Fdd's overnight brief

May 21, 2020

In The News


A British-Iranian woman who was granted temporary release from prison in Iran in March amid the coronavirus pandemic has had her furlough extended indefinitely, her family said on Wednesday, raising hopes that she could be granted clemency and return to Britain. – New York Times

Iran dismissed on Thursday new U.S. sanctions on several Iranian officials, saying they were a sign of the complete inefficiency of Washington’s previous sanctions on the Islamic Republic, state television reported. – Reuters 

Iran will support any nation or group that fights Israel, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday, ahead of this week’s annual observance of Quds (Jerusalem) Day to express support for Palestinians. – Reuters  

The wife of an Iranian dissident recently jailed for 16 years has denounced Iran’s Islamist rulers for rejecting her appeals to furlough her sick husband as the coronavirus plagues the nation’s prisons. – VOA News

The depreciation of Iran’s currency against the U.S. dollar has continued in recent days, reaching near all-time lows as the country faces multiple economic challenges. – Radio Farda

Holly Dagres writes: Though Iran has not stated its intentions, and denies engaging in what it calls “cyber warfare,” this latest activity appears to focus on individuals in the Washington think tank community who follow Iran issues closely. […]My experience shows that there is a genuine cyber threat to U.S. institutions. Even amid the covid-19 pandemic, Iran is planning for the future. Allied defenses must be equal to the task. – Washington Post 


Twenty years after Hezbollah guerrillas pushed Israel’s last troops from southern Lebanon, both sides are gearing up for a possible war that neither seems to want. – Associated Press 

The president of Uruguay expressed openness on Wednesday to the possibility of designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. – Algemeiner

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) Alexander Zasypkin, the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon, said in a OTV (Lebanon) interview that Russia sees Hezbollah as an organization that fights terror rather than as a terror organization, and he condemned U.S. and Arab League resolutions regarding Hezbollah. – Arutz Sheva


Iran has spent between $20 billion and $30 billion in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and fight Islamic State, a lawmaker told the semi-official Etemad newspaper, in a rare estimate by a government insider. – Bloomberg 

Thirteen female suspected jihadists from France have escaped from prisons in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, a Paris-based anti-terror monitor said Wednesday. – Agence France-Presse

Isabel Ivanescu and John Dunford write: The ceasefire in Greater Idlib remains tenuous. Recent force disposition indicates that the Syrian Regime is preparing for a renewed offensive in Southern Idlib Province should the ceasefire break down, but both the timing and likelihood of the offensive’s success remain uncertain and conditions dependent. A renewed regime offensive will require Russian support to sustainably seize territory from anti-Assad forces. However, Russian support will likely be contingent on a new negotiated agreement between Russia and Turkey, and the COVID-19 pandemic will likely delay such negotiations. – Institute for the Study of War 

Tom Rollins writes: Iranian-Russian competition exists in Syria, but can be overstated. At times, some pro-opposition outlets have gone as far as presenting the relationship between the Syrian regime’s two most stalwart allies as something akin to a shadow war, always occurring somewhere just out of view. In the south of Syria, however, it’s probably more accurate to describe it as competition between Iran and Russia waged largely through local proxies representing the allies’ ambitions on the ground. Sometimes they work at cross-purposes, sometimes they do not. – Middle East Institute  


Palestinian officials vowed to press ahead with canceling all agreements with Israel, including over security, as they sought to rally international support against a potential move by the new Israeli government to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. – Wall Street Journal 

The top United Nations envoy in the Middle East told Israel on Wednesday it should abandon its plans to annex parts of the West Bank, warning that going ahead would violate international law and deal “a devastating blow” to the two-state solution. – Associated Press  

The Israeli military said it thwarted an attempt on Wednesday to smuggle weapons into the country from neighboring Jordan, firing upon and arresting one of the smugglers. – Associated Press 

The Israel Defense Forces said Wednesday that at an attempted shooting earlier in the day in the West Bank was being investigated as a terror attack. – Times of Israel

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday he hopes security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians will continue, after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinians were no longer bound by its agreements with Jerusalem and Washington. – Agence France-Presse

A partial housing freeze and the destruction of at least 15 West Bank settlements are hidden within US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, settler leaders and activists are warning. – Jerusalem Post 

The Palestinian Cabinet approved plans to make changes to the educational curriculum in Palestinian schools on Monday, following pressure from the European Parliament and national governments in Europe. – Jerusalem Post

International opposition to Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank continued to gain momentum Wednesday as representatives of the UN, Russia and the Vatican all expressed strong objections to the plan that could be implemented as early as July. – Times of Israel

