Fdd's overnight brief

January 9, 2020

In The News


President Trump backed away Wednesday from potential war with Iran, indicating he would not respond militarily to the launch of more than a dozen ballistic missiles at bases housing American troops, as the United States and Iran blamed each other for provoking the most direct conflict between the two adversaries since Iran seized American diplomats in 1979. – Washington Post 

The Iranian missile strike on American facilities in Iraq was a calibrated event intended to cause minimal casualties, give the Iranians a face-saving measure and provide an opportunity for both sides to step back from the brink of war, according to senior U.S. officials in Washington and the Middle East. – Washington Post 

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN Tuesday that the US is not seeking a war with Iran but it is “prepared to finish one.” He also said the US is not withdrawing troops from Iraq following a weekend vote by Iraq’s parliament to expel American forces. – CNN

Iran’s missile attack on Wednesday had been intended to kill U.S. personnel at Iraq’s al-Asad airbase, the top U.S. military officer said, in remarks that suggested that Tehran was, and perhaps still is, willing to risk major U.S. retaliation. – Reuters 

The United States told the United Nations on Wednesday that the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani last week was self-defense and vowed to take additional action “as necessary” in the Middle East to protect U.S. personnel and interests. – Reuters

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, discussed need for urgent de-escalation on all sides following Iranian missile attacks on military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq overnight, a spokesperson for Johnson said. – Reuters

In the crisis with the U.S., Iran has yielded. […]Iran is now turning to diplomacy as it strives for the political achievement that violent extortion and threats of terrorism have failed to bring about – the retreat of U.S. forces from Iraq and the region. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

President Trump will not expel an Iranian diplomat in New York who pledged repeatedly that the regime would take “revenge” for the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, according to analysts and officials. – Washington Examiner 

Does Iran have the ability to destroy American satellites or otherwise deny the unique capabilities they afford United States war fighters? It’s certainly a question worth asking amid heightened tension between the two nations following the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian military official, in a Jan. 3 drone strike. – C4ISRNET 

Tehran has dismissed the latest European claims about its ongoing ballistic missile developments – including a new type of manoeuvring re-entry vehicle – in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231. – Jane’s 360 

The Islamic Republic of Iran has “cornered” itself in its conflict with the United States, according to one expert. “The Islamic Republic really has no option. It has cornered itself,” said Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American Iranian Council and former Iranian presidential candidate. – Yahoo News

Editorial: Mr. Trump responded Wednesday morning with strong but also conciliatory remarks from the White House. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned,” the President said. […]Combined with Mr. Trump’s renewed deterrence and “maximum pressure,” a united front might convince Iran’s leaders that they are better off negotiating a new deal and a path out of economic isolation instead of pursuing the dead end of Soleimani’s Mideast revolution. – Wall Street Journal

Karl Rove writes: We’re still in the early stages of this crisis, and much could change in the coming weeks and months. The politics of the Soleimani strike hang in the balance. If events conspire for or against Donald Trump, neither party’s efforts to create a narrative will make much difference. In the end, reality is more important than spin. – Wall Street Journal

Eric S. Edelman and Franklin C. Miller write: Soleimani’s death is the first time the regime has lost something it valued in its conflict with the U.S. The Trump administration was right to make clear that America will impose significant costs on the regime until its state-sponsored hostage-taking, murder and other forms of terrorism cease. […]The U.S. has the military capacity to inflict severe damage on Iran without an invasion. – Wall Street Journal

Adam Taylor writes: Trump said Wednesday that he still hoped for a deal with Iran, but his move against Soleimani has alienated his Iranian interlocutors and further isolated the United States from its allies in Europe and the Middle East. The result is not likely to be another world war, but instead the extension of a simmering, insidious conflict that has already taken far too many lives in the Middle East. – Washington Post 

Eli Lake writes: What is clear, though, is that President Donald Trump is not seeking to invade Iran. To start, he put a positive spin on Iran’s retaliation, saying in a speech Wednesday that the regime “appears to be standing down.” If Trump were really the warmonger that his opponents claim, he would not have described the Iranian attack as a de-escalation. – Bloomberg

