Fdd's overnight brief

February 18, 2021

In The News


That decision upended their lives. Mr. Shargi is the latest dual American citizen arrested in Iran. He was sentenced on Nov. 30 to 10 years in prison on murky charges of national security violations, after a trial that he not only did not attend but had no idea had been taking place. – New York Times

Top diplomats from European powers and the United States will hold talks on Thursday to see how to revive the 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear drive, days ahead of a deadline set by Tehran that could hinder the efforts by limiting inspections. – Agence France-Presse

Three members of Iran’s intelligence agency were killed during an operation targeting an organized crime group in southeastern Iran, the country’s state TV reported Wednesday. – Associated Press

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog will travel to Iran this weekend in an effort to find a “mutually agreeable solution” that allows it to continue its inspections in the country, the organization said Wednesday. – Associated Press

Iran should send positive signals to increase the chances of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal and defuse a standoff with western powers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Hassan Rouhani in a phone call on Wednesday. – Reuters

Iran has informed the U.N. nuclear watchdog it plans to install more of its advanced IR-2m centrifuges at an underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, a report by the agency on Wednesday said, which would deepen a breach of Iran’s nuclear deal. – Reuters

The United States and its allies have called for Iran to reverse and refrain from any steps that would impact its assurances to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday, as Tehran said it will start banning short-notice inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog. – Reuters

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded “action, not words” from the United States if it wants to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, challenging new President Joe Biden to take the first step toward a thaw. – Reuters

A U.S. judge found no proof that federal prosecutors in Manhattan knowingly withheld key evidence from lawyers for a banker charged with Iran sanctions violations, even as she excoriated the government for mishandling the case. – Reuters

Michael Knights writes: To restore deterrence, the U.S. should consider options to shake the confidence of the AAH leadership, such as a “near-miss” drone or covert action strike on a location close to its head, Qais al-Khazali, or an obvious penetration of his personal communications and computer security. If the Biden team wants to differentiate their approach from the past administration, then such “out of the box” thinking is more needed than ever. – Politico

Ardavan Khoshnood writes: Regrettably for Iran, President Biden recently said he will not lift any sanctions unless Iran reverses its “nuclear steps.” The Erbil attack is almost certainly Iran’s reply to that demand. More attacks will occur during the coming weeks and months. Tehran hopes to put its own version of “maximum pressure” on Biden and his administration, thus forcing him to lift the sanctions as soon as possible and return to the nuclear deal. The use of violence to achieve foreign policy goals has been the modus operandi of the Islamic Republic of Iran since its birth in 1979. Will it succeed this time? Probably yes. – Besa Center 

Salem Alketbi writes: It is clear that the mullahs do not want to appear as if they are retreating. But President Biden, on the other hand, cannot reengage unilaterally. He needs to make decisions that restore the prestige of the United States globally, and thus the situation remains secret, awaiting an effective breakthrough by one of the parties, and this is unlikely, at least in light of the current situation. – Jerusalem Post


Israel and Syria, long bitter foes, are engaged in Russian-mediated talks for a prisoner exchange after an Israeli woman recently crossed the frontier and was detained by the Syrian authorities, Syrian state media and Israeli officials said on Wednesday. – New York Times

In total, 20 men and women were killed last month in the sprawling camp in northeastern Syria housing families of the Islamic State group. – Associated Press

Nuri Kino writes: The U.S. and the European Union must adopt alternatives to comprehensive sanctions on Syria. The international community should not impose collective suffering on innocent civilians for the sins of their governments. The entire human rights canon is premised on the inherent dignity of the individual. – Washington Examiner


President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held their first phone call of Mr. Biden’s presidency on Wednesday, the White House said, noting a shared commitment “to strengthen all aspects of the U.S.-Israel partnership.” – Wall Street Journal

The first coronavirus vaccines reached the Gaza Strip on Wednesday when 2,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik serum crossed into the heavily guarded enclave of almost 2 million Palestinians. – Washington Post

In a virtual conference speaking to the Institute of International and European Affairs on Wednesday, International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda tried to play down the controversies with the US and Israel. – Jerusalem Post

A Hamas court on Wednesday sentenced a Palestinian man to death by hanging after convicting him of killing an activist who murdered his father for allegedly collaborating with Israel. – Jerusalem Post

