Fdd's overnight brief

May 24, 2019

In The News


As the Trump administration pressures Iran to cut support for what the U.S. sees as its armed proxies in the Middle East, some of those same militias are lashing out at Tehran’s adversaries, risking an escalation the Islamic Republic says it doesn’t want. – Wall Street Journal

Iran’s foreign minister is in Pakistan on a critically timed visit amid a crisis between Tehran and Washington and ahead of next week’s emergency Arab League meeting called by Saudi Arabia as regional tensions escalate. – Associated Press

Iran told a German envoy seeking to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal that its patience was over and urged the treaty’s remaining signatories to fulfill their commitments after the United States pulled out, the Fars news agency reported on Thursday. – Reuters

A French court approved the extradition of an Iranian engineer to the United States to face charges of attempting to illegally import U.S. technology for military purposes on behalf of an Iranian company, a judicial source said on Thursday. – Reuters

Oman is trying “with other parties” to reduce tensions between the United States and Iran, the Omani Foreign Ministry tweeted on Friday. – Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considering visiting Iran as early as mid-June, NHK national television said on Friday, as international concern grows about rising tension between Iran and the United States. – Reuters

Iran will not surrender to U.S. pressure and will not abandon its goals even if it is bombed, President Hassan Rouhani said on Thursday, stepping up the war of words between the Islamic Republic and the United States. – Reuters

Iran’s oil storage on land and at sea is on the rise as U.S. sanctions on exports bite and Tehran battles to keep its aging fields operational and crude flowing, according to data and industry sources. – Reuters

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CALIF.) had dinner with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif when he was in the United States a few weeks ago, several sources told us. Last week, Playbook reported that Feinstein was walking around the Capitol with Zarif’s contact information pulled up on her iPhone — we spotted it in an elevator. – Politico

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has launched another conspiracy-theory laden attack on US policy toward his country, claiming that the Trump administration’s rhetorical barbs against the Islamic Republic were “written by Zionists word for word.” – Algemeiner

Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has openly shrugged off responsibility for the nuclear agreement Iran concluded with world powers in 2015. – Radio Farda

Bret Stephens writes: There has always been a fair and symmetrical formula for the United States and Iran to resolve the full range of their differences: full normalization for full normalization. Donald Trump, who may but probably doesn’t want a war with the Islamic republic, should propose it, publicly and in detail, and see what happens. – New York Times

Simon Henderson writes: Iran’s progress on developing advanced centrifuges—which can enrich uranium to higher levels more quickly and in greater quantity—is lacking so far. The main technical challenges of centrifuge design are maximizing their speed and height while avoiding breakdowns. Overcoming these obstacles is a matter of using the appropriate construction materials (special steel or carbon fiber, depending on the machine part in question) and going through considerable engineering trial and error (unless Iran obtains leaked secrets from specialist foreign firms). – Washington Institute


Thousands more people have fled violence in northwest Syria, the United Nations and a medical agency said on Thursday, as an army assault on the last big rebel enclave met a counter-attack. – Reuters

Air raids by Syrian warplanes in the country’s restive northwest killed at least eight civilians, including two children, as troops and rebels battled for a town that has changed hands over the past two weeks. – Al Jazeera

A senior Kurdish official said Russia has let Syrian Kurds down by failing to support their autonomy and by negotiating a behind-the-scenes deal with Turkey. “Our hopes from the Russians were different,” Saleh Muslim, head of foreign relations for the Syrian Kurdish PYD party, said by phone Wednesday from Qamishli, Syria. – Bloomberg

Kate Allen writes: The battle to oust Islamic State from Raqqa followed the modern US military playbook. A massive aerial assault conducted with willing military powers (here, the UK and France); zero use of ground troops; and a reliance on proxy fighters at street level (here, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces militia). The bombardment was immense. For four months the coalition pounded the city into the ground – with thousands of airstrikes (215 from the UK, says the MoD) and 30,000 US artillery rounds. – The Guardian


Turkey’s armed forces have begun training to use a Russian missile-defense system that it purchased despite U.S. warnings, deepening a rift between the two NATO allies. Turkey is scheduled to receive the Russian-made S-400 system in July and its military is training to operate it, a senior Turkish government official said in Washington on Wednesday. – Wall Street Journal

Wikipedia is taking Turkey to Europe’s top human rights court as it escalates a two-year battle to overturn the country’s ban on its website. The Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs the online encyclopaedia, said it had filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that a blanket ban was a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. – Financial Times

