Fdd's overnight brief

March 31, 2020

In The News


The Trump administration on Monday renewed several waivers on U.S. sanctions against Iran, allowing Russian, European and Chinese companies to continue to work on Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities without drawing American penalties. – Associated Press

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

European countries trying to keep Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers alive said Tuesday that a system they set up to enable trade with Tehran has finally concluded its first transaction, facilitating the export of medical goods. – Associated Press

The confluence of hard-hitting sanctions on the country and Iran’s floundering theocracy frustrated an adequate response to the pandemic, according to most accounts, but the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, knows who to blame: Genies. And Americans. – Jewish Telegraph Agency

Iran’s leadership is well skilled in adapting its rhetoric depending on its target audience. For external audiences, it uses diplomatic language full of concern about human rights and humanitarian issues. Meanwhile, domestically, its rhetoric is largely reliant on conspiracy theories, sorcery and superstition. The latter is the focus of this article. – Arab News

As Iran struggles to contain one of the world’s worst outbreaks of coronavirus, some are voicing concern that the regime could use the crisis as cover to advance its nuclear program or attempt to deflect attention away from the country’s perceived dubious handling of the pandemic by ordering its proxies to wreak havoc across the Middle East. – The Media Line

Kevjn Lim writes: There are many reasons why Iran has become the Middle East’s flaming epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. […]All these factors undoubtedly play a role, but there is another, far less public suspect for bringing the disease to Iran and worsening its spread among the population: A private Iranian airline tied to the regime’s ideological army and sanctioned by the United States, which continued uninterrupted flights to and from China, including Wuhan, many weeks after the epidemic had already broken out. – Foreign Policy

Karmel Melamed writes: Since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, many American Jews were fooled into believing he and this regime were “moderates.” But with the Iranian regime’s numerous displays of anti-Semitism during the COVID-19 pandemic, American Jewry must finally wake up and denounce this regime’s Jew hatred. The American Jewish community must launch a campaign to pressure governments worldwide to cut all economic and diplomatic ties with this vile regime over its blatant anti-Semitism. – Jewish News Syndicate


Kurdish-led forces on Monday put down a revolt at a prison in northeast Syria for former Islamic State fighters after militants complaining about their conditions seized control of parts of the facility. – Washington Post

The U.N. humanitarian chief warned Monday that the 10 cases of COVID-19 and one death confirmed in Syria are just “the tip of the iceberg,” and judging from other countries “a devastating impact” can be expected on vulnerable communities. – Associated Press

However, Syrian opposition websites stated that the virus had arrived in Syria many days, even weeks, earlier, and that the regime was intentionally hiding the large number of cases in the country. These websites said that the main vector for the disease’s spread in Syria was the pro-Iran militias coming in from Iran and Iraq, where the disease is rampant. – Middle East Media Research Institute


Iran said on Tuesday its natural gas exports to Turkey have stopped after an attack on a pipeline inside the neighbouring country, an Iranian official told state TV. – Reuters

Dmitri Shufutinsky writes: Whatever the international community might think about it, Moscow will likely end up with sole dominion over Syria, having evicted Turkey and Iran — its two historic imperial rivals — from the country. This should prevent a Syrian-Israeli war and could even, in theory, lead to peace between the two countries. […]The Turkish intervention has the potential to bring down both neo-Ottomanism and the radical Shiite revolution that Iran has been trying to spread. Again — let’s wish both sides the best of success. – Algemeiner

Seth J. Frantzman writes: While 100,000 prisoners, including violent criminals, may be released, peaceful writers and members of NGOs are kept in prison. […]Turkey’s regime often dismisses mayors from opposition parties and jails people for tweets. There is almost no critical or opposition media in Turkey as the government has pushed its own channels or those linked to the government. Critical journalists have been forced to flee the country or been imprisoned. There are increasing concerns among human rights groups that the country’s leaders will release violent criminals who may it views as less dangerous than free thinkers or environmental activists. – Jerusalem Post


Yet the terrifying possibility of an outbreak in one of the world’s most crowded territories — 2 million people squeezed into an area twice the size of Washington, D.C. —does not seem to have registered fully. Many in Gaza seem to accept Hamas assurances that the threat is contained. – Associated Press

Microsoft said Friday it is pulling its investments from a facial-recognition startup that scans faces at Israeli military checkpoints, even though the tech giant couldn’t substantiate claims that the startup’s technology is used unethically. – Associated Press

Israel’s defense ministry plans to use software that analyses data gathered from mobile phones – produced, according to Israeli media, by the spyware firm NSO – to help locate likely carriers of the coronavirus in order to test them. – Reuters

