Fdd's overnight brief

May 17, 2019

In The News


Intelligence collected by the U.S. government shows Iran’s leaders believe the U.S. planned to attack them, prompting preparation by Tehran for possible counterstrikes, according to one interpretation of the information, people familiar with the matter said. – Wall Street Journal

U.S. President Donald Trump has told his top advisers he does not want to get the United States involved in a war with Iran, three U.S. officials said on Thursday. – Reuters

Amid a tense standoff between the United States and Iran, four lawmakers are sending a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump expressing concern that he was “inflating threats and bending intelligence” on Iran and leading the United States down a “path to another war in the Middle East”—though top administration officials said they do not seek a war with Iran. – Foreign Policy

Sen. Mark Warner left a lengthy classified briefing on Iran Thursday afternoon with a provocative reaction: “It’s very important that more members hear this story.” The Virginia Democrat’s request will be met next week as a wave of anxiety over possible military engagement with Iran grips Capitol Hill. – Politico

As lawmakers ask for more information on the potential threats posed by Iran in the Middle East, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee said intelligence briefings he has received have convinced him that an increased military presence in the region is needed. – Military Times

Amid rising tensions in the Gulf, Iran on Thursday rejected negotiations with the US and said it was showing “maximum restraint” after Washington sent extra military forces to the region against what it claimed was an imminent threat from Tehran. – Agence FrancePresse

Two U.S. guided-missile destroyers entered the Persian Gulf on Thursday without incident as the likelihood of an armed confrontation between Iran and the U.S. appears less likely, two U.S. defense officials confirmed to USNI News on Thursday. – USNI News

Amnesty International says a proposed amendment to Iran’s Criminal Code could deny individuals access to a lawyer while they are under investigation and facing serious charges. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The US State Department has released a video alleging that Iran has established a military training base in Lebanon in close proximity to the Rayak Air Force base near the border with Syria. – Jerusalem Post

Iran’s 60-day deadline that it gave the parties to the 2015 nuclear deal to grant it sufficient economic benefits and protection from the US pressure campaign is the first one that has mattered in the standoff in a long time. – Jerusalem Post

Iran has developed software to protect its industry against the Stuxnet computer virus, the Iranian communications minister said on Thursday, after accusing Israel in November of a cyber attack on Tehran’s telecommunications facilities. – Reuters

Josh Rogin writes: But these tense times call for more restraint, less speculation and less hyperbole. The Trump administration must be more transparent about its complicated, risky strategy. But understanding what it is actually doing — and dealing with that honestly — is the best way to prevent the disastrous war we are all trying to avoid. – Washington Post

Hugh Hewiit writes: The JCPOA is dead. The Obama dream was always that: a dream. The IRGC and Khamenei have not changed a bit but have only been emboldened and their coffers replenished by the collective face plant that was the Iran nuclear deal. A lot of American commentators and journalists fell hard for that now-dashed hope, and swooned for the pronouncements of the would-be Metternichs of the Obama era. Now realism has returned to the national security establishment. It would be useful if the media caught up and stopped trying to fit this conflict into its long-held “Obama good, Trump bad” narrative. The stakes are too high. – Washington Post

Ted Gover writes: As with all geopolitical challenges, coming events will dictate other necessary measures. Yet, these steps along with current Iranian oil sanctions can forge a strong, impactful Iran policy, further raise the costs of Iranian aggression and deter future misbehavior. – Jerusalem Post


In the event of war with the United States, Iran “will not be alone.” That message was delivered by the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group to a mass rally in Beirut in February marking the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. “If America launches war on Iran, it will not be alone in the confrontation, because the fate of our region is tied to the Islamic Republic,” Hassan Nasrallah said. – Associated Press

Britain has had a long relationship with Hezbollah and has disengaged from it only slowly. The divorce was made final on 26 February 2019, when Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced in the House of Commons that he was banning the organization as a whole under the Terrorism Act 2000. – Jerusalem Post

