Fdd's overnight brief

January 15, 2020

In The News


Surveillance video from Iran circulating on social media Tuesday appears to show two missiles hitting the Ukrainian passenger jet downed over Tehran, fired approximately 30 seconds apart, providing new information about the tragedy that killed 176 people on the plane. – Wall Street Journal

Reporters for Iran’s state media routinely toe the government line. In the chaotic aftermath of Iran’s admission that it shot down a Ukrainian airliner, that admission appears to have pushed several journalists to resign, shaking Tehran’s grip on the national narrative. – Washington Post

Iran said Tuesday that arrests have been made in connection with the downing of a Ukrainian airliner by mistake, as the president called for a special court to investigate the crash that set off days of anti-government protests. – Washington Post

For a brief moment this month, Iran’s rulers appeared buoyed by the wave of nationalist sentiment that swept the country after the U.S. killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Now that support has been clouded by anger, as public outrage grows over Tehran’s accidental shooting down of a civilian airliner last week. – Washington Post

Iran’s president warned Wednesday that European soldiers in the Mideast “could be in danger” after three nations challenged Tehran over breaking the limits of its nuclear deal. Tehran’s top diplomat meanwhile acknowledged that Iranians “were lied to” for days following the Islamic Republic’s accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian jetliner that killed 176 people.. – Associated Press

Iranian social media posts urged citizens to take to the streets for a fifth day on Wednesday, after public anger erupted following the belated admission by the authorities that they had shot down a passenger plane in error last week. – Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani dismissed on Wednesday a proposal for a new “Trump deal” aimed at resolving a nuclear row, saying it was a “strange” offer and criticising U.S. President Donald Trump for always breaking promises. – Reuters

Ukraine’s prosecutor’s office and security service have asked Iranian authorities to give Kiev black boxes from the crashed Ukrainian plane, the prosecutors office said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Canada on Tuesday dismissed as “nonsense” Tehran’s insistence that only a few Canadians died last week when Iran shot down an airliner and demanded full accountability for what it called a horrible crime. – Reuters

A video aired by Iran’s Fars news agency last week shows a dramatization of an Iranian revenge attack on the White House in the wake of the killing of top general Qassem Soleimani, and depicts the deaths of US President Donald Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the hands of an Iranian hit squad. – Times of Israel

Iran can have enough enriched uranium to produce one nuclear bomb by the end of the year and a missile capable of carrying a nuclear bomb within the next two years, Israeli army intelligence estimates. – Jerusalem Post

Editorial: Tehran’s rulers are more politically vulnerable now than at any time since the 2009 protests over stolen elections. The public is angry with the regime’s lies about its accidental downing of a civilian plane, and the economy is shrinking under U.S. sanctions. This is an ideal moment to make a diplomatic push to renegotiate the nuclear accord, and having Europe on Washington’s side would make that task more feasible. – Wall Street Journal

Ilan Berman writes: Yet throughout, American pressure has been coupled with inducements — such as the possibility of significant financial relief from U.S. sanctions or the chance for meaningful new diplomatic engagement — intended to “sweeten the pot” for Iran’s leaders if they make the correct choice and alter their conduct. Embedded in this approach is the notion that the Iranian regime is capable of toning down its regional activism and curbing its domestic brutality, if it makes the strategic choice to do so. – The Hill

Omar Qudrat writes; For a continent that speaks often and passionately about human rights, European nations have been acquiescent, or even sought closer ties with Iran. Now the United States has made it clear that we will not de-link the threats named above, and other nations should support our efforts to seek a more stable world. – The Hill

Kevin R. Brock writes: However, the Obama administration’s claim that all that money was owed to Iran for an old order of military equipment placed by Iran’s shah but never delivered remains teeth-grindingly absurd. That “debt” was paid by the deaths and devastating injuries inflicted on U.S. personnel by their hitman, Soleimani. The right thing would have been to distribute that money “owed” to Iran to those whom Soleimani injured and maimed and to the families of those he killed. – The Hill

Hans A. von Spakovsky writes: Trump acted fully within his constitutional authority when he ordered the drone strike against Suleimani, a mass murderer responsible for thousands of deaths—including over 600 Americans—who was engaged in planning additional imminent and ongoing deadly attacks.[…] Those condemning President Trump for taking out Suleimani should answer this question: How many American military personnel and others is a terrorist allowed to kill before you think he is a legitimate military target? – Heritage Foundation

Peter Brookes writes: In light of the seeming effectiveness of Iranian and proxy cruise missile attacks to date, Tehran will likely spend more time, effort, and money on this program, increasing the Iranian asymmetric military threat, shifting the relative military balance in the region, and further undermining regional stability. – Heritage Foundation