The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday unveiled a draft $750 billion defense policy bill that would authorize more Lockheed Martin F-35 jets for the United States and effectively end Turkey’s partnership in the program if Ankara pursues a plan to buy a Russian missile defense system. – Haaretz


Flaming Gaza balloons ignited fires throughout the South on Thursday, threatening to break the fragile informal truce between Israel and Hamas in advance of anticipated border riots on Friday. – Jerusalem Post

The Israeli military admitted on Thursday that Jewish settlers set West Bank fields on fire last Friday, changing its version after it originally blamed the arson on Palestinians. – Haaretz

Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s first president to attend an Israel Independence Day ceremony this week. An ardently pro-Israel Christian, the right-wing politician was honored at a Wednesday event marking Israel’s 71st anniversary at the Israeli embassy in Brasilia, where he received a commemorative plaque. – Times of Israel

Tom Rogan writes: Dermer’s words required Pompeo’s riposte. Because while Israel is most certainly a world leader in high-technology product development, it is also an increasingly close partner to Chinese foreign policy. In accepting vast Chinese economic investments in return for access to proprietary technologies, Israel is directly assisting the greatest challenge to U.S. international order in the 21st century. China has an interest in Israeli technology for a reason: because that technology enables Beijing’s improved repression at home and its strengthened threat abroad. – Washington Examiner

Middle East

The Trump administration is preparing to circumvent Congress to allow the export to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of billions of dollars of munitions that are now on hold, according to current and former American officials and legislators familiar with the plan. – New York Times

The Trump administration is planning to send several thousand additional troops to the Middle East and is moving toward a decision to rush billions of dollars in weapons to allies in the region, according to officials and people familiar with the plans. – Wall Street Journal  

President Donald Trump said on Thursday he did not think additional U.S. troops are needed in the Middle East to counter Iran, casting doubt on a Pentagon plan to bolster forces in the region. – Reuters

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement on Thursday launched a drone attack on a Patriot missile battery in the airport of the Saudi city of Najran near the Yemeni border, the group’s Al-Masirah TV said on Thursday. – Reuters

The United Nations’ envoy to Libya has bitterly denounced the conflict raging in the North African country, describing it as a “suicide” that was robbing its inhabitants of the land’s vast oil riches. – Al Jazeera  

A destroyer in the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group entered the Persian Gulf this week without incidents, after the U.S. Navy cleared its ships out of the Gulf earlier this month amid rising tensions. – USNI News

Emma Green writes: The precarious state of Christianity in Iraq is tragic on its own terms. The world may soon witness the permanent displacement of an ancient religion, and an ancient people. Those indigenous to this area share more than faith: They call themselves Suraye and claim a connection to the ancient peoples who inhabited this land long before the birth of Christ. – The Atlantic

Kevin Newton writes: For Saudi Arabia and Iran, the advantages of forging closer links with Iraq go far beyond any money made from increased trade. First, the upside of denying a key regional rival such a market cannot be understated; a number of Saudis already suspect Iranian meddling via militias in the Iraqi economy. However, the bigger appeal may well be the geopolitical victory to be had. Iraq is another battleground in the broader cold war between the two powers. The question of determining whether Shiism or Arab nationalism is the more important factor in Iraq is one that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are hedging much of their foreign policy upon. – Middle East Institute


President Trump raised the possibility that a U.S. dispute with Chinese telecom giant Huawei could be resolved as part of a trade deal, days after his administration cut off U.S. technology sales to the company, calling it a national security threat. – Washington Post

Looking for ways to hit back at Washington as a tariff fight escalates, President Xi Jinping and his economy czar visited a Chinese factory that processes rare earths – exotic minerals used in electric cars, mobile phones and other technology. Rare earths are “an important strategic resource,” the official Xinhua News Agency cited Xi as saying. – Associated Press

With negotiations on hold and tariffs piling up, the United States and China appear to be bracing for a prolonged standoff over trade. Beijing is airing Korean War movies (antagonist: America) to arouse patriotic feelings in the Chinese public and offering tax cuts to software and chip companies as U.S. export controls threaten Chinese tech companies. – Associated Press

Clothes and footwear are some of the most knocked off products in the world. Many of the counterfeits come from China, and dupe unsuspecting customers every day. The US military has apparently become one of those unsuspecting customers. – Quartz

Chinese technology giant Huawei has enough inventory to sustain its smartphone and 5G networking equipment businesses for most of the rest of the year, according to brokerage and investment firm CLSA. – CNBC

