Fdd's overnight brief

July 23, 2020

In The News


A provocative street protest in southwestern Iran last week that was critical of the Islamic establishment has many predicting more demonstrations are coming amid the country’s faltering economy and anger over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

Iran’s foreign ministry said on Thursday foreign governments may have been behind recent cyberattacks on Iranian facilities, but played down the possibility of them having a role in a series of fires and explosions at military and other installations. – Reuters 

A website close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council reported Wednesday that the body of Judge Gholamreza Mansouri who was found dead in Bucharest last month was delivered to Iran on Tuesday. […]The news about Mansouri’s presence in Europe before his death prompted Iranian human rights activists and Amnesty International to demand his arrest for detaining, torturing and jailing dozens of Iranian journalists. – Radio Farda 

In a wide-ranging July 5, 2020 interview with Sobh-e Sadeq, the weekly of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), IRGC navy commander Ali Reza Tangsiri reviewed his navy’s latest innovations, including oceangoing helicopter carriers, underground cities with missile-launching capability. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

A member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security Committee says the blast at Iran’s main nuclear establishment in Natanz on July 2 was caused by a “security breach”. – Radio Farda 

Iran’s Parliament on Wednesday elected a controversial politician known as an associate of the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the new head of its supervisory arm, the Supreme Court of Audit. […]Iran’s Supreme Court of Audit is one of the 191 members of the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI), a non-governmental organization with special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations. – Radio Farda 

Dmytro Kuleba, the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, on Tuesday said Iranian representatives have promised to visit Ukraine till the end of next week to discuss compensations for the downing of its airliner in January. – Radio Farda 

Saeid Golkar and Asha Sawhney write: Although such figures previously marked a divide between the state’s elected bodies and its unelected bodies, Khamenei is now laser-focused on ensuring the consolidation of hard-liner power and a smooth succession upon his death; he will no longer need or tolerate any duality that creates a potential impasse for the regime. Reformists and centrists are now liabilities when internal dissent is more dangerous than ever. – Foreign Policy 

Smadar Perry writes: Tehran is trying to convince the world of catastrophic scale of its coronavirus pandemic, hoping to persuade U.S. to ease the pressure until the health crisis is over; meanwhile, the regime also appears to be bracing for more domestic unrest. – Ynet 


Syrian parliamentary elections have traditionally been predictable affairs in which handpicked candidates run for a ­rubber-stamp legislature that unfailingly includes a big majority for the ruling Baath Party. – Washington Post

After the U.S. announced it was cutting down on the number of troops it has in Syria last fall, Russia has stepped in and upped its presence there. Politico also reported in June that Russian troops are increasingly getting closer to U.S. troops in Syria as part of an effort aimed at pushing out U.S. troops from Syria. Military Times 

When IS took over, most journalists fled. Abood, a former servant of the Assads, should have been in more danger than most. But he stayed – and went on working. […]But then Abood got an offer he couldn’t refuse. IS asked him to film their victory parade, when captured military hardware decked in black flags rolled through the streets. His pictures were used in an IS propaganda video and sent to international agencies. – BBC 


U.S. President Donald Trump would be forced to impose sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of a Russian missile defense system under bipartisan legislation approved in the House of Representatives. – Bloomberg 

The Turkish Navy’s first dedicated intelligence-gathering ship has started sea acceptance tests. Ufuk (A 591) was observed sailing in the Gulf of Izmit on 18 July. – Jane’s 360

Turkey, whose government attempts to create regional crises every month in order to stoke tensions from Libya to Armenia, is now running into increased pressure to stop its escalation of activities in the Mediterranean. It comes as the US Air Force agreed to acquire the F-35s that were meant for Turkey but which Ankara lost because it prefers Russia and Russian S-400s to working with US NATO members. – Jerusalem Post


The IDF reinforced the Northern Command with additional infantry troops on Thursday following a situational assessment as tensions with Hezbollah rose following the death of one of its fighters in Syria. – Jerusalem Post 