David Makovsky writes: When remarking on annexation during last week’s trip, Pompeo framed the issue as one for Israel to decide—a formulation likely shaped by the sensitivities of the U.S. presidential election season. Yet evidence also suggests that he told Israeli officials Washington will not be bound by the July 1 timetable. Moreover, no international actor has articulated any policy benefits that Israel might accrue from taking unilateral action, while several governments have spelled out the downsides of such a move. – Washington Institute

Lahav Harkov writes: Netanyahu knows that, and he has still marched forward, declaring his intention to annex the settlements and the Jordan Valley as soon as possible – which really means as soon as the US gives the green light. This may seem like it totally contradicts his actions to help the PA in its economic crisis, but annexation is its own form of stability, to those who advocate for it. It would delineate actual borders between Israel and the PA. And moving forward with the Trump plan – if the Palestinians change course and agree to it – would then give the Palestinians a state of their own, albeit a demilitarized one. – Jerusalem Post 

Saudi Arabia

Two Ramadan television dramas on a Saudi-controlled network have stirred controversy as they test public perceptions of quietly warming relations between the Gulf kingdom and Israel. – Agence France-Presse

Saudi Arabia is pushing ahead to complete its first nuclear reactor, according to satellite images that have raised concern among arms-control experts because the kingdom has yet to implement international monitoring rules. – Bloomberg

Saudi Arabia replaced Iraq as the top oil supplier to India in April after a gap of three months as refiners in Asia’s third largest economy were drawn by deep discounts on Saudi crudes, data obtained from sources showed. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

While the U.S. struggled to come up with enough tests to manage the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak, a Chinese genetics company took less than a month to build testing centers thousands of miles away in the Middle East. – Bloomberg

Russian-backed Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar’s air force will launch what is says are unprecedented strikes on Turkish targets in the North African country, signaling a possible escalation after a week of setbacks in the war against the Turkish-backed government in Tripoli. – Bloomberg 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu backed an immediate ceasefire in Libya during a phone call on Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. – Reuters


Turn on the TV any evening in China, and you’re likely to see a grim, razor-tongued woman letting it fly at the Trump administration. The diatribes unleashed by Foreign Ministry information chief Hua Chunying are usually ignored in the West, but for China’s people, these are often the only word on the United States that makes it through the heavily censored media. – Washington Post 

Now, Mr. Xi needs to turn his exhortations of resolute unity into action — a theme likely to underpin the National People’s Congress, the annual legislative meeting that opens on Friday after a monthslong delay. He is pushing to restore the pre-pandemic agenda, including his signature pledge to eradicate extreme poverty by this year, while cautioning against complacency that could let a second wave of infections spread. – New York Times 

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday again lashed out at China over the coronavirus pandemic, blaming Beijing for “mass Worldwide killing.” – Agence France-Presse 

Beyond its hard-hitting rhetoric against China over its handling of the coronavirus, the White House has issued a broad-scale attack on Beijing’s predatory economic policies, military buildup, disinformation campaigns and human rights violations. – Associated Press 

The Senate passed by unanimous consent Wednesday a bill that would expel Chinese companies from U.S. stock exchanges if they continue to deny inspectors access to their audits, ratcheting up the conflict between the two countries. – Politico

Beijing is accelerating its bid for global leadership in key technologies, planning to pump more than a trillion dollars into the economy through the rollout of everything from wireless networks to artificial intelligence. – Bloomberg  

Robert D. Atkinson and Clyde Prestowitz write: Given the United States’ still-indispensable role in defending freedom globally, only it can lead in establishing a DATO. The next administration, whether it be Republican or Democratic, should embrace the idea. Any democratic government, including Taiwan, should be welcome to join, but all must be prepared to take the steps necessary to enact a DATO decision, or lose the right to membership. China is powerful. And under its Communist Party, it is anti-democratic and authoritarian. But it is not invincible. It can be forced to back down if democratic nations stand together. – Washington Post

Abram Shulsky and Blaise Misztal write: Even before the pandemic, there was concern that Chinese lending practices were creating “debt traps,” which might pressure debtor nations to align with Chinese foreign policy ambitions or turn over key resources or facilities. The current financial crisis presents an opportunity to put the spotlight on these practices, to free developing countries from crushing debt and Chinese coercion, and develop new, transparent standards for international lending. – Real Clear Markets 


The U.S. Defense Department has not withheld $1 billion in funding from Afghan security forces despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s vow on March 23 to cut that sum “immediately”, five sources familiar with the matter said. – Reuters 

