Fdd's overnight brief

January 22, 2020

In The News


Iran is refusing to hand over the flight data recorders of a Ukrainian airliner it accidentally shot down, despite Kyiv’s demand that the black boxes be sent back home for analysis. The brewing dispute follows domestic anger and international criticism over Tehran’s initial denial of responsibility for the jet’s downing. – Wall Street Journal

Ms. Moore-Gilbert was detained in Iran in September 2018 while attending a conference. She was later convicted of spying and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She is being held in Evin Prison in Tehran in solitary confinement in a high-security wing run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. – New York Times

Iran said it had asked the U.S. and French authorities for equipment to download information from black boxes on a downed Ukrainian airliner, potentially angering countries which want the recorders analyzed abroad. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada… said Iran did not have the ability to read the data and he demanded the cockpit and flight recorders should be sent to France. Kiev wants the recorders sent to Ukraine. – Reuters

An Iranian lawmaker offered a $3 million reward to anyone who killed U.S. President Donald Trump and said Iran could avoid threats if it had nuclear arms, ISNA news agency reported on Tuesday amid Tehran’s latest standoff with Washington. – Reuters

U.S. immigration officials on Monday deported an Iranian student headed to a Boston university despite efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocates to block the removal. – Reuters

Exiting the 2015 nuclear deal is one of Iran’s options, the Iranian president’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, said on Wednesday, according to the official IRNA news agency. – Reuters

Masked gunmen on Wednesday ambushed and killed the local commander of a paramilitary security force in southwestern Iran, an associate of Iran’s top general recently killed in an American drone strike in Baghdad, the official IRNA news agency reported. – Associated Press

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps may be spread too thin to handle both a large-scale regional conflict and major domestic unrest, according to a report. Iran’s Reserve of Last Resort: Uncovering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Ground Forces Order of Battle, the report from the American Enterprise Institute examines the IRGC’s command structure and its responsibilities both domestic and foreign. – Washington Examiner

Nine Iranian Christians were sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and were accused of “promoting Zionism” in October, as the Islamic state continues to wage persecution against its religious minorities, a new report has revealed. – Jerusalem Post

Gerald M. Steinberg writes: Whether these events are enough to finally trigger full-blown rebellion and an internal regime change in Iran is far from clear. There are important differences when compared to Chernobyl. The magnitude of the nuclear disaster and cover-up was much greater than the 176 deaths from Ukrainian Air Flight 752. And Iran appears, at least from the outside, to be more resilient than Gorbachev’s teetering empire in the late 1980s. But for the people of Iran, and for everyone else in the region, the scenario provides hope. – Washington Examiner

Michael Rubin writes: Zarif may seek to scare Europe into concessions, but his reading of precedent and Iran’s ability to simply walk away is severely flawed: While Iran can walk away from the NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency, it cannot wipe blank the slate of outstanding concerns. It is an issue I dealt with at length in Dancing with the Devil, a history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes like Iran’s and North Korea’s. – Washington Examiner

Tim Michetti writes: Iran is known to leave fingerprints behind when conducting unacknowledged attacks or illegally transferring weapons and other material to proxies in the region. […]Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the investigation, the United States and its regional allies should do their utmost to ensure that the UN is fully integrated and unhindered in the exploitation process. […]Their involvement not only provides important third-party verification, but often produces original findings that end up supporting U.S. assertions. – Washington Institute


U.S. allies in Latin America cracked down this week on Hezbollah, designating the Iranian proxy force a foreign terrorist organization. “This is all part of a concerted effort on Hezbollah that we see these outcomes right now,” a Middle East official told the Washington Examiner. “Hezbollah is very active in Latin America, so the impact is very, very significant in that sense.” – Washington Examiner

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force has a new deputy commander and he was the key to Hezbollah’s precision missile project. Mohammed Hejazi was previously a high ranking IRGC commander, a suppressor of protests in Iran and had been under Qasem Soleimani’s command as the central figure in Iran’s operations in Lebanon. – Jerusalem Post

The powerful Iran-backed group Hezbollah has nominated two ministers in Lebanon’s new government including the health minister, two senior political sources told Reuters. – Reuters


Russian-led airstrikes killed at least 18 people – including an entire family – in north-west Syria, where a major government offensive to clear out rebels has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing toward the border with Turkey, residents and rescuers have said. – The Guardian

David Rosenberg writes: It’s hard to imagine how economic conditions in Syria could become even worse than they have been until now. Nine years of civil war have left the economy at one third its pre-war size, a third of its inventory of housing lies in ruins and two thirds of its population are refugees, inside the country or abroad. – Haaretz

