Fdd's overnight brief

February 2, 2021

In The News


Iran tested a new rocket on Monday with improved technology that could be used in its missile program, its latest attempt to raise the stakes for the Biden administration ahead of potential negotiations over a new nuclear deal. – Wall Street Journal

The aircraft carrier Nimitz is finally going home. The Pentagon last month ordered the warship to remain in the Middle East because of Iranian threats against President Donald J. Trump and other American officials, just three days after announcing the ship was returning home as a signal to de-escalate rising tensions with Tehran. – New York Times

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested a way on Monday to overcome the U.S.-Iranian impasse over who goes first in returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, saying a top EU official could “synchronize” or “choreograph” the moves. – Reuters

Iranian state TV on Monday aired the launch of the country’s newest satellite-carrying rocket, which it said was able to reach a height of 500 kilometers (310 miles). – Associated Press

Iran’s parliament, dominated by hard-liners, rejected on Tuesday a budget bill proposed by the country’s relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, state TV reported. – Associated Press

Several Iranian agents who scouted out the Israeli, American, and Emirati embassies in an unnamed East African country in preparation for a potential attack have been arrested, according to a Monday Israeli TV report. – Times of Israel

A press conference by Iranians from a society of “veterans” of the Islamic Revolution issued a scathing statement that bashed the government for budgetary failures and “sacrificing internal trust for relations with several countries,” Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported. – Jerusalem Post

Editorial: The lesson from that experience is that the threat from Tehran can’t be contained by separating the nuclear menace from other malign behavior. It must be dealt with in the aggregate. Biden should start by insisting that Iran demonstrate goodwill toward its neighbors if it expects goodwill from the U.S. in return. – Bloomberg

Fred Fleitz writes: Reaching a legitimate agreement with Iran that addresses the threats posed by its nuclear and missile programs as well as its support of terrorism and meddling in regional disputes will be difficult. […]The Biden administration must recognize that there are no shortcuts to a good agreement with Iran and be willing to walk away if Tehran will not agree to the above preconditions. The U.S. can always keep the Trump administration’s successful Maximum Pressure strategy, with its strong sanctions, in place until Iranian leaders are prepared to negotiate in good faith. – National Review

Jim Inhofe writes: My colleagues and I strongly hope to avoid further conflict with Iran. The Biden administration has an opportunity to build bipartisan congressional support for a truly comprehensive, inclusive, and permanent diplomatic resolution. […]A new agreement that achieves these goals would ensure a better outcome—one that will not be subject to the next presidential or congressional elections and one that will allow the United States to focus more squarely on the challenges posed by Russia and China. – Foreign Policy


Bogazici University is one of the best universities in Turkey, endowed with a startlingly beautiful campus, perched above a crenelated fortress on the shores of the Bosporus. Once part of the American-founded Robert College that opened in 1863, it is famous for its Western-leaning liberal arts culture. As such, it has long been a target of Mr. Erdogan and his religiously conservative supporters, who not only covet its prestige but deplore its liberal attitudes. – New York Times

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday his ruling AK Party and its nationalist allies may start work on drafting a new constitution, less than four years after overhauling the previous constitution to grant his office sweeping powers. – Reuters

Turkey and Azerbaijan have begun large-scale joint military exercises in eastern Anatolia near the border with Armenia. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


Israel transferred the first batch of a Covid-19 vaccine to the Palestinians amid growing concerns over the disease’s spread in the neighboring West Bank and Gaza becoming a threat to the country. – Wall Street Journal

Israel and Kosovo established diplomatic relations on Monday, via online links due to the coronavirus crisis, under a U.S.-brokered deal that includes a pledge by the Muslim-majority country to open an embassy in Jerusalem. – Reuters

A Biden administration official spoke with a Palestinian counterpart on Monday, according to a Palestinian official. This would be the first public-facing and official contact between the U.S. and Palestinian governments in several years. – Haaretz

An Israeli drone crashed in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday morning, a day after a similar incident in southern Lebanon, the Israel Defense Forces said. – Times of Israel


Lebanon’s Hezbollah said on Monday it brought down an Israeli drone that had entered Lebanese airspace, while the Israeli military said one of its drones had fallen inside Lebanon. – Reuters

Lebanon’s army said on Monday it had arrested 18 people, some Lebanese and others Syrian, with links to Islamic State. – Reuters

