Fdd's overnight brief

March 18, 2020

In The News


Iranian worshippers have attempted to break into holy shrines and mosques, defying Iran’s leaders who are trying to bar access to religious sites as they struggle to stem a soaring death rate caused by the new coronavirus. – Wall Street Journal

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday defended his government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in the face of of widespread criticism that officials acted too slowly and may have even covered up initial cases before infections rapidly spread across the country. – Associated Press

More senior government figures have caught the coronavirus in Iran than anywhere else. Field hospitals have been erected in parking lots, stadiums and wedding halls to handle the overflow of patients. – New York Times

The United States imposed fresh sanctions on Iran on Tuesday, keeping up its economic pressure campaign even as it offered to help Tehran cope with the coronavirus pandemic and called on the Islamic Republic to release detained Americans. – Reuters

British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert has not been reported among the 85,000 prisoners temporarily released from Iranian jails out of fear coronavirus could sweep through the country’s overcrowded prisons. – The Guardian

Iranian police have dispersed crowds who forced their way into two popular shrines soon after they were closed because of the threat from the coronavirus outbreak. – The Guardian

Embattled lender Metro Bank has been hit with a fresh lawsuit by a group of Iranian customers who say their accounts were unfairly suspended without notice or explanation. – The Guardian

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran are escalating in a pattern similar to the one that brought the two sides to the brink of war earlier this year — but with one key difference. This time around, both countries are focusing on the coronavirus pandemic, and that could affect how the situation plays out in the Middle East. – The Hill

Dr. Rick Brennan, Director of Emergency Operations in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) new Emergencies Program has said that Iran’s coronavirus (COVID-19) death toll is underreported due to testing being restricted to sever cases and the toll can be potentially five times higher. – Radio Farda

Graeme Wood writes: In Iran, popular protests in the streets simply cannot happen as long as the manpower for those protests remains sequestered at home, and as long as morale is utterly depleted by the task of burying one’s loved ones. Regime change might have to wait. At least the pandemic will eventually end, and with its end, change is one more thing to look forward to. – The Atlantic

Alex Vatanka writes: On paper this all sounded good but what Tehran has repeatedly found out — often the hard way — is that companies in Russia, as well as those in the Caucasus, Central Asia, or Turkey, must consider the possibility of breaching U.S. sanctions on Iran. This makes them hesitant to engage with Iran while it is still resolving its differences with Washington. – Middle East Institute


Greek police said they used tear gas to repel the push to break down the fence south of the Kastanies border crossing. They said Turkish authorities also fired tear gas at the Greek border. The clashes began at 2 a.m. and lasted for roughly two hours. – Associated Press

Asya Akca and Gregory Sanders write: Despite other frictions in the relationship, some in the Trump administration have strongly supported this request. Even still, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has doubled down on his S-400 purchase and has stated that he will activate his S-400 systems next month. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Louis Fishman writes: It shouldn’t have needed the coronavirus crisis to demand Ankara really confront anti-Semitism, but as this emergency appears to be escalating a bigoted national search for scapegoats, now it is more necessary than ever. For now,I am not holding my breath. It seems the political benefits of allowing anti-Semitism to run unleashed are greater than those of reining it in. – Haaretz

Anthony Skinner writes: So regardless of what is or is not decided this week, Erdogan is likely to continue leveraging Turkey’s status as the world biggest host of registered refugees in an effort to extract more concessions from the EU as he looks to achieve his foreign policy objectives in the East Mediterranean and further afield. The president knows that negative optics of migrants being beaten back on Europe’s southern frontiers will continue to pose a PR problem for Europe’s politicians for years to come, and the EU should expect that he will continue to exploit this reality to the fullest. – Washington Institute


The IDF revealed on Tuesday that an attempted sniper attack two weeks ago on Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria was the work of Hezbollah in collaboration with the Syrian military. – Algemeiner

Video clips of two Arabic interviews given by MK Heba Yazbak (Joint Arab List) reveal her battle against Zionism and ambition to eliminate Zionism and the State of Israel’s Jewish and Zionist character. – Arutz Sheva

