Fdd's overnight brief

May 2, 2019

In The News


A U.S. oil ban won’t stop Iran from selling its crude, the country’s oil minister said, even as new signs emerged that Tehran’s crude exports are heading toward a collapse. The Trump administration will remove exemptions for buyers of Iranian oil beginning on Thursday, enforcing a complete embargo on Iran’s crude exports. But “bringing Iran’s oil exports to zero is a wish of the Americans, but it is an illusion,” Bijan Zanganeh said at an oil-and-gas conference in Tehran on Wednesday. – Wall Street Journal

The head of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries warned against the political use of oil markets during a trip to Tehran, as tightened U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports begin. – Wall Street Journal

Saudi Arabia said Thursday it was responding to an emergency involving an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Jiddah, and analysts said the vessel carried over 1 million barrels of fuel oil and might be leaking. – Associated Press

Iran on Wednesday criticized a US plan to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. “The US is not in position to (..) start naming others as terror organizations and we reject by any attempt by the US in this regard,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters on a sideline of a conference in Doha, Qatar, according to Reuters. – Reuters

The U.S. special representative for Iran is traveling to the United Nations to update permanent members of the Security Council on U.S. policy toward Iran, as Washington looks to step up pressure on Tehran. The so-called special-purpose vehicle, will help European firms with legitimate business interests to use barter techniques to conduct business in Iran, European officials said. – Radio Farda

Iran’s economy is on the brink thanks to the Trump administration’s sanctions, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The crisis is intensifying a chasm between President Hassan Rouhani’s allies and those who oppose diplomatic exchanges with the U.S. government, the Financial Times noted. – Fox News

Kuwait has announced its concern following Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway that links the Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. It is the main artery for the transport of oil from the Middle East. – Jerusalem Post

Iran’s supreme leader, senior military commanders, top diplomat and the president have all in recent days attacked US sanctions imposed on Tehran. Battle-ready warships are patrolling the high-traffic Strait of Hormuz, with Iranian officials saying if they can’t sell oil through the strait, no one will. – Al Jazeera

Iran criticized a U.S. plan to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in Doha on Wednesday. – Reuters


Israel and the United States are putting the financial squeeze on the Palestinian Authority, where opposition to a long-awaited U.S. peace plan and anger over Israeli sanctions remain strong. – Reuters

The IDF struck several Hamas military targets in the northern Gaza Strip overnight, in response to the launching of incendiary airborne devices into Israel earlier Wednesday. – Ynet

Sen. Mitt Romney returned from a Middle East tour saying that he saw no alternative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than the two-state solution. The Utah Republican, his party’s 2012 presidential nominee, has just assumed the chairmanship of the Middle East subcommittee in the Senate. – Times of Israel

New legislation in Congress is seeking to “promote human rights for Palestinian children living under Israeli military occupation,” and require that “United States funds do not support military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill-treatment of Palestinian children and for other purposes.”  – Jerusalem Post

President Reuven Rivlin issued a fervent warning Wednesday night against any Israeli alliance with racist or extremist political forces in Europe that have arisen in recent years, in his address at the official opening ceremony for Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day. – Jerusalem Post

In an interview to be published fully tomorrow in Yisrael Hayom, Major “Ayin”, ​​head of the Central Command’s economic warfare division, reveals that alongside the Palestinian Authority’s organized support system for terrorists and their families, the Hamas administration has a parallel mechanism with similar characteristics for its imprisoned terrorists, doubling the PA payment. – Arutz Sheva

A Spanish court has admitted a criminal complaint filed against the leader of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, Omar Barghouti, the group behind the lawsuit said. Madrid-based ACOM, which counters anti-Zionist and antisemitic discrimination, filed the suit after the City Council of Cadiz, a port town in southwestern Spain, unexpectedly canceled the Israeli Film Cycle in 2017, which was organized in collaboration with the Israeli Embassy in Madrid and set to take place in a municipal building. – Algemeiner

Gulf States

Saudi Arabia has pledged to boost oil output if needed, as the Trump administration starts banning all Iran oil exports on Thursday. But behind the scenes, Riyadh and Washington face a potentially weekslong showdown over the number of extra barrels the kingdom would supply to global markets to keep crude prices stable. – Wall Street Journal

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has offered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas $10 billion if he accepts US President Donald Trump’s plan for peace in the Middle East, also known as the “deal of the century,” the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported on Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

