Fdd's overnight brief

January 31, 2019

In The News


Iran, squeezed by punishing American sanctions, is confronting its most severe economic challenge in 40 years, President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday, arguing that the Iranian government “should not be blamed” for the crisis. – New York Times

A U.S.-born anchor for Iran’s state-run Press TV arrived in Iran on Wednesday after 10 days of detention in the United States, Press TV reported, after U.S. authorities said she had testified as a material witness in an undisclosed federal investigation. – Reuters

The U.N. nuclear watchdog policing Iran’s deal with major powers said on Wednesday that attempts to pressure it on inspections were “counter-productive and extremely harmful”, though it stopped short of naming those responsible. – Reuters

Iran is carrying out its commitments under its nuclear deal with major powers, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano said in the text of a speech posted online by his agency on Wednesday. – Reuters

Nearly all of Iran’s advanced centrifuges used for enriching uranium potentially towards a nuclear bomb are failing, one of the world’s leading nuclear weapons experts revealed to The Jerusalem Post this week. – Jerusalem Post

President Donald Trump called his intelligence chiefs “naive” for saying Iran continues to comply with the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the United States and other world powers. – Jerusalem Post

The Deputy Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami, recently warned Israel that any new war would lead to its annihilation. – Arutz Sheva

Omer Carmi writes: The JCPOA is a 159-page document that lays out a complex network of restrictions with numerous loopholes and technical ambiguities. Given Tehran’s track record of exploiting such lacunae, foreign governments can expect the regime to take the following steps toward strengthening its leverage […] By embracing incremental progress and toeing the international community’s shifting redlines, Tehran has cleverly advanced its nuclear program over the past few decades. Yet this strategy of exploiting loopholes and building a narrative of resistance around its nuclear activities has also inflicted great hardships on the Islamic Republic and its public. – Washington Institute


The U.S. wants to assemble a coalition of Western nations to create and potentially enforce a new buffer zone in northern Syria, U.S. officials said, but none have yet agreed to the proposal, which includes a promise of American military assistance. – Wall Street Journal

The top US intelligence chief warned that Israel’s ongoing strikes against Iranian targets in Syria increase the threat of regional war. “We assess that Iran seeks to avoid a major armed conflict with Israel,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday. “However, Israeli strikes that result in Iranian casualties increase the likelihood of Iranian conventional retaliation against Israel.” – Jerusalem Post

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is expected to introduce an amendment to warn against a “precipitous withdrawal” of troops from Syria or Afghanistan. – Algemeiner

Daniel J. Levy writes: For a number of reasons, Israel committing troops to overt large-scale operations in Syria to prevent this is simply unfeasible. To this end, identifying and subsequently supporting a local partner capable of helping Israel achieve this strategic goal is far more sensible, and realistic. – Haaretz


Amnesty International’s demand that four of the world’s leading digital travel companies stop listing Israeli hotels and attractions in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem was fiercely attacked as anti-Semitic on Wednesday by Israeli leaders, who said it was another attempt to deny Jewish heritage and delegitimize Israel. – Washington Post

Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel and faces financial isolation, called on supporters Tuesday to send funds via Bitcoin. A spokesman for the Palestinian terror group’s military wing sent out a message calling for support to be sent in the virtual currency. – Agence France-Presse

The BBC had rejected a call from a group of anti-Israel activists to not air this year’s Eurovision song contest, set to be held on Tel Aviv in May. – Algemeiner

U.S. security aid for the Palestinian Authority was set to dry up on Thursday after it declined the money over concerns it could increase its exposure to U.S. anti-terrorism lawsuits. – Reuters

Israeli ministers have accused Amnesty International of antisemitism to divert public attention away from the government’s “war crimes” against Palestinians in the West Bank, the group said on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan signed Thursday morning an extension of the order preventing the activity of the Palestinian Authority in eastern Jerusalem, after adopting the recommendations of the Shin Bet and the Israel Police on the matter. – Arutz Sheva

Florida’s state cabinet has taken the unusual step of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal and undivided capital.” It issued a proclamation to his effect on Tuesday in a move that places it one step beyond the Trump Administration’s stance on Israel, which recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but has not spoken of whether it supports a united or divided Jerusalem. – Jerusalem Post

