Fdd's overnight brief

January 30, 2020

In The News


British journalist Nicolas Pelham was settling his hotel bill in Tehran on July 14 when Iranian intelligence agents showed up and took him to be interrogated. […]Nearly four months after he was allowed to depart, the Economist’s Middle East correspondent published a story in 1843 Magazine, revealing his detention and detailing his time in Iran — much of which was spent exploring Tehran’s cultural scene. – Washington Post

Business is booming at Iran’s largest flag factory which makes U.S., British and Israeli flags for Iranian protesters to burn. – Reuters 

Iran and Hezbollah will not risk a major war with Israel, ex-CIA director and general David Petraeus said on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

Bobby Ghosh writes: But while Iranians are obviously no fans of Trump, and they know the sanctions hurt, they are not buying Rouhani’s excuses. In repeated spasms of anti-government protests, they have tended to focus on the venality of the regime in Tehran, and not the hostility of the government in Washington. Rather than address such grievances, the regime has responded with brute force, killing hundreds. – Bloomberg

Raman Ghavami writes: On Jan. 13, Sens. Tom Cotton, Mike Braun, and Ted Cruz, all Republicans, sent a letter urging the Department of Justice “to investigate the National Iranian American Council and its sister organization, NIAC Action, for potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.” […]Opposing wars, which respected anti-war and pro-peace organizations actually do, is an important and ethical duty. However, pro-peace organizations should avoid being manipulated by the NIAC. It’s really little more than a lobbying organization for a heinous Iranian regime. – Washington Examiner 

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Iran is clearly preparing a larger push against Israel and the US in the context of Trump’s push for a “Deal of the Century” and also because Iran wants “hard revenge” for the killing of Soleimani. The speeches on Wednesday reveal that Iran will use its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, and among the Palestinians. It will work to undermine Gulf states that appeared to support the plan. It will also push a religious crusade that will seek to argue that Trump’s plan is “anti-Islamic.” – Jerusalem Post


Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes captured a strategic town in the country’s northwest, as the Assad regime presses a monthslong military campaign to retake one of the last remaining opposition strongholds after nine years of conflict. – Wall Street Journal

Truckloads of medical aid for civilians in Syria’s northeast is stuck in Iraq, the United Nations aid chief said on Wednesday, after Russia and China prevented the U.N. Security Council from renewing authorization for the cross-border deliveries. – Reuters 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced rare recent criticism of Russia for its conduct in Syria, saying his “patience is running out” over the ongoing bombing of opposition Islamist forces in Idlib province. – Bloomberg

Austin Tice is a former Marine turned journalist, who was kidnapped by jihadist militants in August 2012 while reporting in Daraya, Syria. He has languished in captivity for over seven years as his family, and the U.S. government, continue to fight for his release. – Fox News


President Trump’s Middle East peace plan has jolted regional dynamics, with Israel preparing to quickly annex West Bank land once expected to be part of a Palestinian state and key Arab leaders tentatively backing the U.S. initiative. – Wall Street Journal

Lamenting rising anti-Semitism in Europe, Israel’s president said Germany “must not fail” in fighting it as he addressed German lawmakers Wednesday to mark the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz death camp’s liberation. – Associated Press

Israel foiled a major cyber attack on one of its power stations a few months ago, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Wednesday. – Reuters 

Palestinian protests against U.S. President Donald Trump’s so-called deal of the century began Tuesday at several locations in the West Bank and continued Wednesday – but the demonstrators were careful not to let things get out of hand. The marches and rallies so far have been measured; attendance was pretty sparse and there were no serious clashes. – Haaretz

A U.S. proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace does not call for imposing any change to prayer arrangements around a key Jerusalem mosque compound which was also the site of ancient Jewish temples, a U.S. official said on Wednesday. – Reuters 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will speak in the United Nations Security Council in the next two weeks about the U.S. Middle East peace plan, Palestinian U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour said on Wednesday. – Reuters 

US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner expressed hope that Israel would wait until after the March 2 Knesset elections before it annexed parts of the West Bank, further distancing the position between Washington and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who claimed this week that the Trump peace plan gave Israel a green light for immediate action. – Times of Israel

