Fdd's overnight brief

January 24, 2020

In The News


European powers won’t move to reimpose international sanctions on Iran and kill the 2015 nuclear deal as long as Tehran restrains expansion of its nuclear work, diplomats said, potentially increasing tensions with the Trump administration. – Wall Street Journal 

The United States on Thursday said it blacklisted two companies based in Hong Kong, one in Shanghai and one in Dubai for helping Iran’s state-owned National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) export millions of dollars of goods in violation of U.S. sanctions. – Reuters 

Israel and the United States on Thursday called for action against Iran, comparing it to the threat once posed by Nazi Germany, as world leaders marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. – Agence France-Presse  

The successor to the Iranian commander killed in a U.S. drone strike would suffer the same fate if he followed a similar path by killing Americans, the U.S. special representative for Iran said, according to Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. – Reuters 

The U.S threat to kill the successor to Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani is a sign of “America’s targeted and governmental terrorism”, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Thursday. – Reuters 

James G. Zumwalt writes: For 45 years since failing to keep our South Vietnamese ally within the fold of democratic nations, we have never feared the enemy we fought following us home. In our conflict with the Iranians, should we lose, we have no similar luxury — they have been following us home since 9/11 as evidenced by the support they rendered those terrorists. – The Hill  

Ethan Bueno de Mesquita writes: Of course, proponents of a maximalist strategy will argue that the alternative, backing off the deterrent threat, invites further bad behavior by Iran itself. And there is some truth to this. That is what is so frustrating about the contemporary conflict space, which is inevitably characterized by hard-to-attribute attacks associated with proxy groups, cyberwarfare, and terrorism. To a significant degree, deterrence, which has been a hallmark of U.S. strategy for generations, simply ceases to be an effective way to conceptualize keeping the peace. – Foreign Policy 

Mehdi Khalaji writes: The danger of concentrating so much power in Khamenei’s hands is obvious: what happens when he is gone? Soleimani was an unparalleled alternative authority, someone who likely gave Khamenei peace of mind that the regime could remain stable when the time for transition came around. Even authoritarian regimes benefit from having such safety valves—figures who can offer guidance during times of crisis and expect it to be followed without resorting to coercive measures. Now the prospect of succession likely seems more unnerving to Tehran, and the regime’s future less certain.  – Washington Institute  

Amin Mohseni-Cheraghlou writes: Thus, it seems that the only real effective strategy in Iran’s “harsh revenge” campaign is to increase the human and financial costs of the U.S. presence in the Gulf. To this end, Iran will likely leverage its extensive network of sympathizers and proxies in neighboring countries and beyond to carry out attacks against U.S.-only targets. Not only would this approach be in line with the regime’s ultimate objective, it would also allow the Iranian leadership to make good on its threats incrementally, at the time and location of its choosing. – Middle East Institute


The main threat facing the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad as he regains control over most of his war-torn country is not military but economic. – Washington Post 

Turkish aid groups have begun building more than 10,000 houses in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib to shelter growing numbers of people displaced by fighting, while Turkey seeks to prevent a new influx of migrants fleeing from Syria. – Reuters  

Unidentified aircraft attacked a military base used by the Hezbollah terror group near the Syria-Iraq border overnight Thursday-Friday, according to Arabic media reports. – Times of Israel 

Syrian state media said militants launched a major attack on government forces in Idlib on Thursday that Russia’s defence ministry said killed up to 40 Syrian soldiers, though the account was disputed by a rebel official and war monitor. – Reuters  


President Trump on Thursday invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his challenger in upcoming elections, Benny Gantz, to Washington next week for a discussion of Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan. – Washington Post 

A Hamas official warned that if the United States moves forward with its Middle East plan, it could lead to another intifada. Basem Naim, the head of Hamas’s International Relations Office, tweeted the notion on Thursday. – Washington Examiner  

The decision of Jared Kushner to cancel the peace team’s visit to Israel, citing weather conditions and a delayed flight, left experts in Washington and Jerusalem confused. It is not the first time the team shifted gear and sped up toward a release of the plan – just to hold back a few days later. – Jerusalem Post 

US Ambassador to the United Nation Kelly Craft slammed Iran and supported Israel at the United Nations Security Council debate on the Middle East last Tuesday, as reported by the Jewish News Syndicate. – Jerusalem Post 


President Trump met with Nechirvan Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, on Wednesday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. During their encounter, Trump focused on praising the Kurds of Syria. – Washington Post  

Tens of thousands of Iraqis converged on Baghdad to rally against the presence of U.S. military in the country amid a surge of anti-American sentiment unleashed by the targeted killing of an Iranian general on their soil. – Wall Street Journal 

