Fdd's overnight brief

May 3, 2019

In The News


The Trump administration is considering a more-aggressive enforcement of its economic sanctions on Iran—targeting more companies and financial institutions that do business with the Islamic Republic in an attempt to cut off lucrative sources of U.S. dollar-denominated hard currency, U.S. officials said. – Wall Street Journal

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

Iran will respond if other OPEC members threaten its interests, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Thursday amid rising pressures from Washington to bring Iranian crude sales to zero with the help of Tehran’s regional rivals. – Reuters

The US is sanctioning friends and foes that import Iranian oil starting Thursday, but analysts say the White House might find it harder to eliminate Tehran’s energy exports than it expects and Trump administration officials are bracing for Iran’s response. – CNN

The former head of Iran’s State TV Mohammad Sarafraz has accused IRGC Intelligence Organization of obstructing attempts to counter financial corruption. Sarafraz who was appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the head of the state TV in October 2014, resigned in May 2016 over a controversy created after his special inspector was allegedly told by IRGC Intelligence to leave the country or face detention as a “spy”. – Radio Farda

Foreign companies can choose to receive crude oil instead of hard currencies for the goods they sell to Iran, the CEO of Iranian National Oil Company said on Wednesday, May 1. – Radio Farda

The murder of an imam ought to provoke horror. But after a bodybuilder gunned down Mostafa Qassemi, a cleric in the western Iranian city of Hamedan, on April 27th over 100,000 people followed the killer on Instagram. Posts by his followers railed against Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “One less cleric,” women mutter on Tehran’s underground. – The Economist

Oil prices fell as much as 4% on Thursday, breaking through a key support level, as rising U.S. crude stockpiles helped offset concerns about a supply crunch. Crude futures declined despite a wave of geopolitical concerns, including political turmoil in Venezuela and the launch of new American measures aimed at driving Iran’s crude exports to zero. – CNBC

Turkey says it will not be able to diversify oil imports quickly after the United States ended sanction waivers on purchases from Iran, and Ankara continues to urge Washington to reconsider its decision. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

US President Donald Trump’s unexpected decision to ban all Iranian oil purchases after May 1 – ending exemptions for eight nations – came after hawkish economic and security advisors allayed the president’s fears of an oil price hike, according to three sources familiar with the internal debate. – Ynet

Mehdi Khalaji writes: In light of Iran’s economic hardship and international isolation, at least some hardline elites seem amenable to resuming negotiations with the United States, especially if President Trump wins a second term. They may believe he will pursue the same approach he took with North Korea—increase pressure on the regime to force it to negotiate, but rather than insist on solving all differences at once, simply start the negotiations and leave them more open-ended, trading with Tehran step by step based on mutual consent and readiness to concede. – Washington Institute


White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said on Thursday he hopes Israel will take a hard look at President Donald Trump’s upcoming Middle East peace proposal before proceeding with any plan to annex West Bank settlements. – Reuters

White House adviser Jared Kushner said Thursday night that he believes the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan he has crafted is a “good starting point.” “What we will be able to put together is a solution that we believe is a good starting point for the political issues and then an outline for what can be done to help these people start living a better life,” he said at a dinner of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, according to Reuters. – The Hill

Israel said Thursday it had uncovered a network of bots and fake Twitter accounts urging a boycott of the upcoming Israeli-hosted Eurovision song contest. The Strategic Affairs Ministry said the Palestinian-led movement that promotes boycotts against Israel is behind the effort. – Associated Press

Israel on Wednesday attempted to transfer hundreds of millions of shekels to the Palestinian Authority, which again refused to accept the funds, Kan News reported. – Arutz Sheva

The Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza Ziad Nahala responded Thursday to the revelation regarding the commander of the northern brigade of the organizations’ military wing Baha al-Atta earlier this week. They believe the publication of his name is an indication that Israel will assassinate him if terror attacks continue. “We will respond with all our might to any killing of our member regardless of their rank, occupation or organization affiliation,” Nahala said and threatened to “strike major cities in retaliation regardless of prior agreements. We will have not red lines.” – Ynet

Efraim Inbar writes: And thus, nobody should cave to Palestinian blackmail. While it is best for all concerned to ensure a decent standard of living for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, it is highly unlikely that the PA will economically collapse. – Jerusalem Post

Israel Ziv writes: The new government will certainly seek to revert to its predecessor’s agenda. However, the time bomb that is Gaza requires a paradigm shift and its placement as a focal point of national decision-making. – Jerusalem Post

