Fdd's overnight brief

February 8, 2019

FDD Research & Analysis

In The News


Media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said Thursday that Iranian authorities arrested, jailed and sometimes executed 1.7 million people around the capital Tehran alone in the first 30 years after the 1979 Islamic revolution. – Associated Press

“The collapse of the Islamic Republic is not a possibility, it is inevitable. It will definitely happen,” said former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr. “Its goals are against the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian Revolution. The people of Iran and Islam itself have fallen victim to a ‘mulltaria’ (mullah+military) and a renewed dictatorship.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards inaugurated a surface-to-surface ballistic missile with a range of 1,000 km (621 miles), the semi-official Fars news agency reported on Thursday, ignoring demands Western demands that Tehran halt its missile program. – Reuters

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has pardoned a “large number” of prisoners in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, state TV reported Thursday. – Associated Press

The United States has vowed to remain “relentless” in pressuring Iran to deter its missile programme after the Islamic Republic unveiled a new ballistic weapon days after testing a cruise missile. – Al Jazeera

The United States has again accused Iran of developing and testing ballistic missiles in “defiance of the international community” after reports of a second failed space launch by Tehran in less than a month. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

As Iran’s Islamic Republic enters a fifth decade, its energy industry has little to celebrate. The country’s crude output has yet to recover to pre-revolution levels and is unlikely to do so for many years, even without U.S. sanctions. – Bloomberg

Iranians will chant “Death to America” as long as Washington continues its hostile policies, but the slogan is directed at President Donald Trump and U.S. leaders, not the American nation, Iran’s supreme leader said on Friday. – Reuters

Farzin Nadimi writes: Such a shift could refresh confidence in the military’s capabilities, show how far the regime has come since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, and amplify the self-congratulatory paeans that will no doubt accompany this month’s celebration of the Islamic Republic’s fortieth anniversary. […]. Likewise, it may indicate eroding faith in the deterrent power of Iran’s existing capabilities and policies, based on the assumption that determined, evolving enemies would eventually find a way to overcome Iran’s static defenses absent the threat of strong offensive capabilities. – Washington Insitute


The Pentagon is preparing to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria by the end of April, even though the Trump administration has yet to come up with a plan to protect its Kurdish partners from attack when they leave, current and former U.S. officials said. – Wall Street Journal

The Islamic State group’s “caliphate” has shrunk to less than one percent of its original size, the US-led coalition said Thursday, as a final onslaught in eastern Syria loomed. – Agence France-Presse

Russia has demanded that Turkey do more to tackle hardcore fighters in Syria’s Idlib province and fulfil promises it made as part of a deal with Moscow last year. – Al Jazeera

Israel exposed on Thursday Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah efforts to build a missile factory in the Syrian town of Safita. – Jerusalem Post

Iran would like to move its weapons supply center for Syria from the Damascus international airport to a Syrian air base located very far from the capital city. – Haaretz

Josh Rogin writes: During his State of the Union address, President Trump invoked the Holocaust, praising some of his invited guests: U.S. soldiers who liberated Nazi concentration camps and victims of those camps. Trump’s comments force us to ask ourselves: Is the United States living up to the vow — expressed so often after the mass murder of Jews and other minorities during World War II — of “never again”? One look at Syria confirms we are failing. – Washington Post

Saudi Arabia

The U.N. human rights expert leading an independent inquiry into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi said Thursday that Saudi Arabia had “seriously curtailed and undermined” Turkey’s attempts to investigate Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi Consulate in October. – Washington Post

The Saudi government is contesting a prominent element of a CIA assessment that concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, as Riyadh seeks to mend its reputation after the death of the journalist and political activist. – Wall Street Journal

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia told a top aide in a conversation in 2017 that he would use “a bullet” on Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist killed in October, if Mr. Khashoggi did not return to the kingdom and end his criticism of the Saudi government, according to current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of intelligence reports. – New York Times

The “complete lack of transparency” from Saudi officials on the investigation into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is deeply concerning and detrimental to their credibility, an aide to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said. – Reuters

US lawmakers threatened Thursday to take tougher action against Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi amid a new revelation that the kingdom’s powerful crown prince spoke of going after him with a “bullet.” – Agence France-Presse

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) demanded accountability on Thursday for the murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi – a day before the US government is due to report to Congress on the killing. – Al Jazeera


Yemen’s warring parties reached a preliminary compromise on a plan for the redeployment of opposing forces from the key port of Hodeida, the United Nations said Thursday. – Associated Press

Talks on a U.N.-sponsored prisoner swap in Yemen’s war could drag on for months if the Saudi-backed government denies the existence of thousands of Houthi fighters in captivity, the Iranian-aligned Houthis said on Thursday. – Reuters