Patricia Karam writes: Although Lebanon is unlikely a high priority for the Biden administration, only the US has the gravitas and resources to produce a plan that could help save Lebanon. And the Lebanese should solicit America for help based on shared democratic values. The continuing civil society engagement that spurred the revolution is pushing for a necessary overhaul to the entire political system. Without a reinvention of Lebanon—a new vision and strategy that allows for the emergence of a political alternative to the existing corrupt political class—the entire nation risks becoming a failed state. – The Hill

Arabian Peninsula

The Biden administration Monday reversed a last-minute decision by former President Donald Trump to lift aluminum tariffs on the United Arab Emirates. – Wall Street Journal

The United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Washington said he was confident the sale of F-35 jets to his country would go through after a review by President Joe Biden’s administration of some pending arms sales to U.S. allies. – Reuters

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning to travel to the United Arab Emirates next week in the first public visit by an Israeli leader to the country, cementing the normalization of ties. – Bloomberg

Saudi Arabia on Saturday said its air-defense system destroyed an armed Houthi drone that was flying in Yemen’s airspace. The drone was judged to be a threat to Saudi Arabia and its forces, which are fighting against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. – Jerusalem Post

Ibrahim Jalal writes: Overall, it remains to be seen whether the RA will pave the way for greater stability in the south and east, while also strengthening the newly formed government of PM Maeen. The assassination attempt on cabinet members should be an incentive for local actors and the RA’s sponsor, Saudi Arabia, to double down on efforts to achieve peace, security, stability, and prosperity. – Middle East Institute

Suleiman Nimr writes: Given Antony Blinken’s recent comments on a review of U.S. support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, the relationship between Washington and Riyadh is already experiencing strain. It remains to be seen whether Saudi leadership can recover much goodwill in its relationship with its most important international backer. – Washington Institute

Middle East & North Africa

Iraq proceeded Monday with the closure of one of its final camps for families displaced during battles with the Islamic State, residents and a local official said, leaving thousands in a scramble to find shelter. – Washington Post

Pope Francis said on Monday he is intent on making a trip to Iraq next month even if it means many Iraqi Christians won’t be able to see him in person because of COVID-19 restrictions. – Reuters

Libyans watching a peace process nearing a critical phase this week in Switzerland need only try driving from one side of their country to the other to understand the obstacles to diplomacy. – Reuters

Delegates from Libya’s opposing sides kicked off a five-day meeting on Monday to choose an interim prime minister and a three-person presidency council in a bid to reunite the troubled oil-rich country before an election in December. – Associated Press

The Islamic State terror group was largely crushed by coordinated international effort in 2019, but its networks appear to still have access to an estimated $100 million in cash reserves stashed across the Middle East, the US Treasury Department said. – Al-Monitor


China’s top diplomat warned the U.S. not to cross a “red line,” in an attempt to steer a delicate bilateral relationship toward areas of cooperation as President Biden signals continuity with the previous administration on hot-button issues including Hong Kong and Xinjiang. – Wall Street Journal

A Huawei executive who resigned following revelations of the Chinese tech giant’s work on a “Uighur alarm” system that could track minorities is speaking out for the first time, saying the company failed to take seriously matters of public surveillance and human rights. – Washington Post

An official from China’s far west Xinjiang region accused former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday of trying to undermine Beijing’s relations with new President Joe Biden by declaring that China’s actions against the Uighur ethnic group are “genocide.” – Associated Press

Authorities have given no word on the status of Chinese legal rights activist Guo Feixiong after he was blocked from leaving the country last week to join his family in the United States, his sister said Tuesday. – Associated Press

Hong Kong residents who seek to flee Chinese communist oppression could find a welcome home in the United States under President Biden. – Washington Examiner

Former EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday slammed the EU-China investment agreement as being too weak on labor standards, describing Chinese commitments under the deal as “cheap.” – Politico

When a group of Chinese warplanes simulated an attack on the US aircraft carrier last week, Beijing was delivering a warning. The USS Theodore Roosevelt was entering the South China Sea, disputed waters that Beijing claims as its own but where Washington insists on asserting freedom of navigation for everyone else, when six Chinese H-6K heavy bombers flanked by four J-16 fighter jets flew into Taiwan’s air defence zone. – Financial Times

In his speech, Shi argued that the China-U.S. stability of the past is gone, and that without new stability, there will be war, saying: “So there must be new strategic stability which will be achieved by being practical, sufficiently focused, and through specific and important proposals, dialogues or negotiations.” He added that China cannot have confrontation with other developed countries besides the U.S. and Britain: “The purpose is to focus strategically and reduce first- and second-tier opponents.” Below are excerpts of Shi Yinhong’s speech: – Middle East Media Research Institute

