Fdd's overnight brief

February 26, 2019

In The News


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, known for negotiating a nuclear deal with world powers, abruptly tendered his resignation via Instagram late Monday, Iran’s state news agency reported. The move by Zarif, a well-liked diplomat both at home and abroad, could upend Iran’s foreign policy at a critical time for the Islamic republic, which is suffering from renewed U.S. sanctions. – Washington Post

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sought to boost economic ties with Iran as he met the country’s leaders on Monday, his first public visit to a regional ally that has helped him reassert control over Syria after eight years of war. – Wall Street Journal

Eli Lake writes: Zarif’s resignation means very little for Iran’s relationship with the West. Indeed, it may provide Europe with a clarifying moment. This is because Zarif’s main job was to persuade his interlocutors that Iran was a normal nation-state and not a predatory rogue. […] In this sense, Zarif’s resignation is welcome news. He was never going to moderate the Iranian regime. His job was to con Westerners into thinking Iran’s regime was moderating. With his departure, the civilized world has one less excuse for failing to see what has been in front of its nose all along. – Bloomberg  

Nik Kowsar and Alireza Nader write: For more than a year, since December 2017, protests and civil disobedience have been a fixture of life in Iran. Many of the political and economic grievances fueling this unrest will be familiar to foreign observers. But one major reason for these disturbances has gone overlooked: the country’s dire water shortages. – Foreign Policy

Michael Hirsch writes: Mohammad Javad Zarif, a devout and faithful servant of the Islamic Republic, was always a suspect quantity in the eyes of the West—and yet it is somewhat odd that Iran’s foreign minister, who tendered his resignation Monday, was even more suspected by the radicals in his own country. – Foreign Policy

N Mozes writes: Having established its status and presence in Syria, it appears that Iran, which has a great deal of influence in Lebanon’s political system and daily life via Hizbullah, now seeks to further strengthen its direct control of the country by infiltrating its institutions and its vital areas, first and foremost the military and also energy and health. This is aimed at, among other things, opening up the Lebanese market for Iranian goods, which have a very limited market because of the U.S. sanctions on Iran. – Middle East Media Research Institute



Criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government has been heard from American Jews for a while now, but a simple 20-word tweet from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest American Israel lobby, has sent shock waves through the political establishment here.  The tweet, which came late Friday, was a show of support for an earlier statement by another powerful group, the American Jewish Committee (AJC). – Washington Post

An opioid crisis has quietly spread in the Gaza Strip, trapping thousands in the hell of addiction and adding another layer of misery to the blockaded and impoverished coastal territory. The scourge can be traced to the mass import of cheap opioid-based Tramadol pain pills through smuggling tunnels under Gaza’s border more than a decade ago. A more addictive black-market form of the drug called Tramal has since taken hold. – Associated Press

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump are going to start working toward establishing a Palestinian state immediately after the April 9 election, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting. – Haaretz

Middle East & North Africa

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, whose government has jailed critics, muzzled the independent press and executed nine prisoners in the past week, has never appreciated lectures on human rights. – New York Times

A Texas man who was abducted in Yemen in 2017 has been reunited with his family, President Trump said Monday. Mr. Trump said Danny Burch was held hostage for 18 months and “has been recovered and reunited with his wife and children.” The State Department called it a rescue, but didn’t provide details. – Wall Street Journal

All Islamic State group militants who committed crimes against Iraq will be put on trial, including 13 suspected French militants who have been transferred to Iraq from Syria, Iraq’s president said Monday. Iraqi President Barham Saleh said during a two-day visit to France that the French citizens were handed over from Syria, where troops with U.S.-led coalition forces detained them. The 13 will be prosecuted in accordance with Iraqi laws, he said. – Associated Press

US-backed forces evacuated over 40 truckloads of people from the Islamic State group’s last Syria redoubt on Monday, as they sought to clear out civilians before a final push to crush the jihadists. The Syrian Democratic Forces has slowed down its offensive on the final pocket due to the presence of civilians, with just a scrap of the IS “caliphate” remaining from a territory that once spanned Syria and Iraq. – Agence France-Presse  

