Fdd's overnight brief

May 4, 2020

In The News


U.S. authorities on Thursday charged two Iranian men and seized $12 million used to purchase a now-detained Liberian-flagged oil tanker, calling it the largest seizure to date of funds used to support the elite Quds Force of Iran’s hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. – Washington Post

Iran dismissed as “illegitimate” efforts by the United States to extend the U.N. Security Council arms embargo on Tehran, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Monday. – Reuters  

President Hassan Rouhani’s spokesman says Tehran will show a “hard reaction” to the extension of the arms embargo against Iran due to end in October. – Radio Farda

Iran on Saturday denounced recent U.S. allegations that it was providing covert aid to help Venezuela overcome gas shortages as “baseless” without directly addressing them. – Associated Press

Iran will not hold its annual “Quds Day” rallies calling for Israel’s annihilation this year, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. – Algemeiner

An outspoken conservative legislator in Iran has lambasted the Islamic Republic government for wasting the national treasury by offering U.S. dollars to some companies at a preferential low rate in 2018. – Radio Farda

Iran on Friday slammed Germany’s ban on the activities of Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah on its soil, saying it would face consequences for its decision to give in to the “propaganda machine” of Israel and US. – Times of Israel   

Hundreds of House lawmakers in both parties are calling on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to take “increased diplomatic action” to renew a United Nations arms embargo on Iran set to expire in October. – The Hill

A suspected Iranian spy arrested in March was once a member of the Arab Balad Party. Ayman Haj Yahya was arrested in a joint Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Israel Police operation. He was indicted for spying for Tehran in April. – Jerusalem Post  

Roya Hakakian writes: No doubt Ali would be released if only he would denounce his sister. By refusing to do so, he is becoming a new kind of martyr in a region that sanctifies martyrdom. He is suffering to uphold the rights of women, but in doing so he is redefining for many Iranians what it means to be a man. For too long, brothers, husbands and fathers have empowered the oppressors, if not through their support, then through silence. A doting brother has shown that men, too, can play a role in the liberation of his nation’s women. – Washington Post

Seth J. Frantzman writes: For the regime in Tehran, the pandemic has harmed its ability to get its hard-core, far-right activists out onto the streets to shout the usual “death to America” slogans – which fuel the regime’s feedback loop of using anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda to cover over its own failings at home. Nevertheless, Iran has not stopped its propaganda entirely. It circulated a list of signatures supposedly pushed by popular support for increasing the ranges of its missiles over the weekend. The regime wants to believe that average people are rushing to sign on to a form that urges the regime to build longer-range missiles. – Jerusalem Post 

Munqith Dagher writes: Now that Iran has made a major change to the status quo, it is up to the United States for the next move. How, and whether the United States will respond to the satellite launch will dictate the direction of this new chapter in the tensions between the two countries. […]Whatever the solution, the rules of game in the showdown between the United States and Iran have changed. Just as the world after coronavirus will be different from what preceded it, so too will the realities of the US-Iranian relationship after the launch of the Noor satellite, and those differences must be acknowledged and understood. – Washington Institute

Saeed Peyvandi writes: As a result of lack of transparency, lying and secrecy have become institutionalized in the Iranian political ecosystem. In order to remain in the government, one should turn a blind eye and keep silent. No one is bothered by the ugliness of deceit. […]As a result, no one trusts the government and its media outlets and everyone turns to other sources for truth and information. – Radio Farda

Blaise Misztal writes: Fundamentally, a Turkey-based strategy for countering Iran misdiagnoses what ails the Middle East. Iranian aggression is a threat to regional stability and U.S. interests, but it is a symptom, not the disease. So, too, with Sunni radicalism. The problem is political, not military. Empowering one imperial and undemocratic power to fight another, even if successful, would only deepen the Middle East’s troubles and diminish U.S. resources. – War on the Rocks


A rift at the highest levels of Syria’s ruling Assad family erupted into the open Thursday as President Bashar al-Assad’s powerful cousin appeared in a Facebook video appealing for help to avert a government attempt to seize his assets. – Washington Post

A cousin who has been a bulwark of support for President Bashar Assad posted a video on Facebook late Thursday pleading with the Syrian leader to prevent the collapse of his major telecommunication company through what he called excessive and “unjust” taxation. – Associated Press