Bahrain’s foreign minister gave a frosty response on Wednesday after French President Emmanuel Macron urged the Gulf Arab state to resume political dialogue with the opposition. Bahrain’s ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family has kept a lid on dissent since the Shi’ite opposition staged a failed uprising in 2011 in the country, base of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. – Reuters

Saudi Arabia’s coast guard assisted an Iranian oil tanker with engine trouble off the coast of Jeddah in the Red Sea after Riyadh received a request for help from Iran, the state news agency SPA said on Thursday.  – Reuters

Dennis Ross writes: Few American foreign-policy challenges are more vexing or divisive than relations with Saudi Arabia today. U.S. interests would seem to dictate close ties, but American values argue otherwise. – Bloomberg

Middle East & North Africa

The Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen raided an air base adjoining Sanaa’s airport, Saudi news agency SPA said on late on Wednesday. The raids targeted drone maintenance sites, a communications system and locations of drone experts and operators, SPA quoted coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Maliki as saying. – Reuters

Two Turkish restaurant workers have been detained in Libya by forces of eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar, and the Turkish authorities have denied that they were spies, a Turkish newspaper reported on Wednesday. – Reuters

“Extremist militias” controlling the Libyan capital, Tripoli, were “derailing” the search for a political solution to the country’s crisis, a senior United Arab Emirates (UAE) official said on Thursday. – Reuters

Russian and Syrian forces intensified air strikes and ground shelling in northwestern Syria overnight in one of the heaviest assaults on the last rebel bastion in recent months, opposition members, rescuers and residents said on Thursday. – Reuters


A federal judge in Washington has ordered three Chinese banks partly or wholly owned by the Beijing government to turn over documents in a U.S. criminal investigation into how a Hong Kong corporation allegedly helped North Korea’s regime evade sanctions, new court filings show. – Washington Post

Negotiators made headway on thorny issues in the U.S.-China trade dispute, including access to key markets and how to roll back punitive tariffs, as both sides prepare for talks they hope will clinch a deal. Chinese subsidies and other sticking points remain, however. – Wall Street Journal

Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are building a comprehensive database that tracks the precise locations of its citizens, their mobile app usage, their religious habits and even their electricity and gasoline consumption as part of a technology-driven crackdown that has interred an estimated 1 million Muslim citizens, according to an analysis of Chinese government software by a U.S. rights group. – Washington Post  

A former C.I.A. officer pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a charge of conspiring with Chinese intelligence agents in a case that highlighted the growing aggressiveness of Beijing’s spy services. – New York Times  

Top US and Chinese trade negotiators held productive talks in Beijing on Wednesday, the American side said, as the economic superpowers head towards an endgame in a dispute that has hit businesses with bruising tariffs. – Agence France-Presse

China may declare its first stealth fighter operational this year as it also develops long-range bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons, part of a regional buildup by Beijing that the U.S. is closely monitoring, according to the U.S. Air Force’s Pacific commander. – Bloomberg

Jung-Hoon Lee writes: Most dangerous is the proposed change to extradition laws that would allow Hong Kong to send suspected criminals to mainland China. Activists cite the 2015 abduction of five booksellers as an example of the type of government kidnapping that could be legalized under such an extradition law. If it passes, Hong Kong residents could be transferred to the mainland and subjected to a judicial system that has no independence and functions at the whim of the Communist Party.  – Wall Street Journal

John Lee writes: Australia has an important choice: help shape and improve important elements of a US-led collective effort to impose carrots and sticks on China to persuade the latter to play by the rules, or sit and wait for a world that is passing and will not return. – Hudson Institute

Shane Tews writes: China has been a major funder of infrastructure in Asia and Africa in recent years through its Belt and Road Initiative, a global effort by Beijing to create geopolitical allies through investment in traditional physical infrastructure. But over the past decade, the initiative has found itself shape-shifting into a digital strategy in Europe, thanks in large part to work by Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant. – American Enterprise Institute

Jane Nakano writes: Energy projects have been central to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since its inception in 2013. Especially since the first forum two years ago, “greening” has become a sub-theme of the BRI that seeks to propel China to become a global leader in environmentally sustainable development. Beijing has now had several chances to take its green intentions and turn them into action. Making good on the environmental protocols and standards it has once again put forward to guide BRI investments will mean the difference between genuine greening or simply greenwashing. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Amid a battlefield stalemate in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has stopped releasing information often cited to measure progress in America’s longest war, calling it of little value in fighting the Taliban insurgency. – Associated Press