A key US congressman has asked whether Congress should consider adding restrictions on weapons sales to the Saudi-UAE coalition in Yemen after a recent investigation said that US-made weapons had been transferred to al-Qaeda-linked groups in the country. – Al Jazeera

Islamic State

The Guantanamo Bay detention center would receive new prisoners for the first time in more than a decade under one option being considered as the U.S. withdraws its forces from Syria and works to resolve the fate of hundreds of captured suspected Islamic State fighters, officials say. – Associated Press

A study by a Saudi research center is challenging the notion that jihadi fighters are necessarily disenfranchised and lacking opportunity, with its lead researcher saying Thursday that a new generation of Saudi militants are relatively well-educated, not driven purely by religious ideology and show little interested in suicide missions. – Associated Press

The Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, survived a coup attempt last month launched by foreign fighters in his eastern Syrian hideout, intelligence officials believe, and the terrorist group has since placed a bounty on the main plotter’s head. – The Guardian

Middle East & North Africa

Government officials say Morocco has stopped taking part in military action with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s war, and has recalled its ambassador to Saudi Arabia. – Associated Press

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and other administration officials are headed to the Middle East later this month to brief diplomats in at least five countries on the economic section of a U.S. proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. – Associated Press

A pair of armoured vehicles parked in a corner of the Peshmerga headquarters in northern Iraq form a stark reminder of the threat the region is facing by ISIL. – Al Jazeera

Polat Can spent much of the past five years fighting the Islamic State alongside other members of the U.S.-led coalition in northern Syria. A commander in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, Can received military training from the United States and then watched his own fighters die in battles that advanced America’s interests in the Syrian civil war. – Foreign Policy

Ousting US troops from Iraq despite Donald Trump’s vow to stay is now the top goal of pro-Iranian Shiite armed groups. And their leaders say there are only two ways — by passing a new law, or by force. – Agence France-Presse

Qatar’s remarkable Asian Cup victory may have been a sporting triumph which sparked wild celebrations in Doha but it is almost certain to come at a political price, analysts say. – Al Jazeera

Adam Taylor writes: During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Trump offered a defense of two recent and controversial foreign-policy decisions: His attempt to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and the administration’s peace talks with the Taliban, which could lead to a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. – Washington Post

Nadir Firat writes: Accordingly, both Putin and Erdogan represent themselves not as mere politicians but as the main pillar of survival of their countries. The possibility of these individuals losing power is represented as a potential catastrophe. Behind the veneer of its nationalistic appeal, the actual reason for this rhetoric is that the whole model works for the predatory minority only as long as certain politicians remain in power and provide cover for them. – War on the Rocks

Korean Peninsula

North Korea is stepping up a new loyalty campaign as leader Kim Jong Un prepares for his second summit with President Donald Trump. – Associated Press

South Koreans, always deeply divided over how best to deal with their often-belligerent northern neighbor, are reacting with both hope and wariness to President Donald Trump’s announcement that he will hold a second nuclear disarmament summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. – Associated Press

The choice of Vietnam as the venue for a second U.S.-North Korea summit this month shows the possibility of moving beyond conflict and division toward a thriving partnership, the U.S. State Department said on Thursday. – Reuters

Bruce W. Jentleson writes: In similar ways the nuclear issue cannot be transactionally isolated from the broader U.S.-North Korean relationship. As long as the threat of attempted regime change remains, Kim will see a need for retaining nuclear weapons as an insurance policy. – War on the Rocks

Robert R. King writes: Based on how the administration has dealt with North Korean human rights issues during its two years in office, addressing them is not a goal or an objective of Trump’s foreign policy; rather it is simply a tool, a means to achieve other goals when it might be useful. – Center for Strategic & International Studies


As a deadline approaches for a high-stakes trade deal between the U.S. and China, some top American business figures who fear the economic and market consequences of a failure are pushing both sides to compromise. – Wall Street Journal

The predatory behavior of China’s inefficient state-owned enterprises is a concern for both policy makers there and U.S. trade negotiators. Clipping SOEs’ wings would benefit both economies. But President Xi Jinping seems unconvinced that deep-seated, market-friendly reforms are necessary. – Wall Street Journal

International business experts believe President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are within reach of a deal ending a yearlong trade war — but they’re skeptical that it will solve the core disputes. – Washington Examiner

There are no plans yet for US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to meet soon in hope of finalising a trade deal, the former has said. – Al Jazeera


A top Russian diplomat on Thursday met with Taliban representatives and expressed Moscow’s support for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. – Associated Press

Taliban representatives and an Afghan delegation led by former President Hamid Karzai have said that after two days of negotiations in Russia they aim to continue their “intra-Afghan” dialogue in Qatar “as soon as possible.” – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Husain Haqqani writes: At present, the framework agreement looks all too much like the negotiated exit of the Soviet Union three decades ago under the cover of the 1988 Geneva Accords. The Soviet withdrawal brought no peace or reconciliation to Afghanistan, and unless backed up with serious precautionary measures, neither will the U.S. exit. – Foreign Policy