Explosions at a Syrian military base housing a weapons warehouse Friday were the result of “human error” while moving ammunition, the defense ministry said. Ten civilians outside the base were hurt, a local doctor said. – Associated Press

Imprisoned members of the Islamic State group rioted and took control of a prison in northeast Syria for several hours, until Kurdish-led authorities negotiated an end to the unrest Sunday. – Associated Press


A key U.S. official said Israel is among the countries that need better screening of foreign investment to guard against having their companies turn toward China during the economic downturn sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. – Bloomberg

Israel’s Supreme Court was hearing arguments Monday against the legality of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition deal with formal rival Benny Gantz, a day after it deliberated on whether the longtime leader could head a government while indicted on serious crimes. – Associated Press

The Israeli woman who was wounded in a Palestinian stabbing attack at a bus stop in Kfar Saba earlier this week described for media on Friday what she went through. – Algemeiner

Jerold S. Auerbach writes: Israel certainly can — and arguably should — invite the return of some 30,000 genuine Palestinian refugees, a number guaranteed to decline over time. The only objections, ironically, are likely to come from UNRWA and its Arab minions. They desperately need Palestinian “refugees” to sustain their unyielding public relations war against Israel and, perhaps more important, to protect UNRWA bank accounts that assure their own salaries. But it is long past time to close this fraudulent charade that lacerates Israel for crimes that it did not commit. – Algemeiner

Danielle Roth-Avneri writes: The formation of the unity government represents the best of the Israeli spirit in the face of formidable crises. Israel’s nature is to unite during such times, just as it does during conflicts, days of remembrance, or more locally, when citizens rush to the aid of those in distress. The coronavirus pandemic, a public health enemy, has managed to push the political system into overcoming divisions among parties, enabling them to rise above political feuds and egos. – Algemeiner


A public fight between Lebanon’s new prime minister and its once untouchable central bank governor is jeopardising the state’s efforts to secure badly needed international financial support as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in decades. – Financial Times

The Lebanese military said it detained five Sudanese citizens Sunday near the border with Israel and was questioning them. – Associated Press

Hundreds of Lebanese rallied Friday outside the central bank in Beirut and elsewhere in the country, a day after the prime minister said he will seek a rescue program from the International Monetary Fund to deal with a spiraling economic and financial crisis. – Associated Press


Libya’s eastern-based forces trying to capture the country’s capital bombed civilian homes on Friday, killing at least two people, health authorities in the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli said. – Associated Press 

The UN mission in Libya has urged warring parties to resume military talks that were launched in Geneva in January aimed at achieving a lasting ceasefire. – The National  

Two years on, the 23-year-old, who now lives with other Somali migrants in Tripoli, was seeking assistance along with dozens of other migrants at a UN refugee centre when he spoke to the Financial Times. – Financial Times

Middle East & North Africa

These tangles of interreligious intrigue unspool in a new blockbuster television series that has set off heated debates across the Arab world about the region’s historical relationships with Jewish communities and the shifting stances of some of its current leaders toward Israel. […]critics have blasted it as a blatant effort to reshape Arab views of Israel to pave the way for formal relations, or what many in the Arab world call “normalization.” – New York Times

The assaults are the latest in a resurgence of attacks by the Islamic State group in northern Iraq. The first was a brazen suicide mission not seen in months. The second was among the most complex attacks since the group’s defeat in 2017. In neighboring Syria, IS attacks on security forces, oil fields and civilian sites have also intensified. – Associated Press

Sixteen armed groups have responded positively to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ appeal for a global cease-fire to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, but the U.N. chief said Thursday that mistrust remains high and turning intentions into an end to hostilities is difficult. – Associated Press

Egypt’s military said on Sunday that 15 of its men had died or been wounded in operations in the Sinai Peninsula recently, and that 126 suspected militants had been killed. – Reuters 

Referring to the Islamic Republic’s record of “abducting and killing Iranian refugees”, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has raised concern over the fate of twelve Iranian journalists and citizen-reporters currently living in Turkey. – Radio Farda

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s re-emergence in public ended weeks of speculation about his whereabouts and avoided a thorny diplomatic and military problem for China, the U.S. and South Korea at a tricky time. – Wall Street Journal

North and South Korea exchanged gunfire near one of the South’s guard posts inside the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries, the South Korean military said Sunday. – Washington Post

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, reappeared in dramatic fashion this weekend when he was shown on North Korean media after three weeks of unexplained absence, cutting the ribbon on a fertilizer factory — and quieting rumors that he was gravely ill. – New York Times

