Fdd's overnight brief

May 3, 2021

In The News


While concrete signs of a new understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran have yet to emerge and could take a long time, if they happen at all, even a cooling of tempers between the adversaries could echo in countries where their rivalry fuels political feuds and armed conflicts, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. – New York Times

The United States and Iran are in active talks over the release of prisoners, a person familiar with the discussions said Sunday as Washington denied a report by Iranian state-run television that deals had been struck. – Associated Press 

After coming under fire from Iran’s supreme leader, the country’s foreign minister offered him a direct and extensive apology Sunday for recorded comments leaked to the public last week. – Associated Press

A chemical factory near the central city of Qom caught fire Sunday, Iranian media reported a blaze that injured at least two firefighters. – Associated Press

An independently analyzed translation of the leaked audiotape of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shows that he was unaware of secret Israeli airstrikes until former Secretary of State John Kerry gave him the information. – Arutz Sheva 

President Joe Biden reportedly told Mossad chief Yossi Cohen that the US is not close to returning to the nuclear deal with Iran, according to a news report Sunday. – Times of Israel

Indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran on a return to compliance to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are in “an unclear place,” U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Friday. – Reuters

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator said on Saturday Tehran expects U.S. sanctions on oil, banks and most individuals and institutions to be lifted based on agreements so far in Vienna talks, Iranian media reported, while Washington again played down the prospect of an imminent breakthrough. – Reuters

Iran’s treatment of detained dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe amounts to “torture”, Britain said on Sunday, after she was convicted anew and banned from leaving the Islamic republic. – Agence France-Presse

Parties to the Iran nuclear agreement on Saturday adjourned the third round of negotiations in Vienna aimed at bringing the United States back into the accord, with the Russian side expressing “cautious and growing optimism” and saying they hoped to achieve concrete results within three weeks. – Agence France-Presse

The Islamic Republic of Iran has announced that it may execute Vahid Afkari, the brother of the champion wrestler Navid Akari, who was the victim of an extrajudicial killing by Iran’s judiciary for his protest against Iranian regime corruption. – Jerusalem Post

Iran has been hit with a four-year ban on participating in international Judo events by the sport’s top body over Tehran’s refusal to let its athletes face off against Israeli competitors. – i24 News

Ray Takeyh writes: Members of both parties believe that any prospective agreement must address Tehran’s ballistic missiles and its suspect regional activities. Yet often missing is any serious consideration of Iran’s human-rights record. The most consequential victims of the theocratic regime are its own citizens, and their plight shouldn’t be ignored. – Wall Street Journal

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Iran is signaling that it can balance the US role in the region through work with Russia and China. Russia is a known quantity, but China’s emerging role has far reaching consequences. […]That Iran is hinting at its ability to lever China against the US has ramifications for the region. Other countries in the region such as Israel and the UAE have amicable relations with China and China sees stability as important. That means that China’s view is not necessarily Iran’s view of the region. – Jerusalem Post

Mehdi Khalaji writes: The regime is already more or less militarist, led by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (Khamenei) and his military-minded directives. Yet unlike what many Bonapartists wish to see, the Supreme Leader is obviously not some reform-minded strongman out to modernize the country. Thus, even if a military man wins the presidency, the regime’s decision making process will not drastically change so long as Khamenei remains in power—the Supreme Leader will simply use such a president as his executive agent to further implement his agenda. – Washington Institute

Zvi Bar’el writes: The Iran-Saudi axis, if it culminates in a resumption of relations, isn’t disconnected from the nuclear channel, where Iran has a keen interest in swiftly tying things up, if possible before its June presidential election. […]The confluence of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s strategic considerations gives Biden the chance to resolve several conflicts at once – if he agrees to lift the sanctions on Iran. – Haaretz


A close aide of killed Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been caught in Istanbul, police said Sunday. – Associated Press

Several prominent US senators, including Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), have introduced the Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act, legislation that is intended to hold Turkey accountable for abuses that have increased since 2016. – Jerusalem Post

A presidential decree published Saturday added cryptocurrency exchanges to a list of firms covered by Turkey’s terror financing and money laundering. – Associated Press


Gunmen in a passing car opened fire at Israelis standing at a major intersection in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Sunday, injuring three of them, according to rescue officials and the military. – Associated Press

In the first incident of its kind since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to postpone the elections, unidentified gunmen attacked the house of a Palestinian candidate who urged the European Union to halt financial aid to the PA. – Jerusalem Post

Mossad Director Yossi Cohen had a full hour-long meeting with US President Joe Biden over the weekend, The Jerusalem Post has learned. – Jerusalem Post