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on Wednesday threatened to ban Amnesty International from Israel after the group published a report calling on popular tourism websites to boycott Jewish heritage sites. – Arutz Sheva

Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabia has ended an anticorruption campaign after recovering more than $100 billion in cash, real estate and other assets as settlements, a crackdown that ensnared princes, officials and businessmen and spooked investors the kingdom needs to reshape its oil-dependent economy. – Wall Street Journal

Saudi Arabia released seven prisoners it was holding from Yemen’s Houthi movement, who were flown to the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa on Wednesday by the Red Cross, the day after a Saudi prisoner freed by the Houthis arrived in Riyadh. – Reuters

A team of former U.S. government intelligence operatives working for the United Arab Emirates hacked into the iPhones of activists, diplomats and rival foreign leaders with the help of a sophisticated spying tool called Karma, in a campaign that shows how potent cyber-weapons are proliferating beyond the world’s superpowers and into the hands of smaller nations. – Reuters

The Saudi-led coalition is prepared to use “calibrated force” to push the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement to withdraw from Yemen’s Hodeidah port city under a U.N.-sponsored deal, a senior United Arab Emirates official said on Wednesday. – Reuters

U.S. lawmakers said on Wednesday they expect Congress will pass a resolution ending U.S. involvement in the Yemen war, which would force President Donald Trump to issue the first veto of his presidency in order to continue supporting the Saudi-led coalition. – Reuters

A demining team came under gunfire while trying to clear access to grain silos in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions facing starvation, with both parties to the conflict blaming the other for the incident late on Tuesday. – Reuters

James M. Dorsey writes: Saudi Arabia sees the Pakistani region as a potential launching pad for an effort by the kingdom and/or the US to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities, including the Baloch. While Saudi Arabia has put the building blocks in place for possible covert action, it has given no indication to date that it intends to act on proposals to support irredentist action. – Algemeiner

Middle East & North Africa

Iraqi security officials said there are many women like Suzanne serving as couriers for Islamic State, distributing funds and purchasing supplies for militants who have reverted to insurgency after being driven from all the territory they once controlled. In some cases, women have been caught stashing weapons or transporting homemade bombs. – Wall Street Journal

A Turkish court ordered the release of an American consular employee on Wednesday after almost two years in jail, while also convicting him of terror-related charges. – New York Times

Michael Rubin writes: There is no longer any real debate about the nature of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime. This past year, Freedom House dropped Turkey’s ranking to “not free,” joining a club populated by the likes of Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. In 2012, Reporters Without Borders described Turkey as the “world’s biggest prison for journalists” and their situation has since only gotten worse. – Washington Examiner

Korean Peninsula

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday he was dispatching a team to make preparations for the next summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be held somewhere in Asia late in February. – Reuters

As President Donald Trump hails “progress being made,” a source familiar with details of the high-profile visit of North Korea’s top negotiator this month says those discussions — at both the State Department level and with the White House — “got nowhere” on denuclearization. A second source agreed with that assessment. – CNN

Lawrence J. Haas writes: President Trump hopes to use a second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in the coming weeks to jumpstart progress on dismantling the North’s nuclear program, but Kim’s recent statements and Pyongyang’s clandestine work on its program raise serious questions about the President’s approach. To be sure, Kim has maintained his freeze on nuclear or ballistic missile testing that set the stage for the first Trump-Kim summit of last June in Singapore, and he has tamed the fiery rhetoric that marked his previous pronouncements about the United States and a potential military confrontation with it. But, when it comes to its nuclear capacity, Pyongyang hasn’t sat still since June. – American Foreign Policy Council


The United States and China began two days of talks Wednesday amid muted hopes for an agreement that would head off President Trump’s planned March 2 tariff increase on $200 billion in Chinese goods. – Washington Post

When China built a military-run space station in Argentina’s Patagonian region it promised to include a visitors’ center to explain the purpose of its powerful 16-story antenna. – Reuters