Samuel Ramani writes: In spite of countervailing pressure from the United States the UAE has substantially improved its relationship with Syria over the past year. While the UAE claims that its re-establishment of diplomatic links with Damascus is a pragmatic policy that does not aim to strengthen Assad’s hold on power, its growing willingness to invest in Syria’s reconstruction process could bring unwelcome attention to Abu Dhabi’s Syria policy in the months to come. – Middle East Institute


Emmanuel Macron begins a visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday with a symbolic stop at one of France’s territories in the Holy Land aiming to avoid controversies of past presidents, while underscoring Paris’ historical influence in the region. – Reuters

Three Palestinians were shot dead on Tuesday night after sneaking into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip and throwing explosive devices at IDF troops. – Algemeiner

The head of Israel’s centrist Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, expressed support on Tuesday for annexing the Jordan Valley, calling the strategically-situated region the Jewish state’s “eastern defensive wall.” – Algemeiner

“Israel is on your side,” the Jewish state’s UN envoy told the Iranian people in Persian in remarks delivered at a Security Council debate on the Middle East on Tuesday. – Algemeiner

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his office appealed to the White House on Wednesday for a green light to apply Israeli sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and the northern region of the Dead Sea before the March 2  elections, Kan 11 News reported on Wednesday morning. – Jerusalem Post

The official events of the Fifth World Holocaust Forum are set to begin on Wednesday night, with a dinner at the President’s Residence. High-level delegations from 49 countries are expected to take part in the main event at Yad Vashem on Thursday afternoon, to remember the Holocaust and commit to fighting antisemitism, while 40 will attend a dinner the night before hosted by President Reuven Rivlin. – Jerusalem Post

The Western Wall belongs only to Muslims and must be defended even to the death, Palestinians living in the West Bank were told during a filler piece between programs on official Palestinian Authority TV and in a news article in the official PA newspaper. – Jerusalem Post

Sever Plocker writes: The warm relations between Moscow and Jerusalem yield strategic advantages and the friendship of our leaders may facilitate Naama Issachar’s release but Russia cannot dictate the terms of this friendship. – Ynet

Dov Trachtman writes: Narrative tradition dictates that an incendiary balloon prepared in the first act will always explode in the third. So the question is not where one of the bomb balloons sent from Gaza will explode, but rather when and how many casualties it will cause. – Ynet


NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance must beef up its military training operation in Iraq to ensure that its members are not drawn back into combat there against Islamic State extremists. – Associated Press

BP (BP.L) has pulled out of Iraq’s giant Kirkuk oilfield after its $100 million exploration contract expired with no agreement on the field’s expansion, dealing a fresh blow to Iraq’s hopes to increase its oil output, three sources told Reuters. – Reuters

More U.S. troops were flown out of Iraq for evaluation after officials believe they might have suffered concussion injuries in the Iranian missile attack earlier this month. The exact number of additional U.S. forces who were flown out was not released, but Navy Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said that the move was made out of an “ abundance of caution.” – Washington Examiner

On January 21, 2020, leaders of the Iraqi Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) threatened to expel Iraqi President Barham Saleh from Baghdad, should he meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, or any of his aides, during the upcoming World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. – Middle East Media Research Institute


Lebanon announced a new government coalition led by a Hezbollah-backed candidate and establishment figures, prompting protesters who unseated the previous regime to call for more demonstrations as they seek far-reaching changes to the country’s sectarian political system. – Wall Street Journal

An American freelance journalist detained by Lebanese authorities on suspicion of sending footage of anti-government protests to an Israeli news outlet was released Tuesday, according to friends and advocacy groups. – Washington Post

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the formation of a new Lebanese government on Tuesday and will work with the new premier to support reforms in the heavily indebted country grappling with an urgent economic crisis. – Reuters

Lebanon’s new government needs foreign support to help it get out of an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, the finance minister said on Wednesday. Hours after he was named, Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni also said the government must decide on its approach to a $1.2 billion Eurobond maturing in March. – Reuters

Lebanon’s new cabinet is due to meet for the first time on Wednesday, bearing a message of support from the United Nations as ministers begin the urgent task of addressing an unprecedented economic crisis. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

A forensic analysis of Jeff Bezos’ cellphone found with “medium to high confidence” that the Amazon chief’s device was hacked after he received a video from a WhatsApp account reportedly belonging to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, according to people familiar with the Bezos-ordered investigation. – New York Times

After a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Pentagon leaders sent a brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division to Kuwait. But that brigade had been slated to serve as the test unit for the first part of the Army’s new Integrated Tactical Network, known as capability set 2021, and which is made up of a mix of existing programs of record and commercial off-the-shelf capabilities. – C4ISRNET