Iranian hackers reportedly broke into the computer system of clothing retailer H&M Israel and are threatening to release customer data, i24NEWS reported on Sunday. – Arutz Sheva 

Jihadis around the Middle East took to social media channels on Friday to gloat over the death toll of Jews crushed to death during a stampede at a Lag B’Omer festival on the slopes of Mount Meron in northern Israel. – Algemeiner

A group of retired Israeli military officer and intelligence officials issued a warning on Friday against placing any political trust in Palestinian Authority President and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. – Algemeiner


Two rockets targeted an airbase at Iraq’s Baghdad airport housing US-led coalition troops on Sunday, in the second such attack in 10 days, a security source said. – Agence France-Presse

ISIS is threatening Iraq again, years after it was pushed out of Mosul and other cities. Although the Iraqi central government and its armed forces, backed by the US-led Coalition, continues to carry out operations, the extremists have found gaps to infiltrate. ISIS attacked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters near Pirde in Iraq overnight. – Jerusalem Post

Heyrsh Abdulrahman writes: The US invasion and subsequent developments in Iraqi politics have given rise to sectarian lines, as well as growing conflicts in social and political life, corruption, a further deterioration in public services and in the well-being of the population. Although some improvements were made, no one can say that Iraq as a democracy has succeeded. The state of Iraq lacks an Iraqi society and this is the major challenge to democracy in Iraq. – Jerusalem Post

Middle East & North Africa

Top Biden administration officials and U.S. senators crisscrossed the Middle East on Monday, seeking to assuage growing unease among Gulf Arab partners over America’s re-engagement with Iran and other policy shifts in the region. – Associated Press

Syria’s Supreme Constitutional Court has accepted three applications out of 51 for candidacy for this month’s presidential elections in the war-torn country, state media reported Monday. – Associated Press

Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a decree Sunday granting amnesty and reducing sentences for several categories of crime committed before May 2, state news agency SANA said. – Associated Press

Months after they stalled, indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel over their disputed maritime border are to resume next week, a U.S.-mediating team said. – Associated Press

France’s foreign minister will travel to Lebanon next week to discuss the political crisis with senior officials, two sources aware of the matter said on Friday. – Reuters

Secretary of State Tony Blinken told Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in a phone call on Friday that the Biden administration would not reverse President Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, at least for the time being, two sources familiar with the call told me. – Axios

Editorial: One of the more awkward foreign policy problems inherited by the Biden administration is President Donald Trump’s reckless recognition in December of Morocco’s claim to the disputed territory of Western Sahara. […]Mr. Trump acted not on the merits of the issue, but as part of a deal to induce Morocco to upgrade its relations with Israel. It was an unjust and unnecessary reward for a regime that, under King Mohammed VI, has grown increasingly autocratic. – Washington Post

Korean Peninsula

North Korea said on Sunday that President Biden had made “a big blunder” by calling its nuclear arsenal a threat last week, and it warned that the United States would face “a very grave situation” if it maintained its “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang. – New York Times

The Biden administration’s policy toward North Korea “is not aimed at hostility” but at “achieving the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” a top aide said. – Bloomberg

President Joe Biden has settled on a new approach to pressuring North Korea to give up nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that will explore diplomacy but not seek a grand bargain with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the White House said on Friday. – Reuters


China’s Shandong aircraft carrier task group recently conducted an exercise in the South China Sea, the country’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said on Sunday. – Reuters

Australia is reviewing the 99-year lease of a commercial and military port in the country’s north to a Chinese firm, a government source said on Monday, a move that could further inflame tensions between Beijing and Canberra. – Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview that aired on Sunday that China had recently acted “more aggressively abroad” and was behaving “increasingly in adversarial ways.” – Reuters

Editorial: Few analysts expect offensive military action by China against Taiwan or in the South China Sea in the near future. But unlike Russia, which announced the withdrawal of its forces from the Ukraine border last month, the Xi regime is aiming for more than political or diplomatic points. […]A firm stand by the United States and its allies seems to have induced Mr. Putin to back off from Ukraine; deterring Mr. Xi is a much more complex challenge. – Washington Post

Tom Rogan writes: Xi Jinping intends as much. His South China Sea gambit is designed to wipe away the liberal international order that has sustained since the end of World War II. China’s actions threaten the future prosperity and democratic political authority of the entire world. They must be resisted. […]But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The United States must be more willing to challenge conventional wisdom. – Washington Examiner