Three pro-Iranian fighters were killed in an airstrike on a military base in central Syria late Tuesday night, according to a Britain-based monitor. – Times of Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Syria last week may have come as a surprise to the international community. Yet it was carefully set and planned, in terms of timing and content. It aimed to deliver clear, unequivocal messages to a number of capitals in the region and beyond. – Jerusalem Post

Russian jets struck several rebel-held towns in northwest Syria’s Idlib for the first time since a ceasefire agreed with Turkey came into force two days ago, witnesses and rebels sources said. – Reuters


Amnesty International will ask an Israeli court on Thursday to order Israel to revoke the export license of NSO Group, whose software is alleged to have been used by governments to spy on journalists and dissidents. – Reuters

Israel began exporting natural gas to Egypt on Wednesday, commencing one of the most important deals to have been signed by the neighbors since they made peace decades ago. – Reuters

Zev Chafets writes: There are still irreconcilables on both sides. Hardliners in the organization, Iranian proxy Islamic Jihad and the PLO in Ramallah would each, for its own reasons, prefer to see Hamas beat its head against an unyielding wall. In Israel, Avigdor Lieberman is now accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of trying to form a coalition with Hamas and there are Israelis, not all of them Likudniks, who will never trust a deal no matter how thoroughly they are defended by unbreachable walls and sci-fi weaponry like the laser sword. – Bloomberg

Amos Harel writes: On this score, despite the apparent lull in incidents in recent weeks, Military Intelligence thinks an opportunity has been created to accelerate the pace of attacks against Iran and its allies. And it has urged Israel to seize this opportunity despite its assessment that Iran and Hezbollah will respond militarily if any of their people are killed. – Haaretz


The Trump administration is preparing possible cuts of $250 million in military aid to Iraq, funds already approved by Congress, if the government expels U.S. troops, and is reconsidering a broad spectrum of other economic and military assistance that isn’t yet committed. – Wall Street Journal

Populist Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Tuesday for a million Iraqis to march against the U.S. “presence and violations” in Iraq after Washington’s killing of an Iranian commander in Baghdad. – Reuters

ISIS has carried out two attacks on Iraqi border posts along the border with Syria following the US decision to suspend counter-ISIS missions in order to focus on protecting Iraqi bases and coalition forces amid tensions with Iran, according to a US defense official and Iraqi security officials. – CNN

Over the past three months, Iraqi journalists covering the anti-government demonstrations appear to be facing growing pressure from pro-Iran militias according to local media. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Gulf States

Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman died Friday at a particularly unsettled moment in the Persian Gulf region. The late sultan played an important role in regional diplomacy. He helped facilitate the negotiation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and refused to take sides in the wars in Yemen and Syria or in the political boycott and economic embargo against Qatar. – Washington Post

Gulf Arab states are on edge after President Donald Trump’s decision to kill top Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, fearing tensions between the United States and Iran could spiral into a military conflict on their doorstep with devastating economic effects, according to foreign diplomats, former U.S. officials and regional experts. – NBC

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday Moscow has been urging Gulf countries to consider a common security mechanism for the region and it was time the world got rid of unilateral measures such as sanctions. – Reuters

As Israeli leaders continue to enthuse over the Jewish state’s growing rapprochement with the Arab world, one of the most visible proponents of this process — the only senior Gulf official who has repeatedly defended not only Israel’s right to exist but its right to defend itself militarily — is being removed from his post. – Times of Israel

Simon Henderson writes: In today’s Middle East, Washington still needs Oman — and the almost untested Sultan Haitham, needs friends. Although he served as a diplomat and foreign ministry official earlier in his career, his most recent testing has been as minister of heritage and culture.[…] Regional players likely will be testing Oman in the next few months. The U.S., for its own interests, needs to ensure there is continuity between the Sultans’ reigns. – The Hill

Hussein Ibish writes: Tentative steps have already been taken towards reconciling the split with Qatar, especially since the participation of the national soccer teams of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain in the Gulf Cup in Doha late last year. The differences, especially over Doha’s support for Islamists, are some way from being reconciled, but the combined response to the flare-up between Washington and Tehran shows that, on existential questions, the Gulf Arab states can—and must—act in harmony. – Bloomberg

Luke Coffey writes: Oman’s nuanced and deliberate approach to regional challenges makes Muscat an important voice in the Gulf. As the Trump Administration continues to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East, now is the time for the U.S. to reinforce its relationship with Oman under the new sultan. For centuries, Oman has been a friend of the U.S. while serving as an important diplomatic actor behind the scenes in the region. Good relations with Muscat will benefit not only the U.S., but the U.K. and other partners in the region as well. – Heritage Foundation

Middle East & North Africa

As an American imprisoned in Egypt, Mustafa Kassem thought his government would rescue him from what he saw as his unjust incarceration.[…] By the time he died Monday of apparent heart failure, after more than six years in prison with negligent medical care, Kassem’s faith in American power had broken down. – Washington Post

