Fdd's overnight brief

February 23, 2021

In The News


An agreement announced late Sunday that would allow the U.N. nuclear watchdog to continue some monitoring of Iran’s atomic program has momentarily eased a standoff between Tehran and Western nations and may provide a narrow opening for diplomacy as the Biden administration attempts to restart negotiations with Iran. – Washington Post

An Iranian government newspaper warned on Tuesday that overly radical actions in the nuclear wrangling with the West may lead to the country’s isolation after Tehran ended snap inspections by United Nations inspectors. – Reuters

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday Iran might enrich uranium up to 60% purity if the country needed it and would never yield to U.S. pressure over its nuclear programme, state television reported. – Reuters

A U.S. official played down comments by the Iranian supreme leader on Monday that Tehran could enrich uranium to 60% purity, saying that would be concerning but Iran has not done so yet and Washington is waiting to see if Tehran will return to talks. – Reuters

Iran officially has begun restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities, state TV reported Tuesday, a bid to pressure European countries and U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to lift economic sanctions and restore the 2015 nuclear deal. – Associated Press

The Biden administration’s early efforts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are getting a chilly early response from Tehran. Though few expected a breakthrough in the first month of the new administration, Iran’s tough line suggests a difficult road ahead. – Associated Press

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayotallah Ali Khamenei claimed Monday that his country has no interest in a nuclear weapon, but said that if it wanted one, no one — including Israel — could prevent it. – Times of Israel

Iran on Monday hailed as a “significant achievement” the outcome of a visit by the head of the UN nuclear watchdog and a temporary agreement the sides reached on site inspections. – Times of Israel

Over 20 former senior military and intelligence officials in Israel sent a letter Monday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz backing a US return to the Iran nuclear deal, while calling for a new international agreement that will curtail Tehran’s military activities in the region. – Times of Israel

Iran has commuted the sentence of an ailing 84-year-old Iranian-American but barred him from leaving, his son said Monday, urging President Joe Biden to prioritize the case. – Agence France-Presse

Iran’s Fars News celebrated a deal with South Korea that will unfreeze Iranian financial assets. According to reports, Iran’s Central Bank Governor Abdolnasser Hemmat met with South Korean Ambassador Ryu Jeong-Hyun in Tehran to discuss transferring of the funds. – Jerusalem Post

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi told the world he had reached a “temporary, technical understanding” with Iranian officials for three months so that his inspectors would not be “flying blind” on its nuclear program. – Jerusalem Post

David Ignatius writes: The wonder is that Iran and the United States were able to contain their conflict these past few years, even as they fired rockets at each other’s military forces and waged covert assaults — with little effect other than to reinforce the impasse. Diplomacy may not work any better, but it’s worth another try. – Washington Post

Jason Rezaian writes: So it’s time for Iran’s negotiators to make a choice right now. They can engage in comprehensive negotiations to settle issues between their longtime adversary, the United States, or they can continue justifying and participating in their government’s hostage-taking racket. But they can no longer have it both ways. – Washington Post

Hussein Ibish writes: One of the key goals of Arab-Iranian dialogue would be the delineation of spheres of influence. For that to work, Iran will have to decide where its priorities lie. If it wants a regional security framework, then it must allow the states of the region to exercise sovereign authority without being undermined by armed gangs. If it wants to maintain a network of fanatical and sectarian militia groups in other countries, then there can’t be a regional security framework. – Bloomberg

Hamidreza Zarifinia writes: Since the new US president took office, the Islamic Republic has been trying to test the Biden administration’s tolerance through various measures. Tehran’s regime leaders believe that the United States and its allies will feel afraid of the country’s recent nuclear actions and quickly submit to their demands. At the same time, any concession to the ayatollahs in Tehran would be to blackmail them. – Times of Israel

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Iran runs circles around Western negotiators because it understands this game works. It doesn’t behave the same way when dealing with Turkey, Russia, China or other regimes and groups. For instance it never mobilizes proxies to attack Turkish embassies. The challenge for those who deal with Iran is wondering if the messaging from Tehran about nuclear weapons is really the issue that underpins what Iran’s main goal is. – Jerusalem Post

