Fdd's overnight brief

February 21, 2020

In The News


When Iranians go to the polls on Friday they will be taking part in what may be the least representative and least fair election in the Islamic Republic’s history. […]“The next Parliament will be completely obedient to Khamenei, more radical in their approach, and the little voices of dissent we hear on different issues will be silenced,” said Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, an independent Iran analyst based in New York. – New York Times 

A global terror-finance watchdog agency is set to blacklist Iran, broadening a U.S. effort to isolate Tehran financially and potentially straining the already sanctions-battered Iranian economy. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. imposed sanctions on five senior Iranian officials for allegedly preventing fair and free elections in Iran, the U.S. Treasury Department said Thursday. – Wall Street Journal 

Not only do Iranians bother voting, they often turn out in greater numbers than Americans do for presidential elections. Part of the reason is that, for people in rural areas, parliamentary elections are an opportunity to elect a lawmaker who can represent local concerns in the capital. – Wall Street Journal 

Iran’s leadership is pushing for a high turnout at Friday’s parliamentary elections, as conservatives seek to consolidate power in the face of mounting economic challenges at home and worsening tensions with the U.S. – Wall Street Journal  

Iran’s currency continued its recent downward trend on Thursday, falling to 144,800 rials against the U.S. dollar, one day before scheduled parliamentary elections on Friday and a decision by an international financial watchdog to impose counter-measures against the country. – Radio Farda

Iran’s election vetting body spokesman said he was honored to be blacklisted by the United States, which sanctioned five members of the Guardian Council for preventing free and fair elections in the Islamic Republic. – Reuters  

Middle-aged men have been plastered on campaign posters and online adverts this week ahead of Iran’s parliamentary election, even though women and young people make up the majority of voters. – Reuters

U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said on Thursday the United States was in talks with at least two more companies that would like to send food and medicine to Iran through the Swiss humanitarian channel. – Reuters 

Jason Rezaian writes: The sad reality is that Iranian voters’ public display of apathy probably won’t change anything for the better. The regime will do its best to inflate turnout figures, filling the media with images of long lines of people waiting to vote. (In a country of more than 80 million people, it will be able to find a few somewhere.) And once the election is over, Tehran will continue with the same old policies. It will go on mismanaging the economy and showing its contempt for the well-being of Iranian citizens. – Washington Post  

David Albright and Sarah Burkhard writes: Faced with Iran’s full-throated denials, the Institute has sought to see behind its deceptions, based on documents in the Iran Nuclear Archive, seized by Israel in 2018, subsequently shared with the international community, and made available for independent translation and analysis. The Iranians themselves created these secret documents, providing a firsthand look into Iran’s coverup of its nuclear weapons activities. – Institute for Science and International Security 

Alex Vatanka writes: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must be nervous about low turnout at this weekend’s legislative elections in Iran. These polls are a litmus test for the regime in Tehran, and for the country’s supreme leader personally, given that he occupies the highest rank in the political order. – Middle East Institute 

Banafsheh Keynoush writes: The ferocity of reformist-hardline competition to shape the next parliament has dominated the political debates inside Iran and has obfuscated views of popular opinion about the elections. […]Hardliners may achieve a hollow victory unless they are both united and able to offer real, workable policies that quickly alleviate Iranians’ social and economic hardships. – Washington Institute


Mr. Assad’s vow to retake every inch of Syria is now focused on Idlib, a province the size of Delaware, and surrounding rebel-held areas—a stretch of northwest Syria where the remaining opposition forces are concentrated. […]Amid the political standoff, the crisis in northwest Syria worsens by the day. The United Nations and aid groups are struggling to deliver emergency help, but they can’t keep pace with the growing number of displaced people needing food and shelter. – Wall Street Journal 

The leaders of Germany and France called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to express their concern about the humanitarian situation in Syria’s Idlib region, urging an end to the conflict there, a German spokesman said. – Reuters 

Russia accused Turkey on Thursday of providing artillery support to militants fighting the Syrian army and said militants briefly broke through Syrian military positions in Idlib, Russian news agencies reported. – Reuters 

The U.S. military said Thursday that the Russian patrol vehicle involved in a road incident with a U.S. military convoy in Syria violated deconfliction rules and was escorted out of the area of U.S. operations. – Military Times 

