Fdd's overnight brief

January 21, 2021

In The News


The interviews were posted on the website of Iran’s supreme leader this month, in Persian and English, quoting senior officials involved in nuclear negotiations over the years: a brief, tortured history of relations with the United States, timed to broadcast the worldview of Iran’s establishment at a pivotal moment, as the Biden administration prepared to take office. – Washington Post

Britain is working “virtually around the clock” to secure the release of British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals held in Tehran, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The United States seeks to lengthen and strengthen the nuclear constraints on Iran through diplomacy and the issue will be part of President Joe Biden’s early talks with foreign counterparts and allies, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. – Reuters

Iran’s judiciary released the country’s telecom minister on bail Wednesday after he was summoned for prosecution by Iran’s general prosecutor, state TV reported. – Associated Press

Piles of plush carpets line the floors of a northern Iraq shopping center hosting traders from neighboring Iran who hope the spangle of their ornate handicrafts might offer a lifeline out of poverty. In their own country, the economy is in tatters amid crippling U.S. sanctions. – Associated Press

Iran has welcomed the exit of former President Donald Trump from the White House and expressed hope that newly sworn-in President Joe Biden would adopt a different and more diplomatic approach to the Islamic Republic. – Newsweek

Zvi Bar’el writes: America’s international standing will be determined over Iran. All of this also raises the question as to whether Biden is seeking to repair the world or whether he will get sucked into the whirlpool that Trump bequeathed him and simply try to fix a few defective parts. In other words, will Biden have a doctrine or just a garage making roadside repairs? – Haaretz


The U.N. special envoy for Syria announced Wednesday that the next round of talks toward revising the war-battered country’s constitution will start in Geneva on Jan. 25 and urged the parties to move to actual drafting. – Associated Press

An explosion Tuesday in an oil tanker outside a state fuel distribution company in central Syria caused a massive fire, state media reported. – Associated Press

Syria has issued its first message to President Joe Biden, urging the incoming U.S. leader to withdraw troops from the war-torn nation and to abandon efforts to tap into the country’s oil reserves. – Newsweek


The Twitter account for the U.S. ambassador to Israel suffered a potentially explosive diplomatic revision on Wednesday, with officials saying its description was inadvertently changed to read that it represented the U.S. mission to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. – The Hill

An Israeli non-governmental organisation has accused the Jewish state of “apartheid” in its treatment of Palestinians — a taboo-breaking move that has seen its representatives banned from speaking in schools. – Agence France-Presse

Israel has invited tenders for 2,500 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, a watchdog said Wednesday, hours before Joe Biden’s swearing-in as US president. – Agence France-Presse

President-elect Joe Biden will not reverse Donald Trump’s landmark recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but will seek a state for the Palestinians, Antony Blinken, his nominee for secretary of state, said Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse

The administration of newly sworn-in President Joe Biden will not make any major moves on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but will attempt to prevent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from “aggravating” the situation on the ground, Israeli media reported Wednesday. – Algemeiner

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman completed his tenure Wednesday evening in a visit to the Western Wall at Jerusalem’s Old City. – Jerusalem Post

Stolen identities from Israel are worth about $14 and stolen credit card data from Israel is worth about $3 on the dark web, according to a new study by Comparitech. – Jerusalem Post

US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib called Israel a “racist state” and falsely claimed that Israel was denying access to coronavirus vaccines to Palestinians in an interview with the left-wing news program Democracy Now! on Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

The Palestinian ruling Fatah faction has nominated Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as its candidate for the presidential election, scheduled to take later this year, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

Sen. Dick Durbin on Tuesday paid tribute to Reema Dodin, his longtime Palestinian-American aide who is joining the Biden administration as deputy director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. – Haaretz

Israeli television on Wednesday reported that Jerusalem is warning an American return to the former terms of the nuclear deal with Iran under President Joe Biden could lead the countries to a crisis in relations. – Times of Israel


Two suicide bombers detonated explosive vests in a crowded market in central Baghdad on Thursday morning, killing at least 15 people in the first such attack in several years, according to Iraq’s interior ministry. – New York Times

Ofra Bengio writes: Based on past American experience in Iraq it is in the interest of the new administration to help solve these problems and see to the entrenchment of a strong and stable Kurdish region for strategic, ideological and economic reasons. […]All in all, it remains to be seen whether or not Biden’s goodwill and American interests will withstand the three pronged Iraqi-Iranian-Turkish pressure. – Jerusalem Post

