Fdd's overnight brief

February 14, 2019

FDD Research & Analysis

In The News


That indictment was made public on Wednesday as the Justice Department accused Ms. Witt, 39, of defecting to Iran in August 2013 to work with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in betrayal of the United States. – New York Times

The Trump White House has accelerated a secret American program to sabotage Iran’s missiles and rockets, according to current and former administration officials, who described it as part of an expanding campaign by the United States to undercut Tehran’s military and isolate its economy. – New York Times

A suicide bomber killed at least 27 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and wounded 13 on a bus in a restive region of southeast Iran on Wednesday, Iranian media reported. It was among the deadliest attacks in Iran in years. – New York Times

Divisions over Iran are hindering the Trump administration’s efforts to build consensus with NATO allies on Middle East policy, with European powers balking at joining top U.S. officials in Poland’s capital for an event on regional security. – Wall Street Journal

Jangravi was one of at least 39 women arrested last year in connection with hijab protests, according to Amnesty International, which says another 55 people were detained for their work on women’s rights, including women who tried to enter football stadiums illegally and lawyers advocating for women. – Reuters

Iran’s supreme leader said Wednesday that any negotiations with the U.S. would “bring nothing but material and spiritual harm” in remarks before an American-led meeting on the Mideast in Warsaw. – Associated Press

France and Iran are close to exchanging ambassadors after Paris suspended nominating an envoy to Tehran last year over claims Iranian intelligence officials had planned an attack on an opposition group in Paris, France’s foreign minister said. – Reuters

Dismissing U.S. objections, judges at the International Court of Justice on Wednesday ruled that the U.N. body has jurisdiction to hear a claim by Iran to recover $1.75 billion in assets frozen by Washington. – Reuters

President Hassan Rouhani vowed revenge Thursday against the “mercenary group” behind a suicide bombing which killed 27 people in southeastern Iran and accused the US and Israel of supporting “terrorism”. – Agence France-Presse

The United States and Israel will lead a new push to pressure Iran at a conference on Thursday in Warsaw which is as notable for its absences as its attendees. – Agence France-Presse

An international court Wednesday ruled Iran can proceed with a bid to unfreeze assets in the United States, rejecting Washington’s claims the case must be halted because of Tehran’s alleged support for international terrorism. – Agence France-Presse

President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told USA TODAY on the sidelines of a rally here organized by an exiled Iranian opposition group that the central problem in the Middle East is Iran. – USA Today

Confronting Iran is the only way to ensure peace in the Middle East, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said prior to meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the Warsaw ministerial conference on Thursday. – Jerusalem Post

Iran is capable of producing a nuclear weapon within two years, if it steps up work on its nuclear program and violates the 2015 deal with the West, according to a recent Israeli intelligence assessment. – Jerusalem Post

Eli Lake writes: U.S. officials also tell me they expect European and Middle Eastern allies to establish working groups to follow up on specific issues raised in the conference. Here, these officials say, the focus on Iran is unavoidable. Discussions about Syria, missiles or cybersecurity will inevitably include the destabilizing role played by Iran. – Bloomberg

Liam Denning writes: And lest we forget, even as Iran’s revolution has endured, the domestic oil industry that helps fund it has never fully recovered, with production around half what it was before the revolution. Sanctions are an obvious reason. Another is the regime’s prickliness with foreign oil companies during periods when they could invest; most were deterred by Tehran’s terms. – Bloomberg


German authorities announced the arrest on Wednesday of a former high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer and two subordinates suspected of crimes against humanity by torturing thousands of victims in detention centers run by President Bashar al-Assad’s security services. – New York Times

Hundreds of people have trudged out of the Islamic State’s last stronghold since Tuesday, surrendering to U.S.-backed forces before their final assault to capture the only village still in the militants’ hands. Some of the Islamic State’s most die-hard fighters are pinned down in Baghouz, a remote hamlet nestled on a bend of the Euphrates River close to the Iraqi border. – Washington Post