Carl Bildt writes: China is trying to shape the standards and rules of the future Internet and global digital infrastructure, and does it with skill and determination. The brutal fact is that if the United States and Europe start to go down different roads on digital issues, this is bound to make Chinese global digital ambitions easier to achieve over time. – Washington Post


An Afghan peace ministry official suffered light injuries in a bomb blast in the capital Kabul on Monday, police said, the latest in a recent series of attacks on civilian targets. – Reuters

At least three people were killed and seven wounded in a series of explosions in Afghanistan on Tuesday, after Western countries called on the Taliban to end a wave of violence that the group denies responsibility for. – Reuters

The strong signals from Washington that the Biden administration is leery of the Trump plan to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the next three months has the Taliban crying foul and the Afghan government cheering. – Washington Examiner

South Asia

The Indian government on Monday said it plans to raise limits on how much foreign companies can invest in the country’s insurance industry, a move that could attract inflows from U.S. and European insurers. – Reuters

Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the release from prison on Tuesday of Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, a ringleader in the kidnapping and murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl by al Qaeda and Pakistani Islamist militants in 2002. – Reuters

Pakistani security forces acting on intelligence raided a militant hideout in the country’s northwest Monday, killing three militants who had allegedly been involved in targeted killings in the country, the military said. – Associated Press


On Monday, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, detaining Suu Kyi, elected ministers from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party and others in a predawn raid. Though she was condemned internationally for defending the military and its campaign against the Rohingya minority, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent 15 years under house arrest now finds herself again at the generals’ mercy. – Washington Post

President Biden said the Myanmar military’s seizure of power was a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and that the U.S. would hold the leaders of Monday’s coup accountable. – Wall Street Journal

Under the rules of Vietnam’s Communist Party, its chief is to step aside at age 65 or after two terms. The country’s dogmatic leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, would not qualify for reappointment on either count. But that didn’t prevent the party from cementing his rule[…]. Under his leadership, Vietnam is expected to maintain a foreign policy of balancing Chinese and American interests, while keeping the party’s grip at home by continuing to suppress dissent through the imposition of long prison sentences. – New York Times

Britain said it would pursue diplomatic steps with its allies to ensure a return to democracy in Myanmar, after a military coup led to the arrest of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. – Reuters

The United Nations fears the coup in Myanmar will worsen the plight of some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims still in the country, a U.N. spokesman said on Monday as the Security Council planned to meet on the latest developments on Tuesday. – Reuters

The world’s democracies would risk pushing Myanmar into the arms of China if their response to the coup closes channels for communication with the Southeast Asian country’s powerful generals, Japan’s deputy defence minister said on Tuesday. – Reuters

China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting that all actions by the international community should contribute to Myanmar’s political and social stability to prevent increasing tensions. – Reuters

The World Bank on Monday said it was gravely concerned about the current situation in Myanmar and a military takeover of power, warning the events risked a major setback to the country’s transition and its development prospects. – Reuters

Just days into his tenure, President Joe Biden already is grappling with a foreign policy crisis — a military coup in Myanmar — that could put his administration at odds with China, the country he has identified as America’s top long-term rival. – Politico

Editorial: Burma poses difficult dilemmas on democracy and human rights. Yet U.S. ability to engage will be reduced if Burma falls further into China’s orbit. The American response to the coup must take into account the strategic landscape in Asia. That will require realistic diplomacy, not only moral denunciation. – Wall Street Journal

Gregory B. Poling and Simon Tran Hudes write: Meanwhile, the Biden administration can begin marshaling financial resources to support democratic forces within and outside Myanmar, including journalists, humanitarian organizations, and civil society groups in ethnic minority areas and along the Thai border. […]The United States should support those who will keep the flame alive and help rebuild institutions once the generals loosen their grip and give Myanmar another chance to breathe. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service Tuesday called for opposition leader Alexei Navalny to be jailed for three and a half years, in a Moscow court hearing Tuesday, accusing him of violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence. – Washington Post

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sharply criticized Russia over its crackdown on protesters supporting jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and said the United States was reviewing possible responses to Moscow’s actions. – Reuters

Editorial: This is an echo of the Obama Administration Russia policy of criticizing Mr. Putin while refusing to sell lethal arms to Ukraine. Mr. Blinken said the U.S. is reviewing how to respond to Mr. Navalny’s arrest and didn’t rule out more sanctions. After its needless unilateral concession on New Start, Mr. Putin won’t be impressed by critical words alone. – Wall Street Journal