Fareed Zakaria writes: Many of us have been waiting for a new Sputnik moment, the point at which the challenge from China spurs the United States to get its act together. We may now be witnessing such a watershed, but in Beijing. The Trump administration’s decision to blacklist Huawei the world’s seventh-largest technology company might well be China’s Sputnik moment, with seismic consequences. – Washington Post

Karl W. Smith writes: When it comes to China, however, the president is doubling down. He has encouraged U.S. supply chains to move out of China and established subsidy programs to cushion farmers from the effects of a protracted trade war. Which leads to the long-term implications of this battle. A protracted trade war would almost guarantee a global realignment. Supply chains that run through both the U.S. and China would constantly be subject to disruptions, so global manufacturers would have to decide whether to pursue an America-centric or China-centric strategy. – Bloomberg

David Auerswald writes: China’s Arctic Policy puts forward an alternative governance narrative that plays to many Arctic countries’ focus on multilateralism in regional politics. In 2013, China agreed to abide by the jurisdictional rights of the Arctic states as a condition of being granted Arctic Council permanent observer status. That gave China a voice in Arctic Council working groups discussing issues like climate research, search and rescue coordination, and fisheries management. – War on the Rocks

Jon. B Alterman writes: China’s Middle East strategy, then, is not so much a single regional strategy as a portfolio of investments. China’s national ambitions in each country are narrowly focused on economic ties, and state-owned enterprises closely follow governmental priorities. The United States has seemingly comprehensive plans in almost every country but few resources, and a business community that follows profits wherever they can be found. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


An envoy to Afghanistan was met with skepticism Wednesday on Capitol Hill as he briefed lawmakers on peace talks with the Taliban aimed at ending the 17-year war. Lawmakers were tight-lipped as they left the classified meeting with special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, but the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Jim Risch of Idaho, says he believes Khalilzad is making progress. However, he added, “the issue always is how much progress, and can you get to the finish line?” – Associated Press

Air raids in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand and eastern Kunar provinces have killed at least 14 civilians, the UN said on Thursday. – Al Jazeera

Michael Rubin writes: Khalilzad’s strategy will never work. Within the American political context, Khalilzad’s diplomatic agreement with the Taliban is meant to provide cover for President Donald Trump’s decision to withdrawal from Afghanistan and nothing more. Just as President Barack Obama became so committed to a nuclear bargain with Iran that he embraced a bad deal rather than consider no deal, the Taliban today recognizes that Trump and Khalilzad will make any concession so long as Trump can promise peace in our time. – The Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies


Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party won a landslide victory in the world’s largest election as voters endorsed his vision of a muscular, assertive and fundamentally Hindu India. – Washington Post

A top U.S. diplomat for Southeast Asia on Friday urged Pacific island nations not to withdraw diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, warning that Chinese pressure to change Taiwan’s international standing threatens to increase the possibility of conflict. – Associated Press

North Korea has labeled Joe Biden a “fool of low IQ” and an “imbecile bereft of elementary quality as a human being” after the U.S. presidential hopeful called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a tyrant during a recent speech. – Associated Press

The Pakistani and Indian prime ministers exchanged messages via Twitter on Thursday hoping for peace, after Narendra Modi returned to power in New Delhi in an election fought in the wake of confrontation between the nuclear-armed enemies. – Reuters

Indian forces have killed the leader of an al Qaeda affiliated militant group in Kashmir, police said on Friday, triggering protests in parts of the disputed region. Zakir Rashid Bhat, 25, was trapped by security forces in a three-storey house in southern Kashmir late on Thursday, said a senior police officer, adding that the house was set ablaze during the operation. – Reuters

Seventy-four years after Japan’s defeat in World War II, the world’s third-largest economy is in the midst of a quiet military buildup, at U.S. urging. President Trump’s visit to Japan over Memorial Day weekend will culminate with him becoming the first U.S. president in modern history to set foot on a Japanese warship. – CBS News

Uri Friedman writes: Hence why there has recently been a flurry of bipartisan activity in the U.S. Congress to construct various (not insurmountable) hurdles to Trump exiting NATO and pulling U.S. troops out of several countries, including South Korea. The U.S. president could scale down the American military presence in South Korea not just if cost-sharing talks go awry, but also as part of a peace deal should North Korea ever agree to give up its nuclear weapons. For now, however, the South Korean government welcomes Trump’s diplomacy with Kim. – The Atlantic