Thousands of civilians fleeing the U.S.-backed battle to oust Islamic State from the last territory it controls in Syria have had to run across minefields and ride in open-air trucks for hours in near-freezing temperature to find safety—in a camp with not enough tents. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria provoked widespread fears over a future resurgence of the Islamic State. But it may yet have a silver lining: Other countries have signaled they are willing to take back their citizens who joined the terrorist group but are now detained in makeshift camps. – New York Times

The planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria is fueling tensions between Russia and Turkey over control of a key region of the Middle Eastern country once American forces have left. Russia is pressuring Turkey to agree to an offensive on Idlib, seized by militants linked to al-Qaeda last month, a senior Turkish official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. – Bloomberg

The Israeli shelling of targets in the Quneitra area on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights earlier this week was a response to Iran’s construction of an observation network intended to gather intelligence on IDF operations, the Hebrew news site Walla reported. – Algemeiner


Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said on Tuesday that Israel was willing to help reconstruct the Gaza Strip in exchange for full demilitarization of the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. – Algemeiner

Israel has refused to allow the UN Security Council to visit the territory that the Palestinians claim for a future independent state, UN diplomats said Wednesday. – Ynet

Nearly one year since the “marches of return” started along the Gaza border fence, Avigdor Liberman warned that “the most volatile Israeli border is the one it shares with the Gaza Strip. Liberman said that an assessment of military intelligence that was published Wednesday “is completely consistent with my assessments over the past year. – Jerusalem Post

With Iran continuing to entrench itself throughout the Middle East, Israel might have to consider expanding it’s covert war against the Islamic republic over the next year in order to prevent harm to the Jewish State. – Jerusalem Post

Hamas may initiate broad military action that could bring forth an all-out military confrontation with Israel in a bid to obtain international involvement on the humanitarian situation in Gaza, an Israeli intelligence report published Wednesday asserts. – Haaretz

Yossi Yehoshua writes: Hezbollah is trying to entrench itself in Syria, after Syrian President Bashar Assad has reclaimed the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, precisely as it did between 2014-2015. This was when one of the terror organization’s more prominent members, Jihad Mughniyeh, was appointed by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force to be in charge of the Golan Heights area and planning terror attacks against Israeli civilians. – Ynet

Middle East & North Africa

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a resolution Wednesday calling on Saudi Arabia to “immediately and unconditionally” release women’s rights advocates imprisoned there, as Congress intensifies its criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record after the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. – Washington Post

The House voted on Wednesday to end American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a defiant and rare move to curtail presidential war powers that underscored anger with President Trump’s unflagging support for Saudi Arabia even after the killing of a Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi. – New York Times

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Oman’s foreign minister on the sidelines of a U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference in Warsaw on Wednesday and hinted that other Arab countries represented there were engaging with Israel. – Reuters

The wrecks of vehicles used by Islamic State militants as car bombs and other metal debris left by the war in Iraq are now helping fund their Iran-backed enemies, industry sources say. – Reuters

Joint U.S.-Libyan forces raided an al Qaeda site in the Libyan city of Ubari on Wednesday, according to a statement by a Libyan official. – Reuters

A barrage of Twitter-fire quickly torched any notion of a Middle East peace conference — along with any illusions the meeting in Warsaw was not designed to focus on Iran. As officials from dozens of nations gathered for the U.S.-sponsored event in the Polish capital Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a tweet threatening war with Iran. – Politico

Saudi Arabia is to end advice warning its citizens against traveling to Lebanon in a major boost for the Mideast country’s embattled economy. The Saudi ambassador to Beirut, Waleed Al Bukhari, announced the imminent removal of the travel advisory, which was first imposed in 2013. – Bloomberg

A few steps from Baghdad’s cultural heart and its famous book market on al-Mutanabi Street lies the Iraqi capital’s latest tourist attraction: a war museum glorifying the sacrifices of thousands of mainly Shiite militiamen who died fighting the Islamic State group. – Associated Press

The family of a former British soldier detained in the United Arab Emirates say the stress they are suffering “eclipses” the anxiety they felt when he was serving in war zones. – Sky News

