Fdd's overnight brief

July 8, 2020

In The News


Two people were killed in an explosion at a factory in the south of Tehran, state news agency IRNA reported on Tuesday, in the latest in a series of fires and explosions, some of which have hit sensitive sites. – Reuters

Iran suffered its deadliest day of the coronavirus outbreak, as the country’s health minister said warnings about the spread of the disease had fallen on “deaf ears.” – Bloomberg

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday commended Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh for his actions to thwart Israel’s plan to apply Jewish sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and parts of Judea and Samaria. – Jewish News Syndicate

A website close to Iran’s Supreme Council of National Security (SCNS) has published a commentary on the blast at Iran’s “centrifuge assembly line” in Natanz which says the incident was “a deliberate attack”. – Radio Farda

A rumor campaign in Iran, apparently being pushed by populist and nationalist voices, has asserted a secret deal by the regime foresees a roadmap agreement with China that would give China rights to some islands. Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi had to deny reports that there are islands at the center of a comprehensive program between Iran and China. – Jerusalem Post

Iran on Tuesday called for action against Israel, following a recent blast at the Natanz nuclear facility that has been blamed on the Jewish state. “This method Israel is using is dangerous, and it could spread to anywhere in the world,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei said during a press conference, according to a translation of his remarks by Israel’s Channel 12 news. – Times of Israel


Investigators commissioned by the U.N.’s top human rights body say Syrian government forces and their Russian allies bombarded civilian sites in Idlib province indiscriminately, while rebels tortured and executed civilians in recent months, acts amounting to war crimes on both sides. – Associated Press

A bomb attack by the Kurdish YPG militia killed six people and wounded 11 on Tuesday in the northeastern Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the Turkish border, the Turkish Defence Ministry said. – Reuters

Russia and China cast vetoes on Tuesday to block the U.N. Security Council from extending its approval of aid deliveries to Syria from Turkey for a year, despite U.N. warnings that the lives of Syrian civilians depend on the cross-border access. – Reuters

The United States should provide the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds a waiver to sell their oil on the international market, the head of a Syrian Kurdish news agency argued. – The National Interest


Since it was built in the sixth century, changing hands from empire to empire, Hagia Sophia has been a Byzantine cathedral, a mosque under the Ottomans and finally a museum, making it one of the world’s most potent symbols of Christian-Muslim rivalry and of Turkey’s more recent devotion to secularism. Now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making moves to declare it a working mosque once more, fulfilling a dream for himself, his supporters and conservative Muslims far beyond Turkey’s shores — but threatening to set off an international furor. – New York Times

Turkey and Italy’s defence ministers agreed at talks on Tuesday on the need for a political solution to Libya’s conflict, according to a readout by the Turkish defence ministry. – Reuters

Turkey, a member of NATO, tested the Russian-made S-400 air defense system on US-made F-16 jets during a drill in November 2019, Russia’s state media TASS reported. The use of the S-400 against the F-16s was already reported last year, but the new details from Russian media appear to cement the claim and infer that something more was going on in those tests. – Jerusalem Post


Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah slammed Israel’s annexation plan on Tuesday evening, claiming it is the most dangerous thing in the whole of the Middle East. He called for support for Palestinians and mocked the US, claiming Hezbollah was becoming stronger under the administration of US President Donald Trump. – Jerusalem Post

Hamas arrested several Salafi “elements” in the Gaza Strip under suspicion of operating for Israeli intelligence, Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar (The News) reported early Wednesday morning. According to a “security source” cited by Al-Akhbar, Hamas’ security services uncovered a “dangerous plan” of Israeli intelligence “working under the cover of ISIS-affiliated cells,” aimed at “directing security strikes to government and military infrastructure.” – Jerusalem Post

Nabil Shaath, an advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a July 3, 2020 interview on France 24 TV that a third Intifada may take place because the Palestinians have the right to confront Israel. He said that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia had pledged $1 billion to support the Second Intifada when it took place, and that today, the Arabs and the whole world would stand by the Palestinians if things continue as they have been. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Proposed legislation from a prominent Democratic senator would ban US defense assistance to Israel from being used to annex parts of the West Bank, or going to annexed areas. – Times of Israel


