Fdd's overnight brief

May 14, 2019

In The News


An initial U.S. assessment indicated Iran likely was behind the attack on two Saudi Arabian oil tankers and two other vessels damaged over the weekend near the Strait of Hormuz, a U.S. official said, a finding that, if confirmed, would further inflame military tensions in the Persian Gulf. – Wall Street Journal

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo crashed a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday to push for a united transatlantic front against Tehran and its nuclear program. But he failed to bend attitudes among leaders who fear that the United States and Iran are inching toward war. – Washington Post  

At a meeting of President Trump’s top national security aides last Thursday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said. – New York Times

Two Saudi Arabian oil tankers and a Norwegian ship were damaged over the weekend near the Persian Gulf in what Saudi Arabia claimed Monday was an “act of sabotage,” further heightening regional tensions with Iran. – Washington Post  

European foreign ministers urged the United States and Iran to show restraint Monday amid fears of tensions tipping them easily into armed conflict, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefed his counterparts on the threats Washington sees emanating from the Islamic republic. – Associated Press

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will hold talks with his counterpart in the Indian capital on Tuesday after New Delhi stopped purchases of Iranian oil this month in the wake of renewed U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump warned on Monday Iran would “suffer greatly” if it targeted U.S. interests after Washington deployed an aircraft carrier and more jet fighters at a time of rising tensions with Tehran. – Reuters

Iran has begun implementing changes to its commitments under a nuclear deal with world powers, a spokesman for the country’s nuclear agency said, while stressing that the measures were not in violation of the agreement. – Associated Press

Omri Nahmias writes: It’s been an intense couple of weeks in the triangle of the United States, Iran and the European Union. The immediate trigger is the one-year mark since US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Trump administration decided to use that anniversary to impose fresh sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The Iranians, on the other hand, are trying to save their crumbling economy and gave the EU 60 days to save whatever is left from the original deal before they’ll cease to abide the agreement. – Jerusalem Post

Michael Knights and Assaf Orion write: Iran’s long-range rockets and missiles allow it to threaten enemy forces and populations hundreds of kilometers away, while proxy warfare enables it to indirectly harass and deter these enemies with minimal risk of confrontation on Iranian territory. In recent years, Tehran has combined these strategies to great effect in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. There are signs that Iraq may be the next theater for this approach—signs that were evident well before the latest U.S. military deployments to the region and meetings with Iraqi leaders. If so, such a scenario would threaten Iraq’s hopes for a peaceful future and its relations with the United States. – Washington Institute  


Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that the Syria government targeted the Turkish-Russian cooperation in Idlib by violating the agreed ceasefire, a statement from Erdogan’s office said. – Reuters

The United States has asked Turkey to delay taking delivery of the S-400 Russian missile defense system, currently scheduled for July, in return for potentially approving the formation of a working group that Ankara has sought to establish, a source familiar with the matter said on Monday. – Reuters  

Turkey’s Treasury ministry is working on legislation to transfer the central bank’s 40 billion lira ($6.6 billion) in legal reserves to the government’s budget to shore it up, three economic officials told Reuters. – Reuters  

Desmond Lachman writes: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mishandling of his country’s currency crisis heightens substantially the probability that Turkey will soon default on its external debt. That could jeopardise the rest of the emerging market economies’ prospects as well European banks, particularly in Spain, with high Turkish debt exposure. – Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum  


The US embassy in Israel on Tuesday issued a security alert to American citizens, warning that Palestinian terrorists could choose to carry out attacks in Israel and the West Bank over the coming days. – Times of Israel

Israel’s government went on a spending binge in its West Bank settlements following the election of President Donald Trump, according to official data obtained by The Associated Press. Both supporters and detractors of the settlement movement have previously referred to a “Trump effect,” claiming the president’s friendlier approach to the settlements is leading to additional West Bank construction. – Associated Press

The IDF has tightened the rules of engagement for troops based near the Gaza Strip as Israel seeks to maintain calm as it hosts the Eurovision song contest this week in Tel Aviv, the Haaretz daily reported Monday. – Times of Israel

Spyware crafted by an “advanced cyber actor” infected multiple targeted mobile phones through the popular WhatsApp communications program without any user intervention through in-app voice calls, the company said. The Financial Times identified the actor as Israel’s NSO Group, and a WhatsApp spokesman later said “we’re certainly not refuting any of the coverage you’ve seen.” – Associated Press

