Fdd's overnight brief

June 20, 2019

In The News


Iran said Thursday that it had shot down a United States drone, days after American officials blamed Iran for attacks on international shipping, in the latest escalation in tensions that have raised fears of war between the two countries. – New York Times

With a confrontation simmering between Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf region, some Iranians say they feel hemmed in on all sides and see various forces eager to stoke tensions that could lead to war. – Washington Post

Fragments recovered from one of two tankers crippled by explosions in the Gulf of Oman last week bear a “striking resemblance” to limpet mines that Iran has previously displayed, United States Navy officials told reporters on Wednesday in the United Arab Emirates. – New York Times

Iran’s defence minister “categorically rejected” Wednesday accusations that Tehran was behind two tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman, describing evidence presented by Washington as “unsubstantiated”, official news agency IRNA reported. – Agence France-Presse

The United States and Iran said Tuesday they were not seeking war with each other as tensions simmered between the two in the Persian Gulf and President Donald Trump vowed the U.S. would respond to any attack. – Associated Press

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned during a Wednesday interview with Bret Baier that neither President Trump nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. – Washington Examiner

The State Department’s top official on Iran declined Wednesday to rule out the possibility that the Trump administration might justify a military confrontation with Tehran using the 2001 law that authorized the Afghanistan war. – Politico

President Donald Trump’s point person on Iran has claimed that many of the alleged Tehran-tied threats anticipated by the administration never happened, but that the Islamic Republic was still capable of carrying them out. – Newsweek

President Donald Trump has privately pushed his representatives to walk back their tough talk on Iran—and reiterate that the administration is not aiming to go to war with Tehran. – The Daily Beast

Britain, France and Germany are to mount a last-ditch effort to dissuade Iran from effectively quitting the nuclear deal, warning time was running out for negotiations and the risk of war in the region “has not been averted”. The diplomatic offensive includes a forthcoming visit by the UK’s new Middle East minister, Andrew Murrison. – The Guardian

French President Emmanuel Macron’s top diplomatic adviser traveled to Iran on Wednesday to hold talks with local officials as part of European efforts to reduce tensions in the Gulf region, a presidency official said. – Reuters

Iran said on Wednesday it would not give European powers more time beyond July 8 to save its nuclear deal by shielding it from U.S. sanctions. The spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said Tehran was ready to go through with a threat to enrich uranium to a higher level if Europe did not step in, a move that would breach the terms of a nuclear pact with world powers. – Reuters

President Hassan Rouhani said Iran’s decision to end its compliance with some measures within the nuclear deal were the “minimum” that the Islamic Republic could do in response to the U.S. violating the landmark accord, according to the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency. – Bloomberg

Ilan I. Berman writes: By now, there is ample evidence that last week’s attack on two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz was the work of the Iranian regime, as the Trump administration has alleged. […]But what, exactly, should Washington do in response? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made clear that the United States is not seeking conflict with Iran, despite the provocation. Yet some sort of American response is clearly required, lest the Iranian regime be emboldened to carry out additional acts of sabotage in one of the world’s most vital commercial waterways, through which a fifth of world oil transits. – USA Today

Jeb Bush, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mark Wallace write: The FATF is meeting in Orlando this week, and it must vote to blacklist Iranian banks — as it has repeatedly promised but failed to do — or risk acquiring a reputation as a toothless tiger. […]If Iran’s malign behavior is not met with punishing force, it will not change. The international community must act. The FATF must make good on its threats and finally — after three years of waiting — declare that Iran is a toxic entity in the global financial system and re-impose countermeasures. – Orlando Sentinel


Stark warnings that a humanitarian catastrophe is under way in Syria’s Idlib shook the UN on Tuesday, yet the US and other leading states seemed powerless to stop Bashar Al Assad’s offensive. An urgent meeting was called by Germany, Kuwait and Belgium five days after a proclaimed ceasefire, advocated by Russia, was broken by further deadly attacks on hospitals in the last rebel-held territory in Syria. – The National

Lebanese authorities are making their most aggressive campaign yet for Syrian refugees to return home and are taking action to ensure they can’t put down roots. – Associated Press

Terrorist groups are making a concerted effort to access nuclear and biological weapons technology to carry out attacks, officials in Russia warned on Wednesday. Russian officials, for example, claimed that terrorist groups are targeting Russian military facilities in Syria in an effort to steal advanced weapons technology. – Newsweek


Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alleged Wednesday that the Egyptian government killed former President Mohammed Morsi, challenging official accounts that he died of natural causes and escalating tension with Cairo. – Wall Street Journal