Meghan L. O’Sullivan writes: President Donald Trump’s speech on Iran will not go down in memory as eloquent or inspiring — but it gave the world what it needed most today: an opportunity for de-escalation. The U.S. president was unquestionably speaking to many audiences, and most should be more pleased than upset by what they heard. […]It will take more to dampen the crisis that has gripped the world for the last week. But there are enough positives in the president’s speech to build upon. – Bloomberg

Jonathan Lemire writes: President Donald Trump said Iran was “standing down” from possible conflict with the U.S. But Trump himself was just as eager for an out. Trump, by declining to take military action in retaliation for Iranian missile strikes against Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops, edged the nation back from the brink of a war that could have destabilized the Middle East. That fits with his broader foreign policy pattern: talk tough but stay away from armed conflict. – Associated Press

Ross Marchand writes: If the administration wants to declare war against Iran’s proxy agents abroad, it should explain its case to Congress and present relevant intelligence. Transparency and congressional buy-in can create a more cautious system safeguarding the vibrant but fragile Iranian civil society that offers hope to the Persian people. In Tehran and elsewhere, I saw a thousand flowers blooming. – Washington Examiner 

Brad Polumbo writes: It’s clear there’s an opportunity to de-escalate military tensions here. Trump should take it. […]Trump must take this opportunity to avoid war with Iran. If the president now needlessly escalates the situation further in lieu of serious Iranian aggression, it will be a betrayal of the foreign policy promises he made to voters. – Washington Examiner 

A.J. Caschetta writes:  Trump seems to have ended, at least temporarily, the era of proportionate warfare against Iran. […]The U.S. has been fighting Iran proportionately for almost 40 years, exercising restraint and attempting diplomacy. By returning fire, Trump has changed that pattern. – The Hill

Stuart Gottlieb and Danielle Pletka write: We are being told that Iran is now united behind regime hardliners who have ruled with an iron fist since 1979. Soleimani’s killing, leading Democrats and much of the elite press insist, will “backfire,” setting the stage for a “dangerous escalation” between Iran and the United States. In fact, history suggests the opposite is true: Confronting a hostile and dangerous authoritarian regime leads to better policy outcomes. – The Hill

Mehdi Khalaji writes: Yet despite the pain he has experienced over Soleimani’s loss and the unnerving pressures of the gasoline crisis, Khamenei seems confident that there is little chance of another deep domestic crisis reemerging in the near future. In his view, Soleimani’s death will help prevent this, in part by further dividing the disorganized, leaderless opposition, and also by allowing the government to justify additional internal security measures now that the specter of war seems much more visible. – Washington Institute

Michael Pregent writes: It’s time now for the Iraqi government to tell Iran to stop killing Iraqis, and time for Iraq to target and arrest members of the Iranian-backed militias. If Iraq refuses, the U.S. must come to the realization that the Iraqi government is more interested in being allied with Iran. That will lead to a U.S. troop withdrawal and loss of support for the Iraqi government. The big loser, if that happens, will be Iraq and its people. – Fox News


US President Donald Trump spoke Wednesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following an Iranian missile strike on US forces in Iraq, the White House said. – Times of Israel 

Israel’s Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday that a breakthrough has been made in using laser beams to thwart aerial attacks. […]The system will be tested as early as the second half of 2020 and will then be deployed near the southern border with the Gaza Strip to complement the Iron Dome. – Algemeiner 

Ido Zelkovitz writes: Shrinking the freedom of expression is a strategic move by the PA. Since its founding, the PA has used censorship as a tool to weaken oppositional voices from Hamas and the Left. […]From the perspective of the PA, this is a strategic process that is meant to entrench its control in the lead-up to a period of political instability. – Jerusalem Post


Iraqi leaders moved to quell a growing crisis Wednesday after Iranian missile strikes on two bases that house U.S. troops threatened to yank the country deeper into violence. Iranian officials said the missile strikes early Wednesday, the most significant attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq in years, were a response to the killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike last week.  – Washington Post 

President Donald Trump’s national security team knew that killing Iran’s most powerful general could hurt efforts to mop up and head off any revival of the Islamic State militant group — and that is just what has happened. – Associated Press

Influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Wednesday the crisis Iraq was experiencing is over following de-escalation rhetoric from both Iran and the U.S. and called on militia groups not to carry out attacks. – Reuters

India and Pakistan on Wednesday cautioned their citizens about travel to Iraq, hours after Iran launched missile attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq. – Reuters