Tunku Varadarajan writes: Is the West losing India? This is where things get paradoxical, for India has never been more allied to the U.S. than it is now. Mr. Modi is India’s first openly pro-American head of government. He has visited the U.S. three times in five years, and he has badgered President Trump to visit India. He hobnobs with Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, and, like Mr. Trump, he is in love with Twitter. A shared fear of China draws Mr. Modi’s India and the U.S. together, as does a common cause against Islamist terrorism. – Wall Street Journal


Across Europe, voting begins Thursday in European Parliament elections, which will continue through Sunday. The elections are hotly anticipated across the continent, with many people wondering how the results will affect the future of the European Union and the bloc’s dealings with the rest of the world. With the help of our correspondents in Europe, we answer five key questions about the elections and the legislative body. – Washington Post

3M Co. , best known for Post-its and Scotch tape, is marketing something different in Europe these days: democracy. It is one of several big American companies joining European peers and business associations in urging employees and the general public to vote in elections for the European Union Parliament this week. – Wall Street Journal

Europe has been one of Huawei’s biggest success stories. Now it is on the front line of the trade and technology war between China and the United States. – New York Times

Theresa May announced Friday that she will resign as her party’s leader on June 7 and make way for a new British prime minister later this summer. – Washington Post

Phased EU-wide elections take place in Ireland on Friday after a campaign dominated by concerns over neighbouring Britain’s messy bid to leave the bloc, and as eurosceptic forces elsewhere in Europe hope to create a political earthquake. – Agence France-Presse

Editorial: To be sure, she was not wrong in the first place to seek compromise. But she dithered early on, was gravely weakened by a calamitous general election (one she never should have called), and consented to terms – including the notorious Northern Irish “backstop” – that made compromise in the House of Commons all but impossible. It hasn’t helped that both main parties are split on Europe, with leaders more interested in seizing political advantage than in advancing the country’s interests. – Bloomberg

Nikos Konstandaras writes: Piraeus, the gritty port city that has provided Athens’s naval and commercial power throughout its tumultuous history, is the theater of a new conflict, one that pits local interests against economic development and a superpower’s global strategy. At least that’s the story that Greece’s dueling politicians are telling. – New York Times

Leonid Bershidsky writes: If Merkel took the Council job, Germany wouldn’t be able to push its candidates for the other two key EU posts – the presidencies of the European Commission and the European Central Bank. That would be welcome news to French President Emmanuel Macron and to leaders of smaller member states uncomfortable with the idea of Jens Weidmann running the ECB and Manfred Weber the Commission. – Bloomberg

Heather A. Conley and Donatienne Ruy write: Beyond internal European dynamics, these elections matter for the United States as well. The European Union is a strategic partner for the United States and one of its greatest foreign policy successes. The transatlantic economy is the largest investment relationship and the most integrated economic zone in the world. This economy generates $5.5 trillion in commercial sales every year, while companies on both sides of the Atlantic (including foreign affiliates) directly employ almost 10 million people. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Islamic extremists exploded a suicide car bomb near the presidential palace in Somalia’s capital Wednesday, killing at least nine people, including former Foreign Minister Hussein Elabe Fahiye, who was an adviser to the current president. – Associated Press

Facebook is under fire in Africa for undermining democracy, with critics saying the social media giant has allowed its platform to be weaponised for co-ordinated misinformation campaigns. – BBC

Health officials have warned that the second-deadliest outbreak of Ebola may spiral out of control unless attacks by armed groups on medical facilities and workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) stop. – Al Jazeera

The Americas

China’s Embassy in the Dominican Republic on Thursday accused the United States of trying to interfere in its relations with the Caribbean nation, condemning remarks it attributed to a U.S. official as “lacking in respect” to both nations. – Reuters

Lawmakers in El Salvador agreed on Thursday to suspend a controversial amnesty bill following an outcry from victims’ families, the United Nations and rights groups who said it aimed to whitewash crimes committed during a bloody civil war. – Reuters

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday accused the United States of seeking to destroy a food aid program that the government of the crisis-stricken OPEC nation says feeds some 6 million families. – Reuters

A U.S. senator and former presidential candidate said the U.S. military should invade Venezuela if Cuba does not immediately remove its security forces from the country, calling Cuba the Western Hemisphere’s version of Iran. – McClatchy

Jay Solomon writes: The Trump administration is becoming more concerned about Hezbollah as the Venezuela crisis drags on. The Iranian proxy militia has been active in Latin America for decades, often infiltrating Arab emigre populations to conduct operations. For example, investigators concluded that the group coordinated with Iran to bomb the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s, with some senior Argentinian officials accused of complicity in the latter crime. – Washington Institute


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was indicted on additional charges unsealed Thursday accusing him of violating the Espionage Act by engaging in a wide-ranging effort to obtain classified information about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and other matters. – Wall Street Journal

Facebook Inc. said it stopped paying commissions to employees who sell political ads, as the tech giant overhauls how it engages with campaigns ahead of elections in 2020. Once seen as a growth area, political ads are now viewed within Facebook as more of a headache, according to former employees and campaign staffers who work on digital strategies. – Wall Street Journal

A Florida-based maker of voter registration software says it has proof that neither its employees’ email accounts nor its systems were penetrated in a Russian cyberattack in 2016 an attack that could have allowed hackers to prevent voters from casting ballots during the presidential election if successful. – Politico

Eli Lake writes: There is a fair debate to be had over whether Assange is a journalist and Wikileaks a news organization. In the context of the Espionage Act, however, this debate is irrelevant. Assange is under no obligation to keep the U.S. government’s secrets. If Assange can be charged with receiving classified information, then what is to stop the government from bringing similar charges against the New York Times or Bloomberg News? – Bloomberg


The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday released its plan to authorize a record-setting $750 billion in defense spending next fiscal year in a bill that also bans the transfer of F-35s to Turkey until the nation cancels a purchase of Russian missile defense systems. – Washington Post

The U.S. Army has picked five companies to come up with designs to integrate a new weapon system on the Stryker combat vehicle, according to a May 23 announcement. – Defense News

The Air Force has officially stripped 100 years out of the schedules of its acquisition programs, the service’s top civilian announced Thursday. “The Air Force has taken advantage of the authorities that Congress has given us to try to do things faster and smarter,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during an event on Capitol Hill. “[Having] unnecessary schedule delays getting capability to the warfighter and speed matters in an era of re-emerged great power competition.” – Defense News

A provision in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s new defense policy bill would make it tougher for President Donald Trump to pull the U.S. out of NATO, sending a strong sign of bipartisan support for the alliance. – Defense News

The Senate Armed Services Committee has approved the establishment of a Space Force in its defense authorization bill, potentially setting up a clash with House lawmakers who have questioned the need for a sixth military branch for space. – Defense News

Senate Armed Services Committee members unveiled a $750 billion budget plan for fiscal 2020, including $3.6 billion to replace construction money taken from border wall projects and what lawmakers called a “realistic” plan for a significant plus-up of military spending next year. – Defense News

The Navy deactivated one of its two F-35C Joint Strike Fighter training squadrons today and will consolidate all its fifth-generation fighter activities at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California. – USNI News

The U.S. Navy’s Director of Surface Warfare is ready to bet the farm on using lasers to shoot down missiles. The outgoing head of the Chief of Naval Operations’ surface warfare directorate Rear Adm. Ron Boxall said the Navy is going to get its High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance system on the Hawaii-based destroyer Preble in 2021, a moment that he compared with Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez ordering his own ships scuttled to motivate his men. – Defense News

The Navy has awarded $27 million in contract extensions to two companies working to demonstrate a proof of concept for the service’s next phase of its premier airborne electronic warfare system. – C4ISRNET

Long War

The release of convicted terrorists after they complete prison sentences is “absolutely a concern,” a senior FBI counterterrorism official said — but he sought to assure the public that investigators work to assess those risks months before someone walks out of the gates. – NPR

A 20-year-old New Jersey man sought to aid the Islamic militant group Hamas and threatened to “shoot everybody” at an unspecified pro-Israel demonstration, federal authorities said Wednesday. – Associated Press

John Walker Lindh, the Californian who took up arms for the Taliban and was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001, got out of prison Thursday after more than 17 years, released under tight restrictions that reflected government fears he still harbors radical views. – Associated Press

Trump Administration

President Trump empowered the U.S. attorney general to declassify information about the origins of the investigation into Russia’s election meddling, escalating a probe that the president has said would show crimes were committed by his political opponents. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration said Thursday that it planned to penalize countries that undervalue their currencies, the latest effort to prevent foreign competitors from trying to undercut American producers and import cheap goods into the United States. – New York Times

President Donald Trump has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to fully cooperate with the Justice Department review of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election campaign. – Radio Farda