Fdd's overnight brief

May 1, 2020

In The News


The United States is “hopeful” the U.N. Security Council will extend an arms embargo on Iran before it expires in October, a top U.S. State Department envoy said on Thursday, despite a key Russian official signaling that Moscow opposed such a move. – Reuters

Nearly 90% of U.S. House of Representatives members have signed a letter urging the Trump administration to increase its diplomatic action at the United Nations to renew an arms embargo on Iran, congressional sources said on Thursday. – Reuters

Out of cash and desperate for help in propping up its oil industry, Venezuela is raiding its gold vaults and handing tons of bars to its long-time ally Iran, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. – Bloomberg

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said the rights of the United States under the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 are separate from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). – Radio Farda


Israeli helicopters fired several rockets from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on targets inside southern Syria, Syrian state media reported on Friday, the latest in what intelligence sources say is an increase of strikes against Iranian-backed militias. – Reuters

Syrian state media said on Friday an attack on an ammunition depot east of Homs city led to explosions but no casualties. It did not say who was behind the attack. – Reuters

In the recent days, Syrian opposition websites have reported that Iran has reinforced its presence in the Al-Bukamal area in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border. Iran ascribes strategic importance to eastern Syria, since this region completes the territorial continuum stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. – Middle East Media Research Institute


Turkey’s planned deployment of Russian S-400 missile defences has been delayed by the coronavirus outbreak but will ultimately go ahead, President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said on Thursday, despite Washington’s warnings that Ankara risks U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

A Turkish military cargo plane touched down on American soil this week shortly after the US reached the alarming milestone of a million confirmed coronavirus cases. – Financial Times

U.S. Syria special envoy Jim Jeffrey said on Thursday he hoped Turkey would maintain pressure on militant groups including the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria’s opposition-held province of Idlib. – Reuters


Israel’s attorney general said Thursday that neither the criminal charges Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing nor the unusual terms of the coalition deal he struck with a former rival should disqualify him from forming a new government. – New York Times

Israel’s largest bank admitted to conspiring with U.S. customers and others to hide more than $7.6 billion in secret Swiss and Israeli bank accounts and, together with a Swiss subsidiary, will pay $874 million to resolve a sprawling U.S. tax-evasion investigation. – Wall Street Journal

Arab countries on Thursday condemned Israel’s plan to de facto annex parts of the occupied West Bank as a “new war crime” against Palestinians, the Arab League said in a statement after a video conference of foreign ministers. – Reuters

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Israeli farmers will no longer be allowed to work their fields in an enclave of southern Jordan, ending a more than 25-year arrangement meant to shore up a historic peace agreement. – Associated Press

On April 28, 2020, Al-Jazeera Network (Qatar) aired a report by one of its journalists, Lebanese national Fatima Triki, criticizing MBC TV, a Saudi channel that broadcasts from the UAE. The report was posted on YouTube under the title “After Its Desecration of the Values… MBC Demonizes the Palestinians and Turns the Jews into Angels.” It claimed that recent Ramadan MBC series “Makhraj 7” and “Umm Haroun” promote normalization of Arab relations with Israel. – Middle East Media Research Institute

A senior Hamas official said on Thursday that indirect talks with Israel on a possible prisoner exchange agreement were progressing. – Algemeiner

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has signed a new law that gives his office administrative and financial authorities similar to those of the PA government. Palestinian legal experts have criticized the move. Jerusalem Post

Israel’s Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz (Likud), excoriated the International Criminal Court Friday morning, and ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, following Bensouda’s decision Thursday to move forward with a case filed against Israel by the Palestinian Authority. – Arutz Sheva


Lebanon’s government will seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund after signing off on a rescue plan to begin overhauling an economy facing its worst financial crisis in decades. – Bloomberg

Haley Bobseine writes: Foreign donors can help Lebanon through this difficult period by expanding the humanitarian donor response to ensure vulnerable populations do not go hungry and have access to basic social protections. Technical advice on expanding national social protection programs should be provided. Foreign donors should also support medium to long-term development projects to help kickstart the economy. Lebanon’s Western backers often subsidize the broken systems they aim to “fix.” Beyond humanitarian support, further assistance should come on condition that reforms are actually being implemented. – Middle East Institute

Hussein Ibish writes: The ruling circles, and above all Hezbollah, are resistant to reforms that would require them to give up the elaborate sectarian patronage networks that undergird Lebanese politics. But the IMF has made it clear that any bailout will come with significant strings attached[…]. So, Lebanon’s ruling circles find themselves checkmated between the unsustainable political situation, exemplified by the increasingly angry protests, and unpalatable economic reforms. Soon, they will have to pick their poison. – Bloomberg

Arabian Peninsula

In an April 2 phone call, Trump told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that unless the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) started cutting oil production, he would be powerless to stop lawmakers from passing legislation to withdraw U.S. troops from the kingdom, four sources familiar with the matter told Reuters. – Reuters

Dr. Olfat Al-Dubai writes: Political dialogue remains the basic principle in addressing the flaws in the Riyadh Agreement, which has so far been able to stop the armed conflict in the south. However, we must recognise that the root cause for the armed conflict in Yemen is the fight over power and wealth. Therefore, focusing on establishing a federal system is the best path forward to providing a strong entry point towards efficient implementation of the Riyadh Agreement. Only once these challenges have been addressed can we work to build peace in south Yemen and in the country as a whole. – Washington Institute

Zvi Bar’el writes: The accord was signed under the aegis of the Saudi Arabian government, which joined local forces five years ago to battle the Iranian-affiliated Houthi movement in Yemen. But now Saudi Arabia has no viable political control over the developments in Yemen. Meanwhile, the United States, which lost no time in “expressing concern” over the latest move, understands that the effort to curb Iranian influence in Yemen is ebbing. – Ha’aretz

Middle East & North Africa

Ten Egyptian army members including an officer were killed or wounded on Thursday when a bomb exploded in an armoured vehicle south of Bir al-Abd city in the Northern Sinai region, a military spokesman said in a statement. – Reuters

The United Arab Emirates on Thursday called on all Libyan parties to commit to the U.N.-supervised political process to end the war, while at the same time saluting the eastern Libya based-army led by General Khalifa Haftar. – Reuters

Middle Eastern fund managers plan to increase investments in Egypt in the current quarter, according to a Reuters poll, and say Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are most vulnerable to tumbling oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic. – Reuters

Korean Peninsula

Taiwan’s intelligence chief said Thursday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “sick” — and his country has emergency plans for a potential power struggle if he dies, according to reports. – New York Post

It might seem strange that a banker in Dubai would email a Spaniard to talk about investments in Pyongyang, but such is the idiosyncrasy of doing business with North Korea. […]Official diplomacy is conducted through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And there are envoys at the United Nations. But business, science, culture, sports—basically anything outward-facing—goes through the committee. As the only non-Korean affiliated with the government, Cao de Benós says, he’s the primary contact for anyone in the West who wants to cold-call North Korea. – Bloomberg

Jay Nordlinger writes: Despite the best efforts of the North Korean dictatorship, news dribbles into that country, via shortwave radio and other means. North Koreans will hear about Ji’s election, and have. The news is “shocking,” as Henry Song, the D.C.-based activist, emphasizes: one of them — a typical, downtrodden North Korean, and handicapped, at that — elevated to the legislature in a free country. A free and Korean country. Together, Ji Seong-ho and Thae Yong-ho give hope to the North Korean minority in South Korea. The nation will see their faces on TV — and this will “humanize us,” says Park Yeonmi. – National Review


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is, according to the official Chinese narrative, an “enemy of humankind” practicing “highly venomous” diplomacy. He’s a “super-spreader” of a “political virus.” He’s a “rumor monger” with a “dark mind.” – Washington Post

Covid-19 has disrupted trade flows and economies all over the world. No surprise, then, that it is disrupting hopes for better trade relations between the U.S. and China, too. – Wall Street Journal

China has no interest in interfering in the U.S. presidential election, it said on Thursday, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he believed Beijing would try to make him lose his re-election bid in November. – Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday his hard-fought trade deal with China was now of secondary importance to the coronavirus pandemic and he threatened new tariffs on Beijing, as his administration crafted retaliatory measures over the outbreak. – Reuters

The U.S. International Trade Commission on Thursday determined that imports of Chinese ceramic tile are subsidized and sold at less than fair value, materially harming U.S. producers. – Reuters

