Fdd's overnight brief

March 21, 2019

In The News


As rumors swirl that Khamenei, 79, is laying the groundwork for his successor after three decades in power, clerics such as Jazari, from his perch next door in the spiritual heart of Shiite Islam, have rare visibility into a transition process known for its secrecy. He says that Iran’s next supreme ruler may not come from a list of more obvious candidates now circulating among analysts and insiders. He bases his assessment both on experience and, given his proximity to Khamenei’s inner circle, a degree of insight into the future. – Washington Post

Iranian leaders vowed on Thursday to control soaring prices, bring stability to the national currency and create jobs as the nation marked the end of a year of economic crisis fueled by renewed U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday in a new year speech broadcast on state TV that the Islamic Republic successfully resisted “unprecedented, strong” U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on the country’s political factions to end infighting and unite against foreign enemies in a new year speech broadcast on state TV on Thursday. – Reuters

Four of the Iranian border guards kidnapped last year by a Sunni militant group on the border with Pakistan were released on Wednesday, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said. – Reuters

The trial of Esmaeil Bakhshi, Ali Nejati and other defendants arrested amid protests and strikes at the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane industrial complex in the city of Shush, southwest Iran, has been referred to the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. – Radio Farda

A right-wing student group in Iran has called on the country’s new Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raeesi (Raeisi) to indict his predecessor and another senior politician for being involved in a “land grab” case in the lavish Lavasan area north of Tehran. – Radio Farda

Alireza Nader writes: During this Nowruz, Iranian-Americans and their American friends should think of the struggles of their homeland while they celebrate the spring. As Iranians peacefully fight for a better future, Americans of all political and religious persuasions should stand by their side and publicly express support for Iranian pro-democracy forces. Broader coverage of Iranians’ struggle in the American media is vital, as are statements and actions demonstrating support from policy-makers on the Hill and the executive branch. – ADL

Shaparak Shajarizadeh writes: The world must instead send a clear message: Iran will not be treated as an equal member of the international community if it does not treat women as equal members of humanity. They certainly must not be allowed to lead in these institutions, so long as women leaders like Nasrin languish in prison. Countries should use their clout at the U.N. and other international organizations to pass resolutions calling for Nasrin’s release, and remove and block Iran from leadership positions until it does so. – Time


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hopes to use his first visit to Lebanon this week to step up pressure on Iran and its local ally, Hezbollah. But he could face resistance even from America’s local allies, who fear that pushing too hard could spark a backlash and endanger the tiny country’s fragile peace. – Associated Press

About a month and a half after the formation of the Lebanese government, with a majority for the pro-Syria and pro-Iran Hizbullah-led March 8 Alliance, the U.S. is increasing its pressure on Lebanon, with the aim of preventing Hizbullah from becoming even stronger in the Lebanese political arena and preventing Lebanon from moving closer to Russia. – Middle East Media Research Institute

A prominent Syrian businessman with close ties to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has been arrested in Kuwait along with five of his assistants on charges of money laundering, local media reported on Wednesday. Mazen Al Tarazi was arrested late on Monday in his offices at the Al Hadaf magazine headquarters, following investigations that including “collusion and spying with the Lebanese group Hezbollah,” Al Qabas daily said. – The National


President Trump said the Islamic State extremist group would suffer its final territorial defeat by Wednesday evening, even as U.S.-backed fighters in Syria were still completing the battle against the militants. – Wall Street Journal

Robert Burns writes: In a campaign that spanned five years and two U.S. presidencies, unleashed more than 100,000 bombs and killed untold numbers of civilians, the U.S. military engineered the destruction of the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed empire in Iraq and Syria. That’s a military success, but not necessarily one that will last. The Islamic State group is down, but it is not done. – Associated Press

Zvi Bar’el writes: The one who should be worried about the expected Russian withdrawal is Israel, which sees in Russia the most important guarantor for stopping Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, especially along the border on the Golan Heights. Russia, which did not keep its promise to keep the pro-Iranian forces dozens of kilometers to the east of the border, proposed in August establishing observation points along the border, with the purpose of preventing the entry of foreign forces to the border area – but only now has it completed the construction of a single observation point manned by Russian military police. – Haaretz


Turkey said on Wednesday Turkish and Iranian military commanders had agreed to continue “simultaneous and coordinated operations” against Kurdish militants, though Iran’s armed forces later said there were no joint operations. – Reuters

The United States could soon freeze preparations for delivering F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, officials told Reuters, in what would be the strongest signal yet by Washington that Ankara cannot have both the advanced aircraft and Russia’s S-400 air defense system. – Reuters