The Taliban issued a warning to U.S. and NATO forces of possible counterattacks as the original May 1 deadline for the complete withdrawal of foreign troops passed, stoking fears of increased violence in response to President Biden’s extension of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to Sept. 11. – Washington Post

On the eve of a symbolic date for America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, a truck laden with explosives blew up outside a guesthouse south of the capital on Friday night, killing at least 27 people. – New York Times

The final phase of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan after 20 years formally began Saturday, with the withdrawal of the last U.S. and NATO troops by the end of summer. – Associated Press

Afghan government forces face an uncertain future and, in a worst-case scenario, some “bad possible outcomes” against Taliban insurgents as the withdrawal of American and coalition troops accelerates in the coming weeks, the top U.S. military officer said Sunday. – Associated Press

Taliban fighters have protected western military bases in Afghanistan from attacks by rival, or rogue Islamist groups for over a year under a secret annex to a pact for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by May 1, three Western officials with knowledge of the agreement told Reuters. – Reuters

Fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban has left more than 100 insurgents dead in the past 24 hours, the defence ministry said Sunday as it took control of a US military base in a restive province. – Agence France-Presse

President Joe Biden used the 10th anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — “a moment I will never forget” — to reaffirm his decision to remove all US troops from Afghanistan. – Agence France-Presse

Dozens of Afghans who worked as interpreters in often deadly conditions with the US military expressed fear Friday of being targeted by the Taliban after American troops head home, and they urged Washington not to leave them behind. – Agence France-Presse

A searing blaze that roared through dozens of fuel tankers on the northern edge of the Afghan capital of Kabul killed seven people and injured 14 others, the Interior Ministry said Sunday. – Associated Press

Susannah George, Aziz Tassal, and Sharif Hassan write: The United States prioritized Afghanistan’s highways as key to both security and economic stability after the 2001 invasion and spent nearly $3 billion repairing them. Now, they are some of the most dangerous parts of the country for many Afghans. […]Even though Mujtaba has no ties to the security forces or the government that would make him a Taliban target, he said the fighters’ checkpoints terrify him. He has vowed never to make the trip by road again. – Washington Post

Colin Clarke writes: Yes, bin Laden is dead, thanks to a daring raid by U.S. Special Operations forces 10 years ago. But the president’s statement misses the mark. Its founder might have left the scene, but al-Qaeda hasn’t gone away and that has clear implications for our strategy in Afghanistan and across the world. […]Killing bin Laden 10 years ago was an important milestone. But it was more symbolic than impactful, more tactical than strategic. The United States might be leaving Afghanistan, but al-Qaeda remains, long after bin Laden is gone. – Washington Post

Max Hastings writes: It would be naive to anticipate that the Taliban will respect the terms of its February 2020 agreement with the U.S. not to allow Afghanistan to become again a base for international terror. The country is overwhelmingly likely to rewind the clock: to drag the more than 3.5 million Afghan girls who now attend school back to a future as domestic and sexual servants; to remove women from the modest but growing number of responsible posts they occupy; to restore to the imams the power that they exercise to such baleful effect in Iran. – Bloomberg

South Asia

The U.S. State Department has approved the potential sale of six Boeing-made (BA.N) P-8I patrol aircraft and related equipment to India for an estimated cost of $2.42 billion, the Pentagon said on Friday. – Reuters

Pakistan on Friday decried a move by the European Parliament, which a day earlier adopted a resolution demanding Islamabad allow freedom for religious minorities and asked the EU to reconsider the South Asian country’s preferential trade status. – Associated Press

The media is facing growing censorship, attacks and harassment in Pakistan that are threatening freedom of the press, a committee of journalists said Monday. – Associated Press

Michael Rubin writes: With Biden embracing Trump’s policy of unilateral withdrawal, the United States will soon no longer need Pakistan. Neither the White House nor Congress will be inclined to sweep irritants in bilateral relations—primarily, the sponsorship of terror by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence—under the rug. – The National Interest


A border clash this week between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan killed more than 40 people, government officials said Friday, significantly raising the death toll for an episode that began as a dispute over irrigation water. – New York Times

With the Tatmadaw preoccupied in the cities, ethnic armed groups have launched their own coordinated offensives in the borderlands. Scores of Tatmadaw soldiers were killed in recent fighting when insurgents overran their outposts, according to the ethnic armed organizations and local residents. – New York Times

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took a tougher stance on China’s human rights record Monday by saying it was getting harder to reconcile differences as China’s role in the world grows. – Associated Press

Myanmar security forces opened fire on some of the biggest protests against military rule in days on Sunday killing eight people, the media reported, three months after a coup plunged the country into crisis. – CNN