Fighting between Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power and Turkish forces and Syrian rebels is pulling Moscow and Ankara more into the country’s civil war. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 

Russia’s Defense Ministry on Friday said reports that hundreds of thousands of Syrians were fleeing Idlib in the direction of Turkey were false and urged Ankara to allow Idlib residents to enter other parts of Syria. – Reuters  

The United Nations reiterated its appeal on Friday for a halt to hostilities in northwest Syria, saying it feared that the violence “may end in a bloodbath”. – Reuters

Russians are violating “de-confliction” protocols, the spokesman for the Coalition against ISIS said on Thursday. – Jerusalem Post 

A Republican lawmaker made an unannounced trip to Syria this past week, meeting with Kurdish fighters allied with the U.S. against ISIS and American aid workers helping civilians caught in the crossfire of Turkey’s offensive into the region. – The Hill 

Jonathan Spyer writes: Events in Syria’s southwest matter for Israel because the chaos and the continued weakness of the Syrian state allow Iran to advance by stealth, organizing in the direction of Israel’s border. More broadly, Deraa and Quneitra are worth watching with care, because they show that contrary to the impression conveyed in regime and Russian propaganda, normality is not returning to Syria with the advance of the regime’s flag. – Jerusalem Post  


Turkey has decided to exempt visa requirements for citizens from European Union countries Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Poland, as well Britain, for tourism up to 90 days as of March 2, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Thursday. – Reuters  

Turkey has asked the U.S. to deploy two Patriot missile-defense batteries on its southern border to free it to punish any future attacks by Russian-backed Syrian troops, according to a senior Turkish official in Ankara.. – Bloomberg  

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday that Turkey will activate the S-400 missile systems which it has bought from Russia and there should be “no doubt” about this. – Reuters 

Turkey said two of its soldiers were killed and five others wounded in Syrian government air strikes in northwest Syria on Thursday, bringing Turkish military fatalities to 15 so far this month in the Idlib region. – Reuters  


The U.S. Army’s famed 82nd Airborne Division said 800 paratroopers have returned home to Fort Bragg, N.C., on Thursday after a hasty deployment to the Middle East following the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad last year. The announcement came on the same day the State Department slapped new sanctions on Iran ahead of parliamentary elections on Friday. – Fox News

Iraq and Kuwait have temporarily restricted the entry of Iranians into their countries in an effort to stem the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus following Iran’s announcement that two people there had died from the disease. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Since the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) deputy commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq have been issuing series of threats against the U.S. and its allies. – Middle East Media Research Institute  


Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have reached an agreement to end a five-month long trade dispute, officials said on Thursday. – Reuters  

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed confidence on Thursday that even if a Democrat wins the American election, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan will be implemented. – Jerusalem Post  

The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority said on Thursday that US President Donald Trump’s peace plan had already failed, and he urged European countries to recognize a Palestinian statehood in order to prevent Israeli annexation of West Bank lands. – Algemeiner  

As Israel granted a record number of travel permits to Gaza merchants after weeks of explosive balloons, rockets and a sniper attack, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said he was trying his best to avoid a conflict with Hamas or Hezbollah to focus on Iran in Syria. – Jerusalem Post 

A US State Department body expressed concern this week over a report that Iranians were threatening to raze an ancient shrine revered by local Jews as the burial place of the biblical Esther and Mordechai, in an act of revenge against Israel and Washington. – Times of Israel 

Raphael Ahren writes: It is impossible to predict to what extent, if at all, the amicus submissions will influence the judges. They could dismiss all the arguments against Palestinian statehood and jurisdiction and embrace those in favor. But the fact that a handful of important countries, as well as some intellectual heavyweights, spoke out in support of Israel’s position must have certainly caused some serious consternation in Ramallah. – Times of Israel 

Arabian Peninsula

Months after missile strikes damaged Saudi oil facilities and prompted the U.S. to add fighter jets and Patriot missile-defense systems to Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials say security is much improved. – Wall Street Journal 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to discuss regional security, namely Iran, after the U.S. killing last month of a top Iranian general pushed the oil-producing region closer to an all-out war. – Reuters 