The Chinese Ambassador to the Unite Nations joined Wednesday a growing voice in the international community expressing opposition to Israel’s planned annexation of West Bank territories. – Haaretz 

The Palestinian Authority has accused Israel of deliberately spreading the coronavirus in the Palestinian territories as the number of active cases has begun to climb again. – Jerusalem Post

Yonah Jeremy Bob writes: No one outside of the events knows who caused around a dozen explosions of installations in Iran over the last month, but if Israel was involved, it is now fair to say that the Mossad’s 2018 operation – seizing Tehran’s nuclear secrets from under its nose – helped set the stage. – Jerusalem Post

Yonah Jeremy Bob writes: Though the recent stunning string of exploding installations in the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a heavy blow to the regime, Iran experts in Israel seemed united on Wednesday that the ayatollahs’ control of the country is not endangered. – Jerusalem Post

Gulf States

Qatar has reiterated its commitment to resolving the diplomatic dispute in the Gulf via peaceful and diplomatic means, state news agency QNA said on Thursday. – Reuters

Fears of famine in Yemen are resurfacing, the United Nations says. A U.N. report Wednesday said Yemen was returning to “alarming” levels of food insecurity. […]Resurgent violence in recent weeks between warring parties, despite U.N. peace efforts, is also killing and injuring civilians. – Reuters 

Qatar Airways is seeking at least $5 billion from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt for stopping it from using their airspace. – Bloomberg 

Haisam Hassanein and Dennis Citrinowicz write: There is a current consensus among Israelis that the Iranian issue could be capitalized on indefinitely to normalize relations with the UAE, but this is not true. Other pillars of the relationship should be established in order to avoid any future change of UAE policy toward Israel if things moved in a positive direction with Iran. One way to accelerate this is by developing other pillars to seize the current momentum and the joint security interests with the UAE by showing some advancement in the Palestinian arena.  – Washington Institute

Middle East & North Africa

Turkey and Russia agreed on Wednesday to keep pushing for a ceasefire in Libya, but Ankara said the leader of the eastern forces was not legitimate and his forces must withdraw from key positions for any credible deal to emerge. – Reuters

Turkey is taking its decades-old conflict with Kurdish militants deep into northern Iraq, establishing military bases and deploying armed military drones against the fighters in their mountain strongholds. – Reuters 

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is expected to urge Lebanon to enact badly-needed reforms to help get the country out of an acute financial crisis during a visit to Beirut which started on Thursday with a meeting with President Michel Aoun. – Reuters

Michael Rubin writes: After years of international inaction to counter Turkey’s growing terror sponsorship, Egypt is now stepping forward proactively and responsibly. Simply put, Egypt is correct to counter Turkey in Libya. Frankly, Turkey’s actions and its insertion of Syrian and perhaps Somali radicals into the Libyan theater leave it no choice. It is time for Washington either to reassert counter-terror leadership itself or to back allies who wish to do so. – The National Interest

Korean Peninsula

Since the sanctions took effect, Chinese vessels have caught more than half a billion dollars’ worth of squid, says the group, Global Fishing Watch, which advocates for sustainable fishing. […]The group did not estimate how much North Korea had been earning from the sale of fishing rights. But the heavy Chinese presence indicates that it remains an important source of illicit income for the North, as the country struggles under the stranglehold of sanctions and the fallout from Covid-19. – New York Times 

A senior U.S. diplomat said on Wednesday that the United States and China can still work together against North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction, despite tensions between Washington and Beijing. – Reuters 

Mark Episkopos writes: North Korea’s military continues to defy recurrent western predictions of stagnation and imminent collapse, steadily investing in modernized naval weapons capable of credibly threatening U.S. assets and allies in the East Asia region. – The National Interest 


Tensions between China and the United States have reached the most acute levels since the countries normalized diplomatic relations more than four decades ago, with the American government’s ordering that China close its Houston consulate being just the latest example. In defense, trade, technology, human rights and other categories, actions and reprisals by one side or the other have escalated sharply under President Trump’s administration, despite his repeated expressions of admiration for President Xi Jinping of China. – New York Times

