Fdd's overnight brief

January 5, 2021

In The News


U.S. tensions with Tehran ran high on Monday, a day after the first anniversary of the American drone strike that killed Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, as U.S. officials warned of intelligence suggesting that Iran might still be preparing to retaliate. – Washington Post

Iran began enriching uranium Monday to levels unseen since its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and also seized a South Korean-flagged tanker near the crucial Strait of Hormuz, a double-barreled challenge to the West that further raised Mideast tensions. – Associated Press 

South Korea and the United States have demanded the release of a South Korean-flagged oil tanker seized by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz. – Radio Farda 

If Iran accumulated sufficient fissile material, it would need to assemble a bomb and probably one small enough to be carried by its ballistic missiles. How long that would take exactly is unclear, but stockpiling enough fissile material is widely seen as the biggest hurdle in producing a weapon. – Reuters 

The United States criticized Iran’s statement that it had begun the process of enriching uranium to 20%, well above the limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal that Washington abandoned, as a form of “nuclear extortion.” – Reuters

Japan’s top government spokesman on Tuesday said the country was deeply concerned about Iran’s latest announcement of a resumption of 20% uranium enrichment. – Reuters

China urged calm and restraint on Tuesday after Iran said it had resumed 20% uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility, which breaches a 2015 nuclear pact with major powers, including China. – Reuters

Iran’s latest actions, coupled with the Trump administration’s movement of forces, complicate diplomacy and raise the risk of miscalculation, particularly as tensions continue to run high between Iran and its neighbors. The increased tensions, which have triggered the highest alert levels for U.S. personnel in Iraq, may make it difficult for the incoming Biden administration to pivot the military more aggressively toward Russia and China. – Associated Press

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei welcomes a group of artists and filmmakers while exchanging pleasantries and cracking a joke about reports a prominent filmmaker had received residency in Canada. – Radio Farda 

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency is set to inform members on Monday about developments in Iran, the IAEA said, after the Tehran government said it had resumed 20% uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility. – Reuters

A lot is not known about Iran’s newly announced move on Monday to enrich uranium up to the 20% level, but at maximum speed, a top nuclear expert has told The Jerusalem Post that its nuclear breakout time to a bomb could be cut to only six weeks. – Jerusalem Post 

The Iranian army is set to hold a “joint and large-scale” drone drill with its different divisions primarily in central Iran on Tuesday, the state news agency IRNA reported. – Agence France-Presse

Editorial: Iran is escalating its nuclear enrichment to put pressure on the new U.S. Administration to rush back into the 2015 deal. It sees the same Obama negotiators moving into Biden jobs, and figures it can outfox them again. But if the U.S. keeps Mr. Trump’s sanctions, and persuades Europe to join them, the pressure will be back on Tehran to make concessions. – Wall Street Journal

Lee Zeldin writes: We must approach Iran from a position of strength and not surrender for the sake of domestic politics, partisan emotions, or uninformed whim. We must heed lessons from the past several years. We must understand that the weak and desperate adversary is the Iranian regime, not the United States of America. – Fox News

Robin Wright writes: The even harder challenge will be finding ways to address horrific human-rights abuses, which go to the heart of the unique judicial and political systems in the Islamic Republic. […]The furor over Zam’s execution reflected the fundamental gap between the United States and Iran under any President. Even with Biden’s commitment to diplomacy, four years may not be enough time to achieve breakthroughs on all the flash points between Washington and Tehran. – The New Yorker

Bobby Ghosh writes: But any attempt to top those stunts will bring a world of condemnation down on Khamenei’s head, and dash any prospects of the Joe Biden administration bringing the Iranian regime back in from the cold. Instead Biden would likely have to respond with punitive measures. And not only would the country lose European support for an end to Trump’s sanctions on Iran and a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, it would also make it awkward for Russia and China to keep backing Tehran. – Bloomberg 


The U.S. Treasury Department imposed an $8.6 million fine on a French bank that officials said processed payments for blacklisted Syrian financial institutions. – Wall Street Journal 

Some 10 people were injured after explosions were reported at a gas storage warehouse in the town of Al-Qasr in northeastern Lebanon near the Lebanese-Syrian border on Sunday evening, according to Lebanese media. – Jerusalem Post 


Turkish police on Monday clashed with hundreds of students protesting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of a figure with ties to his ruling party as rector to one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities. – Associated Press

Youth unemployment in Turkey stood at 24 per cent in September, the most recent available data, as young people between the ages of 15 and 24 found themselves at the sharp end of a broader employment crisis that has been compounded by the economic consequences of Covid-19. – Financial Times