Turkey’s foreign ministry on Wednesday called on all U.N. member states and international institutions to insist on carrying out the recommendations made in a report by a U.N. rights investigator on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. – Reuters

Russia has secured the support of two more regional allies in its efforts to end the eight-year civil war in Syria as the United States’ own approach has increasingly come under scrutiny. – Newsweek

W. Robert Pearson writes: In theory, Sunday’s election is over who will be the next mayor of Istanbul, but in reality it’s about something much bigger: The survival of democracy in Turkey. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, is now stumbling. It depends for support on a narrowly based ultranationalist party with no hope of ever winning a national majority itself. […]Even if it wins by a narrow margin, no one else will believe the outcome was fair. If the AKP loses, it will be humiliated, and the troubles that have beset it will reappear in magnified form. In short, whatever the result, the AKP will have gained little and perhaps lost much. Its assets seem already played out, and the party can expect to gain no more lasting support than it has now. – Middle East Institute


Israel expects US-mediated talks with Lebanon on setting their maritime border to be launched within a month, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steintiz said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The Fatah movement, which rules the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, has called for violence in response to next week’s US-sponsored economic workshop in Bahrain. The conference is intended to be the first stage in the Trump administration’s long-gestating Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. – Algemeiner

Israel wrapped up its largest military drill in years on Wednesday, with thousands of troops from the army, navy and air force simulating a future war with the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group amid fears that Iran would draw its Shiite proxy into the recent growing tensions in the Persian Gulf. – Associated Press

Dennis Ross writes: The Bahrain workshop could end up making a real contribution and even potentially lend credence to the broader Trump peace plan. Emphasizing stabilization now just might give the Trump plan a chance later.Foreign Policy

Arabian Peninsula

A Saudi desalination plant was struck by a missile that appeared to come from within Yemen, according to a senior U.S. official. It wasn’t clear if there were any casualties in the attack on the Red Sea facility, the official said. – Wall Street Journal

A top United Nations investigator found “credible evidence” that warrants further investigation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, heaping more pressure on the kingdom as it deals with the global outrage triggered by the slaying. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran’s energy industry have been good for Saudi Arabia’s oil business in Asia, the U.S. government said Wednesday. – Washington Examiner

Yemen’s civil war has killed at least 91,600 people so far, a database tracking violence said Wednesday, presenting a new estimate after completing reporting for the first months of fighting in 2015. – Associated Press

Middle East & North Africa

A rocket hit a compound in southern Iraq used by Exxon Mobil Corp. and other international oil firms, heightening fears among Iraqi officials that tensions between the U.S. and Iran would spill into their country. – Wall Street Journal

A series of attacks on oil tankers near the Persian Gulf has ratcheted up tensions between the U.S. and Iran — and raised fears over the safety of one of Asia’s most vital energy trade routes, where about a fifth of the world’s oil passes through its narrowest at the Strait of Hormuz. – Associated Press

The latest deployment of 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East, which was announced on Monday, will include a Patriot missile battalion, manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft and “other deterrence capabilities,” the Pentagon said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Michael Knights writes: On June 19, an unidentified militia fired a rocket toward the heart of Iraq’s oil sector in Basra province[…]. [U.S. leaders] should recognize that isolated rocket strikes require only a small number of militants (less than twenty) to carry out. Realistically, then, Iraq will continue struggling to prevent strikes of this kind, as would any post-conflict society awash with armed groups and tens of thousands of wartime munitions. The United States should not let such incidents undermine the bilateral relationship or trigger further diplomatic drawdowns—as long as the Iraqi government can demonstrate that it is taking concrete steps to assert its sovereignty and strengthen control over militias. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

Officially, President Xi Jinping of China is visiting North Korea this week to strengthen “strategic communication and exchanges” between the two countries, as he wrote on Wednesday in a front-page op-ed for a North Korean state newspaper. Unofficially, he is likely there to talk about — or at least send a message to — President Trump. – New York Times

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in North Korea for a historic visit Thursday, becoming the first Chinese leader to travel to the country in 14 years. – Washington Post

South Korea said on Wednesday that it would provide 50,000 tons of rice to North Korea, in the hope that the humanitarian aid will help persuade the North to return to talks on improving inter-Korean ties and ending its nuclear weapons program. – New York Times

In the highly formalized world of China-North Korea relations, Xi Jinping’s trip to Pyongyang carries enormous symbolic significance. Although less certain, it may also yield outcomes that could influence both countries’ relations with the U.S. – Associated Press

North Korea has made minimal advances in the capabilities needed for an effective nuclear missile that could reach the American mainland, according to the U.S.’s No. 2 military official. – Bloomberg