Nazila Fathi writes: Despite Mr. Khamenei’s ban on Western vaccines, Iran has purchased 4.2 million doses of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine, the first of which will arrive in the coming weeks. Officials say Iran’s doses will be produced in South Korea, offering a loophole for Mr. Khamenei’s ban. – Middle East Institute

Eric R. Mandel writes: Desperately trying to revive the current form of the JCPOA without concurrently prioritizing the normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia sends the wrong message to Iran. American weakness increases the chance for Iran to take aggressive actions and the possibility of Shiite control of Saudi Arabia in this generation. That is something not in American national security interests, unless we want to be pulled back into another Middle Eastern conflict. – Jerusalem Post


The Israeli government placed a gag order Monday on a joint Israeli-European investigation into an unprecedented oil spill that has washed dozens of tons of tar onto Israel’s 100-mile shoreline and has caused potentially irreversible damage to ecosystems and wildlife. – Washington Post

Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated today the U.S. administration’s commitment to a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, in a call to his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi. – Haaretz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened cabinet rivals on Monday for their first discussion of Israeli strategy against the Iranian nuclear programme since U.S. President Joe Biden took office pledging to pursue diplomacy with Tehran. – Reuters

US President Joe Biden’s point-man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concentrating on restoring aid to the Palestinians and taking a go-it-slow approach to peace prospects in line with the administration’s stated goal of seeking gradual reform. – Times of Israel

A military investigation into how an Israeli woman crossed into Syria earlier this month cleared soldiers of any wrongdoing, an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson said Monday. – Times of Israel

Israeli security forces arrested two Palestinians suspected of carrying out a car-ramming attack in the northern West Bank last month, the military said Monday ahead of their indictment. – Times of Israel

The Israel Defense Forces uncovered a “potential threat” to naval ships off the Gaza coast on Monday morning, the military said, without elaborating on the nature of the threat. – Times of Israel

Michael Herzog writes: The Iranian file presents a major test to the Biden administration’s standing in the Middle East and its relations with Israel. The best approach for both governments is to internalize lessons from 2015 and enter a comprehensive, continuous, and discreet discussion that focuses on constructive ideas and shies away from public posturing. The stakes are too high for a dialogue of the deaf. – Washington Institute


Three rockets were fired at Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Monday without causing any casualties, Iraq’s army said. Security officials said the U.S. Embassy was the target. – Associated Press

The United States said on Monday it was outraged by rocket attacks on coalition forces and others in Iraq but stressed it would not “lash out” and would respond at a time and place of its choosing. – Reuters

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The timing of the attacks is clear. Iran wants to show the US that its forces are not safe in the Kurdistan region, an area that is usually safe and stable. It also wants to hit at the embassy, likely because it heard the US might return diplomats. It may aim at Balad Air Base to keep NATO from returning. – Jerusalem Post

Arabian Peninsula

Families of three slain U.S. service members and 13 others wounded in a mass shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola in 2019 alleged Monday that the government of Saudi Arabia facilitated the attack, which U.S. authorities concluded was an act of international terrorism. – Washington Post

The United Arab Emirates said it will supply its first locally manufactured air defense missiles to German security contractor Rheinmetall AG, as the Gulf state expands the production and export of military technology. – Bloomberg

Delegations from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar met in Kuwait on Monday for the first time since an agreement last month to end a rift of more than three years, the UAE state news agency WAM said. – Reuters

The UAE’s top artificial intelligence official told an Israel-sponsored conference on Monday that her country’s recent and future space successes include the use of AI capabilities. – Jerusalem Post

The US envoy seeking to end Yemen’s brutal war headed back to the region Monday as Huthi rebels press ahead with an offensive to take the government’s last northern toehold. – Agence France-Presse

Hundreds of fighters have been killed in a weeks-long Houthi offensive on the Yemeni region of Marib, military sources and a local official said on Monday, in the conflict’s most deadly clashes since 2018. – Reuters

