Fdd's overnight brief

May 12, 2020

In The News


Isolated in the midst of a global pandemic, Iran is using its sanctioned oil and energy expertise to garner favor and financial gain from two other nations shunned by the U.S.: Syria and Venezuela. – Wall Street Journal

While crippling sanctions imposed by the U.S. government left the country ill-equipped to deal with the fast-moving virus, some medical professionals say government and religious leaders bear the brunt of the blame for allowing the virus to spread — and for hiding how much it had spread. – Associated Press

The United States is calling for the release of two award-winning Iranian college students arrested by Iran’s security forces after the regime accused them of stirring up unrest during the coronavirus pandemic. – Washington Examiner

The United States urged Tehran on Monday to send a charter plane to take home 11 Iranian nationals whom Washington wants to deport, and accused the Islamic Republic of stalling the repatriation process. – Reuters

Iran’s foreign minister has said the United States has not yet responded to the Islamic Republic’s two-year-old offer to exchange prisoners. – Radio Farda

The head of the “Academy of Islamic Sciences” in Iran Mohammad Mehdi Mirbaqeri, says there has been excessive exaggeration about the dangers of the novel coronavirus, and that is an “enemy plot”. – Radio Farda

The Iranian currency on Monday lost more value against the U.S. dollar and other major currencies in Tehran foreign exchange market, trading 166,000 rials at midday against one greenback. – Radio Farda

A cyber attack managed to damage a number of private systems at the Shahid Rajaei port near Bandar Abbas and the Strait of Hormuz in recent days, said Mohammad Rastad, Managing Director of the Ports and Maritime Organization (PMO), to Iran’s ILNA news agency on Sunday. – Jerusalem Post

Cynthia Schneider and Nik Kowsar write: Finally, the US should defend Iranians’ human rights, which include the right to clean water and proper sanitation – essential in a country suffering from bad water management – as well as the right to criticize their leaders. […]Now is the perfect time to match opposition to the Iranian regime with support of its people. – Business Insider

Yonah Jeremy Bob writes: Since Iran, however beat-up, is not tired or willing to change its goals, but is happy to fight and suffer – as long as it causes its adversaries to suffer – increased violence and tension, short of war, is probably the next item on the menu. – Jerusalem Post  


In the recent weeks there have been several reports in the Russian media critical of the Syrian regime and even of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad himself. Although it is unclear to what extent these articles reflect the position of the Russian leadership, and despite official Russian claims that they do not, the reports sparked a heated debate in Syrian and Arab media, and were perceived as indicating a shift in the Russian position towards the Syrian regime. There were even speculations that Russia meant to remove Assad from power. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Amnesty International says it has documented 18 attacks in northwest Syria carried out by Syrian government and Russian forces over the past year that amounted to war crimes. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Syrian President Bashar Assad replaced Monday the internal trade minister as the country’s economic crisis worsens with prices of consumer goods increasing and the local currency reaching record lows. – Associated Press


Comments last week from an unnamed Israeli defence official that Iran was reducing its presence in Syria sparked fierce debate about Tehran’s next moves and how the Jewish state should respond. Iran policy will inevitably be a top concern for the Israeli government to be sworn in Thursday, a unity coalition agreed after more than a year of unprecedented political deadlock. – Agence France-Presse

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday announced that Likud minister Gilad Erdan would be appointed as Israel’s ambassador both to the United Nations and to the United States, as the premier works to divvy up the ministerial portfolios designated for his right-wing religious bloc in the next government. – Times of Israel

State prosecutors on Monday indicted a 20-year-old Palestinian man on terror charges for allegedly stabbing an Israeli woman in the central city of Kfar Saba on Memorial Day last month. – Times of Israel

A series of violent incidents occurred in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the last few days as Palestinians have reacted with fury to the closure of bank accounts held by terrorists imprisoned in Israel and their families, the Israeli news site Walla reported. – Algemeiner