Meghan Bodette writes: Intentionally vague fears of politically convenient consequences do not outweigh the real dangers of complicity in an allied leader’s attacks on democracy. The sooner the Biden administration realizes this, the better prepared they will be to address the regional challenges posed by Turkey’s current government in a constructive way. – The National Interest


While the tensions are felt in the region ahead of the coming change in the White House, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that he sees a possibility of “events happening in the Iranian front.” – Jerusalem Post

The Foreign Ministry sees positive trends in Israel-Europe relations and has even won over some of the Abraham Accords skeptics. – Jerusalem Post 

The Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that the Greek government has approved a $1.68 billion agreement to purchase training aircraft from Israel and for an Israeli defense contractor to establish a flight school for Greece’s air force. – Times of Israel


Iran in the past has taken the opportunity posed by a weak Iraqi central government to strengthen its political power and the role of its paramilitaries within Iraq. With its economy hammered by the pandemic and plunging oil and gas prices, which account for 90 percent of government revenue, Iraq was unable to pay government workers for months at a time last year. – New York Times 

Iraq boosted crude exports in December and may have exceeded its OPEC+ output quota, which could complicate talks on Tuesday between major producers over whether to boost oil supplies. – Bloomberg 

The US has granted Iraq a three-month extension to a sanctions waiver allowing it to import Iranian gas, an Iraqi official told AFP Monday. The move represents a welcome reprieve for a country that relies heavily on its neighbour for energy supplies. – Agence France-Presse

Gulf States

Saudi Arabia has agreed to reopen land, air and sea links with Qatar, de-escalating a feud that has sharply divided the Middle East for more than three years, according to the government of Kuwait, which has been mediating the dispute. – Washington Post

The United Arab Emirates denied having ever foiled an attempted terrorist attack in Dubai, despite multiple media reporters circulating earlier in the day. In an official statement, the UAE government dubbed the rumors “wholly false.” – Jerusalem Post 

Sweden’s Saab has received a much-anticipated order, worth $1 billion, for two additional GlobalEye spy planes from the United Arab Emirates, the company announced Monday. – Defense News

Tom Rogan writes: We must also note that at its most basic level, the Qatar-Saudi conflagration is one of personalities and egos. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi takes special offense at the perception that Qatar is behind opposition movements against his rule. […]As it seeks to present itself as the great interlocutor between the West and East, and to sustain its export of Islamic governance, Qatar will continue attempting to undermine its neighbors. In return, the Saudis will attempt to weaken and counter Qatar’s influence. So, yes, this deal might be a detente. But it should not be seen as a restoration of formal alliances. – Washington Examiner

John Calabrese writes: There is an urgent need for a renewed U.S. engagement and the recasting of its role in Gulf affairs. The initial steps would be for the United States to acknowledge not just its limitations but the power and leverage it still possesses. Indeed, American interests would be better served and the prospects for enhancing Gulf markedly improved were the United States to invest the same time and energy in practicing preventive diplomacy as it has lately devoted to coercive diplomacy. – Middle East Institute 

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The multi-layered issues that affect relations between Gulf states link them to not only the region, but the world. In some ways the struggle between Riyadh and Doha was linked to larger issues relating to the Muslim Brotherhood and global Islamic discussions. This tied it to Ankara, and Turkey sent troops to Qatar in 2017, and it tied it to Pakistan, Malaysia and other states. – Jerusalem Post 

Middle East & North Africa

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is recommending that international monitors be deployed to Libya under a U.N. umbrella to observe the October cease-fire agreement from a base in the strategic city of Sirte, the gateway to the country’s major oil fields and export terminals. – Associated Press

A supporter of Algeria’s Hirak protest movement was sentenced to three years in jail Monday for satirical social media posts mocking the government and religion, sparking condemnation from rights groups. – Agence France-Presse

Maya Carlin writes: Limiting U.S. aid to Cairo would jeopardize the long-standing U.S.-Egyptian relationship for years to come. At the same time, denunciations over El-Sisi’s human rights record are legitimate. During his presidency, El-Sisi has unjustly imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists and activists in Egypt, reversing freedoms achieved in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. However, terminating dialogue with Cairo would be harmful to regional security, as Egypt would lean on other human rights abusers for support instead. – The National Interest

Korean Peninsula

North Korea has submitted an application to receive Covid-19 virus vaccines from the main global alliance helping lower-income countries with inoculations, according to a person familiar with the matter. – Wall Street Journal

For the first time on record, the number of newborns in South Korea last year fell below the number of deaths, underscoring a long-term crisis in one of world’s most important economies. – New York Times 

