Fdd's overnight brief

March 26, 2020

In The News


Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran 13 years ago, has died in Iranian custody, his family said Wednesday in a statement. – Washington Post

Iran’s theocratic regime could crumble under the pressure of the coronavirus outbreak that has spread through elite ranks and the broader population alike, according to the European Union’s top diplomat. – Washington Examiner

Shut out of international capital markets and facing a further hit to its finances with the collapse in oil prices coming on top of U.S. sanctions, Iran is struggling to shield its economy from the coronavirus pandemic. – Reuters

Iran may face a second outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, a government spokesman said on Wednesday, as the Islamic Republic banned internal travel and traditional gatherings in parks during the Persian New Year holiday period. – Reuters

Iran has started an intercity travel ban, an Iranian official said in a televised news conference on Thursday, a day after Iran’s government spokesman warned the country might face a second outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. – Reuters

A 40-year-old Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent has been charged with helping an unnamed Iranian intelligence service carry out a plot on Danish soil to kill an Iranian opposition activist, a prosecutor said Wednesday. – Associated Press

A Navy veteran released from an Iranian prison last week on a medical furlough says he is sick with symptoms of the coronavirus and is requesting a humanitarian evacuation to the United States for medical treatment. – Associated Press

Editorial: Easing sanctions would shore up the regime’s shaky position without providing relief to the Iranian people. Tehran has money for medicine if it cuts spending on missiles, nuclear-weapons development and military adventurism. Diverting billions from the mullahs’ violent imperial project is the best way to relieve suffering in Iran and the broader Middle East. – Wall Street Journal


Turkish officials on Wednesday announced the indictments of 20 Saudi nationals on charges of murder and incitement to murder in the killing of the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi, concluding their investigation into the case. – New York Times

Two Turkish soldiers were killed and two others wounded after a mortar attack by Kurdish militants in northern Iraq’s Haftanin region, the Turkish Defence Ministry said late on Wednesday, adding the attack was retaliated. – Reuters

Turkey delivered heavy weapons to Libya days after he Turkish president pledged in Berlin to respect a UN arms embargo,  a newly published investigation has found. – Telegraph


Israel’s speaker of the parliament abruptly resigned Wednesday, hours before a court-imposed deadline mandated a vote on replacing him. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein averted one constitutional crisis, but may have sparked another when he immediately gaveled the Knesset out of session until next Monday, infuriating 61 lawmakers who were ready to elect a new speaker. Washington Post

Fearing that a coronavirus outbreak in the Gaza Strip could cause a severe crisis there, Hamas threatened that, if the financial aid from Qatar is delayed,  it will exacerbate the conflict with Israel and “send half of Israeli society into the bomb shelters,” thus increasing the spread of the virus in Israel. The spokesman of Hamas’s military wing also demanded that Israel release the Hamas members incarcerated in its prisons, to keep them from contracting the disease. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called on Palestinian workers in Israel to return to the West Bank even though Israel agreed last week to allow them to stay in the territory for one to two months. – Times of Israel

The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday said it was delaying a joint air exercise with the United States that was supposed to begin Tuesday. – Times of Israel

David Pollock writes: A reliable Palestinian public opinion poll taken last week shows that two-thirds of the public in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem state support for “cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians to prevent the spread of coronavirus.” This proportion is significantly higher than roughly half of the Palestinians who reported supporting economic cooperation with Israel in another poll conducted by the same organization as recently as mid-February. – Washington Institute


Iraq’s military on Thursday said at least two rockets hit inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government and home to the U.S. Embassy, according to an Iraqi military statement, the first attack following a brief lull in violence from earlier this month. – Associated Press

France is pulling out its military forces from Iraq as French forces are increasingly called upon to help fight the coronavirus at home. – Associated Press

Iraq is extending a travel ban within the country and to and from its airports until April 11 as part of strict steps to curb the outbreak of the coronavirus, the government said in a statement. – Reuters