The assassination of an outspoken Iraqi researcher who had antagonized the Islamic State as well as Iraq’s Shiite militias was seen Tuesday as a message to the Iraqi government, but it was unclear who killed him. – New York Times

Iraq’s new leader has taken significant steps to confront Iranian-linked militias that have targeted American troops, a top U.S. military official said Tuesday, adding that the United States must remain patient as Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi challenges groups with formidable military and political clout. – Washington Post

The killing of a prominent security analyst who had received threats from Iran-backed militias has struck fear in the hearts of outspoken Iraqis concerned that they, too, could be targeted by armed groups. – Associated Press

Michael Knights writes: Iraq’s protesters, journalists, and security agencies knew Husham well, as did nearly all the governments of the international Coalition.If Husham can be killed, then anyone can be killed in today’s Iraq. A weak response may convince militias that they are safe to go even further. Everyone, from every angle, must lend their voice and their efforts to finding and prosecuting Husham’s killers, and those who killed protesters and journalists, before they kill more Iraqis. – Washington Institute


Lebanese are buying candles in bulk, turning to traditional kerosene lamps and throwing away rotten food because of prolonged power cuts that plunged the country into darkness this week, adding to the gloom of a deepening economic crisis. – Associated Press

The powerful Hezbollah group said on Tuesday it is in talks with the Lebanese government about the possibility of Iran supplying the country with refined oil products in exchange for Lebanese pounds. – Reuters

Lebanon is facing a “financial siege” imposed by international powers and its priority is staving off strife caused by the country’s economic meltdown, leading politician Gebran Bassil said on Tuesday. – Reuters

David Gardner writes: Lebanon’s elites have so often defied gravity in the past and remain insulated by their fabulous wealth. Perhaps that explains their otherwise inexplicable insouciance amid this deadly drama. It resembles a scrabble for deckchairs on the Titanic, enlivened only by occasional outbursts ordering the iceberg to get out of the way. – Financial Times

Middle East & North Africa

One day after sanctioning 20 Saudis for human rights violations, Britain on Tuesday sent a very different signal to the government in Riyadh, ending a moratorium on arm sales to Saudi Arabia over its involvement in the bloody conflict in Yemen. – New York Times

Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) said on Wednesday that it is ready to lift force majeure at Es Sider oil port, allowing a tanker on standby to load crude from storage. – Reuters

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The statement by Egypt and Jordan can be a positive message for Israel, indicating a coming together of these countries and opening a door for better cooperation with an Israel that decides to walk back on annexation.[…] This is the context of the joint statement by Egypt and Jordan, alongside France and Germany. France and Germany are key partners for Israel, and France especially stands to play a major role in the Mediterranean, as it has historically. – Jerusalem Post

Korean Peninsula

The top U.S. official on North Korea accused a senior North Korean nuclear negotiator on Wednesday of being “locked in an old way of thinking,” days after the negotiator said Pyongyang won’t resume talks with Washington because of its “hostile” policies. – Associated Press

Harry J. Kazianis, John Grover and Adriana Nazarko write: Though at one point Kim Pyong-il was a viable successor to Kim Il-sung, his forty year absence from Pyongyang’s political sphere will make it difficult to attain the support necessary to take Kim Jong-un’s place. Many of the military connections that he once held were upended by Kim Jong-il, and current high-ranking North Korean officials are either loyal remnants from the Kim Jong-il era, or newly-appointed members of Kim Jong-un’s council. – The National Interest

Welton Chang writes: It is these smaller, daily choices made by individuals in North Korea with a modicum of power, be they mid-level military officers or state functionaries, to not take more drastic actions which reinforce the status quo. Brave defectors and those who’ve highlighted the abominable human rights abuses committed by the Kim family and the power structure that supports it are unfortunately the outliers. Even with the occasional shocks to the North Korean system from disease and poorly considered policies, the system has shown itself to be quite resilient. – The National Interest


The State Department said on Tuesday that it was barring Chinese authorities from the United States who were found to have restricted journalists, tourists, diplomats or other American officials from entering autonomous regions in Tibet. – New York Times