Dennis Ross and David Makovsky write: The Trump administration has now unveiled its Mideast peace plan. While we should expect plenty of debate about its terms, which represent a sharp departure from past U.S. peacemaking efforts, another development has essentially pushed the plan into the background. Israeli officials have announced that they plan to annex all West Bank settlements next week. If they do, this new phase of the process will be dead before it really starts. – Washington Post

Simon Henderson writes: Their concern instead is Iran, which Bahrain and the UAE face across the waters of the Persian Gulf and with which Oman shares the Gulf’s gateway, the Strait of Hormuz. With the uncertainty of U.S. regional policy of late, the prevailing wisdom had been that the Gulf countries would have not done anything that might irritate Tehran. Evidently, however, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE have decided that relations with the Trump White House are even more important than keeping steady relations with Iran. – The Hill


Iraq’s president has given rival political blocs a deadline to select a prime minister nearly two months after the outgoing premier resigned under pressure from mass demonstrations, his office said in a statement Wednesday. – Associated Press

The spotlight on brain injuries suffered by American troops in Iraq this month is an example of America’s episodic attention to this invisible war wound, which has affected hundreds of thousands over the past two decades but is not yet fully understood. – Associated Press

Iraq and Syria, two Middle Eastern powers where U.S. troops are deployed in active combat zones, have come out against President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, further raising questions about Washington’s foreign policies at a time of heightened tensions across the region. – Newsweek

The United States hopes to discuss the entire strategic framework of its relationship with Iraq soon, a U.S. envoy said on Tuesday, as the fate of a U.S. military mission there remains in doubt after a drone strike that killed an Iranian general. – Reuters

Lawmakers in the House are set to vote on Thursday to repeal the 2002 authorization for the use of military force in Iraq and to block funds from being used to wage war with Iran, in an effort to curtail President Donald Trump’s military actions in light of heightened tensions with Iran. – CNN

Sajad Jiyad writes: The dilemma for Iraq is whether it can maintain good relations with the United States while forcing it to withdraw troops from Iraq. […]If Iraq’s senior politicians use a pragmatic approach — that satisfies demands for protection of sovereignty without endangering Iraq’s security or incurring the wrath of the United States — and the United States uses the opportunity to draw down some troops while keeping strong political, economic, and military ties with Iraq, then both countries can achieve the right signaling to their national audience while meeting their legal and strategic obligations. – War on the Rocks


The Jordanian Awqaf and Islamic Affairs Ministry warned on Wednesday against a “new reality” being applied to the Temple Mount, a site revered by both Jews and Muslims. – Times of Israel

Jordan said on Tuesday the only path to a comprehensive and lasting Middle East peace was the establishment of an independent Palestinian state based on land captured by Israel in a 1967 war, and with East Jerusalem as its capital. – Reuters

The helm of the Israeli security establishment has expressed worry recently about the future of the relationship between Israel and Jordan. With the presentation of the U.S. administration’s peace plan, and especially given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intent to announce the annexation of the Jordan Valley, the top brass has been warning against unilateral steps that could influence the future of ties with Amman. – Haaretz

Gulf States

Saudi Arabia’s air defense forces last week shot down missiles aimed at Saudi Aramco oil facilities, kingdom officials said Wednesday, after Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen said they had targeted the world’s most valuable company and other sites in Saudi Arabia. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. troop presence here has grown to roughly 2,500 since last summer, when the U.S. announced it had begun deploying forces to what once was a major U.S. military hub. The return of U.S. forces to Prince Sultan Air Base is one of the more dramatic signs of America’s decision to beef up troops in the Middle East in response to threats from Iran. – Associated Press

A crude oil tanker in the Persian Gulf caught fire Wednesday night, prompting a warning from British naval officials to “exercise extreme caution.” – Associated Press 

Britain has taken over command from the United States of a maritime security mission in the Gulf to protect global shipping from the threat of attack by Iran. – Sky News (UK) 

Middle East & North Africa

French President Emmanuel Macron accused Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan Wednesday of failing “to keep his word” to end meddling in Libya, saying Ankara was sending ships with Syrian mercenaries to the conflict-torn country. – Agence France-Presse

“Insulting.” “Shameful.” “A disgrace.” Those were some of the words used by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon on Wednesday to describe a White House plan for ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict. – Associated Press