In a speech delivered on May 9, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, secretary-general of the Hezbollah Nujaba movement in Iraq, delivered a series of threats against Israel. Hezbollah Nujaba is an Iran-supported Shia militia. It is affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi, which is a gathering of mainly Shia, mainly pro-Iran military groups. Kaabi’s speech is by itself of only passing interest. But it is an indication of the growing involvement of Tehran’s Iraqi servants in Iran’s preparations for conflict with Israel – and not only on the verbal level. – Jerusalem Post

Giora Eiland writes: If more large natural gas reserves are discovered in the disputed waters, the conflict over the maritime border will intensify, which is exactly what Nasrallah is waiting for. The Israeli government have two options: continue to insist on the border determined by its system many years ago or agree with Lebanon and enter an indirect negotiations with the Lebanese government in order to resolve the dispute. And, in light of the recent escalation between Washington and Tehran, the need for a resolution has become more pressing than ever. – Ynet


At least 10 civilians were killed and 30 wounded in Syria by a rocket strike on the Neirab camp for Palestinian refugees close to the city of Aleppo on Tuesday night, the United Nations said in a statement on Thursday. – Reuters

Families who fled Syrian government and Russian strikes in northwestern Syria are sleeping in an olive grove near the Turkish border without enough food and no place else to go. – Reuters

John Saleh writes: In order to stop the civil war in Syria and find a political solution, the United States and any friends of Syria must form an international force to maintain security inside the country. A no-fly zone should be established where remaining U.S. forces and Kurdish allies are stationed. Part of this strategy should also be to ensure that Russia does not finance the reconstruction of liberated areas, thereby building soft power in areas outside of regime control as well as within it. – Washington Institute


The chief of the U.S. Air Force says it is still “possible” that Turkey will decide against purchasing a Russian missile-defense system, a deal that has angered Washington and many NATO allies. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

The United States on Thursday terminated Turkey’s preferential trade treatment that allowed some exports to enter the country duty free, but it has halved its tariffs on imports of Turkish steel to 25%. – Reuters

Chinese firms are eyeing partnerships with Turkish construction firms in Africa and are also looking to take stakes in Turkish companies, the head of the Turkish Contractors Association said. – Reuters


House Democrats, roiled by accusations of anti-Semitism this year, are divided over how to stand with Israel and condemn a global boycott movement as Republicans demand a Democratic response. – Washington Post

Israel has been providing Washington with intelligence about potential Iranian attacks. Its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has made Iran’s strategic ambitions an obsession. And as recently as February he floated the idea of war with Iran. But analysts and former Israeli military and intelligence officials say the Israeli government is not angling for a full-blown war between the United States and Iran. Such a war, Israeli officials fear, could plunge Israel into a mutually destructive conflagration with Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah. – New York Times

Government mechanisms established to prevent foreign entities conducting business with Iran from operating in Israel are not being implemented, according to a petition filed to the High Court this week. – Jerusalem Post

Israeli prosecutors filed charges on Thursday against a man accused of spitting on Poland’s ambassador, an incident that drew strong condemnation from Warsaw and underscored tensions between the countries over antisemitism and Holocaust history. – Reuters

Amnesty International called on Thursday for Israel‘s government to ensure that an Israeli company, whose spyware has been linked to a WhatsApp breach that may have targeted human rights groups, be held accountable for the way its software is used. – Reuters

Declaring “the mistake is ours to own,” Muslim leaders in Philadelphia apologized Wednesday for an event last month at which children were captured on video speaking in Arabic about beheadings and the liberation of Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site. – Associated Press

Eric R. Mandel writes: Organizations that are trying to advance peace in the region need to think about reclaiming the language of human rights, and learn to explain how it is used today as a weapon against Israel. Otherwise, those peace advocates will be fighting a continually uphill battle in Congress, on college campuses and with the American public, against an adversary with a decided advantage that has won the tools of debate. – Jerusalem Post

Arabian Peninsula

The fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi called Thursday for members of Congress to put greater pressure on Saudi Arabia to answer questions related to the Saudi journalist’s slaying, telling lawmakers, “I am asking for justice.” – Washington Post