The latest quarterly report to Congress by the Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction is rife with bad news about how the war against the Taliban is going. But the most telling metric is no longer available. NATO’s Operation Resolute Support has stopped producing its assessment of how many Afghans live in districts under government versus Taliban control and influence. – Washington Examiner

Hy Rothstein and John Arquilla write: American naiveté is now leading to another grave mistake in Afghanistan. The U.S. is trying to make peace with the Taliban, but why would a negotiating partner who is serious about peace restart the fighting? The answer is simple—the Taliban isn’t serious about peace. – Wall Street Journal

South Asia

Sri Lankan authorities released for the first time the names and photos of the nine people they say detonated suicide bombs on Easter Sunday and killed more than 250 people at hotels, churches and a private residence across three cities. – Washington Post

In a major diplomatic win for India, the United Nations on Wednesday added the leader of an outlawed Pakistani militant group to its sanctions blacklist after the group claimed responsibility for a February suicide attack in disputed Kashmir that killed 40 Indian soldiers. – Associated Press

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said a foreign mastermind may have planned the Easter Sunday bombings, claimed by Islamic State, telling the militant group to “leave my country alone”. – Reuters

Indian and Bangladeshi officials and security experts largely dismissed a fresh threat of violence from an Islamic State-aligned media group, insisting that safety measures and surveillance are adequate to keep militants from carrying out a Sri Lanka-style attack elsewhere in South Asia. – Associated Press  

President Maithripala Sirisena warned in an interview that the attacks against churches and hotels in which more than 250 people died could signal a “new strategy” by IS to hit smaller countries that make softer targets than more powerful nations. – Sky News


Vladimir Putin could turn out to be the big winner economically and diplomatically if the United States sticks to its pledge of no more sanction waivers for countries buying Iranian oil, a leading expert on the Middle East said on Monday. – USNI News

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree expanding the list of Ukrainians and citizens of some other countries eligible for fast-tracked Russian passports, the Kremlin said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Relations between the United States and Russia have seen a number of ups and downs since Russian President Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000. Both sides have their lists of grievances, and at various points have contributed in some way to the sorry state of their relationship. – Defense News


Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday fired her defense secretary, Gavin Williamson, for allegedly playing a role in leaking details from a meeting about Britain’s willingness to work with Chinese telecom giant Huawei. – Washington Post

A British court sentenced Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, to 50 weeks in prison on Wednesday for jumping bail when he took refuge in Ecuador’s Embassy in London seven years ago. The United States is seeking Mr. Assange’s extradition for prosecution there, and an initial hearing on that request is expected on Thursday. Officials in Sweden have left open the possibility that he could face criminal charges in that country, as well. – New York Times

Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Paris and other French cities Wednesday in a May Day labor demonstration, an annual event that carried unusual venom in the era of France’s “yellow vest” movement. – Washington Post

The mostly ex-communist countries that have joined the European Union in the past 15 years want Brussels to return more powers to national capitals, Poland’s prime minister said on Wednesday after hosting a summit of the 13 newcomers. – Reuters

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said the European Parliament’s main center-right group must forge an alliance with populist, nationalist groups after impending EU elections, receiving a swift rebuke from Germany’s conservative leader. – Reuters

The head of the Muslim World League, Dr Mohammad Al Issa, will become the most senior Islamic leader to visit Auschwitz under an agreement signed with the American Jewish Committee on Tuesday in New York. – The National

Sweden has dispatched one of its Gulfstream S102B Korpen electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft to the Mediterranean to operate from a UK airbase on Cyprus. – IHS Jane’s

Kimberly Cowell-Meyers and Carolyn Gallaher write: The Brexit process has also damaged the relationship between the governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland — a relationship that once provided a framework to accommodate Northern Ireland’s warring sides. But the two governments’ shared understanding has degenerated as they fight over the status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Although all sides want to prevent violence from resuming, they differ on how to deal post-Brexit with the border, which — because both nations have been European Union members — currently has no passport or customs checkpoints. – Washington Post  