Turkey’s foreign minister will visit Iraq on Thursday to try to ease tensions after Iran launched missiles at U.S.-led forces in response to the killing of a top Iranian commander, the foreign ministry said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The US-led coalition to fight ISIS confirmed small rockets landed near the the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on Wednesday afternoon without causing any damage to coalition troops or facilities. – CNN 

Iran’s missile strike on U.S. bases realizes a long-held fear for Iraq: To become the battlefield for an open conflict between a deeply connected neighbor and the world’s military superpower. – Bloomberg

Global oil prices plunged Wednesday, totally reversing a earlier needle-thin spike that followed Iranian missile attacks on US targets in Iraq. – Agence France-Presse 

Neville Teller writes: Iran’s dominant position within the Iraqi body politic has emerged as a key issue during the current anti-government crisis. Iraqi President Barham Salih has resisted recent attempts by the pro-Iran coalition to put forward nominees for prime minister that included a resigned minister and a controversial governor, Asaad al-Eidani. The mass street protests are supporting the president’s threat to resign rather than accept the pro-Iran coalition’s candidate. – Jerusalem Post 

Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabian Military Industries is working on a new national counter-drone system to address asymmetric threats to the country and protect critical infrastructure and domestic military bases. – Defense News 

U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf have loudly pushed for hawkish policies by Washington to pressure, isolate and cripple Iran, but this high-stakes strategy is now being put to the test by the unexpected U.S. strike that killed Iran’s most powerful military commander last week, thrusting the region closer to full-blown conflict. – Associated Press

Yemen’s Houthi group did not launch an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in September, according to a confidential report by U.N. sanctions monitors seen by Reuters on Wednesday, bolstering a U.S. accusation that Iran was responsible. – Reuters


The presidents of Turkey and Russia called for a truce in Libya’s civil war to begin Sunday as both countries deepen their involvement in the oil-rich North African nation. – Wall Street Journal

An Italian attempt to broker an unscheduled meeting between Libya’s two warring leaders collapsed, when United Nations-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj canceled a planned trip to Rome. – Bloomberg

Sinan Ulgen writes: Ultimately the success of Turkey’s strategy will depend on the credibility of its commitment to the GNA and the effectiveness of its military deterrence. Erdogan will have to convince leaders of the opposing governments—and Haftar—that he will do whatever is necessary to protect the GNA. – Bloomberg

Middle East & North Africa

Four Turkish soldiers were killed in a car bomb attack in northeast Syria on Wednesday, the Turkish Defense Ministry said in a statement overnight. – Reuters 

President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that the United States no longer needs to rely on the Middle East for oil. – CNN 

NATO has agreed to “contribute more to regional stability” in the Middle East a day after Iran claimed it struck two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops. – The Hill

Amid ongoing tensions between Tehran and Washington, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Pakistan Navy have deployed warships to undertake maritime security operations in the Middle East. – Jane’s 360 

Hanin Ghaddar writes: Given Iran and Hezbollah’s likely strategy, the best way to contain them is to support and empower the people of Lebanon and Iraq, who are the real faction that can offer or deny Iran’s proxies support. They are the genuine agents of change in the region. – Foreign Policy


A U.S. government commission led by bipartisan lawmakers urged the Trump administration to enact sanctions against Chinese officials and companies for human rights abuses and to develop stronger policies to counteract what it called China’s intensified political influence operations abroad. – Washington Post 

China has a record of meddling in Taiwan, which it views as a breakaway province, and has stepped up disinformation efforts in recent years. – Washington Post

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s chief trade negotiator will travel to Washington early next week to sign a phase-one trade deal with the U.S., China’s Commerce Ministry said Thursday, the first official confirmation by Beijing on the signing of an agreement that could help ease bilateral tensions. – Wall Street Journal

A renewal of trade tensions, which eased recently with the announcement of an initial agreement between the United States and China, would erode the modest progress and could spread quickly beyond the two economic powers. In its latest Global Economic Prospects report, the World Bank projects the global economy will grow by 2.4 percent this year, just one-tenth more than 2019 but slower than the 2020 forecast released in June. – Agence France-Presse 

Tim Culpan writes: Antitrust is a relatively new concept in China and has been used most notably against foreign companies. Now, a draft update to China’s existing law puts local internet giants firmly in regulators’ sights. That should keep even the most ambitious executives from getting too big-headed as President Xi Jinping keeps power where it belongs — with the ruling Communist Party. – Bloomberg