Thailand will investigate the disappearance of a dissident Vietnamese journalist after a rights group said he may have been abducted from Bangkok where he applied for U.N. refugee status, a senior immigration official said on Thursday. – Reuters

A prominent Chinese businessman and political donor, linked in the past to a row about the promotion of Chinese interests, said on Friday Australia’s decision to rescind his visa was based on nothing more than speculation. – Reuters

Sadanand Dhume writes: Increasing weapons funding will be essential if India’s defensive capabilities are to match its increasing commitments. On Mr. Modi’s watch, India has spoken more forcefully about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and signed two long-pending agreements that make it easier to cooperate with the U.S. military. – Wall Street Journal

Andy Weber and Christine Parthemore write: Beyond numbers mismatch, the sheer complexity of nuclear issues in the Indo-Pacific has stalled the region’s fuller integration into arms control discourse. Most of the region’s nuclear weapon-possessing countries are not party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), including India and Pakistan. This clouds all discussions on nuclear weapons, civil nuclear cooperation, and broader security issues. – War on the Rocks


Another U.S.-Russian nuclear pact is in danger following the U.S. move to withdraw from a Cold War-era arms control treaty, a senior Russian diplomat said Thursday. – Associated Press

The United States called on Russia on Thursday to allow U.S. officials to regularly visit a former U.S. Marine detained on spying charges after a planned visit by U.S. consular officials last month was postponed at the last minute. – Reuters

Russia on Thursday accused Norway of pushing ahead with a military build-up which it said increased the risks of military action and required some kind of Russian response. – Reuters

The top United Nations human rights official said on Thursday the harsh prison sentence Russia imposed on a Danish follower of the Jehovah’s Witnesses created a dangerous precedent and violated international law guaranteeing freedom of religion. – Reuters

Now, freed of its obligations under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Moscow is wasting no time in developing new, once-prohibited weapons systems. – Defense News


European Union leaders again rebuffed British Prime Minister Theresa May’s request to reopen the U.K.’s legally binding withdrawal agreement, even as they agreed to resume negotiations to try to break the deadlock over Brexit. – Wall Street Journal

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain had what was described as a “robust but constructive” talk with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, as her visit to Brussels on Thursday got off to a polite but cool beginning. – New York Times

With only 49 days until the deadline for Britain to leave the European Union, the political negotiations for a withdrawal agreement remain stuck – and the economic concerns are growing. – New York Times

France recalled its ambassador to Italy, citing “meddling” in its domestic affairs, in a surprise move that drags relations between two founding members of the European Union to a more than seven-decade low. – Bloomberg

The Dutch government said on Thursday it was “increasingly confident” that Russian officials will be willing to meet soon for private talks on who was responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in 2014. – Reuters

The Trump administration escalated its dispute with Germany over the transfer of a terror suspect sought by the U.S., with American officials berating their German counterparts in a private meeting and Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker issuing an unusual rebuke of an ally for sending the man to Turkey. – Bloomberg

The Security Council agreed Thursday to reduce the number of meetings it holds on Kosovo under pressure from the United States and its European allies who say the U.N.’s most powerful body has more important crises to discuss. – Associated Press

Ukraine’s parliament has passed constitutional amendment to commit to join NATO and the European Union. – Associated Press

The United States has spent years trying to derail a controversial Russian gas pipeline in Europe. France may have just found a way to kill it—and possibly strangle Paris’s newfound rapprochement with Berlin at the same time. – Foreign Policy

UK Labour MP Luciana Berger, who has been outspoken on the issue of antisemitism within her own party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, is facing a no-confidence motion in her constituency. – Algemeiner

The number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded in the United Kingdom rose to 1,652 in 2018, marking a new record for the third straight year. – Haaretz

Manfred Gerstenfeld writes: Berlin has become Europe’s capital of antisemitism. Those who have been accustomed to considering Malmö as such were, however, not wrong. Malmö still suffers from major antisemitism. – Jerusalem Post


As accusations of human rights violations pile up in Cameroon’s two-front battle against secessionists and Islamist extremists, the United States has decided to scale back its military assistance to its longtime ally in Central Africa. – New York Times

The shadowy U.S. air war against al Shabab militants in Somalia has set back the al Qaeda-aligned terrorist group but will not alone defeat it, the American general who heads U.S. Africa Command told Congress Thursday. – Washington Examiner

France warned its citizens in Chad on Thursday to be extra vigilant after its fighter jets struck a heavily-armed rebel convoy that crossed last week from southern Libya aiming to destabilize President Idriss Deby. – Reuters