China on Thursday launched its first mission to attempt to land on Mars, as space exploration becomes a growing battleground in the U.S.-China rivalry. – Washington Post

Donald Trump spent the first three years of his presidency balancing the demands of hardliners who wanted a crackdown on China against his own desire to pursue a trade deal and cultivate a stronger relationship with Xi Jinping. The unexpected order Wednesday to close the Chinese consulate in Houston made one thing clear: the hawks are now in charge. – Bloomberg

People are burning documents at the Chinese Consulate in Houston after China said the US gave it 72 hours to close, with the State Department accusing China of threatening US sovereignty and intimidating US citizens. – Business Insider

President Donald Trump said on Wednesday it was “always possible” he would order the closure of more Chinese consulates in the United States in the wake of the State Department’s order to close Beijing’s consulate in Houston. – Reuters

The FBI believes that a Chinese researcher, accused of visa fraud for hiding her affiliation with the Chinese military, has been holed up in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco for a month, according to court filings. – Reuters

Chinese helicopters have fired a mysterious new tank-killing, air-launched missile claimed to be the most advanced the world has ever seen, according to the country’s leading weapons developers. – The National Interest 

A new British policy allowing Hong Kong residents to claim British citizenship is a violation of international law and interferes with China’s internal affairs, China’s embassy in London said on Thursday. – Reuters

Dov S. Zakheim writes: Washington views China’s growing nuclear arsenal with increasing concern and wants Beijing to participate in the New START renewal talks. Yet, China continues to portray itself as a secondary nuclear power, no better than France or Britain, with roughly a fifth the number of warheads in the Russian and American arsenals. It will go no further than to promise that China would gladly participate in an arms reduction exercise if the United States and Russia agree to come down to its own levels, knowing full well that neither country is prepared to do so. – The Hill

South Asia

The teenage girl was the hero of a night of carnage that left her family’s hillside home in western Afghanistan strewn with bodies. Qamar Gul, 15, fought to her last bullet, gunning down Taliban attackers who raided the house and killed her father and mother. […]One of the attackers she killed was her own husband, who was fighting on the Taliban’s side and apparently seeking her forcible return after a falling out with Ms. Gul’s family, according to relatives and local officials. – New York Times

Scores of Taliban insurgents and civilians were killed in Afghan military airstrikes midmorning Wednesday in western Herat province in a gathering celebrating the release of a local Taliban leader from custody. Estimates for the number killed range from eight to 45 and it was not immediately clear how many were civilians. – Washington Post 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged India on Wednesday to focus on domestic supply chains and reduce its dependence on China for telecommunications and medical supplies, as Washington’s ties with Beijing deteriorate dramatically. – Reuters 


The prospect of a military clash in the Taiwan Strait is rising precariously, the Taiwanese foreign minister warned Wednesday, urging “extreme caution” in the island’s dealings with a Chinese leadership in Beijing that he described as both increasingly emboldened and insecure. – Washington Post

Taiwan’s legislature approved proposals to rebrand the island’s flagship airline and make its passports more distinct from mainland Chinese ones—a move likely to irk Beijing. – Wall Street Journal

Britain’s government announced Wednesday that it will open a new special pathway to obtaining U.K. citizenship for up to 3 million eligible Hong Kongers as of January, taking another step toward solidifying a policy denounced by China. – Associated Press

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev signaled a tougher stance on a decades-long territorial conflict with Armenia, adding to tensions over fighting at their border that has killed at least 17 people. – Associated Press

Stephen Silver writes: This has all led some in Japan—as sometimes happens in America —to warn that growing debt will lead to eventual economic catastrophe. For Japan, that remains a distinct possibility in the long term, although there aren’t signs right now that such a thing is in any way imminent. – The National Interest 