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party voted on Monday to expel Oleksandr Dubinsky after the lawmaker was put on a U.S. sanctions list for election meddling, fellow legislators said. – Reuters

A senior Northern Irish unionist called on Tuesday for calm after a local council withdrew port staff over concerns for their safety and the European Union acted “crassly” to try to prevent vaccine exports through the Irish border. – Reuters

French lawmakers debated a bill on Monday they hope will uproot radical Islam in the country, beliefs that authorities maintain are creeping into public services, associations, some schools and online with the goal of undermining national values. – Associated Press

The home of Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo was tagged with several spray-painted swastikas, triggering an investigation on Monday by authorities. – Agence France-Presse

The Americas

A former Florida resident has been returned to the United States after traveling to Turkey and attempting to join the Islamic State group. – Associated Press

Mexico has proposed a sweeping overhaul of its electricity market to favour its state-owned utility, in a move that would deal a blow to the use of renewable energy in the country and raise trade tensions with the US and Canada. – Financial Times

Gunmen opened fire on activists from El Salvador’s main opposition party, killing two people, a rare political attack that has shocked one of Latin America’s most violent countries. – BBC

Peter St. Onge writes: Mr. Biden promised a new era of cooperation and openness with other countries. Instead, he has used Canada as a punching bag. In this era of frayed international relationships, rising unemployment and struggling industries, it is more important than ever to allow people to trade with each other without asking a bureaucrat’s permission. – Wall Street Journal


Early 2021 is turning out to be a delicate period for privacy negotiations. The European Union is conducting high-stakes talks with the Biden administration over how to allow corporate data transfers that will withstand future legal challenges despite U.S. intelligence-gathering practices. Separately, European privacy officials are working toward a June deadline to complete a similar arrangement with U.K. officials to continue data flows after the country left the union last year. – Wall Street Journal

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) on Monday warned that efforts by the Chinese government to obtain U.S. health data, particularly DNA, through hacking and other means had been stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. – The Hill

James Van de Velde writes: Cyberspace allowed the unipolar world to collapse into a multipoplar world, where authoritarianism now enjoys some semblance of global respect and comparable power. The locus of political competition has shifted to cyberspace — and cyberspace is delivering for the malicious, authoritarian states of the world. – C4ISRNET


The Pentagon has tapped the software expertise of three top U.S. universities to assess what still must be done to fix balky software on Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35, the costliest U.S. weapons system. – Bloomberg

The Navy’s engineering community has already started conducting light carrier design and engineering studies, even as the Navy and the joint force still consider whether they’d even want to invest in a CVL to supplement supercarriers to bring more distributed capability to the fleet for less cost. – USNI News

The Navy plans to deploy the early models of its Razorback medium-sized unmanned underwater “as soon as we can” even as the service is in the midst of procuring an upgraded model. – USNI News

The U.S. Air Force on Feb. 1 announced it closed one of the Boeing-made aircraft’s six category 1 deficiencies — which indicate problems that impact operations or pose a safety risk — and downgraded another to the lesser category 2 status. – Defense News

Kathleen Hicks, President Joe Biden’s pick for deputy defense secretary, is expected to cruise through her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, paving her way into the Pentagon in the coming weeks. – Defense News

In a new strategic vision, Gen. James Dickinson outlines the truths and tasks U.S. Space Command must adopt in order to maintain American space supremacy. – C4ISRNET

Sean Kennedy writes: Lastly, the Biden administration would do well to introduce some stability into Pentagon leadership. Every defense secretary brings to the job different priorities for the government’s largest bureaucracy. President Donald Trump burned through two confirmed and four acting secretaries, the most for any administration. President Biden should endeavor to reverse this churn. – Defense News

Renanah M. Joyce and Brian Blankenshipt write: To square its strategic needs with operational and political realities, the United States should adopt a new, hybrid approach to basing that combines elements of the Cold War model — large, concentrated bases in key allies — and the Global War on Terror model — small dispersed bases scattered across informal partners. The Biden administration should tailor its security cooperation and economic strategy to attract partners, balance its need for more options against resource constraints, and revisit global posture plans to achieve this approach. – War on the Rocks

Michaela Dodge writes: Congress and the Administration should support continued investment into facilities and know-how to reconstitute plutonium pit production capabilities in order to maintain a viable deterrent into the future and review whether U.S. pit production requirements are guided by sound assumptions. – Heritage Foundation