White House officials on Tuesday warned a federally administered retirement plan for railroad workers against investing in Chinese companies and said that additional sanctions could be on the way in return for China’s role in spreading the coronavirus. – New York Times

Chinese public health authorities are taking precautions to prevent a bubonic plague outbreak in a remote northern region after a herder contracted the disease, although experts say the risk is low given the limited number of cases so far and the availability of modern medicine. – Washington Post

A senior Chinese arms control official called U.S. pressure to join nuclear arms talks with Russia an American ploy to avoid signing a new deal, and said China would gladly participate if the U.S. would agree to parity among all three nations. – Associated Press

Australia on Tuesday warned its citizens that they may be at risk of “arbitrary detention” if they visit China, in a move that will further test strained bilateral relations. – Associated Press

The United States on Tuesday said it was deeply concerned about China’s detention of Xu Zhangrun, a law professor who has been an outspoken critic of the ruling Communist Party, and urged Beijing to release him. – Reuters

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday urged China-born people in the United States to contact the FBI if Chinese officials try to force them to return to China under a program of coercion that he said is led by Chinese President Xi Jinping. – Reuters

China would “be happy to” participate in trilateral arms control negotiations with the United States and Russia, but only if the United States were willing to reduce its nuclear arsenal to China’s level, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Wednesday. – Reuters

China said on Wednesday it will impose visa restrictions on U.S. citizens who have engaged in what it called egregious behaviour over Tibet, in an apparent retaliation against U.S restrictions on some Chinese officials. – Reuters

Chinese corporate employees have been conducting “surveillance” at natural gas facilities in the American South, leaked documents from the Department of Homeland Security show. – The National Interest

Joseph Bosco writes: An invigorated information campaign would serve a preemptive and defensive purpose, by directing Beijing’s attention to domestic concerns instead of foreign adventures. Otherwise, the inevitability of another world conflict between democracy and tyranny will need to change the regime from without, but at a tragically greater cost to all. Better the cold war than a world war. – The Hill

Hal Brands writes: The positive lesson is not to let a good competition go to waste. The U.S. should use the Chinese challenge as a spur to revamp immigration policies to attract more high-skilled workers, reinvest in basic research and sagging infrastructure, rebuild key components of the country’s industrial and innovation base and confront the pathologies that are pushing its politics toward deepening dysfunction. These are reforms America ought to undertake in any event, and they will be crucial to winning a new contest of systems with China. – Bloomberg

Tom Rogan writes: Having committed to deploying its new aircraft carrier on an inaugural patrol through those waters with the U.S. Navy, Britain cannot risk being seen by Washington as a fair-weather friend amid possibly approaching conflict. True, Britain’s policy isn’t quite yet at Trump administration levels of China-skepticism. Yet. A new British sanctions regime introduced this week has targeted human rights violators from Russia to Saudi Arabia, but notably absent was China. Here, we see a fleeting effort to keep Chinese trade going even when Huawei falls. – Washington Examiner

Michael Schuman writes: From Beijing’s perspective, while a Democratic presidency may restore a more predictable form of American diplomacy, that may not best serve Chinese interests. In fact, four more years of Trump—though likely packed with annoyances and disputes—might present tantalizing opportunities for China to expand its influence around East Asia and the world. – The Atlantic


The top U.S. general for the Middle East said Tuesday that the intelligence suggesting that Russia may have paid Taliban militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan was worrisome, but he is not convinced that any bounties resulted in U.S. military deaths. – Associated Press

A suicide truck bomber targeted a police district headquarters in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province on Wednesday, killing three officers, a local official said. Three other police officers, including a district police chief, were killed in a roadside bombing in eastern Ghazni province. – Associated Press

China, Afghanistan and Pakistan are calling for a “responsible” withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces from Afghanistan to prevent what they say is “potential terrorist resurgence” in the conflict-torn nation. – Voice of America

Stefanie Glinski writes: If the Taliban once again appear to be on the rise, that’s because in many ways they are—despite hopes of a durable peace deal between militants and the government. The lack of money to pay police is leaving many Afghans with little choice but to consider joining the Taliban; the fact that the militants now seem to have the upper hand gives them even more appeal as Afghans jockey for their own security in the future. – Foreign Policy