Uzbekistan on Friday brought back 24 women and 69 children who had been staying at the Al-Hol camp in Syria with other families of Islamic State fighters, the Central Asian nation’s government said, its fifth airlift of this kind. – Reuters

The U.N. special envoy on Myanmar told the Security Council on Friday that in the absence of a collective international response to the country’s coup, violence is worsening and the running of the state risks coming to a standstill, according to diplomats who attended the private meeting. – Reuters

Kyrgyzstan accused Tajikistan of breaking a ceasefire by firing on homes on Saturday and said 33 of its people have been killed in the deadliest border clashes between the countries since their independence from the Soviet Union. – Agence France-Presse

The incumbent chief minister’s party in India’s West Bengal state has defeated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party in a state election held as the coronavirus pandemic surged to crisis levels. – Reuters

The Philippines will continue maritime exercises inside its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, the country’s defence minister said on Sunday, despite a call by China to stop actions that it said could escalate disputes. – Reuters

Thousands of anti-coup protesters marched in Myanmar Sunday, calling for a “spring revolution” with the country in its fourth month under a military regime. – Agence France-Presse

The Philippine foreign minister on Monday demanded in an expletive-laced message on Twitter that China’s vessels get out of disputed waters, marking the latest exchange in a war of words with Beijing over its activities in the South China Sea. – Reuters

The threat from a rising China has forced Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) to shift from an armor- and artillery-intensive force based in its north – where it would’ve responded to a Soviet invasion – to a more mobile one able to reach southwestern Japan at a moment’s notice. – Business Insider 

The Biden administration this week approved a trio of potential foreign military sales cases for Australia and India, items worth a potential $4.36 billion for American companies. – Defense News


The lead lawyer defending the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny in an extremism case that could outlaw Mr. Navalny’s opposition movement was arrested on Friday, the latest instance of a remarkable escalation by the Kremlin in its long-running campaign to stifle dissent. – New York Times

Russia’s financial monitoring agency said on Friday it had added jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s network of regional campaign offices to a list of organisations involved in “terrorism and extremism”. – Reuters

Russia on Friday barred eight officials from European Union countries from entering the country in retaliation for sanctions imposed on Russian citizens by the EU. – Reuters

The Group of Seven richest countries will look at a proposal to build a rapid response mechanism to counter Russian “propaganda” and disinformation, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Reuters. – Reuters

The U.S. embassy in Moscow said Friday it is limiting the consular services it provides after Russia placed restrictions on the number of local staff it could hire, marking the latest point of tension in relations between Washington and Moscow. – The Hill

A summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the works for this summer in a third country to get the tense relationship “on a more stable, predictable path,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday. – Defense News

Ted Lipien writes: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where I served briefly as president and CEO until earlier this year, is under assault by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Through his agencies and obedient courts, he is blackmailing the media organization funded by U.S. taxpayers, issuing fines and threats of criminal prosecutions unless Radio Liberty agrees to play by his rules. – Washington Examiner


Bulgaria will head to the polls in July after the Socialists on Saturday became the third political party to refuse to lead a government following last month’s parliamentary election. – Reuters

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky is struggling to salvage a deadlocked peace process that was supposed to end a simmering conflict with Russian-backed forces in the country’s far east. – Financial Times 

Polish human rights chief Adam Bodnar criticised the EU for its slow response to the government’s rule of law violations, warning in an interview that Poland risked becoming “undemocratic”. – Agence France-Presse

James Stavridis writes: The forceful U.K. presence in these waters way will be welcomed not just in Washington — but also at the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and, above all, by the U.S. Seventh Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan. The U.S. Navy knows that facing China will be the ultimate team sport. – Bloomberg


Militants killed at least 19 people, including 10 soldiers, in raids on two villages in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday, hours after President Felix Tshisekedi declared a state of siege in two provinces. – Reuters 

At least four people were shot and wounded in Chad’s southern Mandoul region on Saturday when security forces fired upon a crowd demonstrating against last month’s military takeover, witnesses and hospital sources said. – Reuters

Somali lawmakers voted unanimously on Saturday to cancel a two-year presidential term extension they had approved last month, after clashes in the capital Mogadishu between factions of the security forces, which are divided over the issue. – Reuters

The army in Chad said Friday it had wiped out “several hundred” rebels over two days of fighting in the country’s west, where President Idriss Deby Itno suffered mortal wounds at the front line this month. – Agence France-Presse

Delayed elections in Somalia amid political infighting has enabled al-Qaeda-linked militants to make gains in an insurgency, raising the threat of insecurity in eastern Africa. – Bloomberg