Zvi Bar’el writes: Diab’s administration presents a dilemma for the United States, which will have to decide whether to continue aiding it and allocating money for military procurement given Hezbollah’s pull in the government. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Washington still doesn’t know whether it will continue to work with the new government in Beirut. The decision will certainly affect Saudi Arabia’s willingness to donate its part of the funding. – Haaretz 


Global stocks fell Thursday on fears that an increasingly severe outbreak of coronavirus originating in central China may hurt prospects for economic growth. – Wall Street Journal

China’s promises in its phase-one trade deal to increase purchases from the U.S. — which experts already were calling “unrealistic” — will be even tougher to fulfill now that a new virus is hammering demand and interfering with supply chains. – Bloomberg

They’re called Confucius Institutes, and for about 15 years these centers for Chinese language and cultural education have proliferated at U.S. universities, drawing students eager to learn about the country. Now, the Chinese government-funded organizations face more scrutiny as U.S.-China tensions over intellectual property and potential espionage intensify. – Bloomberg

President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser said the U.S. would send experts to China to help the nation contain the outbreak of coronavirus that has killed at least 169 people and infected thousands. – Bloomberg

The WHO said its Emergency Committee would reconvene behind closed doors on Thursday to decide whether the rapid spread of the new virus from China now constitutes a global emergency. – Reuters

John Pomfret writes: The coronavirus epidemic in China is far more than a disease; it is the most serious challenge to the rule of President Xi Jinping and the direction he has taken China since he assumed power in 2012. […]When Robert Zoellick, the then-president of the World Bank, asked Xi what his priorities were for China’s future development, Xi replied, “the 86.68 million members of the Communist Party.” In Xi’s mind, better red than expert. But the coronavirus has challenged the system Xi has built like nothing else has. – Washington Post 


Late Tuesday night, four helicopters carrying 50 Afghan special forces commandos touched down just outside a Taliban compound on Afghanistan’s western edge. Intelligence collected by U.S. and Afghan forces indicated the buildings were being used as a prison, holding dozens of Afghan security forces. – Washington Post

Over the past couple of months, as American and Taliban negotiators have resumed talks to try to complete a peace deal, an unusual calm has settled over major Afghan cities. Deadly terrorism attacks, once frequent, have suddenly dropped in urban centers. – New York Times

At least 29 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in Taliban attacks that followed air and ground assaults by government forces on the Islamist group at the weekend. – Reuters

The “first line of defense” in what follows any potential peace deal in Afghanistan isn’t likely to be grunts on patrol but soldiers who monitor the billions of dollars spent on projects aimed at holding the war-torn country together. But a near blackout of information on the effectiveness of U.S. programs in Afghanistan is threatening to increase waste, fraud, abuse and malfeasance on projects intended to help the country when U.S. troops ultimately leave, John Sokpo, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday. – Military Times 


Authoritarian governments in Asia are undermining human rights and demonizing their critics, but they face a rising tide of protest from young people who defy grave risks to protest such repression, Amnesty International said in its annual report on the region. – Associated Press

Trade unions in Hong Kong, including hospital and rail workers, are threatening to go on strike unless the government closes the border with mainland China to stop the spread of a new coronavirus that has sent jitters around the world. – Reuters

Japanese authorities on Thursday issued arrest warrants for a former U.S. special forces soldier and two other men on suspicion of smuggling former Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) boss Carlos Ghosn out of Japan. – Reuters

A Pakistani man arrested earlier this month in Islamabad over the 2005 killing of a British woman police officer does not want to be extradited to Britain and is asking that he be tried in his home country, his lawyer said Wednesday. – Associated Press

Sen. Marco Rubio writes: The American and Taiwanese peoples have long shared common values and stood together for freedom in the face of tyranny. Tsai’s reelection is a moment to be celebrated, a clear rejection of Beijing’s authoritarianism on the part of the Taiwanese electorate. The U.S. government should make the most out of this historic moment to deepen our nations’ ties and help defend a model democracy from CCP intimidation. – Washington Examiner 


Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Wednesday to pardon and release an American-born Israeli woman jailed in the country for drug smuggling, handing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu another diplomatic victory one day after President Trump revealed his heavily pro-Israel peace plan. – Washington Post

