Fdd's overnight brief

July 22, 2019

In The News


Ships plying the Strait of Hormuz are getting caught in the middle as Iran pushes back against U.S. sanctions and maneuvers around a more muscular American regional presence, raising the risk of direct military confrontation. – Wall Street Journal 

Iran on Friday seized a British-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf, saying it had collided with a fishing vessel, a move widely seen as retaliation. On Saturday, the Stena Impero arrived in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas with its 23 crew members still on board. – Wall Street Journal  

Iran said on Monday that it had arrested 17 Iranian nationals on charges of spying for the United States and that it had already executed some of them, the Iranian news media reported. – New York Times 

Britain on Saturday threatened Iran with “serious consequences” for seizing a British-owned oil tanker the previous evening as the government warned ships to avoid the crucial shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz. – New York Times  

Prime Minister Theresa May will lead a meeting of the U.K. government’s emergency committee on Monday to discuss the security of shipping in the Persian Gulf after Iran seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz last week. – Bloomberg

Iran said on Sunday it appreciated Saudi Arabia’s efforts in the return of an Iranian ship that had docked at Jeddah port because of technical problems in May, the semi-official Fars news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying. – Reuters 

British ministers are making plans aimed at targeting Iran with sanctions in the aftermath of the Iranian seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf, the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported. – Reuters 

The U.S. military said on Friday that unarmed surveillance aircraft were in international airspace, monitoring the Strait of Hormuz and had been in contact with U.S. ships in the area as Britain said Iran seized two oil tankers. – Reuters 

Japan wants to make every effort to reduce tension between the United States and Iran before responding to an expected U.S. request to send its navy to guard strategic waters off Iran, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday. – Reuters 

U.S. military officials see a high risk of “unintended conflict” with Iran due to rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, according to top Pentagon official. – Washington Examiner

Iran reportedly called its seizure of a British oil tanker a “reciprocal action” after British assistance in the impounding an Iranian supertanker. – The Hill

The Trump administration is reportedly mulling ending waivers that allow Iran to run a civilian nuclear program with international help, a move that could further undermine the Obama-era nuclear deal. – The Hill

President Trump on Friday confirmed he has authorized Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to negotiate with Iran over reducing tensions, reversing himself a day after he denied reports he permitted Paul to serve as an emissary to Tehran. – The Hill 

Gibraltar was granted the power on Friday to detain Iran’s Grace 1 oil tanker for another month, keeping the vessel at the center of a big-power quarrel between Iran and the United States and its allies. – Reuters  

Editorial: Boris Johnson is expected to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom this week with a mandate to deliver Brexit. But before he can even say Brussels, the new leader will confront an international crisis started by Iran. This is an opportunity for Mr. Johnson to display independence and strength while nudging Europe toward a new approach to the Islamic Republic. – Wall Street Journal 

David Ignatius writes: The U.S. strategy of measured response makes sense, but it doesn’t answer the question of how this confrontation will end. Iran feels it’s being strangled by U.S. sanctions. When a regime feels it’s choking to death, it has two choice — capitulation or fighting back hard. The Trump administration has been betting on capitulation, but there’s no sign that bet will pay off. – Washington Post 

Tom Rogan writes: Acting against the British while the U.K. and Iranian foreign ministers were seeking compromise over Britain’s recent seizure of an Iranian tanker, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have further isolated Iran on the international stage. With a multinational naval task force for tanker escorts likely to be announced next week, the Iranians are increasingly outgunned and diplomatically isolated. – Washington Examiner

Philip Klein writes: This week’s news that Rand Paul pitched himself as an intermediary between President Trump and Iran is evidence of a shift in strategy that the nation’s largest sponsor of terrorism has made, along with former Obama officials, in hopes of salvaging the previous administration’s disastrous nuclear deal. – Washington Examiner

Abbas Milani writes: The only realistic path to the end of this cold war is a more democratic Iran, made by the people of Iran. The large, successful Iranian diaspora can and should play an important role in the desired transition to democracy. Only in a more democratic Iran can Iranians engage in a much-needed debate about whether it is in Iran’s interest to pursue a policy of nuclear enrichment at all. – The Hill