Chris Horton writes: The increased attention paid by the Chinese authorities to Sihanoukville stands as an implicit acknowledgement by Beijing that there are risks to China if its nationals or companies run roughshod over locals in other countries. Still, for China, Sihanoukville’s strategic importance outweighs these risks. The city’s location helps China project power into Southeast Asia. If the two countries have indeed reached an agreement on Chinese use of the Ream naval base, then Beijing will have taken a major step toward bringing the region further under its sway. – The Atlantic


North Korea’s flurry of missile launches in 2016 and 2017 attracted a global backlash and a wave of new economic sanctions. But the provocations helped the country land its first-ever summit with a sitting U.S. president. Pyongyang’s new policy toward Washington, unveiled last week after a rare Workers’ Party session, is a bet that provocative strategy can work again. – Wall Street Journal

Protests in Hong Kong against Beijing’s encroachment have inspired widespread sympathy across the self-ruling island of Taiwan, a longstanding subject of tension in the region that is both claimed by Beijing and supported by the U.S. with arms sales and unofficial political ties. – Wall Street Journal

Taiwan’s top diplomat extended an olive branch to China ahead of the island’s weekend elections, saying President Tsai Ing-wen would “pursue a sustainable, predictable and peaceful relationship” if she wins another four years in office. – Wall Street Journal

Trump signs, Pepe the Frog graffiti and British and American flags have become a common sight at Hong Kong’s anti-government protests — and an unsettling one to longtime democracy activists on the left. […]But basic disagreements bubble beneath the surface: What do the protests stand for? Who are they for, and who are they against? How do you save a city caught in a growing confrontation between the U.S. and China? – Washington Post

A year ago, Taiwan’s leader was on the ropes. Then she got a boost from an unexpected corner: Chinese President Xi Jinping. […]Since then, Tsai has capitalized on three developments: the fears generated by China’s tough words on Taiwan, protests in Hong Kong that have reinforced those fears and U.S. government actions that reassure voters that America will have Taiwan’s back if the going gets tough. – Associated Press

Beijing should not interpret Taiwan’s elections as representing a win or loss for China, Taiwan’s foreign minister said on Thursday, days ahead of a crucial vote overshadowed by Chinese efforts to get the island to accept its rule. – Reuters

Allegations in Australian media about China’s efforts to interfere in Taiwan’s elections roiled the island on Thursday, after new reporting said a self-professed Chinese spy described a smear campaign against Taiwan’s ruling party. – Reuters

Japan will create the blueprint to redevelop a former U.S. naval base in northern Philippines that has also attracted interest from China. – Bloomberg

A nine-day Sino-Pakistani naval exercise commenced in Pakistan’s port of Karachi on Monday with the arrival of a Chinese naval task group from its South Sea Fleet. – Defense News


Europe and Britain, in a very public way, staked out their newest, most definitive Brexit negotiations Wednesday over their future relationship, with the new president of the European Commission warning British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that it would probably be “impossible” for the two sides to complete a comprehensive divorce deal by his “very tight” deadline at the end of 2020. – Washington Post 

In this town once known as Stalin City, NATO is modernizing an air base to sharpen the alliance’s capabilities in the western Balkans, a region where it is nudging Russia aside. – Wall Street Journal

Croatia, which just took over the European Union’s six-month rotating presidency, signaled any deal between the bloc and post-Brexit Britain on a future relationship would be limited should the negotiating deadline be end-2020. – Bloomberg

President Donald Trump has threatened to tax $2.4 billion in such imports by as much as 100 percent, retaliating against a French tax on tech companies, which US officials say unfairly singles out Silicon Valley. Some hope arose earlier on Tuesday, when French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Paris and Washington have given themselves two weeks to strike a bargain and end the impasse. – Agence France-Presse 


The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on South Sudan’s First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, citing his involvement in serious human rights abuses. – Associated Press

The U.N. envoy for West Africa and the Sahel says the region has experienced “a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets” in recent months. – Associated Press

About 20 soldiers were killed and nearly 1,000 people made homeless in a militant attack on a town in northeastern Nigeria, two residents and a military source said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Latin America