America’s top general in Korea said Monday that U.S. forces are still conducting theater-level training exercises. Army Gen. Robert Abrams said American forces “do so without talking about it,” arguing there “is really no need for us to advertise it.” – USNI News  

The U.S.-South Korea alliance has survived for almost seven decades, and has sustained peace on the Korean peninsula since the Korean War. To thrive going forward, however, the alliance must not only hold open the door to the establishment of peace and denuclearization with North Korea, but expand even further. – Forbes


The Chinese legal authorities have threatened to revoke the licenses of two lawyers hired to help a group of Hong Kong protesters who were arrested last year while trying to flee to Taiwan by speedboat. – New York Times

The New York Stock Exchange reversed its decision to delist China’s three largest telecommunications companies, after consulting with regulatory authorities about a recent U.S. investment ban. – Wall Street Journal

The employee, named Fei, collapsed in the wee hours of Dec. 29 after a long shift working at online deals giant Pinduoduo, the company said. She passed away after six hours of first-aid treatment. Though the cause of death hasn’t been confirmed, Fei’s fate has reignited scrutiny of brutal work schedules and vast inequalities in the Chinese tech industry, whose power and wealth are attracting growing public criticism and pushback from regulators. – Washington Post

China is engaged in a nuclear arms buildup and is stonewalling the international community regarding its strategic weapons intentions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump’s chief arms control negotiator said Monday. – Washington Times 

The Chinese billionaire behind e-commerce giant Alibaba and the online payment processor Ant Group, is suspected missing amid reports that he hasn’t been seen in more than two months. – Washington Examiner

Editorial: The campaign against the Uighurs poses a particular challenge to the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, which must find ways to impose a cost on Beijing for what amounts to cultural genocide. Part of that response must be to deter attacks on Uighurs who have sought refuge in the United States, or on their family members still in China. As Ms. Murat put it, their cases “must be raised by the U.S. government as essential to any dialogue with the Chinese government.” – Washington Post

Editorial: Chinese officials have already been spinning a story that the virus got started somewhere beyond China’s borders and came in through imported seafood. What if a researcher finds otherwise? Will he or she be permitted to publish it, or will China’s task force decide it is an inconvenient truth?  […] A credible investigation of how the pandemic began will require China to be completely open and transparent, including about the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The presence of China’s thought police overseeing scientific inquiry does not bode well. – Washington Post

Kevin Warsh writes: In good times, U.S. policy makers feel no compulsion to normalize, and in bad times no reason or ability to do so. Better, more forward-looking U.S. economic policy is required to retain the privilege of U.S. Treasurys as the world’s safe-haven asset, not least to strengthen America’s position in its growing rivalry with China. – Wall Street Journal

Luke Patey writes: In the face of billions of losses from China’s trade measures, some may see the value in meeting Beijing’s demands to stay quiet on its affairs in Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Hong Kong and stop blocking Chinese foreign investment deals in critical infrastructure. But rather than accept a future under China’s thumb, there are ways to survive and even put a stop to Chinese coercive diplomacy. – Foreign Policy 

Joseph V. Micallef writes: The U.S.-China relationship is neither a cold war nor a hot war. It is a war, though — one that will be fought more with advanced semiconductor chip designs and quantum computing protocols than it will be with planes and ships. Regardless of how it is fought, however, the consequences on the international system and who will lead it will be the same. – Military.com


Afghan negotiators are to resume talks with the Taliban on Tuesday aimed at finding an end to decades of relentless conflict even as hopes wane and frustration and fear grow over a spike in violence across Afghanistan that has combatants on both sides blaming the other. – Associated Press

Amy Mackinnon writes: Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government began last September with a view to creating a road map for a future government. A second round of talks is set to begin in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday. While both sides have refused to publicly release their specific lists of priorities, the Afghan government will be looking to make progress on a cease-fire agreement, while the Taliban seek a form of government that reflects their strict interpretations of Islamic law. – Foreign Policy 


Julian Assange is “free to return home” to Australia once legal challenges against him are dealt with, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday, after a UK court denied a request to extradite the Wikileaks founder to the United States. – Reuters

Confusion and intrigue have reigned in Kyrgyzstan since compromised parliamentary elections on October 4, 2020, sparked street protests that brought down the government and forced the president of the Central Asian country to resign. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

Hong Kong’s outgoing top judge made a plea on Tuesday to maintain judicial independence as China state media and a growing host of pro-Beijing figures call for an overhaul of how the financial hub’s courts are run. – Agence France-Presse