US Patriot batteries could be sent but reports say there is a shortage leading to questions about whether other systems, such as the two Iron Dome batteries the US has could be an interim solution. – Jerusalem Post   

Iraqi President Barham Salih met US President Donald Trump on Wednesday at Davos during the economic summit. Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq are outraged and on social media and in incitement-laden speeches they have threatened Iraq’s leader. – Jerusalem Post 

Michael Knights writes: These startling developments stem from the ongoing disruption of the Qods Force control system in Iraq. Indeed, the January 3 assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis has created a fleeting opportunity for Iraqi nationalists to seize the political reins back from the militias and restore Iraqi sovereignty. How can Washington support these trends without inadvertently undermining them? Several do’s and don’ts spring to mind[…]. – Washington Institute 

Arabian Peninsula

F.B.I. agents who secretly investigated Saudi connections to the 9/11 attacks for more than a decade after high-level officials discounted any government links found circumstantial evidence of such support but could not find a smoking gun, a joint investigation by The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica shows. – New York Times  

Yemen’s government wants to resume direct peace talks with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels to end a brutal five-year conflict, but getting the insurgents back to the negotiating table will require both military pressure and international diplomacy, the nation’s U.S. envoy said. – Bloomberg 

Eli Lake writes: If it were just another dictatorship, it would be easy enough to quarantine Saudi Arabia until it reforms. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia remains a vital partner against Iran and the jihadists in the Middle East. Its enemies are also the West’s enemies. For now, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Bobby Ghosh notes, the challenge is to press MBS to stop acting like the thugs he’s fighting. – Bloomberg  

Dr. Alexandra Stark writes: Over the past century, Yemen has often been a site for actors in the region to play out their own conflicts. A relapse in fighting in Yemen could provide future grounds for intervention and will act as a driver of regional instability. By contrast, ending the war in Yemen will eliminate a critical source of Iranian leverage in the Gulf. – War on the Rocks 


A Libyan militant was sentenced on Thursday to more than 19 years in prison by a federal judge for his role in the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, including the United States ambassador. – New York Times  

Algerian Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum told visiting envoys from other countries neighbouring Libya on Thursday that he hoped their meeting would strengthen a fragile truce in the country and help avert more foreign influence there. – Reuters  

Rebel forces in Libya have threatened to hit civilian planes flying over the capital Tripoli, declaring the city and its surrounding areas a “no-fly zone”. – BBC  

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned business and political leaders that the ongoing conflict in Libya could have similar ramifications to the war in Syria. – CNBC

Middle East & North Africa

The United States hopes to avert a conflict with Iran but will maintain an expanded military footprint in the Middle East amid heightened tensions, the head of U.S. Central Command said Thursday during a visit to the region. – Washington Post   

Decades ago, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted thousands of people to flee to neighboring Iran. Now, many of these refugees are once again seeking a new home in a new land, Turkey, desperate to escape the dire economic conditions fueled by U.S. sanctions on Tehran. – Washington Post  

Violence by some protesters in the Lebanese capital Beirut appears to be politically driven to undermine security and stability, a senior United Nations official said on Thursday. – Reuters 

The United States has seen no uptick in Islamic State activity in Iraq and northeastern Syria, U.S. special representative for Syria James Jeffrey said on Thursday, weeks after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad. – Reuters   

Turkey’s maritime border agreement with Libya is unacceptable and illegal, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, amid growing tension in the eastern Mediterranean. – Bloomberg 

Eli Lake writes: The main risk for Trump’s plan is that it could embolden Israel to take steps that would make it much harder to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. In this sense, Trump’s proposal could encourage Israeli unilateralism. […]But there is also a chance that Trump’s departure from the prior peace-process consensus could spur the Palestinians to make new compromises. That won’t happen right away. If the president is re-elected in November, however, the Palestinian leadership may reconsider their options. – Bloomberg 

Korean Peninsula

North Korea’s state media on Friday confirmed that Ri Son Gwon, a former defence commander with limited diplomatic experience, has been appointed the country’s new foreign affairs minister. – Reuters 

Russia said on Thursday it had missed a United Nations deadline to repatriate North Korean workers due to what it called objective difficulties, but said it was scrupulously complying with U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang. – Reuters  

Dr. Christopher J. Watterson writes: Therefore, as unsatisfying as it might be, maximum pressure could be the only path to denuclearizing North Korea. […]Without a firm commitment to maximize U.S. pressure on North Korea, the best that one could hope for is incremental additions to U.S. sanctions commensurate with whatever upwards pressure Congress can muster through legislation[…]. The foreshadowed deterioration in U.S.-North Korean relations might be the shot in the arm that the executive needs to get serious about bringing the hammer down on North Korea. – War on the Rocks 