London-based Amnesty International, together with other human rights activists, has filed a petition to the District Court in Tel Aviv to compel Israel’s Defense Ministry to revoke the export license it granted to NSO Group, a Herzliya-based spyware developer, that Amnesty said has been used “in chilling attacks on human rights defenders around the world.” – Times of Israel

Former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters’ latest anti-Israel rant has been condemned by none other than the former Miss Iraq Sarah Idan. Waters last week doubled down on his call to boycott the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, which is scheduled to kick off in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. – Arutz Sheva

Raphael Ahren writes: As Israel and the US on Tuesday celebrate the one-year anniversary of the opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem, the US and Guatemala remain the only two countries that have their embassies here. […]Meanwhile the European Union, in an internal memo obtained by The Times of Israel, has downplayed the trend among some member states to open trade offices in Jerusalem (some of which have diplomatic status since they are seen as “extensions” of a country’s Tel Aviv embassy, but are not considered embassies themselves), insisting that it remains firmly opposed to any recognition of the city as Israel’s capital and to establishing embassies there. – Times of Israel

Zev Chafets writes: A powerful American fleet is now steaming toward Iranian waters. The U.S. has publicly deployed nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and Patriot anti-missile batteries on the territory of American allies near Iran. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is making a short-notice visit to Brussels to talk about Iran. Israel is paying keen attention to these developments. If there is war, Israel will become part of the battlefield. – Bloomberg

Middle East & North Africa

A year and a half after the Islamic State group was declared defeated in Iraq, the militants still evoke fear in the lands of their former so-called caliphate across northern Iraq. […]It is part of a hidden but relentless fight between the group’s remnants waging an insurgency and security forces trying to stamp them out, relying on intelligence operations, raids and searches for sleeper cells among the population. – Associated Press

All warring groups in Libya must commit to a ceasefire and return to U.N.-led mediation, the European Union said on Monday, calling the situation a threat to international security. – Reuters

The White House has reportedly been reviewing a plan to send as many as 120,000 US troops to the Middle East if Iran accelerates its uranium enrichment or attacks American targets. – Associated Press

A television station run by Yemen’s Houthi group said on Tuesday the Iran-aligned movement had launched drone attacks on Saudi installations, without identifying the targets or time of the attacks. – Reuters  

Korean Peninsula

A North Korean cargo ship seized by the U.S. because of suspicion it was used to violate international sanctions arrived at the capital of this American territory, where it will undergo inspections. – Associated Press

North Korea on Tuesday called the U.S. seizure of a North Korean cargo ship involved in banned coal exports a “robbery” and demanded that the vessel be returned immediately. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, carried a statement by an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman who accused the United States of betraying the spirit of a summit agreement last June between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump. – Associated Press


The U.S.-China trade dispute escalated sharply Monday, as Beijing retaliated against higher U.S. tariffs with plans to increase levies on $60 billion in U.S. imports and Washington laid out nearly $300 billion of new Chinese imports that would face 25% levies as early as this summer. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. and Chinese governments both sent signals ahead of their trade talks in Washington last week that a pact was so near they would discuss the logistics of a signing ceremony. In a matter of days, the dynamic shifted so markedly that the Chinese deliberated whether to even show up after President Trump ordered a last-minute increase in tariffs on Chinese imports because the U.S. viewed China as reneging on previous commitments. – Wall Street Journal

When Amnesty International U.S.A. started looking for a new headquarters in New York City, the human rights group settled on office space in a modest skyscraper in Lower Manhattan known as Wall Street Plaza. But just as the organization was about to sign a lease last week, the building’s owner said that its new parent company, a giant shipping conglomerate owned by the Chinese government, decided to veto the offer. The company, Cosco Shipping, did not want the United States chapter of Amnesty International, which has produced scathing reports highlighting human rights abuses in China, as a tenant, according to the group. – New York Times  

Diplomats have visited a Canadian think tank expert whose detention in China is believed to be an attempt to pressure Canada to release Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. – Associated Press

Xiaojun Li and Ka Zeng write: The absence of concrete support from private firms to increase their participation may exacerbate the moral hazard issues, and undermine Xi’s ability to fully mobilize domestic resources to deliver his promises. This puts an added spotlight on the government’s ability to direct the behavior of self-interested, profit-driven firms. And other complications have emerged. Beijing’s growing wariness to pump additional government funds into the initiative due to the ongoing trade war and the country’s falling foreign exchange reserves may further compound these challenges. – Washington Post

