Fdd's overnight brief

January 7, 2019

In The News


The Iranian navy will send warships to deploy in the Atlantic from March, a top commander said on Friday, as the Islamic Republic seeks to increase the operating range of its naval forces to the backyard of the United States, its arch foe. – Reuters

Russia and Iran are planning joint naval exercises in the Caspian Sea “in the near future,” an Iranian naval official has said. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Iran’s central bank has proposed slashing four zeros from the rial, state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday, after the currency plunged in a year marked by an economic crisis fuelled by U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

Iran’s telecommunications minister said Saturday his country’s three new satellites have successfully passed pre-launch tests. – Times of Israel

Tehran has approved an anti-money-laundering bill, local media reported, in a move that is seen as a major step toward reforms that would bring Iran into line with global norms and could facilitate foreign trade in the face of U.S sanctions. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Mike Saidi writes: Simmering discontent with the regime’s failure to address protesters’ grievances makes the situation ripe for the reignition of widespread anti-regime riots. Disparate protests might not coalesce into widespread protests, however. Protests may rather stay at a continuous low boil. It is unlikely that demonstrations will fade away entirely given the regime’s unwillingness and, in some cases, inability to address people’s core concerns. –  American Enterprise Institute

Farzin Nadimi writes: Western countries should prepare for the possibility of more Iranian MRBM tests or the unveiling of new designs[…]. Although Tehran became less public about its missile advancements following the nuclear deal, there has been no substantive halt in the program’s progress. Most troubling, the latest test indicates that the IRGC is moving forward with the Khoramshahr, a ballistic missile design that may already have the capability of lifting a heavy payload to targets anywhere in the Middle East or southern Europe. – Washington Institute


President Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, rolled back on Sunday Mr. Trump’s decision to rapidly withdraw from Syria, laying out conditions for a pullout that could leave American forces there for months or even years. – New York Times

A 34-year-old man from Houston who is said to have sent a résumé and cover letter seeking a job with the Islamic State has been seized on a battlefield in Syria, an American-backed militia fighting the militants said Sunday. – New York Times

Last month, President Trump stunned his allies — and possibly his own advisers — by announcing the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Critics feared Trump was playing into the hands of Russia and Iran; others lamented what they saw as yet another American betrayal of Kurds in the region. […]But it’s now far from clear when — or even if — the panic-inducing drawdown will take place. – Washington Post

Turkey is asking the U.S. to provide substantial military support, including airstrikes, transport and logistics, to allow Turkish forces to assume the main responsibility for fighting Islamic State militants in Syria, senior U.S. officials say. – Wall Street Journal

A missile attack by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria killed at least one Kurdish fighter and wounded two British soldiers embedded with them, according to reports Sunday, amid fierce fighting in the strategic area near the Iraqi border. – Associated Press

The American decision to pull out its 2,000 troops has forced a reassessment of old alliances and partnerships. The Syrian government, the Kurds, Russia, Iran, Israel and Turkey have all had a hand in the country’s nearly eight-year war — each in a way, fighting its own war for its own reasons within Syria. – Associated Press

Recent precision strikes and coordinated attacks targeting the Islamic State’s media cells have diminished the group’s communications capabilities by nearly half in less than six months, according to the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. – Washington Examiner


Several Jewish teenagers have been arrested on suspicion of carrying out “serious terror offenses,” including the killing of a Palestinian woman three months ago, Israel’s internal security agency made public on Sunday. A media blackout had prevented the publication of most details of the case. But the arrests over the past week still served to stoke nationalist tensions in the country as it gears up for a general election on April 9. – Washington Post

CBS aired its exclusive interview with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Sunday night. During the interview, the president spoke of his relations with Israel and military coordination between the two countries. He also spoke of his country’s attitude toward demonstrators and political prisoners. – Jerusalem post

In an unprecedented series of visits, three delegations of local leaders from Iraq have reportedly made trips to Israel in recent months, and held meetings with Israeli officials. – Times of Israel

Egypt’s president has told CBS that his country and Israel, with whom it fought four wars, are cooperating against Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula, a startling and potentially damaging acknowledgment that could explain the Egyptian government’s request that the network not air the interview. – Associated Press

The Palestinian Authority says it is withdrawing its officers from a key crossing point between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Egypt. The announcement on Sunday came amid rising tension between the Islamic militant movement, which took control of Gaza in a 2007, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party. – Associated Press

America’s concerns about the strengthening of Israel’s trade and technology ties with China are a central focus of the talks that U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton is holding in Israel. – Haaretz

Karen Elliott House writes: A Netanyahu-Mohammed meeting would be a capstone of the Trump administration’s effort to isolate and contain Iran. The so-called Arab Street’s indifference to the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem is said to have given the crown prince the confidence to take his relationship with Israel public at the right time. On a more political level, it surely would divert public and media attention from problems currently besetting each of the three leaders involved. – Wall Street Journal