A group of members of the European Parliament have sent a joint letter to the European Union’s top diplomat expressing outrage at the news that a top EU official had pledged to continue supporting Palestinian NGOs that employed members of terror organizations. – Algemeiner 

An Israeli soldier was killed on Tuesday morning during a West Bank arrest raid when a rock thrown off a rooftop struck him in the head, the military said. – Associated Press

The Israeli military on Monday said its forces demolished the home of a Palestinian accused of being behind a deadly blast in the West Bank last year. – Associated Press

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The goal of Israel’s decision to focus on the “third circle” and the “campaign between the wars” against Iran was to focus resources on that struggle while the Palestinian security threat was to be handled, managed or diminished. Focus on annexation troubles, whether with the EU or Iran, Turkey and the Gulf, raises up issues and complexities, uncertainties and instability, that run counter to a doctrine that was in place for a decade in Israel. – Jerusalem Post 


President Donald Trump said in a phone call to Iraq’s new prime minister that the U.S. was willing to provide Iraq with economic assistance, according to an Iraqi government statement on Monday, as the country faces a severe financial crisis brought on by falling oil prices. – Associated Press 

Five months after its charismatic leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed by a U.S. drone strike at the Baghdad airport, the Iran-backed group Kataib Hezbollah’s influence on Iraq may be quietly eroding. – Foreign Policy

Iraqi security forces have raided the office of an Iran-aligned party in the southern province of Basra and arrested militiamen who fired on demonstrators, killing one protester and injuring several others outside the party building. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

Farhad Alaaldin writes: The international community, including both the United States and Iran, have sent congratulatory messages to the Iraqi leaders, wishing the best for Iraq with the formation of its new government. This international recognition represents scenes not seen since the inauguration of Haidar alAbadi when he was appointed as PM in 2014. But even with the warm welcome both inside and outside Iraq, the path for the new government is riddled with challenges and difficulties that must be overcome soon in order to put Iraq back on track. – Washington Institute

Michael Rubin writes: The face of the U.S. presence in Iraq over the next decade should not only be Navy SEALs and Army Special Operators, but also investors and businessmen.  To simply repeat in Iraq, however, what the precipitous withdrawals Trump ordered in Syria and Afghanistan and President Obama oversaw in Iraq will empower Iran and undercut the most competent leadership team post-war Iraq has had. The choice is Trump’s. – Real Clear Defense

Arabian Peninsula

Yemen’s government forces will confront an “armed rebellion” by separatists in the south, the government said on Tuesday, adding that the group had refused to de-escalate the situation after declaring self-rule last month. – Reuters

Saudi writer Abdulhameed Al-Ghobain said in a May 10, 2020 interview on BBC Arabic TV (U.K.) that the Saudi public is well-informed today and that it no longer cares about the Palestinian cause or about Arab interests. Saying that the Palestinians “have lost,” Al-Ghobain explained that Saudis care about their national, strategic, and economic interests, and that Saudi Arabia can benefit from establishing relations with Israel because of how advanced Israel is. – Middle East Media Research Institute

The UN has warned the fight against huge locusts swarms in East Africa and Yemen is “not yet over”, as the pests look set for a resurgence in East Africa and Yemen by June. – The National

Middle East & North Africa

The International Monetary Fund approved a $2.77 billion loan to Egypt in an attempt to prevent economic collapse in the Middle East’s most populous nation amid the coronavirus pandemic. – Wall Street Journal

Turkey on Tuesday accused Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates of seeking to form an “alliance of evil” after these countries issued a joint declaration denouncing Ankara’s policies in the eastern Mediterranean and Libya. – Associated Press

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Overall the increasing cyber incidents in the Middle East illustrate how this new frontline is a concern to governments. The cyber incidents come amid reports that the US and Iran may be discussing a prisoner exchange. These discussions were reported in Kuwait’s Al-Jarida on Monday. The US appears to be removing some of the military build-up in the Gulf that was sent last year during the height of the tension with Iran. In this respect the sudden cyber tensions do not reflect the overall tensions in the Gulf. – Jerusalem Post 