The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are already in competition for the upper hand in Yemen’s south, where the UAE supports a separatist movement which says it wants renewed independence for South Yemen. – The Guardian

Five years after Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war, leading a military coalition to prop up the government which had been driven out of its capital, the Huthi rebels are only stronger, more resilient and gaining ground. – Agence France-Presse

A leader of the Iran-aligned Yemen’s Houthi movement said on Wednesday that the Saudi-led coalition announcing its support for a ceasefire is welcomed and they are waiting for it to be applied practically, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi said in a tweet. – Reuters

Bobby Ghosh writes: To expect the Iranians, Saudis and Emiratis to do the right thing out of sympathy for the Yemenis would be too much. After all, they were not greatly moved by the cholera outbreak. But Guterres will likely find the leadership of the Arab coalition sympathetic for other reasons. Over the past year, the Saudis and Emiratis have shown a growing desire to exit their expensive, embarrassing Yemeni quagmire. The rebels, too, may welcome a break: Last fall, the Houthis and Saudis both signaled interest in a cease-fire. The UAE began to draw down its troop presence. – Bloomberg

Middle East & North Africa

Clashes between rival Libyan forces for control of the capital escalated Wednesday as militias allied with the U.N.-supported government launched an offensive against a military base held by their rivals, officials said. – Associated Press

An international aid group said Wednesday that closures aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic are preventing it from reaching 300,000 people in conflict zones across the Middle East, as the virus arrived in war-torn Libya and case counts rose in Syria and the Gaza Strip, among the world’s most vulnerable places. – Associated Press

Ron Prosor writes: All these circumstances – the global economic effect of the Coronavirus, Hezbollah’s uncertain political condition and public responsibility, Iran’s focus on licking its wounds and Lebanon with its back to the wall – create an unprecedented window of opportunity to make a real difference. This window will not stay open for long. If the world doesn’t act now, Israel, the Middle East and beyond will long suffer the consequences. – Jerusalem Post


President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will come face-to-face in an unusual teleconference for leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies as leaders struggle to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. – Washington Examiner

Foreign ministers from the Group of 7 leading industrialized democracies sparred Wednesday over whether to call out China as the source of the coronavirus pandemic. – Associated Press

China accused the United States on Thursday of playing a dangerous game with its support for Taiwan, after a U.S. warship passed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait following heightened military tension between China and Taiwan. – Reuters

China must provide more information about the nature of the coronavirus now ravaging populations and economies around the world, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday. – Washington Times

Thousands of lives could have been saved if China allowed its media freedom to operate independently, the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) organization has claimed. – Newsweek

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has fired a fresh broadside at America’s rivals over their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting citizens will ultimately hold their leaders responsible for failures that have put thousands at risk. […]”The people most harmed by the absence of transparency and good governance are the people of their own country,” Pompeo said of China and Iran. – Newsweek

Ali Wyne writes: The spread of the coronavirus has placed into sharp relief one of the most troubling disjunctures of the 21st century. Challenges of this magnitude place an ever-higher premium on cooperation between major powers — at a time when these powers increasingly adhere to nationalistic outlooks that view such collaboration with suspicion. U.S.-China relations offer the most sobering exhibit. – Washington Post

Peter Rough writes: If the liberal societies of the West are searching for hopeful signs amid the chaos, they may be found in the democracies of Asia: South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan seem, on the whole, to be responding more nimbly and more successfully to the coronavirus than Asia’s bastion of repression. Whatever advantages of authoritarianism Beijing may be trying to hawk in this sudden seller’s market, liberal societies must remain self-assured and act united. – Foreign Policy


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday he was frustrated after a daylong visit to Afghanistan this week in which he failed to mediate an end to a leadership feud between President Ashraf Ghani and political rival Abdullah Abdullah. – Reuters

The Afghan government said on Wednesday that it would free 100 Taliban detainees on humanitarian grounds at the end of March, raising uncertainty about the fate of a prisoner release deal with the insurgents, who have demanded that 5,000 detainees be freed. – Reuters