The United Nations must condemn the incitement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against Israel, with his false charge that IDF soldiers are spreading coronavirus in the West Bank, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said on Monday. – Jerusalem Post

Israeli security forces arrested two Palestinians in the Ramallah area, including the father of a terrorist responsible for two deadly attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians in 2018. – Jerusalem Post

Israeli-Palestinian joint activity to halt the spread of the coronavirus crisis is akin to the type of cooperation and dialogue necessary to resolve the conflict between the two parties, US Deputy Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet told the UN Security Council on Monday. – Jerusalem Post

Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabia is in daily talks with Iran-aligned Houthi insurgents in Yemen and has invited Houthi representatives and the internationally recognized government in Yemen to peace talks in the kingdom, a senior Saudi official said. – Wall Street Journal

With Saudi Arabia preparing to flood oil markets with a surge of output beginning as early as Wednesday, several of its OPEC brethren are cutting expenditures as they struggle to respond to the ravages of the kingdom’s oil-price war with Russia. – Wall Street Journal

The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi group in Yemen carried out several air strikes on Monday on the capital Sanaa, witnesses and media said, killing dozens of horses at a military school. – Reuters

Tom Rogan writes: Because the Houthis are also obstructing foreign aid supplies in areas under their control. They say this is for reasons of security and to cover logistics costs. In fact, it’s a bald-faced attempt to leverage aid to line their own pockets. Learning from their Iranian patron, the Houthis are practicing humanitarianism Khomeinism-style. In response, the Trump administration last week suspended U.S. aid supplies to Houthi-controlled areas. – Washington Examiner

Middle East & North Africa

Tens of thousands of political prisoners are jailed in Iran, Syria and other countries around the Middle East, punished for anything from advocating for democracy and promoting women’s or workers’ rights to holding Islamist views, protesting or simply criticizing autocratic leaders on Facebook or YouTube. Alarm is growing over the danger the coronavirus pandemic poses to prisoners: if one guard, visitor or new inmate introduces the infection, the virus could race rampant through a captive population unable to protect itself. – Associated Press

Michael Singh writes: The United States needs a strategy for securing its interests in the Middle East that both accords with its broader strategy of great power competition and seeks to accomplish what is needed at a lower, sustainable level of resources. Such a policy should feature a greater reliance on diplomacy and deterrence and a greater reliance on partners when conflict becomes inevitable. – Washington Institute

Michael Knights writes: All of this help would have an important ancillary benefit: increasing U.S. leverage at a moment when the KRI leadership is unwilling to support federal prime minister-elect Adnan al-Zurfi. Kurdish commitment to bolster Zurfi would help Iraq immeasurably—and help Kurdistan survive, since the new premier will be crucial in passing the next budget. If this rapprochement fails and revenue sharing falls short, there will be little else Washington can do to help the KRI economy. – Washington Institute

Laith Al-Ajlouni writes: Given the tense political environment, weak economy, and unprecedented new challenges, COVID-19 will most likely push an already vulnerable Jordan to new levels of uncertainty, political risk, and social unrest. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korea said on Monday that it had lost all appetite ​for dialogue with the United States because of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s continuous pressure​ on the ​country to give up its nuclear ​weapons program. – New York Times

Stories like this, carried in the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun, only deepen ​one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the Covid-19​ pandemic​: How could North Korea claim to not have a single coronavirus case while countries ​around the world stagger under the exploding epidemic? […]decades of isolation and international sanctions have ravaged​ North Korea’s public health system, raising fears that ​it lacks the medical supplies to fight an outbreak, which many fear has already occurred. – New York Times

The U.S. military is set to put almost half of its 8,500 South Korean civilian workers on furlough, as the two sides bicker over the Trump administration’s demands for a massive increase in troop funding. – Bloomberg


Chinese government researchers isolated more than 2,000 animal viruses, including deadly bat coronaviruses, and carried out scientific work on them just three miles from a wild animal market identified as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. – Washington Times

But when Zhao Lijian […]finished a posting in Pakistan in August, he received an enthusiastic welcome in Beijing. A group of young admirers at the ministry gathered at his office to cheer his return, according to two people familiar with the matter.That admiration was fueled in part by a Twitter spat he had engaged in a month earlier with Susan Rice, the national security adviser to former U.S. President Barack Obama. Each accused the other of being “ignorant” and a “disgrace”. – Reuters