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Now, as the Biden administration takes shape, the role of experienced people such as McGurk brings back some legacies to the region. The question many wonder in Erbil and eastern Syria is what can be salvaged after so much destruction in the last several years. Kurds worked hard to secure Kirkuk, Afrin and eastern Syria, working with other religions and ethnicities, from Arabs to Christians and Yazidis, but they saw much of the stability threatened and an unreliable or inconsistent policy in Washington. – Jerusalem Post

Arabian Peninsula

The United Arab Emirates has signed an agreement with the United States to purchase 50 F-35 jets and up to 18 armed drones, people familiar with the situation told Reuters on Wednesday. – Reuters

Egypt and Qatar have agreed to resume diplomatic relations, the Egyptian foreign ministry said on Wednesday, making Cairo the first to officially do so under an Arab deal to end a long-running dispute with Doha. – Reuters

The voice given to China’s consul general in Jeddah, less than 70 kilometers from Islam’s holiest city of Mecca, reflects the new political reckoning under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he prioritizes more secular national interests at a critical juncture for the kingdom. – Bloomberg

Middle East & North Africa

Tunisians protested Wednesday to demand the release of hundreds of young demonstrators arrested in several nights of disturbances, venting their anger also against the government’s handling of a deepening social crisis. – Agence France-Presse

At least 43 migrants from West Africa perished in the first major shipwreck off the Libyan coast this year, the United Nations said Wednesday, adding that 10 people were rescued. – Agence France-Presse

The office of Switzerland’s attorney general said Tuesday it requested legal assistance from Lebanese authorities for an investigation into possible money laundering and embezzlement tied to Lebanon’s central bank. – Associated Press

President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the State Department said the U.S. would decide whether more steps need to be taken against Turkey once it determines the impact of sanctions already imposed over Ankara’s acquisition of a Russian missile system. – Bloomberg

Robert D. Kaplan writes: The Biden team doesn’t seem to realize that the Indo-Pacific encompasses the maritime Middle East, and containing China requires a sturdy presence in the region. Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through George H.W. Bush managed a deep and abiding commitment to the Middle East without embarking on endless wars. The U.S. can do so again. – Wall Street Journal


The Trump administration cast its barrage of moves against Beijing, in its waning days, as necessary to stand up to China’s authoritarian leadership. – New York Times

China said moments after Joe Biden assumed the U.S. presidency that it would sanction 28 senior American officials who served in the Trump administration as part of a testy send-off that included bidding former President Donald Trump “good riddance” via Twitter. – Wall Street Journal

One year after the coronavirus was first widely reported in China, the country’s state media and officials are again pitching a flood of theories about its origins (not China) and which vaccines are safe (not American). – Washington Post

After a nearly three-month public absence that drew speculation over his fate following a clash with Chinese regulators, the billionaire behind e-commerce giant Alibaba emerged Wednesday in an online speech congratulating rural teachers who were receiving an award from his philanthropic campaign. – Washington Post

China’s move to sanction former Trump administration officials was “unproductive and cynical”, a spokeswoman for President Joe Biden’s National Security Council said on Wednesday, urging Americans from both parties to condemn the action. – Reuters

Twitter has locked the account of China’s U.S. embassy for a tweet that defended China’s policies in the Xinjiang region, which the U.S. social media platform said violated the firm’s policy against “dehumanization”. – Reuters

China failed to meet its 2020 trade deal targets with the U.S. in a year marked by pandemic-related disruptions and an increasingly tense relationship with the Trump administration. – Bloomberg

President-elect Joe Biden’s picks to lead economic and foreign policy signaled on Tuesday that there would be no letup in Washington’s efforts to combat China’s trade abuses. – Agence France-Presse

China on Wednesday dismissed Washington’s allegation that Beijing was committing genocide against Uighurs and other minorities as “outrageous lies” and “poison” in a rancourous epilogue to a combative period in relations between the superpowers. – Agence France-Presse

China has issued incoming President Joe Biden words of advice on the day of his inauguration, calling for a more balanced approach to bilateral relations between the world’s two top powers. – Newsweek

Xi Jinping’s top political adviser demanded more progress on Taiwan’s “unification” with China in 2021 as Beijing looks ahead to this summer’s symbolic centennial of the country’s ruling party. – Newsweek 