Saudi Arabia said on early Friday it had intercepted and destroyed several ballistic missiles launched by Houthi militia toward Saudi cities, state news agency SPA quoted the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned group as saying. – Reuters 


A dual Egyptian-American citizen is being released from an Egyptian prison, the head of a Washington-based rights group told ABC News. – The Hill

An Egyptian court overturned Thursday a decision to release a prominent activist who has been detained for nearly five months without trial over what his family says are unjust charges. […]For several years, local and international human rights organizations have criticized Egyptian authorities for detaining people for long without trial. – Associated Press

Egypt held interest rates for the second straight month as the virus outbreak in China stoked concerns over global economic growth and inflation quickened more than expected. […]Such concerns could in turn boost the U.S. dollar, creating pressure on emerging market currencies, according to Radwa El-Swaify, head of research at Cairo-based Pharos Holding. – Bloomberg 


Talks between Libyan military officials loyal to the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli and their rivals in the east have resumed in Geneva, the U.S. Embassy said Thursday. – Bloomberg 

Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s eastern military commander, said he would be ready for a ceasefire if Turkish and Syrian mercenaries left the country and Ankara stopped supplying weapons to Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli, RIA reported. – Reuters 

A lawyer for the captain of a cargo ship jailed in Italy for allegedly transporting embargoed armaments to Libya contended on Thursday that there are no legal grounds for a case against his client in Italy. – Associated Press 

Middle East & North Africa

Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif denied that the Middle East was affected by antisemitism, calling claims of antisemitism in the region Zionist “propaganda,” in an interview posted on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s website. – Jerusalem Post 

 Lt.-Gen. William J. Bender and Ari Cicurel write: The United States’ most capable regional partner in countering Iranian aggression continues to be the State of Israel. […]Since the American people seem determined to decrease America’s military presence in the Middle East, the US should bolster its support for Israel’s campaign, and the two countries should coordinate their efforts to pressure Iran. This is the surest way of safeguarding America’s national security interests against Iranian aggression while simultaneously allowing Israel to defend itself by itself. – Jerusalem Post 

Elder of Ziyon writes: We are facing a wicked enemy. We must pay attention to every movement he makes, not only in the political field that relates to the Palestinian issue, but rather in the religious, cultural, touristic, etc. areas from which he crept to consolidate his allegations, his lies, to implement his plans. Indeed, Jordan’s archaeological sites regularly erase any Jewish connection out of their paranoia and hate. – Algemeiner 

Elana DeLozier writes: Who the sultan brings to the meeting with Pompeo’s delegation may help Washington identify some of the key actors in Oman’s future decisionmaking. […]How he handles the increasingly tense al-Mahra situation with Saudi Arabia could be a faster indicator of what his rule will look like, and whether he will rely on the United States. – Washington Institute 

Korean Peninsula

There have been no changes in plans for Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit South Korea in the first half of this year, despite the coronavirus outbreak that has hit both countries, Yonhap news agency reported on Thursday. – Reuters 

A national security crisis is brewing on the Korean Peninsula amid fears the Trump administration and South Korea could fail to reach agreement on a new cost-sharing formula for keeping US troops there, according to several senior US military and defense officials. – CNN  

For the South Korean crew behind the latest hit drama “Crash Landing on You,” recreating the life in North Korea was a painstakingly meticulous process with big political risks. – Associated Press  

Japan and South Korea have agreed to hold dialogue on export controls on March 10 in Seoul, Japan’s Trade Ministry said on Friday. – Reuters


China warned on Thursday that it might take more action against the Wall Street Journal, a day after revoking the press credentials of three of the U.S. newspaper’s correspondents over a column that China said was racist. – Reuters  

Japanese automakers on Friday delayed the restart of plants in China near the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, in compliance with local directives, raising the risk of further supply disruptions that could affect global car production. – Reuters 

Joseph Bosco writes: Given that record of Western accommodation, Xi Jinping ascended to power finding it no longer necessary to follow Deng’s hide-and-bide strategy. China openly flaunted its capabilities and laid bare its aggressive intentions in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and, again, toward Taiwan. Beijing also turned the screws on the “one China, two systems” model that was intended to guide Beijing’s dealings with Hong Kong and Taiwan. – The Hill 