Robern R. King writes: These unresolved historic issues in addition to the ongoing missile tests and military threats and the abduction issue, make reconciliation between Tokyo and Pyongyang a difficult road ahead. Prime Minister Abe has made the first gesture in proposing to meet with Kim Jong-un, but thus far there has been no response from Pyongyang. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Two Canadian naval ships passed through the Taiwan Strait this week, the first such trip by Canadian vessels in the contentious waterway since ties between Ottawa and Beijing deteriorated following the arrest of a senior Huawei Technologies Co. executive. – Wall Street Journal

Hong Kong’s top security official on Wednesday defended the police’s hotly criticized use of tear gas and pepper spray against protesters last week, saying that officers had been in a “life-threatening situation.” The protest, on June 12, was one of three major demonstrations in recent days against a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China. – New York Times

Former Interpol President Meng Hongwei confessed to accepting more than $2 million in bribes and expressed regret for his crime, a Chinese court said Thursday. – Associated Press

China could build as many as 30 overseas nuclear reactors through its involvement in the “Belt and Road” initiative over the next decade, a senior industry official told a meeting of China’s political advisory body this week. – Reuters

Cary Huang writes: In the short term, the Hong Kong protests may have helped boost Tsai and the DPP’s prospects at the expense of the Beijing-friendly KMT in the upcoming elections. In the longer term, the protests may help further alienate Taiwan and the mainland, and Taiwanese and mainland Chinese people. – South China Morning Post


Fistfights broke out and furniture was smashed in Afghanistan’s Parliament on Wednesday as disagreement about who should lead the country’s new lower house dragged into its second month. – New York Times

All peace efforts in Afghanistan, including a new initiative by Germany and Qatar for talks among Afghans must be aimed at starting formal negotiations between the government and the Taliban, the U.N. envoy for the war-torn country said Wednesday. – Associated Press

China recently played host to a Taliban delegation as part of efforts to promote peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday. – Reuters


International prosecutors charged four suspects—including three Russians—with murder in a case that investigators said would show how a Russian missile system was used to shoot down a passenger jet over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 on board and sparking international outrage. – Wall Street Journal

Moscow must ensure that those charged with murder over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 face justice, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, after international investigators accused three Russians and a Ukrainian over the disaster. – Agence France-Presse

The Department of Defense plans to send $250 million in military equipment to Ukraine to assist in building up the country’s military capabilities as it continues to counter Russian-backed forces in its eastern provinces. – Washington Examiner

The Kremlin on Wednesday added its voice to that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in building up the importance of the upcoming meeting in Jerusalem of national security advisers from the US, Russia and Israel. – Jerusalem Post

President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at next week’s G20 summit in Japan. In an interview on Fox News, Trump said he would hold meetings with Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. – Reuters

Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella write: Russia poses a significant threat to the United States and its allies for which the West is not ready.  The West must act urgently to meet this threat without exaggerating it. Russia today does not have the military strength of the Soviet Union. It is a poor state with an economy roughly the size of Canada’s, a population less than half that of the U.S., and demographic trends indicating that it will lose strength over time.  It is not a conventional military near-peer nor will it become so. Its unconventional warfare and information operations pose daunting but not insuperable challenges. The U.S. and its allies must develop a coherent global approach to meeting and transcending the Russian challenge. – American Enterprise Institute and Institute for the Study of War


A British-Iranian woman held in a Tehran prison for years and her British husband began a joint hunger strike this week to demand her unconditional release, even as the relationship between the two nations has grown increasingly strained. – New York Times

As the U.S. Navy and its NATO allies showed off the various ways they could take a beach from the sea, they were also showing a deeper commitment to collective security in the Baltic Sea and in Europe in general. – USNI News

The top Pentagon official attending the Paris Air Show this week made clear she would use the venue to make a declarative statement about a subset of European arms funding: Either give the United States the ability to compete for work, or risk retaliation. – Defense News  

A UK imam who asked a pointed question about Islamophobia during a televised Conservative party leadership debate on Tuesday has been suspended from a mosque and school after it was revealed that he had posted antisemitic tweets. – Algemeiner


Officials announced the details of that policy challenge Wednesday in the southern African nation of Mozambique, urging hundreds of African business leaders at an economic conference to ramp up partnerships and trade with American companies. – Washington Post

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court urged Sudan’s transitional authorities on Wednesday to hand over or prosecute ousted President Omar al-Bashir and four others for alleged war crimes in Darfur. – Associated Press