Zack Cooper and Bonnie S. Glaser write: Washington is not taking sides in the long-standing territorial disputes. Rather, it is explicitly declaring that China’s harassment of other states’ fishing and hydrocarbon development is illegal. This move is long overdue. Arcane debates over international law and the fact that the United States is not a party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea delayed unqualified and explicit backing of the 2016 ruling. Doing so now clears the path for U.S. policies to support allies and partners in their efforts to rebuff Beijing’s coercive maritime practices. – War on the Rocks 

Shining Tan writes: This survey reflects a dramatic decline in business confidence in Hong Kong. The expectation is that Hong Kong is quickly on its way to not having a free and transparent market or an independent judiciary and well protected civil liberties – in short, that the era of “one country, two systems” is ending. If so, Hong Kong could certainly continue to be economically viable as a regional financial center within the Greater Bay Area  in Guangdong, but it would cease to be a global financial hub and bridge between China and the rest of the world. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Bruce Kilingner writes: Japan’s unexpected cancellation of its major Aegis Ashore missile defense project will hinder its response to the increasing North Korean missile threat, as well as raise significant doubts about Tokyo’s ability to implement necessary security agreements with the United States. After warning of a deteriorating security environment, Tokyo has now abandoned a viable means of addressing a threat to the Japanese homeland and U.S. forces stationed there. – Heritage Foundation


A Russian amateur historian who spent decades unearthing the graves of Stalin’s victims was found guilty on Wednesday of sexually assaulting his adopted daughter, charges that rights groups, his family and friends have dismissed as blatantly fabricated for political reasons. […]His defenders believe that the case was driven mostly by politics, particularly a desire by the authorities to defend historical narratives promoted by President Vladimir V. Putin.  – New York Times

In the wake of the long-awaited publication of the Russia report into interference in UK democracy, one of the most prominent Soviet-born donors to the Conservative party has said he is no “friend of Putin” and called for greater scrutiny of British ex-politicians working for Russian state firms. – The Guardian 

New York Times reporter Julian Barnes implied on Tuesday that some intelligence officials believe that the Kremlin is fanning corruption allegations against Joe Biden’s son Hunter in order to “obscure” Russia’s ongoing election interference attempts. – National Review

President Vladimir Putin’s pick to quell more of a week of unrest in the Russian Far East told protesters on Wednesday he would not step down after his arrival in the region sparked new anti-Kremlin demonstrations. – Reuters

The commander of a U.S. destroyer is on “higher alert” due to Russian presence in the Black Sea during the ongoing Sea Breeze exercise. – USNI News


Britain and the U.S. agreed to tighten diplomatic-immunity rules for American staff at a military base in central England, after a British teenager died following a road accident involving the wife of a U.S. diplomat stationed there. – Wall Street Journal

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touched down in Denmark on Wednesday for the first time since President Trump’s desire to buy Greenland caused a diplomatic spat and led to the cancellation of a state visit last year. – Washington Post

A German court convicted a 93-year-old man on Thursday for helping the Nazis murder thousands of people while he served as a concentration camp guard more than 75 years ago, in what might be one of the last verdicts to be handed down to a living participant in the Holocaust. – New York Times 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday said that his country did not vote in favor of Brexit due to pressure from Russia in the wake of allegations that the United Kingdom failed to investigate interference from Moscow during the 2016 vote. – Washington Times

The second day of the trial of a German neo-Nazi for a gun attack on a synagogue in the central city of Halle on Yom Kippur last year saw the defendant smiling widely as video footage of his outrage was broadcast on a screen in the courtroom. – Algemeiner

Dutch civil servants took a picture with one of the terrorists charged with killing 17-year-old Rina Schnerb, The Jerusalem Post has learned, despite their government’s denial that they knew of any connection between organizations they fund and terrorist groups. – Jerusalem Post

Thomas Wright writes: There are visible green shoots in U.K. foreign policy—on 5G, Hong Kong, human rights, and in the country’s work with other democracies. Britain seems to be rejoining the fray, thinking strategically again. […]How the U.K. is thinking about its post-Brexit role looks to be much more compatible with how Joe Biden sees the world than how Donald Trump and his fellow America Firsters do. If Biden wins the election, he may have an opportunity to not just repair relations with the U.K. but also help London figure out its role in Europe and beyond. – The Atlantic