Two thousand Syrian fighters have travelled from Turkey or will arrive imminently to fight on the battlefields of Libya, Syrian sources in all three countries have said, in an unprecedented development that threatens to further complicate the north African state’s intractable civil war. – The Guardian

Despite officially maintaining diplomatic ties, Israel’s military has added the Republic of Turkey to its list of threats in an annual assessment for the coming year, in light of the country’s growing aggressiveness in the region, The Times of Israel learned Tuesday. – Times of Israel

Korean Peninsula

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea on Tuesday called for economic exchanges with North Korea, including allowing visits there by South Korean tourists, to help ease tensions and encourage the North to resume talks with the United States. – New York Times

The U.S. blacklisted two companies, including a China-based firm, that it says are involved in exploiting North Korean workers in violation of United Nations prohibitions against labor exports. – Wall Street Journal

United Nations sanctions experts are warning people not to attend a cryptocurrency conference in North Korea in February, flagging it as a likely sanctions violation, according to a confidential report due to be submitted to the U.N. Security Council later this month. – Reuters

Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Victor Cha write: Such is the case for a unique storage facility constructed during 2017 located immediately east of North Korea’s ballistic missile and military research and development facilities in the Sanum-dong-Namgung-ni area. Speculation as to the function of this new facility has focused upon it being a storage facility for ballistic missile transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), mobile-erector-launchers (MELs) or transporter-erectors (TEs) produced in nearby factories. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The U.S. and China are about to declare a pause in their trade war by signing an initial pact this week, but a continuing battle over technology is bound to keep relations between the two superpowers on edge. – Wall Street Journal

There’s the continuing unrest in Hong Kong, ongoing conflicts with the United States and a steadily slowing economy. Now President Xi Jinping also has to deal with the fact that Taiwan has loudly and clearly rejected China’s desire to take control of the island. – Washington Post

As China’s global political and economic clout has grown, its government has moved beyond silencing critics at home to blocking scrutiny of its human rights record around the world, an advocacy group said on Tuesday. – New York Times

U.S. democracy watchdog group Freedom House urged governments on Wednesday to impose penalties on Chinese officials and tighten broadcast regulations amid a “dramatic expansion” in Chinese efforts to influence media overseas. – Reuters

The world’s two dominant economic powers, the United States and China, are poised to sign a trade truce Wednesday that will allow businesses around the globe to breathe a sigh of relief. Although tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of two-way trade will remain in place, likely at least until after President Donald Trump faces reelection in November, some of the uncertainty will go away. – Agence France-Presse


Hong Kong police said they defused a pipe bomb and arrested four men for manufacturing explosives after raiding an apartment where they found protest-related items such as Guy Fawkes masks and protective gear. – Reuters

Joseph Bosco writes: President Trump should applaud and reinforce the peaceful message of his fellow democratic president and America’s critical security partner in the Indo-Pacific — while providing a tough-love cautionary message for Xi. – The Hill

Amy Searight writes: Given the design of Myanmar’s presidential election system and the role that parliament plays in nominating and voting for presidential candidates, this still makes Aung Sung Suu Kyi the odds-on favorite to lead the government after the election. Moreover, the election will mark another milestone in Myanmar’s democratic transition. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT aired a contentious documentary in English last month that accused the U.S. of directing and funding Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, which have posed a stiff challenge to Chinese control of the semiautonomous city. – Wall Street Journal

Russia sought Tuesday to downplay the collapse of talks that sought to secure a cease-fire in Libya after the country’s rival leaders left Moscow without reaching an agreement, an outcome that cast a shadow on an upcoming Libya summit hosted by Germany. – Associated Press

Moscow indicated Tuesday that it was not considering a deal with Jerusalem that would see an Israeli-American backpacker freed from imprisonment in Russia, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to do everything in his power to have her released. – Times of Israel

Asli Aydintasbas writes: Russia will continue pushing for a world order in which the strong rule the weak and take their territory if they object. It will be an unhappy and unstable world where critics and dissidents are discredited and persecuted. An order in which authoritarianism proudly asserts its legitimacy over democracy. – Washington Post


Britain, France and Germany took a first step toward reimposing international sanctions on Iran, seeking to pressure Tehran into returning to compliance with the 2015 pact that has limited the country’s nuclear activities. – Wall Street Journal

The European Union’s top trade official is trying to head off a trans-Atlantic trade war with offers of cooperation, as the White House weighs whether to impose new tariffs. – Wall Street Journal

The UK has failed to pass on the details of 75,000 convictions of foreign criminals to their home EU countries and concealed the scandal for fear of damaging Britain’s reputation in Europe’s capitals, the Guardian can reveal. – The Guardian

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is inviting world powers to a summit in Berlin on Sunday to discuss efforts to broker peace in Libya. – Associated Press