Chinese jets made a record 380 incursions into Taiwan’s defence zone last year, a defence official said Tuesday, as a military-linked think-tank warned tensions were now at their highest since the mid-1990s. – Agence France-Presse

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Monday that he regrets the U.S. hadn’t made more progress in resolving “hard issues” with China or getting North Korea to shed its nuclear arsenal, while saying that the Trump administration has made the world a safer place than it was four years ago. – Bloomberg


Saudi Arabia and Russia deadlocked Monday over whether their producers’ alliance should boost crude output amid a resurgent pandemic, delegates said after a day of talks ended without a deal. – Wall Street Journal

A police chief in Moscow has been ousted over fears that he exposed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motorcade routes to prying U.S. eyes, according to Russian and British reports. – Washington Examiner

Russian military investigators are now treating the Nov. 9 downing of a helicopter over Armenia as “wilful murder”, a more serious charge than the previous “death through negligence”, Interfax news agency reported on Monday, citing a source. – Reuters


A British judge ruled Monday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act, because he is at extreme risk of suicide and might not be protected from harming himself in a U.S. prison. – Washington Post

A 17-year-old boy has been charged in connection with a neo-Nazi-inspired terror plot involving printed firearms. The teenager was arrested last week after police searched homes in Chelmsford and Brentwood in Essex. – BBC 

The Austrian government announced on Monday that its action plan to combat rising antisemitism would be rolled out in the coming weeks, with an emphasis on enhancing security measures for the Jewish community. – Algemeiner 

About 1,000 ultranationalists and far-right extremists staged a march through the center of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on New Year’s Day, drawing a sharp rebuke from Israel’s ambassador to the former Soviet republic. – Algemeiner

As the incoming Biden administration prepares to “renew U.S. democracy and alliances,” France and America are poised for a technology-focused rapprochement. France, once thought to be destined for decline and isolation in the early 2000s, has reemerged as a central player in 21st-century geopolitics. – Foreign Policy

The U.K. Royal Navy’s first carrier strike group in 38 years has reached Initial Operating Capability (IOC) ahead of its first operational deployment later this year, the U.K. government announced today. – USNI News

Peter Kissel writes: Last month, 15 human rights organizations called out the Conservative Party’s policy calling for repeal of the Human Rights Act. Britain a global force for good? The world should not be blinkered by Mr. Raab’s propaganda. – Washington Post

Daniel Benjamin writes: Biden knows that strengthening the transatlantic alliance is necessary for dealing with China, Russia, climate change and a raft of other issues. As a demonstration of his abhorrence for the egregious mistreatment the EU suffered at the hands of Trump administration, who recklessly undermined the EU with his practice of backing its renegades against old friends such as Germany and France, the act of backing the EU majority against Budapest and Warsaw could pay valuable dividends. – Politico 

Erika Solomon and Guy Chazan write: While some German politicians want to take a stronger line on human rights, others worry about the consequences that might have for German companies active in the highly lucrative Chinese market. The concern is understandable. Germany has profited handsomely from China’s integration into the global economic system, as Chinese companies and consumers snapped up German cars and machines. By 2018 Sino-German trade volume had reached €200bn and China was Germany’s largest trading partner. – Financial Times


Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera has won a second term in office, according to provisional results announced by the electoral commission Monday. – Associated Press

Mozambique’s jihadist violence has forced the French energy firm Total to suspend work at its multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas project in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado province. – Associated Press

French anti-terror prosecutors said Monday that police had arrested the former head of a rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on charges of “complicity in crimes against humanity”. – Agence France-Presse

Niger has declared three days of national mourning following the massacre of 100 civilians in two villages in the western region of the country where Islamist militants have carried out a series of attacks. – Reuters 

The Americas

When Venezuela’s regime takes over the National Assembly on Tuesday, it will put the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó in his most precarious position since becoming head of the movement to oust the authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro two years ago. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Treasury Department on Monday issued a new license allowing certain transactions with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido despite U.S. sanctions on the country, reaffirming Washington’s support for the politician as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. – Reuters

After down-to-the-wire negotiations, United Nations members have adopted a budget for 2021 that was higher than Secretary-General Antonio Guterres proposed and was strongly opposed by the Trump administration for including money to commemorate the outcome of a 2001 conference in South Africa that it called anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. – Associated Press

Mexico’s government is ready to offer political asylum to Julian Assange and supports the decision of a British judge to deny extradition of the WikiLeaks founder to the United States, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday. – Reuters

United States

The leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested by D.C. police Monday afternoon on a warrant charging him with burning a Black Lives Matter banner taken from a historic Black church during a demonstration last month, officials said. – Washington Post