Yaakov Katz writes: In so many different areas, Israel knows how to take the initiative. It is a culture Netanyahu knows well. The motto of Sayeret Matkal, the IDF commando unit in which he and his late hero brother Yoni served has a motto: “Who dares, wins.” It is time we see that dare again, and not only when it comes to political survival. Change was once Israel’s story. It still can be. – Jerusalem Post

Avner Cohen and William Burr write: Kennedy’s ultimatum, Ben-Gurion’s ‘sick’ reply and a ‘fiasco’ nuclear inspection: Newly declassified documents shed light on the diplomatic crisis that some feared may lead to a U.S. raid on Israel’s Dimona plant. – Haaretz

Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabia on Thursday temporarily released from custody at least four women’s rights advocates, according to a London-based Saudi human rights group and other activists. – Washington Post

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have launched armed drone attacks with far more precision and reach than the U.S. and its Gulf allies have publicly acknowledged, people familiar with the matter said, showing how readily available technology is creating new dangers for America and its allies in the Middle East. – Wall Street Journal

The Senate on Thursday fell short of the votes needed to override President Trump’s veto of legislation demanding an end of U.S. support for the Saudi-led military coalition operating in Yemen, a country plagued by more than four years of a devastating civil war. – Washington Post

Kenneth Pollack, Barbara Walter and Michael Knights write: In Washington, a growing chorus of analysts and politicians has called on the United States to step up, withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi war effort, and turn the UN-brokered cease-fire into a lasting peace. Doing so, they argue, is the only morally and strategically defensible course of action. But of all the options before the United States, this one is the least likely to stop the killing, the dying, and the complications for U.S. interests. – Foreign Affairs


The United Arab Emirates said “extremist militias” control the Libyan capital that its ally renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar is fighting to capture from forces allied to Libya’s internationally-recognised government. – Al Jazeera

Military analysts are blaming Chinese-made drones for deadly missile strikes on Tripoli as Libyan strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar tries to conquer the city. – Defense News  

On March 25, while Libya was preparing to receive the head of the United Nations, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj placed a call to his rival, the military strongman Khalifa Haftar. – Bloomberg

Middle East & North Africa

Danish student Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, and her friend Maren Ueland, 28, from Norway, were found dead in their tent with stab wounds to their necks. At least one of them was reportedly beheaded. Soon, video footage that appeared to have documented the brutal act circulated on social media in Morocco and Europe. On Thursday, two dozen suspects went to trial in Morocco in the case, including at least three men Moroccan officials say participated in the women’s killings. – Washington Post

Senior Iraqi officials are pressing to establish a special detention camp to isolate as many as 30,000 Iraqis who lived in the Islamic State’s final stronghold in ­Syria, captured in March by U.S.-backed forces. – Washington Post

Josh Rogin writes: The United States must increase its diplomatic and economic engagement in Iraq, declare its long-term commitment to Iraq’s security and push the Iraqi government to make sure another generation of young Americans and Iraqis don’t have to sacrifice more. – Washington Post

Korean Peninsula

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

A Vietnamese woman who was the only person convicted in the bold assassination of Kim Jong-un’s elder half brother, Kim Jong-nam, was released Friday after serving 27 months in a Malaysian prison. – New York Times  

In a critical step toward developing its naval capabilities, South Korea plans to construct three more 7,600-ton destroyers equipped with American-made Aegis combat systems and sophisticated ballistic missile interceptors. – Defense News

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has offered to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “unconditionally” in a bid to restore diplomatic ties between the two historic foes. – Al Jazeera

Joseph Bosco writes: The Trump administration should continue to emphasize that North Korea’s nuclear program ultimately does not ensure regime survival but regime demise — and that the same is true of the systematic dehumanization of the North Korean people. Kim is more likely to live a long and peaceful life without both. – The Hill


Beijing isn’t creating vassal states through predatory lending. But it is winning friends and influencing people—and allowing other problems to build up. The gargantuan international infrastructure-lending program is known both as “One Belt, One Road” and, more simply, “Belt and Road.” – Wall Street Journal

Deepening Chinese activities in the Arctic region could pave the way for a strengthened military presence, including the deployment of submarines to act as deterrents against nuclear attack, the Pentagon said in a report released on Thursday. – Reuters  

Satellite imagery reveals the regular presence of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines at the strategic base near the resort city of Sanya. Specialized surface warships and aircraft designed to protect the subs are prowling key waterways off the coast. Facilities at the base appear to have been built to store and load ballistic missiles. Antenna arrays that support the hunt for foreign submarines have appeared on Chinese-held islands in the hotly contested South China Sea. – Reuters