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: Moreover, it is unclear that the United States will continue to support the Afghan government if a peace settlement fails. The U.S. is already cutting its forces and has not made any public commitments to enforce a peace or stay if the negotiations fail. Furthermore, U.S. strategy has changed to focus on competition with China and Russia, the United States faces major new resource constraints because of the Coronavirus crisis, and Afghanistan is no longer a main center of terrorist threat to the United States. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Beijing’s national security office was inaugurated in Hong Kong on Wednesday, just over a week after China’s central government imposed a tough new law on the city that critics view as a further deterioration of freedoms promised to the former British colony. – Associated Press

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday told citizens not to fear a new anti-terrorism law, addressing for the first time the controversial legislation that has unnerved rights groups over potential violations of civil liberties. – Reuters

Hong Kong authorities on Wednesday banned school students from singing of “Glory to Hong Kong”, the unofficial anthem of the pro-democracy protest movement, just hours after Beijing set up its new national security bureau in the Chinese-ruled city. – Reuters

Richard M. Rossow writes: Trade economists would correctly contend that barriers of any type are a method of self-harm. A basic “balance-of-trade” number as the trigger for trade sanctions does not fully capture the value of trade. But if the Indian government feels trade sanctions are required, the approach should be thoughtful and targeted. Taking steps that are broadly applied—and trigger new economic tensions with key strategic partners—could ultimately be self-defeating. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Russian authorities detained a former journalist working at the country’s space agency and accused him of allegedly handing over military secrets to NATO, the latest in a string of treason accusations brought against prominent Russians. – Wall Street Journal

Moscow will apply counter-sanctions against Britain, the Kremlin said Tuesday, after London blacklisted Russian officials for their alleged involvement in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. – Agence France-Presse

Russian investigators on Tuesday opened a criminal case against Pyotr Verzilov, an anti-Kremlin activist and associate of the Pussy Riot punk group, for having allegedly failed to declare his dual Canadian citizenship. – Reuters

Vladimir Kara-Murza writes: It took Vladimir Putin twenty years to complete the journey from an elected president to an illegitimate dictator. It is somewhat ironic that a man who has paid so much attention to his formal standing and international prestige would, in the end, simply throw it all under the bus. – Time


Two bitter rivals are heading into a razor’s-edge presidential runoff election Sunday in Poland that is seen as an important test of populism in Europe after a campaign that exacerbated a conservative-liberal divide in the country. – Associated Press

As Germany reappraises its longstanding reliance on the United States amid growing tensions with Washington over security and trade, there is less doubt among the country’s leaders about the necessity to reenergize its partnership with China, Germany’s largest trading partner. – Politico

Chechens in Europe have expressed renewed fears for their safety, after a strident critic of the Kremlin-backed Chechnya leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, was shot dead in Vienna on Saturday. – The Guardian


The bodies of at least 180 men thought to have been killed by security forces have been found dumped in fields, by roadsides and under bridges in a town in the West African country of Burkina Faso over the past eight months, witnesses told human rights researchers. – New York Times

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are engaged in last-ditch talks to resolve a dispute over Addis Ababa’s construction of a giant dam on the river Nile that Cairo fears could lead to damaging water shortages. – Financial Times

Thousands of people have joined a sit-down protest in front of local authority buildings in Central Darfur demanding action against the armed groups that patrol the region. – The Guardian

Latin America

Mexican diplomats and opposition figures have warned Mr. López Obrador against traveling to Washington this week to thank President Donald Trump and celebrate the beginning of a new trade deal between the two countries and Canada. – New York Times

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has sought repeatedly to minimize the novel coronavirus as he urges his country back to work, said Tuesday he has tested positive for it. – Washington Post

Venezuela’s government-stacked Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the takeover of opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s political party, the latest in a series of moves against President Nicolás Maduro’s critics ahead of upcoming legislative elections. – Associated Press

Ecuador’s vice president, Otto Sonnenholzner, resigned on Tuesday amid a coronavirus outbreak that ravaged the country’s largest city of Guayaquil, though he saw his profile bolstered by leading the government’s efforts to restart the economy. – Reuters

