Fdd's overnight brief

March 7, 2023

In The News


As their currency plunged to new lows recently, Iranians did what they had grown all too used to: They crowded exchange shops, hoping to convert their increasingly worthless rials into dollars. – New York Times

Iran’s supreme leader said on Monday that the poisoning schoolgirls is an “unforgivable” crime that should be punished by death if deliberate, state TV reported, amid public anger over a wave of suspected attacks in schools. – Reuters

Women violating the Islamic dress code will be punished, Iran’s Judiciary Chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei said on Monday according to the official IRNA news agency, reaffirming the law after months of unrest that brought a deadly security crackdown. – Reuters

Iran’s concessions to U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi during his visit to Tehran over the weekend depend to a large extent on future negotiations, Grossi conceded on Monday, walking back some comments he made upon his return. – Reuters

Any attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would violate international law whether by Israel or any other country, the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog said Monday. – Bloomberg

The demonstrations, triggered by the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly failing to adhere properly to the Islamic dress code, have faded but the regime fears that a cost of living crisis could stoke another wave of dissent. – Financial Times

The US defence secretary has warned of “unthinkable” military ties developing between Russia and Iran, as he sought to reassure regional allies that Washington remained committed to the Middle East “for the long haul”. – Financial Times

Iran will evade fresh censure by the UN nuclear watchdog after making “concrete” commitments at the weekend to be transparent following the discovery of particles enriched to near weapons-grade, diplomats told AFP on Monday. – Times of Israel

A committee of US senators has called on the United Nations to investigate a network of secret torture centers in Iran exposed by a CNN investigation last month. – CNN

Hal Brands writes: Israel might attack anyway, hoping that its technological superiority will allow it to set back the Iranian program, and that its missile defenses and conventional superiority will allow it to weather any retaliation. But one way or another, the issue is reaching a breaking point. Multiple American presidents have tried to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions while also avoiding a deadly war. This could be the year one of those objectives gives way. – Bloomberg

Jason M. Brodsky writes: In the end, most headlines and trendlines point to a hardened, narrowed circle of power looking to Beijing and Moscow as Iran’s future lifelines. However, when Shamkhani leaves, whoever replaces him will be a significant indicator of the direction Khamenei intends to move the system in his final years. – Middle East Institute

Russia & Ukraine

It takes Ukrainian troops little more than a glance to tell if Russian fighters advancing on their positions near the fiercely embattled city of Bakhmut are seasoned soldiers or recent recruits. – Washington Post

Ukrainian special forces said on Monday that they had destroyed an unmanned observation tower in Russia’s Bryansk region using a drone strike, a rare public acknowledgment of a cross-border attack that underscored Kyiv’s increasing willingness to directly strike Russian territory. – New York Times

Ukraine has broadened a request for controversial cluster bombs from the United States to include a weapon that it wants to cannibalize to drop the anti-armor bomblets it contains on Russian forces from drones, according to two U.S. lawmakers. – Reuters

The war in Ukraine has created a surge in demand for weapons — and, apparently, also for inflatable fake armaments that can be deployed as decoys. – Associated Press

The US is working with Ukrainian pilots in the United States to determine how long it would take to train them to fly F-16 fighter jets, three sources briefed on the matter told CNN. – CNN

Russian President Vladimir Putin staked a large part of his war strategy over the the past few months on betting that Mother Nature would be on his side. According to analysts, that plan failed to produce the results the Russian leader had desired and instead allowed Ukraine to regroup and mobilize against Russian forces. – Newsweek

Air defenses blocked 13 Iranian-produced drones from bombarding Kyiv Sunday night as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, according to Ukrainian defense officials. – Newsweek

Britain is to double the number of main battle tanks it is sending to bolster the Ukrainian defenses, the country’s ambassador in London said in a interview with Europe’s Radio Liberty. – Defense News

In the context of the Ukraine war, a Russian victory in the battle of Bakhmut could well be, as the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said Monday, merely “symbolic.” Yet it could become a watershed moment in battles inside Moscow.  – New York Sun

John R. Bolton writes: We also need our allies to engage, this time globally; it won’t be sufficient for the United States to deal with NATO on one hand or a series of bilateral, hub-and-spoke Indo-Pacific alliances on the other. China’s coming attainment of peer status as a nuclear power, and its entente with nuclear-superpower Russia, is a global threat. For making the urgency clear, thank you, President Putin. – Washington Post