The Trump administration on Wednesday placed sanctions on leading Russian-backed officials in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that was part of Ukraine before Russia claimed it in 2014 and set off the biggest East-West confrontation since the Cold War. – Washington Post

Some economic analysts think Moscow has more to fear from an abrupt removal of the sanctions than additional ones. “The single biggest danger to the Russian economy would be if the US woke up one day and lifted all the sanctions,” says a senior official who advises the Russian central bank. “There would be a massive inflow of capital, the currency would spike, all the government’s policies would be in tatters. It would be a disaster.” – Financial Times


But one of the few immediate impacts of Brexit is that Britain’s 73 representatives in the European Parliament will lose their jobs. No longer will they play a role in shaping Europe’s future or setting regulations for its 500 million residents. – Washington Post

Ukraine’s precarious location — on the friction point between Russian authoritarianism and Western democracy — makes attention from the United States critical to politicians here. Meetings and even photo opportunities with American VIPs are invested with huge significance. – Washington Post

Ukraine is preparing for the second generation of small drone warfare. The nation, which remains locked into a stalemate with Russian-backed separatists in its eastern provinces, was one of the first proving grounds of hobbyist drones pressed into military use. With a new quadcopter, designed specifically for military use, Ukraine may have a tool adapted to the lessons of its recent conflict. – C4ISRNET

The European Union grudgingly let go of the United Kingdom with a final vote Wednesday at the EU’s parliament that ended the Brexit divorce battle and set the scene for tough trade negotiations in the year ahead. – Associated Press

As consensus grows in Italy that military planners need better access to civilian technology, a new law is being proposed to give the country its own version of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. – Defense News

Tom McTague writes: While Brexit is undoubtedly radical, the immediate consequences are unlikely to be so. The likelihood, according to those who spoke with me, is that there will be a slow drag on British growth, which may or may not be compensated by subsequent domestic reforms and new international trade agreements. […]Britain may not be able to influence the EU’s direction anymore, a reality that may soon preoccupy those in power in London, but the country’s prospects remain largely in its own control—just as they were before. – The Atlantic 


Sheilla was born as Kenya’s blood banks are beginning to run dry. The country had relied for years almost entirely on U.S. aid for its state-run blood transfusion service, but the funding was discontinued in September. […]Planned U.S. spending in Kenya through PEPFAR dropped from $505 million in 2018 to $375 million in 2019, a decline that comes as the Trump administration seeks to reduce U.S. foreign aid around the globe. – Washington Post

Uganda is reportedly planning to announce that it is moving its embassy to Jerusalem next week, sources close to the Ugandan president and the Ugandan Christian community told The Jerusalem Post. – Jerusalem Post

Weapons that have been used in intercommunal violence that has killed thousands of people in northern Nigeria have been trafficked from Ivory Coast, Libya and Turkey, according to a new report by the Conflict Armament Research group. – Associated Press

Six soldiers are dead and seven others are missing after their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in eastern Burkina Faso, authorities said. […]Extremist attacks are dramatically escalating in Burkina Faso, with deaths rising from about 80 in 2016 to over 1,800 in 2019, according to the United Nations. – Associated Press

Mali will increase the size of its army by about 50% in a recruitment drive this year aimed at uprooting jihadist groups, Prime Minister Boubou Cisse said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Suspected Islamist militants killed at least 30 people overnight in attacks on villages in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, local officials and civil society leaders said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The Americas

When President Donald Trump signed a revamped trade agreement with Mexico and Canada into law Wednesday, he kept a campaign pledge to improve upon a deal that he had long condemned. – Associated Press

The U.S. State Department on Wednesday issued a public designation for 13 current and former Salvadoran military officials for what it called gross human rights violations during El Salvador’s civil war three decades ago. – Reuters 

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday said he was willing to re-establish consular relations with neighboring Colombia, amid a standoff between the two countries over a fugitive former Colombian senator who was captured in Venezuela. – Reuters 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Wednesday that it is expanding Migrant Protection Protocols to Brazilian nationals seeking asylum at the U.S./Mexico border. – The Hill


Facebook has agreed to pay roughly half a billion dollars to settle a class-action case alleging the company violated Illinois law in the way it collected data for its facial-recognition tools, the tech giant said Wednesday. – Washington Post 