Belarus says it has asked several European countries to sell it oil in the face of a tariff dispute with Russia, its regular supplier. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The Islamic Republic of Iran launched a new round of saber-rattling by declaring last week that it will retaliate against Greece if Athens allows the US to use military bases against Tehran. – Jerusalem Post

Police have raided homes and offices in Brussels and across Germany in a case involving three people suspected of spying for China, prosecutors said on Wednesday. – Reuters


A Pentagon proposal to greatly reduce American forces in West Africa faced criticism from allies on Tuesday, with French officials arguing that removing United States intelligence assets in the region could stymie the fight against extremist groups. – New York Times

Human rights groups say it is “unthinkable” that Australia has been secretly exporting arms to the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries whose militaries have been consistently accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. – The Guardian

Islamic State’s West Africa affiliate on Tuesday claimed responsibility for an attack on an army base in Niger last week that killed at least 89 Nigerien soldiers, according to a statement translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. – Reuters

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s state mining company Gécamines on Wednesday opened the Deziwa copper and cobalt mine and processing plant, part of a joint venture majority-owned by China Nonferrous Metal Mining Company (CNMC). – Reuters

United States

The House Judiciary Committee opened an investigation on Tuesday into a Trump administration policy that sends many asylum seekers to Mexico to wait for their court hearings, and Democrats demanded documents, data and communications by the end of the month. – New York Times

Democratic candidates for president clashed Tuesday on whether to leave U.S. troops in the Middle East. – The Hill

Former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser fully supported President Trump’s decision to kill top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and floated the “possible collapse” of the theocratic regime in Tehran. – Washington Examiner


Following the killing of Iran IRGC Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani, Iran may use advanced Chinese cyber tools against Israel or the US, a former top Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) official told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

The Treasury Department is restricting investments in U.S. companies in an effort meant to protect critical technology, data and infrastructure from foreign sabotage. – The Hill

Miriam Wugmeister and John Carlin write: In 2017, the FBI estimated that ransom payments had reached about $1 billion that year, and the problem has only gotten worse since then. We must take action now before many more billions are lost. – The Hill

Joel Schwarz writes: At the end of the day, the only thing we can say for sure is that cyber hostilities are likely to escalate; more so now than any time since the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.  And while we have a better idea of Iran’s cyber capabilities than we did then, we still don’t know the full extent of their penetration into our systems. Indeed, it’s this unknown element that works strongly in Iran’s favor. – The Hill


The computer-based logistics system of the F-35 stealth fighter jet made by Lockheed Martin (LMT.N), which has been plagued by delays, will be replaced by another network made by the same company, a Pentagon official said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Moments after volleys of Iranian missiles began to batter Iraq’s Ain al-Asad airbase, US soldiers at the desert facility lost contact with their ultra-powerful — and expensive — eyes in the sky. – Agence France-Presse

The U.S. Navy’s top officer said his service must have a larger percentage of the Defense Department’s budget if it’s going to grow the force and execute the strategy laid out by the Trump administration. – Defense News

The Space Force may be less than a month old, but it’s already scheduled its first pitch day, following in the footsteps of a new Air Force acquisition setup intended to find innovative solutions from small, nontraditional companies. – C4ISRNET

Robert Farley writes: USS Missouri, the third laid down but last completed of the Iowa class, carried a slightly heavier main armament than the South Dakotas and could make five extra knots. The Iowas were the first U.S. Navy battleships to make speed a primary value, and achieved the speed through a longer hull and more powerful machinery.  – The National Interest

Michael Rubin writes: Poor management of the Defense industrial base is eroding capabilities rather than enhancing them at a time when the United States no longer has a margin for error. To win the new Cold War, the United States must tap its private-sector technological superiority. Victory is not possible, however, if the Pentagon continues to rely on antiquated, clunky, and counterproductive processes. – The National Interest

Long War

Kosovo prosecutors on Tuesday filed terrorism charges against an Albanian woman and a man for allegedly joining the Islamic State group in Syria. – Associated Press

German police on Tuesday busted a suspected Islamist terror cell that was scouting locations — including a Berlin synagogue — for a potential attack. – Algemeiner

Ali H. Soufan writes: Like all terrorist groups, the Islamic State draws fuel from chaos and division. The killing of General Suleimani promises much of both to come. The Islamic State still has deep pockets, affiliates around the world, and a knack for recruitment. General Suleimani’s death will have its leaders rubbing their hands in anticipation. – New York Times

Trump Administration

Impeachment, immigration and Iran have filled the White House agenda as the year begins. But with the first votes of this year’s presidential campaign to be cast in just weeks, President Donald Trump is increasingly focused on his reelection bid. – Associated Press

President Trump on Tuesday night said he agreed with the suggestion to replace the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal with a new pact negotiated by his own administration. – The Hill 

The Senate impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump is likely to begin in seven days with key players sworn in later this week, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse