Fdd's overnight brief

March 30, 2020

In The News


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted a video over the weekend showing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saying that the purpose of Iran’s public relations campaign to end US sanctions due to the coronavirus pandemic is really about enriching the regime. – Algemeiner

A top US Jewish group condemned the Tehran regime on Thursday for the death of ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson. – Algemeiner

Iran’s coronavirus death toll has risen to 2,640, a health ministry official said on Sunday, as the Middle East’s worst-hit country grapples with the fast-spreading outbreak. – Reuters

Iran’s health infrastructure is strong and ready to cope with a possible escalation in coronavirus cases, President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday on state TV. – Reuters

The Tehran government on Friday urged the United States to release Iranians held in U.S. jails on sanctions-related issues due to fears about the coronavirus epidemic. – Reuters

Iran is to allocate 20% of its annual state budget to fighting the coronavirus outbreak in the country, one of the worst-hit in the world, President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday. – Reuters

Prisoners in southern Iran broke cameras and caused other damage during a riot, state media reported Monday, the latest in a series of violent prison disturbances in the country, which is battling the most severe coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East. – Associated Press

Iran’s president on Sunday lashed out at criticism of authorities’ lagging response to the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, saying the government has to weigh economic concerns as it takes measures to contain the pandemic. – Associated Press

Iran announced another 144 deaths from the coronavirus on Friday and said thousands more were in critical condition as the military completed work on a 2,000-bed field hospital in an exhibition center in the capital. – Associated Press

Kevjn Lim writes: Whatever the truth behind these allegations, Mahan’s policy is symptomatic of a larger geopolitical reality: Tehran has become profoundly, disproportionately, and perhaps irretrievably dependent on Beijing, despite its own revolutionary opposition to reliance on foreign powers. Where diplomatic and economic sanctions have fallen short, the pandemic has succeeded in isolating the Islamic Republic like never before, compelling it to keep its borders to China open. – Washington Institute

James Phillips and Nicole Robinson write: Iran’s dictatorship has refused foreign aid offered by the United States, the World Health Organization, and other international health groups on grounds that foreign humanitarian aid workers could be “spies.” The Iranian regime apparently will do anything it can to maintain its grip on power, even if it means needlessly sacrificing Iranian lives. – The Daily Signal


Several Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) members escaped from a Syrian prison on Sunday by ripping off doors and using them to break down a wall during a “detention facility uprising,” authorities said. – CNN

Syria said on Friday it was banning travel between cities and governorates as part of tightening measures to curb the spread of coronavirus, state-run Ikhbariya TV reported, citing the interior minister. – Reuters

Syria’s president and one of the United Arab Emirates’ most powerful leaders spoke on the phone on Friday — signalling a major thaw in Damascus’ troubled relations with Arab countries, which had mostly boycotted President Bashar Assad and backed his opposition. – Associated Press


When Turkey this week announced indictments against 20 suspects in the killing of the dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, the prospects dimmed of anyone ever being held accountable for the crime. – New York Times

Turkish authorities have evacuated thousands of migrants who had been waiting at the border with Greece hoping to make their way into Europe, as a precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic, Turkey’s interior minister said Friday. – Associated Press

Michael Rubin writes: When Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party won an overwhelming victory in Turkey’s November 2002 parliamentary elections, giving an Islamist party a supermajority for the first time in modern Turkish history, Erdogan took pains to assure those who worried where he might take the country. […]Many Turkish liberals, however, sought to dispel any alarm about Erdogan and his broader agenda by suggesting the accusations were part of a Jewish conspiracy against Turkey. – Washington Examiner

Nikos Dendias writes:  As Europeans, we remain convinced that Europe can and should continue to provide support to the millions of Syrian refugees and displaced persons that are either within Syria or hosted by neighbouring countries such as Turkey, which has the largest number. However, neither Greece nor the EU will engage with Turkey under duress, threat or blackmail. Maybe the time has come, especially given the difficult situation we all face with the pandemic, for the Turkish leadership to realise that its extortion diplomacy has ceased to be effective. – Financial Times


Palestinian groups in Gaza cancelled mass rallies planned for next week along the border with Israel amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus in the densely-populated territory, organizers said on Saturday. – Reuters

The United Nations point man on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process praised coordination between the Jewish state and the Palestinian Authority on fighting the coronavirus, according to a statement issued over the weekend. – Algemeiner