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not undergo surgery or any other medical procedure, a South Korean official said Sunday, amid speculation about his health that continues to linger even after he reappeared publicly in recent days. – Associated Press

North Korea’s collapse has been predicted — wrongly— for decades. Some said it would happen after fighting ended in the Korean War in 1953. Others thought it would be during a 1990s famine or when national founder Kim Il Sung died in 1994. And when the death of his son, Kim Jong Il, thrust a little-known 20-something into power in 2011, some felt the end was near. – Associated Press

A former senior North Korean diplomat apologised on Monday after saying leader Kim Jong Un was likely so ill he could not stand, days before he emerged in state media chain smoking and walking briskly at an event attended by hundreds of officials. – Reuters  

U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday welcomed the reemergence of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un after weeks of speculation about his health, but prospects for the U.S. efforts to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize appear as bleak as ever. – Reuters   

Rachel Minyoung Lee writes: Yet Mr. Kim’s 19-day absence from the public view is not highly unusual considering the increased intervals between his public appearances of late. […]We should attempt to track Mr. Kim’s movements with more caution and reason — and perhaps less speculation — using context and past examples of longer gaps between his appearances to guide us. – New York Times

Tom Rogan writes: The strategic context here matters. Kim is in much need of sanctions relief. But with the U.S. insisting that relief won’t come until Pyongyang takes verifiable steps toward nuclear and ballistic missile disarmament, Kim has increasing temptation to roll the dice with escalation. He will hope that any escalation might earn President Trump’s appeasement. Regardless, Sunday’s limited exchange of gunfire should not be cause for alarm. At best, it was a mistake. At worse, it was Kim reminding us that he’s back and means business. – Washington Examiner

Donald Kirk writes: Whatever the condition of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the moment[…] his absence from public view for more than two weeks now is a reminder that his demise could plunge his country and the region, maybe even the world, into a huge new geopolitical crisis. – The Daily Beast


Global stock markets and oil prices fell Monday as U.S.-China tensions escalated over blame for the possible origin of the coronavirus pandemic. – Wall Street Journal

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday backed President Trump’s assertion that the coronavirus originated in a research laboratory in Wuhan, China, though the nation’s intelligence agencies say they have reached no conclusion on the issue. – New York Times

Some top Trump administration officials are moving to take a more aggressive stand against China on economic, diplomatic and scientific issues at the heart of the relationship between the world’s two superpowers, further fraying ties that have reached their lowest point in decades. – New York Times

Across the globe a backlash is building against China for its initial mishandling of the crisis that helped loose the coronavirus on the world, creating a deeply polarizing battle of narratives and setting back China’s ambition to fill the leadership vacuum left by the United States. – New York Times

Soon after Australian officials called in April for a joint international investigation of the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese government ratcheted up pressure on Canberra to drop a proposal that it believed would unfairly target China. […]Instead, he sparked a furor — and reignited a years-long debate in Australia over how a self-described “middle power” in China’s shadow should balance its economic and other national interests. – Washington Post

U.S. officials believe China covered up the extent of the coronavirus outbreak — and how contagious the disease is — to stock up on medical supplies needed to respond to it, intelligence documents show. – Associated Press

A journalist who had worked for some of China’s most powerful propaganda outlets has been jailed for 15 years after being accused of attacking the ruling Communist Party, court documents showed. […]It comes as China faces international scrutiny over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including questions over whether authorities covered up crucial information that could have prevented it spreading globally. – Agence France-Presse

China has published a short animation titled “Once Upon a Virus” mocking the U.S. response to the new coronavirus using Lego-like figures to represent the two countries. – Reuters

The Trump administration is “turbocharging” an initiative to remove global industrial supply chains from China as it weighs new tariffs to punish Beijing for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, according to officials familiar with U.S. planning. –  Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not demanding that China pay damages for the coronavirus pandemic, opting not to follow President Trump’s lead. “Fighting the pandemic is the priority right now,” a German official told the Washington Examiner. “The question of compensation does not arise.” – Washington Examiner

Washington hopes to capitalise on anger over persistent Chinese aggression in the South China Sea to rally rival claimants against Beijing. – Financial Times


The foreign ministry of Afghanistan on Saturday said it was investigating claims that dozens of Afghan migrants detained in Iran were tortured by that country’s border guards and thrown into a river, where many of them drowned. – New York Times