American negotiators locked in trade talks with China are likely to win more access to the country’s cloud computing market than initially expected, but Chinese commitments to curb industrial subsidies will probably fall short of U.S. demands, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official said on Thursday. – Reuters

China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier is likely to enter into service this year, marking another advance in Beijing’s ability to project influence well beyond its shores, the Pentagon said Thursday in an updated assessment of Chinese military power. – Associated Press

China is continuing to modernize its armed forces in order to transform its military into a major global power and using espionage to steal cutting edge technology for military purposes, according to a newly released Pentagon report on China’s military. – CNN

The Pentagon says Chinese forces remain a growing threat, looking to “contest” the United States military at greater ranges from mainland China, according to a new report released Thursday afternoon. – Fox News  

China is working hard to bring new stealth fighters and bombers online, and the US is preparing to push back with its F-35 stealth fighter, a US general commanding US air assets in the Pacific region told Bloomberg. – Business Insider

Former vice president Joe Biden on Wednesday dismissed the notion that the United States should be worried about China as a geopolitical competitor, prompting criticism from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as well as some Republicans who argued that Biden is underestimating the world’s second-largest economy. – Washington Post

Philip Bump writes: The problem with Biden’s comment isn’t only that it seems out-of-touch with the emerging reality. It is also that it brings to mind Biden’s (and Obama’s) 2012 dismissal of then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” In this case, though, the evidence against dismissing China is more immediately obvious. – Washington Post


An Afghan grand council organised by President Ashraf Ghani has called for an “unconditional ceasefire”, as the United States began the sixth round of peace talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha. President Ghani convened the council of more than 3,200 participants, known as loya jirga, in the capital Kabul to hammer out a common strategy. – Al Jazeera

A U.S.-based Afghan Air Force training program was abruptly ended after more than 40 percent of the trainees went absent without leave. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a quarterly report released this week that the training classes to fly the AC-208 light attack combat aircraft “were disbanded due to the number of trainees who were going” AWOL. – The Hill

South Asia

Police say arrests and searches of dozens of locations linked to the perpetrators of the Easter bombings have turned up significant evidence that new attacks could be in the works. Despite a state-of-emergency dragnet that has yielded over 100 arrests in 10 days, Sri Lankan authorities say they are deeply concerned that a second series of attacks could target places of worship and schools of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community[…]. – Wall Street Journal

The Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” may have collapsed in the Middle East but Asia provides fertile territory for a resurrection, analysts say, as last month’s bloody Easter Sunday suicide attacks in Sri Lanka have shown. – Agence France-Presse   

Islamist extremists in Sri Lanka are believed to be planning attacks on bridges in Colombo, authorities said, as they warned several conspirators in the Easter Sunday bombings that killed 257 people still at large. – Agence France-Presse

India will ask the global money laundering and terror finance watchdog to put Pakistan on a blacklist of countries that fail to meet international standards in stopping financial crime, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said on Thursday. – Reuters

Sri Lanka’s Catholic cardinal received “foreign information” that attempts would be made this week to attack a church and another church institution, according to a letter he sent Thursday to church officials that later appeared on social media. – Associated Press

Ameena Hussein writes: Before the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, radicalization on the east coast of Sri Lanka may even have been encouraged by governments that believed they could use it to their advantage in the much larger push to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. They gave visas to extremist foreign preachers to spread their ideology, and allowed religious schools to be built without adequate oversight of the curriculum. The governments seemed unaware they had caught another tiger by the tail. And some Muslim leaders have used this radicalization to ensure they would stay in power. – New York Times

Sadanand Dhume writes: Islamic State has proved capable of recruiting well-off and apparently well-integrated Muslims. Two of the suicide bombers in Sri Lanka were sons of a wealthy spice trader. Inshaf Ibrahim, who blew himself up in the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, owned a copper-pipe factory and drove a Toyota Land Cruiser. Another bomber studied in England and Australia. – Wall Street Journal


A Turkish man wounded during a white supremacist attack on two New Zealand mosques in March has died, bringing the death toll from the country’s worst peacetime mass shooting to 51. – Wall Street Journal

Myanmar security forces have shot dead at least six people in the troubled western state of Rakhine after soldiers and police detained hundreds of people at a school, a military spokesperson said. – Al Jazeera

Taiwan will step up efforts to become more “self-reliant” in its defense capabilities in the face of “increasing threats” from China, according to a senior Taiwanese official. – Defense News


The U.S. has nearly tripled its natural-gas exports to the European Union since July and signed new licenses Thursday seeking to establish American energy as an EU mainstay. Washington’s liquefied natural-gas push comes as the EU seeks to preserve a trade truce with President Trump and avoid potential U.S. tariffs on cars. – Wall Street Journal  