Middle East & North Africa

The U.S. killed Jamal al-Badawi, a Yemeni al Qaeda operative accused of leading the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, in a strike this month, a U.S. defense official said. President Trump announced the death in a tweet on Sunday, saying: “Our GREAT MILITARY has delivered justice for the heroes lost and wounded in the cowardly attack on the USS Cole. We have just killed the leader of that attack, Jamal al-Badawi.” – Wall Street Journal

Kristen Kao and Mara Revkin write: The Islamic State no longer controls significant territory in Iraq and Syria. But during a visit to Baghdad in December, the question being asked by Iraqi government officials was not if the Islamic State is making a comeback, but how soon the group will again be strong enough to recapture and hold territory. […]Iraqis distinguish between the culpability of different types of collaborators and prefer different punishments for them, suggesting that the Iraqi government’s approach to the Islamic State collaborators is inconsistent with public opinion. – Washington Post

Editorial: If the United States is to uphold its values by insisting on justice in the Khashoggi case, Congress must take the lead. The new Democratic leadership in the House should advance new measures requiring U.S. sanctions on all those responsible for the murder, including Mohammed bin Salman, and ending U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen.  – Washington Post

Korean Peninsula

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could meet in Vietnam’s capital for their second summit on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, the South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo said. – Bloomberg

U.S. State Department officials recently met multiple times with North Korean counterparts in Hanoi and discussed planning a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a South Korean newspaper reported on Monday. – Reuters

Coal has long been a major resource for North Korea, and Kim’s call for self sufficiency in the face of international pressure is a recurring theme. But as international sanctions have increased over the past year, coal is one of the few local resources to which Kim can turn as he tries to make good on promises to improve life in a country notorious for limited electricity, analysts and defectors say. – Reuters

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Friday urged his South Korean counterpart to take prompt steps to avoid measures unfair to Japanese companies in the wake of South Korea’s claim against a Japanese firm over wartime forced labour. – Reuters

Japan’s top government spokesman said ties with South Korea were in a “severe state,” signaling that simmering tensions between the neighbors and U.S. security allies could worsen. – Bloomberg


China’s economy is slowing faster than expected as Beijing this week heads into a crucial new round of negotiations with the U.S. over trade. – Wall Street Journal

A U.S. guided-missile destroyer patrolled near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Monday, challenging Beijing’s maritime claims there, U.S. military officials said. – Wall Street Journal

China sounded a positive note ahead of talks with Washington this week on a sprawling trade dispute that threatens to chill global economic growth, but the two sides face lengthy wrangling over technology and their future relationship. Talks were due to start Monday but there was no word from the American Embassy or China’s Ministry of Commerce on whether they were under way or details of their agenda. – Associated Press

China has moved quickly to meet “reasonable demands” from the U.S. to help end the ongoing trade war but shouldn’t dismantle its governance model as some in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration want, former Goldman Sachs China chairman Fred Hu said Monday. – Bloomberg

When Xi Jinping ascended the stage in the Great Hall of the People in March, officially the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, the country’s future seemed his to shape. […]Nine months later however, storm clouds are gathering. China’s economy has faltered in the face of US President Donald Trump’s ongoing trade war, and tensions with Washington have spread to political and military issues. – CNN

Jim Hoagland writes: Emboldened by the Trump administration’s denigration and threatened abandonment of traditional U.S. allies in Europe and other regions, China has launched a strategic campaign to woo, gain control over or otherwise undermine nations that have long supported U.S. goals and alliance management abroad. [..]But the White House response to China’s diplomatic and economic campaign contains two glaring failures. It does not recognize or seek to correct its own role in creating the conditions that cause allies to doubt U.S. resolve and support. – Washington Post


The brother of an American detained in Russia for alleged spying says the ex-Marine might be caught in a diplomatic tug-of-war between the two powers, and the family fears he could be convicted on flimsy evidence. – Agence France-Presse

Russia’s deputy foreign minister brushed back suggestions Saturday that an American being held in Moscow on suspicion of spying could be exchanged for a Russian citizen. – Associated Press

Hassan Hassan writes: A little-noticed trend, however, is Moscow’s focus on promoting politically pacifist Islam, which has coincided with an aggressive push by certain Arab countries to combat Islamism. […]The U.S. and other Western countries may not accept the principle that Islamists and Salafis are as dangerous as militant jihadis. Russia, by promoting a particular brand of Islamic moderation in unison with Arab powers, could cement its position in the region more deeply than through economic and military means alone. – The Atlantic


The Netherlands — Britain’s main trading partner on mainland Europe — is among the most-prepared for the possibility that Britons will leave the E.U. on March 29 without a deal to manage the withdrawal. Leaders here fear that the best efforts of a nation that loves to be prepared may not be enough to safeguard against the mess. And Britain’s other trading partnerships in Europe could be even worse off. – Washington Post

British lawmakers this week begin debating Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan before a critical vote she is widely expected to lose, heightening political and economic uncertainty as Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union nears. – Wall Street Journal

The spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide recognized the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in a four-hour ceremony in Istanbul on Sunday, formalizing a split with the Russian church to which it had been tied for more than four centuries. – New York Times

German authorities sought help from the U.S. National Security Agency after discovering that hackers had released private data linked to Chancellor Angela Merkel and hundreds of other German politicians, Bild newspaper reported. – Bloomberg