Donald Trump claimed he has seen evidence the new coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab, as he threatened tariffs on Beijing over its role in the global pandemic. – Agence France-Presse

A journalist who had worked for some of China’s most powerful propaganda outlets has been jailed for 15 years after being accused of attacking the ruling Communist Party, court documents showed. – Agence France-Presse

Paula J. Dobriansky writes: Washington and its partners in Asia should set up new supply chains, restructure trade relations, and start to create an international economic order that is less dependent on China. A multilateral “coalition of the willing” approach would better align trading ties with political and security relationships. It would also help India and nations in Southeast Asia develop more rapidly, becoming stronger U.S. partners. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is an optimal venue. – Wall Street Journal

Joseph Bosco writes: Trump should declare that time has expired on the promise of political reform and that the Chinese Communist Party must start down that painful but peaceful path with the generous support of the West. Xi must confront the choice of having America as China’s best friend or its worst enemy. The alternative, more pessimistic interpretation of Trump’s “tiredness” remark is that he is psychologically exhausted from navigating the complex and troubled relationship with China, along with the pandemic, and that the steady, death-by-a-thousand-cuts Chinese strategy has finally worn down his resistance. – The Hill

Walter Lohman and James Carafano write: The growing chorus to “punish” China for how it has handled the COVID-19 crisis is understandable and justifiable. We need to be smart about how we do this, building up American strength even as we hold China accountable. If the challenge of our era is a multidecade great-power competition with China, the United States can do a range of things to win. And although this competition is going to require compromise, none of the following 10 suggestions unnecessarily undermines economic freedom—the true engine of American strength. – The Daily Signal

Roger Bate writes: Marco Rubio (R-FL) and a group of bipartisan senators (including Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)) is promoting a bill which would limit US reliance on drugs and drug ingredients coming from China. These senators view reliance on China as a national security threat. They have a point. While we would never rely on China for traditional security apparatus, we have been happy to allow China to provide the basis of our pharmaceuticals. As this pandemic is showing us, shortages cause problems, including higher death rates. – American Enterprise Institute


A U.S. military assessment describes Taliban attacks on Afghan forces in March as “above seasonal norms,” according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). – Washington Post

Afghanistan’s feeble health system — dependent on foreign donations even for the $5 per head the country spends annually on health, and reliant on nongovernmental organizations for the delivery of its most basic services — has been tested by the spread of the pandemic at a time when the war with the Taliban continues to rage nationwide. – New York Times

The U.S. mission in Afghanistan has for the first time refused to publicly release its data on insurgent attacks amid the implementation of a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban, an American watchdog said Friday. – Associated Press

A watchdog report to the U.S. Congress has warned that Afghanistan is likely to face a health disaster in the coming months brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The April 30 report by the U.S. Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has heightened concerns that the pandemic could derail stalled peace efforts brokered by the United States. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

On April 29, 2020, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban organization) issued a statement expressing its “deep concern” regarding the spread of COVID-19 in prisons run by the Afghan government, claiming that “46 cases” have been identified in these prisons so far[…]. The U.S. is responsible for the spread of the virus in the prisons, the text continued, saying it had failed to act with the necessary urgency in implement the terms of the peace agreement with the Taliban, which required the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners. – Middle East Media Research Institute


Tensions are set to rise as pro-democracy protesters attempt to return to the streets after a lengthy lull amid the coronavirus pandemic, which authorities here and in Beijing have used to push hard against the opposition movement. – Wall Street Journal

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has angered Beijing by calling for a global inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak, said he had no evidence to suggest the disease originated in a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan. – Reuters

Hundreds of foreign companies are actively procuring components for India and Pakistan’s nuclear programmes, taking advantage of gaps in the global regulation of the industry, according to a report by a U.S.-based research group. – Reuters

The U.S. State Department has approved a potential sale of two different helicopters to the Philippines, in advance of that country’s final decision on what system to buy. – Defense News

A chorus of American allies are calling for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, braving China’s anger in public disputes that could foreshadow closer Western partnerships against Beijing. – Washington Examiner


Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said he tested positive for the new coronavirus and is temporarily suspending duties in office, becoming the most recent head of government to contract the disease. – Wall Street Journal

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said Thursday that he has tested positive for the new coronavirus, becoming the highest-ranking Russian official known to have gotten infected. – Associated Press