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky write: After four years of one-way street relationships, Biden is right to want to inject real reciprocity and a measure of conditionality into the U.S. relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. He may well succeed if he simply recognizes that these two countries need America a hell of a lot more than we need them—and if he is prepared to use U.S. leverage to advance our national interests if they force his hand. – Politico

Middle East & North Africa

American security contractor Erik Prince, a close ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, violated the U.N. arms embargo against Libya along with three United Arab Emirates-based companies and their top managers during an operation to help a rebel military commander take the capital Tripoli, U.N. experts said. – Associated Press

Libyan authorities raided a secret prison in a southeastern city used by human traffickers and freed at last 156 African migrants, as the U.N. migration agency said Monday more than 1,300 Europe-bound migrants were returned over the past week to the conflict-stricken country. – Associated Press

Jon B. Alterman writes: This all seems like more U.S. work in the Middle East in the midst of U.S. impatience for less. Yet, a declaration of indifference to the problems of the Middle East will not insulate the United States from them. The Middle East will matter to the United States and its partners around the world for years to come. The deliberate U.S. focus toward Asia makes it even more important that the United States be deliberate about what its more selective presence in the Middle East looks like. – The Hill

Bilal Y. Saab writes: Lebanon is now reeling financially and teetering on the edge of collapse because of the endemic corruption of its ruling elites and their persistent failure to implement political and economic reforms. How will this hurt Hezbollah? Understanding the key elements of the group’s staying power and whether those elements have changed recently will be key for U.S. policy and the Biden administration’s approach toward Lebanon. – Middle East Institute

Tsvetan Tsvetanov writes: Germany, Lithuania and Slovenia’s 2020 Hezbollah bans provide a timely springboard for doing what should have been done nine years ago. Choosing to keep in place the current diluted Hezbollah designation, instead of a full ban that would make committing terror in Europe more difficult, is a potentially deadly error of omission. It can be fixed with the stroke of a pen and a little political courage. – Jerusalem Post


China said on Tuesday that it condemned and rejected Canada’s parliament passing a non-binding motion saying China’s treatment of Uighurs is genocide. – Reuters

China on Monday rejected “slanderous attacks” about conditions for Muslim Uighurs living in Xinjiang, as European powers and Turkey voiced concerns and called for U.N. access to the remote western region. – Reuters

Wally Adeyemo, President Joe Biden’s nominee for the No. 2 job at the U.S. Treasury, vowed to crack down on authoritarian governments and fight unfair economic practices in China and elsewhere, while working to rectify economic inequality at home. – Reuters

Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said on Monday the United States and China could work together on various issues if they repaired their damaged bilateral relations, but Washington accused Beijing of trying to avert blame for its actions. – Reuters

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam gave her clear support Tuesday to electoral reforms that would likely further exclude opposition voices and cement Beijing’s control over the semi-autonomous Chinese city’s politics. – Associated Press

Canada’s House of Commons voted Monday to declare that China is committing genocide against more than 1 million Uighurs in the western Xinjiang region but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Cabinet abstained from the vote. – Associated Press

China’s top diplomat called Monday for new U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to lift restrictions on trade and people-to-people contacts while ceasing what Beijing considers unwarranted interference in the areas of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. – Associates Press

Editorial: Full transparency is needed from China but also from the United States. The intelligence behind Mr. Pompeo’s statements should be declassified, with proper protection for sources and methods. The truth matters, and the United States should not hide any relevant evidence. – Washington Post

Henry M. Paulson Jr. writes: America’s open economy and leadership of the global trade system have long been key competitive advantages. The Biden administration should play to our strengths by advancing a strong, modern trade agenda, returning to the balanced, export-friendly policies that helped make us the envy of the world. America can out-compete China, but first it needs to get back in the game. – Wall Street Journal

David Fickling writes: There was a simple lesson from that crisis: Given China’s willingness to use rare earths as a geopolitical weapon, diversifying would be an absolute necessity. – Bloomberg

Paul Van Hooft writes: In short, the United States should not trap itself by framing the rise of China as an existential struggle between two titans that depends on the United States retaining command of the Western Pacific. […]In any case, the United States should avoid placing all its bets on a decisive confrontation or one where escalation is unpredictable. Against a near-peer competitor that can bring both its land- and sea-based assets to bear, this is unnecessary and too great a risk. The American ship would be a fool to fight a Chinese fort. – War on the Rocks


