Fdd's overnight brief

January 2, 2019

In The News


Iran could use its growing clout in Iraq to turn it into a springboard for attacks against Israel, the chief of Israeli military intelligence said on Monday. – Reuters

By appointing a conservative ally to head the influential Expediency Council, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears to have made a move to strengthen the hard-line camp and weaken the moderates — and also may have cleaned up his line of succession. – Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty

A plan for Iranian airlines to buy Russian-built passenger jets appears to have collapsed as a result of U.S. sanctions, marking a further set-back for the country’s beleaguered aviation sector. – Forbes

A leading legal management consultant said in December that CEOs of medium-sized businesses should not travel to the United States because they could face a fate similar to that of Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, who was arrested in Canada for alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran. – Jerusalem Post

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met Tuesday with the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group and urged Palestinians to “fight and resist” Israel until it capitulates. – Times of Israel

Iranian President Hassan Rohani spoke at the second conference of the parliament speakers of Iran, Russia, China, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, held in Tehran. Rohani, who presented these countries, and especially Iran, as victims of Western and American terror, threatened that if the European countries endorse the U.S. sanctions on Iran and weaken it, they will be flooded with terror, drugs and refugees. – Middle East Institute Research Institute


The United States and Israel officially quit the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency at the stroke of midnight, the culmination of a process triggered more than a year ago amid concerns that the organization fosters anti-Israel bias. – Associated Press

With little resistance from a friendly White House, Israel has launched a new settlement push in the West Bank since President Donald Trump took office, laying the groundwork for what could be the largest construction binge in years, according to data obtained by The Associated Press. – Associated Press

Israel’s opposition, which just last week stressed the need to merge forces to beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in upcoming elections, has splintered instead. – Bloomberg

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that the United States would continue to cooperate with Israel over Syria and in countering Iran in the Middle East, even as President Donald Trump plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. – Reuters

Gulf States

A Turkish television network broadcast video on Monday showing men with suitcases supposedly containing the remains of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident writer killed by Saudi agents in October. – New York Times

Courts in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on Monday upheld the convictions of two prominent human rights activists serving lengthy prison terms for expressing anti-government dissent on social media, according to lawyers and human rights groups. – Washington Post

A cross-party group of British parliamentarians and international lawyers has asked to visit detained female activists in Saudi Arabia to investigate allegations that they are being tortured and denied legal representation and family visits. – Al Jazeera

A diplomatic rift between Qatar and several Gulf states that’s lasted a year and a half is likely to continue in the new year, said Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirate’s minister of state for foreign affairs. – Bloomberg


But abuses are also being perpetrated by the rebels, known as Houthis. Torture, detentions and forced disappearances are widespread, according to legal documents and interviews with victims and human rights activists. The abuses are fueling an expanding atmosphere of fear and intimidation in this capital and across rebel-controlled areas. – Washington Post

The U.N. food agency on Monday threatened to suspend some aid shipments to Yemen if the Houthi rebels do not investigate and stop theft and fraud in food distribution, warning that the suspension would effect some 3 million people. – Associated Press

Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Tuesday said they were “surprised” by accusations from the United Nations food agency that they are stealing humanitarian aid and accused it of taking sides in the nearly four-year-old war. – Associated Press

Deborah Lehr and Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak write: There is good reason to believe that the United States is a destination for pillaged Yemeni artifacts, because it remains the largest art market in the world. Research by the Antiquities Coalition demonstrates that, over the past decade, the United States has imported more than $8 million worth of declared art and antiquities from Yemen. – Washington Post

Middle East & North Africa

Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has warned that a national unity government needs to be formed as the country faces economic malaise after months of political deadlock. – Al Jazeera

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi on Tuesday night discussed the stability of the Middle East during a phone call with US President Donald Trump, a spokesman for the Egyptian presidency said. – Arutz Sheva

The latest plunge in oil prices has dealt a heavy blow to Iraq’s stagnating economy, threatening the new government’s ability to rebuild after the war with the Islamic State group and provide basic services to areas roiled by recent protests. – Associated Press

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he is ready to meet President Trump at any time to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula but warned he might have to seek “new ways” if the United States maintains sanctions and demands unilateral concessions. – Washington Post