The US military conducted an airstrike in Somalia on Tuesday targeting ISIS fighters that had attacked US-backed local forces that were being advised by US troops. – CNN

Islamist militants in northeast Nigeria have executed four aid workers and a private security guard, according to a video seen by Reuters on Wednesday. – Reuters

Mahmoud Dicko, a Saudi-trained preacher known for his Koranic erudition and social conservatism, is seen by admirers and detractors alike as the galvanizing force behind a protest movement now threatening the political survival of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. – Reuters

The Americas

A Canadian court has ruled that a treaty with the United States that allows Canada to turn away asylum-seekers coming from the United States if they originally entered there from a third country violates Canada’s constitution. – New York Times

Compared with its neighbors, Venezuela appears to have suffered mildly from the pandemic, but its descent over the past seven years into dysfunction and humanitarian disaster makes it hard to take the official data seriously. – Bloomberg 

China plans to provide a $1 billion loan to make its coronavirus vaccine accessible for countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, the Mexican foreign ministry said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon’s law firm said on Tuesday it will represent a detained Venezuelan businessman close to President Nicolas Maduro whom the United States is seeking to extradite from Cape Verde on corruption charges. – Reuters 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is sharpening his denunciation of the World Health Organization, saying that “corrupt” leadership bears responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic. – Washington Examiner

Four months after the most important election in Guyana’s history, there is still no winner. The paralysis is hitting the country’s fledgling oil industry and there are worries the tiny South American country might slide into a racially charged civil war. – Financial Times 

Patrick Gaspard writes: US interests would be best served by prioritizing what Venezuelans need most to reclaim their destiny: address the humanitarian crisis that has caused millions to flee, and eventually support Venezuelans in designing their own way back to the ballot box — in that specific order. – CNN


European Union ambassadors have given the green light to sanctions on Russia’s GRU military intelligence unit, as well as on Chinese and North Korean entities over three separate cyberattacks in recent years. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

Twitter announced Tuesday that it has begun taking sweeping actions to limit the reach of QAnon content, banning many of the conspiracy theory’s followers because of problems with harassment and misinformation. – NBC 

Twitter said on Wednesday that the hackers who breached its systems last week likely read the direct messages of 36 accounts, including one belonging to an elected official in the Netherlands. – Reuters

A federal appeals court on Wednesday declined to unseal a ruling that let Facebook avoid wiretapping a criminal suspect who was using one of the company’s encrypted services. – Reuters

U.S. federal employees would be barred from using Chinese-owned mobile video app TikTok on government-issued devices under a bill that passed a U.S. Senate Committee on Wednesday, as lawmakers feared the security of users’ personal data. – Reuters

Apple on Wednesday invited security researchers to apply to receive modified iPhones designed to help them hunt for flaws in the company’s mobile operating system. – Reuters

About two years after it was created, the Pentagon’s artificial intelligence center is setting its sights on new projects, including one on joint information warfare. – C4ISRNET

David E. Sanger writes: The technique the administration chose — accuse, condemn, evict — has been used before. And, so far, there is scant evidence that it has limited the cyberattacks and other bad behavior from America’s two greatest rivals for influence and power around the world, China and Russia. – New York Times


The program aims to keep U.S. Navy ships safe from mines by replacing mammals with machines. The Knifefish is a “medium-class Mine Countermeasure (MCM) Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) designed for deployment off the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS),” and is essentially an anti-naval mine drone. – The National Interest

U.S. Army leaders are quite vocal and clear about the service’s six major modernization priorities, however, a close look across the spectrum of current major programs raises an interesting and pertinent question: could the Army now be building ten new platforms? – The National Interest 