The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) has vowed to show restraint after attacks on oil tankers off its coast amid complaints that it is being “bullied by Iran.” – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

A Yemen rebel drone strike this week on a critical Saudi oil pipeline shows that the otherwise-peaceful sandy reaches of the Arabian Peninsula now are at risk of similar assault, including an under-construction nuclear power plant and Dubai International Airport, among the world’s busiest. – Associated Press

Houthi fighters and Saudi-backed pro-government forces renewed fighting in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah on Wednesday. – Reuters

Saudi-led coalition warplanes bombed Yemeni rebel targets including in the capital on Thursday following insurgent drone strikes on a key oil pipeline that Riyadh said were ordered by its arch-rival Tehran. – Agence FrancePresse

Since fighting broke out in Yemen four years ago, 7,300 children have been killed or seriously injured in the country, according to the United Nations. And around 360,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. – CBS News

Brett Velicovich writes: Recent attacks on two oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia by armed drones coupled with the sabotage of oil tankers in the Gulf may be proof that the Iranian regime is clearly ok with escalating tensions in the region[…]. The truth is that the weaponization of drone technology is no longer reserved for superpowers that can afford the heavy price tag that used to come with it. Any terrorist group or criminal organization with access to explosives can now purchase a cheap drone online and conduct attacks against their target of choice. But when a local terrorist group like the Houthis combines its hope for chaos with the resources of a nation-state like Iran, we may have just entered into a new form of warfare that we can’t come back from. – Fox News

Middle East & North Africa

A South Korean and three Filipinos have been freed following months of captivity in Libya, Seoul and Abu Dhabi said Friday. – Associated Press

The United States ordered its non-emergency government employees to leave its Baghdad embassy and the consulate in Erbil on Wednesday. Erbil is the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and locals are concerned that US-Iran tensions will now engulf the Kurdish region at a sensitive time. – Jerusalem Post

Forty-seven fighters and five Egyptian soldiers were killed during Egypt’s ongoing military offensive in the restive Sinai Peninsula, where it is fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group. – Al Jazeera

Korean Peninsula

South Korea says it will allow its businesspeople to visit their factories at an industrial park in North Korea that was shut down by Seoul’s previous conservative government in 2016 following a North Korean nuclear test. – Associated Press

North Korea disclosed on Wednesday it is suffering its worst drought in nearly four decades, amid growing concerns the country is dangerously short on food. – Fox News

Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang write: Each day that passes without a grand deal is one where North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs continue to expand and improve, further reducing Washington’s leverage. If North Korea’s end-of-year deadline passes without a shift in the U.S. negotiating position, Kim may ring in the New Year with a bang. – Foreign Affairs


Over the past five months, as Beijing and Washington have exchanged fire on trade and technology, two Canadian men have been held in near-isolation in Chinese detention facilities. On Thursday, 158 days into their ordeal, they were formally arrested, a legal step that confirms that China intends to move forward with cases against them — and that hints at the political factors at play. – Washington Post

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, seemed confident three weeks ago that a yearlong trade war with the United States could soon subside, handing him a potent political victory. […]But just a week after that speech, Chinese negotiators sent the Americans a substantially rewritten draft agreement, prompting President Trump to accuse Beijing of reneging on terms that had been settled. – New York Times

China has called on Turkey to support its fight against militants operating in China’s restive far western region of Xinjiang, following criticism from Turkey about rights in a part of China heavily populated by a Turkic, mostly Muslim people. – Reuters

The United States is not sincere about wanting to resume trade talks with China and has damaged the atmosphere for negotiations with its recent moves, a state media social media account said. – Reuters

Chinese scholars are reportedly looking into the so-called nuclear option in the trade war — Beijing dumping US Treasurys. – Business Insider

China is exhibiting some worrying trade war restraint. A popular nationalist tabloid suggested this week that Beijing could retaliate against Washington using the country’s grip on rare-earth supplies, U.S. debt or American business on the mainland. A better question is why these weapons, some of which have been deployed in the past, sit idle. It points to a different, and more dangerous, conflict. – Reuters