On March 2, 2020 the Hamas mouthpiece Al-Risala published an article by Mahmoud Mardawi, an Israeli affairs analyst and a former senior member of Hamas from the West Bank, who was deported to Gaza in 2011 as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal. In the article he presented the agreement signed by the U.S. and the Taliban on February 29, 2020 as an American capitulation and a great achievement for the Taliban, and wondered why the various resistance movements, especially the Palestinian ones, did not seem to appreciate this. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday that mosques would no longer be open for the customary five daily prayers or Friday congregations, an exceptional move to limit the spread of the coronavirus which has infected 171 people in the kingdom. – Reuters

Saudi Arabia suspended work in private sectors except health and food services for 15 days, state news agency reported early on Wednesday. – Reuters

From empty hotels to shuttered beauty salons, oil-dependent Saudi Arabia is bracing for a coronavirus-led economic slump on top of possible austerity measures as crude prices go into free fall. – Agence France-Presse

Middle East & North Africa

Heavy fighting in Yemen between pro-government forces and Shiite rebels killed more than three dozen people in the previous 24 hours, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders said Tuesday. – Associated Press

Hospitals and doctors in Yemen have been targeted at least 120 times by the conflict’s warring parties, according to a report that gives the most comprehensive analysis to date of the devastating effect of war on the country’s healthcare system. – The Guardian 

Seth J. Frantzman writes: US defense officials have made frequent visits to Israel and Egypt in the last year. Milley visited Israel in November 2019. US Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie visited Egypt in June 2019 and January 2020. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said he views the US-Egyptian strategic relationship as a top priority after meetings last year, but he is also concerned about Russian influence in Egypt. – Jerusalem Post

Michael Knights writes: Under Abdulmahdi’s tenure, U.S.-Iraq relations deteriorated to a level unseen since 2003. Washington should therefore give the next prime minister a soft landing, since the government now seems capable of turning toward a better future for the first time in two years. – Washington Institute

Anthony Bubalo writes: Repression is hardly a new fixture in the Middle East, but this fact shouldn’t lead us to ignore the sustained and, in some cases, unprecedented ways in which repression is now being applied. The current crop of dictators, uncertain of their citizen’s regard and unsure of what other policies they can pursue to win it, are squeezing their societies to the breaking point. […]The result of these cycles of pressure and popular unrest is the continued and occasionally noisy fracturing of regimes and societies across the region. It is not the quiet, soothing stability that Western policymakers crave, and citizens of the region deserve. The New Republic

Jean-Francois Seznec writes: Nevertheless, long-term issues like the tensions between Iran and the Arab Gulf states, the intra-GCC dispute, the conflicts in Yemen and Libya, and the ongoing problems between Morocco and Algeria, among others, mean the region will still be vulnerable to sudden, unexpected flare-ups, but these are merely the “normal” in MENA and pale in comparison to effects of the two black swans. – Middle East Institute

Bobby Ghosh writes: The only thing forestalling the final conflagration of the Libyan civil war is Haftar’s lack of sufficient firepower to storm Tripoli. Meanwhile, Sarraj doesn’t have the resources to push the warlord back. For all the bold talk of EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that Europe must develop “an appetite for power,” it can only watch, divided and impotent, from the sidelines. – Bloomberg


China said it would revoke the press credentials of Americans working for three major U.S. newspapers in the largest expulsion of foreign journalists in the post-Mao era, amid an escalating battle with the Trump administration over media operating in the two countries. – Wall Street Journal

Business activity in China turned broadly negative for the first time on record as home sales, construction activity, retail sales and factory output plunged, pushing unemployment to a record high, signs of the costly economic damage associated with trying to control the spread of the coronavirus. – – Wall Street Journal

Editorial: China could respond by accrediting more American journalists and getting an expansion of its U.S. bureaus in return. Instead, it has chosen to further restrict independent reporting on the country at a time when much of the world is wondering whether it can believe Beijing’s accounts of the covid-19 epidemic. – Washington Post