Islamic State said on Wednesday its West African branch carried out an attack on a Nigerian army base in northeastern Borno state and that its fighters killed 12 soldiers. A military source put the toll higher, saying up to 25 soldiers were killed after insurgents traveling on trucks mounted with guns attacked the base on Monday around 5:30 p.m. (1630 GMT). – Reuters

The Americas

Guatemala is negotiating a controversial agreement that would require migrants fleeing neighboring Central American countries to seek asylum in this impoverished and violent nation rather than the U.S., Guatemalan officials said. – Wall Street Journal

Mexico on Wednesday became the first country to ratify the new North American free-trade agreement, as its Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve the deal updating the rules for one of the world’s largest trade blocs. – Washington Post

Summer arrives this week with Maduro still in place, and little indication that he is imminently on his way out, or that the Trump administration has a coherent strategy to remove him. The president, officials said, is losing both patience and interest in Venezuela. – Washington Post

The United Nations’ top human rights official arrived in Venezuela Wednesday for a visit that comes amid heightened international pressure on President Nicolás Maduro for allegedly silencing opponents with jail, torture and excessive violence. – Associated Press

Pro-government forces in Nicaragua committed human rights abuses including torture in suppressing recent protests against President Daniel Ortega, and top officials should face sanctions, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Wednesday. – Reuters


Brig. Gen. William Hartman is slated to lead U.S. Cyber Command’s Cyber National Mission Force, according to a June 19 personnel announcement from the Pentagon. – Fifth Domain

Some evidence used to charge Huawei Technologies Co. with bank fraud and violating U.S. sanctions on Iran was deemed so sensitive that the Chinese telecom giant’s lawyers must now take unusual steps to review the information — and even then, the company may never see it. – Bloomberg

Sen. Marco Rubio wants to make sure that the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies can’t pursue intellectual property claims against U.S. companies if the administration finds the company poses an “undue risk” to telecommunication systems. – Roll Call


Mark Esper will spend his first week as acting secretary of defense in Belgium. Late Wednesday evening, the Pentagon announced that Esper, who was tapped this week to replace Patrick Shanahan as the department’s top official, will travel to NATO for next week’s defense ministerial. – Defense News

A panel of senior Navy civilian officials said the planning efforts for the future combat fleet was focused on making the fleet more flexible, interoperable and lethal. – USNI News

The Navy’s next large surface combatant will probably look more like the futuristic Zumwalt class of guided-missile destroyers than fleet’s current workhorse class of Arleigh Burke destroyers, the program executive officer said. – USNI News

The U.S. Marine Corps is testing a prototype laser weapon that could be used by war fighters on the ground to counter enemy drones, according to a Wednesday news release. – Defense News

The Democratic-controlled House passed a $985 billion appropriations package for fiscal 2020 that aims to fund national security at $17 billion less than the White House requested, end the post-2001 war authorizations after eight months, pull military support in Yemen and defund the W76-2 nuclear warhead. – Defense News  

The U.S. agency responsible for making explosive materials used in nuclear weapons is facing challenges that could impact the country’s planned modernization of its nuclear arsenal, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. – Defense News

The U.S. Navy’s program to buy a new frigate, known as FFG(X), has been smooth sailing since it was announced in 2017, but congressional protectionism could torpedo much of the progress the service has made to date. – Defense News

Long War

Loopholes in U.N. Security Council sanctions procedures are allowing blacklisted al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists and their supporters to tap their bank accounts despite a U.N. asset freeze, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the matter. – Wall Street Journal

A Syrian refugee in the US was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of planning an attack against a Pennsylvania church in the name of the Islamic State group, the Justice Department said. – Agence France-Presse

A Kenyan court Wednesday found three people guilty of conspiracy to commit a terror attack after phone records and handwriting linked them to the 2015 Garissa University assault that killed 148 people. – Associated Press

Trump Administration

President Trump’s nominee to serve as the next ambassador to the United Nations publicly broke with him on climate change Wednesday, stating at her Senate confirmation hearing that she believes fossil fuels and human behavior contribute to the planet’s shifting weather phenomena — but stopping short of endorsing a return to international pacts such as the Paris climate agreement. – Washington Post

President Donald Trump lost his nominee for Pentagon chief on Tuesday, adding to the volatility in a tense standoff with Iran, which claimed to have dismantled a CIA network. – Agence France-Presse  

Democratic lawmakers accused President Donald Trump’s former aide Hope Hicks of rejecting questions about her time in the White House during a marathon hearing on Wednesday. […]The House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Hicks because of her proximity to Trump during several episodes that Mueller’s report described as attempts to thwart the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. – USA Today

Democratic U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on Wednesday said U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller must testify before Congress about his Russia investigation. – Reuters