Andrew J. Stanley and John Schaus write: The Strait of Hormuz is a strategically important transitway for the flow of energy to economies and consumers around the world. U.S. leadership of a coalition of countries to defend freedom for all lawful commerce is instrumental in maintaining this piece of the global economy and for upholding broader U.S. national security objectives. The United States abandoning its efforts in this region increases the likelihood of disrupted energy flows, increases regional rivalry between Iran and its neighbors, and creates a leadership and security vacuum in a vital artery of commerce whose protection is squarely in U.S. national interests. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Iran is quietly building up an arsenal of locally-produced drones that it is exporting to its allies in the region and testing against enemies in Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia. […]The Iranian drone threat is not confined to waters off Iran’s coast, or to neighboring states. It is becoming a regional threat against U.S. allies. – The Hill


Iran’s main proxy terrorist group is expanding in Latin America and networking with organized crime and other violent groups, according to U.S. and Argentinean officials. – Washington Examiner

Bahrain on Friday joined Israel in commending Argentina for branding the Hezbollah a terrorist organization and freezing its assets, 25 years to the day after a bombing blamed on the Iran-backed group destroyed a Jewish community center in Argentina’s capital, killing 85 people. – Times of Israel 

As tensions rose in the Persian Gulf over the weekend with Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker, several commanders of Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, said they were deploying forces for possible war with Israel, warning that the growing pressure from sanctions on Tehran could trigger such a conflict sooner rather than later. – Times of Israel 

The tranquil winding roads of Lebanon’s mountainous interior are far from the tense waters of the Persian Gulf where President Donald Trump says America came within 10 minutes of war with Iran a few weeks ago. […]But if fighting ever does begin, these hills and valleys near the border with Israel will quickly be on the front lines. And according to Hezbollah commanders, that moment could be coming soon. – The Daily Beast


Syrian air defenses on Sunday thwarted hostile fire in the northwestern city of Masyaf in Hama Governorate, state TV reported. – Reuters 

Air strikes killed at least 18 people, including seven children, in rebel-held Idlib region in northwestern Syria on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. – Reuters 

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday that if a planned safe zone in northern Syria is not established, and if threats continue against Turkey, a military operation will be launched east of the Euphrates river. – Reuters 


Security services in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region said on Saturday they had arrested the brother of a lawmaker serving in the Turkish parliament for the assassination of a Turkish diplomat in the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital Erbil. – Reuters 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Turkey’s Foreign Minister on Saturday and expressed disappointment over the country’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system, the U.S. State Department said in a statement. – Reuters 

The United States’ relationship with Turkey hit a low point this week after a rift over a Russia missile system that has taken the two nations’ alliance to a new level of animosity. – The Hill


Anti-Semitic graffiti defaced a portion of the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem’s Muslim quarter on Saturday, according to local reports. – Washington Examiner

Israel’s ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer will leave his post in September after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to extend him was rejected. – Washington Examiner

Israeli forces began demolishing buildings near a military barrier on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday, in the face of Palestinian protests and international criticism. – Reuters 

The Foreign Ministry said Sunday that later this week, it will be hosting a group of six journalists from Arab countries including, for the first time, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. – Agence France-Presse

Arabian Peninsula

Qatar imported all the milk it needed. But then neighboring Saudi Arabia and its regional allies declared they would blockade Qatar over disputes that included claims that Qatar supported Islamist factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood. That left this Persian Gulf nation — rich in oil and natural gas — having to rethink how to get everything from construction materials to milk. – Washington Post

The global shipping industry is grappling with how best to police the Strait of Hormuz as it braces for the threat of further disruptions to tankers passing through one of the world’s most important oil trading waterways. – Financial Times 

The Saudi-led coalition said it started an operation to target military positions in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, according to state TV early on Saturday. – Reuters 

The acting U.S. defense secretary has authorized the deployment of U.S. military personnel and resources to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon said on Friday, adding the move would provide “an additional deterrent” in the face of “emergent, credible threats.” – Reuters 