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Thursday that Kiev and Moscow were still far from finalising a prisoner swap of all inmates. – Reuters


Facing pointed criticism from lawmakers on Thursday, the European Union’s top diplomat denied that Chinese officials had pressured his team to soften language in a recent report on disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. – New York Times

The clandestine operation, which some experts consider illegal under international law, is just the latest dubious measure taken by European countries in recent years to stem the migration from Africa and the Middle East that has sown political chaos in Europe and fueled a populist backlash. – New York Times

Carisa Nietsche and Martijn Rasser write: The United States’ one-size-fits-all approach on 5G has not worked in Europe, and it must recalibrate with a tailored, affirmative strategy and abandon the blunt approach of the past two years. This requires Washington to lead in conjunction with key European partners by offering new technological options, strong trade relations, and a united front on shared norms and values. Above all, this means treating Europe as the friend, partner, and ally that it is. – Foreign Policy

United States

U.S. prosecutors announced new charges Thursday linking Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández to drug trafficking, raising the pressure on a close ally of the Trump administration. – Washington Post

A man armed with an assault rifle was arrested after opening fire outside the Cuban Embassy in Washington early Thursday, his bullets tearing holes into the walls and pillars near the front entrance in what authorities suspect was a hate crime. – Associated Press

Virginia Imam Shaker Elsayed said in a video that was uploaded to the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center’s YouTube channel on April 3, 2020 that Allah tests humanity every year with the flu, but that this year He has sent the coronavirus in order to get humanity’s attention. Imam Elsayed gave a Quranic example in which Allah punished the Jews for violating the prohibitions against usury and for wrongly “devouring” people’s money, and in which Allah says He has prepared “severe and painful torment” for the Jews guilty of these crimes. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Jeff Ballabon and Mark Goldfeder write: The obsession with blaming visibly Jewish Americans, and the easy willingness to believe the claims, is anti-Semitic and reminiscent of plague-related libels that have provoked violence at many times and places. As in any population there are outliers, but Jews across the spectrum overwhelmingly adhere to the guidelines. The media and the mayor need to stop looking for scapegoats. – Wall Street Journal


The U.S. Air Force is seeking information from industry about hypersonic cruise missile technology, with the hopes of starting up a new prototyping program in the near future. – Defense News

The Army held a third test for Lockheed Martin’s precision strike missile, or PrSM, firing it out of a HIMARS launcher at White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, Thursday morning. – Defense News

The Navy awarded a $795-million contract to Fincantieri to begin building a new class of guided-missile frigates, in the first new major shipbuilding program the service has started in more than a decade, the Navy announced today. – USNI News

Long War

The coronavirus pandemic is fuelling extremism on the far-right and far-left in Europe and giving Islamic State and other militants cover to regain influence, the European Union’s counter-terrorism chief has warned. – Reuters

Danish police say they have arrested a suspect in Copenhagen in connection with a terrorist threat inspired by Islamic militancy. Officials said the suspect had attempted to acquire a weapon and ammunition. The suspect was charged with intent to commit terror, police said without providing further details. – Bloomberg

German police raided five sites linked to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, as authorities announced Thursday that they were banning activities by its political wing in Germany. – Associated Press

Berlin became the second European government to break away from EU policy of distinguishing between Hezbollah’s militiamen and its political wing. – The National

Trump Administration

President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign plans to roll out a new advertisement targeting Democratic opponent Joe Biden’s record on China in must-win states for November’s election, doubling down on a tough-on-China argument that helped his successful 2016 campaign. – Reuters

Spencer P. Boyer writes: The United States must be a driver of cooperation within NATO, and between NATO and the EU, on these new threats that Western democracies are jointly facing. Better cooperation, including the sharing of best practices between the U.S. government and the EU’s External Action Service (and similar agencies at the national level in Europe), will be critical for staying ahead of Russian disinformation efforts now seeking to use COVID-19 to undermine and influence elections. – Foreign Policy

Eli Lake writes: The man who holds the record for shortest tenure as national security adviser is back in the news. He pleaded guilty in 2018 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition in late 2016 and early 2017. Then, in January of this year, he vacated that plea. Now the Justice Department has released documents that, says his new defense counsel, show that Flynn was set up by the FBI. – Bloomberg