Michael Rubin writes: Perhaps Pompeo was willing to agree to what, on its face, is a horrible deal because he understood that President Trump wanted out of Afghanistan and saw no reason to pay $30 billion annually to maintain the U.S. presence there.[…] Simply put, Pompeo’s pro-Taliban strategy makes no strategic, military, or moral sense. It will remain a lodestone around his legacy and diminishes U.S. security not only regionally but also worldwide. – Washington Examiner


An Australian white supremacist charged with killing 51 worshipers at two mosques in New Zealand last year changed his plea to guilty on Thursday, a move that surprised survivors and relatives of the victims who had hoped to see swift justice for the deadliest act of violence in the country’s history. – New York Times

Pyongyang has secretly asked for international help to increase coronavirus testing in North Korea as the pandemic threatens to cripple its fragile healthcare system. – Financial Times

Hong Kong police briefly arrested a 60-year-old pro-democracy district councillor on suspicion of “seditious intention,” the first person ever cited under the city’s colonial-era law, drawing widespread criticism from activists. – Reuters

Michael Mazza writes: Taiwan has received well-deserved plaudits for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far. Taipei acted early and resolutely to ensure that it would not face an epidemic on its own shores. There is a long way to go, but thus far that effort seems to be paying off. Even so, there could be perilous days ahead. – Global Taiwan Institute


Calling for “discipline and responsibility” in the face of the coronavirus, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Wednesday announced the postponement of a referendum next month on whether he can govern until 2036. – New York Times

With the extent of Russia’s coronavirus epidemic distorted by a lack of testing, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin ordered restaurants and most stores in Europe’s biggest city to shut down for a week. – Bloomberg

Alexis Mrachek writes: The situation surrounding the coronavirus in Russia right now is worrisome, from practically every angle. But the point is that much hasn’t changed since Soviet times. The Russian government is likely lying to its people, but its citizens deserve better than that. The Kremlin should put their well-being and trust above its own reputation. – Washington Examiner


European leaders are preparing to spar Thursday over whether to issue common debt to counter economic pain from the new coronavirus and ease pressure on embattled countries like Italy, reviving memories of the region’s sovereign debt crisis nearly a decade ago. – Wall Street Journal

The coronavirus crisis contributed for the first time to the collapse of a national government on Wednesday after a majority of lawmakers in Kosovo voted to bring down the country’s ruling coalition, following a political dispute related in part to the pandemic. – New York Times

The leaders of a far-right faction inside Germany’s right-wing populist opposition have asked the group’s members to “cease their activities,” an apparent surrender that analysts cautioned was more likely to be a tactical move in the troubled party’s internal power struggles. – New York Times

German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the coronavirus crisis in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday and they agreed to stay in close contact regarding the coronavirus pandemic, the German government said in a statement. – Reuters

Britain’s upper house of parliament on Wednesday approved emergency legislation designed to help the government tackle the coronavirus outbreak, paving the way for the far-reaching bill to become law. – Reuters

Facing the prospect of a Euroskeptic backlash if Europe fails to rally during the crisis, EU member countries are now scrambling to show the European Union is a genuine community. – Politico

Restrictions on movement not only could slow the peace process but also could hinder a protest movement that is passionately calling for Ukraine not to give two breakaway regions run by Russian rebels, Luhansk and Donetsk, any legitimacy.- NBC


Militant group Islamic State has claimed responsibility for an attack in northern Mozambique just south of the site of gas projects worth $60 billion being developed by the likes of Exxon Mobil and Total. – Reuters

The IMF and the World Bank on Wednesday said Somalia had taken the necessary steps to begin receiving debt relief, a key move that will allow the Horn of Africa country to lower its $5.2 billion in external debt to around $557 million. – Reuters

Uganda said on Wednesday it had closed its borders to all new refugee arrivals as part of efforts to contain the new coronavirus in a country which has long kept its doors open to those fleeing conflict and other troubles in the region. – Reuters

United States

The military judge presiding in the Sept. 11 death penalty trial at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has scheduled his retirement for later this year, in the latest blow to efforts to start the long-running trial in 2021. – New York Times