A bitter feud between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah appeared closer to resolution Friday after Abdullah said the two men had moved forward in talks. – Agence France-Presse

The Taliban on Monday claimed responsibility for an attack at a military centre in southern Helmand province in Afghanistan where at least 150 members of the Afghan army and intelligence wing were stationed. – Reuters

Representatives of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Taliban insurgents engaged in a rare public spat on Saturday, venting on social media about the stalling Afghan peace process. – Reuters

Afghan Taliban insurgents killed 17 civilians and wounded 49 during the first week of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, further chipping away at their pledge to reduce violence following a peace deal with the U.S. – Bloomberg

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: The assessment concludes with a brief analysis of whether the United States should withdraw from Afghanistan if the Afghan central government continues to be a failed state, and if the current peace agreement will break down because of its failures. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Taiwan has “not yet” received an invitation to a meeting this month of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, but will strive take part, the government said on Monday. – Reuters

Riot police hit Hong Kong’s streets on Friday ahead of planned rallies by pro-democracy protesters who were looking to defy restrictions on gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic to voice anger against authoritarian Chinese rule. – Agence France-Presse

The acting top US diplomat for South Asia announced her retirement Sunday, as President Donald Trump looks increasingly likely to go a full term without a Senate-confirmed State Department official focused on the subcontinent. – Agence France-Presse

Zivile Krisciuniene writes: For the Baltic states, which endured 50 years of foreign occupation while maintaining their de jure statehood, Taiwan’s plight has powerful echoes of the past. […]The Netherlands has also aroused a furious reaction from the PRC after renaming its de facto embassy in the Taiwanese capital. The change from “Netherlands Trade and Investment Office” to “Netherlands Office Taipei” was in the words of the Dutch representative there, Guy Wittich, a “little bit less, but a lot more.” As the Baltic states know all too well, even symbolic gestures can have huge significance in the fight for freedom. Not for the first time, Lithuanians have taken the lead. Who will follow? – Center for European Policy Analysis


In the space of two months Covid-19 has laid waste to both his political agenda and the economic model that underpins his regime, turning 2020 from a year scripted to usher in another decade of Putin rule into one that could undermine his supremacy. – Financial Times 

Dalibor Rohac writes: The Kremlin’s arrogance and open hostility toward the Czech Republic in general and Prague city officials in particular are now undercutting such claims, undoing years of Russian efforts to build influence in the country and weaken the case for European Union sanctions. And, unlike some of Russia’s immediate neighbors, the Czech Republic is not helpless — it is part of the most successful military alliance in the world, NATO, and of the world’s largest economy, the E.U. In both organizations, the constituency for a more muscular approach toward Russia has just grown a little bit bigger. – Washington Post

John Fairlamb writes: Extending New START and entering into negotiations to reduce the numbers of deployed U.S. and Russian strategic systems are both in the U.S. national interest. The Trump administration should seize this opportunity to do so. – The Hill


As the coronavirus pandemic swept across Europe, borders that had been open for decades reverted to their role as barriers overnight. […]Travel restrictions have increased around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic. In Europe, the return to border controls carries harsh economic implications — and symbolic weight.- Washington Post

Just days before Germany is set to celebrate the anniversary of its “liberation” from Nazi rule, leading members of the governing Social Democrats are demanding that the country be freed from what they consider another scourge — American nuclear weapons. – Politico

Ministers were made “fully aware” by intelligence agencies that China had covered up the true scale of the Covid-19 outbreak, it was claimed on Sunday night, raising questions over Britain’s decision to delay the lockdown. – Telegraph

The German branch of the Catholic Church has admitted its “complicity” in World War II, the British newspaper The Times reported on Friday. The “confession of guilt” was made in a new report by the council of Catholic bishops in Germany. – Algemeiner

Intelligence reports by Israel‘s Mossad helped Germany fight terrorism and led to the country’s decision to outlaw the actions of the terrorist organization Hezbollah, according to Israel’s N12 News. – Jerusalem Post


A soldier from the French foreign legion died in a military hospital near Paris on Friday after being wounded in an explosion in Mali last week in what the French presidency said was an operation against armed terrorist groups. – Reuters

