Fdd's overnight brief

January 6, 2021

In The News


Iran denied on Tuesday it had taken a South Korean tanker hostage after the ship was seized by armed guards in Persian Gulf waters, even as it complained that Seoul had frozen $7 billion of its assets. – Washington Post 

South Korea will send a delegation to negotiate the release of a ship and its 20-member crew after the vessel was seized by Iranian forces, officials said on Tuesday, the latest development in a provocation by the government in Tehran, which has been economically isolated by U.S. sanctions. – New York Times

After a decade of deliberation, Iran’s government approved a bill on Sunday that criminalizes violence and sexual misconduct against women and specifies punishments for perpetrators. – New York Times

The United States on Tuesday blacklisted a Chinese company that makes elements for steel production, 12 Iranian steel and metals makers and three foreign-based sales agents of a major Iranian metals and mining holding company, seeking to deprive Iran of revenues as U.S. President Donald Trump’s term winds down. – Reuters 

The Iranian regime announced that it will be rolling out 1,000 additional centrifuges after it said it would begin enriching uranium to levels far in excess of the nuclear deal. – Washington Examiner 

Iran launched exercises featuring a wide array of domestically produced drones on Tuesday, Iranian media reported, days after the anniversary of the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general by a drone strike in Iraq. – Reuters 

The head of Iran’s elite Quds Force said Iran may take revenge for the U.S. killing of his predecessor Qassem Soleimani “in your house,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported. – Bloomberg 

Iran said on Tuesday it would deliver a “decisive response” to any Israeli move against it, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not allow Tehran to develop nuclear weapons, a news agency close to the Revolutionary Guards said. – Reuters

On the first anniversary of the Trump-ordered strike against the Iranian Quds Force leader, defense experts say the administration’s Iran deterrence measures will contain the regime in the vulnerable presidential transition period. – Washington Examiner 

Multiple air traffic controllers in New York heard a chilling threat Monday in audio obtained exclusively by CBS News: “We are flying a plane into the Capitol on Wednesday. Soleimani will be avenged.” – CBS News 

For the second time, Iran asked Interpol to issue a “red notice” for the arrest of President Trump and dozens of other United States officials in response to the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani a little more than a year ago. – Washington Examiner 

Dennis Ross writes: In the first in a series of TRANSITION 2021 memos examining policy challenges across the Middle East, esteemed diplomat and policymaker Dennis Ross provides an innovative approach to reengaging Iran in nuclear diplomacy. His ideas have the potential to extend Iran’s breakout time, preserve U.S. negotiating leverage, and strengthen U.S. alliances in Europe and across the Middle East. – Washington Institute 

Robbie Gramer, Colum Lynch and Jack Detsch write: Some experts view Iran’s latest move to ramp up its enrichment program as having two purposes. One is internal: to address pressure from Iran’s parliament to increase enrichment, particularly following the assassination late last November of one of the country’s top nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The second is external, meant to shore up Iran’s leverage as it prepares to reenter nuclear negotiations with the incoming Biden administration. – Foreign Policy 


Gevorg Mirzayan, a prolific columnist, Middle East expert and a professor at Russia’s Financial University evaluated Turkey’s role in Libya in an article for the Russian edition of Russia Today. He argues that Libya with its huge reserves of hydrocarbons is a far bigger prize than Syria. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

Michael B. Bishku writes: Mongolia’s outreach to Turkey as a potential “third neighbor” has converged with the reorientation of Ankara’s efforts under the Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party to expand trade links and enhanced relations with countries that were either part of the former Ottoman Empire or have shared ethnic background or cultural histories. – Middle East Institute 

Asli Aydiintasbas and Jeremy Shapiro write: Biden’s tough words reflect the fact that Turkey has been a major headache for U.S. policymakers over the last few years. Not surprisingly, senior Biden foreign policy officials have already started scratching their heads to formulate a policy towards this difficult ally. – Foreign Policy


On the anniversary of the January 3, 2020 killing of IRGC Qods Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport, Hamas’s leadership has signaled its ongoing loyalty to the regional camp of the Iran-led resistance axis, as it continues to provoke disputes among its supporters concerning its relationship with Iran and the IRGC. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

Two Israeli cybersecurity firms claim to have thwarted an attempted cybercrime attack against five of the world’s leading online gaming and gambling firms. The attackers, which the firms say are Chinese or linked to a Chinese hacker group, demanded over $100 million in ransom after encrypting data from the different companies, according to a case report study published Monday by Profero and Security Joes. – Haaretz 