The United States’ special envoy for Afghanistan on Wednesday met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his former rival Abdullah Abdullah, to discuss progress towards a peace deal with the insurgent Taliban. – Reuters 

Michael Rubin writes: Only when Pakistani security agencies take action will the United States, NATO, and the elected Afghan government be able to see if Pakistan is serious. Only then will the Taliban have reason to be sincere in the push for peace. Thanks to the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the road to peace in Afghanistan really does pass more through Islamabad than Kabul and more through Quetta and Miran Shah than Kandahar and Kunduz. – Washington Examiner 

Vinay Kaura writes: The continuation of terrorist violence is also a reminder of some inherent contradictions and problems with the U.S.-Taliban deal. […]Further delays in the intra-Afghan peace process would not only damage U.S. national interests but also endanger regional security. However, with Ghani and Abdullah now agreeing to set aside their political differences, the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue is at least one step closer. – Middle East Institute 


Rising tensions between the United States and China brought fresh mudslinging Wednesday as a sharp dispute over responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic spills into new forums such as Taiwan. In the span of several hours, the feud swung from Taipei to Beijing to the Internet, where an animated “credibility test” on Chinese state TV’s Twitter feed mocked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. – Washington Post

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen kicked off her second term by doubling down on her strategy for boosting the island democracy’s ability to resist coercion from China, pledging to further revamp the economy, strengthen the military and deepen ties with friendly countries. – Wall Street Journal 

China said on Thursday U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is “blackmailing” the Hong Kong government with the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and that Washington’s recent actions amount to blatant interference on China’s internal affairs. – Reuters

Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) said on Thursday it had approved a $250 million loan to Bangladesh to help the country cope with the coronavirus pandemic. – Reuters 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday the U.S. would continue to support Australia in its pursuit of an independent inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic. – Newsweek 

Taiwan’s military announced on 17 May that the entire fleet of Albatross (Ruo Ying) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in service with the Republic of China Navy (RoCN) will be upgraded to improve the type’s mechanical reliability and operational safety. – Jane’s 360 

Walter Russell Mead writes: Queensland isn’t wrong to want Chinese students. The value of having them on campus goes well beyond money. They bring different and challenging perspectives that other students need to encounter. But the lesson for U.S. college presidents and trustees should be clear: The moral and reputational damage of mishandling a relationship with China can be ruinous. Open debate about topics like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet shouldn’t be suppressed simply because a foreign government objects. And if any students are to be expelled for violations of university standards, it shouldn’t be peaceful protesters, but conscious agents of a foreign police state who abuse their university status to snoop on their peers. – Wall Street Journal


The Trump administration is weighing a face-saving strategy for keeping an Obama-era nuclear treaty from expiring while it pursues a more sweeping arms pact with both Russia and China, according to current and former administration officials with direct knowledge of the deliberations. – Politico

Russia is reportedly seeking to arrange a meeting in the coming weeks between US and Palestinian officials to help renew ties between Washington and Ramallah, which have frayed during US President Donald Trump’s presidency. – Times of Israel 

Michael McFaul writes: Covid-19 has exposed the myth of Russia as a strong state and Putin as a strong leader. Without free and fair elections to allow peaceful, orderly expression of citizen attitudes about Russia’s ineffective response to the virus, only two other options are available — regime change or greater repression. – Washington Post


Greek police, escalating their tough measures against migration, have been rounding up asylum seekers living in the country and forcibly expelling them to Turkey, according to accounts by migrants who have experienced this, lawyers and human-rights activists. – Wall Street Journal 

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has said that leaked recordings of phone calls allegedly between Joe Biden and former president Petro Poroshenko would be investigated by the country’s law enforcement agencies, adding that their contents might be “perceived, qualified as treason”. – The Guardian 

Countries should not resort to renationalization and protectionism in response to a “deep global recession” caused by the coronavirus crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday. “It was … clear that multilateralism faced a major challenge even before the pandemic, and this challenge has not become smaller,” said Merkel, two days after she put forward a Franco-German plan for a €500 billion EU recovery fund. – Politico

Hungary and Austria, the sole EU states that opposed sharp criticism of Israel by High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell this week, warned against having a double standard against Israel on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

Europe’s second highest court on Wednesday rejected a challenge by the operators of the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines against European Union gas rules, saying it was up individual member states to enforce them. – Reuters

Adam Bienkov writes: What is clear is that with the global economy heading for a deep recession, European governments, public institutions, and companies are increasingly turning toward China for support and investment. And with public opinion toward the US deteriorating in Europe under Trump’s leadership, China’s resurgence could well come at America’s cost. – Business Insider