Lela Gilbert writes: Meanwhile, in these days of COVID-19 and its unprecedented global consequences, it is also timely to encourage our president and political representatives to rewrite our international trade agreements with the People’s Republic of China. It seems to be past time that America brought home the manufacturing of Nike and Calvin Klein products, iPhones and other electronics components, pharmaceutical ingredients and far more. – Hudson Institute


European governments have pledged hundreds of billions of euros to help economies, companies and workers hit by the coronavirus, applying tools developed during the euro crisis and casting aside strict prohibitions on state subsidies. […]But it may not alleviate hardship for weaker countries such as Italy whose high debt levels make a major fiscal boost harder to finance. – Wall Street Journal

Ninety minutes of questions about his overseas trips and the property of his wife, mother and parents-in-law was enough to raise “reasonable doubt” about his integrity, the investigating commission said. Melnichenko, like hundreds of other prosecutors, was sacked. Anti-corruption activists call it the most sweeping reform of the prosecution system in Ukraine’s history. – Washington Post

The fighting capability of Britain’s armed forces is being put at risk by delays in producing important new pieces of equipment, the government’s spending watchdog warned on Wednesday. – Reuters

Ireland will consult with Britain before it decides whether to participate in a European travel ban endorsed by fellow EU member states on Tuesday to contain the spread of coronavirus, a government spokesman said. – Reuters

The Spanish Senate on Tuesday ratified the accession protocol for North Macedonia to join NATO, clearing another hurdle for the country to become the alliance’s 30th member. – Defense News

Andreas Kluth writes: But for Europe to founder, it’s not even necessary for more countries to formally exit. Other blocs have disintegrated throughout history, from the League of Nations to the Confederation of the Rhine and the Holy Roman Empire before that. Some collapsed fast, others slowly. Each in their own tragic way, they simply became irrelevant. – Bloomberg

Alex Walsh writes: The best use of the EU’s efforts during this period of charged limbo would be to work on scenarios and prepare for them, using a forward-looking approach that brings together Algerians and Europeans of different disciplines to think creatively about the future of the bilateral relationship. If the EU and Algeria can be creative and act with foresight, then when it comes to writing future history, the Hirak era will outshine the Barcelona period. – Middle East Institute

Anton Shekhovstov writes: The dominant “Third Party,” namely the liberal-democratic establishment, remains a significant point of reference both for Putin’s Russia and the European far right, and their subjective interpretations of its intentions and behaviour will continue to shape their approaches to each other, especially when we are talking about the two prevalent attitudes in their camps. – Center for European Policy Analysis

United States

Jails and prisons across the nation are reeling from the challenges and chaos they face as the virus begins to infiltrate their restricted, close-quartered environments, creating a level of vulnerability similar to cruise ships and nursing homes. – Washington Post

China, Russia and Iran are flooding the global information space with false claims about the new coronavirus, according to U.S. officials, who say one of the biggest lies — that the virus that causes COVID-19 is a U.S. bioweapon and was brought to China by U.S. Army personnel — is just the latest in a “surge of propaganda” aimed at undermining America’s image on the world stage. – Washington Times

Fears of massive bankruptcies and calls for emergency bailouts swept global airlines Tuesday as a top US official warned the coronavirus crisis threatens the industry even more than the September 11 attacks, which saw US airspace shut down entirely. – Agence France-Presse

The chances of Sen. Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic nomination are likely to shrink even further following Tuesday’s votes—but some of his aides have said he still has no plans to throw in the towel. – The Daily Beast

Editorial: The real danger is in doing nothing, on the belief that what takes place in penal institutions is less critical or somehow separate from society — or that the lives of convicts are worth less than those of free men and women. In fact, prisons and jails are porous places; their walls do nothing to impede the spread of disease. The failure to contain the virus on the inside, for whatever reason, will accelerate its proliferation on the outside. – Washington Post

Josiah Rich, Scott Allen, and Mavis Nimoh write: The spread of the coronavirus may only be the tipping point for what can happen when we fail to consider all the costs and consequences of our system of mass incarceration. We justify locking people up to protect public safety. Yet public safety will be at even greater peril if we fail to mitigate risks associated with confining too many people in jails, prisons and detention facilities during a pandemic. – Washington Post