The Palestinian Authority is examining the possibility of obtaining COVID-19 vaccines from Israel, a senior PA official told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

After 14 criminal investigations and two convictions of the killings of more than 200 Palestinians during the 2018 Gaza border crisis, the IDF is likely close to wrapping up its probes, The Jerusalem Post has learned. – Jerusalem Post

The new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Tuesday the United States would look to resume aid to the Palestinians as he voiced hope for reviving a multilateral approach to the world under President-elect Joe Biden. – Times of Israel

Lahav Harkov writes: Israel has been increasingly engaged in the Gulf in recent years due to most of the aforementioned countries’ concerns about Iran. Those connections grew even more in the wake of the Abraham Accords that led to peace with the UAE and Bahrain. – Jerusalem Post

Gulf States

Qatar’s neighbors agreed Tuesday at a regional summit to set aside festering differences that had caused a destabilizing break among the U.S. allies and undermined a pressure campaign on Iran, but sidestepped efforts to resolve the sources of their repeated rifts. – Wall Street Journal 

Saudi Arabia said it would unilaterally cut 1 million barrels a day of crude production starting next month, a surprise move signaling the kingdom’s worry that a resurgent coronavirus is threatening global economic recovery. – Wall Street Journal 

Embracing Qatar’s ruler, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince pushed a deal to end a row with Doha at a Gulf summit on Tuesday to try to strengthen an Arab alliance against Iran, although a final declaration contained only a general pledge of solidarity. – Reuters

Saudi Arabia has pledged to slash an extra 1m barrels a day of oil output in February and March even as Russia moves to increase production, with the kingdom moving to keep the Opec+ group’s fragile alliance intact in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. – Financial Times

Editorial: The agreement seems intended to patch deeper ideological fissures between Qatar and the conservative Gulf monarchies, rather than heal them. Doha agreed to drop legal claims against the countries but did not make public commitments to curtail its disruptive behavior. Yet the risk from continued division in the Gulf was that Qatar would drift closer to Turkey and especially Iran, with which it shares a maritime border. – Wall Street Journal 

Editorial: The prince needs to figure out a better way to shepherd his nation into the 21st century. And do it quickly: President-elect Joe Biden has vowed not to give Saudi Arabia “a blank check” on its “disastrous” policies, including targeting female activists. Best for US-Saudi relations, and for Saudi women, if MBS moves fast. – New York Post 

Simon Henderson writes: The absence of the rift won’t mean Gulf unity but it should be welcomed by the incoming Biden administration, which will try to fashion a new Iran policy. But the Iran nuclear issue won’t be any easier to solve. The sharp-eyed will have noticed that Saudi Arabia chose to have this summit at Al-Ula, an up-and-coming tourist attraction famous for its rocky outcrops and Nabatean carvings. – The Hill 

Jon B. Alterman writes: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt announced on January 5 they would lift the embargo they had imposed on Qatar in 2017, and Qatar agreed to drop a slew of cases against those states in international organizations. While the agreement does not restore unity to the Gulf Cooperation Council, it does end an open rupture that had undermined any collective action. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Middle East & North Africa

Syria and close ally Russia clashed with the U.S. and other nations Tuesday over a Western initiative to suspend Syria’s voting rights in the global chemical weapons watchdog for failing to provide details of three chemical attacks in 2017 that investigators blamed on President Bashar Assad’s government. – Associated Press 

Al-Hiwar TV aired a debate featuring several intellectuals affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood on December 24, 2020, in the wake of the recent normalization agreement between Morocco and Israel, which was signed by Islamist Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani. The discussion then turned to Hamas policy in addressing the West. – Middle East Media Research Institute  

Mohamed Chtatou writes: Perhaps that may yield wider regional peace dividends as well, as Morocco once contributed to both Egyptian and Palestinian overtures to Israel. The kingdom stands ready to fulfill that role again. How far Israelis, Palestinians, or others may choose to follow that path remains an open question, even as bilateral Moroccan-Israeli relations enter a new phase of cooperation for their mutual benefit—with a new, and hopefully lasting, element of American blessing. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened a rare ruling-party Congress this week with a frank admission that his country’s economy had “immensely underachieved” in the past five years, and said he had learned “painful lessons” from the experience, state media reported Wednesday. – Washington Post 