Maia Sandu writes: After three years in office when he was totally subordinated to Plahotniuc, Dodon has been trying hard to portray himself as a president who is actually in power. He has been trying to please the Kremlin, by praising the (in truth rather modest) support received from Russia to fight the pandemic, while ignoring the much larger assistance coming from the EU and other western partners — and even attacking them. […]For their part, Western partners want to prevent Moldova from hazardous agreements with Russia — but not at any price. – Center for European Policy Analysis 


At least 300 people have been killed in a fresh wave of intercommunal fighting in South Sudan, authorities say. – BBC

Nothing dramatic, or so it would seem, ever happens at Yemboate, in Togo’s far north. Yet less than 30 kilometres away, over the border in eastern Burkina Faso, extremists and militia groups have imposed their own brutal law.- Agence France-Presse

Rwandan genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga, indicted in his absence on charges of bankrolling ethnic militias that massacred some 800,000 people in 1994, was brought before a French court on Wednesday. – Reuters

Joshua Meservey writes: Africa may be the most permissive region on earth for Chinese spying and espionage. Beijing and its companies have enormous sway over many African governments, whether because of personal inducements to African leaders or because of African countries’ economic enmeshment with China—something Beijing increasingly uses as a weapon. […]The CCP’s surveillance of Africa is only one part of the much larger challenge an increasingly globally assertive China poses for the U.S. Yet it contributes to the problem, and Washington should respond. – Heritage Foundation  

United States

A U.S. national security panel has ordered the breakup of a joint venture formed between Chinese investors and a California firm that makes exoskeletons, robotic devices that can help disabled people walk but can also help soldiers carry heavy loads. – Wall Street Journal  

A New Jersey township was the focus of a new Justice Department lawsuit on Wednesday that charged its planning board with “religious discrimination” and “antisemitic conduct” toward Orthodox Jewish residents. – Algemeiner

Jose A. Cabranes writes: Puerto Rico’s finances are strained, and the U.S. is too dependent on China for pharmaceuticals. These distinct issues may seem unrelated, but they are very much intertwined. […]Restoring the island’s pharmaceutical production capacity will also ensure the U.S. drug supply is secure, not a bargaining chip in international affairs. Rare it is to have a policy that meets so many goals simultaneously, and attracts support from all sides. – Wall Street Journal

Latin America

The Trump administration is weighing new sanctions and other legal steps to disrupt Iranian oil exports to Venezuela, U.S. officials said, in response to what the U.S. considers the Islamic Republic’s attempts to make inroads into Latin America. – Wall Street Journal

The United Nations called on Venezuela’s feuding political leaders Wednesday to urgently resume serious negotiations, while Russia and its Caracas government ally traded barbs with the United States and Colombia over a failed armed raid on the Venezuelan coast. – Associated Press 

AT&T said Tuesday it will immediately ditch Venezuela’s pay TV market as U.S. sanctions prohibit its DirecTV platform from broadcasting channels that it is required to carry by the socialist administration of Nicolás Maduro. – Associated Press 

Venezuela on Wednesday said its navy and air force would escort Iranian tankers arriving with much needed fuel, after Tehran warned of “consequences” if the US stopped the ships from reaching their destination. – Agence France-Presse  

Iran‘s fuel shipment to gasoline-starved Venezuela ought to “alarm” Latin America, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Wednesday, as five Iranian fuel tankers head toward the South American country. – Reuters 

Editorial: U.S. sanctions bar American companies from selling gasoline to Venezuela but do not bar cash sales by non-sanctioned sources in most of the rest of the world, which makes Mr. Maduro’s reliance on Iran all the more notable. Who knows what else Iran may be supplying on those tankers and flights. […]The Iranians are betting that Mr. Trump, in an election year, won’t take the risk of stopping its gasoline rescue for Venezuela’s dictator. – Wall Street Journal   

Miguel Braun writes: Forward-looking governments in Latin America would undoubtedly support the initiative. Free trade with the United States would mean more export opportunities, which in turn would lead to greater investment and incentives to modernize standards and institutions. Much of the groundwork is already done. […]If the United States is intent on diversifying its value chains away from China to reduce risks, dependence, and to make the economy more resilient, a free trade agreement for the Americas is a vital step in the right direction. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 


The Chinese government is eager to become self-sufficient in key technologies amid trade tensions with the U.S. and as the Trump administration seeks to thwart access to semiconductors for China’s Huawei Technologies Co. – Wall Street Journal 