Joe McDonald writes: China’s intensified tariff war with the Trump administration is threatening Beijing’s ambition to transform itself into the dominant player in global technology. The United States is a vital customer and source of technology for Chinese makers of electronics, medical equipment and other high-tech exports — industries that the ruling Communist Party sees as the heart of its economic future. Yet to the Trump administration, they’re a threat to America’s industrial leadership. – Associated Press

John Authers writes: It looks as though both the U.S. and China have underestimated the strength of the other’s position and willingness to escalate. Meanwhile Wall Street, which spent the time since the Buenos Aires “truce” in November busily working on the assumption that a deal was a given, has totally misjudged both sides. Why has China done this? I suggest that it is all down to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. – Bloomberg

South Asia

Conditions imposed under a $6 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund for Pakistan will upend the government’s promises to improve education, health care and create a welfare state as it instead raises new taxes and cuts spending, experts said. The deal, details of which were released Monday, is a setback for the political agenda of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who came into office in August promising to create millions of jobs, build millions of low-cost homes, and revamp health and education services. – Wall Street Journal

An improvised bomb rigged to a motorcycle and apparently targeting a police vehicle exploded near a mosque in the western Pakistani city of Quetta on Monday, killing at least four policemen and wounding 11, officials said. Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the blast in an emailed statement, just days after they claimed an attack on police guarding a major Sufi shrine in the eastern city of Lahore. – Reuters

Sri Lanka on Monday declared a countrywide curfew to control the worst outburst of violence since the deadly Easter Sunday bombings, after mobs attacked mosques and the homes of Muslims. – New York Times  

A Sri Lankan software engineer suspected by authorities in Sri Lanka of having provided technical and logistical support to the Easter Sunday suicide bombers was monitored by Indian intelligence agencies three years ago for links with Islamic State suspects, investigators said. – Reuters   

Mobs slashed to death a Sri Lankan Muslim man despite a nationwide curfew imposed Monday night after anti-Muslim riots spread to three districts north of the capital in a violent backlash against Easter suicide bombings. – Agence France-Presse

Vinay Kaura writes: U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad is holding talks with the Afghan Taliban to make sure the guns fall silent in Afghanistan. But getting the Taliban to agree on a ceasefire and engage in an intra-Afghan dialogue is severely testing Khalilzad’s negotiating skills; the fifth round of talks in Doha lasted for 16 days. If the intra-Afghan dimension cannot be made to work, it will likely lead to not only a more complicated political process, but also a far more dangerous one. – Middle East Institute  


A dictator’s daughter and the commander of President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war were among the winners of the Philippines’ midterm elections, a resounding endorsement for the strongman leader’s policies. – Washington Post  

A United Nations fact-finding mission is urging that countries cut off all business with Myanmar’s military as part of efforts to hold the army accountable for human rights abuses. – Associated Press

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres aims to draw up a global plan to fight a rising tide of hate speech, he said on Tuesday, during a visit to a New Zealand mosque where dozens of worshippers were killed in a mass shooting in March. – Reuters


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s first trip to Russia is scheduled to start Tuesday in Black Sea coastal city of Sochi, where he and Russian Foreign Minister are sitting down for talks and then having a joint meeting with President Vladimir Putin. […]The state of arms control treaties between the United States and Russia is likely to feature prominently in the talks. – Associated Press

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi says his country isn’t interested in negotiating a nuclear arms control treaty with the United States and Russia. Wang was in Russia’s Sochi for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday, a day before U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to do the same. – Associated Press

Eli Lake writes: In Venezuela, it looks like Russia is once again playing a weak hand well. The U.S. has imposed crippling sanctions on the state-owned oil company and lifted them on officials who have joined the opposition, such as the intelligence chief. And yet, with the support of Russia, Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro survives. So when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives this week in Sochi, his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, will undoubtedly be looking to exploit the situation by using a familiar Russian ploy: Enable a geopolitical crisis, and then offer to help solve it. – Bloomberg