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Wednesday Foreign Minister Winston Peters will travel to Turkey to “confront” comments made by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on the killing of 50 people at mosques in Christchurch. – Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday tensions between his country and Turkey had eased after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said comments by the Turkish leader that sparked the row had been taken out of context. – Associated Press

Murat Yetkin and Soner Cagaptay write: Turkey will hold nationwide local elections on March 31, with voters picking mayors as well as city and provincial council members. Due to a unique alignment of domestic and foreign policy issues, these elections could affect U.S.-Turkish relations and Ankara’s actions in the Middle East, warranting greater attention from Washington than one might expect. – Washington Institute


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Israel on Wednesday to discuss threats the country faces from Iran and its allies, a visit that buttresses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign message as he seeks to win a fifth term in April 9 elections. – Wall Street Journal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed the United States to recognize Israeli governance of most of the Golan Heights during a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday. His efforts underscored the growing possibility that the Trump administration may change the American stance on the territory. – New York Times

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged on Wednesday that Iran could blackmail his main election rival, Benny Gantz, after hacking the former armed forces chief’s phone, even as Tehran denied doing so. – Reuters

A Palestinian was killed by Israeli gunfire in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian medics said, and the military announced on Thursday that a soldier had discharged his weapon and it was reviewing the incident. – Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House next Monday and Tuesday, the White House said, reaffirming the two leaders’ close ties. – Reuters

The United States has reaffirmed its unwavering support for Israel against Iran, with whom Russia said it sought closer ties. – Newsweek

The Palestinian Authority’s ruling party, Fatah, has celebrated the terrorist who killed two Israelis and wounded a third in the West Bank on Sunday as a “perfect person” and a “heroic Martyr.” – Algemeiner

Israelis and Palestinians have been waiting for the Trump administration’s “deal of the century” peace plan since May 2018. Now, President Donald Trump is saying he will unveil this plan only after the April 9 Israeli elections. However, there is a strong argument to be made that the peace plan should be shared immediately. – Jerusalem Post

The head of the Hamas terror group on Wednesday appeared to dismiss recent unrest over economic conditions in the Gaza Strip and vowed major turnout at the upcoming one-year anniversary of weekly clashes along the border with Israel. Gaza saw several days of internal protests last week in a rare public show of dissent in the Hamas-ruled territory as hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets to protest the economic woes of the cash-strapped territory. – Times of Israel

Tom Rogan writes: Netanyahu must now know that he cannot have his American cake and simultaneously reject America’s peace plan. Assuming the U.S. peace plan is practical and just, it must receive serious Israeli consideration. Trump’s threat is thus now justified and appropriate. – Washington Examiner

Petra Marquardt-Bigman writes: The official poster used to advertise this year’s “Israeli Apartheid Week” is an image that is quite literally worth a thousand words because it openly signals support for the Hamas-orchestrated riots that have threatened and terrorized Israeli communities near the Gaza border for the past year. The poster prominently features the kites that terrorists equip with incendiary or explosive material before they launch them across the border into Israel to start devastating fires or hurt unsuspecting children. – Times of Israel


The United States granted Iraq a 90-day waiver exempting it from sanctions to buy energy from Iran, a State Department official said on Wednesday, the latest extension allowing Baghdad to keep purchasing electricity from its neighbor. – Reuters

David Pollock writes: This brings us to the crux of the matter: Iraqi Kurds no longer feel they can fully count on American support to counter Iran, even inside Kurdistan. A number cited the on-again, off-again U.S. military mission to the Kurds in neighboring Syria as an ominous portent. And several senior KRG officials told me they would welcome a continuing American military presence in Kurdistan, even or especially if the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad carried out current threats by pro-Iran factions to expel U.S. forces from Iraq. – Washington Institute

Geneive Abdo writes: Momentum is building among deputies in the Iraqi parliament to oust U.S. troops entirely from the country—an outcome that would leave Iraq’s political future in the hands of neighboring Iran and leave its citizens more vulnerable to the Islamic State. […]the question remains as to whether Iraq is more worried about the Islamic State—and could thus countenance a continuing U.S. presence—or more interested in keeping Iran happy. Unless the more moderate forces within the parliament and the government at large are willing to take a risk, it is likely some form of legislation will be approved to limit, if not expel, the United States. – Foreign Policy

Middle East & North Africa

The United Nations will hold a conference inside Libya in April to discuss elections as a way out of the country’s eight-year-long conflict, a U.N. envoy said on Wednesday, although it remains to be seen whether powerful factions will attend. – Reuters