Apple and Google are releasing technology Wednesday to help public health authorities detect the spread of coronavirus infections, though some privacy and public health experts fear the company’s efforts could complicate an already disjointed response to the pandemic. – Politico 

The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday it is representing two journalists in challenging Puerto Rico laws that make it a crime to share information about emergencies on the island that the U.S. territory’s government considers “fake news.” – Associated Press 

Multiple Israeli website were the target of a cyberattack on Thursday, their homepages replaced with an anti-Israel video and message in Hebrew and broken English: “The countdown of Israel destruction has begun since a long time ago.” – Jerusalem Post 


General Electric, Rolls-Royce, and Pratt & Whitney will compete for the chance to outfit the U.S. Air Force’s B-52 bomber fleet with new engines, with a contract award projected for June 2021. – Defense News 

The Defense Department’s top technology expert now believes using airborne, directed-energy weapons for missile defense is unlikely to work, and that it’s not worth spending research and development funds on the effort. – Defense News 

The House Armed Services Committee will host a private briefing on May 21, featuring representatives of both the Federal Communications Commission and the Defense Department, to discuss the ongoing fight over Ligado, C4ISRNET has learned. – C4ISRNET 

The Navy has issued two contracts totaling as much as $2 billion for Joint Tactical Radio Systems over the next five years. – C4ISRNET 

The U.S. Air Force has kicked off a competition for one of its most highly anticipated tech programs, a drone known as Skyborg that will use artificial intelligence to make decisions in battle. – Defense News 

Two B-1B Lancer bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota flew to the Nordic region of Europe Wednesday as part of a training mission with allies. – Air Force Times 

After landing a contract with the U.S. Air Force in April, California-based company Labelbox announced May 20 it is making its artificial intelligence training data platform available more widely to the federal government and intelligence community. – C4ISRNET 

Lockheed Martin has readjusted its delivery schedules for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic hit production. – Jane’s 360 

US Army officials are in a race to field Stryker A1 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) inside the European theatre that are outfitted with host weapons to down potential Russian aerial threats. However, their bid to do so is hitting some technological snags associated with the integrating the mission equipment package – which includes a 30 mm cannon and Stinger missile system – into the platform, Janes has learned. – Jane’s 360

Long War

Iraq’s National Intelligence Service late on Wednesday announced it had arrested a possible successor to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. – The National 

A group of investigators with the Commission for International Justice and Accountability is amassing evidence, hoping to prosecute IS figures for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide — including Hajji Abdullah. – Associated Press 

Hollie McKay writes: A recent augment in ISIS activities in Africa’s Sahel region has also been documented, not only toward civilians but also against Al Qaeda branches in the area, of which ISIS once cooperated with to wreak havoc. And in the northern African militant stronghold of Libya, the pandemic is said to have bolstered the array of militias — giving them easier passage to bring in weapons and aid for their fighters — although U.S. defense and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) officials told the Washington Examiner that Russia’s increasing use of shadowy groups in Libya to support Khalifa Haftar poses a greater geopolitical threat than ISIS. – Fox News

Trump Administration

A Republican effort to determine who may have leaked the name of Michael Flynn in connection to his 2016 contact with the Russian ambassador has centered on the question of which Obama administration officials requested his identity be “unmasked” in intelligence documents. – Washington Post

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked the disclosure to a Democratic-led House of Representatives committee of grand jury material redacted by President Donald Trump’s administration from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report documenting Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. – Reuters 

President Donald Trump on Wednesday suggested hosting the annual G7 summit in person rather than by videoconference, with the White House touting the occasion as a “show of force” during the coronavirus pandemic. – Agence France-Presse

Adam Taylor writes: The coronavirus pandemic favors his hawkish view of foreign policy. China, America’s most powerful rival, faces global scrutiny of its handling of the outbreak, while international bodies such as the World Health Organization are being criticized. Yet over the past few weeks, Pompeo’s tenure at the State Department has looked more tenuous than ever. He may be America’s top diplomat, but it is increasingly clear that he lacks both the support of America’s envoys and its closest diplomatic allies. – Washington Post

Henry R. Nau writes: Trump is hard to decipher, and his bombastic style makes it even harder. But on the basis of what he does and achieves, he is acting not only in an understandable manner but in a way that may salvage the liberal international order and conserve the democratic peace for decades to come. The covid-19 crisis, to be sure, adds a new chapter to Trump’s legacy. But keep your eye on the results, not the rhetoric. Sometimes, appearances deceive, and Trump’s foreign policy thus far is much better than it may appear. – The National Interest