during a recent trip to Moscow provoked a backlash in Brussels. – Washington Examiner

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is urging Russia to immediately release a journalist and blogger who was detained after attending a rally in support of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny in the eastern region of Buryatia last month. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Well-known Tatar writer and activist Fauzia Bairamova has been found guilty of a charge of calling for the violation of the Russian Federation’s territorial integrity in a speech that she says was distorted because of translation errors. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

A court in Moscow has ordered mental assessments for former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed, who was sentenced to 9 years in prison in Russia for assaulting police, a charge he has rejected. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Tony Wesolowsky writes: The Navalny case has galvanized the Greens into ramping up their demand that the pipeline be stopped, and it could hamstring the next chancellor, experts say. Amid the heated-up politics over Nord Stream 2, Arild Moe, an energy researcher at Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute, said that there was no need for it at this point, given that EU gas demand is rising slower than had been projected. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


Dozens of news outlets in Poland published black pages Wednesday as television channels cut off their broadcasts to protest a proposed media tax that they say threatens the country’s independent press and is another blow to democratic institutions. – Washington Post

The European Union is considering building an advanced semiconductor factory in Europe in an attempt to avoid relying on the U.S. and Asia for technology at the heart of some of its major industries. – Bloomberg

The European Union rebuffed the U.K.’s call to reset the two sides’ relationship, saying Britain needs to honor the promises it made on Northern Ireland as part of the Brexit deal. – Bloomberg

The suspension of the license of Hungary’s last independent news radio station has drawn international condemnation, with the European Union and media watchdogs calling the move a further attack on democracy in the EU member state. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Frida Ghitis writes: Imagine if the liberal democracies, acting in concert, implemented sanctions against those who benefit from corrupt regimes and imposed curbs on those doing business with state-owned firms in authoritarian states. Despots would have to think twice before imprisoning dissidents, toppling elected officials, muzzling critics, or sending death squads to other countries to silence their foes. It’s a beautiful dream. But it’s far from reality. – Washington Post

Nicholas Nelson writes: In all, the COVID pandemic has put the relative responsiveness and dynamism of a post-Brexit UK and the EU in stark contrast, one in which the EU has come off decidedly worse. And while one must concede that the UK and its constituent nations no doubt face an uncertain future, and that unity may very well not be fully assured, pundits would do well to look at the data rather than sensationalist headlines. – Center for European Policy Analysis


Okonjo-Iweala was poised to become the first woman and African national to lead the global body in its 25-year history until the United States emerged as the lone holdout. […]Her fortunes reversed with the election of President Biden, who signaled support for Okonjo-Iweala on Friday, all but assuring her victory in the everyone-must-agree race once members meet to vote in Geneva. – Washington Post

As soldiers from Eritrea looted the border town of Rama in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, one home became a dispensary for frightened residents seeking medicine in the midst of war. In return, they shared details of killings in nearby communities. An American nurse visiting her family listened in shock. – Associated Press

Ugandan authorities on Wednesday lifted restrictions on social networks imposed ahead of a presidential election last month, but Facebook remains blocked in the East African country. – Associated Press

The Americas

U.S. authorities made nearly 78,000 arrests and detentions along the border with Mexico in January — the highest number for that month in at least a decade and more than double the amount from a year earlier — a sign of the immediate challenge President Biden will face as he attempts to undo the policies of former president Donald Trump. – Washington Post

More than four years after personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana began reporting sudden, debilitating illnesses, with severe headaches, hearing loss and other brain injuries, there are still no definitive answers as to what caused the outbreak. – Washington Post

Hundreds of Haitians chanted “Down with kidnapping! Down with dictatorship!” as they marched through the streets of Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, bolstering opposition leaders who stepped up their demands that President Jovenel Moïse resign. – Associated Press

Editorial: No country holds more sway in Haiti than the United States. By supporting the political status quo there, the Biden administration ensures that more desperate Haitians will flee their country, and many will end up adding to the rising tide of illegal crossing at the Mexican border. As with Central American migrants, the problem of illegal immigrants from Haiti can be mitigated only by a concerted U.S. push to address problems at the source. In Haiti, those problems begin with Mr. Moïse. – Washington Post

Latin America

One day after El Salvador’s main opposition parties indicated their willingness to start a process that could oust President Nayib Bukele two weeks before national elections, they quickly reversed course and said they are not really considering invoking the constitutional provision. – Associated Press

The ransom calls began soon after Carlos Marrón learned his father hadn’t returned from his evening walk. The kidnappers wanted to deal with Marrón directly; he hastily boarded a flight from his adopted home in Miami to Venezuela, aiming to negotiate a swift, safe release. – Associated Press

Colombia has failed to protect human rights activists in its remote communities, resulting in hundreds of slayings since the government reached a peace deal with the country’s biggest rebel movement in 2016, an international monitoring group said Wednesday. – Associated Press

United States

House impeachment managers on Wednesday led a rapt U.S. Senate on a harrowing retelling of the terror that engulfed the Capitol last month, sharing shocking new audio and video recordings of rioters declaring their intent to harm Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials — and showing how close they came to doing so. – Washington Post