Gregory Kulacki writes: Limiting missile defense is even more important to China today than it was to the former Soviet Union. The huge disparity between U.S. and Chinese nuclear forces and China’s vulnerability to a U.S. conventional first strike make even a marginally effective U.S. missile defense system appear to be a problem because it would be more effective against a small retaliatory strike following a U.S. first strike. […]If Trump really wants to do something to avoid a new nuclear arms race, pressing the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and starting negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty are two bold initiatives he can accomplish right now. – Defense One

Dan Blumenthal writes:  China has been competing by undermining the U.S. strategy in Asia and increasing worldwide influence; interfering in our social, political, and cultural life; and building powerful political and ideological tools to push the United States out of Asia and to gain regional hegemony. There is a little doubt that Asia—or, more specifically, Southeast Asia—has at least the potential to become the world’s most dynamic region. This potential has yet to be reached because of the countries’ rampant corruption, stalled market reforms, and inward-looking leaders. – Reagan Foundation

Colin Dueck writes: China and Russia really are attempting to revise and expand their own authoritarian spheres of influence against the United States, using a wide variety of policy tools and instruments. As identified in key Trump administration documents including the 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy, the United States is thus faced with a new era of great power competition—and not by its own choosing. Twining is correct in suggesting that the United States must face this challenge in all of its ramifications. He is especially persuasive in some details on the disturbing phenomenon of Chinese Communist Party influence operations within existing Democracies. – Reagan Foundation

Thomas J. Duesterberg writes: As China mobilizes to exploit what is perceives as an excellent opportunity to push its preferred narrative of technical prowess and global leadership in 21st century governance, the U.S. and its allies must step up their counter efforts. […]As DAS Strayer argued, we do need to find balance between our security requirements and the ability to compete with mercantilist actors such as, but not limited to, China. The U.S. will overcome the COVID-19 challenge but it needs to keep its attention on efforts to exploit the crisis for long term economic advantage at the same time. – Hudson Institute

David A. Shinn and Joshua Eisenman write: China’s conceptions of the principles of sovereignty and non-interference will continue to evolve apace with its expanding interests on the African continent. Looking forward, it will be important to watch how they are adapted to accommodate China’s expanding international interests and the presence of significant numbers of Chinese nationals in Africa. – American Foreign Policy Council


Taliban insurgents have killed 27 members of the Afghan security forces, police and government officials said on Monday, as a peace effort brokered by the United States struggles to get off the ground. – Reuters

In a few weeks, the cash-strapped Afghan healthcare system will be put through a test of resilience. Western NGOs have rushed to evacuate their foreign staff and this week the US stripped Afghanistan of $1bn (£801m) worth of support, leaving Afghan health workers as the country’s only defence in the the fight against the pandemic. – The Guardian

Sultan Barakat and Barnett Rubin write: The Taliban should end these attacks on the Afghan security forces. Its fighters are killing dozens of Afghans while tens of thousands on all sides will soon die of disease. The longer that violence and disputes delay negotiations, the more likely it becomes that the conflict in Afghanistan will deteriorate into a battle over who gets to bury the dead rather than who sits around the table. – War on the Rocks


The countdown clocks have been reset and are ticking again for the Tokyo Olympics. The model outside Tokyo Station, and others across the Japanese capital were switched on almost immediately after organizers announced the new dates — July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021. – Associated Press

As U.S. spy agencies seek to assemble a precise picture of the world’s coronavirus outbreaks, they are finding serious gaps in their ability to assess the situation in China, Russia and North Korea, according to five U.S. government sources familiar with the intelligence reporting. – Reuters

A Japanese destroyer and a Chinese fishing boat collided in the East China Sea on Monday night and no one was injured, Japan’s defense minister said, but China said a fisherman was hurt and suggested the Japanese vessel was to blame. – Reuters

The coronavirus epidemic is “far from over” in the Asia-Pacific region, and current measures to curb the spread of the virus are buying time for countries to prepare for large-scale community transmissions, a WHO official has said. – The Guardian


For weeks the Kremlin and its cheerleaders in the state news media have insisted that, unlike Italy, Spain and, more recently, the United States, Russia could tackle the virus without major disruption. But in recent days they have come around to where much of the world has been for some time: forced to accept desperate measures to try to contain the outbreak. – New York Times

Russia may face a similar level of infections soon, and on Monday Moscow was placed on a strict lockdown. Yet President Vladimir Putin took the time to score points in his quest to weaken Western alliances. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump spoke Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the latest efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus around the world, the White House said. The White House said the two leaders “agreed to work closely together through the G20 to drive the international campaign to defeat the virus and reinvigorate the global economy.” – Fox News