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has continued to include hateful rhetoric in its curriculum despite claiming to have dropped such material, according to an IMPACT-se report Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

More than 93 percent of eligible Palestinian voters registered to take part in the scheduled Palestinian elections in May before voter registration closed on Tuesday, the Palestinian Central Elections Commission said Wednesday. – Times of Israel

Editorial: Israel is not perfect, nor is its conduct in war without blemish. But it has an independent judiciary able – as it has demonstrated in the past – to mete out justice to its malefactors. It does not need ICC intervention. […]Austria and Lithuania should be applauded for joining other states willing to stand up for Israel on the world stage. If other countries would do the same, it would give them enhanced credibility with the Israeli public, if and when they choose to give advice or impact policy. – Jerusalem Post

Herb Keinon writes: But what the possible deal does is highlight two things that Netanyahu is interested in keeping in the public’s mind near election day: his close relationship with the powerful Russian leader, and his ability to use to Israel’s advantage the relationships he has cultivated over the years around the world – even if he is not Biden’s first, or even 15th, call. And that is something that could impact voters deciding between Netanyahu, Sa’ar or Bennett. – Jerusalem Post

Udi Shaham writes: The deal worth billions of dollars between the Defense Ministry and the US for new fighter jets, tankers, and munitions that was approved on Tuesday is a game-changer but is crucial towards maintaining the Israel Air Force’s superiority in the region. – Jerusalem Post

Douglas Bloomfield writes: My own theory is that Biden has a full load of issues, problems and leftover Trump detritus to deal with, and he just doesn’t want to sit through another of Netanyahu’s condescending sanctimonious lectures on how to do his job. […]The Middle East is not a top priority for the new administration. The prospects of resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are remote, with neither side showing much interest. The US Embassy will remain in Jerusalem, but Biden wants to move early to restore relations and aid for the Palestinians that were largely cut off by Trump. – Jerusalem Post

Arabian Peninsula

Officials from the United Nations have pledged to make inquiries after new video footage appeared to show Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, the daughter of the ruler of Dubai, being held against her will. – Washington Post

The Biden administration has said it expects Saudi Arabia to “change its approach” to the US and signalled that it wants to minimise any direct contact between the president and the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. – The Guardian

The Saudi-Led coalition said it intercepted and destroyed a drone launched by Yemen’s Houthis towards Saudi Arabia’s southern city of Khamis Mushait, the state TV reported early on Thursday. – Reuters

The United Arab Emirates is dismantling parts of a military base it runs in the East African nation of Eritrea after it pulled back from the grinding war in nearby Yemen, satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show. – Associated Press

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Three recent decisions that have left many confused appear to underpin how Israel and the United Arab Emirates have potential for excellent relations, but also show Israel’s need for better communication. The decisions include postponement of visa-free travel until July, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to schedule and then cancel a trip to Abu Dhabi and a massive number of Israeli defense companies being left in the lurch over a planned defense exhibition. – Jerusalem Post

Middle East & North Africa

The United States on Wednesday vowed to impose consequences on the perpetrators of the rocket attack in northern Iraq which killed a civilian contractor and injured a U.S. service member. – Reuters

Nicholas Kristof writes: My answer is that we must balance our interests and our values. We’ve seen the limits of raw idealism in Libya, but also the limits of raw military power in Iraq and Afghanistan. We achieve change sometimes by dropping bombs, yes, but sometimes by supporting education and human rights, including women’s rights. The Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai because they understand that in the long run, the greatest threat to extremism isn’t a drone overhead but a girl with a book. – New York Times

David Rosenberg writes: Libya is an attractive source of oil due to its proximity to Europe and the quality of its crude, and global prices have lately recovered a bit. But the supply and demand situation remains highly unfavorable for producers, who aren’t likely to be keen on investing in increasing output, especially in a place like Libya with such an uncertain future. It’s much easier to drive a country into chaos than it is to restore order. Lebanon barely succeeded, and these days is heading back into failure. The record of failed states setting themselves right isn’t very good, and Libya isn’t likely to be an exception to the rule. – Haaretz

Korean Peninsula

The Justice Department on Wednesday unsealed charges against three North Korean intelligence officials accused of hacking scores of companies and financial institutions to thwart U.S. sanctions, illegally fund the North Korean government and control American corporations deemed enemies of the state, including Sony Pictures Entertainment. – New York Times

The wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un resurfaced in public view this week after an unexplained absence of more than a year, joining her husband at a concert on an important national holiday. – Washington Post

North Korea’s malicious cyber activities threaten the United States and its allies and will be included in an ongoing review of U.S. policy toward the country, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday. – Reuters

A North Korean man in diving gear swam to South Korea on Tuesday in an apparent bid to defect from Kim Jong Un’s Hermit Kingdom, the South Korean military said Wednesday. – Fox News


Biden administration officials have tried to project a tough line on China in their first weeks in office, depicting the authoritarian government as an economic and security challenge to the United States that requires a far more strategic and calculated approach than that of the Trump administration. – New York Times

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is warning that rising tensions with China could have serious consequences for U.S. businesses, laying out a worse-case scenario where some major U.S. industries would be crippled. – Wall Street Journal

Beginning next week, the Cyberspace Administration of China will require bloggers and influencers to have a government-approved credential before they can publish on a wide range of subjects. – Associated Press

Britain on Wednesday proposed that the U.N. Security Council call for ceasefires to allow for COVID-19 vaccinations, a move that will be a key test of cooperation at the United Nations between China and new U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration. – Reuters

A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed into the contested waters of the South China Sea on Wednesday, challenging “unlawful and sweeping maritime claims” by Beijing and other governments in the region. – Newsweek

Editorial: Where America offers a global future centered on democracy and the rule of law, China offers a global future structured around feudal mercantilism, an order in which China offers investments in return for fealty to the Communist Party. The American president shouldn’t hint or, by his actions, suggest that there is any moral equivalence between these two modi operandi. He should take the next chance he has to “clarify” his position, which is to say reverse the impression he has created. And he should choose his words better next time. – Washington Examiner

Charles Lane writes: Given the chronic corruption, political and economic, of the Olympic Games, maybe it’s time to reconsider whether we should teach young people to “go for the gold” in the first place. […]If the United States and other democracies boycott the 2022 Winter Games, China could respond in kind, triggering a tit-for-tat cycle that ultimately puts an end to the Olympics altogether. Or so one hopes. – Washington Post

Olivia Enos and Tori Smith write: The need to address human rights challenges in China will remain pressing as the U.S. government transitions into the Biden Administration. Seizing on the bipartisan political momentum to tackle the severe rights violations taking place in Xinjiang is a good place to start; addressing forced labor there is a discrete challenge with practical policy solutions to remedy the challenges and ensure that goods produced with forced labor in Xinjiang no longer make their way into U.S. markets. – Heritage Foundation


Peace talks for Afghanistan have not made sufficient progress to allow a withdrawal of foreign troops, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Wednesday ahead of a virtual meeting with her NATO counterparts. – Reuters

New Zealand said on Wednesday it will pull out its last six troops from Afghanistan by May, the first foreign government to confirm a withdrawal since peace talks began and coming at an uncertain period for the process as violence rises. – Reuters

Neville Teller writes: Just-installed Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on January 27 that the administration wanted to take a detailed look to “understand exactly what is in the agreement” before deciding how to proceed. These statements have raised hope in Ghani’s beleaguered government that Biden will rethink a deal that many in Kabul see as giving too much away to the Taliban. Reshaping the deal, though, is almost certainly an aspiration too great. The most Ghani can realistically hope for is a determination by the Biden administration to enforce the Taliban’s compliance. – Jerusalem Post

South Asia

India on Wednesday offered a COVID-19 vaccine to all United Nations peacekeepers – nearly 95,000 troops in 12 missions around the world. – Reuters

India is hosting international diplomats in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir to showcase efforts to restore normalcy over a year after it stripped the region’s special status, officials said. – Reuters

Aparna Pande writes: The realization that Pakistan is no longer a U.S. ally seems now to be accepted wisdom in Washington. But those advocating a “reset” in relations under President Biden seem to be suggesting that a reset is possible without dealing with Pakistan’s own dysfunction — or consequences for past Pakistani conduct. […]Instead, the U.S. needs to figure out how to deal with a nuclear-armed Pakistan closely aligned with China, providing safe haven to myriad Islamist terrorist groups, and bent on causing mischief for U.S. allies Afghanistan and India. – The Hill