Editorial: The W.H.O., which is beholden to each of its 194 member states, has little leverage with China. But the rest of the world should raise its voice and demand that Beijing share everything it knows with the W.H.O. experts and the world. It should be made clear to Mr. Xi that to treat a disease that has sickened 94 million people and killed two million as a propaganda problem is dangerous and unworthy of a country with pretensions to global influence and power. – New York Times

William Pesek writes: The immediate priority, though, is reassuring Asian bankers holding Washington’s mortgage that Biden’s dollar won’t be their problem. Printing the world’s reserve currency allows the United States to borrow at uniquely low rates. Biden will need this privilege as he finances the epic cleanup job Trump leaves behind. Failure to act quickly on both these tasks means a yuan-dominated future — and folks on Wall Street and Capitol Hill boning up on their Mandarin. – Washington Post

Ken Moritsugu writes: It is unclear whether the Communist Party foresees exporting its way of governance as an alternative to the democratic model. For now, Chinese officials note that countries choose different systems and stress the need for others to respect those differences. […]The leadership wants China to be seen and treated as an equal and has shown a willingness to use its growing economic and military might to try to get its way. – Associated Press

Zachary Faria writes: There is no moral justification for the U.S. to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics. If Biden fails to take this stand, it will be remembered as an even bigger moral failure than America’s participation in the 1936 “Nazi Games” in Berlin. Neither the U.S. nor any country that values human rights should participate in China’s “Genocide Games.” – Washington Examiner

South Asia

Albania’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday reported the death of a soldier in Afghanistan, the second from the tiny Western Balkan country to die during the international peacekeeping mission. – Associated Press

A roadside bomb exploded near a Pakistani paramilitary vehicle in a remote area of southwestern Baluchistan province Wednesday, wounding at least 11 troops, security officials said. – Associated Press

However, one thorn in the flesh in India-US relations is already visible: New Delhi’s $5.5 billion deal with Russia to buy the S-400 missile. A Washington D.C-based, keen observer of India, believes that this could be the “single biggest obstacle” even under the Biden regime. – Business Insider


An American woman who has been living in Bali during the pandemic was deported on Thursday after she praised the Indonesian island as “queer friendly” and offered to help foreigners enter the country despite its coronavirus travel ban. – New York Times

Taiwan’s ties with its most important global backer the United States are off to a strong start under President Joe Biden’s government, after the island’s de facto ambassador attended an inauguration for the first time with an official invitation. – Reuters

The incoming administration of Joe Biden backs Taiwan. So says the country’s foreign ministry, just hours after the president-elect’s pick for secretary of state warned that a Chinese invasion of the island would be a “grievous mistake.” – Newsweek

The Marine Corps plans to officially form the new unit designed to execute its island-hopping strategy in the Indo-Pacific next fiscal year, according to a service spokesman. – USNI News


A feature-length video into an opulent palace jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny alleges is owned by Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone viral online, garnering over 25 million views on YouTube in 24 hours. – Reuters

Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny, detained on Sunday after flying back to Russia for the first time after being poisoned with a nerve agent, is spending his days under strict control in a VIP cell inside one of Moscow’s most infamous jails. – Reuters

A Moscow court on Wednesday postponed the start of the trial of detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on charges of defaming a World War II veteran, his lawyers said. – Agence-France Presse

The Kremlin has welcomed the suggestion by the incoming U.S. administration that it wants to extend the bilateral arms control treaty that expires within days of Joe Biden taking office. – Newsweek

The European Union’s top diplomat is set to announce that he will travel to Moscow as early as February to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov despite at least five nations asking him to defer the trip following the arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. – Bloomberg


Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte won the right to stay in power Tuesday night by narrowly prevailing in a confidence vote that staves off a mid-pandemic government collapse. – Washington Post

The European Union’s top officials expressed relief on Wednesday that they would again have a friend in the White House as Joe Biden replaces Donald Trump. – Agence France-Presse

Three Muslim groups refused on Wednesday to back an anti-extremism charter pushed by French officials following a spate of jihadist-inspired attacks, dealing a blow to a flagship initiative of President Emmanuel Macron’s government. – Agence France-Presse

Former prime minister Theresa May urged her successor Boris Johnson to protect Britain’s values to help strengthen ties with the new U.S. administration, saying his threat to break international law had done nothing to raise “our credibility”. – Reuters

Pope Francis on Wednesday urged more nations to join a U.N. treaty banning nuclear weapons, saying their prohibition is badly needed to promote peace today. – Reuters