Noah Feldman writes: The takeaway is that while the shelter-in-place orders may well spread very broadly across the country, the consequences are unlikely to be the martial law scenario familiar from the movies. Martial law occurs when a governor exercises statutory authority to put the military in charge of the state. In the U.S., that has basically only ever happened when there was substantial public violence and disorder that the police could not control, such as widespread rioting. – Bloomberg

The Americas

Canada and the United States will announce a deal to partially close their borders on Wednesday, which will allow trade and commerce to go on, the Globe and Mail reported, citing sources. – Reuters

Mexico’s fastest-rising cartel, the Jalisco New Generation gang, has a reputation for ruthlessness and violence unlike any since the fall of the old Zetas cartel. In parts of the country it is fighting medieval-style battles, complete with fortified redoubts, to expand nationwide, from the outskirts of Mexico City, into the tourist resorts around Cancun, and along the northern border. – Associated Press

The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday rejected economically devastated Venezuela’s request for a $5 billion loan to help it cope with the onslaught of coronavirus on the country that an aid agency warned is as prepared as war-torn Syria. – Agence France-Presse


Attorney General William Barr vowed in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday that there would be swift and severe action if a foreign government is behind disinformation campaigns aimed at spreading fear in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic or a denial of service attack on the networks of the Department of Health and Human Services.  – Associated Press

Facebook said a bug in its anti-spam system temporarily blocked the publication of links to news stories about the coronavirus. Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, said on Twitter Tuesday that the company was working on a fix for the problem. Users complained that links to news stories about school closings and other information related to the virus outbreak were blocked by the company’s automated system. – Associated Press

The government needs to collect and store better data to develop a more effective cyber strategy and strengthen defenses, Cyberspace Solarium Commission members said March 17. – Fifth Domain


Smugglers are busing drones in the sky to watch U.S. Border Patrol agents as they work along the southern border while separate drones fly small quantities of drugs into the country, but the government is so far refusing to deploy technology that can take them down. – Washington Examiner

The Pentagon is moving forward on a redesign of the F-35’s troubled logistics system, but a congressional watchdog organization is urging the department to hammer out critical details such as the cost and technical risks associated with the new system. – Defense News

The White House submitted an emergency funding request to Congress late Tuesday for an added $45.8 billion, with $8.3 billion in it for the Defense Department―all to address the coronavirus pandemic. – Defense News

Though Congress is taking steps to protect lawmakers from the new coronavirus and promote social distancing, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee plans to hold its markup of the annual defense bill ― usually a hearing with more than 100 people in attendance ― on schedule next month. – Defense News

The U.S. Navy is backing away from the idea of a classwide service-life extension project for the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, but is leaving open the possibility to upgrade some of its workhorse surface combatant. – Defense News

The future Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Delbert D. Black (DDG-119) completed acceptance trials last week in the Gulf of Mexico, the Navy announced. – USNI News

The Pentagon is starting the process of activating Navy hospital ships USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) as part of the Defense Department’s domestic response to the spreading COVID-19 virus, USNI News has learned. – USNI News

The Navy’s new requirements process that brings industry in early to refine ideas and conduct prototyping may have prevented the service from going down a costly path with its Large Surface Combatant, the head of Naval Sea Systems Command said. – USNI News

Mark F. Cancian writes: As the effects of COVID-19 are increasingly felt around the United States, many officials and commentators have asked what role the U.S. military might play as part of the response. Several state governors have already called up elements of the National Guard as part of their emergency measures. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Long War

The United States on Tuesday placed the new leader of the Islamic State group on its blacklist of terrorists, naming him as Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli. – Agence France-Presse

It took more than two years for British diplomats to secure the extradition of Hashem Abedi, the brother of the Manchester Arena bomber, amid claims the UK government paid £9m in “bribery” aid and was complicit in his torture under Boris Johnson’s watch as foreign secretary. – The Guardian

Yonah Jeremy Bob writes: States and quasi-state entities like Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas will likely weather the storm, but their hostilities against Israel are likely to be halted, and the Islamic Republic may even see longer-term policy shifts if the virus takes down more higher-ups of the regime. – Jerusalem Post