Mihir Shirma writes: That point is now. Nobody expects any real negotiations to begin tomorrow. But everyone has a right to expect that work towards a peace plan is intensive and ongoing. And, certainly, they will want to hear that commitment to peace from the world leaders best placed to make a difference. – Bloomberg

William Courtney writes: A resumption of nuclear explosive testing could set back progress on nonproliferation. In 1995, China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. agreed to pursue a permanent ban on such testing in order to achieve an “indefinite extension” of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Last October President Biden said Putin was “not joking” about the use of weapons of mass destruction. “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon,” he said, since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Any Russian resumption of nuclear testing could be a canary in the coal mine. – The Hill


A plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to severely curtail the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court has prompted weeks of demonstrations, rattled the country’s technology sector and raised fears of political violence. – New York Times

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan hosted Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, “and a senior Israeli interagency delegation at the White House on Monday for a meeting of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group,” The White House said in a statement. – Jerusalem Post

Four Palestinians from the West Bank were detained in recent weeks over plans to carry out attacks on behalf of the Hamas terror group, the Shin Bet security agency said Monday. – Times of Israel

The Israeli military made preparations early Monday morning for the demolition of the home of a Palestinian man accused of carrying out a deadly terror shooting attack on a highway near the West Bank city of Jericho last week. – Times of Israel

An Azerbaijani cargo plane landed last Thursday at the Ovda Israeli air force base north of Eilat. After two hours on the ground, as usual, the old Ilyushin-76 airlifter took off, flew over central Israel, continued north over Turkey and then to the east – returning to its home field in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. – Haaretz

Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeyhun Bayramov will visit Israel on March 29 for the opening of his country’s embassy in Tel Aviv, marking the first visit of its kind, in a decade. – Ynet

Israeli defense company Elbit Systems has announced several deals in Europe this month, including a $119 million sale of ATMOS truck-mounted howitzers and a $133 million contract for PULS artillery rocket systems. – Defense News

Amos Yadlin writes: None of this will be easy. Netanyahu is faced with a political and strategic Rubik’s cube. To achieve his international goals—containing Iran and normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia—he will need strong support and understanding from Washington, which in turn requires taking steps opposed by his radical coalition partners both domestically and on the Palestinian front. But ultimately, to solve the most critical face of the cube, Netanyahu must prioritize coming to terms with the United States. No matter how angry Israeli officials may be with Washington’s overtures to Iran or criticisms about Israeli domestic politics, the United States is indispensable to Israel’s safety and security. – Foreign Affairs


The U.S. State Department on Monday banned entry into the U.S. of a Syrian intelligence member who appeared in a video leaked last year showing him fatally shooting people during the country’s 12-year conflict. – Associated Press

An Israeli airstrike hit the international airport in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo early on Tuesday, putting it out of service, Syria state media said. All flights were rerouted to two other airports in the war-torn country, according to the report. – Associated Press

Radwan Ziadeh writes: There has been a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria for 12 years. This earthquake is another horrible layer of pain and injustice for Syrians. President Biden has the power to ease the suffering of all Syrians. Especially those who are now twice displaced and suffering due to the earthquake. He has the power to give them rest now, while they are alive. Not when they die. As the leader of the free world, I’d argue that his administration has a moral responsibility to do so. – The Hill

Rena Netjes writes: And even as regional powers seem to be using the earthquake as an opportunity to normalize relations with the Assad regime, the regime has busied itself post-earthquake with attacking Northwest Syria at least five times—including reports of pro-Assad forces shelling the highway in Idlib from the Bab al-Hawa crossing. At this point, the people in Northwest Syria I spoke to do not trust or want aid that is facilitated through the Assad regime. As one SNA soldier put it: “Assad [has] caused 1000 earthquakes, I will burn any aid that comes from him.” – Washington Institute


After days of public infighting, an alliance of Turkish opposition parties announced Monday that they had chosen a veteran political leader to face President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a pivotal election scheduled for May. – Washington Post

Turkey on Monday summoned U.S. ambassador Jeff Flake to convey its discomfort about a top U.S. general visiting northeast Syria over the weekend, a foreign ministry source said. – Reuters