White House adviser Jared Kushner is visiting U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states to seek support for a long-awaited peace proposal for the Middle East that he said would require concessions from both Israelis and Palestinians. – Reuters

Simon Henderson writes: Sending a princess to head the embassy in Washington has grabbed the headlines, but her predecessor’s elevation to deputy defense minister may have greater policy and political implications. – Washington Institute

Haroro J. Ingram and Craig Whiteside write: The Islamic State movement has demonstrated an equanimity — even a desire — to be misunderstood and underestimated by its foes. It is hard to believe that a group with as high a profile as the Islamic State can be underestimated. Yet that is its history. – War on the Rocks

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived at a red-carpet reception in Vietnam Tuesday ahead of a summit meeting with President Trump, after a 65-hour, 2,500-mile train journey from Pyongyang through China. Kim disembarked from his personal green armored train at 8:22 a.m. on a cold, rainy morning at Dong Dang station shortly after crossing the Chinese border. – Washington Post

Now, as President Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, prepare for a second summit meeting, to be held in Vietnam this week, there is nervous anticipation that a political thaw could ease the North out of its long isolation. Perhaps nowhere is that hope stronger than among ethnic Koreans like Mr. Oshima in Japan — a community that embraced North Korea as the rest of the world cut it off. – New York Times

As President Donald Trump meets with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam this week, it will be important for the administration to consider, as a whole, whether various offers to shutter and open up for inspection North Korea’s nuclear or missile facilities would constitute a technically meaningful deal that would significantly constrain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  – Institute for Science and International Security

Adam Taylor writes: This week, President Trump will meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, hoping to build on the agreement he reached with Kim after their summit in June. In a tweet Sunday, Trump said he and Kim “expect a continuation of the progress made at first Summit in Singapore.” But that raises a big question: Has there been any progress? The answer is complicated. – Washington Post

Joseph Bosco writes: When President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi this week, the president’s critics already are poised to proclaim it a substantive failure — another empty photo op that will not advance the U.S. goal of denuclearization. […]What minimum outcomes from the next meeting could convince cynics the negotiations actually are accomplishing something and not just satisfying the leaders’ egos and burnishing their domestic and international images? – The Hill

Nicholas Eberstadt writes: The correct position on this question is, instead, that American forces should remain in the peninsula for as long as the United States and South Korea agree that such a presence is in their respective security interests, peace proclamation or not. And the correct position overall is for the United States to resume a policy of maximum pressure worthy of the name. North Korea’s trade with China, by far its most important economic partner, reportedly dropped by nearly 60 percent between January and September of last year. – New York Times

John Lee writes: Nothing is ever truly hopeless. Trump should be given credit for focusing so much of his presidency on dealing with the North Korea nuclear threat. He has created more apprehension in Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow — the latter two acting as a lifeline for the Kim regime — than any other president and has changed calculations in those capitals. […]In his second meeting with Kim tomorrow, Trump should remember this piece of common wisdom: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. – Hudson Institute


President Trump stoked expectations Monday for a successful conclusion to U.S.-China trade talks, saying he anticipated signing an agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping “fairly soon.” Speaking to a gathering of the nation’s governors at the White House, Trump was optimistic about closing the remaining gaps over U.S. demands for major changes in China’s state-led economic system. – Washington Post

Two-thirds of American companies operating in China have experienced disruptions to their business as a result of the protracted trade war between the world’s two largest economies, according to a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China released Tuesday. Still, there remains general support for President Trump’s tough approach to dealing with Beijing, with a narrow majority saying that the tariffs should remain in place or be increased while negotiations to forge a trade deal continue. – Washington Post

When Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen ­announced her plans to seek reelection next year, she didn’t stage a rally in Taipei or stream a speech in Chinese over social media. She chose to go on CNN. Speaking in English, Tsai in the Feb. 19 interview highlighted the complicated three-way politics in the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, one of the most militarized flash points in the world. – Washington Post

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, abruptly summoned hundreds of officials to Beijing recently, forcing some to reschedule long-planned local assemblies. The meeting seemed orchestrated to convey anxious urgency. The Communist Party, Mr. Xi told the officials, faces major risks on all fronts and must batten down the hatches. – New York Times

The United States sent two Navy ships through the Taiwan Strait on Monday as the U.S. military increased the frequency of movement through the strategic waterway despite opposition from China. The voyage risks further raising tensions with China but will likely be viewed by self-ruled Taiwan as a sign of support from the Trump administration amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing. – Reuters

William Alan Reinsch writes: How this works out poses risks for President Trump as well, both short term and long term. In the short term, the biggest risk is a breakdown or a failure to produce a deal that will cause the markets to sag and renew fears of a trade war. Most analysts believe he will go to great lengths to avoid that. Conversely, an agreement would certainly cause a market bump and pacify a very anxious business community and agriculture sector. But that also contains significant long-term risks. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

South Asia

Indian aircraft crossed into Pakistan and dropped bombs but caused no damage, Pakistan’s military said Tuesday, amid tensions between the two countries about a recent militant attack in India-controlled Kashmir. – Wall Street Journal  

The highest-level negotiations yet between American diplomats and the Taliban began in Qatar’s capital on Monday, with the presence of the Afghan insurgents’ deputy leader raising hope of progress toward ending the long conflict that is taking lives in record numbers. – New York Times

More civilians were killed in the war in Afghanistan in 2018 than any other year since the U.S. started fighting there in 2001. The United Nations released a report that said there were 3,804 civilian deaths in 2018, an 11 percent increase from 2017. – Washington Examiner


A top Russian state television broadcaster held out the possibility of a nuclear exchange with the U.S., boasting that the Kremlin could retaliate with strikes on the Pentagon and Camp David. – Wall Street Journal  

Neil Hauer writes: Russia’s continued emphasis on the territorial unity of Syria and the need for all foreign forces  not invited by Damascus to depart strongly suggest that the Kremlin’s preferred resolution is to see most, if not all, of the Manbij region transferred to Syrian government control. At any rate, until an accord is reached with Moscow on Manbij’s fate, Ankara will have little choice but to sit and wait. – Middle East Institute

Janusz Bugajski writes: For Washington, a potential territorial exchange between Serbia and Kosova could normalize relations between the two states and help stabilize the wider region. For Moscow, the prospect of land swaps can add a new dimension to its divide and conquer plans in the Western Balkans and establish usable precedents elsewhere. – Center for European Policy Analysis


The U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party said it would support holding a second Brexit referendum, a policy shift that breathes some life into the prospect of Britons voting again on whether the U.K. should leave the European Union. – Wall Street Journal  

European Union officials used a first-of-its-kind summit here this week to press Arab leaders to create stability and stem migration but played down calls for democracy, reflecting a desire for calm after years of border tumult. – Wall Street Journal  

The French public has begun to turn against the yellow-vest movement, according to a new poll, in a fresh sign of relief for President Emmanuel Macron. The yellow-vest demonstrations began in November to protest proposed increases in fuel taxes before quickly becoming a rallying cry against Mr. Macron and his pro-business agenda. –  Wall Street Journal

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday issued a renewed threat to Brussels that the EU has to “play ball” in trade talks or “we’re going to tariff the hell out of you.” “The European Union is very, very tough. Very, very tough. They don’t allow our products in. They don’t allow our farming goods in,” Trump said at a meeting with U.S. governors, according to a transcript from the White House. He added that “maybe, in certain ways,” the EU is “tougher than China.” – Politico