Twitter Inc has suspended more than a dozen accounts associated with Venezuela’s government and military, including the OPEC nation’s oil ministry and the armed forces’ operational command. – Reuters

But the virus of discontent was already spreading elsewhere, with streets in Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia turning into scenes of pot-banging fire-setting fury. Numerous factors are at play. Among the most significant are economic inequality, ethnic tensions and police brutality. – Bloomberg 

Mac Margolis writes: Facing such a tilted playing field, what can democratically-minded Venezuelan politicians do? Rodriguez believes that Maduro’s power grab may be a bid to push Guaido into boycotting this year’s parliamentary elections. […]The best hope of peeling away support for a toxic authoritarian regime still lies in returning to the internationally stewarded negotiating table. – Bloomberg


Hackers looking to breach US computer networks sharply intensified their efforts following the death of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, but have had limited success, according to internet security researchers and state government officials. – CNN 

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned of the terror threats Iran poses to the US in a joint intelligence bulletin sent to law enforcement throughout the country on Wednesday. – CNN 

The Texas Department of Agriculture on Monday was hit with a cyberattack that made its website feature an image of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian commander who was killed in a U.S. strike last week. – The Hill

Two House Democrats pushed top financial regulators including the Treasury Department this week to step up their defenses against potential Iranian cyberattacks, with the risk of Iran attacking U.S. critical infrastructure increasing this week following the death of top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. – The Hill

What if a single Congressional committee in each chamber had oversight for cybersecurity issues? That’s one of the organizational fixes the bipartisan U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a bipartisan organization created in 2019 to develop a multipronged U.S. cyber strategy, is considering recommending to lawmakers. Such an approach would consolidate the disparate committees with jurisdiction over cyber issues. – Fifth Domain 

Kirk Thompson writes: The future of warfare is moving into your smartphone, your computers, and your tablets. At a time when our nation risks going to war with Iran, the basic protection for U.S. citizens from cyberattacks orchestrated by Iran and other adversaries is of the utmost importance. Anything less would amount to an abdication of the fundamental responsibility of our government to protect its citizens. – Washington Examiner 


USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and its air wing pulled into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, today, in the last leg of a lengthy deployment that could break records. – USNI News 

The following is the Jan. 6, 2020 Congressional Research Service report, U.S.-Iran Conflict and Implications for U.S. Policy. – USNI News 

The Air Force plans to cancel Raytheon’s contract for a next-generation ground-based radar after years of technical difficulties and will look for new options to replace it, a service spokeswoman said Wednesday. – Defense News 

The Bell V-280 Valor tiltrotor demonstrator flew autonomously for the first time Dec. 18 at the company’s Arlington facility in two sorties. – Defense News 

The New Year is bringing a revamped effort by Big Navy to transform the delayed and over-budget aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford from albatross to operational. – Navy Times 

The U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is completely misaligned to meet the threats the military says it must counter in the 21st century, and it’s not correctly constructed to pursue its own strategy of “distributed maritime operations,” according to new study from the Center or Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. – Defense News 

The U.S. Army is warning Americans not believe any text messages they receive that say that they’ve been drafted. […]It noted that U.S. Army Recruiting Command does not have the authority to enact the draft. – The Hill

The Army is outlining specific technology areas that it wants industry to explore for its tactical network capabilities. – C4ISRNET 

BAE Systems has outfitted its CV90 infantry fighting vehicle to fire the Israeli-designed Spike guided antitank missile, according to a company statement. – Defense News 

Andreas Kluth writes: The U.S., Russia and China could also use mediation. The former two casually shrugged off one arms-control treaty last year and seem blasé about rescuing the only remaining one, called New START, which expires in a year. China, thinking more about power and destiny than survival, is boosting its arsenal to catch up with them. Everyone involved needs to understand that nuclear war is not a game. – Bloomberg

Trump Administration

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Wednesday that the House would vote on Thursday to force President Trump to quickly wind down military action against Iran unless he is given explicit authorization from Congress, opening what promised to be a searing debate over presidential war powers. – New York Times

In a rare moment of agreement, hawks and doves concur that President Trump’s decision not to retaliate against Iran for Tuesday night’s missile strikes targeting U.S. forces is the right course of action. – Washington Examiner 

Senators on Wednesday introduced a resolution stressing that neither the 2001 nor 2002 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) covers a potential war with Iran.  – The Hill