Stefanie Glinski writes: For Turkey, maintaining and even deepening relations with Russia while also maintaining its place as one of NATO’s biggest members is a tricky but much-needed balancing act. Turkey is squeezed between Iran and the West, has a land border with Syria, controls the Black Sea’s only access to the ocean, and has a maritime border with Ukraine and Russia. Since the war began, Turkey has managed to prop up both the Ukrainian military effort and Russia’s war-battered economy. – Foreign Policy


U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Tuesday, in a visit that an official said was aimed at showing that Washington was committed to keeping its military presence there nearly 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. – Reuters

On March 2-3, 2023, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Iraq, six years after his previous visit to the country. During his visit Guterres met with Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia’ Al-Sudani and attended a dinner with Iraqi political figures. Among the dinner guests were the heads of two Iran-backed militias in Iraq: Qais Al-Khaz’ali, head of the ‘Asaeb Ahl Al-Haqq militia, and Rayan Al-Kildani, head of the Christian Babylon movement and of its military wing, the Babylon Battalions.  – Middle East Media Research Institute 

Cut to 2023, and Iraq is by no means stable. It’s been ravaged by wars, Saddam Hussein and an Isis surge in 2014, which brought the world’s sixth-largest oil producer close to collapse. But it’s also just about functioning as a rare Arab democracy, with a new president elected last October. These green shoots have attracted a few pioneering tour operators. This month, Steppes Travel is sending its first private trips into Iraqi Kurdistan. The company says Michael Palin’s recent UK television series on Iraq has generated significant interest. When US-based operator MIR Corporation announced an inaugural group tour to southern Iraq for 2023, it sold out within 36 hours. – Financial Times

Arabian Peninsula

The United Arab Emirates has been taking more cargoes of Russian crude oil, according to ship tracking data and trading sources, in another example of how Western sanctions on Russia have adjusted traditional energy trade flows. – Reuters

Saudi Arabia said Monday it deposited $5 billion into the Turkish central bank, likely helping Ankara firm up its long-weakening currency, the lira, after last month’s massive earthquake that struck southeast Turkey and northern Syria. – Associated Press

Al-Qaida’s arm in the Arabian Peninsula said two of the militant group’s operatives, including its media chief, were killed by a suspected U.S. drone in central Yemen last month. – Associated Press

Middle East & North Africa

China fully respects Middle East countries as masters of their own affairs and has no intention to fill a so called “vacuum”, China’s foreign minister Qin Gang said on Tuesday. – Reuters

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in Jordan to begin a three-country Mideast visit, is aiming to reassure key allies of American commitment to the region despite Washington’s recent focus on Russia and China, officials said. At the same time, he plans to deliver frank messages to the leaders of Israel and Egypt. – Jerusalem Post

The leader of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah said Monday the group backs a former Cabinet minister and strong ally to become Lebanon’s next president. – Associated Press

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Monday that recent events in Israel are an indication that the country is nearing its end — apparently referring to internal strife over the government’s plans for a major overhaul of the judiciary. – Times of Israel

Jalel Harchaoui writes: Left to their own devices, neither Turkey, Egypt, nor the United Arab Emirates will tolerate any substantive departure from the current status quo. If constructive change in Libya is an actual priority for Washington, it should be prepared to spend political capital to jolt its regional friends out of their dogged inertia. – War on the Rocks

Nir Boms and Joelle Rosenthal write: While both Turkey and Syria have received significant aid in the direct aftermath of the earthquake, it is likely that the attention of the world will soon turn elsewhere. However, some Israeli organizations have committed to long-term missions and understand that help is still needed—they remain in the field and continue their donation efforts. Now, with new relationships founded on these aid efforts, they hope to not only provide aid but also demonstrate a rare moment of unity that can be replicated not just in times of crisis but also in times of peace. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korea said any move to shoot down one of its test missiles would be considered a declaration of war and blamed joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea for growing tensions, state media KCNA said on Tuesday. – Reuters

The United states deployed a B-52 bomber for a joint drill with its ally South Korea on Monday, in a show of force against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, South Korea’s defence ministry said. B-52 bombers are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. – Reuters

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday defended his government’s contentious plan to use local funds to compensate Koreans enslaved by Japanese companies before the end of World War II, saying it’s crucial for Seoul to build future-oriented ties with its former colonial overlord. – Associated Press

The US Chips Act imposes a number of onerous demands and still harbors a great deal of uncertainty for companies hoping to benefit from it, South Korea’s trade minister said in Seoul on Monday. – Bloomberg