The District has mobilized the National Guard and will have every city police officer on duty Tuesday and Wednesday to handle protests of the November presidential election, which Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said may include people looking to instigate violence. – Washington Post

The United States will continue to seek WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Monday after a British judge ruled that he should not be extradited to face criminal charges. – Reuters

Sen. Josh Hawley said a group of “Antifa scumbags” threatened his wife and newborn daughter at their D.C. area home Monday night. – Washington Examiner

Anthony Warner sent packages that “espoused his viewpoints” to people around the country in the days before he blew himself up in an RV on a downtown street Christmas morning, authorities said. – USA Today


The Pentagon’s top artificial intelligence office, called the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, is shifting its focus and wants 2021 to be the year that it becomes the central repository for military components looking to use AI. – C4ISRNET

Huntington Ingalls Industries has purchased a company that focuses on autonomous systems, a move that comes as the Navy pursues unmanned and autonomous platforms for the fleet. – USNI News

Amid rising tensions in the Middle East between Iran and the United States, Israel delivered a second scheduled Iron Dome battery to the U.S. Army. Israel delivered the first battery in late September and U.S. defense manufacturer Raytheon is building interceptor missiles for the system jointly with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems in Israel. Rafael developed Iron Dome.  – The National Interest

Missile Defense

Amid rising tensions in the Middle East between Iran and the United States, Israel delivered a second scheduled Iron Dome battery to the U.S. Army. Israel delivered the first battery in late September and U.S. defense manufacturer Raytheon is building interceptor missiles for the system jointly with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems in Israel. Rafael developed Iron Dome. – The National Interest 

Designed for use in both the open-ocean and for littoral missions, which include anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and intelligence gathering operations, the U.S. Navy’s Virginia­-class nuclear-powered cruise missile fast-attack submarines (SSNs) were developed to replace the more expensive Seawolf-class while still providing a capable boat to address nautical threats from near-peer adversaries in the 21st century. – The National Interest 

Patty-Jane Geller writes: The path toward NGI breaks sharply with the incremental and capacity-based approaches of the past. With new hedges in place, however, this break is warranted. It’s time to push forward with an interceptor that not merely paces but overtakes the advancing ballistic missile threat from rogue states. To realize a new generation of missile defense capabilities, this is a bet worth making. – Defense News 

Long War

Indonesia will release radical cleric and alleged mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings Abu Bakar Bashir from prison later this week, its government said on Monday, upon completion of his jail term. – Reuters

Indonesia must ensure a radical cleric and suspected mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings does not incite more violence when he is released from jail this week, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Al Qaeda’s branch in North Africa has claimed responsibility for killing two French soldiers who died when their armoured vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device in eastern Mali, Site Intelligence Group reported on Monday. – Reuters 

A federal judge upheld a Manhattan jury’s conviction of a Bangladeshi immigrant for blowing up a pipe bomb in a crowded subway tunnel in Times Square, according to a decision released Monday. – New York Post 

Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on Sunday that killed 11 miners from Pakistan’s minority Shi’ite Hazaras in Baluchistan province. – Reuters

Tom Rogan writes: Just as investors in a business want to be confident of a return, extremist benefactors want to know that their money is being spent well. So, ISIS propaganda advances its cultivation of wealthy benefactors. This is no small concern in Pakistan. After all, whether it’s Imran Khan’s government or other powerful political interests around the country, jihadist sentiments do not meet the kind of immediate riposte we might hope for or expect. – Washington Examiner

James Barnett writes: If policymakers approach al Shabaab primarily as a transnational terrorist threat and not as a dynamic insurgency with broad—and primarily East Africa-specific—socio-political objectives, they risk repeating many of the mistakes that have plagued US policy since the first days of the “war on terror.” – Hudson Institute

Trump Administration

President Trump is effectively sabotaging the Republican Party on his way out of office, obsessed with overturning his election loss and nursing pangs of betrayal from allies whom he had expected to bend the instruments of democracy to his will. – Washington Post

The time to question election results has passed, and there is no role for the military in changing them, all 10 of the living former defense secretaries said in an extraordinary rebuke to President Trump and other Republicans who are backing unfounded claims of widespread fraud at the ballot box. – Washington Post

Rep. Gregory Meeks, a senior New York Democratic congressman, is taking the helm of a powerful congressional oversight committee that has clashed repeatedly with the Trump administration over impeachment, arms sales, the management of the U.S. State Department, and other issues in the past four years. – Foreign Policy 

A deepening divide among Republicans over President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the election runs prominently through Wyoming, the state that delivered Trump’s widest prevailing margin by far. – Associated Press