Dalibor Rohac writes: Among the more compelling arguments for Brexit in 2016 was the idea that the center of gravity of the global economy was shifting away from Europe. In order to capitalize on the new opportunities, the argument went, the United Kingdom should unmoor itself from the rigid and introspective European Union. – Foreign Policy


South Sudan’s warring parties will hold talks in Addis Ababa on Thursday, in a bid to salvage a stalled peace deal, with just days to go until a unity government is meant to be formed. – Agence France-Presse

South Sudan rejects U.N. allegations its security services kidnapped two prominent government critics exiled in Kenya in 2017, flew them to Juba and days later executed the pair on a farm owned by President Salva Kiir, a government minister said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Arab states support a transition in Sudan that balances the ambitions of the people with stability, a senior United Arab Emirates minister said on Wednesday. The UAE and Saudi Arabia last month pledged $3 billion in aid to Sudan, throwing a lifeline to the country’s new military leaders who ousted president Omar al-Bashir after weeks of mass protests. – Reuters

Corinne Archer writes: An opposition party coalition on 27 April accused the Chadian government of “completely blocking” political freedoms. The warning from the Coordination of Political Parties for the Defence of the Constitution (Coordination des partis politiques pour la défense de la constitution: CPDC) coalition that Chad is on the “edge of the abyss” comes as thousands of protesters in neighbouring Sudan demand the return of civilian rule following the 11 April military coup that ousted President Omar al-Bashir. – IHS Jane’s

Latin America

Millions of Cubans took to the streets on Wednesday in protest over new sanctions imposed on the Caribbean island by the Trump administration and U.S. efforts to topple the government of socialist ally Venezuela. – Reuters

The Trump administration’s decision to activate a provision of the U.S. embargo on Cuba with the potential to affect foreign investment in Cuba for many years to come will allow Americans, and Cubans who later become Americans, to sue almost any company deemed to be “trafficking” in property confiscated by Cuba’s government. – Associated Press  

The European Union could take the United States to the World Trade Organization or use retaliatory sanctions to protect its companies in Cuba after President Donald Trump lifted a ban on U.S. citizens filing lawsuits against investors there. – Reuters


A day after the Venezuelan opposition’s call for a military uprising failed, the country’s political crisis returned to a protracted standoff punctuated by violence on Wednesday, with the government and protesters seeking to project strength at rival May Day rallies. – New York Times  

According to a secret dossier compiled by Venezuelan agents, Mr. El Aissami and his family have helped sneak Hezbollah militants into the country, gone into business with a drug lord and shielded 140 tons of chemicals believed to be used for cocaine production — helping make him a rich man as his country has spiraled into disarray. – New York Times

For the first time since the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington shut down amid an international power struggle over the future of Venezuela, an ambassador representing opposition leader Juan Guaidó on Wednesday stood on the building’s front steps. – Washington Post

For weeks, the Venezuelan opposition had been working on a comprehensive blueprint to finally force President Nicolás Maduro from office. Several of his top military and civilian aides were said to have been persuaded to switch sides, while others would be allowed to leave the country. There was a strong suggestion that Maduro himself might peacefully fly to Havana. On Monday, however, the plan started to fall apart. – Washington Post

Cuba has no troops in Venezuela and engages in no security operations there but maintains the right to carry out military and intelligence cooperation, a top Cuban diplomat said Wednesday in his government’s most detailed response yet to U.S. accusations that its forces are propping up President Nicolás Maduro. – Associated Press

The United States and Russia traded warnings against interfering in Venezuela on Wednesday, a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Moscow of stopping President Nicolas Maduro from leaving the country. – Reuters

The Pentagon on Wednesday appeared to downplay any active preparations to directly intervene in Venezuela to topple President Nicolas Maduro, but acknowledged detailed contingency planning as political turmoil in the oil-rich nation deepens. – Reuters

The Trump administration faces a critical test of its Venezuela policy as opposition leader Juan Guaido, bolstered by vocal U.S. support, pressures the country’s military to abandon socialist President Nicolas Maduro and mounts mass protests to force him out. – Reuters

Iran has reacted to the flare up of tensions and violence in Venezuela by reiterating its support for the embattled president Nicholas Maduro, but also calling for negotiations between the opposing sides. – Radio Farda

Russia on Wednesday rejected a U.S. allegation it had persuaded Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro not to flee the country the previous day, calling the assertion a calculated attempt to demoralise the army and escalate the crisis there. – Reuters