The message allegedly came from Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Security researchers say Bezos probably fell victim to the iPhone’s Achilles’ heel: Its defenses are so difficult to penetrate that once sophisticated attackers are in, they can go largely undetected. That is in part because Apple employs a secretive approach to finding and fixing security flaws, researchers say, something that has generated debate in the security community. – Washington Post

For the United States to meet the goals laid out in the National Defense Strategy, especially in Asia, and to realize President Donald Trump’s vision of an open Indo-Pacific, the Department of Defense’s battlefield technology must undergo significant changes, according to a Center for a New American Security report released Jan. 28. The report, an independent assessment mandated by Congress in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, proposed the revamping of C4ISR systems as they remain “brittle in the face of Chinese cyberattacks, electronic warfare and long-range strikes.” – C4ISRNET 

The Interior Department has grounded its fleet of more than 800 drones, citing potential cybersecurity risks and the need to support U.S. drone production – suggesting the move is aimed at least in part at China, a leading drone producer. – NPR 

The United Nations said on Wednesday that its offices in Geneva and Vienna were targeted by an “apparently well-resourced” cyber attack in the middle of last year that exposed lists of user accounts, but that the damage had been contained. – Reuters 

The European Union unveiled security guidelines for next generation high-speed wireless networks that stop short of calling for a ban on Huawei, in the latest setback for the U.S. campaign against the Chinese tech company. – Associated Press

Sasha Cohen O’Connell writes: The U.S. government’s current cyber workforce is so thin, particularly at the leadership level, that if there were a new agency created it would significantly draw down the talent at the other departments and agencies, crippling their ability to maintain core cyber functionality. […]In other words, we don’t need a new agency that will disrupt and distract a system that has many of the pieces it needs to succeed already in place. What we do need is better coordination, accountability and leadership to make sure that the federal government’s existing cyber expertise, assets and partners are engaged at maximum capacity to address the many varied and variable threats that will continue to emerge from cyber space. – Politico


The role of the aircraft carrier is a keystone issue as the Navy crafts its fleet of the future, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said on Wednesday. – USNI News 

Boeing lost nearly $2 billion in 2019, but company executives told analysts they remain committed to investing in the research and development efforts that have proven critical to landing key defense contracts. – USNI News 

The Navy wants to take a holistic look at its surface shipbuilding supply base to understand what areas are healthy and where there’s risk, similar to a previous effort done by the submarine community. – USNI News 

The following is the Jan. 24, 2020 Congressional Research Service report, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress. – USNI News 

The Pentagon is considering leasing aerial refuelling tankers to mitigate Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker delivery delays to the US Air Force (USAF), according to the head of US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM). – Jane’s 360

Workers from the Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding unit who are embarked this month on aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) during at-sea flight tests are helping accelerate the timetable for work aboard the ship during its concurrent post-delivery trials, said Rear Admiral James Downey, US Navy (USN) programme executive officer for carriers. – Jane’s 360

Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that he hopes to see “significant improvement” this year on loosening classification standards in the infamously overclassified Pentagon. – Defense News 

The United States has contracted a leading defense manufacturer to develop a new weapon capable of thwarting hypersonic missiles such as those Russia just added to its own growing arsenal of weapons it claims are too fast to be fought. – Newsweek

James Andrew Lewis writes: Technologies like AI require significant investment and change before they can generate results. New technologies can prop up old strategies, but only until those old strategies are challenged and fall over in defeat. The United States retains innate advantages over its opponents, and there is a growing recognition of the deficiencies of strategy; but looking at earlier generations of tech giants, staying competitive means we need new strategies more than new technology. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Long War

ISIS has begun reasserting itself in Iraq and Syria under a new leader assessed to be an Iraqi operative who was a driving force behind the terror group’s genocide against the Yazidi people, according to a report submitted to the UN Security Council which was made public on Wednesday. – CNN 

As extremist violence grows across Africa, the United States is considering reducing its military presence on the continent, a move that worries its international partners who are working to strengthen the fight in the tumultuous Sahel region. – Associated Press

Terror attacks in Pakistan plummeted by more than 85% over the last decade. It’s a welcome statistic for the country, but one that risks being overshadowed by international concern over its efforts to curb terror funding and lingering militant activity that could test any future peace agreement in neighboring Afghanistan. – Associated Press