Bernard-Henri Levy writes: The Amniyat—the intelligence service that is the elite of al-Shabaab—concluded that he was taking it too easy. They didn’t like it when he asked to be transferred to the coast guard. Suspecting him of illegally trading with Burundian soldiers, they started spying on him, calling his kids at night, or summoning him unexpectedly. […]How many Somalis have broken away from this mafia? Very few, I fear. I reached the end of my investigation with the feeling that after 30 years of futile war, no power in Somalia rivals al-Shabaab. – Wall Street Journal

Emilia Columbo and Marielle Harris write: The extent of extremist advances in sub-Saharan Africa during the Covid-19 outbreak will depend on regional government responses and insurgent ability to navigate rapidly shifting circumstances. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

North America

For years, the United States outfitted its armed forces and hospitals with products made partially in Mexican factories, trusting that the world’s busiest cross-border supply chain could withstand any crisis. […]After decades of increasing economic interdependence, the pandemic is challenging the premise of globalization, leaving countries more clearly prioritizing their own interests. Governments around the world are reopening their economies on different timelines and under disparate policies, threatening longtime trade relationships. – Washington Post

Former President George W. Bush called on Americans to abandon partisan divides in the face of the “shared threat” of the coronavirus pandemic in a video released on Saturday. – Politico

A top US Jewish group commended on Friday Germany’s decision to outlaw Hezbollah and designate it a terrorist organization. – Algemeiner

Daniel F. Runde, Conor M. Savoy, and Shannon McKeown write: The United States faces a crossroads in global leadership for health and pandemic preparedness. In 2014, it took the lead in responding to the West Africa Ebola outbreak and did so again in 2015 with Zika. The Obama administration took this action because it recognized that diseases that start in one country can very quickly spread across the world, imperiling U.S. national security and the hard-fought gains U.S. assistance has achieved in public health. Now is the time for the United States to reassert its global leadership in the global health space, or risk losing further ground to China. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 

Daniel F. Runde writes: The United States stood up the United Nations and needs to be more engaged. Not paying our dues and not “playing” has significant costs for the United States. Unlike 10 years ago, China has the money and the diplomatic will to fill the void. […]There are serious geostrategic repercussions if the United States cedes its influence. As the 2018 National Security Strategy asserts, “We will compete and lead in multilateral organizations.” It is time for the Trump administration to make these words mean something. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Latin America

The government of President Nicolás Maduro said it had thwarted an early morning “invasion” off its Caribbean coast on Sunday, alleging its intelligence forces had uncovered a plot, ambushed the attackers and captured or killed 10. – Washington Post

A Supreme Court judge issued an injunction on Saturday suspending for 10 days a decision by Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro to expel Venezuela’s 30 diplomats and consular staff. – Reuters 

Editorial: For decades, Venezuela’s oil industry thrived. But under Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, the government took over — and began milking it for fast cash while firing expert workers and managers and slashing spending on maintenance, repairs and other vital capital investment. […]Because Maduro won’t allow safe private investment, he has to turn to his “allies” in Tehran — except the regime there insists on hard payment for its expertise. No honor among thieves, y’know. – New York Post


The Navy’s advanced surface warfare exercises have been deemed mission essential and are moving forward amid coronavirus-related restrictions, demonstrating the surface navy’s dedication to improving its skill, the head of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) told USNI News. – USNI News

The defense sector appears more insulated from the worst financial effects caused by the COVID-19-related economic slowdown when compared to other industries. During the past week, as the largest defense contractors started reporting first-quarter financial results, a clear trend emerged: government-funded work continued, albeit with spotty supply-chain related slowdowns. – USNI News

Pentagon security has been using thermal cameras on tripods to check temperatures at the building’s Visitor Center since April 22nd, the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force announced today. The REF, famous for fielding defenses against roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq, worked with the Army’s C5ISR Center lab and Program Executive Officer – Soldier to convert infrared targeting sensors into hands-off thermometers to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus. – Breaking Defense

The acting director of national intelligence ordered every spy agency to review its policies on the handling and dissemination of sensitive and private identifying information on U.S. persons immediately, saying he has become “increasingly concerned” about unmasking. – Washington Examiner

President Trump signed an executive order Friday barring U.S. purchases of certain foreign-produced power equipment, a move meant to reduce national security risks to the electricity system. – Washington Examiner

The US Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) announced Friday that four of the B-1s, able to carry the largest weapon payloads in the US fleet, had arrived at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam to conduct training and “strategic deterrence missions” in the Indo-Pacific region. – CNN