The Americas

The clash over Calgary-based Enbridge’s Line 5, which carries up to 540,000 barrels of crude oil and natural gas liquids across Michigan and under the Great Lakes each day, is placing stress on U.S.-Canada ties — and raising questions about how the close allies, which have expressed a desire to work together to fight climate change, can balance energy security with the transition to a clean-energy economy. – Washington Post

A U.S.-backed effort to send aid to Venezuela in 2019 that ended in a violent standoff on the Colombian border was not planned in alignment with humanitarian principles, according to an audit by the Washington-based aid agency involved in the operation. – Reuters

Venezuela has released from jail six former executives of U.S.-based refining company Citgo and put them on house arrest, a source familiar with the situation said on Friday, more than three years after they were arrested on corruption charges. – Reuters

The party of El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, voted early on Sunday to remove the Central American country’s top prosecutor, part of an intensifying political drama that has drawn criticism from U.S. officials and others. – Reuters

Miami imam Dr. Fadi Yousef Kablawi said that Al-Aqsa and Palestine are the “land of Islam,” and that Muslims will take them back. He made these remarks in a Friday sermon that was delivered at Masjid As-Sunnah An-Nabawiyyah in north Miami, and posted on the masjid’s official Facebook page on April 16, 2021. Dr. Kablawi thanked the Israelis for building the settlements that would serve as housing for the Muslims when they take the land back, and the Israelis run away “like mice.” – Middle East Media Research Institute 

Jorge G. Castañeda writes: Mr. Biden’s reluctance to criticize AMLO’s policies is understandable but misguided.[…] Mr. Biden must hold Mexico to the same standards he has for other countries like China, Russia and Guatemala. He must collaborate with Mr. López Obrador, but also press him openly on all accounts: climate change, human rights, corruption, the rule of law, democracy and transparency. Taking care of the children at the border is important. So is taking care of Mexico. – New York Times


On Monday, Apple faces one of its most serious legal threats in recent years: A trial that threatens to upend its iron control over its app store, which brings in billions of dollars each year while feeding more than 1.6 billion iPhones, iPads, and other devices. – Associated Press

A new undersea fibre optic data cable spanning the ocean between southern Europe and Latin America is due to come online this month — and the timing could hardly be more apposite. – Financial Times 

Egon Rinderer writes: To stay ahead of adversaries, the DoD and IC must continue to mature cyber capabilities, implementing zero trust models for their own organizations and encouraging deployment in the broader contractor community. Zero trust offers an opportunity to keep sensitive data secure and employees productive — if implemented using accurate, real-time data. – C4ISRNET


The Biden administration has disclosed a set of rules secretly issued by President Donald J. Trump in 2017 for counterterrorism “direct action” operations — like drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional war zones — which the White House has suspended as it weighs whether and how to tighten the guidelines. – New York Times

With the Senate on legislative break, House lawmakers have scheduled a robust series of online hearings, including public testimony from leaders of all five services. Leaders of the National Guard and service reserves will also testify on their budget needs for fiscal 2022 and beyond. – Military Times

The U.S. Army recently approved rapid experimentation and prototyping to develop a new Tactical Space Layer that will enable the service to use overhead satellite imagery for beyond-line-of-sight targets. – C4ISRNET

The Pentagon announced Friday that it would cancel all of the border construction projects funded by the siphoning of money destined to to build military schools, training facilities and more. – Military Times

The U.S. Air Force’s ballistic missile defense radar being installed at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, won’t have its only operational flight test for another year, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. – Defense News

In his first major speech as Pentagon chief, Lloyd Austin on Friday called for developing a “new vision” for American defense in the face of emerging cyber and space threats and the prospect of fighting bigger wars. – Associated Press

Two Air Force fighter jet wings are the first to try a new approach to maintenance that aims to improve quality of life for the crews that keep the service’s premiere planes running, while also pushing the envelope of what those jets can accomplish in combat. – Air Force News

Special Operations Command has openly discussed its imminent shift from counter-terror to near-peer competition in recent years, but at the same time, another major shift is underway in the military writ large: a new focus on attracting and retaining women in every career field, a renewed focus on preventing and responding to sexual assault and sexual harassment, and the first department-wide efforts to crack down on extremism. – Military News

Long War

An Islamic leader in Congo’s eastern town of Beni was killed during evening prayers by unidentified gunmen after days of violent attacks by rebels left at least 19 people dead, officials said. – Associated Press

Representatives for al Qaeda said the “war against the U.S. will be continuing on all other fronts” amid the Biden administration’s removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. – The Hill