Richard Weitz writes: The long-term solution to the Korean crisis is internal regime change and reunification under a government that resembles present-day South Korea. Yet, no one knows how long this process could take given the ruthless effectiveness of the DPRK’s totalitarian regime. In the interim, having a robust spectrum of defense capabilities, suitable for a range of scenarios, is critical given the rapidly evolving threat environment. – The National Interest


Chinese leader Xi Jinping issued an unusually blunt rebuke of U.S. policy on Monday, blaming what he termed a Washington-led campaign to suppress China for recent challenges facing his country. – Wall Street Journal

China’s foreign minister warned that the U.S. strategy toward China risked plunging the countries into conflict and pledged to continue responding strongly to what he viewed as persistent attacks on Beijing by Washington. – Wall Street Journal

China must advance its relations with Russia as the world becomes more turbulent, Foreign Minister Qin Gang said on Tuesday. Speaking to reporters at an annual parliamentary session in Beijing, Qin said the close interactions between both leaders – President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin – provided the anchor for China-Russia relations. – Reuters

China has long been seen by the U.S. as a prolific source of anti-American propaganda but less aggressive in its influence operations than Russia, which has used cyberattacks and covert operations to disrupt U.S. elections and denigrate rivals. – Associated Press

When the U.S. blacklisted six Chinese entities last month in response to a suspected spy balloon’s traversing the country, a little-known tech firm in Northern California had reason to pay particularly close attention. – NBC News

Editorial: For years China was cautious about its military plans, biding its time to build its strength. These days it’s sprinting to take advantage of American complacency. War with China isn’t inevitable and would be a calamity, but to prevent it the U.S. will need to match China’s defense commitment. We’ll see this week when he unveils his defense budget if President Biden appreciates the urgency. – Wall Street Journal

Eli Lake writes: If China does end up arming Russia’s war in Ukraine, President Biden and his Cabinet will be left to ruminate on why President Xi was not deterred from entering the fray. One reason is likely the confused implementation of a law that was supposed to liberate America’s economy from China’s. – New York Sun

Gideon Rachman writes: But a policy of covert or deniable Chinese military support to Russia is no magic bullet for Beijing. It might be too restricted to turn the tide of the war in Putin’s favour. And it would still be vulnerable to detection by the US. Indirect Chinese military support for Russia could ultimately be a circuitous route to the same destination: direct confrontation with America. – Financial Times

South Asia

As host to foreign ministers from the Group of 20 nations last week, Narendra Modi played the traditionally neutral role of an Indian prime minister, refusing to take sides between Russia and the U.S. Beneath its professed neutrality, though, India has begun pivoting westward. This has less to do with Russia, where India has longstanding ties, than with China, which both India and the West increasingly see as a principal adversary. – Wall Street Journal

Young Afghan women gathered outside Kabul University on Monday to protest the ruling Taliban’s ban on female education as their male peers returned to school for a new academic year and the United Nations heard the restriction may amount to a crime against humanity. – CNN

A suicide bomber on a motorcycle Monday rammed a police truck in Pakistan’s restive southwest, killing 10 police officers and wounding 12 in one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in recent months, authorities said. – Associated Press

China has given assurances that it will support Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring, potentially clearing the biggest hurdle for the South Asian nation to secure a $2.9 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund in the coming weeks. – Bloomberg


Taiwan will not allow “repeated provocations” from China, the island’s defence minister said on Tuesday, as China’s foreign minister said Taiwan was the “first red line” that must not be crossed in Sino-U.S. relations. – Reuters

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen has convinced US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to meet in California rather than Taipei to avoid an aggressive Chinese military response, as tensions run high between Beijing and Washington. – Financial Times

Australia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Future Fund, is screening its portfolio for Chinese companies at risk of U.S. investment restrictions, its chairman said on Tuesday. – Reuters

A Chinese warship, a China Coast Guard ship and 42 Maritime Militia ships operated within the 12-nautical mile territorial sea around Pag-Asa Island, internationally known as Thitu island, in the Spratly Island archipelago Saturday, according to a Philippine Coast Guard statement. – USNI News

Tom Rogan writes: Whether or not the U.S. should fight China over Taiwan is a necessary point of debate. But there’s little doubt that Beijing is more seriously preparing for such a war than Washington is. – Washington Examiner