Adam Taylor writes: The Trump administration wants to pull out of Syria, contain the Houthi rebels in Yemen and broker peace with Israel and the Palestinians, all while working to squeeze Iran, a powerful force in all three situations. Its criticism of Tehran over its poor human rights record and its foreign interventions stands in contrast to its refusal to push back on its own Gulf allies for similar accusations. – Washington Post

Birol Baskan writes: Through his visit, Pope Francis not only continued previous papal efforts to build inter-faith trust and tolerance, but also reached out to hundreds of thousands of Catholic expatriates living in the UAE.  However, much more was at stake for his hosts. For the Emirati government, the pope’s visit served to highlight its efforts to promote the UAE as a land of tolerance and to bolster the UAE’s geopolitical objective of discrediting and, if possible, criminalizing the Muslim Brotherhood in the international community. – Middle East Institute

Katherine Zimmerman writes: Eliminating the territorial Caliphate matters in this regard. But the Salafi-jihadist movement pursues a phased and adaptive strategy. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, it has focused on insinuating itself into the fabric of Sunni populations rather than ruling directly. For instance, al Qaeda governed parts of Yemen through local proxies after the 2015 civil war broke out, taking lessons Salafists learned from Syria and Mali. –  American Enterprise Institute

Korean Peninsula

South Koreans were left flustered on Wednesday after President Trump asserted that he had made their government pay $500 million more to help cover the cost of maintaining American troops in the country. – New York Times

Power-strapped North Korea is exploring two ambitious alternative energy sources — tidal power and coal-based synthetic fuels — that could greatly improve living standards and reduce its reliance on oil imports and vulnerability to sanctions. – Associated Press

Micheal Tatarski writes: In locating the next meeting in Vietnam, a country that fought a devastating war against the United States but is now a fast-growing economy and a regional ally, the White House appears to once again be trying to illustrate what is on offer if Kim cooperates. Both Vietnam and North Korea suffered through ruinous Cold War conflicts involving America, and both are among the world’s few remaining Communist-led nations. – The Atlantic


China’s exports surprisingly accelerated last month, suggesting a pickup in global demand for Chinese goods after a drop-off late last year. Exports surged 9.1% from a year earlier in January, according to data from the General Administration of Customs released Thursday. – Wall Street Journal

President Donald Trump is considering pushing back the deadline for imposition of higher tariffs on Chinese imports by 60 days, as the world’s two biggest economies try to negotiate a solution to their trade dispute, according to people familiar with the matter. – Bloomberg

US and Chinese negotiators on Thursday kicked off two days of high-level talks that President Donald Trump says could decide whether he escalates the bruising tariff battle between the world’s two biggest economies. – Agence France Presse

The U.S. and China are sending top-level hawks to Europe for what’s shaping up as a showdown between the two powers at a key security conference as they vie for influence and technological dominance in one of the world’s richest markets. – Bloomberg

Robert Lighthizer has spent his entire career preparing for the next two weeks of negotiations with China. The Trump administration’s 71-year-old U.S. trade representative was one of the earliest and most forceful opponents of China’s admission to the World Trade Organization. – Politico

Senator Marco Rubio writes: Coming away with a strong deal is all the more important because Beijing is pursuing foreign policies that actively undermine American and allied interests. China has thrown financial lifelines to Nicolás Maduro and his criminal cronies in Venezuela. It is also aggressively militarizing the South China Sea, allowing the North Korean regime to evade sanctions and turning a blind eye to destabilizing arms sales by Chinese entities in the Middle East. – Washington Post

Diana Choyleva writes: The government introduced measures aimed at arresting ever-rising prices, such as raising down payments and mortgage rates. Even though Beijing started to stimulate other sectors of the economy in mid-2018 to combat slowing growth, it’s still trying to keep housing prices from rising in China’s bigger cities. As a result, homeowners have scaled back their future wealth expectations and household spending growth has declined accordingly. – Wall Street Journal


Anwar Ibrahim, head of Malaysia’s ruling party, said the nation “will not compromise” in its talks with Goldman Sachs Group Inc. over the 1MDB scandal, and the bank “must bear responsibility.” – Bloomberg