The outbreak of a deadly disease in China has cast a pall over growth prospects for the world’s second largest economy, raising fears about the global outlook if the mysterious coronavirus spreads or worsens. – New York Times  

When the United States and China reached a temporary truce in their costly trade war last week, many wondered how Beijing could live up to its commitment to buy $200 billion more of American-made goods over two years. Surely, critics said, China will either renege on the deal, or it will switch to buying products from American farms and factories that it is currently purchasing from other countries. – New York Times 

The first phase of battle over whether Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou should be extradited to the United States wrapped up on Thursday after four days, with lawyers for Meng challenging prosecution claims that her alleged actions are a crime in Canada. – Reuters 

A digital yuan could allow some countries to avoid U.S. sanctions and increase the Chinese government’s influence, experts told CNBC. – CNBC 


Afghanistan is prepared for a major reduction in United States forces there, President Ashraf Ghani said on Thursday, adding that he had given that message to President Trump, a step toward winding down the costly American military presence as diplomats struggle to finalize a peace deal with the Taliban. – New York Times  

Rejecting arguments made by Myanmar’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled on Thursday that Myanmar must take action to protect Rohingya Muslims, who have been killed and driven from their homes in what the country’s accusers call a campaign of genocide. – New York Times  

It would be a “disaster” for the Gulf countries if there’s a conflict between the U.S. and Iran, Pakistan’s prime minister said on Wednesday. – CNBC 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warned the United States on Thursday he would repeal an agreement on deployment of troops and equipment for exercises if Washington did not reinstate the visa of a political ally. – Reuters  

The European Union ordered its customs officials to register flat-rolled stainless steel imports from China, Taiwan and Indonesia, widening the threat of tariffs on the shipments. – Bloomberg


President Trump says he is determined to keep control of Syrian oil fields as the country’s civil war plays out, but exactly how far the U.S. military is willing to go to protect those valuable energy reserves remains a mystery and represents a key question for the administration’s broader policy in the Middle East. – Washington Times  

Three former Russian bank owners were ordered by a London court Thursday to pay $900 million for siphoning money out and contributing to the collapse of domestic lender National Bank Trust five years ago. – Wall Street Journal 

Ukraine started talks with Russia on a new swap of Ukrainians detained in Russia and in eastern Ukraine, which is under separatist control, Ukraine’s presidential office said on Thursday. – Reuters 

Russia’s lower house of parliament unanimously gave its initial backing on Thursday to sweeping constitutional changes proposed by President Vladimir Putin which are widely seen as an attempt to extend his influence after he steps down. – Reuters 


Prosecutors in Bulgaria announced criminal charges on Thursday against three Russian spies from a secretive assassination unit for the 2015 poisoning of a prominent Bulgarian arms manufacturer. – New York Times 

Nato’s purchase of five surveillance drones is “the first concrete sign” the military alliance is moving away from its dependency on the US, a security expert has said. – Telegraph  

The high court has given a green light to a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia that has been brought by a prominent dissident living in London who has claimed he was the victim of a sophisticated hacking campaign by the kingdom. – The Guardian 

With a rejigged NAFTA passed by Congress and a mini trade deal with China in the books, the Trump administration is now planning to turn its trade bazooka on a familiar target: Europe. – Foreign Policy

Britain’s long-delayed and contentious Brexit bill, with royal assent from Queen Elizabeth II, became law Thursday after more than three and a half years of bitter dispute. – Fox News  

The head of the one of the world’s largest Muslim organizations paid an unprecedented visit to the site of the Auschwitz extermination camp on Thursday, where he participated in remembrance prayers for the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. – Algemeiner 


A Portuguese banker was found dead after being identified as a suspect in a fraud case against Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s former president. – Wall Street Journal 

The U.S. military on Thursday released new details of the Jan. 5 attack on a Kenyan airbase used by U.S. troops following a New York Times report that described the scene as chaotic. – The Hill  

An Islamic State affiliate recently launched a series of violent assaults in West Africa, according to a British military publication that monitors terrorism and insurgency. – Washington Examiner 

Michael Rubin writes: If Somalia wants to clear its debt, let it account for its missing money, fight corruption, and promote its private sector. At the very least, relevant congressional committees should have a hearing to debate the merits of debt forgiveness and additional aid to Somalia. To do otherwise is to give relatively low-level and unaccountable State Department bureaucrats control over America’s purse. – Washington Examiner  