US President Donald Trump held a telephone call on Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A White House statement said, “[…]The two leaders agreed to cooperate closely to combat the virus and minimize its global impact. The President and the Prime Minister also discussed critical bilateral and regional issues.” – Algemeiner

Editorial: Much can happen in 18 months, and once Mr. Gantz becomes Prime Minister he will have to manage a balky coalition that will include members of his own party who dislike this power-sharing agreement. Meantime, credit to both men for recognizing the need for a stable government amid the pandemic. – Wall Street Journal

David Makovsky writes: The emergence of an Israeli government that is broader in composition than its predecessor could (gradually) help mend the fraying fabric of American bipartisanship on Israel, especially now that the most contentious phase of the U.S. primary election process is in the rearview mirror. This prospect will face its sternest test on the issues of annexation and settlement activity. – Washington Institute


The Pentagon has ordered military commanders to plan for an escalation of American combat in Iraq, issuing a directive last week to prepare a campaign to destroy an Iranian-backed militia group that has threatened more attacks against American troops. – New York Times

Iraq is cratering on almost every front. Oil revenues, the government’s main source of income, have plummeted as the world price of oil has crashed and the government has resorted to asking for donations to help it weather the pandemic. – New York Times

Iran-backed militias are becoming more audacious in attacking U.S. personnel in Iraq, with rocket strikes against military bases occurring more frequently and, for the first time, in broad daylight. U.S. officials say they are receiving near-daily reports of “imminent” attacks planned against U.S.-linked military or diplomatic facilities. – Washington Post

The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq withdrew Sunday from a military base in the country’s north that nearly launched Washington into an open war with neighboring Iran. – Associated Press

Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace write: U.S. forces began one of three planned withdrawals from small bases in Iraq, two of which have been targets of frequent Iranian-proxy mortar attacks. The Pentagon described the withdrawal as a planned consolidation of forces. Iran’s proxies are framing the consolidation as the beginning of defeat for U.S. forces in Iraq. – Institute for the Study of War


Lebanese security forces cleared away a protest camp in central Beirut on Saturday and reopened roads blocked by demonstrators since protests against the governing elite started in October. – Reuters

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri threatened on Saturday to suspend his support for Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government if it did not act to bring home expatriates stranded abroad during the coronavirus pandemic. – Reuters

Lebanon has expressed interest in receiving emergency financing from the International Monetary Fund to combat the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic, but has not filed a formal request for funds, IMF officials said on Friday. – Reuters

Arabian Peninsula

Saudi air defenses shot down ballistic missiles fired at the country’s capital and a city along its southern border with Yemen, according to Saudi officials, who blamed Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration on Friday cut off tens of millions of dollars for health care programs and other aid in Yemen, rejecting pleas by humanitarian groups and some members of Congress to delay the decision as the coronavirus spreads across the Middle East. American officials said the move was a necessary response to longstanding interference by Houthi rebels who control the northern part of Yemen. – New York Times

Saudi Arabia appears to be exploiting weaknesses in the global mobile telecoms network to track its citizens as they travel around the US, according to a whistleblower who has shown the Guardian millions of alleged secret tracking requests. – The Guardian

A military spokesman for Yemen’s Houthis on Sunday said the group’s forces had launched rockets and drones at “sensitive” sites in the Saudi capital Riyadh and at economic and military sites in Jazan and Asir, near the Yemeni border. – Reuters


Battles raged on several fronts in Libya on Friday after a night of heavy bombardment in Tripoli, combatants and residents said, despite the threat continued fighting poses to efforts to stop the coronavirus pandemic. – Reuters

Artillery blasts shook Libya’s capital Tripoli on Sunday as fighting raged even as the nation confirmed five more cases of the coronavirus for a total of eight. – Reuters

Joshua Meservey writes: The best chance the U.S. has to ameliorate the Libya crisis is to aggressively engage on the diplomatic front. The United States is the country best able to influence the combatants toward an agreement, and to persuade foreign powers to stop their counterproductive activities inside Libya. Failing to do so will heighten the odds that Libya becomes a bigger and more complex problem for the United States for years to come. – Heritage Foundation

Korean Peninsula

North Korea launched two apparent short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast Sunday morning, South Korea’s military said, as Pyongyang continues to a habit of weapons testing amid a lull in disarmament talks with the U.S. – Wall Street Journal