Richard Weitz writes: Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin seek a closer defense partnership, which could come in the form of more extensive exercises or defense industrial collaboration. Furthermore, Chinese-Russian military action may come in the form of a combined effort to suppress an Islamist insurgency in a Central Asian country, using a sectoral approach of concurrent but separate military operations. – Hudson Institute  

Hal Brands writes: On the whole, however, NATO expansion was a remarkable success, one that locked in the gains of the Cold War in Europe and helped free the continent from an ugly past it might otherwise have been doomed to repeat. It’s a shame that the looming threat posed by a president who is himself blind to the alliance’s accomplishments prevents us from more clearly recognizing that result today. – Bloomberg  


British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party is bracing for a historic drubbing in European Parliament elections this month that will likely undermine her perilous grip of her party and country. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump offered praise on Monday for Hungary’s controversial prime minister during the European leader’s first White House visit in more than 20 years, describing him as a highly respected figure who has done what he must to keep his country safe. – Wall Street Journal

The leaders of France and New Zealand will make a joint push to eliminate acts of violent extremism from being shown online, in a meeting with tech leaders in Paris on Wednesday. – Associated Press

Executed for standing up against Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship and then denied graves so as not to become a rallying point for others, the partial remains of 300 Nazi resistance fighters were laid to rest Monday in a solemn ceremony in a downtown Berlin cemetery. – Associated Press

Facebook shut down phony Italian accounts and pages spreading fake news ahead of European Union parliamentary elections, prompting opposition lawmakers to call Monday for tougher laws to curb online misinformation. – Associated Press

The Polish government canceled a visit by an Israeli delegation that had been planned for Monday, saying the Israeli government made last-minute changes that suggested it would focus on the issue of the restitution of former Jewish property. – Associated Press

The recently appointed commissioner to combat antisemitism in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, who served as Germany’s federal justice minister, joined the Israeli and American governments in calling for the Bank for Social Economy to close the account of an allegedly antisemitic pro-BDS group that is currently promoting a boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv. – Jerusalem Post

United States

US Democrats on Monday defended a freshman member of their ranks after President Donald Trump and his allies criticized her remarks about the Holocaust and accused her of anti-Semitism. – Associated Press

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation that limits the scope of a law already on the books that bans the state from doing business with Israel boycotters. – Jerusalem Post

Attorney General William Barr tapped Connecticut’s chief federal prosecutor, John Durham, to assist in an investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation and the FBI’s surveillance activities, a person familiar with the matter said Monday. – USA Today


Pentagon officials are considering a new request for military assistance along the southern border, a defense official said Monday, after the Department of Homeland Security asked for help housing and caring for thousands of migrants. – Washington Post  

The Navy is committed to upgrading its amphibious ships to support the Navy and Marines’ new way of operating and to leverage the power of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, but it’s still unclear when dollars will start flowing to pay for these upgrades to communications and command and control systems. – USNI News

In the wake of the Pentagon reprogramming $1.5 billion in fiscal 2019 funds to support President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico, only the U.S. Air Force appears to be losing money appropriated for equipment updates. – Defense News

The Pentagon is reorganizing its internal offices to better partner with universities and upstart technology firms to ensure the military has access to talent and research in the near future and to fortify its innovation pipeline. – C4ISRNET

A U.S. delegation is scheduled to brief Polish defense officials eager to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter later this month, U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Monday. – Defense One  

Knowing is half the battle, and overcoming electromagnetic interference is apparently 11 percent. Electromagnetic interference is now a durable part of the modern battlefield, and one that is degrading the ability of American and allied forces to operate at full capacity as they once had. The news comes from the latest report by the Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve, published May 7. – C4ISRNET

Trump Administration

A top U.S. arms control official and prominent Iran hawk has resigned from the State Department after serving just over a year in the position, said U.S. officials and congressional aides familiar with the decision. The State Department on Monday did not offer a statement explaining the planned departure of Yleem Poblete, the assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance. – Washington Post  

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s execution of President Trump’s orders to use money from the Pentagon’s budget to fund border security has irked Democrats in Congress, foreshadowing a contentious Senate confirmation hearing now that Trump has announced his intent to nominate Shanahan for the top Pentagon job. – Washington Examiner

The Justice Department on Monday welcomed a federal judge’s ruling that a Washington, D.C., radio station must register as an agent of the Russian government, saying Americans “have a right to know if a foreign flag waves behind speech broadcast in the United States.” – MSNBC