Taliban negotiators will meet their U.S. counterparts on Feb. 18 in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad as part of accelerating diplomacy to end more than 17 years of war in Afghanistan, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Emily Rauhala writes: Since winning the presidency in 2016, Duterte has consolidated his sway over security forces, Congress and the Supreme Court. The country’s free press is seen as a critical check on his power — should it remain free, that is. Ressa has played a key role in raising awareness about threats to journalists at home and abroad. For her work, she was part of a group of reporters named Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year. – Washington Post


In December, President Vladimir Putin called for Russia’s economy “to enter another league.” But that priority is far from clear if one looks at where the Kremlin places its foreign policy chips. – Newsweek

Russia was set to host a trilateral summit involving Iran, just as the United States was holding a separate conference designed to rally global allies against the revolutionary Shiite Muslim power. – Newsweek

Russia, the bad guy of all bad guys, whose president is probably more universally disliked (at least in Washington, London and Brussels) than Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The preferred home nation of James Bond villains and unruly oligarchs who will slander you and ruin your life for a bad business deal may be returning from the brink. Moody’s gave them their coveted investment-grade rating back on February 10. – Forbes

Paul Whelan hasn’t received a presidential tweet, sparked a punishing tariff or provoked a diplomatic stand-off. Now, more than six weeks after the 49-year-old Michigan man’s arrest in Russia, Whelan’s family fears the State Department is neglecting his case and leaving him to “languish” in a 19th Century Moscow prison that once was used for mass torture. – USA Today

Taking aim at Russia, NATO’s civilian chief said Wednesday the alliance is studying a range of options to counter Moscow’s alleged missile treaty violations, and America’s top diplomat accused the Russians of having “grand designs” to dominate Europe. – Associated Press


As the clock ticks down on the U.K.’s planned departure from the European Union, EU leaders are still waiting for a signal from British Prime Minister Theresa May on the next steps in negotiating a critical divorce deal. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday told American banks they can ignore an updated European Union blacklist of dirty-money hotspots, calling into question the EU’s methodology for developing the list, which includes several U.S. territories. – Wall Street Journal

Far-right lnterior Minister Matteo Salvini strolled through a crowd of supporters in the main square of this southern Abruzzo town. […] Next, he says, he wants to take the EU by storm in this May’s European Parliament elections. He has become the central figure in efforts to build a pan-European alliance of nationalists and nativists, including politicians such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban.  – Wall Street Journal

France made a peace offering in a dispute with Italian populist leaders, saying it would soon send its ambassador back to Rome after what Paris saw as meddling in internal affairs. – Bloomberg

Sweden’s ambassador to China is under internal investigation, the embassy said Thursday, after she set up meetings between the daughter of a detained Swedish publisher and two businessmen that appeared to have gone awry. – Associated Press

The United Nations confirmed on Wednesday that it has been officially informed by the Macedonian government that the country’s new name is North Macedonia. – Agence France-Presse

In yet another dramatic sign of rising antisemitism on the European continent, Germany’s government disclosed on Wednesday that violent attacks against Jews in the country surged by 60 percent during 2018. – Algemeiner

Editorial: Pro-Brexit politicians routinely argue that devaluing the pound will boost exports, but this ignores all the evidence and two generations of transformation in the British economy. Brexit success depends on turning Britain into a low-regulation, low-tax, free-trade Hong Kong or Singapore, both of which operate stable-exchange-rate monetary regimes. Brexit won’t work with the failed devalue-and-inflate economic model of Argentina. – Wall Street Journal

Leonid Bershidsky writes: The lack of a security and economic infrastructure that doesn’t include the U.S. makes it difficult for the second-tier powers – Germany, France, the U.K., Japan – to pursue any kind of independent policy. The result is a balancing act between a U.S. that acts like a competitor with a tendency toward bullying and and a security architecture that depends on the U.S. being an ally. – Bloomberg


Four people were killed and an unknown number of others were kidnapped in a Boko Haram attack on a convoy of vehicles carrying the governor of Borno state in northeast Nigeria, sources said on Wednesday. – Agence France-Presse