The Netherlands, Austria “and all too often Germany” are preventing deeper euro zone integration, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told German newspaper Handelsblatt. – Reuters  

Germany’s leading Jewish organization expressed alarm Thursday over footage of flag-waving neo-Nazis in self-styled uniforms marching through an eastern German town on May Day unhindered by police. – Associated Press

Britain’s former defense secretary ferociously denied allegations that he leaked details from private government discussions about the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, as opposition leaders called Thursday for a criminal investigation into the scandal. – Associated Press

President Donald Trump has been blunt with his demands on German defense spending, accusing Berlin of owing “billions.” Germany’s Social Democrats, have just as clear a message: It’s not going to happen. – Bloomberg

UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn wrote in a 2009 opinion article that the Israeli government had “unbelievably high levels of influence” over “parts of the media,” comments that re-emerged on Thursday and led to further allegations of antisemitism against him. – Jerusalem Post  

Controversial UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn is embroiled in another antisemitism scandal after it was revealed that he wrote the forward to an antisemitic book in 2011. – Algemeiner

The United States is installing new military leadership in Europe at a moment of heightened worries about Russian aggression, doubts about the future of arms control and rising tensions among NATO allies. – Associated Press


Tens of thousands of Sudanese protesters took part in a mass rally Thursday to step up pressure on the military to hand power to civilians following last month’s overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir. – Associated Press

Sudan’s public prosecutor on Thursday ordered ousted President Omar al-Bashir to be interrogated on charges of money laundering and financing terrorism, as hundreds of thousands of protesters joined a sit-in to demand the army give way to civilian rule. – Reuters

Roie Yellinek writes: Based on the precedent of China’s response to similar uprisings in the Arab world in 2011, it can be anticipated that Beijing will decide who it supports in Sudan on the basis of who is likely to be the first to restore stability and safeguard Chinese interests. Last year’s events in Zimbabwe reinforce this assumption. The Chinese did not intervene, and the long-term partnership between Zimbabwe and China has been maintained. – Besa Center

United States

The number of hate crimes in New York City has risen 67% this year, with anti-Semitic incidents accounting for the biggest share, police officials said Thursday. The increase comes as the New York Police Department continues to see record-low numbers in most other crimes around the city, officials said. – Wall Street Journal

Trade negotiations between the United States and China are entering the final stage, but a deal is expected to fall short of addressing several key Trump administration goals, including combating Chinese cybertheft and state subsidies at various levels of the Chinese government, officials from a leading American business group said on Thursday. – New York Times

Leaders at a Southern California synagogue knew they needed to increase security around their front door a year before a gunman walked through it and opened fire. The Chabad of Poway synagogue sought a $150,000 federal grant to install gates and more secure doors, but it took nearly a year for the application to be approved and the money to be distributed. It was awarded in late March. – Associated Press

Three teenagers on Long Island have been arrested on charges they plotted to build and detonate a bomb at their school. – Associated Press  


“We don’t want it,” the 18-year-old law student said in between chants at an anti-Maduro protest on Thursday. “Do more sanctions. Apply more diplomatic pressure. And we thank you for what you’ve done. But do not send your military. That would spark a civil war and only divide Venezuelans. If we know anything, it’s that especially now, we need to stay united.” – Washington Post

Venezuela’s government began going after opposition leaders on Thursday who it accused of planning a military uprising to oust autocrat Nicolás Maduro, ordering several of them arrested—including the vice president of the National Assembly—as antigovernment protests died down. – Wall Street Journal

After days of upheaval, Venezuela is sinking back into political stalemate. In the fourth month of their standoff, President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó are unable to deliver a knock-out blow as Venezuela spirals deeper into neglect, isolation and desperation. Abrupt shifts or behind-the-scenes power plays can’t be ruled out, but there is a sense that the two camps are entrenched — too strong to be dislodged, too weak for clear-cut victory. – Associated Press

Russia’s support for Venezuela’s embattled President Nicolas Maduro has become the latest flashpoint in deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia, moving to the top of a list of long-simmering spats between the Cold War foes. – Associated Press

Stavridis said the failed uprising was merely a setback in the broader attempt at regime change in Venezuela, where a deepening humanitarian crisis has forced more than 3 million people to flee the country. Stavridis chatted with Foreign Policy about the attempted uprising, the tough rhetoric coming from U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security team, and the likelihood that the United States will follow through on its threats of military action. – Foreign Policy