North Korea’s latest test of super-large multiple rocket launchers a day earlier was a success, state media said on Monday. – Reuters

Oriana Skylar Mastro writes: In an attempt to consolidate his position with the armed forces, particularly if it is true that COVID-19 led to a short-term freezing of military activity in North Korea, Kim may change his approach and push more frequent or advanced missile or nuclear testing. As the United States refocuses its security resources on dealing with the spread of COVID-19 at home, an uptick in tensions on the peninsula could create a real dilemma for Washington. – American Enterprise Institute


Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG-85) transited the Taiwan Strait earlier this week, eliciting a terse response from Chinese military officials. – USNI News

China hit out at what it called “biased” reporting on Friday in a frosty response to a request by three major U.S. newspapers to reverse the expulsion of several of their China-based journalists. – Reuters

Several countries in or neighbouring the EU have rejected Chinese-made coronavirus testing kits and protective equipment as substandard, raising concerns about the quality of supplies. – Financial Times

Beijing’s efforts to get people back to work in China have been met with widespread opposition from citizens who do not trust government assurances that the virus outbreak is under control. – Financial Times

Minxin Pei writes: The US and China have appeared more intent on undermining each other than working together. Since the outbreak of the virus in China, they have fought a war of diplomatic tit-for-tat — notwithstanding last week’s conversation between presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. […]By co-operating to fight a common enemy, they can both help themselves and reassure the world that the feud can be waged rationally, without endangering all humanity. – Financial Times

Joseph Bosco writes: When China is finally on that path, which it has falsely promised under four decades of engagement, the president can claim “a very, very powerful victory over the virus” — that is, the political malady of Chinese Communism. Then, in the spirit of both Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, he can show American magnanimity to the liberated Chinese people. – The Hill

Michael Rubin writes: To believe Chinese statistics and use them to condemn the U.S. response in comparison to China’s, however, is not only ignorant but highlights an increasingly significant problem where their statistics are treated as gold. In reality, statistics from autocratic regimes aren’t worth their weight in sawdust. – Washington Examiner

Michael Sobolik writes: We cannot stand up to the CCP if we fail to differentiate between victims and victimizers — just as Americans cannot unite the world while assuming the worst about one another. The Chinese Communist Party started this fire. But they are angling to emerge from its ashes as a savior. While acknowledging its current helpful efforts, Americans must stand together and call the party what it is: an instigator. – National Review

Jonathan Soo Hoo writes: The Chinese government is more responsible for the deaths and economic struggles caused by COVID-19 than the virus itself. As such, the United States should bail out American workers, as President Trump has promised, and deduct the cost of the bailout from our debt owed to China. – Washington Examiner


The Taliban on Saturday attacked several provinces in northern Afghanistan, overrunning large parts of one district even as American diplomats expressed optimism that a peace process stalled over the release of prisoners was getting back on track. – New York Times

The Taliban declined on Saturday to begin talks with the Afghan government’s new negotiating team in a setback to the U.S.-brokered peace process for one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. – Reuters

Afghanistan’s government announced a 21-member team to negotiate with the Taliban, in a tentative sign of progress for the United States-brokered peace deal. – Reuters

Taliban attacks in Afghanistan’s north and south have killed at least 11Afghan soldiers and policemen, the country’s Defense Ministry and a provincial official said Monday. – Associated Press


Japan will step up its efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus by banning the entry of foreign citizens travelling from the United States, China, South Korea and most of Europe, the Asahi newspaper reported on Monday. – Reuters

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu extended a personal invitation on Saturday for three major U.S. newspapers to station on the island their China-based journalists whose expulsion Beijing has announced. – Reuters

Support for the demands of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong has grown even as rallies have paused due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to a survey conducted for Reuters that also showed a widespread lack of confidence in the government’s ability to manage the COVID-19 crisis. – Reuters

The nationwide shutdown in India because of coronavirus has left some of the world’s biggest outsourcing companies racing to maintain services for global clients. – Financial Times


Ahead of November’s election, American intelligence officials and others are on high alert for mischief from Russia’s Internet Research Agency. – New York Times

Russia is sharply divided over a constitutional change that would allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036, an opinion poll published on Friday has found. – Reuters

Russia’s space agency Roscosmos said on Friday it would have to adjust its 2020 launch programme because of a halt in satellite production in Europe, amid the coronavirus outbreak. – Reuters