Victor Cha and Christopher B. Johnstone write: There is a Japanese proverb, “after the rain, the ground hardens”—a relationship emerges from difficulty even stronger. The agreement this week will solidify the ground under relations between Seoul and Tokyo. The benefits will accrue not just to the two protagonists, but also to the United States. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


In a blow to the Kremlin’s hope that economic pain in Europe would soften public support for Ukraine, Estonian voters have given a big election win to a center-right government that has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest backers, despite soaring inflation and other problems. – New York Times

The European Union is edging closer to a landmark move into joint procurement of ammunition to help Ukraine and replenish members’ stockpiles but major questions regarding funding and scale remain to be resolved. – Reuters

 Italian prosecutors have opened a money-laundering investigation related to the European parliament ‘Qatargate’ affair, as a new front opens up in the biggest scandal to hit EU institutions for decades. – Financial Times

Max Bergmann and Sophia Besch write: More broadly, instead of merely pushing European countries to spend more on defense, the United States needs to use its leverage to encourage European military cooperation. It could instead encourage a coordinated defense planning effort between NATO and the EU that encourages the European production and procurement of certain critical capabilities deemed essential by both organizations. As long as Europeans fail to act, think, and spend collectively, the continent will never outgrow its overreliance on Washington. – Foreign Affairs


Fighters from Somalia’s al Shabaab Islamist group on Tuesday overran a military base in the southern Jubbaland region that they had lost to the army in January, a Somali officer and a local resident said. – Reuters

The Russian government has donated 20,000 tons of fertilizer to Malawi as part of its efforts to garner diplomatic support from various African nations. – Associated Press

As independent U.S. election observers raised alarm bells about widespread voting irregularities in Nigeria’s Feb. 25 presidential elections, the U.S. State Department was singing an entirely different tune, congratulating Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the electoral victor and hailing a “competitive election” that “represents a new period for Nigerian politics and democracy.” – Foreign Policy

The Americas

Four U.S. citizens were kidnapped by armed men in Mexico on Friday, officials in both countries said. The Americans crossed into Matamoros, a city in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, from Brownsville, Tex., in a white minivan with North Carolina plates, the FBI said. – Washington Post

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that he would appoint an independent special rapporteur and order a committee of lawmakers with top-secret security clearance to probe foreign interference in Canada’s elections, amid criticism that his government is failing to take the issue seriously. – Washington Post

The United States’ list of recently sanctioned entities for alleged support for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine includes two Canadian companies, U.S. and Canadian authorities said on Monday. – Reuters

Brazil’s leftist government, which has been reluctant to criticize Nicaragua’s authoritarian President Daniel Ortega, will for the first time on Tuesday express concern over the persecution of opponents in his country, two sources said. – Reuters

A bipartisan group of senators on Monday introduced a bill that would end the commercial blockade on Cuba while maintaining other U.S. laws that impose human rights-based restrictions on the island nation. – The Hill


The Biden administration is considering pushing Congress to give it more legal power to deal with TikTok and other technology that could expose sensitive data to China, five people with knowledge of the matter said, as it comes under growing pressure to resolve security concerns about the Chinese-owned video app. – New York Times

German police said Monday they have disrupted a ransomware cybercrime gang tied to Russia that has been blackmailing large companies and institutions for years, raking in millions of euros. – Associated Press

Emily Harding writes: The new cyber strategy is a first step toward shifting the advantage back to the user, rather than the attacker. It states what should be obvious: the people who build the products should also ensure those products are secure. In no other product would consumers accept a standard of maybe-safe. It would be an outrage if home appliances, elevators, airplanes, or medicine had gone through only perfunctory safety testing before deployment. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Five years ago, after decades fighting insurgencies in the Middle East and Central Asia, the U.S. started tackling a new era of great-power competition with China and Russia. It isn’t yet ready, and there are major obstacles in the way. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Air Force tapped communications-technology company Persistent Systems to provide seamless networking for security operations at the nation’s three intercontinental ballistic missile bases in a contract worth nearly $76 million. – Defense News

China must be held accountable for threatening world food security as its globally operating fishing fleet hauls in illegal catch from other nations’ waters, the Navy’s top intelligence officer said at a regional maritime conference in Panama last week. – USNI News

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is set to take part in “air policing missions” on Russia’s doorstep, according to a key British security official. – Newsweek