The United States military said Monday that its latest airstrike in Somalia killed 35 fighters with the al-Shabab extremist group not far from the Ethiopian border. The U.S. military command for the African continent said Sunday’s airstrike targeted the al-Qaida-linked fighters as they were traveling in a rural area about 23 miles (37 kilometers) east of Beledweyne in central Hiran region. – Associated Press

Attackers set fire to an Ebola treatment center run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo late on Sunday, forcing staff to evacuate patients, the charity said. – Reuters

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir banned unlicensed public gatherings and protests on Monday in a series of emergency decrees issued during the most sustained anti-government street unrest of his 30-year rule. – Reuters

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari surged to an early lead in election returns Monday, winning seven of 36 states in Africa’s largest democracy, while the main opposition rejected the count, alleging manipulation. – Associated Press

Latin America

The Trump administration imposed sanctions on allies of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and urged regional governments to isolate his regime after a weekend mission to deliver humanitarian aid sparked deadly violence, but played down the prospects for military intervention. – Wall Street Journal  

Journalist Jorge Ramos and his Univision team were detained at Nicolás Maduro’s presidential palace in the Venezuelan capital Monday, reportedly because Maduro didn’t like the questions the reporters were asking him during an interview. The group was freed shortly after, said Daniel Coronell, Univision’s president for news in the United States. Coronell said Venezuelan government officials confiscated the journalists’ equipment. – Washington Post

After a weekend of high drama but few results at Venezuela’s border, the United States and other nations appeared resigned Monday to the fact that forcing President Nicolás Maduro from power will be neither quick nor easy. Vice President Pence, addressing a group of Latin American leaders in Bogota, Colombia, repeated the Trump administration’s assurance that “all options” are on the table but offered up only minor new U.S. sanctions. – Washington Post

Ruby Mellen writes: But even in the United States, which has taken a strong stance against Maduro, a military intervention has little support. Invading Venezuela could help Maduro “portray himself globally as a leftist martyr persecuted by the Trump administration,” my colleagues write. – Washington Post

Cyber Security

A global battle between the U.S. government and Chinese tech company Huawei over allegations that it is a cybersecurity risk overshadowed the opening Monday of the world’s biggest mobile industry trade fair. – Associated Press

Cyber defence is a growing issue in Latin American and the Caribbean, and the Inter-American Defense Board is hosting a cyber defence conference in Bogota in May that officials believe can help drive better regional collaboration and education for the domain. – IHS Jane’s

After years of failing to develop a broad counter-intelligence strategy to cope with Russian and Chinese attempts to use cyber operations to spy on Israel, the defense establishment may finally be pushing back in a more unified fashion. The Jerusalem Post’s sister-publication Maariv reported on Saturday that the National Security Council (NSC) will present the security cabinet with a special report in the coming days on the defense aspects of large foreign investments. – Jerusalem Post

Claude Barfield writes: This reality renders Huawei vociferous defense (echoed by some governments) — that no backdoors have yet been discovered in Huawei equipment — irrelevant. It is future, not past, technology unknowns related to 5G that are fraught with danger. And it was on this basis that the Royal United Services Institute, a respected British defense think tank, labeled the potential UK forbearance toward Huawei “at best naïve, at worst irresponsible.” It is not at all clear, however, at this point that the Trump administration has either the will or the capability to mount a persuasive case against Huawei in the face of both economic and technological realities in Europe and throughout the developing world. – American Enterprise Institute


The U.S. military’s new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle suffers from reliability, safety and lethality shortcomings that need fixing before it will be suitable for battlefield use, according to a recent Defense Department test and evaluation report. – Military.com

What does the U.S. military need to confront Russia and China? A broad-ranging study of the required technologies and workforce that has been commissioned by the Ronald Reagan Institute, host of the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, hopes to identify just that. – Defense One

The Pentagon in Fiscal Year 2019 has announced the nomination of a combined 256 general officers for the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps – and one Navy admiral. While the other services have steadily publicly published their nominees for general officers since the start of the fiscal year, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. – USNI News