Russia, the largest country by area, will temporarily shut all its borders starting March 30 after the number of coronavirus infections increased sharply over the last week. Health officials on Saturday reported 228 new cases of coronavirus overnight, bringing the total to 1,264, with four deaths attributed to the illness. – Bloomberg

Russia under President Vladimir Putin has pioneered authoritarian tech: Last year, the Kremlin leader approved measures that would enable the creation of a “sovereign” Russian internet, able to be firewalled from the rest of the world. The Covid-19 pandemic is now giving Russian authorities an opportunity to test new powers and technology, and the country’s privacy and free-speech advocates worry the government is building sweeping new surveillance capabilities. – CNN

Stanislaw Zaryn writes: Moscow is after sanctions relief. It claims it would like to do even more to help Europe respond to the coronavirus, but sanctions—imposed after the Russian annexation of Crimea—hold it back. Undermining Poland, a country whose stance on Russia sanctions is one of the firmest in Europe, is part of that strategy. The coronavirus disinformation campaign shows that the Kremlin is determined to seize every opportunity, including great tragedies, to push its agenda. – Wall Street Journal


It took Europe a half-century to integrate its economies. It took the new coronavirus only weeks to roll that back as countries closed their borders. – Wall Street Journal

In Belarus, authoritarian leader President Alexander Lukashenko has famously scoffed at the coronavirus as a “frenzy and psychosis.” His views also come with advice for citizens who don’t share his coronavirus scorn: Hit the sauna, down some vodka and get back to work. – Washington Post

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, making him one of the first world leaders to become a patient in the global pandemic. – Washington Post

North Macedonia on Friday officially became the 30th member of the NATO military alliance. – Associated Press

Eastern Europeans with strong memories of authoritarian Communist rule have taken a “been there, done that” attitude to the restrictions on free movement and shortages of some basic goods caused by the coronavirus pandemic. – Reuters

Robert Scott Kellner writes: Nazi pretensions came to an end with Hitler’s April 30 suicide and the humiliation of unconditional surrender. Kellner was appointed the leading town councilman of Laubach, and under his leadership the local Nazis were punished. […]Kellner’s stern declaration is relevant for today’s anti-Semites and fanatics of every stripe: “Whoever cries about having lost the totalitarian system or wants to resurrect National Socialism is to be treated as an incorrigible lunatic.” – Wall Street Journal

Zsombor Zeöld writes: As the European Union attempts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic in the near term, it also faces the long-term challenge of rebalancing itself in the wake of the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU on January 31, 2020. Without Britain, the EU’s political center of gravity will shift further toward Berlin and Paris. – Center for European Policy Analysis


When France sent its forces into Mali, a former French colony, after armed Islamists took control of the West African country’s northern cities, their mission was supposed to last only a few weeks. That was seven years ago. – New York Times

Malians voted in a long-delayed parliamentary election on Sunday, barely a day after the country recorded its first coronavirus death and with the leading opposition figure kidnapped and believed to be in the hands of jihadists. – Agence France-Presse

Ilan Berman and Jacob McCarty write: Amid this crowded strategic agenda, Africa represents a comparative bright spot—one that holds out the promise of greater security and prosperity for the kingdom as it seeks to adapt to changing global conditions. It is for that reason, more than any other, that Saudi Arabia’s interest in Africa, and its presence there, is sure to continue to grow in the years ahead. – The National Interest

North America

From the White House to the county courthouse, the coronavirus pandemic has drastically upended the 2020 elections. Many Democratic leaders now doubt their national party convention will take place as planned in July, while President Trump’s determination to hold the Republican convention could collide with life-and-death realities. – New York Times

Canada said Thursday it told the Trump administration that a proposal to put troops at the U.S.-Canada border amid the coronavirus pandemic was entirely unnecessary and would damage relations between the two longtime allies. – Associated Press

Canada’s decision to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympic Games if they were to be held in 2020 was a unilateral decision based on the health and safety of athletes and with no consultation with the International Olympic Committee, the COC said on Friday. – Reuters