Ugandan police arrested a team of BBC journalists for illegal possession of prescription drugs, but the country’s government spokesman said the reporters had been helping to expose corruption, and demanded their immediate release. – Reuters

Shares in South Africa’s largest dairy firm plunged by nearly 10 percent on Thursday, as anti-Israel activists attempted to wreck a $354 million buyout deal with an Israeli-led consortium. – Algemeiner


What appeared to be a carefully calibrated policy to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was actually a big gamble by a small group of opposition leaders acting on a hastily assembled plan. – Wall Street Journal

The international effort to rush food and medicine into this collapsing socialist state was rapidly transforming Thursday into a high-stakes standoff between President Nicolás Maduro and the U.S.-backed opposition, essentially holding hostage lifesaving shipments of humanitarian aid at the border. – Washington Post

The U.S. will revoke visas held by government officials serving under authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro, the top U.S. envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, said Thursday. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration suggested Thursday that Venezuela strongman Nicolas Maduro should leave the country and live in Cuba, Russia, or elsewhere to help speed up Venezuela’s transition to democracy. – Washington Examiner

Venezuelan soldiers are starving and the military is “degraded”, but for now at least the armed forces remain loyal to President Nicolas Maduro, a top US admiral said Thursday. – Agence France-Presse

Editorial: On Venezuela, some EU states are unlikely ever to agree to tougher measures. Greece’s left-wing government harbors ideological sympathies for Mr. Maduro’s brand of socialism. Italy’s 5-Star Movement that forms half the ruling coalition blocked recognition of Mr. Guaidó apparently out of suspicion of the U.S. role in Venezuela. – Wall Street Journal

Evan Ellis writes: With respect to the security situation, the Guaidó government’s counter to Maduro’s demand for U.S. diplomats to leave the country demonstrates a promising level of thoughtfulness about the complex game of “chess” now being played and suggests coordination between Guaidó’s government and the United States. While putting U.S. diplomats in a vulnerable situation is certainly not typical practice, the move creates a dilemma for Maduro – Center for Strategic & International Studies

Cyber Security

Australia’s parliament was hit by a cyberattack that authorities believe came from overseas, the latest in a string of infiltrations into government computer systems globally. – Wall Street Journal

A new potent weapon of psychological warfare has the potential to overthrow governments, influence elections, and turn the tide of battle, and it can be wielded by a lone hacker anywhere in the cyberverse. – Washington Examiner

Facebook Inc is toughening up the rules governing political advertisements in India to create more transparency ahead of the country’s general elections due before May, the social media giant said late on Thursday. – Reuters

When an unprecedented committee of lawmakers from around the world investigating online disinformation campaigns first tried to meet with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in November, the company said he was unable to be in London for the hearing. – CBS News


The Air Force has found an architect to run its uber-complicated Advanced Battle Management System program, which will replace JSTARS ground surveillance planes with a network of existing and new air and space-based sensors. – Defense News

The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2020 budget request will feature a special section focused entirely on investments that will drive reforms and save taxpayers money long-term, according to the number three official at the department. – Defense News

Navy and intelligence veteran and former television news correspondent will take up a key position at the State Department to tackle foreign propaganda efforts as part of the U.S. government’s response to Russian disinformation, terrorist group messaging, and Chinese propaganda. – Foreign Policy

Russia says the United States should destroy its MK-41 missile-defense launch system deployed in NATO-member Romania in order to return to compliance with a landmark Cold War-era nuclear treaty. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Jill Aitoro writes: In the last year, the Trump administration has decided to walk away from two nuclear deals. Nonproliferation advocates are up in arms, prior architects of the deals are arguing their merit and adversaries are taking advantage of their newfound freedom by reevaluating their nuclear arsenals. – Defense News

Adm. Dennis C. Blair (ret.) writes: In recent years, robust dialogue and billions of dollars have been devoted to modernizing the nuclear triad, the three weapons systems that provide second-strike capability to deter adversaries from a nuclear attack on the United States. Yet, deterrence depends not only on a modernized triad but also on survivable systems for decision-makers to understand the nature of a nuclear attack, and to command and control the response. – Defense News

Trump Administration

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is expected to testify before Congress on Friday, after a dispute between Democrats and the Justice Department over his conversations with the White House on the special counsel’s Russia investigation threatened to forestall the appearance. – Wall Street Journal

A divided Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday advanced President Trump’s nomination of William Barr for attorney general over Democrats’ concerns about how he would manage the special counsel’s Russia investigation and whether he would make its findings public. – Wall Street Journal

The investigation into Russian intelligence activities by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence turned two years old, without fanfare, last month. – CBS News

Editorial: All the more so as Mr. Trump focuses on the challenges posed by undemocratic regimes in China, Russia and Iran. The White House’s 2017 strategic review made these challenges explicit, and Mr. Trump has done better than Mr. Obama in addressing them. – Wall Street Journal