Brazil has officially begun manufacturing fighter jets with the start of production at a new facility that makes sections of the Saab Gripen, Swedish aerospace company Saab announced Tuesday. – Defense News

Ioan Grillo writes: While the cartels leave a trail of mass graves and disappearances, they style themselves as benevolent godfathers. They are now handing out boxes of food and supplies, with labels such as “Gulf Cartel,” to the poor Mexicans struggling to survive the economic meltdown caused by the pandemic.[…] Mexico and the United States need to find a way to reduce the cartels’ power by delivering rehabilitation, aid and justice. – New York Times

Sabrina Rodriguez writes: López Obrador has often repeated his philosophy that “the best foreign policy is domestic policy,” as he tries to steer clear from getting involved on the world stage. That’s made it all the more surprising that his first trip abroad is to the United States. But López Obrador’s nationalist attitude and focus on domestic issues is not unfamiliar in the United States, as Trump, too, has pressed for an America First agenda throughout his presidency. – Politico

Roger F. Noriega writes: However, Mexico’s mounting problems should bother Americans — because the man on stage with President Trump this week appears oblivious to the terrible shape his country is in, indifferent to the costs of inaction, lacking any sound ideas for halting his nation’s steep decline, and unprepared for a long four more years ahead of him. – American Enterprise Institute


As Hong Kong grapples with a draconian new security law, the tiny territory is emerging as the front line in a global fight between the United States and China over censorship, surveillance and the future of the internet. – New York Times

Microsoft and Zoom on Tuesday joined other major internet firms that have stopped considering requests by Hong Kong’s government for information on users in the wake of China’s imposition of a sweeping new security law. – Agence France-Presse

U.S. Cyber Command’s new training platform is slated to deliver the second iteration this fall providing additional capabilities and user capacity, program officials said. – C4ISRNET


Pentagon strategists used a B-52 Stratofortress to send a sharp reminder to both China and U.S. allies: American forces can hurt the People’s Liberation Army in a hurry. – Washington Examiner

The Army’s Future Vertical Lift efforts are designed to reshape military operations by surpassing the limits imposed by today’s systems. It is less commonly appreciated, however, that future vertical lift, or FVL, aircraft may do just as much to reshape the vertical lift industry as they do military operations. – Defense News

The officer overseeing the deployment of the carrier Gerald R. Ford was fired Wednesday, the latest jolt to the trouble program that has been operating under a microscope as technical problems with nearly two dozen new technologies bundled into the lead ship have piled up. – Defense News

The House Appropriations defense subcommittee today released its draft Fiscal Year 2021 defense funding bill that would buy nine Navy ships, including the second Virginia-class attack submarine that the House Armed Services Committee is fighting to include in next year’s ship-buying plans. – USNI News

The air squadrons assigned to USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) are back home after the end of a deployment that was interrupted by a COVID-19 outbreak, Navy officials confirmed to USNI News on Tuesday. – USNI News

The U.S. military expressed regret for “disruptive behavior” Tuesday after American troops allegedly caused a ruckus with a Fourth of July party that included fireworks on a popular beach in the southern city of Busan. – Stars and Stripes

Sébastien Roblin writes: If Washington wants to retain its foothold in the western Pacific, it will have to accompany its patrols with re-investments in overseas alliances it has outright neglected in recent years. That could include concerted outreach to resolve dangerous rifts between its allies and deepening cooperation rather than resentfully demanding more money and threatening trade wars with countries that host key U.S. bases. – NBC

Trump Administration

The U.S. has formally notified the World Health Organization it will withdraw from the United Nations agency over President Trump’s criticism of its ties to China, a move critics say will hamper the international fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and sap the U.S. of global influence. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration’s latest rules on international students are leaving colleges in a bind: hold in-person classes—a proposition many have deemed too dangerous—or risk losing enrollees from abroad. – Wall Street Journal

Top White House officials have reportedly narrowed the list of potential individuals who could have leaked information about Russian agents providing funds to Taliban-linked militants to target American troops in Afghanistan. – The Hill