Mark Fisher writes: Amy Erica Smith, an Iowa State University political scientist, wrote for the website Vox that conditions in Venezuela heighten odds of a coup leading to democracy, citing “a discredited authoritarian regime; a history of citizen-led resistance against the regime; an alliance between democratic politicians and the military; a history of partisan electoral competition.” – New York Times  

Juan Carlos Hidalgo writes: Despite being recognized by over 50 nations as the country’s legitimate president, Guaidó could be jailed at any moment. This might be the last chance to push Maduro out of power in the foreseeable future. Despite the welcome pressure of most of the international community, particularly the U.S., the future of Venezuela lays in the hands of Venezuelans themselves. Either they answer Guaidó’s dramatic call to topple the dictatorship, or they risk oppression and misery for many years to come. – USA Today

Daniel L. Davis writes: There is no “quick fix” for Venezuela’s problems. Any use of the American military, regardless of how much it may satisfy a yearning to “do something,” will turn a crisis into a tragedy and likely plunge the U.S. into another endless nation-building mistake. – Fox News

Tim Padgett writes: The problem is that overthrowing autocracies is a long-haul mission. But Guaidó is having to work with U.S. foreign policymakers who envision it as a swashbuckling, one-fell-swoop act of Monroe Doctrine heroism. One that meets the cable news cycle deadline — if not the 2020 election deadline. – NPR

Ryan C. Berg and Andres Martinez-Fernandez write: The United States and its allies find themselves at a critical juncture in the fight against transnational organized crime in Latin America. Partners in the region are implementing historic peace deals, demobilizing guerrilla groups, redoubling their efforts to reform criminal sentencing and prisons, curtailing money laundering operations, and undertaking unprecedented actions against deeply embedded corruption. – Foreign Policy


Facebook Inc. is recruiting dozens of financial firms and online merchants to help launch a cryptocurrency-based payments system on the back of its gigantic social network. The effort, should it succeed, threatens to upend the traditional, lucrative plumbing of e-commerce and would likely be the most mainstream application yet of cryptocurrency. – Wall Street Journal

Facebook has banned right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and other far-right figures, saying they violated its ban against hate and violence. – Al Jazeera

Whether presidential campaigns have learned from the cyberattacks is a critical question ahead as the 2020 election approaches. Preventing the attacks won’t be easy or cheap. – Associated Press  

Russia has taken a major step in it’s ambition to cut itself off from the global internet and create closed network only accessible inside the country. – Business Insider

If special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian efforts to help President Trump’s 2016 campaign failed to answer all the questions from his Democratic rivals, it nonetheless made one point perfectly clear: the necessity of protecting themselves from foreign hackers. – Washington Examiner


The Super Hornet is set to meet the 80 percent mission-capable rate goal by the end of the year, the Pentagon’s top civilian said Wednesday, but it remains unclear whether the F-35, F-22 and F-16 will be able to meet the mark. – Defense News

The Pentagon’s cost assessment office doesn’t believe the F-35 program office can achieve a “stretch goal” of getting the “A” model’s cost per flying hour to $25,000 by fiscal 2025, its director said Thursday. – Defense News

House appropriators took a dim view Wednesday of a huge increase in funding for Overseas Contingency Operations and a proposal for a border wall included in the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal 2020. – Military.com  

Long War

He was a high-school dropout from Queens who worked in a coffee cart in downtown Manhattan in 2006 when a friend handed him an audiotape of a radical Muslim cleric. That was the start of a personal odyssey that sent the young man, Najibullah Zazi, to fight in Afghanistan, where a senior Al Qaeda official trained him to build bombs and sent him back to the United States, where he and two friends planned a suicide attack in the New York City subway system. – New York Times

The appearance of the Islamic State’s leader in a video this week after a five-year absence appeared to be an effort to signal that the group is preparing for a long global war despite its territorial defeat, terrorism experts say. – Washington Post

An Australian court jailed for seven years on Friday the leader of a group of men who planned to travel by motorboat from Australia to the Philippines to join Islamic State fighters. – Reuters

Jason M. Blazakis writes: ISIS remains relevant not because of al-Baghdadi but in spite of him. First, the organization retains an effective and diverse communication structure highlighted by its al-Naba weekly newsletter. Al-Naba is a glossy, graphic-laden publication that is attractive to a younger audience. The ISIS self-styled news agency al-Amaq informs supporters of breaking ISIS attacks. – The Hill  

Trump Administration

President Trump on Thursday formally nominated Kelly Knight Craft for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a post for which she will require Senate confirmation. – The Hill

President Trump said Thursday that conservative commentator Stephen Moore has decided to withdraw from consideration for the Federal Reserve Board amid staunch opposition from Senate Republicans. – The Hill