Adam Taylor writes: As a Chinese trade delegation arrived in Washington this week, Beijing announced it would accelerate the introduction of a new foreign-investment law designed to address some of the Trump administration’s complaints. The move, which came just hours before Chinese officials were due to meet their American counterparts for two days of talks, seemed to suggest something important: Chinese President Xi Jinping is hoping to find an end to the U.S.-China trade war. – Washington Post

Elsa B. Kania writes: The US charges against China’s Huawei are the latest salvo in an escalating “new Cold War” that is developing between the two superpowers. In a move that ratchets up tensions between Washington and Beijing, the United States on Monday charged the Chinese technology giant, its chief financial officer and two affiliates with bank and wire fraud to violate sanctions against Iran. – The Telegraph


Unnerved by fears of a rushed American deal with Taliban insurgents, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan sent a letter on Tuesday to President Trump offering him reduced costs for keeping United States troops in the country. – New York Times

As the Trump administration pushes for peace in Afghanistan, a new U.S. watchdog report says Afghan security forces are shrinking, gaps in security are growing, and the Taliban are largely holding their own despite a surge in American bombing. – Associated Press

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani said on Wednesday that the “keys to war are in Islamabad, Quetta, Rawalpindi” – all cities in Pakistan – suggesting the neighboring country was a safe haven for cross-border militant activities. – Reuters

U.S. diplomats and the Afghan Taliban have seen cause for hope in talks to end the United States’ longest war, but the pivotal issues of a ceasefire and the militants sitting down with the Afghan government are far from being resolved. – Reuters

Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker says the potential peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan is a sign the U.S. is “surrendering” to the group. – Washington Examiner

James Dobbins writes: The Trump administration has reportedly offered to withdraw forces from Afghanistan if the Taliban stops fighting and opens negotiations with the government. If the Taliban assents, the result won’t be a peace agreement, only an agreement to enter a peace negotiation. Yet given that the U.S. has sought such talks since 2010, even this limited step would represent no mean achievement. – Wall Street Journal

Ruby Mellen writes: On Saturday, after six days of negotiations in Qatar, U.S. and Taliban officials announced they were one step closer to an agreement that might finally end the American war in Afghanistan. The two sides agreed only to the broad outlines of a peace deal, and it remains unclear whether the Taliban will agree to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. […]But some Afghan women fear an American withdrawal will mean a reversion to an Afghanistan in which they had virtually no rights. – Washington Post

Sami Yousafzai writes: On the sixth and last day of marathon talks between the Afghan Taliban and a team of U.S. negotiators led by veteran ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a convoy of luxury cars converged on the luxurious offices of this rich little country’s foreign ministry. […] These were negotiations to extract the United States from its longest war, the objective a framework agreement calling for a ceasefire that would open the way for American troops to get out. In exchange, the Taliban would agree not to harbor jihadists who aimed to attack the U.S. and other far-flung targets, as they had done with Osama bin Laden when he organized 9/11. – Daily Beast


Purported hackers obtained and leaked confidential information about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as part of a pro-Russian disinformation campaign that appeared to be aimed at discrediting the inquiry, Mr. Mueller’s office disclosed Wednesday. – Wall Street Journal

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has long made the buttressing of beleaguered despots a pillar of his foreign policy — most successfully by deploying the military in Syria — to drive home the point that outside powers should not dabble in other countries’ internal affairs. On the face of it, the upheaval in Venezuela would seem to check all his boxes. Venezuela, however, is not Syria. – New York Times

Russia and the United States failed to bridge their differences over a landmark Cold War-era arms treaty at last-ditch talks in Beijing, Russia’s deputy foreign minister was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Thursday. – Reuters

For the first time since the National Rifle Association’s links to Russia became a matter of public interest, the gun advocacy organization released a statement about a trip high-ranking members of the group took to Moscow in 2015. – Newsweek


Britain’s parliament has demanded that Prime Minister Theresa May renegotiate a Brexit divorce deal that the other members of the European Union say they will not reopen. – Reuters

The risk that Britain will crash out of the EU without an agreement is low but rising, while the likelihood that it will delay Brexit is growing, banking analysts said on Wednesday after mixed messages from votes in parliament. – Reuters