President Moon Jae-in has embarked on military reforms aimed at rapidly improving the armed forces’ technological prowess while simultaneously preparing for far fewer conscripts as the country’s rapidly ageing population declines thanks to low birth rates. – Financial Times

For the second year in a row, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has skipped his annual New Year’s Day speech, but he is expected to address the country’s eighth party congress later this month. While some analysts have predicted that having failed to reach any agreement on denuclearization with the out-going administration of President Trump, Kim might take some provocative action or make some bellicose remarks to draw the attention of President Joe Biden, so far, all’s quiet on the North Korean front. – Washington Examiner


President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday banning transactions with eight Chinese-connected apps, including the Alipay payment platform owned by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s Ant Group Co. and apps owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. – Wall Street Journal 

A former chief of a big Chinese state lender was sentenced to death on Tuesday for bribery, corruption and bigamy, in a rare and dramatic example of Beijing’s use of capital punishment for economic crimes. – New York Times

Online discussions about Fei’s death racked up hundreds of millions of views this week, while Shanghai labor regulators told local media they had sent a team to investigate Pinduoduo’s labor contracts and work hours. Fueling the public anger, a Pinduoduo social media account originally said grass-roots employees faced a “trade-off of life for money,” a statement the company later denounced as an unauthorized opinion of an outsourced marketing worker. – Washington Post 

China’s regulators are trying to get Jack Ma to do something the beleaguered billionaire has long resisted: share the troves of consumer-credit data collected by his financial-technology behemoth. – Wall Street Journal 

The World Health Organization expressed disappointment with China for delaying the travel of experts to the Asian country to investigate the origin of the virus, in a rare instance of public criticism from the international organization. – Bloomberg

China said on Wednesday it would take necessary measures to safeguard the legitimate rights of companies, after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order banning U.S. transactions with eight Chinese apps. – Reuters

Chinese Communist officials have tightened the speech restrictions that govern party members, a repudiation of internal calls for more freedom of speech. – Washington Examiner 

Joseph Bosco writes: Four years of initiatives from both Congress and the Trump administration have greatly improved Taiwan’s international standing and its protections against China’s aggression. While Beijing remains unconvinced that attacking Taiwan would be a futile and self-destructive undertaking, the Trump administration has moved far closer than any of its predecessors to strategic clarity on America’s intention to defend Taiwan. – The Hill 

Kelsang Dolma writes: Since its occupation of Tibet, the Chinese Communist Party has displaced and murdered tens of thousands of Tibetans with genocidal settler colonial policies. As refugees, Tibetan Americans have worked tirelessly to preserve their language and culture. But it’s a small community of about 26,700 people—and treachery inside it hits particularly hard. – Foreign Policy

South Asia

Afghan delegates flew to Qatar on Tuesday to reopen peace talks with Taliban leaders amid a rash of mutual recriminations, mixed signals from U.S. officials and a continued spate of assassinations targeting prominent civilians. – Washington Post

The Afghan government and the Taliban met in Qatar on Sept. 12 for their first direct talks to end a nearly 20-year conflict. The negotiations are being brokered by the U.S. as part of attempts to withdraw American troops from its longest war. – Wall Street Journal 

Members of the Shi’ite Hazara minority in Pakistan who have blockaded a highway in Quetta with the bodies of slain coal miners said on Tuesday they will not withdraw until Prime Minister Imran Khan meets them and the killers are brought to justice. – Reuters 

Zuha Siddiqui writes: Activists demand an end to harassment, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings; the return of missing people to their families; and the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission. For many Pashtun women from Pakistan’s tribal districts, the movement offers necessary recourse—a way to register protest in the absence of stable state. – Foreign Policy


Dozens of Hong Kong residents, including pro-democracy activists, lawmakers, a pollster and a lawyer, were arrested Wednesday under the national security law, in an early morning sweep that marked the most far-reaching and chilling use of the Beijing-imposed law since it was passed in June. – Washington Post 

Here is a timeline of developments since China imposed national security legislation in Hong Kong this year, making anything Beijing regards as subversion, secession, terrorism or colluding with foreign forces punishable by up to life in prison. – Reuters 

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has rejected recent comments by two Russian lawmakers describing Kazakhstan’s current territory as being a “gift” from Russia, saying such “provocative” remarks aimed to “spoil” relations” between the two neighbors. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

Thailand’s biggest opposition party plans to begin a process for a no-confidence debate against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha and his government on Jan. 27. – Bloomberg 