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un brought a new look to his New Year’s address — ditching the formalities of a podium and microphone bank to speak from a plush leather chair in front of a wooden mantle piece. Wearing a suit and tie and sitting alone on camera, Kim brought fresh imagery to his New Year’s address on Tuesday, more reminiscent of a fireside chat than of a stiff address interrupted by thunderous applause of fawning cadres. – Bloomberg

David E. Sanger writes: By some measures there has been modest progress. It has been 13 months since the North tested a nuclear weapon or a long-range missile, a change that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo cite as the first fruits of what some officials now concede will be a long diplomatic push. Relations between the two Koreas are warming, though there is considerable evidence that Mr. Kim sees his outreach to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea as a way to split the United States from its longtime ally. – Washington Post


China’s president, Xi Jinping, warned Taiwan that unification must be the ultimate goal of any talks over its future and that efforts to assert full independence could be met by armed force, laying out an unyielding position on Wednesday in his first major speech about the contested island democracy. – New York Times

Now, with talks between China and the United States set to begin this week in Beijing, Mr. Lighthizer, aided by Mr. Navarro, faces the assignment of a lifetime: redefining the trade relationship between the world’s two largest economies by Mr. Trump’s March 2 deadline to reach an agreement. – New York Times

Taiwanese treasure their autonomy from China, the leader of the self-governing island said Tuesday, warning city and county officials to be open about and exercise caution in any dialogue with the Chinese. – Associated Press

Thousands of demonstrators marched in Hong Kong on Tuesday to demand full democracy, fundamental rights, and even independence from China in the face of what many see as a marked clampdown by the Communist Party on local freedoms. – Reuters

Christopher Balding writes: So what are the challenges facing China in 2019 and how do authorities plan on meeting them? Beijing has done an admirable job of starting the long-promised deleveraging process. The economic slowdown reflects a sharp tightening of credit that began in November 2017, the month after President Xi Jinping’s reappointment for a second term as leader. – Bloomberg

Anne Stevenson-Yang writes: In this way, China lost the support of foreign businesspeople, who have become disillusioned with the market, tired of the pollution, and now fear for their physical safety. (The detention of three Canadians in retaliation for the Huawei arrest looks like pure thuggery.) Initially, it was startling and encouraging that a U.S. administration was finally willing to call China’s bluff. – Bloomberg

Reihan Salam writes: Trump ought to play against type by championing the interests of ordinary Chinese workers. That would pressure the Chinese party-state right where it is most vulnerable—and drive home the point that our quarrel is not with the Chinese people, but with the Chinese party-state. – The Atlantic


At least 21 Afghan police officers were killed in three simultaneous Taliban assaults Monday night in northern Afghanistan. Although civilians were nearby, security forces fired artillery rounds to repel the militant advances. – Washington Post

In the north, the Taliban launched two blistering attacks on police outposts in Sar-e-Pul province on Monday night, killing 15 policemen and wounding 21, the latest in near-daily assaults by the insurgents against Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces. – Associated Press

Afghanistan’s neighbors, caught off-guard by reports of U.S. plans to withdraw thousands of troops, have begun preparing for the risk that a pullout could send hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing across their borders, diplomats say. – Reuters

Robert D. Kaplan writes: Do we owe it to the Afghan people to stay? Not if the ideals that we claim to represent appear unachievable. Spending billions and stationing thousands of troops there with no end in sight to stem a deepening chaos is simply not sustainable policy. Even a small fraction of that money could be better spent on smarter infrastructure investments in Asia, such as liquid natural gas terminals and dual-use ports in Vietnam to compete with China’s maritime Belt and Road Initiative. – New York Times

Samuel Ramani writes: Many Russians want their country to be less isolated from the West. A 2016 Levada Center poll revealed that 62 percent of Russians supported increased dialogue with Western powers, and only 24 percent wanted to remain isolated from the West. […] Putin’s strategy is to achieve that goal by becoming an indispensable player in world affairs. And that’s what the Kremlin is doing in the Afghanistan talks: trying to show that Russia has unique diplomatic leverage over the Taliban. – Washington Post


A Japanese man drove a minivan directly into a crowd of pedestrians out for New Year’s celebrations just after midnight Tuesday morning, injuring eight people, in what he said was retaliation for the “death penalty,” police said. […]Police said they were still investigating whether the man was actually connected to the doomsday cult. – Washington Post