Editorial: Venezuelans lost access to several social media sites Tuesday after opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced a military uprising against the regime of Nicolás Maduro. The blackout eventually lifted — minutes before Mr. Maduro live-streamed a speech claiming victory over the so-called coup. Then, as Mr. Guaidó prepared to speak Wednesday, crucial services disappeared once again. – Washington Post  

Editorial: The only way Venezuela can hope to escape from the hemisphere’s worst humanitarian crisis is by Nicolás Maduro’s removal — sooner rather than later. – New York Post

Emily Tamkin writes: There was an unexpected twist Tuesday evening as Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s attempted uprising against President Nicolás Maduro’s government appeared to be sputtering out. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Maduro was set to flee Venezuela — but that Russia had persuaded him to stay. – Washington Post


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was sentenced Wednesday to 50 weeks in a British prison for jumping bail in 2012. – Washington Post  

A mobile app used by police to track citizens in China’s far west region of Xinjiang shows how some of the country’s biggest technology companies are linked to a mass surveillance system that is more sophisticated than previously known, according to a report from Human Rights Watch. – Bloomberg

Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg stood on stage Tuesday at the company’s annual F8 conference in San Jose, California, in front of a giant screen sharing a simple message: “The future is private.” Zuckerberg spent most of his speech talking about Facebook’s commitment to a privacy-focused future, which will include more ephemeral posts, small-group activity rather than public sharing, and encryption for Facebook’s messaging apps. – Bloomberg

Alexis C. Madrigal writes: Cyberspace was a way of thinking about the radical changes brought about by the internet. It gave internet companies, regular people, odd collectives, weird technologies, and other entities space to create something transnational, individualistic, largely unregulated, and free (as in speech and sometimes as in beer). – The Atlantic


A key tool in the U.S. Navy’s fight against Russian and Chinese submarines weighs eight pounds, is three feet long and it doesn’t even explode. – Defense News

Washington has signed more than $1 billion in new missile contracts in the three months since it announced plans to withdraw from a key Cold War-era arms treaty, campaigners said Thursday. – Agence France-Presse  

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are deepening their commitments to Arctic security and to operations in Alaska, top Pentagon officials told Congress on Wednesday. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said the service would undertake extensive Arctic operations this summer and fall, while the Marine Corps commandant said that Marines are committed to training in Alaska to an extent not seen in decades. – Wall Street Journal

James Clad writes: China’s development of hypersonic glide vehicles seems deliberately targeted at upending the tenuous strategic stability that has been in place since the end of the Cold War. Yet this latest arms race still has a “Dr. Strangelove” quality to it; outside the strategic community and select think tanks, few acknowledge the risk that is posed by these new weapons systems, which upend the traditional calculus regarding defending against missile attacks from hostile powers. – The Hill

Long War

When the FBI arrested an Army veteran in a plot to bomb a white supremacist rally in Southern California, it was the work of a confidential informant that helped snare him. – Associated Press  

The father of CIA officer Johnny “Mike” Spann, the first American to be killed in action after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has blasted the scheduled release this month of John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban who was part of a prison uprising in which his son was slain. Johnny Spann, 70, of Winfield, Alabama, told the Washington Examiner that Lindh, now 38, remains a threat and called on President Trump to ensure he serves his full term of 20 years, which expires in November 2021, rather than being feed because of good behavior on May 23. – Washington Examiner

Brandon Wallace and Jennifer Cafarella write: ISIS has orchestrated an annual campaign of intensified attacks around the Islamic holy month of Ramadan since 2012, first in Iraq and then globally. It has sustained this recurring surge in its global operations every year despite its concurrent territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. – Institute for the Study of War

Trump Administration

Attorney General William Barr escalated tensions with House Democrats on Wednesday by ignoring their subpoena for the unredacted version of special counsel Robert S. Meuller III’s report and declining to testify before the Judiciary Committee as scheduled Thursday. The attorney general’s defiance has Judiciary Democrats considering holding him in contempt of Congress. – Roll Call

Eli Lake writes: It was only a month ago that many Democrats were hoping Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election would lead to indictments — perhaps even of President Donald Trump’s family and inner circle — for conspiring with the Russians. That did not come to pass, nor will it, so the focus has turned to “the narrative.” The term itself is a sign that this story is now entirely about politics. – Bloomberg