European leaders moved Wednesday to head off British Prime Minister Theresa May’s bid to rewrite the Brexit divorce deal, warning they will not budge. Having thrown out the exit deal May negotiated with the EU, divided British lawmakers voted Tuesday to send her back to get an Irish border “backstop” clause removed. – Agence France-Presse

Hostility to Israel is closely related to anti-Jewish hatred, a new study of public attitudes in Britain reveals Thursday. – Times of Israel

The Americas

President Trump questioned the competence of U.S. intelligence agencies whose assessments of Iran, North Korea and other threats differ from his own, sparking warnings from national security experts and lawmakers that such public comments expose the U.S. to greater risks. – Wall Street Journal

An early rising President Donald Trump appeared eager to drive Wednesday’s agenda, sending a warning during his daily “executive time” to the special committee trying to avert another government shutdown and defending his Middle East policy after a rare GOP rebuke. – Roll Call

A man was indicted on a federal hate crime charge for planning a mass shooting at a synagogue in Ohio, the Associated Press reported on January 30. – Jerusalem Post

Canada has decided to cut the number of diplomatic staff in Cuba by up to half after another person fell ill, Ottawa said on Wednesday, bringing the total to 14 Canadians suffering mysterious symptoms since 2017. – Reuters


The Trump administration’s attempt to force out the president of Venezuela marked the opening of a new strategy to exert greater U.S. influence over Latin America, according to administration officials. – Wall Street Journal

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela warned Americans in a video posted on Wednesday that intervening in his country “would lead to a Vietnam worse than they can imagine.” – New York Times

Thousands of opposition protesters, led by Venezuela’s self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaido, on Wednesday called on the armed forces to abandon President Nicolas Maduro and allow humanitarian aid into the crisis-wracked country. – Agence France-Presse

The White House warned traders on Wednesday not to deal in Venezuelan gold or oil following its imposition of stiff sanctions aimed at forcing socialist President Nicolas Maduro from power. – Reuters

Citgo Petroleum Corp, the eighth largest U.S. refiner and Venezuela’s top foreign asset, is in the middle of a tug-of-war as the Trump administration tries to use the company as leverage to topple Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. – Reuters

Three days after proclaiming himself Venezuela’s head of state, Juan Guaido wrote to the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asking for help in tackling the country’s urgent humanitarian crisis. – Reuters

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro said he was prepared to hold negotiations with the US-backed opposition and added he would support early parliamentary elections, RIA Novosti reported on Wednesday. – Agence France-Presse

Anna Nemtsova writes: In Russian eyes, Venezuela is becoming a proxy battleground between Moscow and Washington. For the moment the fight is political, financial, and diplomatic. World War III headlines like one that ran in the British tabloid The Daily Express are way overblown. But there are disturbing hints of potential military escalation, with reports of Russian military contractors on the ground and Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, weirdly flashing a yellow legal pad at a press briefing that bore the scrawled note “5,000 troops to Colombia,” Venezuela’s neighbor. – Daily Beast


Legislation introduced by Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate on Wednesday would bar the United States from using a nuclear weapon unless attacked with one first, demonstrating growing momentum for anti-nuclear sentiments on the left in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. – Washington Post

General Dynamics Corp. plans to invest $1 billion in 2019 in upgrading and retooling its manufacturing operations company-wide, with a focus on its growing submarine construction business. – USNI News

The U.S. Navy is looking to get a lot of underway time out of its new frigate and is eyeing a crewing model that swaps out teams of sailors to maximize the operational time for each hull. – Defense News

The U.S. Air Force’s light-attack experiment is set to get a lot bigger, with the service considering adding drones, helicopters and more sophisticated aircraft to the mix in the future, the service’s top general told Defense News. – Defense News

Arthur Herman writes: The Defense Department has released the first report since 2010 on the state of America’s ballistic-missile defenses. The Missile Defense Review shows that missile defense is finally coming of age—36 years after President Reagan unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative. Technologies to defend America from missile and nuclear attack were once the stuff of dreams. Now, in many cases, they have become reality. The challenge will be to develop and deploy those technologies in smart and effective ways. – Wall Street Journal