The world of white supremacist and white nationalist broadcasting is vast, covering a wide variety of topics, ideologies, and motivations. White victimhood and Holocaust denial are two of the most common themes, but some organizations on the air push for a violent overthrow of the U.S. government as part of a race war. – Middle East Media Research Institute

People who intentionally spread the coronavirus could be charged under federal terrorism laws, according to a report on Wednesday that cited a top Justice Department official. – New York Post


The agency responsible for overseeing the U.S. intelligence community insists a major shake-up and effort to downsize is “not an effort to purge.” – Washington Examiner

Acting as a clearinghouse for emergency medical supply acquisitions, the Department of Defense said Wednesday that a structure was now in place to make purchases in the domestic COVID-19 response, but no signed contracts could be confirmed. – Washington Examiner

The U.S. military announced on Wednesday it was elevating its health-related security level at bases worldwide over the spread of the coronavirus, as it acknowledged the persistent growth in the rate of infections across the force. – Reuters

The Navy recently decided to use a different sewage system on its two newest aircraft carriers, one that is modeled on the toilets in commercial aircraft. But flushing for more than 4,000 people living aboard a carrier turned out to be a harder job than it is on a jetliner. Now the massive ships require regular acid flushes — at $400,000 each — just to keep things flowing. – Roll Call

Congress is set to give the Defense Department $10.5 billion in the emergency stimulus package finalized by senators Wednesday to help with its response to the COVID-19 outbreak. – Roll Call

The Navy is keeping close tabs on its acquisition and maintenance efforts to identify any disruptions that arise from the COVID-19 pandemic, minimize any delays in deliveries and keep the industrial base as strong as possible during a difficult public health and economic time. – USNI News

For three years in a row, the Navy has requested $40 billion annually to build, operate and sustain its ships, but the service has put insufficient thought into how early decisions could reduce those sustainment costs in the future, according to a Government Accountability Office new report. – USNI News

Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin-owned company, and Bell have been selected to build and fly Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) prototypes for the U.S. Army in a head-to-head competition, according to a March 25 Army statement. – Defense News

Mark F. Cancian writes: Gone are tanks and capabilities for sustained ground combat and counterinsurgency. Instead, the corps focuses on long-range and precision strike for a maritime campaign in the Western Pacific against China. But this new Marine Corps faces major risks if the future is different from that envisioned or if the new concepts for operations in a hostile environment prove more difficult to implement than the Marine Corps’ war games indicate. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Andrew Philip Hunter writes: A key issue will be ensuring that defense experts are included in whatever entity is set up to manage aid to industry. Their expertise must ensure that decision makers understand the link between aviation and the defense supply chain, and adopt policies to respond accordingly. – The Hill

Long War

The British government must withhold key evidence from the United States for the trial of two Islamic State detainees because the Trump administration has not provided assurances that the men will not be executed, the British Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday. – New York Times

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday welcomed calls by some groups for immediate cease-fires in their conflicts because of the coronavirus, saying he sees “a clear conscience emerging” that it is time to concentrate on the war against the pandemic. He pointed to communist guerrillas in the Philippines announcing a cease-fire from Thursday to April 15 in response to his appeal, and said he was encouraged to see a truce in Libya between the warring parties “holding with difficulties.” – Associated Press

Indonesia’s police anti-terrorism squad shot and killed one suspect and arrested two others in a raid on the main island of Java, seizing weapons and chemicals allegedly used for bomb making, officials said Thursday. – Associated Press

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Not all militant and terrorist groups care about the pandemic. In parts of the Sahel, terrorist groups linked to Boko Haram and others have carried out increased attacks. This swath of ungoverned territory from the borders of Chad to Niger and beyond is a concern because the virus and extremist groups easily exploit it. Nevertheless armed groups across the Middle East, many of them unable to test for the virus and lacking medical support, are picking up the disinfectant alongside the rifle, preparing for what they know is a looming threat. – Jerusalem Post