In a Friday, March 20, 2020 sermon at Muslim Youth of Victoria, Canada, Sheikh Younus Kathrada, asked why Muslims do not take Allah’s commands to distance themselves from sin as seriously as they are taking medical professionals’ guidelines about social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that Muslims should distance themselves from fornication by lowering their gaze, wearing the hijab, and avoiding events where men and women can mingle freely. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Editorial: The good news here is that the public seems to be ignoring the trivial politics and focusing on what matters. The Beltway press corp’s habit of playing gotcha with Mr. Trump seems especially small these days. Most Americans are looking past it for real news about help on the economy, the availability of medical equipment, and the potential of anti-viral therapies. Damage from the virus will continue for months, but America is now mobilizing against it. Don’t bet against success. – Wall Street Journal

Latin America

Retired Venezuelan Gen. Cliver Alcalá turned himself in to the U.S. counternarcotics authorities Friday, a day after U.S. prosecutors indicted him and other Venezuelan officials, including President Nicolás Maduro, on drug-trafficking charges, according to four people familiar with the matter. – Wall Street Journal

For all the accusations of repression facing Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, he has refrained from one bold step: arresting his political nemesis, the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó. But the Trump administration’s indictment of Maduro on narcoterrorism charges Thursday, complete with a $15 million reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction, has raised a new question: Does Maduro really have anything left to lose by moving against Guaidó?  – Washington Post

Russia’s state-controlled oil giant Rosneft announced Saturday that it had stopped operations in Venezuela and sold its assets to a company wholly owned by the Russian government, in a shake-up of a key economic lifeline for embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás ­Maduro. – Washington Post

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has trumpeted renewed Russian backing for his embattled government, suggesting that the exit of Moscow’s state-controlled oil company Rosneft to avoid US sanctions will not affect his most important overseas ally. – Financial Times

Andres Martinez-Fernandez writes: In recent years, the US has significantly increased its efforts to highlight the realities of Cuba’s overseas medical missions, calling on the world to end these exploitive programs. […]The advent of the coronavirus pandemic should not be used to excuse the exploitative arrangements that the Cuban regime demands for its overseas medical missions. If Havana wants praise for its foreign medical programs, it should pay workers fair wages and allow them to have the basic freedoms and protections enjoyed by their colleagues around the world. – American Enterprise Institute

Margarita R. Seminario and Claudia Fernandez write: As the international community has consistently argued, a critical measure to secure a transition to the rule of law is to restore a legitimate government through free, fair, and transparent presidential elections. These elections will only be legitimate if fundamental democratic norms are respected, including enabling the Venezuelan diaspora to exercise their constitutional right to vote. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


China and Russia have both seized on the novel coronavirus to wage disinformation campaigns that seek to sow doubts about the United States’ handling of the crisis and deflect attention from their own struggles with the pandemic, according to American intelligence officials and diplomats. – New York Times

Digital surveillance and smartphone technology may prove helpful in containing the coronavirus pandemic — but some activists fear this could mean lasting harm to privacy and digital rights. – Agence France-Presse

Raytheon has been given a green light, and $378 million, to replace computer hardware embedded in the next-generation Operational Control System (OCX) for GPS satellites considered at high risk of Chinese hacking, Space and Missile Systems Center announced today. – Breaking Defense

Chinese, Russian, and Iranian disinformation campaigns about the coronavirus pandemic are amplifying each other, warned the State Department’s chief counterpropagandist. – Washington Examiner


House Democrats left the capital on Friday after passing the $2 trillion coronavirus relief legislation without taking up a Senate bill to temporarily revive three expired F.B.I. surveillance tools for terrorism and espionage investigations, ensuring that the laws will remain lapsed at least until the Senate returns from vacation next month. – New York Times

Senior DoD officials and top military leaders currently are pondering how to organize future missile defense acquisition, including the possible break up of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) by transferring its authorities to the Army, Air Force, Navy and Space Force, insiders say. – Breaking News

The number of Guard troops mobilized in the effort to cope with the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow. As of Friday morning, there are more than 12,300 Air and Army National Guard professionals are supporting the COVID-19 crisis response at the direction of their governors. That’s an increase of almost 1,000 troops since Thursday. – Military Times

Over the past few weeks, U.S. defense contractors have watched the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19, transform from a looming threat into a national crisis. But so far there have been no significant negative impacts to Air Force weapons development programs, the service’s acquisition executive said. – Defense News

The U.S. Army has shored up a congressionally mandated funding cut to its fiscal 2020 Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft development budget that would have affected its prototyping effort, according to service aviation leadership. – Defense News