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman approved hosting U.S. forces in the country to boost regional security and stability, the state news agency (SPA) reported on Friday. – Reuters 


Ten months ago, Salah Badi was the curse of Libya’s capital. […]Today, Badi is one of Tripoli’s defenders. He fights for the very U.N.-installed government he tried to oust. That government, in turn, is backed by some of the Western powers that imposed sanctions on him. – Washington Post

At least seven fighters loyal to Libyan National Army (LNA) forces commanded by Khalifa Haftar were killed overnight in a drone strike in southern Tripoli, a military source said. – Reuters 

Libya’s National Oil Company said it had stopped loading crude at a key government-controlled shipping terminal, declaring “force majeure” after a pipeline closure halted operations at its main oil field. – Agence France-Presse

Middle East & North Africa

British Airways and Lufthansa canceled all flights to Cairo on Saturday over unspecified security concerns after the British government warned of a “heightened risk of terrorism against aviation.” – Washington Post   

Islamic State militants who escaped the defeat of their self-declared caliphate in Syria earlier this year have been slipping across the border into Iraq, bolstering a low-level insurgency the group is now waging across the central and northern part of the country, according to security officials. – Washington Post

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner will lead a U.S. delegation on a tour of the Middle East to finalize details of his proposed $50 billion economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, an administration official said on Sunday. – Reuters 

Iraq’s military said Saturday its troops in partnership with security agencies and paramilitary forces launched the second phase of an operation aimed at clearing remnants of the Islamic State group from north of Baghdad and surrounding areas. – Associated Press 

Michael Knights writes: Indeed, when rolling out future sanctions, Washington should ensure that they target individuals whom Iraqis still regard as Iranian-influenced. In the case of Abu Mazen, some confusion emerged because he had seemingly become more critical of Iran-backed militias in recent months; as a result, sanctioning him sent a mixed message about what fate awaits those who show gradual improvement on issues of concern to Washington. These optics are important—ideally, sanctions should focus on individuals whom Iraqis clearly see as being negative actors right up to the date they are sanctioned. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton departed on Saturday for a trip to Japan and South Korea, two key allies of Washington that are embroiled in a trade dispute. – Reuters 

A top South Korean official on Saturday said a U.S.-South Korean military exercise would go ahead as planned next month, denying Pyongyang’s charges that holding it would breach an agreement made between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. – Reuters 

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday offered to help ease tensions in the political and economic dispute between Japan and South Korea, which threatens global supplies of memory chips and smartphones. – Reuters 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has rejected charges from North Korea’s Foreign Ministry that U.S. plans for military exercises with South Korea are in breach of agreements between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump. – Reuters 

Editorial: Both sides are now trapped in their positions. Japan contends that the 1965 treaty reestablishing diplomatic relations between the two countries, under which it gave Seoul $500 million in aid and low-interest loans, settled all compensation claims “completely and finally.” South Korea, meanwhile, has rejected Abe’s call for third-party arbitration, proposing instead that they form a joint fund to pay the court awards. – Bloomberg


China has signed a secret agreement allowing its armed forces to use a Cambodian navy base near here, as Beijing works to boost its ability to project military power around the globe, according to U.S. and allied officials familiar with the matter. – Wall Street Journal  

Western strategists still underestimate the threat posed by China’s emergence as a worldwide power, according to a top Pentagon official. – Washington Examiner

The U.S. State Department said on Saturday it is concerned by reports of China’s interference with oil and gas activities in the South China Sea, including Vietnam’s long-standing exploration and production activities. – Reuters 

The United States should reject “prejudice” and respect facts instead of vilifying China’s record on religious rights, the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily said on Saturday after fresh criticism of China’s treatment of ethnic Muslims. – Reuters 

China has delved back centuries in an attempt to justify its controversial policies in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where experts say up to 2 million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been held against their will in vast detention centers. – CNN