China’s state media signaled a lack of interest in resuming trade talks with the U.S. under the current threat to escalate tariffs, while the government said stimulus will be stepped up to buttress the domestic economy. – Bloomberg

Hilton Yip writes: Hong Kong has seen the steady erosion of its political and media liberties in the last few years, while facing the possibility of being absorbed into the mainland through the Greater Bay Area. Yet the city-state has stubbornly clung to its distinct identity, forged through elements like rule of law that benefit both residents and businesses. If the extradition law passes, then Hong Kong will lose a huge chunk of this distinctiveness, and the facade of being different from the mainland will truly crumble. – Foreign Policy

Claude Barfield writes: The focus here is on some of the political and strategic implications for the United States and China. Though it is still possible that the two sides will reach an agreement in time for the G20 summit in June, it is looks increasingly likely that both sides are dug in too deeply to avoid a protracted conflict. If that proves to be the case, the world will witness a global experiment pitting a highly organized, though not invulnerable, authoritarian government and society against a freewheeling, somewhat undisciplined yet historically resilient democratic government and society. – American Enterprise Institute


An air attack has killed 17 policemen by mistake during a battle with the Taliban just outside the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, officials said. – Al Jazeera

A Taliban attack on two military checkpoints has left 10 Afghan army members dead in southern Zabul province, officials said. – Al Jazeera

The Trump administration asked Congress for funds to reimburse the Taliban for travel expenses incurred attending peace talks in Doha, Qatar, Roll Call reported Wednesday, citing a US official. – Business Insider

South Asia

Pakistani security forces have killed nine Islamic State militants during an hours-long operation near the city of Quetta in the southwestern Balochistan Province where repeated militant attacks occurred this month, officials said on May 16. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Five people, including three rebels, a civilian and one Indian army personnel, have been killed in a pre-dawn gunfight in Dalipora village of Pulwama in the southern part of Indian-administered Kashmir. – Al Jazeera

Atman Trivedi writes: A number of those policies are actually designed with China in mind. Like the U.S., India runs by far its largest trade deficit with its wealthier neighbor. If just afforded a chance, it might quietly lend a hand to U.S. efforts to change China’s trade approach. The Trump administration should give Indian leaders at least a couple months to get organized and draft some serious proposals, including on e-commerce restrictions. While the U.S. dukes it out with China, India can hopefully get its act together and give Trump less incentive to launch another ill-advised trade assault. – Bloomberg


The Indonesian police say they have foiled a suspected terrorist cell with the ability to use Wi-Fi to detonate explosive devices, highlighting advances in bomb-making in a country with a history of militant activity tied to the Islamic State. – New York Times

Japan’s trade negotiator said Friday Washington won’t be demanding any numerical restrictions on Japanese auto exports to the U.S. – Associated Press

Shira Loewenberg writes: Over the past decade, Malaysia has taken on Palestinian statehood as an issue not only of foreign policy, but as a more central issue useful in rallying domestic political support.  […]Allying themselves with the plight of fellow Muslims in what is portrayed as a simple situation of oppressor (Israel = Jewish) and oppressed (Palestinian = Muslim) has been sold not as a political and territorial dispute between peoples with differing narratives and historic claims to the same piece of land, but as a religious conflict of direct and personal consequence to the nation’s Muslim citizens. – The Hill


The Trump administration, in an action that will likely further escalate tensions between the U.S. and Russia, on Thursday imposed sanctions on Russian and Chechen officials linked to the deaths of two whistleblowers critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government. – Wall Street Journal

The Council of Europe, the continent’s main human rights body, adopted a declaration Friday that restores Russia’s voting rights following a spat related to its annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. – Associated Press

Timothy Roemer and Zachary Wamp write: Russia is a clear and present danger. While the United States seeks to strengthen democracy around the world, Russia continues attacking and trying to weaken it. If the president will not lead, the legislative branch must. Congress has powers and responsibilities under the Constitution, yet it fails to meet the serious challenges facing our national security. – The Hill