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will hand over power to a democratically elected successor after a new constitution is approved and a national conference is held, Deputy Prime Minister Ramtane Lamamra said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Qatar has called on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to intervene in a dispute over a $24 billion nuclear power plant which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is building. – Reuters

Kuwait’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that a long-awaited U.S. peace proposal for the Middle East should be acceptable to all stakeholders and factor in regional considerations. – Reuters

Bobby Ghosh writes: For the Algerian protesters to press home their advantage, they need to be at the negotiating table as well as in the street. If they can’t, the lessons of the Arab Spring don’t allow for much optimism about what happens next. – Bloomberg

Korean Peninsula

North Korea’s illicit and highly sophisticated efforts to circumvent UN sanctions may have sought to cushion their impact, but they offer no long-term solution to the fallout of tightened economic isolation, analysts say. – Agence France-Presse

South Korea is taking steps towards reopening the zone, risking undermining Washington’s hardline approach to Pyongyang and upsetting Seoul’s longstanding alliance with the US. – Financial Times

Donald Kirk writes: The 10 men in dark suits who raided the North Korean embassy in Madrid last month had one goal in mind, it would seem: to overthrow the regime of Kim Jong Un. […]The inference was clear. They intend to be heard from again. The rescue of Kim Jong Nam’s son and the raid in Madrid are not likely to be the end of the story. In Kuala Lumpur, the writing was on the wall. – The Daily Beast


With the U.S. and China preparing for a fresh round of face-to-face negotiations, President Trump said the U.S. expected to keep tariffs on Chinese goods in place for a “substantial period of time,” even after a deal. – Wall Street Journal

In this old Silk Road city in western China, a state security campaign involving the detention of vast numbers of people has moved to its next stage: demolishing their neighborhoods and purging their culture. Two years after authorities began rounding up Urumqi’s mostly Muslim ethnic Uighur residents, many of the anchors of Uighur life and identity are being uprooted. Empty mosques remain, while the shantytown homes that surrounded them have been replaced by glass towers and retail strips like many found across China. – Wall Street Journal

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will visit Hawaii next week on a tour of diplomatic allies in the Pacific, official media said on Thursday, a move likely to anger China, which claims the self-ruled island as its own amid tension across the strait. – Reuters

The European Union will discuss a more defensive strategy on China on Thursday, potentially signaling an end to the unfettered access that Chinese business has enjoyed in Europe but which Beijing has failed to reciprocate. – Reuters

Claude Barfield writes: As this kaleidoscope of issues amply demonstrates, urgent questions relating to Huawei, Beijing, US allies, 5G, and, ultimately, the game-changing Internet of Things implicate a daunting interaction of technology, security, intelligence, and economic factors. It is well past time for the president’s intelligence, defense, and economic advisers to persuade him to mount an all-government initiative to analyze the trade-offs and devise recommendations for a path forward that integrates economic, technology, and security policies. – American Enterprise Institute


Multiple explosions in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Thursday killed six people and wounded 23 in an attack during celebrations to mark the Persian new year, government spokesmen said. – Reuters

The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, will meet with Chinese, Russian and European Union diplomats on Afghanistan on Thursday as he tries to forge a peace deal with the Taliban to bring an end to America’s longest war. – Reuters

Afghanistan’s presidential election has been postponed by two months to Sept. 28, as authorities try to iron out problems with the voting process, the election board said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Michael Rubin writes: When negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Obama, Kerry, and their supporters appeared to embrace the notion that a bad deal was better than no deal. Both Republicans and then-candidate Donald Trump castigated them for such irresponsibility. A nuclear deal might be ideal, as might peace in Afghanistan, but sometimes a bad deal only ensures more conflict. At the same time, Republicans and Trump criticized the Obama-era belief that timelines should supplant strategy based upon the actual situation in the area of operations. – Washington Examiner


A smooth political transition after the unexpected resignation of Kazakhstan’s longtime leader serves the interests of neighboring Russia and China, which have economic and security stakes in the region. – Wall Street Journal

The United States remains concerned about India-Pakistan tensions as the nuclear-armed countries’ militaries remain on alert nearly three weeks after their most dangerous confrontation in decades, a senior U.S. administration official said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Sri Lanka’s leader has kept his country’s political rift from spilling over to a U.N. human rights council meeting this week by abandoning plans to oppose the prime minister’s decision to co-sponsor a resolution giving the nation more time to address war crime allegations stemming from its civil war. – Associated Press

A man who owns a Nazi-themed insulation company has been charged with sharing the horrific livestream video of the mass shooting at a New Zealand mosque. – New York Post