Facebook agreed to restore news pages on its site in Australia after it said late Monday that it had reached a favorable deal with the government there. – Washington Post

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across Myanmar in response to calls by activists for a general strike, mounting what appeared to be one of the largest demonstrations against this month’s coup and signaling to the country’s military that resistance to its takeover isn’t likely to abate. – Wall Street Journal

Civilian casualties rose sharply in Afghanistan after peace negotiations between the government and the Taliban began in September, even as overall deaths and injuries dropped during 2020 compared with the previous year, the United Nations reported Tuesday. – New York Times

With violence spiking, Afghanistan’s warring sides have returned to the negotiation table, ending more than a month of delays amid hopes that the two sides can agree on a reduction of violence – and eventually, an outright ceasefire. – Associated Press

The European Union said it is considering sanctions on Myanmar while the United States penalised two more generals for links to the military coup, as Western countries sought to press the junta to avoid a violent crackdown after weeks of protests. – Reuters

The use of violence against people protesting against a coup in Myanmar is unacceptable and perpetrators must be held to account, the foreign ministers of the Group of 7 rich countries said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Australia has been a “proxy battle” for the world, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Tuesday after announcing Facebook would restore news pages in the country following amendments to a proposed law. – Reuters 

The U.N.’s top human rights body has opened its first and highest-level meeting of 2021, amid growing concerns on issues including the military coup in Myanmar, the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the rights situations in countries including Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. – Associated Press

Just four days after Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government was toppled, the Japanese brewer Kirin decided to quit a joint venture with ties to the country’s military. – Financial Times

Suspected militants on motorcycles ambushed a vehicle carrying instructors from a private vocational school in northwest Pakistan on Monday, killing four women and wounding the driver before fleeing, police said. – Associated Press

Sri Lanka is facing a new UN resolution calling on it to hold human rights abusers to account and deliver justice to victims of its 26-year civil war. Britain and others have circulated a draft of the resolution among UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) member states. – BBC

Timothy Mclaughlin writes: Myanmar is a pariah once more, and Beijing should be freer to pursue its agenda with a leadership that seems willing to cast aside the concerns and misgivings of its population, forcibly if needed. Business competition will again fade. The more isolated Myanmar becomes, the better for Chinese exploitation. Yet this narrative, although enticingly straightforward in a country where little is, is a dramatic oversimplification that ignores numerous factors: the coup’s destabilizing effects, including on major Chinese-backed projects; – The Atlantic


European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday to impose sanctions on top Russian officials following the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a decision that was hastened by a tense trip to Moscow by the chief E.U. diplomat earlier this month. – Washington Post

The U.S. is preparing to respond to Russia’s poisoning and jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and is expected to coordinate a sanctions rollout with European allies in the coming weeks, according to people familiar with the matter. – Politico

Frida Ghitis writes: The global vaccine race is not only about public health. The U.S. State Department accuses Russian state media of launching a coordinated disinformation campaign in Latin America to cast doubt on Western vaccines as dangerous and inferior to the Russian one. A disinformation researcher at a nonprofit organization described the campaign as “one of the largest operations we’ve seen.” Latin American countries, and others around the world, have rushed to buy Sputnik V, along with Chinese vaccines from Sinovac and Sinopharm. – Washington Post


Italy’s ambassador to Congo, as well as his Italian bodyguard and a Congolese driver, were killed Monday when unknown assailants attempted to kidnap them in a restive part of the country, according to local officials. – Washington Post

Microsoft and European media groups on Monday urged EU regulators to require online platforms to seek arbitration in disagreements over how to share revenues with news publishers, a sticking point in the spat between Facebook and Australia. – Reuters 

The European Union may impose further sanctions on Belarus after Minsk jailed two journalists for filming protests, Poland’s state news agency PAP quoted Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau as saying on Tuesday. – Reuters