The European Union hailed Joe Biden’s inauguration later on Wednesday as U.S. president as a “new dawn” for Europe and the United States, while insisting U.S. technology companies should be regulated to stop the “dark forces” of hate speech online. – Reuters

Britain is refusing to give full diplomatic status to the European Union’s ambassador in London, causing a row between the recently divorced parties, the BBC reported on Thursday. – Reuters

Tom Mctague writes: Europe may wish that it did not have to choose between the U.S. and China, but it might not be able to avoid it. Being in a two with a volatile America might well prove a better choice than being cast alone in the duopoly to come. For Biden, meanwhile, the choice is easier because there isn’t one: His administration will engage and try to rebuild the transatlantic relationship. In the longer term, the greater challenge, however, might prove to be not European independence, but European weakness. – The Atlantic


France will establish a “memories and truth” commission to review the country’s colonial history in Algeria, following a key recommendation in a new, much-anticipated report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron and released on Wednesday. – New York Times

Malian security forces used tear gas on Wednesday to disperse an unsanctioned protest in the capital Bamako against France’s military presence in the country, one of the rally’s organisers said. – Reuters

Armed men opened fire overnight, trying to storm the residence of a provincial governor in Sudan’s restive Darfur region but were repelled by guards, officials said Wednesday. – Associated Press

The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting Thursday on ethnic fighting that has left at least 155 people dead in the Darfur region of Sudan, diplomats said. – Agence-France Presse

Armed groups stood on the outskirts of Bangassou on Tuesday, raising fears of further clashes in the southern city a day after two U.N. peacekeepers were killed in a nearby ambush blamed on rebels. – Associated Press

The Americas

The Atlantic waters off Guyana have become one of the world’s hottest oil-drilling zones. Now, international oil executives are looking at neighboring Suriname. – New York Times

Hundreds of people marched through Haiti’s capital Wednesday in another protest demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse. – Associated Press

New testimony by a cooperating witness directly implicates Mexico’s army in the disappearance of 43 college students in a 2014 incident that continues to haunt the country, according to a newspaper report Wednesday. – Associated Press

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be the first foreign leader to receive a call from President Biden, his spokeswoman said. – Washington Times

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in the first day under President Joe Biden, suspended all new enrollments in a program that has pushed tens of thousands of migrants to wait in Mexico for asylum hearings in U.S. courts. – Reuters

Incoming U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden should quickly fulfill campaign promises to launch an immigration plan, including giving dual nationality to Mexicans working in the United States, Mexico’s president said on Wednesday. – Reuters

David Smilde writes: Of course the immediate reaction of some Democratic strategists will be to suggest changing course with respect to Venezuela would be political suicide in Florida ahead of the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential race. However, both Republicans and Democrats would be well advised to treat U.S. Latinos as the socially, culturally and politically diverse population that they are — which can be engaged by a positive and thoughtful foreign policy. In the end, Latino immigrants want to see well-being in their countries of origin, and they will reward a clear strategy and signs of progress. – Washington Post

United States

Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, calling for unity as he assumed leadership of a nation battered by a once-in-a-century pandemic and the recent deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol. – Wall Street Journal

President Biden on his first day in office took a range of executive actions, including implementing a national mask mandate on federal property, revoking a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and reversing a travel ban from several largely Muslim and African countries, officials said. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration issued a flurry of sanctions after Election Day, a move that could complicate foreign policy for the Biden administration, sanctions policy observers said. – Wall Street Journal

Proud Boys organizer Joseph Randall Biggs was arrested in Florida on Wednesday after the FBI alleged that members of the far-right nationalist group appeared equipped with walkie-talkie-style communication devices and earpieces that could enable “real-time communication” during the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. – Washington Post

As President Biden took his oath of office Wednesday, bringing the Trump era to a close after the most tumultuous presidential transition in living memory, world leaders and top officials, along with ordinary people across the globe, looked on with rapt attention — and in many cases optimism. – Washington Post

Even among the many norm-shattering, unpredictable moments that marked President Trump’s tenure, his approach to foreign travel and high-level diplomacy stood out. – Washington Post

Followers of the extremist ideology QAnon saw their hopes once again dashed Wednesday as President Trump left Washington on the final day of his presidency, without any of the climactic scenes of violence and salvation that the sprawling set of conspiracy theories had preached for years would come. – Washington Post

The director of the National Security Agency on Wednesday put the agency’s top lawyer on administrative leave days after the Pentagon ordered the ex-GOP operative be installed in the job, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter. – Washington Post