Azeem Ibrahim writes: The wild cards here are the shifting domestic landscapes in Bangladesh and China. China is building part of its Belt and Road initiative through Myanmar, in regions near the old Rohingya areas — a project that will bring Myanmar snugly under China’s wing. This means if Beijing ever decides that its interests in Bangladesh would be served by supporting the relocation of the Rohingya to Myanmar, it could easily press Naypyidaw to accept the forceful relocation of the Rohingya refugees – Washington Post

Patrick M. Cronin, Abigail Grace, Daniel Kliman and Kristine Lee write: Now is the time to revisit America’s approach toward Southeast Asia. After reaching a high point during the Obama presidency, U.S. engagement with the region lost momentum at the outset of the Trump administration. That has since changed, as the Trump administration has come to recognize that its overall effort to compete with China will falter if it fails to get Southeast Asia right. – Center for a New American Security


Russia expressed anger Wednesday that President Vladimir Putin has not been invited to ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II in Poland later this year. – Agence France-Presse

An aging leader steps down as president but keeps a firm grip on the reins of power. For many in the Kremlin, the choreographed events unfolding in neighboring Kazakhstan are a model for Russian President Vladimir Putin to consider. – Bloomberg

Tom Rogan writes: There are legitimate questions when it comes to President Trump’s relationship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Hopefully special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation can put those concerns to rest. Still, when it comes to Trump’s policy towards Russia as compared to Democratic 2020 policy outlines, Trump is clearly stronger. – Washington Examiner


Fidesz, the party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, was suspended from the European Union’s most powerful political coalition on Wednesday, endangering an alliance that has shielded him from serious repercussions as he has dismantled or co-opted nearly every check on his power. – New York Times

A United Nations court on Wednesday increased the sentence of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, from 40 years to life in prison for his role in the Bosnian war of the 1990s, reaffirming his conviction on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. – New York Times

With Brexit in disarray, it’s hard to imagine that European Union leaders will have more pressing matters on their minds when they meet in Brussels. And yet their two-day summit beginning on Thursday includes existential topics ranging from trade relations with the bloc’s biggest economic partners, to resolving differences over how to save the planet from catastrophic climate change. Here’s a look at some of the other open fronts keeping heads of state awake at night and busy in Brussels. – Bloomberg

The president of the Union of Jewish Students of France (UEJF) called for comprehensive action to tackle antisemitism, after a new poll showed that nearly 90 percent of Jewish students in France encountered antisemitism on campus. – Algemeiner

Lawyers representing the family of the Jewish doctor murdered during a frenzied antisemitic assault inside her Paris apartment in 2017 have expressed angry frustration at the news that the accused killer may yet escape a criminal trial. – Algemeiner

Editorial: Berlin is providing political cover for other NATO members tempted to scrimp on spending if an economic downturn stretches budgets. This will also embolden Mr. Trump and others in Washington who argue that German defense failures are a reason to rethink U.S. commitments to Europe. – Wall Street Journal

Rachel Rizzo and Carrie Cordero write: Accordingly, the time is ripe for Congress to refresh its institutional understanding of the history of NATO, the contribution the alliance makes to global security, current challenges in modernizing the alliance, and the legal issues that would be involved in a potential effort by the president to withdraw. Congress is a key player in protecting the integrity of NATO, and it is vital that policymakers understand the tools at their disposal. – Center for a New American Security

William Schneider writes: The rancor over budgets, however, has overshadowed a more fundamental problem: Military power has shifted from weapons platforms to data. Fortunately, advances in technology now offer a way out of the curiously outdated debate over burden-sharing. Cloud services are the best path forward for NATO’s members to both modernize their military collaboration and patch up their differences. – The Mercury News


The Indian Army launched a 10-day training exercise with 17 African states on 18 March in a bid to expand its military and strategic reach across Africa. – Jane’s 360

Sudan considers oil and gas exploration blocks offered by Egypt in the Red Sea’s Halayeb area as a direct intrusion into Sudanese territory, Saad al-Deen Hussein al-Bishri, minister of state at Khartoum’s oil ministry, was cited as saying. – Reuters

Douglas Burton writes: The large Nigerian expatriate community in the United States has been shocked by the steady drumbeat of terror news from their homeland, the richest country in Africa, which has contributed 6 percent of the foreign-born population of the U.S. Sylvester Okere, a Nigerian Christian academic raised in Northern Nigeria’s Kano State who has supported Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the attacks this week. – Washington Examiner

The Americas

The liberal group MoveOn is calling on Democratic presidential candidates to skip this year’s AIPAC policy conference, citing the pro-Israel group’s links to the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu and charging that AIPAC has flirted with Islamophobia. – Politico