Donald Trump’s presidency has coincided with a sharp rise in US-led airstrikes in Somalia and the trend is set to continue in 2019. In a speech in December outlining the US’ Africa policy, President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton […]gave the impression that there would be no let up in the struggle against militant Islamist groups, such as the Somalia-based al-Shabab, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda. – BBC

The results of Congo’s presidential election were delayed Sunday. Some 80 U.S. military personnel have been deployed to Central Africa to protect U.S. assets from possible “violent demonstrations” in Congo over the election outcome. The international community has warned Congo’s government that the results must accurately reflect the people’s will — and that internet service should be restored. – Associated Press

Concerns over Chinese growth could spell problems for Africa and other parts of the developing world. Beijing funded an overseas investment boom in the past few decades as it strove to become the world’s second largest economic superpower, while also buying vast amounts of the natural resources produced by emerging nations. – The Guardian

The Americas

The first Middle East-related legislation of 2019 was presented to the US Congress this week, as four Republican senators introduced a bill to bolster US defense and security measures in the region, as well as combat the anti-Israel BDS movement. – Algemeiner

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Sunday blasted the reintroduction of a bill that would establish federal legal protections for states passing laws divesting pension funds from groups that boycott Israel[…]. “It’s absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity,” Sanders wrote on Twitter. – Arutz Sheva

A former Venezuelan Supreme Court justice has fled to the U.S. and denounced the results of an election last year that will keep President Nicolas Maduro in power. Judge Christian Zerpa’s renunciation of the Venezuelan government comes as Maduro prepares to be sworn in to a second six-year term Thursday, Agence France-Presse reports. – Time

Cyber Security

Personal data is now as important a commodity as oil, a leading QC has said as he warns companies that they need to be up front on what they are using it for. Dean Armstrong QC, an expert in cyber law, said that as it is possible to collect ever more data in an increasingly connected world they will have to ensure that they tell their customers exactly what they are handing over and why. – Telegraph

Eli Lake writes: While analysts in Washington have focused on Russian disinformation and its efforts to influence U.S. politics, their counterparts in Russia believe the West has been doing the same thing to Russia for years. At the same time, this perspective also reveals the limits to these “meetings with vodka”: They can increase understanding, thereby making conflict more predictable, but this kind of diplomacy cannot end cyberwar. – Bloomberg

Erin Dunne writes: As a political tool, even unsophisticated cybertheft can be a powerful force of disruption. And those politicized breaches that fall flat, as this one seems like it might, should be taken as clear indicators of needed cybersecurity updates and protections. Dumps of personal chats, emails, and even private family photos should not become accepted realities of public service. – Washington Examiner


After a quarter-century of post-Cold War neglect, the Department of Defense has once again become serious about electronic warfare: the art of detecting, disrupting, and deceiving enemy radio and radar. But battles between electrons are invisible, literally and often politically as well, and EW must fight for attention and resources with higher-profile efforts from hypersonic missiles and missile defense to combat readiness for everything from fighter jets to nuclear submarines. – Breaking Defense

The Navy’s coming request for the 2020 fiscal year is still under wraps, but one important piece of the Navy’s future plans appears increasingly certain: the service will commit billions to buy two new Ford-class aircraft carriers under the same contract. While most of that money won’t be spent in ’20, it’s still a tremendous long-term commitment that, advocates say, should save 5 to 10 percent over buying each carrier separately. – Breaking Defense

In the coming clash between President Trump’s $750 billion defense budget and House Democrats’ desire to cut Pentagon spending, especially on nuclear weapons, there will be tremendous fiscal pressure to shortchange the almost $30 billion annual cost to modernize America’s strategic deterrent. The ideological cover for such penny-wise, pound-foolish cuts is the so-called Global Zero movement to eliminate all nuclear weapons. – Breaking Defense

Trump Administration

The chief of staff for the Pentagon has been forced out of his post by the Defense Department’s new acting head, multiple U.S. officials said, days after the departure of former Secretary Jim Mattis. – Wall Street Journal

Trump administration officials began taking extraordinary steps to contain the fallout from the partial federal government shutdown Sunday, as the budget impasse between the president and congressional Democrats showed no signs of nearing a breakthrough. […]It demanded $5.7 billion “for construction of a steel barrier for the Southwest border” but also proposed “an additional $800 million to address urgent humanitarian needs” and unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border. – Washington Post

When President Donald Trump announced Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan would become the acting secretary of defense, it created vibrations down the Pentagon chain of operations[…]. The good news for the Department of Defense? Experts believe the department’s internal mechanisms will keep the building chugging along, at least in the short term. The more complicated news? Those tabbed with the “acting” label sometimes struggle with getting their way in that same bureaucracy. – Defense News

Pentagon chief of staff Kevin Sweeney was reportedly forced out by the White House. Sweeney, a retired Navy rear admiral, announced Saturday that he was resigning, saying in a statement, “I’ve decided the time is right to return to the private sector.” But a source told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Sweeney’s exit was orchestrated by the White House. – Washington Examiner