President Biden’s new signal that he will not impose stiff sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany has dismayed Central European officials, drawing a public appeal from officials who fear the growth of Moscow’s power. – Washington Examiner

U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas arrived in Norway on Monday as part of a training mission in Europe, marking the first time U.S. bombers have operated out of the Scandinavian country. – The Hill

Zbigniew Rau and Dmytro Kuleba writes: On this issue, the U.S. continues to be critically important. It needs to dismiss claims that Nord Stream 2 has become “too big to fail” and that it simply needs to be finished. If the project is successful, Russia could try to convince the Ukrainian public that the West doesn’t care about its own principles, and ultimately, about the security and prosperity of Ukraine. – Politico

Steven Emerson writes: While religious extremist groups are unlikely to achieve their ultimate objectives, like toppling governments or establishing a global caliphate, research shows that Islamist organizations are behind far more terrorist attacks and casualties worldwide than other types of armed groups. And new developments and data on terrorist activity in Europe further reinforce this trend. – Algemeiner


Police in South Africa have launched a murder inquiry into the shooting death of an exiled Rwandan opposition politician in Cape Town, in what his party called a targeted killing by Rwanda’s government. – Wall Street Journal

The United Nations, African Union and European Union urged the Somali government and opposition on Monday to quickly agree on a date for elections, warning that the delay is fueling violence and impacting the impoverished Horn of Africa nation’s development and security. – Associated Press

A South African inquiry into corruption during Jacob Zuma’s time in power is seeking the former president’s imprisonment for two years, after he defied a summons and court order to appear and give evidence. – Reuters

Latin America

The wife of Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the infamous drug lord known as “El Chapo,” was arrested Monday at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia on charges related to her alleged involvement in international drug trafficking and her husband’s dramatic prison escapes, the U.S. Justice Department announced. – Washington Post

The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 19 more officials in Venezuela accused of undermining democracy or rights abuses in the crisis-torn South American country. – Associated Press

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday urged a Canadian mining company in the country to pay outstanding taxes, saying it was hiding behind the threat of international litigation to shirk its obligations. – Reuters

United States

Judge Merrick B. Garland, President Biden’s nominee for attorney general, said on Monday that the threat from domestic extremism was greater today than at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and he pledged that if confirmed he would make the federal investigation into the Capitol riot his first priority. – New York Times

A leader of the far-right group Oath Keepers who is charged with participating in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol reversed her story on Monday about having met with Secret Service agents in Washington on the day of the insurrection. – Reuters

Democrats have drafted a proposal to create a commission that would examine the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The temporary panel would be tasked with providing a report by the end of 2021 on the attack, and it would disband 60 days later, according to a discussion of draft details provided by a senior Democratic aide. – Washington Examiner

Itzhak Levanon writes: With the declaration of its return to the UNHRC, Washington expressed its intention to initiate changes in the mechanism of the body. This intention is to be praised and encouraged. Only a superpower like the United States can lead such a profound process. – Jerusalem Post


A group of congressional lawmakers is renewing its call for a cyber ambassador in the State Department, reviving a bill that created friction between Congress and the Trump administration. – Wall Street Journal

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Monday announced a range of steps it will take to bolster the nation’s cybersecurity posture, including increasing funding for key cybersecurity issues. – The Hill

Chinese spies used code first developed by the U.S. National Security Agency to support their hacking operations, Israeli researchers said on Monday, another indication of how malicious software developed by governments can boomerang against their creators. – Reuters


The U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and cyberwarfare must start taking a larger share of the defense budget if the U.S. is going to compete with China, two sea power advocates in Congress said last week. – Defense News

The head of Alabama shipbuilder Austal USA has resigned amid investigations from U.S. and Australian authorities into a $115 million loss the company posted in 2016 that was tied to the builder’s Independence-class littoral combat ship program. – Defense News

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Air Mobility Command is assessing contractors’ abilities to provide a cloud-native, agile software development platform for the four-engine turboprop transport aircraft in service since the 1950s, according to a request for information posted Feb. 18. Under the proposal, the companies would plan the best way to transition legacy C-130 software to the DevSecOps rapid software development process, with releases in iterative cycles. – C4ISRNET