Zoltan Barany writes: The Gulf monarchies – and, more broadly, the governments of the Arab world, Iran, and those of most developing states – need not observe such rules or operate under the restrictions that most democracies have in place. Aside from the partial exception of Kuwait, there are no authentic and/or effective popular legislatures in the Arabian Peninsula, and there are essentially no oversight mechanisms that could constrain defense spending or regulate arms acquisition standards. The Gulf governments’ decision-making processes in this regard, as in many others, remain opaque. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Authorities in Wuhan fired a local official after six new Covid-19 cases were confirmed over the weekend in a housing complex under his jurisdiction, in a sign of the government’s anxieties about the possibility of a resurgence in the original center of the pandemic. – Wall Street Journal

Beijing has warned it would take “countermeasures” unless the Trump administration “corrected” its decision to limit visas for all Chinese journalists posted in the United States, currently open-ended, to 90 days. – Washington Post

When Australia started pushing for a global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, no other countries were on board, and officials had no idea how it would work or how harshly China might react. Europe soon joined the effort anyway, moving to take up the idea with the World Health Organization later this month. – New York Times 

China announced on Tuesday a new list of 79 U.S. products eligible for waivers from retaliatory tariffs imposed at the height of the bilateral trade war, amid continued pressure on Beijing to boost imports from the United States. – Reuters

China has suspended imports from four large Australian meat processors, Australia’s Minister for Trade Simon Birmingham said on Tuesday, as sour bilateral ties threaten to disrupt the trade of several key agricultural commodities. – Reuters

Decoupling between the US and Chinese economies shifted into overdrive in the first quarter of this year, as the commercial impact of coronavirus exacerbated what some analysts are calling a “cold war” chill in ties between the countries. – Financial Times

China’s diplomats have done away with diplomacy. In a quest to counter western accusations that coronavirus originated in their country, Beijing’s emissaries have over the past two months substituted courtesy for intimidation. – Financial Times

Edward Lucas writes: “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” is China’s new no-holds-barred approach to the outside world. It is named after a fearsome screen hero, Wu Jing, a kind of Chinese Rambo. […]The backlash against Wolf Warrior diplomacy is growing. China has stoked anger in Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden — to take just a few recent examples. – Center for European Policy Analysis


Afghans woke to another deadly day on Tuesday, with gunmen storming a maternity clinic in the capital and a suicide bomber killing at least 15 civilians at a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar. – New York Times

When 16 rockets were fired at a small American base in southern Afghanistan last fall, the Taliban trumpeted the attack as a blood bath, claiming they had killed “tens” of Americans. The U.S.-led mission in Kabul downplayed it. […]As has occurred in past conflicting accounts about fighting in Afghanistan, both the Taliban and the American military statements were not true. –  New York Times

Afghan security forces say they have captured three senior members of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group’s South Asia branch — including the group’s regional leader for South Asia, Abu Omar Khorasani. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry says six soldiers were killed and five wounded in a Taliban attack on an army checkpoint in the eastern province of Laghman as a wave of violence threatens an accord aimed at ending fighting in the war-torn country. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


The UN Security Council will hold a videoconference to discuss the escalation of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and the effect of the coronavirus pandemic in the country, diplomatic sources said Monday. – Agence France-Presse

Hong Kong’s government will give “priority” to a contentious bill that seeks to criminalize abuse of the Chinese national anthem, the city’s leader said Tuesday, days after a pro-Beijing lawmaker wrested control over a key committee that vets bills. – Associated Press

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) director-general does not have the power to invite Taiwan to observe an upcoming global health meeting, the organization’s legal representative said Monday, amid protests from China. – The Hill

New Zealand’s foreign minister on Tuesday said the country has to stand up for itself after China warned its backing of Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Organization (WHO) could damage bilateral ties. – Reuters