Before he was elected president of Ukraine last month, Volodymyr Zelensky played a president in a comedy show on television. The owner of that television station, Ihor Kolomoisky, returned on Thursday from self-imposed exile, raising fears that he may now ask the real president to return some favors. – New York Times

British Prime Minister Theresa May fended off pressure Thursday from Conservative Party lawmakers demanding that she set a date for her resignation, buying herself a few more weeks to try to unblock Britain’s Brexit impasse. – Associated Press

U.S. fears about losing European defense contracts are unfounded, Brussels told Washington on Thursday after the Pentagon demanded the European Union curtail a new military pact that it sees as a potential threat to NATO. – Reuters

The European Union is seeking new ways to widen use of the euro and counter the dollar’s global dominance, top EU officials said on Thursday, as the bloc tries to salvage Iran’s nuclear deal by helping companies bypass U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

U.S. officials have imposed new financial sanctions on a Chechen law enforcement agency linked to a recent “gay purge” that has resulted in dozens of gay and bisexual men being imprisoned, and in some cases, tortured in the North Caucasus region. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

A coalition of parties from the center, right and left in Germany will come together on Friday to back a parliamentary motion condemning the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign that seeks to cut all commercial, political and cultural ties with the State of Israel throughout the international community. – Algemeiner

The Hamas terror group on Thursday thanked UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for his solidarity in recognizing Palestinian mourning over the 71st anniversary of the formation of the State of Israel. – Times of Israel

Amid growing controversy, the German parliament is set to pass a resolution on Friday condemning the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The text condemns BDS as anti-Semitic and urges the government not to fund or support groups or activities that question Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. – Times of Israel

European Union officials have rejected U.S. demands for automatic access to the bloc’s defense budget, arguing the money is meant only to nurse military capabilities among member countries. – Defense News

John Solomon writes: Whatever happens next in Ukraine, there’s growing evidence that Leshchenko and his activities during the 2016 election in America may deserve scrutiny on this side of the ocean, too. And that alarm will sound all the more loudly if Ukrainian authorities find any evidence substantiating that Leshchenko received bribes or influence money from Russia in 2016. – The Hill


Sudanese protesters voiced regret Thursday at an army decision to suspend crucial talks on installing civilian rule but vowed to press on with a sit-in despite being targeted in fresh violence. – Agence FrancePresse

The death toll from Tuesday’s ambush on Nigerien troops near the border with Mali has risen to 28, an army spokesman and security sources have said, as ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack. – Al Jazeera

Jalal Salmi writes: As Washington monitors events and waits for an opportunity to intervene when the situation matures in its favor—or strays completely from its desired outcome—Saudi Arabia and the UAE may find themselves outmatched by the confluence of interests that are against their increased involvement in Sudan. Russia in particular may exploit America’s complacency toward Sudan as well as the needs of the Military Council[…]. Thus, the Military Council is also likely to experience continued outside pressure against shifting towards the Gulf that may prove persuasive.- Washington Institute

Hilary Matfess writes: In short, analysis that prioritizes linkages with the Islamic State over other relevant factors is likely to lead to ineffective government responses at the domestic and international level. Responding to the threats posed by these groups requires confronting the political and economic marginalization and the government abuse that drives these groups to take up arms in the first place. – Foreign Policy

Latin America

Police removed four activists from the Venezuelan embassy in Washington and arrested them, the latest skirmish over the diplomatic compound between the supporters of the country’s two competing leaders. – Wall Street Journal

For all the heated talk coming from Washington about President Nicolás Maduro being a Cuban puppet, there was a time when Cuban troops really did try to take control of Venezuela — or at least a remote coconut-strewn tropical beach. – Associated Press

But as President Nicolás Maduro’s government has struggled with plunging petroleum production and a cratering economy, Venezuela has stopped sending billions in subsidized oil to countries throughout Central America and the Caribbean, including Haiti, where the end of cheap oil has meant a sharp reduction in power. – Associated Press