Singapore has told the U.S. Air Force it wants to co-locate its Arizona-based F-16 training detachment with its future F-35 training unit, with five locations in the U.S. shortlisted as potential sites for training international F-35 operators. – Defense News

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program head on Wednesday refused to commit to fully compensating the U.S. Defense Department for delivering parts not ready to be installed on the jet, which may have resulted in more than $183 million in labor costs. – Defense News

Humvee-maker AM General has been acquired by KPS Capital Partners, a private equity firm known for buying financially distressed manufacturers, the companies announced Wednesday. – Defense News

A series of explosions and a 1,200-degree inferno damaged 11 of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard’s 14 decks, according to a summary of the damage by the U.S. Navy’s top officer, which was obtained by Defense News. – Defense News

A tiny fire and concerns over work space tidiness on board the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge triggered a stop-work order Friday at General Dynamics NASSCO in Norfolk, but the shipyard was given the go-ahead Tuesday to recommence work, Naval Sea Systems Command told Defense News in a statement. – Defense News

The shipyard presiding over the renovations on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard when it caught fire July 12 was awarded a $10 million contract modification for their efforts with firefighting and follow-on clean up. – Defense News

ManTech has won an $87 million contract for IT work on U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command’s ship maintenance mission, the company announced July 22. – C4ISRNET

Patty-Jane Geller writes: So long as there continues to be no reasonable path to nuclear disarmament, the United States must maintain a strong nuclear deterrent. Looking forward potentially hundreds of years into the future, it defies logic to assume that the United States will never again need to test a nuclear weapon, especially as the nuclear arsenal continues to age. – The National Interest 

Peter Suciu writes: There is little reason to believe that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is even eager to give up the S-400, but it is also understandable why the U.S. military would very much be interested in acquiring the platform. If the United States were able to acquire the S-400 missile defense system, then its capabilities could be better understood and exploited to protect the F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters from Russian radar. – The National Interest 

Zachary Kallenborn writes: Different ways of describing weapons of mass destruction also introduce a new problem: Under what conditions should these categories be expanded to include new weapons? […]No clear rationale exists on what binds the weapons variously referred to as NBC, CBRN, and CBRNE together, except for the strategic goals of policymakers and the weapons’ traditional inclusion as weapons of mass destruction. That is particularly a challenge when turning to emerging weapon systems like drone swarms. – War on the Rocks 

Long War

The Trump administration said on Wednesday that it had deported a stateless Palestinian man who had completed a terrorism-related prison sentence, averting a legal showdown over whether the federal government has the authority in some cases to indefinitely detain a noncitizen. – New York Times 

Diane Foley et al., write: With the U.S. military reducing its presence in the Middle East, we worry that the detainees will never face trial, just as hundreds of terrorists who were detained on U.S. bases during the Iraq War were let go as the United States withdrew its forces. Having escaped justice, many — including al-Baghdadi before his death — went on to form the Islamic State leadership. – Washington Post 

Jonathan Spyer writes: The Entebbe Raid of July 4, 1976, is remembered as a high point of counter-terror warfare in general, and of the Israeli contribution to that field in particular. […]Delving into the organizational background and the biographies of the Entebbe hijackers offers a fascinating window on the tortured politics of post-war Europe and of the Cold War, the nascent Palestinian national movement and perhaps also the unresolved pathologies of Germany towards the Jews. – Jerusalem Post 

Trump Administration

President Trump’s nominee to be the top lawyer for the intelligence community faced hostile questioning from Senate Democrats on Wednesday over the administration’s use of federal law enforcement forces to quell protests in American cities. – Washington Post 

A measure seeking to remove the bust of former Chief Justice Roger B. Taney — who wrote the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that said Black people were not U.S. citizens — along with racist and Confederate statues in the Capitol passed the House 305-113 Wednesday. – Roll Call 

The nation’s spy chief offered to appear before the Democratic-led House Intelligence Committee to discuss the intelligence community’s worldwide threats assessment but suggested that the question-and-answer session be held behind closed doors to allow for classified discussions. – Washington Examiner