Once considered a safe tourist destination in West Africa and famed for its annual film festival, Burkina Faso is under serious threat and most regions should be avoided by travelers, according to the French Foreign Ministry. […] A surge in Islamist militant attacks eerily similar to those that have killed hundreds in neighboring Mali has prompted a government reshuffle, the appointment of a new army chief and a state of emergency in the most threatened regions. – Bloomberg

Once every other month, journalist Hassan Dahir, 28, leaves his hostel in central Mogadishu under the cover of darkness to visit his mother in Yaqshid district, north-east of the capital. He will spend the night with her and return to his rented room before dawn. For the past eight years, Dahir has had to sneak such night time visits to his family for fear of al-Shabaab, who he says have already killed at least five of his close friends. – The Guardian

The Americas

A sharp divide between Democrats and the Trump administration over how to enforce trade rules is threatening to delay or derail a congressional vote on a new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement. – Wall Street Journal

The International Monetary Fund and the government of Ecuador have launched formal talks about a potential financial bailout for the South American country, which needs funds to cover a budget deficit and pay debt holders. – Wall Street Journal

Republicans and Democrats in Congress unveiled spending legislation that would avoid a government shutdown through September while giving President Donald Trump only a fraction of the money he wants for a border wall — if the president is willing to sign it. – Bloomberg

Canada’s national game — brought to you by China’s Huawei. As a nasty diplomatic feud deepens between the two countries over the tech company, involving arrests and execution orders, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Huawei’s bright red fan-shaped logo is plastered prominently on the set of “Hockey Night in Canada.” – Associated Press

President Donald Trump has stoked further speculation about potentially using military action to pressure regime change in Venezuela by sending troops to Colombia. – Newsweek


Millions of dollars have been siphoned from Venezuela’s state oil company into a small bank almost 6,000 miles away, in Bulgaria, officials there said on Wednesday as they disclosed an investigation into suspected money laundering. – New York Times

Many among Venezuela’s opposition and its U.S. backers figured President Nicolás Maduro’s regime would crumble quickly after Washington threw its support behind a plan designed to sap his military support and spur his exit. It hasn’t happened that way. – Wall Street Journal

China and Venezuela seemed like natural bedfellows: one is the planet’s top crude-oil importer and the other possesses the world’s largest reserves. – Agence France-Presse

Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido took another step Wednesday in an international bid to economically starve President Nicolas Maduro’s regime, announcing the appointment of a new board for Citgo, the US-based arm of state oil firm PDVSA. – Agence France-Presse

Tom Rogan writes: A significant U.S. naval and marine presence is now operating in proximity to Colombia and Venezuela. Whether coincidental or not, these deployments afford the White House a increasing range of options. – Washington Examiner


In a nod to the rising role of technology and growing importance of information warfare in the battlespace, the Navy will rename Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command’s (SPAWAR) Systems Centers this month, officials announced Wednesday. – USNI News

The Navy awarded Boeing a $43-million contract to build four Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs) that will become multi-mission for the service, according to a Wednesday Pentagon contract announcement. – USNI News

The United States and Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in December 1987. Negotiations on this treaty were the result of a “dual-track” decision taken by NATO in 1979 in response to concerns about the Soviet Union’s deployment of new intermediate-range nuclear missiles. – USNI News

A consortium of South Korean aerospace companies has been selected by the US government to provide maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) services for Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has announced. – IHS Jane’s

The US Air Force (USAF) is aiming to integrate the Raytheon AN/APQ-187 Silent Knight Radar (SKR) onto its Bell-Boeing CV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft over the next three years. – IHS Jane’s

Trump Administration

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort lied to prosecutors with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III about matters close to the heart of their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a federal judge ruled Wednesday. – Washington Post

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has summoned acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker back to the Hill to explain what the chairman said were inconsistent statements made during an open hearing last week. – Washington Post

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan sought to reassure fellow NATO members about the U.S. commitment to an alliance unsettled by President Trump’s mixed messages and the breakdown of a Cold War-era nuclear treaty. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump’s top disaster relief official, who had come under fire for his unauthorized use of government vehicles, said Wednesday he is resigning from his post. Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told senior staff at the agency on Tuesday that he planned to step down in two weeks for family reasons, administration official said. – Wall Street Journal