Mitchell Bard writes: One reason that journalists often get stories wrong and mislead their audiences is because they often behave as if history begins when they arrive in the Middle East. By failing to be aware of or account for prior events, reporters fail to provide necessary context and relevant information to understand contemporary issues. Often, ignorance results in stories that are inaccurate. – Algemeiner

Edy Cohen writes: History teaches that any country that supports the Palestinian cause and sides with Tehran is likely to become an Iranian vassal inundated with radical Shiite militias. Examples are plentiful. Take Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. All three were once wealthy nations, but are now failed states thanks to Iran’s interference. In order to maintain the welfare of his country and the legacy of Qaboos, the new Sultan would be wise to follow the path of his predecessor. – Algemeiner

Korean Peninsula

South Korea’s military decided Wednesday to discharge a soldier who recently undertook gender reassignment surgery, a ruling expected to draw strong criticism from human rights groups. – Associated Press

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un will resume nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests if the United States refuses to ease sanctions, an envoy announced amid a diplomatic shake-up in Pyongyang. – Washington Examiner

South Korea’s economy expanded at its slowest pace for a decade last year, hampered by prolonged trade tensions between the US and China and the sluggish semiconductor market, the central bank said Wednesday. – Agence France-Presse


The World Health Organization (WHO) is holding an emergency meeting in Geneva on Wednesday to make a fateful decision: Whether to designate the outbreak of a mysterious, pneumonia-like virus that originated in China as an international public health emergency. – Washington Post

Gui Congyou, China’s ambassador to Sweden, was summoned Tuesday to the Swedish Foreign Ministry in Stockholm after a media interview in which he appeared to threaten local journalists who write critically about Beijing. – Washington Post

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that the central government cares for the health and well-being of its Taiwan compatriots more than anyone else. Taiwan’s participation in international bodies must be arranged under the “One China” principle, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a daily news briefing in Beijing, referring to a core Chinese government policy that states Taiwan is part of China. – Reuters

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen called on China on Wednesday to share “correct” information about a new coronavirus and for the World Health Organisation (WHO) not to exclude Taiwan from collaboration on the outbreak for political reasons. – Reuters


Several hundred Hong Kong protesters gathered on Tuesday at the site of an attack six months ago by an armed mob on anti-government demonstrators, denouncing the lack of progress by police in bringing those responsible to justice. – Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday his country will form a space defense unit to protect itself from potential threats as rivals develop missiles and other technology, noting that the new unit will work closely with its American counterpart recently launched by President Donald Trump. – Defense News

Sailors and Marines kicked off an annual bilateral Iron Fist exercise with Japanese soldiers on Friday that’s designed to help Japan’s fledgling amphibious force become ready to operate. […]The goal of the aggressive training schedule is “for us to become a world-renowned amphibious operation unit,” Col. Koji Hirata, the JGSDF’s deputy commander, said during the opening ceremony. – USNI News

A drone attack carried out by U.S. forces earlier this month in western Afghanistan that apparently targeted a splinter Taliban group also killed at least 10 civilians, including three women and three children, an Afghan rights official and a council member said Wednesday. – Associated Press


Nobody knows what’s going on inside the Kremlin right now. And perhaps that’s precisely the point. President Vladimir V. Putin announced constitutional changes last week that could create new avenues for him to rule Russia for the rest of his life. But will they? How? And will he? – New York Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin formed his new Cabinet Tuesday, replacing many of its members but keeping his foreign, defense and finance ministers in place. The Cabinet shake-up comes as Putin has launched a sweeping constitutional reform that is widely seen as an attempt to secure his grip on power well after his current term ends in 2024. – Associated Press

Poland appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to refrain from using World War II and Holocaust victims for current political goals and pointed to wartime documents in which the Polish government called on the Allies to save Jews. – Associated Press

Leonid Bershidsky writes: But the more things change in Russia, the more they stay the same. Just as under Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who spent most of his last three years in power looking for a suitable replacement, the guessing games and intrigues of the next few years will be focused on personalities, even if Putin’s selection process probably will be less haphazard than Yeltsin’s. “It takes a certain kind of man with a certain reputation/To alleviate the cash from a whole entire nation,” goes the Robbie Williams song. Putin will be looking for someone who can be as good at it as he’s been. – Bloomberg 