The Nicaraguan government said on Thursday a man arrested in May last year during months of anti-government protests was killed in a shooting at the prison near Managua where he was being held. – Reuters

The United States for now has ruled out holding any negotiations with Nicolás Maduro and instead is focused on how to orchestrate a “dignified exit” for the Venezuelan leader after an opposition uprising and a series of sanctions failed to oust him from power. – McClatchy

Mexico’s drug policies could be in for some sweeping changes, and with them the country’s relations with the United States. Last week, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced that his administration would seek to revise the Merida Initiative, the $3 billion US aid package that has largely funded Mexico’s war on drugs. – Business Insider

Jorge G. Castaneda writes: The administration should keep applying pressure to squeeze Cuba as much as possible, and then suggest to Moscow and Havana that it can loosen the screws if Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s president, and Mr. Castro help solve the Venezuelan crisis. Cuba might not have much choice, especially if Russia is cajoled into nudging it in that direction. – New York Times


The voter registration database of a small county in the Florida panhandle was breached by Russian government hackers in 2016, according to two U.S. officials. – Washington Post

Facebook said Thursday it banned an Israeli company that ran an influence campaign aimed at disrupting elections in various countries and has canceled dozens of accounts engaged in spreading disinformation. – Associated Press

India’s election watchdog says it has forced Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to take down hundreds of posts during the country’s election but experts say it is just a drop in an ocean of misinformation that has engulfed voters. – Agence FrancePresse

An international cybercrime network that tried to steal an estimated $100 million has been taken down in a coordinated multinational effort. – NPR

Amnesty International called on Thursday for Israel’s government to ensure that an Israeli company, whose spyware has been linked to a WhatsApp breach that may have targeted human rights groups, be held accountable for the way its software is used. – Reuters

Joseph Marks writes: The Trump administration took its most aggressive action to date Wednesday to bar Chinese companies from access to Americans’ sensitive data and digital systems.  […]The order — which will take effect within 150 days — may also help the administration’s rocky efforts to encourage allies to bar Huawei from their nascent 5G networks, Ellen and Josh reported, but it will be an uphill climb. – Washington Post


The U.S. Army’s competition for a new air and missile defense radar has begun with the release of a request for proposals asking for prototypes. – Defense News

Whether Elizabeth Warren is addressing the problems of income inequality, climate change or opioid addiction, she’s usually targeting a common foe: the lobbyists. Thursday morning, the presidential candidate and Massachusetts Democratic senator is introducing a bill to limit their influence in national security interests, to “slam shut the revolving door between giant contractors and the Pentagon.” – CBS News

Hans Vreeland writes: AI incorporation is worth the discomfort that accompanies all paradigm shifts, not to mention the mental work and joint force coordination needed to write new doctrine and procedures. AI has paradigm-shifting potential to be a force-multiplier, provide better information to commanders, and quicken the operational tempo. In other words, it will provide more better outcomes faster, a recipe for success in combat. AI will help give warfighters the context to make decisions that they won’t wonder about later, and it will allow the military to increase its competitive advantage against both near-peer and non-state adversaries. – War on the Rocks

Long War

A Lebanese man living in New York was convicted on Thursday of providing material support to Hezbollah, according to the Associated Press. Providing money, goods, materials or training to terrorists is crime prohibited by the US Patriot Act. – Jerusalem Post

A longtime chief of the Basque militant separatist group ETA was arrested Thursday in a French Alps town after being on the run for 17 years, Spanish authorities said, proudly announcing the capture of a man accused of crimes against humanity. – Associated Press

Daniel Byman writes: Those pointing fingers at Sri Lankan security services that failed to stop the Easter attacks should remember that they were not the only officials who focused on the wrong threat. Israel, Norway, and the United States had competent governments with excellent and well-resourced intelligence services, yet they too made mistakes that allowed devastating terrorist attacks in their countries. […]We can hope policymakers and intelligence professionals alike learn lessons from Sri Lanka and similar tragedies, but history suggests that while we look over our shoulders for the next threat, it might be lurking just around the corner. – Foreign Policy