The Biden administration has ordered U.S. immigration agencies to focus their energies on threats to national security, public safety and recent border crossers, ending a four-year stretch during the Trump administration that exposed anyone in the United States illegally to deportation. – Washington Post

Senators confirmed Avril Haines to be President Biden’s director of national intelligence (DNI) on Wednesday, giving him his first Senate-confirmed Cabinet pick. – The Hill

Twelve US National Guard troops have been pulled from duty protecting the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden, partly due to an investigation of extremist sympathies in the ranks, the Pentagon said Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse

Mark Landler writes: Whether the Biden administration will back up those words with action remains to be seen, of course. But some say that Mr. Biden’s instincts, temperament and background as a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee make him unlikely to shrug off chances to command the world stage. – New York Times

Tiana Lowe writes: Trump’s foreign policy was correct in instinct and realistic in approach, but it always had to overcome Trump’s obsession with economic isolationism and insistence on enraging our allies. If Biden can build upon the momentum of Trump’s progress with smarter diplomacy, the country and the world will become a safer and more prosperous place. – Washington Examiner


A group of California plaintiffs has filed a lawsuit against Chinese tech giant Tencent in state court, alleging that the company’s WeChat mobile app has censored and surveilled them and shared their data with Chinese authorities. – Washington Post

Two top national security nominees advocated Tuesday for stronger federal cybersecurity and increased collaboration with contractors in the aftermath of a supply chain breach that infiltrated numerous federal agencies. – C4ISRNET

Google-owned YouTube on Tuesday confirmed it extended a ban on new video being added to US President Donald Trump’s channel due to the potential for inciting violence. – Agence France-Presse

Efforts to assess the impact of a more than seven-month-old cyberespionage campaign blamed on Russia — and boot the intruders — remain in their early stages, says the cybersecurity firm that discovered the attack. – Associated Press

A long-running Silicon Valley soap opera took an unexpected twist on Wednesday after outgoing President Donald Trump pardoned a former Google engineer for stealing self-driving car secrets shortly before joining Uber.  – Associated Press


Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy resigned Wednesday, he said in a letter to the military’s largest branch, capping a term of tumultuous moments that ended with the unprecedented use of the National Guard at home. – Washington Post 

The Army falsely denied for days that Lt. Gen. Charles A. Flynn, the brother of disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn, was involved in a key meeting during its heavily scrutinized response to the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol. – Washington Post

A Trump administration official on Wednesday was sworn in to lead the Pentagon until President Biden’s official pick for the role is confirmed. Former deputy Defense secretary David Norquist took over as acting Defense secretary until retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin is confirmed by the Senate. – The Hill

Navy officials in Washington and on the waterfront are trying to help the Littoral Combat Ships grow more reliable and maintainable, amid a surface navy-wide effort to focus on crew-level maintenance as a means of improving operational availability. – USNI News

The F-35 joint strike fighter is still struggling to meet its mission capable rate goals, with current figures well below the military’s target, the Pentagon’s outgoing acquisition chief told reporters on Jan. 19. – Defense News

The Army is preparing for key tests of a multimode seeker for munitions that will be capable of attacking maritime targets, but current funding will prevent a faster timeline to integrate it into the Army’s future long-range missile, according to Brig. Gen. John Rafferty, who is in charge of the service’s long-range precision fires modernization efforts. – Defense News

Sierra Technical Services (STS) was awarded a prime contract by the US Army Corp of Engineers Contracting Office in March 2017 to design, manufacture, assemble, integrate, and ground/flight test the 5GAT demonstrator. Similar in dimensions and mass to the T-38 trainer aircraft, the 5GAT vehicle is powered by a pair of General Electric J85 engines harvested from retired T-38 trainers. – Jane’s 360

Long War

Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader said Wednesday that his forces have killed six suspected militants, including a warlord accused of organizing a 2011 suicide attack at a Moscow airport. – Associated Press

A U.S. Army soldier was arrested Tuesday in Georgia on terrorism charges after he spoke online about plots to blow up New York City’s 9/11 Memorial and other landmarks and attack U.S. soldiers in the Middle East, authorities said. – Associated Press

A 24-year-old Italian suspected of fighting in the Middle East since 2014 with al Qaeda-affiliated groups was arrested in Turkey and jailed in Italy, police said on Wednesday.  – Reuters

More than half a million people have fled their homes due to an Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique, and the violence and humanitarian crisis will worsen without international help, United Nations officials said on Wednesday. – Reuters