Zhang Sheng writes: This facet of Chinese soft power may now be aligning to help shape its Middle East policy as key states in the region shape their responses to the coronavirus outbreak. […]Iran is another Middle Eastern state that the Chinese are currently noting with gratitude. Facing common pressure from the United States, Iran and China have already become closer in recent years and China, Russia, and Iran have already quietly created strategic cooperation norms. – Washington Institute 


The tentative peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban appears to put the Trump administration’s goal of bringing troops home from Afghanistan in reach, but hopes for a permanent deal could dissolve amid political disarray gripping the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. – Washington Times 

The Taliban’s deputy leader said the group would soon sign a agreement with the United States to reduce violence for seven days, adding that militant commanders were “fully committed” to observing the “historic” accord. – Reuters   

With talk of a U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan on the horizon, some Republican lawmakers are cautioning the Trump administration against pulling out too many troops, too quickly. – Defense News

South Asia

Over the past year, Pakistan says it has “fought and eradicated the menace of terrorism from its soil” by carrying out arrests, seizing property and freezing bank accounts of groups designated as terrorists by the United States and the United Nations. – Washington Post 

The commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s defence forces – recommended by the UN for investigation and prosecution for war crimes and genocide – has met with Australia’s ambassador and says he wants to train more of his officers in Australia. – The Guardian  

India on Wednesday cleared the purchase of 24 Sikorsky MH-60R naval multirole helicopters through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program, according to a Ministry of Defence official. The acquisition, which is worth about $2.12 billion, was approved by India’s top defense clearance body, the Cabinet Committee on Security, which is headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The MoD had approved funds for the purchase in August 2018. – Defense News

Mihir Sharma writes: New Delhi’s policymakers think that, since India’s rise is in the U.S. interest, America must be prepared to give more to India than it will receive in return. But this doesn’t sit easily with Trump’s well-known disdain for America’s “unequal” strategic relationships. I’m not sure how many stadiums full of cheering crowds it would take for Trump to jettison that principle. – Bloomberg


Israeli President Reuven Rivlin took part in a summit meeting in Fiji on Thursday with group of leaders from the South Pacific region. – Algemeiner  

An Australian Jewish civil rights group on Thursday condemned the flying of a Nazi flag on a light tower in a city in New South Wales. – Algemeiner 

Arrest warrants have been issued for Australians accused of fighting for or supporting Islamic State, including women held in Syria’s al-Hawl camp. – The Guardian 

James Stavridis writes: Washington should not allow Duterte to push his people into the arms of China, which can use proximity and a perceived lack of U.S. engagement in ways that America’s friends in the Philippines, and across the entire South China Sea, will come to regret in the decades ahead. – Bloomberg


Intelligence officials have warned lawmakers that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election campaign to help President Donald Trump get reelected, three officials familiar with the closed-door briefing said Thursday. – Associated Press

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Thursday hailed the FBI for sharing information that helped thwart a terror attack by adherents of the Islamic State group in St. Petersburg during the New Year holidays. – Associated Press

Britain blamed Russia on Thursday for cyber-attacks on Georgia, including a major assault that knocked out thousands of state, private and media websites last year. – Reuters 

The United States on Thursday blamed Russia for a cyberattack against Georgia in October that Washington said disrupted operations of the Georgian government and privately-run websites and interrupted the broadcast of at least two major television stations. – Reuters  

The Kremlin said on Thursday that the United States was causing problems for Russian diplomats by not issuing them visas in good time, something it said was impeding their work at the United Nations. – Reuters 

The Kremlin said on Friday that allegations from U.S. intelligence officials that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election campaign and trying to boost President Donald Trump’s re-election chances are false and the result of paranoia. – Reuters  


France and Germany signed a 150 million euro ($161.84 million) deal on Thursday to develop a prototype of the next generation fighter jet, a project seen as vital for Europe to defend itself without relying on allies in an increasingly uncertain world. – Reuters  

EU funds for Libyan militias forced thousands of migrants into dangerous Libyan detention centers. Now, after being evacuated, some of them are stuck as far away as Rwanda—with no idea if they will ever be resettled. – Foreign Policy  