The head of a New Jersey school district has apologized after a guest speaker dubbed Adolf Hitler a “good leader” and displayed the Nazi dictator’s photo alongside civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. – New York Post

A Guatemalan presidential candidate known for tackling high-profile corruption as attorney general said on Wednesday that she would return from neighboring El Salvador within days despite an arrest warrant. – Reuters

Andrew Duehren writes: Brazil and the U.S., along with dozens of other countries, have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the interim president of the country and called for Mr. Maduro to step down. A closer military alliance between the two countries could help facilitate any potential military intervention in Venezuela, which both leaders did not rule out on Tuesday. – Wall Street Journal

Cyber Security

European Union leaders will sound the alarm this week over the threat of EU elections in May being undermined by a coordinated campaign of fake news and disinformation by foreign powers. – Reuters

Norsk Hydro, one of the world’s largest aluminum producers, has made some progress restoring operations but is not yet back to normal after it was hit by a ransomware cyber attack, the company said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The Air Force wants to start a new program to develop a series of offensive cyber tools, according to the White House’s budget request for fiscal year 2020. – Fifth Domain

Insights into specific military cyber programs can be challenging. However, recently available budget documents provide a peek into how the Department of Defense seeks to equip and train cyberwarriors. – Fifth Domain


The Defense Department’s independent watchdog has opened an investigation into allegations that acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan violated ethics rules by taking actions to promote Boeing after leaving the aerospace company and accepting a top job at the Pentagon.  – Washington Post

Last September, the U.S. Air Force revealed that it will need a total of 386 operational squadrons to take on future threats posed by Russia and China. A new congressionally mandated study posits that number may not be enough. – Defense News

The Army’s newest tracked vehicle, set to replace the half-century old Armored Personnel Carrier, is set to field next year in both the United States and Europe, according to recent Army budget documents. – Army Times

Facing threats from ever-faster missiles and increasingly complicated air threats from China and Russia, the Navy is moving toward a major upgrade to its stalwart Arleigh Burke destroyer fleet. – Defense News

The U.S. Army is embarking on several new missile development programs while ramping up and accelerating other ongoing programs to deliver more fire power to the force at greater ranges, according to the service’s justification books for its fiscal 2020 budget request. – Defense News

The United States has blamed Russia and China for militarizing space, while refusing to sign their joint proposal for placing weapons there. – Newsweek

Tom Rogan writes: Although there are obvious benefits to providing war fighters with easy access to real-time intelligence and other instruments of military power, over-reliance on networked warfare is a mistake. It creates space and incentive for an enemy to destabilize a defined U.S. military center of gravity. – Washington Examiner

Long War

When the Islamic State raised its black flag over the Syrian city of Raqqa in early 2014, it began its transformation from fringe regional player to fearsome global threat. By the end of that year, it had seized large stretches of territory in Iraq and Syria, creating a rogue state the size of Britain. […]Here are some of the major moments in the group’s evolution. – New York Times

New Zealand moved to ban military-style semiautomatic weapons, assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, stepping up its response to Friday’s slaughter of 50 worshipers at two Christchurch mosques by a lone gunman. – Wall Street Journal

Militant groups are using the attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, to spread a message of hate, pushing a narrative that says the West is at war with Islam and Muslims worldwide, security officials and experts say. – Washington Post

Timothy P. Carney writes: A terrorist attack during weekly worship at a holy place is particularly foul. The fear it instills in its wake is particularly harmful. At a time when believers are trying to elevate their attention and intentions above the world, they are left to wonder and fear, to startle at a door opening, or even a child crying. […]The attacks in New Zealand weren’t merely attacks on those two mosques. They also weren’t merely attacks on Muslims. They were felt by believers of all faiths around the world. – Washington Examiner

Nina Shea and Farahnaz Isphanai write: Wherever Muthana ends up — in a Syrian Democratic Force evacuation camp, an Iraqi detention center, or the U.S. — Washington should ensure that she and other women who flocked to ISIS face charges. They threw their support behind a terror group that the U.S. government officially designated as responsible for religious genocide against the Middle Eastern Yazidi, Christian, and ethnic Shiite minorities. These minorities will struggle for generations to recover, and they yearn for justice. – Real Clear Politics

Rita Katz writes: But while white supremacists celebrate, Tarrant has done a major favor for ISIS and al Qaeda recruitment efforts. […]For ISIS, the attack is an easily exploitable opportunity to radicalize prospective recruits and justify its incitements and attacks. – The Daily Beast