The first Bell-Boeing V-22B Osprey tilt rotors ordered by Japan have arrived in their home country late last week, as the Asian nation continues to grapple with the dilemma of where to base the controversial aircraft. Two Ospreys with the markings of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, or JASDF, arrived at the joint U.S. Marine Corps-Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force base at Iwakuni, near the city of Hiroshima. – Defense News


Czech media have identified the man they say is the undercover Russian diplomat who entered the country nearly two months ago with a suitcase containing ricin as part of an alleged plot to poison as many as three Prague officials who had taken actions that angered the Kremlin. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Russia’s interest in the Arctic hasn’t waned in the last few months and it’s willing to jump out of a plane to prove it. Russia’s Defence Ministry released photos from an April 25 exercise which showed members of the Russian Airborne Troop leap out of a plane, plummeting 10 kilometres before safely landing in the Franz Josef Land archipelago. – Huffington Post  

Tom Rogan writes: For one, under Putin’s direct orders, the Russian state has long been engaged in a covert war against the American energy industry. This is why Putin is so favorable to Democratic Party policy positions on fracking, for example. […]The simple point here is that all everyone should avoid serving Putin. It doesn’t matter what excuse is offered, to take Putin’s corrupt blood money is to act against America. – Washington Examiner


Germany’s constitutional court sent shockwaves through Europe last week by ruling that the country’s government and the EU’s top judges failed to properly scrutinise the European Central Bank’s bond-buying programme. – Financial Times

Talks between the UK and EU over a post-Brexit trade deal will enter their third round later, ahead of a decisive summit next month. Both sides are due to decide by the end of June whether the current deadline for negotiating an agreement should be extended beyond the end of December. – BBC

European Union foreign ministers will meet in Brussels Friday, a day after the swearing-in of Israel’s new government, to consider punitive responses to Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, multiple reports have indicated. – Times of Israel

France is urging its European Union partners to consider threatening Israel with a tough response if it goes ahead with a de facto annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, three EU diplomats said. – Reuters

A demand by a senior police officer in western Ukraine for a list of the names, addresses and phone numbers of local Jewish community members has been roundly condemned by Jewish leaders as reminiscent of the Nazi occupation of the former Soviet republic. – Algemeiner

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has waded into Germany’s fiery debate about the decades-old pledge to retain American atomic bombs in the European nation as a way of deterring Russia. Stoltenberg argued that only sticking to the doctrine of “nuclear sharing” would ensure Berlin’s continued seat at the table of strategic decision-making within the alliance. – Defense News

Gorana Grgic writes: The future of U.S. policy toward Serbia-Kosovo talks hinges on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. […]Should we see a change in the White House, a new administration would almost certainly work in concert with the European Union to advance longstanding Western interests in the Balkans — namely, halting democratic backsliding and supporting democratic consolidation, building positive peace, promoting economic growth and sustainable economic development, and advancing Euro-Atlantic integration of the region. – War on the Rocks

United States

The Justice Department accused a professor in Arkansas on Monday of improperly accepting funds from the Chinese government and has accepted a guilty plea in a similar case, the latest examples of the department’s effort to combat China’s influence in American academia. – New York Times

American Jews were targets of more anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 than any other year over the past four decades, a surge marked by deadly attacks on a California synagogue, a Jewish grocery store in New Jersey and a rabbi’s New York home, the Anti-Defamation League reported Tuesday. – Associated Press

Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee are calling on the Trump administration to “immediately” stop funding President Trump’s border wall with money meant to deter Russian aggression in Europe. – The Hill

Latin America

For the men in the Colombian safe house, the arrival of the muscular American felt like deliverance. Defectors from Venezuela’s police and military, they had been rounded up from flophouses and streetside encampments for a secret mission to liberate their homeland from the socialist government of autocratic President Nicolás Maduro. – Washington Post

Two senior members of the Venezuelan opposition quit on Monday after admitting they signed an agreement with a US security firm proposing an armed invasion of the country to topple president Nicolás Maduro. – Financial Times