Suspected Muslim militants remotely detonated a bomb near the entrance of a mall in the southern Philippines on Monday as people did last-minute shopping ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations, killing at least two and wounding nearly 30, officials said. – Associated Press

China has sought talks with India to allay concerns on a regional free trade pact it is spearheading, two people familiar with the matter said, as Beijing seeks newer markets amid the ongoing trade war with the U.S. – Bloomberg

Australia’s government is confident it has grounds to strip an alleged Islamic State recruiter of citizenship, a minister said on Wednesday, as questions arose over whether doing so could be illegal and leave the man stateless. – Reuters


The family of an American arrested in Russia on espionage charges said on Tuesday that he is innocent and that they fear for his safety. Paul Whelan, a 48-year-old former Marine, was detained last week by Russia’s domestic security services while he was in Moscow for what they described as a “spy mission.” – Washington Post

The prospect of a new and entirely autonomous church in Ukraine has sent Russia’s political and religious leaders into fits of indignation, even raising fears that Moscow will try to sabotage the project by force. – New York Times

Despite a tortured development process, the Russian military projects confidence that Bulava will become an integral plank of the Kremlin’s nuclear triad for decades to come. Former colonel and military expert Viktor Bondarenko gave an optimistic forecast to Russian news: “the maritime launch of the “Bulava” ballistic indicates that the project will continue on a successful development path. – The National Interest


Police in the northwestern English city of Manchester said Tuesday that a stabbing attack at the train station overnight is being treated as terrorism. – Washington Post

A German national drove into a crowd of people in a Western city early Tuesday in what police said appears to have been a deliberate attack motivated by xenophobia. – Wall Street Journal

The European Union narrowly avoided a bruising economic war with the U.S. in 2018 by vowing to rebalance trade. In 2019, the EU faces headwinds to fulfilling its promise and satisfying President Trump’s demands. – Wall Street Journal

Without a Brexit deal in place, free trade across the Channel will end on March 30, and customs and other checks will kick in for the first time in 45 years—a change that officials warn would cause huge, cascading delays. – Wall Street Journal


Somalia’s government has ordered the top United Nations official in the country to leave, accusing him of interfering with national sovereignty days after he raised concerns about the actions of UN-supported Somali security forces. – Al Jazeera

Nigerian security and civilian sources also said on Monday that troops are preparing to launch an offensive in a bid to retake a strategic town captured by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria. Fighters from ISIL-affiliated Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) took control of Baga on the shores of Lake Chad on Thursday after over-running military bases. – Al Jazeera

Ivor Ichikowitz writes: It’s also clear that in years past, China has played a huge role in the development of Africa, supporting the steady growth of the continent. However, there is an attached belief to some that this was undertaken singularly so that China remains in lock-step competition with the United States for geopolitical dominance; that theirs is ‘predatory capitalism’ personified and warrants similar reaction from the U.S. – The Hill

The Americas

U.S. authorities fired tear gas into Mexico during the first hours of the new year to repel about 150 migrants who tried to breach the border fence in Tijuana. – Associated Press

Former Cuban President Raul Castro has accused the US of returning to its policy of confrontation. – BBC News

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has discussed tensions over Venezuela while on a South America trip. – Associated Press

Honduras will hold talks with Israel, joined by the United States, aimed at opening an embassy in Jerusalem, the countries said on Tuesday, as the small Central American nation looks to follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s much-criticized move. – Reuters

Eli Lake writes: This is where Pompeo sees promise. Brazil’s new leader may be a vulgar populist, but he also wants to be a partner in countering the rising influence of China and in dealing with the blight of misrule in Venezuela. – Bloomberg


The Defense Department’s top spokeswoman, who had been under investigation since May over whether she mistreated employees, abruptly resigned Monday night within hours of the departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. – Washington Post

An upgraded class of high-powered weaponry has flooded the battlefields of the Middle East, threatening even the most sophisticated battle tanks and highlighting a gap in U.S. military preparedness. – Wall Street Journal

Boeing won’t be delivering the first KC-46 tanker to the Air Force in 2018 as planned, due to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ surprise ouster from the Pentagon, a source told Defense News on Monday. – Defense News