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet virtually on Thursday with his counterparts from Japan, Australia and India in the “Quad” framework, a grouping seen as part of efforts to balance China’s growing military and economic power. – Reuters

Prominent Hong Kong democracy advocate and newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai returned to court to relaunch his appeal for bail on Thursday ahead of his April trial on charges of colluding with foreign forces. – Associated Press

The U.N. independent investigator on Myanmar said Wednesday that “hardened” troops are being deployed from a number of border areas in northern Rakhine state to some cities, raising the possibility of bloodshed and “a tragic loss of life.” – Associated Press

Japan and the United States have agreed to extend the arrangement on how much Tokyo pays to host U.S. troops on its soil for another year as the two countries continue to work out a new pact, the island nation announced Wednesday. – The Hill

Mayyu Ali writes: After the coup, General Min Aung Hlaing spoke about his intention to bring back Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. We have no faith in him. He talked about our repatriation for the benefit of the United States and the European Union, to avoid sanctions. […]I fear for the terrible violence to come and worry about the fate of the 600,000 Rohingya who are still living in Myanmar. Thousands of them are confined to camps in Rakhine State. – New York Times


Russia’s justice minister on Wednesday dismissed as “unlawful” a European Court of Human Rights ruling demanding the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, and accused the court of meddling in the Russian judicial system. – Reuters

The national security official leading the Biden administration’s response to the SolarWinds hack says the United States will “holistically” consider all of the “likely Russian” malign cyber actions when putting together a response to massive intrusions. – Washington Examiner

Anastasia Shevchenko has spent the past week packing a bag for prison and recording voice messages for her two children to listen to when she’s gone. The opposition activist was placed under house arrest over two years ago, accused of links to a pro-democracy group based in the UK and banned in Russia under a controversial 2015 law on “undesirable organisations”. – BBC News

All this bears the signs of a global disinformation campaign — trumpeting Sputnik while sowing doubts on the safety and efficacy of Western vaccines — and is a well-trodden geopolitical strategy by Moscow, according to Nico de Pedro, head of research and senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft, a Spanish think tank. – Politico


Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Draghi, appealed on Wednesday for unity and sacrifice as the country pushes forward with vaccinations and seeks to seize on a $240 billion European relief package to overhaul the economy and address persistent inequalities. – New York Times

The European Commission is expected to announce more legal proceedings against Hungary on Thursday for failing to change a law requiring civil organisations to disclose foreign donors, three officials said. – Reuters

Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound bombs at two protests in Madrid and Barcelona on Wednesday, each attended by thousands, the day after a rapper was arrested on charges of glorifying terrorism and insulting royalty in his songs. – Reuters

A trial began in Belarus on Wednesday of a former banking executive who was jailed last year after challenging President Alexander Lukashenko in an election that sparked mass protests against the veteran leader’s rule. – Reuters

A Belarusian court sentenced two Belarusian journalists from Poland-based TV news channel Belsat to two years in prison on Thursday, after authorities arrested them for live filming protests against President Alexander Lukashenko. – Reuters

The French minister for higher education has sparked a backlash from university heads after warning about the spread of “Islamo-leftism” in the country’s academic institutions. – Agence France-Presse

Three people were hurt Wednesday when a letter bomb exploded at the German headquarters of discount supermarket Lidl, police said. The blast occurred in an administrative building at the company’s head offices in Neckarsulm, western Germany, shortly before 1400 GMT. – Agence France-Presse

President Emmanuel Macron announced new investment to bolster France’s cyber security defenses after two hospitals were struck by ransomware and the national security agency linked a large cyberattack spanning three years to Russian hackers. – Bloomberg


Dozens of Nigerian schoolchildren were kidnapped by gunmen early on Wednesday morning, becoming the latest victims of the West African country’s slide into insecurity. – New York Times

The deacon believes that the Eritrean soldiers, in their hunt for Tigray fighters, have killed thousands more people in villages outside Axum. “When they fight and lose, they take revenge on the farmers and kill everyone they can find,” he said. “This is what we’ve seen in the past three months.”  – Associated Press

The terrorism trial of the man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” began on Wednesday with his argument that a Rwandan court cannot try him because he is no longer a citizen and his assertion that he was kidnapped and is being held hostage. – Associated Press