Dozens of former Republican officials, who view the party as unwilling to stand up to former President Donald Trump and his attempts to undermine U.S. democracy, are in talks to form a center-right breakaway party, four people involved in the discussions told Reuters. – Reuters 

Editorial: Polling taken last year showed an outpouring of sympathy for the Black Lives Matter cause in the immediate wake of the death of George Floyd, but it sank as the protests turned violent. If people want to argue that the protests were “mostly peaceful” and then were infiltrated and became violent, then they should be the first ones to want to gain a better understanding of the infiltrators. Anyone who wants to engage with the political system to pursue changes peacefully should be most eager to see violence rooted out and malefactors exposed. – Washington Examiner

Editorial: If Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are serious about making the world a better place for Americans and everyone else, they should recognize the imperative of reform. They should clarify that unless the ICC changes tack and the U.N. Human Rights Council accepts reform, they will take coercive action to affect that reform. If nothing else, they should not rush to rejoin such obviously flawed institutions. – Washington Examiner

John Maurer writes: The United States should not neglect Russian-American bilateral dialogue. Although the Cold War negotiating framework is crumbling in the face of new geopolitical realities, properly-structured Russian-American discussions can have continuing relevance in the new era of multilateral rivalry. Despite their differences, the United States and Russia both benefit from competing less with each other and focusing more on China. – American Enterprise Institute


A U.S. plan to force the sale of TikTok’s American operations to a group including Oracle Corp. and Walmart Inc. has been shelved indefinitely, people familiar with the situation said, as President Biden undertakes a broad review of his predecessor’s efforts to address potential security risks from Chinese tech companies. – Wall Street Journal

Facebook is exploring ways to play down political content on users’ feeds as it continues to reckon with the role its site played in boosting interest in the Jan. 6 rally that ended with a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, the social media titan announced Wednesday. – Washington Post

The White House on Wednesday said it had selected a top National Security Agency official to lead the Biden administration’s response to the sprawling SolarWinds hack, a decision disclosed after growing pressure from lawmakers for more information about the breach. – Wall Street Journal

Instagram removed the account of prominent vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the highest-profile steps in parent company Facebook Inc.’s intensifying effort to combat false and misleading information about Covid-19. – Wall Street Journal

While thousands of families grieved the loss of loved ones and the United States’ coronavirus death toll surpassed 350,000 in early January and continued to rise, a film parroting false claims about the pandemic began to spread to millions of social media users. – Washington Post

Around the world, shutting down the internet has become an increasingly popular tactic of repressive and authoritarian regimes and some illiberal democracies – Associated Press

A hacker’s botched attempt to poison the water supply of a small Florida city is raising alarms about just how vulnerable the nation’s water systems may be to attacks by more sophisticated intruders – Associated Press

Election systems in the U.S. are vulnerable to cyber intrusions similar to the one that hit federal agencies and numerous businesses last year and remain a potential target for foreign hacking, according to a report released Wednesday. – Associated Press

Defense priorities are shifting toward emerging technologies at an unprecedented pace, but still not fast enough to keep America ahead of potential adversaries. We need to hit the accelerator by drastically increasing the tech savviness of defense leaders. – Defense News

Brian M. Pierce writes: The protection of the human against malicious influence encompasses the public and private sectors, which means that the development of cognitive security techniques and technologies must be conducted in a neutral environment where government, industry, and academia can work together in the holistic integration of tools, models and datasets to overcome the cognitive security challenges of resilience, situational awareness and engagement. Answering this need is a cognitive security proving ground for national security. – C4ISRNET


With Russia, China and North Korea all modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and Iran enriching, allies want U.S. reassurance. But they are less inclined to believe it. – New York Times 

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the Navy “cannot tolerate extremist behavior of any kind” in a letter addressing recent incidents on ships. – Washington Examiner

President Biden, during his first visit to the Pentagon as commander in chief, called for a “responsible end” to America’s lingering wars and took a jab at his predecessor by vowing “never to politicize” the military. – Washington Examiner

Ongoing testing and experimentation are proving the Marine Corps can be more lethal even while being lighter and more maneuverable, as the service evolves to support littoral operations under its Force Design 2030 plan, a top general said today. – USNI News

A Democratic senator from New York has called on the new defense secretary to investigate a “disturbing pattern” of UH-60 Black Hawk crashes that have claimed the lives of nine Army National Guard soldiers since December 2019. – Military.com

Long War

Twenty United Nations peacekeepers were wounded, several seriously, in central Mali on Wednesday when their base came under fire, the U.N. mission said. – Reuters

The leader of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen appears to be still at large despite a United Nations report which claimed he had been under arrest for months, the SITE Intelligence Group and two local tribal leaders said Thursday after he was seen in a video released by the jihadist group. – Agence France-Presse

Tom Rogan writes: Pakistan had already allowed most involved in that 2002 terrorist atrocity to escape justice […]. And Pakistan suggests it is serious about countering terrorist financing? Give me a break. The FATF shouldn’t simply keep Pakistan on the graylist. It should warn Islamabad that absent rapid and wide-ranging reform, blacklisting is coming. – Washington Examiner