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed during a phone call on Monday to have their top energy officials discuss slumping global oil markets, the Kremlin said, as Trump called Russia’s price war with Saudi Arabia “crazy.” – Reuters


The Hungarian parliament on Monday handed the country’s populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, the power to govern unchallenged for as long as he sees fit, a move rights groups said effectively suspends democracy in the European Union member state in the name of fighting the novel coronavirus. – Washington Post

British and EU officials are holding informal talks on the future relationship, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday, repeating that Britain is still working towards the end of this year to end a transition period – Reuters

Britain on Monday named Ken McCallum, a career spy who led the response to the attempted murder of Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal, as the new head of its MI5 domestic intelligence agency. – Reuters

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been urged by a group of MEPs to delay his Brexit deadline as countries around the world battle the coronavirus. – BBC

Heather A. Conley and John Kornblum write: Should the European ideal of solidarity and cohesion cease to have meaning for most of Europe’s citizens, it could also tragically begin to spell the end of the project itself. The E.U.’s accelerating decline means that one of the key pillars of the Western democratic world is shaking badly at a time when Russia and China are presenting competing visions of the future. A fragmented and disjointed Europe would be a disaster for not only European nations, but also for the United States and democracy globally. – Washington Post

Latin America

The United States is seizing on Venezuela’s economic pain and the coronavirus threat to push a new plan for a power-sharing government in Caracas until presidential elections can be held this year. – New York Times

The Trump administration is calling for a transitional government in Venezuela made up of the opposition and some members of President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party and is laying out for the first time how U.S. sanctions might eventually be lifted, including on the vital oil sector. – Reuters

The world’s busiest land border has fallen quiet as restrictions to contain the coronavirus prevent millions of Mexicans from making daily trips north, including many who work in U.S. businesses. – Reuters

The left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group in Colombia has declared a unilateral ceasefire for a month starting on 1 April. The rebels said the ceasefire was a “humanitarian gesture” amid the coronavirus pandemic. – BBC

Elliott Abrams writes: Free and fair presidential elections are the path out of Venezuela’s crisis.  […]Until that objective is achieved, our pressure will strengthen. We look forward to the day when elections have been held, a new democratic government is in place, and sanctions can be lifted. We look forward to restoring once-close Venezuela-U.S. relations, to helping Venezuelan migrants and refugees displaced by the crisis return to their beloved country, and to seeing Venezuela’s children able to share again in their country’s natural bounty. – Wall Street Journal


The Space Force announced on March 27 operational capability of its new radar technology that can track objects smaller than 10 centimeters in space. – C4ISRNET

The Pentagon has asked Congress to allow it to classify its Future Year Defense Program spending projections, new documents have revealed. – Defense News

David Barno and Nora Bensahel write: The nation, and the Department of Defense, will be grappling with the implications of the massive coronavirus crisis for years to come. Given that reality, it’s hard for any of us right now to imagine what the aftermath of this crisis will look like, as we struggle to emerge from today’s steady drumbeat of grim headlines into the very much changed world coming next. […]We in the national security community must ready ourselves for this new era, where economic recovery and preparing for domestic threats like pandemics will be far greater concerns for most Americans than threats from foreign adversaries. – War on the Rocks

Trump Administration

Walter Russell Mead writes: The true test of leadership has yet to come. America can’t help the world much if it is flat on its back. But as the U.S. rises, it can help others up, too—and it will be in America’s interest to do so. […]The U.S. may yet fail to meet the test that history is giving it, and if it does there will be plenty of opportunity for self-flagellation and woe. But the American response to date, flawed as it is, suggests that the strengths that brought the U.S. through even worse crises in the past have not yet faded away. – Wall Street Journal

Josh Rogin writes: The U.S. government, like most governments, made many mistakes before realizing the severity and urgency of the coronavirus pandemic. One lesson we must draw is that when health and national security experts sound the alarm, politicians must listen to them — the first time — and act. – Washington Post

Michael Rubin writes: I do not always agree with Pompeo and write in the spirit of honest criticism when I do not, but to suggest he is among the worst secretaries of state is bizarre and unfair. At a time of unprecedented challenge by China, Iran, Russia, and other authoritarian states, Pompeo’s response has been remarkable. […]The Washington Post may, of course, condemn Pompeo as being the anti-Frank Kellogg or anti-John Kerry, but historians will likely look on his tenure with far more generosity and appreciation and, indeed, label him as one of America’s top secretaries of state. – Washington Examiner