Over the next week, world leaders will gather twice to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of Nazi Germany’s death camps. That there will be two competing ceremonies — one in Jerusalem on Thursday and the other at the Auschwitz site in southern Poland on Jan. 27 — underlines how politically charged World War II remains as nationalist governments in Russia and Poland seek to use their own interpretation of the past for contemporary political gain. – Associated Press

Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump have agreed to extend till the end of the year negotiations on a dispute over a French tax targeting online giants, postponing Washington’s threat of sanctions, French officials said Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse

Swiss police foiled the beginnings of a suspected Russian spy operation five months before world leaders swarmed Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum. Police questioned two Russian men in the secluded Alpine town in August after an unusually long stay at the high-end ski resort hosting the annual conference, according to the Financial Times. – Washington Examiner

Lionel Laurent writes: The pressure is now on to get consensus among more than 135 countries in the OECD-led push for an agreement on how to tax digital profits. […]But until such a solution is actually agreed, it will be hard to celebrate this latest Franco-American “truce.” It has allowed France and Europe to save face by avoiding the reality of a new trade confrontation with Trump as he fights for re-election. It has offered tech firms a way to save money. But it hasn’t really saved the world from the threat of more trade wars. Davos can’t achieve everything. – Bloomberg


The Trump administration plans to add seven countries to a group of nations subject to travel restrictions, including Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, along with others in Africa and Asia, according to administration officials who have seen the list. – Wall Street Journal

Militants attacked a market in Burkina Faso’s Sanmatenga province, killing at least 36 people and wounding several others, the government said Tuesday. The gunmen then burned the market, according to a government statement. – Associated Press

Ken Abramowitz writes: Further reducing our already-small contingent of 7,000 soldiers in Africa is a repudiation of the Trump administration’s “America First“ strategy to firmly protect the US. It’s also hardly good politics just before the November elections. – Algemeiner

Latin America

Brazilian prosecutors on Tuesday charged the American journalist and activist Glenn Greenwald with cybercrimes related to the hacking of Justice Minister Sergio Moro’s cellphone last year, raising concerns about press freedoms in Latin America’s largest democracy. – Wall Street Journal

Mexico’s government said on Tuesday that it largely halted a caravan of undocumented Central Americans migrants who waded across a river into Mexico, and says others who attempt to enter the country illegally will face the same consequences. – Reuters

Agents from Venezuela’s Sebin intelligence service have raided the offices of opposition leader Juan Guaido while he is travelling in Europe, an opposition lawmaker said. – Agence France-Presse

Guerrilla groups have supplanted state rule on both sides of the lawless border between Venezuela and Colombia, where they impose their own brutal rules on civilians, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). – The Guardian

Michael Shifter writes: Street protests roiled cities across the world in 2019. Latin America in particular experienced greater social unrest than at any time in recent memory. Political crises and mass mobilizations broke out in Haiti, Honduras, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and elsewhere. In recent weeks, protests have subsided but not ceased, and 2020 may well bring more turmoil. – New York Times


The Air Force awarded Raytheon a $442 million contract Jan. 16 to develop new technology that will allow the B-52 and RC-130 aircraft to utilize the nation’s advanced anti-jamming communications satellites. – C4ISRNET

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has launched its newest foray into unleashing robot warships on the world’s seas: NOMARS. No, it’s not in reference to the former Red Sox standout infielder Nomar Garciaparra. The acronym stands for “No Manning Required, Ship,” and it’s part of DARPA’s plan to take its Sea Hunter drone ship a step further. The idea is to design a ship from the keel up that will never have a human on board. – Defense News

The Space Development Agency wants to move fast. The agency, which was established less than a year ago, wants dozens of satellites providing initial capabilities by fiscal year 2022 and nearly 1,000 satellites on orbit in fiscal year 2026. – C4ISRNET

The first CMV-22B Osprey – the tiltrotor aircraft selected to replace the Navy’s aging fleet of C-2A Greyhounds as the carrier onboard delivery aircraft – completed its first flight operations, according to its manufacturer. – USNI News

The Army is going back to the drawing board for the fourth time on the much-delayed $45 billion program to replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said Tuesday. – Military.com

Long War

A once-secret U.S. military cyber operation launched during the last year of the Obama administration to disrupt Islamic State’s online presence underwent a delayed rollout due to interagency disagreements about the clandestine mission, according to newly released government documents and former U.S. officials. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. military claims to have “successfully” disrupted the online propaganda efforts of the Islamic State in a hacking operation dating back at least to 2016, according to declassified national security documents released Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse

A psychologist who examined a man accused of planning an attack inspired by the Islamic State-group at a shopping and entertainment complex near Washington, D.C., found “ample evidence” that he is mentally unfit to assist in his defense, a court filing says. – Associated Press