European shares dropped on Friday as markets awaited a local reading on economic health to gauge the extent of the impact of the coronavirus on business activity in the bloc. The outbreak has killed more than 2,000 people so far and upended industrial activity in China, causing disruptions for several European manufacturers that supply and source products from one of the EU’s largest trading partners. – Reuters   

The problem for the U.S. and Western Europe is that Bulgaria chooses to remain Russia’s biggest foothold in Putin’s orbit because that serves the interests of the people who run the country, said Ilian Vassilev, former ambassador to Russia from 2000 to 2006. – Bloomberg


Nigeria asked the United States on Thursday to abandon new visa restrictions on the West African country set to take effect on Feb. 21. – Reuters   

The U.S. is opposing plans by Nigeria’s government to hand about $100 million the American authorities say was stolen by deceased former dictator Sani Abacha to a top ruling party official. – Bloomberg 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the government will press ahead with plans to distribute more land to the black majority in an orderly fashion, warning that a failure to do so would perpetuate an injustice that dates back to apartheid rule and constrain the economy. […]Ramaphosa’s comments came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo cautioned that land expropriation would be disastrous for Africa’s most industrialized economy and described the policy proposal as an example of centralized planning that has failed in other African states like Zimbabwe. – Bloomberg 

South Sudan’s rival leaders on Thursday announced they have agreed to form a coalition government just two days before the deadline, a breakthrough after months of delays and a major step in the emergence from a five-year civil war that killed nearly 400,000 people in the world’s youngest nation. […]The United States, which has applied sanctions and other pressure to get South Sudan’s rival sides to make a lasting peace, quickly welcomed Thursday’s announcement. – Associated Press

The Americas

An analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency pleaded guilty Thursday to leaking classified national defense information about a foreign country’s weapons systems. – Washington Examiner 

Canada and its Western Hemisphere allies called on the rest of the democratic world Thursday to help bring stability to Venezuela as it struggles with an exodus of citizens amid economic collapse under a president they deem illegitimate. – Associated Press 

Mexico extradited the son of one of its most wanted drug lords to the United States on Thursday, a source in the attorney general’s office said. – Reuters  

As Julian Assange faces extradition to the U.S. on charges of endangering national security by conspiring to obtain and disclose classified information, his lawyer is offering a bizarre defense. […]Assange played ball and said the Russians had nothing to do with” information about the Democratic Party published by Wikileaks in 2016. – Bloomberg 

President Donald Trump has ousted the Pentagon’s top policy official who had certified last year that Ukraine had made enough anti-corruption progress to justify the Trump administration’s release of congressionally authorized aid to Kyiv in its conflict against Russian-backed separatists. – Associated Press


U.S. plans to create a 5G rival to Huawei could be a “challenge,” Paul Scanlan, chief technology officer of Huawei’s networking business told CNBC. – CNBC 

The White House campaign against Britain’s decision to allow Huawei to supply 5G network technology is expected to continue after a critical UK-US meeting at Downing Street broke up without reaching agreement on the issue. – The Guardian  

The US agency in charge of secure communication for the White House has been the victim of a cyber-attack. – BBC


Raytheon has completed the first radar antenna array for the U.S. Army’s new missile defense radar in less than 120 days after being selected following a competition to replace the service’s Patriot air-and-missile defense system sensor. – Defense News

The Space Force released its new Enterprise SATCOM Vision Feb. 19, formally laying out a desire for a single satellite communication architecture that is capable of keeping warfighters connected even in contested, degraded and operationally-limited environments. – C4ISRNET

The Navy’s research and development portfolio will devote $30 million to a “next-generation medium amphibious ship design” that will likely be based on an Australian designer’s stern landing vessel. – USNI News

The Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group deployed this week immediately after completing its graduation exercise in the Atlantic Ocean, U.S. 2nd Fleet announced on Thursday. – USNI News

The following is the Feb. 7, 2020 Congressional Research Service report, The Army’s Modernization Strategy: Congressional Oversight Considerations. – USNI News 

The Army secretary and chief of staff are looking to bring troops to the Indo-Pacific region for two to three months longer than past rotations — on top of aligning a security force assistance brigade specifically to the theater. – Army Times