Janusz Bugajski writes: Heavy-handed U.S. or EU intervention to promote democracy by excluding certain governments from democracy summits or other Western initiatives may simply stiffen the resolve of nationalists and populists and increase domestic polarization. It will also provide new opportunities for Moscow to widen divisions between NATO states and penetrate their political structures, and where sovereignty is undermined, democracy is further imperiled and international security is endangered. – Washington Examiner


The Cold War is back on in the frigid North. Russia’s expansive military and political appetites are alarming countries along the former frontiers of the Soviet Union, from Finland to Romania. – Wall Street Journal 

Russia is planning to test-fire a salvo of new Zircon (Tsirkon) hypersonic cruise missiles from a warship before the end of the year, Russian state-run RIA Novosti reported Monday. – Business Insider 

Asked whether he and Russian president Vladimir Putin were “on the same political team,” Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko was unequivocal. […]Yet Mr Lukashenko has some work to do, to restore relations between Moscow and Minsk that cooled significantly during 2020. – Financial Times 

Paul Roderick Gregory writes: Public opinion polls taken after Navalny’s poisoning show the huge cleft between Russia’s “young” and “old:” Two thirds of the “old” accept the Kremlin’s narrative that the poisoning was either staged or carried out by Western intelligence. More than half of the “young” believe that the poisoning was to remove a political opponent or ordered by some corrupt official or oligarch. – The Hill


Europe’s space industry will try to match Chinese advances in secure communications to gain an edge over satellite broadband networks including British-backed OneWeb, France’s most senior space official said. – Bloomberg 

Portugal started a round of talks with ministers from various European Union (EU) nations on the new pact to tackle the bloc’s long-standing migration issues, its government said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Editorial: Compensating for lost business with the EU will be complicated. Incoming US president Joe Biden may seek to draw the west into multilateral hostility towards Beijing, blunting the opportunities to expand financial ties with China. Wall Street, with Mr Biden in the White House, will also be a stiffer competitor in green finance. – Financial Times 

James Andrew Lewis writes: The new administration can rebuild the relationship in ways that promote growth on both sides of the Atlantic while countering the risks posed by authoritarian regimes. The economic effects of technological change put immense strain on the transatlantic relationship, and greater transatlantic cooperation will require agreement between Europe and the United States on difficult technology issues. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


A court in the African country of Cape Verde ruled that Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman who had been Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s deal maker, can be extradited to the U.S., where he was indicted on charges of laundering money for the authoritarian regime. – Wall Street Journal 

Ethiopian police released Reuters cameraman Kumerra Gemechu on Tuesday after detaining him without charge for 12 days. – New York Times

More than 20 people, including children, were killed in airstrikes during a wedding ceremony in a remote desert area of central Mali, according to local sources. – The Guardian

The Central African Republic’s electoral authority declared President Faustin-Archange Touadéra the winner of last month’s election, with ballots from about half of registered polling stations counted. – Bloomberg

The Americas

Venezuela’s regime installed a rubber-stamp congress Tuesday, challenging an opposition legislature run by lawmaker Juan Guaidó that says it remains the nation’s sole democratic institution. – Wall Street Journal 

A regional bloc comprised mostly of Latin American nations said on Tuesday that it does not “recognize the legitimacy or legality of the National Assembly installed on January 5” in Venezuela. – Reuters

Online forums popular with conservatives and far-right activists have been filled in recent days with threats and expectations of violence ahead of a planned protest in Washington on Wednesday to coincide with congressional certification of the election. – NBC 

A three-week-long roadblock protest by locals has prevented Las Bambas mine in Peru, run by Australia-based MMG Ltd, from exporting 189,000 tonnes of copper concentrate, a mining association leader said on Tuesday. – Reuters


Russia is likely behind a massive, continuing hack discovered last month that has ripped through various federal government agencies and an unknown number of private organizations, the Trump administration formally said Tuesday. – Wall Street Journal 

Facebook Inc said on Tuesday that Georgia will again be added to the social media company’s existing political ad ban on Wednesday, after the state’s runoff elections. – Reuters 

The following is the Jan. 4, 2021 Congressional Research Service In Focus report, Russian Cyber Units. – USNI News 

The U.S. government’s cybersecurity agency recently rejected requests from senior Department of Homeland Security officials to share private companies’ confidential information, two people familiar with the matter told POLITICO, in the latest dust-up between the cyber agency and Trump administration appointees. – Politico