Olivier-Rémy Bel writes: Thus, a limited but critical American investment — airlift and surveillance assets — would go a long way towards ensuring that Europe remains both a willing and able ally in the great-power game. That investment needs not be endless. Europeans are stepping up. France purchased C-130J transport aircraft and Reaper drones to fill capability gaps. Denmark and the United Kingdom have sent lift helicopters. European forces, from Estonia to Germany, the Czech Republic to Spain, Finland to Portugal, are deploying in the Sahel to an unprecedented extent, either in Barkhane, the EU’s training mission, or the UN stabilization mission. – War on the Rocks

The Americas

But as Mr. Guaidó made the rounds at this year’s gathering of political and business figures — having come to Europe in defiance of a travel ban at home — he seemed like a man whose moment had passed. – New York Times   

U.S. President Donald Trump will sign a trade pact between the United States, Mexico and Canada on Wednesday during a ceremony at the White House, an administration official told Reuters on Thursday. – Reuters 

Venezuelan opposition politician Henri Falcon’s party is seeking the United States’ blessing for a deal with President Nicolas Maduro to overturn and repeat a 2018 vote in which Maduro trounced Falcon, the party’s lobbying firm said in a filing. – Reuters 

Lawyers for U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald urged a Brazilian court on Thursday to dismiss criminal charges against him for allegedly aiding hackers who accessed the private phone messages of Sergio Moro, Brazil’s current justice minister. – Reuters 

The United States intends to send an ambassador to Bolivia to help restore a “normal relationship” between the two countries, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said in a video statement posted online on Thursday. – Reuters  

The man considered to be the architect of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program on Wednesday described his efforts to convince the agency to let him stop waterboarding a suspected terrorist. – Washington Examiner 


The Trump administration is moving to curb the sale of imported counterfeit goods over the internet, warning electronic commerce platforms and warehouse operators of greater scrutiny and penalties if they don’t help ferret out fakes. – Wall Street Journal  

Cyber operations were given their first big real-world test in November 2016, during the Department of Defense’s largest cyber operation to date. Now newly released documents reveal that U.S. Cyber Command proposed passing some targets to coalition partners — information typically held closely. – Fifth Domain 

Anthony J. Ferrante writes: While these predictions are just that, calculated guesses at what’s to come, they hopefully inspire a proactive approach to addressing threats and mitigating cyber risks. Maintaining the opposite mindset will leave organizations and people alike vulnerable not just to this list of predictions, but also to basic attacks aimed at exploiting known and emerging vulnerabilities. – The Hill 


U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper suggested on Thursday he could be ready to start a highly anticipated global force repositioning this year as part of an effort to refocus the Pentagon on challenges from China and Russia. – Reuters  

Until recently, Lockheed Martin employees manufacturing the C-130J may have been exposed to harmful chemicals, and the Defense Department may have ignored worker concerns, a U.S. senator said Thursday. – Defense News  

After years of stability questions about the hull design for the U.S. Navy’s new three-ship class of stealth destroyers, the commanding officer of the lead ship, USS Zumwalt, is satisfied: It handles the seas as well, if not better, than previous classes of surface combatants. – Defense News 

With just weeks until the Department of Defense plans to begin building its controversial enterprise cloud, one top DoD IT official laid out how the cloud will serve as a platform for another modernization effort: software. – Federal Times  

The National Reconnaissance Office’s first satellite launch of 2020 will take place in New Zealand, with the agency taking advantage of a new contract vehicle designed to leverage growing commercial small satellite launch capabilities. – C4ISRNET  

In a project that can be classified as mostly biomimicry, with just a hint of necromancy, a team of researchers at Stanford University built a drone that flies on wings made of pigeon feathers. The goal, ultimately, is unlocking new science for morphing wings of aircraft. – C4ISRNET 

Military leaders have said future battlefields will be contested and congested, an environment that will require the seamless transfer of data between networks, systems, platforms and especially U.S. military services. – C4ISRNET 

Trump Administration

House impeachment managers laid out the heart of their abuse-of-power case against President Trump on Thursday — charging that his efforts to pressure Ukraine into political investigations were precisely what the nation’s founders wanted to guard against when they empowered Congress to remove a president from office. – Washington Post 

Republican North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows claimed on Thursday that House impeachment manager Adam Schiff and his fellow Democrats orchestrated the “only cover-up” in the impeachment process. – Washington Examiner 

As the third-ever impeachment trial in U.S. history slogged through its third day on Thursday, supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump weren’t the only people hoping for a swift conclusion. Many Russians said they felt the same way—from the highest levels of the Kremlin to people on the streets of Moscow. – Foreign Policy 

Newly released documents show senior Republican lawmakers were privately questioning President Donald Trump’s administration over the withholding of U.S. military aid to Ukraine last year, indicating that concerns about the policy extended well beyond senior Trump advisors such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. – Foreign Policy