Sudan has summoned its envoy to Ethiopia home for consultations amid a growing border dispute that has seen military buildup along the two countries’ border in recent weeks, an official said Wednesday. – Associated Press

Hannah Ryder writes: While there are certainly weaknesses in the Africa-China relationship still to be addressed, I disagree with these 2021 reckonings and their reasoning. I predict that in 2021, the relationship between African nations and China will strengthen even further. […]Hence, FOCAC will almost certainly confirm that the Africa-China relationship will strengthen in 2021. Despite its challenges and weaknesses in delivering more for African people, right now, it simply beats the rest. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

The Americas

Venezuela’s president said Wednesday he is open to dialogue with the new U.S. administration on calming tensions between the two governments and easing his nation’s economic crisis, even while doubling down with fresh accusations that six American oil executives jailed in Caracas spied for the CIA, a claim rejected by relatives and a defense lawyer in the case. – Associated Press

From a windowless cell in a maximum-security prison in Colombia, Yacsy Álvarez awaits trial on charges she helped organize an attempted armed invasion to overthrow the government in neighboring Venezuela. – Associated Press

An international tribunal has found that Jamaica’s government violated the rights of a gay man and a lesbian, according to a ruling released Wednesday, and activists say it could set a precedent in a region long known for legal harassment of the LGBT community. – Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo in a phone call on Wednesday that Washington was committed to addressing the causes of illegal immigration, the State Department said. – Reuters

The Mexican government called the top U.S. representative in Mexico on Wednesday to press for natural gas supplies after the Texas governor ordered fuel to remain in the state during a freeze that has overwhelmed its energy grid. – Reuters

United States

The Biden administration is preparing to strike a more cooperative tone at the first meeting of senior NATO officials since President Donald Trump departed office, as the alliance faces difficult questions about how to proceed with a frayed U.S.-Taliban peace agreement and when to withdraw the remaining forces from Afghanistan. – Washington Post

President Joe Biden and his top officials have announced a comprehensive review of the Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions since coming to office nearly a month ago, but so far one staple of U.S. statecraft remains in steady use: sanctions. – Newsweek

Henry Olsen writes: The United States needs allies, but it also needs allies that agree on the alliance’s purpose and are willing to carry their share of the load. We desperately need to reform our alliances and restructure our military to meet our urgent challenges. That gargantuan task would tax any administration. It’s troubling that the Biden administration seems not to understand that it needs to do so. – Washington Post

Max Boot writes: The entire world is watching how Biden handles these early tests. They will set the tone for his whole presidency. He should avoid getting more deeply embroiled in the Middle East, but he also needs to show the world that he is no pushover. Otherwise, the provocations will only get worse. – Washington Post

Gov. Mike Dunleavy writes: While there’s no doubt America has fallen behind on Arctic policy, there’s still time for us to chart a new future. After all, many of our nation’s greatest achievements came when others had already counted us out. I’m convinced that with a strong commitment to building new icebreakers and an emphasis on basing Arctic forces in Alaska, it’s possible for America once again to have a strong voice on the future of this critical region. – Washington Examiner


A Navy carrier strike group got a first glimpse at what future operations could look like, with SEALs providing forward targeting data and Marines on expeditionary bases providing another missile strike option to supplement the strike group’s aircraft- and surface ship-based weapons. – USNI News

New electronic warfare capabilities show how the Army is extending beyond its traditional ground targets, with plans for a long-distance tool that spans oceans and is a key contribution to the joint service fight. With advanced adversaries forcing the Army to operate across against greater distances, the service recently unveiled its proposal for the electronic warfare tool, dubbed the Terrestrial Layer System-Echelons Above Brigade. – C4ISRNET

The U.S. military’s joint warfighting effort, known as JADC2, depends on the ability to transfer data between disparate systems. To help build out those capabilities, service leaders have kicked off a new round of discussions about common data standards and how to encourage contractors to follow those guidelines. – C4ISRNET

The U.S. Navy is collecting proposals for a new autonomous glider drone that can collect data — such as water temperatures over time — as a way to improve how it hunts for enemy submarines. – Defense News

A new artificial intelligence (AI)-powered cybersecurity solution for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) aims to protect platforms against attacks during flight, with developers SparkCognition and Skygrid seeing potential military applications in expeditionary missions. – Janes