The foreign hackers who compromised a wide array of government and corporate computer networks appear to have spied on fewer than 10 of the federal agencies left vulnerable by their attack, U.S. officials investigating the breaches said Tuesday. – Politico

Elisabeth Braw writes: Cyber proliferation is in no state’s interest, not even that of North Korea. Criminals could, for example, hack the country to retrieve funds its hackers have stolen from abroad. Even as governments battle one another in cyber space, they should start taking cyber proliferation as seriously as most of them do nuclear. And not just because of the shorting risk. – Financial Times


President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is turning to more veterans of the Obama-Biden administration to fill senior positions on his national security team, including two former officials who played crucial roles in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, an agreement the Biden administration will seek to restore. – New York Times

The Pentagon has set up interviews this week between President-elect Joe Biden’s defense policy team and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, Africa and South Korea. The move comes after Biden claimed that the Trump administration was stonewalling the transition process. – Military.com 

The United States should conduct a new broad strategic review to evaluate global threats and determine its strategy, the head of U.S. Strategic Command said Tuesday. – USNI News

BAE Systems received a $4 million contract from the Navy for a “quick-turnaround” demonstration of a new radio frequency countermeasure system for the P-8A Poseidon aircraft. – C4ISRNET 

The following is the Department of the Navy document, A Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic that was released on Jan. 5, 2020. – USNI News 

Industrial conglomerate Teledyne Technologies Inc. is acquiring FLIR Systems Inc., the sensor and unmanned systems maker, in a cash-and-stock transaction valued at about $8 billion. – C4ISRNET 

Thomas Spoehr writes: To rebuild the armed forces that the nation needs, current and future Pentagon leaders must resist the temptation to start infighting amongst each other and instead focus on the need for overall adequate defense funding. That will be difficult. In almost every past defense downturn, the services have resorted to attacks on each other to grab a larger share of a shrinking pie. That would be a mistake with grave consequences—not just for the military itself, but for the nation. – Breaking Defense

Missile Defense

Chinese troops conducted a drill involving a ballistic missile vehicle designed to strike U.S. bases in the event of a conflict in the Indo-Pacific, according to an analysis of Chinese state media. – Washington Examiner 

Lockheed Martin secured $4.9 billion to build three missile warning satellites for the U.S. Space Force, according to a Jan. 4 announcement. – C4ISRNET 

The general in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal said Tuesday he would “welcome” a review by the incoming Biden administration of the country’s nuclear weapons strategy, but lashed out at critics of the military’s plans for new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). – The Hill

Patty-Jane Geller writes: The LRSO will play an important role in maintaining the nuclear triad because it will sustain the nuclear capability that enables the triad’s critical air leg. The LRSO will also contribute to both the credibility of U.S. deterrence and the United States’ extended deterrence commitments to allies and provide a hedge against both technical failure as well as an uncertain geopolitical environment. – Heritage Foundation

Long War

A man who stabbed three people to death in a minute in an alleged terrorist rampage had viewed material about a notorious Isis killer, a court has heard. – The Guardian 

The U.S. government collected $7 million in Iranian assets for victims of state-sponsored terrorism, the Justice Department said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

An alleged terrorist who stabbed three men to death in a park in Reading last June had come under the influence of a notorious preacher while in jail, a court has heard. – Sky News (UK) 

A counter-terrorism unit raiding a militant hideout in central Indonesia on Wednesday killed two men suspected by police of involvement in twin bombings at a Philippine church in 2019 that killed more than 20 people. – Reuters 

An Arab terrorist attacked Israeli civilians and a group of Israeli soldiers with an ax Tuesday afternoon, at the Gush Etzion Junction south of Jerusalem. – Arutz Sheva

Trump Administration

The top federal prosecutor in Atlanta abruptly resigned this week and President Trump bypassed his top deputy in selecting a temporary replacement — an unusual set of moves, even in the administration’s waning days. – Washington Post 

Cleta Mitchell, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who supported President Trump in making claims of election fraud on a weekend call with the Georgia secretary of state, resigned Tuesday from the partnership of a corporate law firm. – Wall Street Journal 

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin phoned New York Stock Exchange President Stacey Cunningham to tell her he disagrees with the NYSE’s decision to reverse course on delistings of three Chinese telecoms firms, a source familiar with the matter said on Tuesday. – Reuters