Gary Shapiro writes: At the G-20 summit, President Trump did an about-face and reopened negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He held off on levying additional tariffs on $300 billion more in Chinese imports, meaning that American businesses can breathe a sigh of relief — for now. […]Presidents Trump and Xi must craft a trade deal that eliminates tariffs altogether. Any tariff, no matter its scope, is bad news. – Washington Examiner


U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham on Friday called any plans for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan “absurd” and warned the U.S. presence is an “insurance policy against the reemergence of al-Qaeda/ISIS types,” using an acronym for the Islamic State group. – Defense News 

Officials in Afghanistan say women and children were among 10 civilians killed in separate air strikes by security forces late on July 19. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty  

Javid Ahmad writes: As talks enter the intra-Afghan negotiations, it could well fall apart. The problem is that the talks have so far been focused too much on securing an agreement on paper but less so on the post-deal implementation. Ultimately, the success or failure of the peace negotiations depends on at least three fundamental issues. – The Hill 


At least nine people were killed and at least 30 others wounded on Sunday in Taliban attacks on a security checkpoint and a hospital in northwestern Pakistan, breaking a lull in militant violence in the country, officials said. – New York Times  

When Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives at the White House on Monday for his meeting with President Trump, the leaders are expected to discuss counterterrorism, defense, energy and trade. But many in Pakistan’s capital hope the visit accomplishes something more: a reset in Islamabad-Washington ties. – Washington Post 

After years of discord over Afghanistan, Pakistan is now cooperating with U.S. to help pressure the Taliban to strike a peace deal, with the aim of extricating the U.S. from its longest war. – Wall Street Journal

Eli Lake writes: Some of this change in tone is to recognize the baby steps Islamabad has taken to address longstanding U.S. concerns. Khan’s government recently announced that it was investigating the funding of some terrorist groups the U.S. has long accused Pakistan’s military intelligence service of sponsoring. – Bloomberg


The Hong Kong police fired rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets on Sunday to disperse protesters after some of them vandalized the Chinese government’s liaison office in the city, a direct challenge to Beijing’s authority after a peaceful protest earlier in the day. – New York Times 

The Australian government strongly rebuked Beijing on Friday for detaining one of its citizens, a writer who has called for liberalization in China, expressing concern over his welfare and calling for his release. – New York Times  

Papua New Guinea’s prime minister said Monday his South Pacific island nation was open to investment from China, Australia and any other country that is willing to work within the country’s rules. – Associated Press 

The United States wants a special forces cooperation agreement with Sri Lanka to sidestep bureaucracy and has no intention of setting up a military base in the country, the American ambassador to the island nation said in a television interview. – Reuters 

Hong Kong police faced criticism on Monday for an apparent failure to protect anti-government protesters and passersby from attack by suspected gang members at a train station on the weekend. – Reuters 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Sunday he had not yet decided on how to respond to an expected U.S. request to send its navy to join a military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran and Yemen. – Reuters 

Pirates attacked a South Korean-flagged cargo ship in the South China Sea early on Monday, stealing thousands of dollars in cash and even the sailors’ shoes, South Korean authorities said. – Reuters 

Tate Nurkin writes: Deterring China in the Indo-Pacific is a complicated, but achievable task. It begins by signaling commitment and resolve to U.S. allies and partners (as well as China) through many measures, including defense exports. The nature of these exports should align with the broader objective of deterring China without unnecessarily risking escalation or alienation of partners. An enhanced — but not exclusive — focus on building allied and partner situational awareness seems both operationally relevant and strategically correct. – Defense News 

Lawrence J. Haas writes: The President’s reluctance to speak out for Hong Kong’s protestors is particularly ill-timed, for it comes as China cracks down more harshly on freedom at home while promoting its authoritarian model of governance abroad as an alternative to U.S.-led freedom and democracy — thus challenging U.S. influence in Asia and elsewhere.  […]Rather than sidestep human rights concerns in the interest of a trade deal, Trump would be better advised to seek assurances about freedom in Hong Kong before giving Beijing what it very much wants. – The Hill


Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had “sympathized” with Donald Trump before the 2016 presidential election that swept Trump to power because of his desire to restore normal relations with Russia. – Reuters 

Azerbaijan’s state oil company is turning to Russia to supply a new $6.3 billion refinery it built in Turkey because shipments from one of its preferred suppliers — Iran — are off the table due to U.S. sanctions. – Bloomberg

Russia’s principal security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), was targeted by hackers in what BBC Russia reports is possibly “the largest data leak in the history of the work of Russian special services on the Internet.” – Business Insider


Like President Vladimir V. Putin of neighboring Russia, Mr. Lukashenko brooks little dissent. He has also, like the Russian leader, looked increasingly to China for money and inspiration: Europe has lost of much of its sheen as an economic model, but China offers an example of how authoritarian politics can mix with robust economic growth. – New York Times  

Longtime adversaries Cyprus and Turkey are locked in a tense “game of chicken” over the prospect of a multi-billion-dollar Mediterranean gas bonanza with neither side willing to capitulate, analysts say. – Agence France-Presse  

The European Union is legendary for moving slowly — and that may be just the right pace for confronting President Donald Trump’s trade wars. – Bloomberg

Britain’s new prime minister will have to decide whether to allow Huawei equipment to be used in the country’s 5G systems after the government split the highly charged issue from its broader review of the nation’s telecoms networks. – Financial Times

The Dutch supreme court on Friday upheld a ruling that the Netherlands was partially responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Muslim men by Serbian forces at Srebrenica in 1995, putting an end to a long-running legal battle between victims groups and the Dutch state. – Financial Times

A close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to take the helm of the European Union (EU), posing a test for President Trump as he seeks to ramp up pressure on everything from trade to defense spending. – The Hill

The UK Labour Party has launched a new website aiming to combat antisemitism within the party. […]The website, entitled “No Place For Antisemitism”, states that its aim is to provide “Labour members and supporters with some basic tools” to overcome antisemitism. – Jerusalem Post


Four Turkish nationals have been kidnapped in western Nigeria and police are conducting a rescue operation, a state police spokesman said on Sunday. – Reuters 

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari condemns the killing of 37 people by bandits in the northwestern state of Sokoto, his spokesman said in a statement. Armed gangs have killed hundreds of people in northwest Nigeria this year and forced at least 20,000 to flee to neighboring Niger, adding to security problems in a country also struggling with an Islamist insurgency in the northeast and clashes between farmers and herders in central states. – Reuters 

A loud explosion was heard in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu on Monday morning, followed by heavy gunfire. – Reuters

The Americas

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) revealed her hypocrisy, double-standards, and antisemitism yet again this week when she took to Congress to introduce a bill lauding the boycott of Israel. – Algemeiner  

J Street has addressed two new US proposals regarding boycotts of Israel, one that affirms citizens’ constitutional right to engage in boycotts, and another that rejects the BDS movement and calls for a two-state solution. – Times of Israel

The U.S. military on Sunday accused a Venezuelan fighter aircraft of “aggressively” shadowing a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries II plane over international airspace, a fresh sign of growing hostility between the two countries. – Reuters 

Donald Trump has called Sadiq Khan “incompetent” and said that London will “never have safe streets” after the Metropolitan Police’s website was targeted by hackers who posted a series of bizarre tweets from the force’s official account. – The Telegraph


The Army has moved flight testing of its new long-range missile from this summer until after the drop-dead date for US withdrawal from the INF treaty with Russia. That will mean the Pentagon will kick off testing of longer-range weapons banned by the Cold War-era pact. – Breaking Defense 

The Air Force is sticking with longtime contractor LinQuest Corp. for engineering support of its communications satellites, even as the Pentagon considers radical changes to its space architecture. – C4ISRNET

Tobin Harshaw writes: The Defense Department has now gone over half a year without a secretary, the longest period in history. Even for Donald Trump, who has said he likes to have “acting” heads in his cabinet, it’s egregious. So it was with relief that the Senate on Tuesday held confirmation hearings for the administration’s nominee, Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, who took on the acting role last month. – Bloomberg