Michael Stott writes: Plenty could still go wrong for Mr Maduro. His Russian and Iranian backers might be induced by Washington to drop their support in return for other concessions. The refinery repairs might fail. A big Covid-19 outbreak could trigger chaos. Worsening petrol shortages could persuade the military to switch to backing a figure who might cut a deal with Washington. […]The US plan for a democratic transition in Venezuela is barely mentioned in Caracas circles these days, Mr León said. There is little appetite for revolt among the exhausted and repressed population. – Financial Times


The information technology office supporting the Texas judicial system was hit by a ransomware attack that took down websites and interrupted legal proceedings. – The Hill

As cyber criminals and hackers ramp up their attacks on businesses amid coronavirus-related disruption, companies are also facing another equally grave security threat: their own employees. – Financial Times

China is exploiting the coronavirus to sow discord among Western allies while building itself up, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned recently. – Defense One


The U.S. Navy is continuing to run missions to ensure freedom of navigation and show presence in the Western Pacific while other militaries are scaling back their operations amid COVID-19 concerns. – USNI News

The government’s $3 trillion effort to rescue the economy from the coronavirus crisis is stirring worry at the Pentagon. Bulging federal deficits may force a reversal of years of big defense spending gains and threaten prized projects like the rebuilding of the nation’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. – Associated Press

The Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center is looking for ideas on how to improve the way it can use artificial intelligence technologies to predict when the Defense Department’s thousands of planes, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles need maintenance and repairs.- Defense One

Months after the Air Force gave Raytheon the axe on the Three-Dimensional Expeditionary Long-Range Radar (3DELRR) program, the service has tapped three new companies to work on next-generation ground-based radars. – C4ISRNET

While the Corps plans to scrap its tank battalions the Marines are still in pursuit of a new armored reconnaissance vehicle to replace the legacy light armored vehicle. – Marine Corps Times

Long War

Polish authorities have detained four Tajik nationals on charges of attempting to recruit Muslim converts to carry out militant attacks. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

West Africa’s Sahel region has become the latest scene of jihadist in-fighting, after Islamic State group (IS) revealed it is engaged in fierce clashes with al-Qaeda militants in Mali and Burkina Faso. – BBC

Two Swedish citizens, aged 22 and 23, have been charged with terrorism in connection with last year’s early morning explosion that damaged the headquarters of the Danish Tax Agency, slightly injuring a bystander. – Associated Press

Patrick Dunleavy writes: A convicted terrorist has filed a lawsuit challenging the United Kingdom’s Terrorist Offenders Restriction of Early Release Act, which was passed into law three months ago. […]Khan’s case may be headed in that direction, as the judge in his case, Neil Garnham, allowed the lawsuit to go forward stating that Khan has an “arguable case” and it should be further examined. How long that will take we do not know. We can only hope that the curtain comes down quickly on this one-act play in the theater of the absurd. – Algemeiner

Trump Administration

President Trump’s top intelligence adviser has declassified and may release the names of Obama administration officials who requested the “unmasking” of former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn[…]. Mr. Flynn resigned within weeks of Mr. Trump’s 2017 inauguration, after reports emerged he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and others about phone calls he had with Russia’s ambassador to Washington shortly before taking office. – Wall Street Journal

President Donald Trump’s aggressive campaign to encourage sweeping investigations of his predecessor Barack Obama met a unanimous response from Senate Republicans: No thanks. […]“I’m not anticipating calling President Obama,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whose panel is investigating the origins of the 2016 Russia investigation, even as he vowed to bring in former senior Obama administration officials as witnesses. – Politico

Alice Hunt Friend and Risa Brooks write: Last month, news outlets reported the Trump administration had selected a retired Army brigadier general to be the next under secretary of defense for policy (USDP). The selection was part of a Trump administration trend: tapping retired military officers to fill a role traditionally occupied by political appointees with civilian careers. Although commentary over the course of the Trump administration has noted the president’s frequent use of retired military personnel to fill political jobs, questions linger about whether these choices pose problems for the military or for politics. – Center for Strategic and International Studies