Fdd's overnight brief

May 30, 2019

In The News


John R. Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, on Wednesday accused Iran of playing a key role in recent attacks on ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, the latest instance in which he has articulated a more hawkish view than his boss toward Iran. – New York Times  

Facebook and Twitter each said on Tuesday they had disabled a sprawling disinformation campaign that appeared to originate in Iran, including two accounts on Twitter that mimicked Republican congressional candidates and may have sought to push pro-Iranian political messages. – Washington Post

In repeating his readiness to pursue a new nuclear deal with Iran, President Trump this week left unmentioned his administration’s aim to hobble what officials call Tehran’s “expansionist foreign policy” — an ambitious priority that is far more likely to lead the United States into war. The expansive, open-ended mission of wrestling with Iran’s diplomacy and military activity could prompt armed conflict well before any showdown over a nuclear program, according to lawmakers, former government officials and analysts. – New York Times

Iran will not negotiate with the United States over its nuclear and missile programs, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday, after President Hassan Rouhani signalled talks with Washington might be possible if sanctions were lifted. – Reuters  

The Trump administration escalated its battle with European allies over the fate of the Iran nuclear accord, threatening penalties against the financial body created by Germany, the U.K. and France to shield trade with the Islamic Republic from U.S. sanctions. – Bloomberg  

The United States has warned Hong Kong to be on alert for a vessel carrying Iranian petroleum that may seek to stop in the Asia financial hub, and said that any entity providing services to the vessel will be violating US sanctions. – Reuters  

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday that the Washington’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan was doomed to failure and said the Palestinian resistance movement will firmly respond to those who proposed such deal. – Reuters  

Iranian crude exports have fallen sharply in May to around 400,000 barrels per day (bpd), tanker data showed and two industry sources said, after the United States tightened the screws on Tehran’s main source of income. – Reuters

While European powers still claim Iran’s regime is in compliance with the nuclear deal, a new German intelligence report accuses the Islamic Republic of seeking to build weapons of mass destruction. – Fox News

The Trump administration has expressed concern about reports that Iranian authorities have made progress in developing a domestic intranet and firewall system to shield Iran from the global internet. – VOA News

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser warned Iran on Wednesday that any attacks in the Persian Gulf will draw a “very strong response” from the US, taking a hard-line approach with Tehran after his boss only two days earlier said America wasn’t “looking to hurt Iran at all.” – Associated Press    

Arthur Herman writes: Iran sabotages ships in the Persian Gulf and threatens to resume enrichment of uranium for its nuclear program. Russia dispatches troops to beleaguered dictator Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, while China sends logistical support. China resists a trade truce with the U.S. and seeks to drive a wedge between the U.S. and allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia by selling them armed drones. Russia sends bombers and fighters into Alaska’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Iran, Russia and China all work tirelessly to keep Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in power. – Wall Street Journal

Dennis Ross writes: But the Iranians won’t make these concessions for free: they will seek the lifting of all sanctions, nuclear and non-nuclear. This would require Trump to decide how much he is prepared to give up. Obama was not willing to lift human-rights and terrorism-related sanctions. Trump, too, is likely to be reluctant to do so. Still, he might conclude that gaining time (an additional 15 years) and reducing the prospect of regional war between would be significant achievements. – Bloomberg

Islamic State

The seven French citizens, wearing sandals and yellow jumpsuits, were brought before an Iraqi judge in a Baghdad courtroom this week to answer for their offense: joining the Islamic State. – New York Times  

U.S. forces have quietly sent at least 30 suspected foreign Islamic State fighters captured in Syria last year and in late 2017 to stand trial in Iraq, interviews with the men, Iraqi sources and court documents show. – Reuters  

IS militants claimed responsibility for burning crops in their weekly newsletter, al-Nabaa, saying they targeted farms belonging to senior officials in six Iraqi provinces and in Kurdish-administered eastern Syria, highlighting the persistent threat from the group even after its territorial defeat. – Associated Press


Top U.S. and Russian diplomats discussed step-by-step implementation of a 2012 roadmap to U.N.-supervised elections in Syria that could allow a Syrian government “to move back into the international community,” the U.S. envoy for the war-torn country said Wednesday. – Associated Press

The European Union called on Wednesday for a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province and said Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government must protect civilians under siege. –

The latest strikes in the fiercest wave of regime bombardment on a jihadist enclave in northwestern Syria killed at least 15 civilians on Wednesday, a war monitor said, despite calls to halt the attacks.

Air strikes by Russian and government warplanes, some using barrel bombs, and shelling have claimed a mounting civilian death toll over the past few weeks. – Agence France Presse

France must stop the “inhumane treatment” of children of jihadists stranded in Syria who are not being allowed to come to the country, its rights ombudsman said Wednesday, warning that Paris was flouting its UN obligations. –  Agence France Presse  

Danny Makki writes: As fighting rages across the last opposition-held province of Idlib, the war in Syria has reached its brutal endgame. The Syrian army’s offensive, launched in early May, will not be quick, but rather marks the start of what will likely be a prolonged, violent, and ultimately costly campaign. If the first few weeks of the operation are anything to go by, resistance will be fierce fiercer than initially expected and as the world’s attention shifts toward Idlib, the stakes are now higher than ever. – Middle East Institute   


An American former NASA scientist sentenced in Turkey to over seven years in prison on terrorism charges was suddenly freed Wednesday evening, without explanation, hours after a phone call between the presidents of Turkey and the United States. – New York Times  

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed during a phone call on Wednesday to meet on the sidelines of a G20 meeting set for June 28-29 in Japan, the Turkish Presidency’s communications director said in posts on Twitter. – Reuters  

Turkey’s hopes of joining the European Union are fading, the bloc’s executive has said, noting worse conditions in courts, prisons and the economy, but Ankara rejected the criticisms as “unfair” and “disproportionate”. – Al Jazeera  


In a stunning turn, Israel will head to elections for a second time in less than six months after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government before a midnight Wednesday deadline. – Washington Post

Israel is heading to an election again just seven weeks after the last one because of disagreements within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s potential coalition over a draft bill to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military. –  Washington Post

An extreme right party fighting recent European Union elections repurposed a quote from an anti-Semitic German historian as a party slogan, emblazoning posters with the phrase “Israel is our misfortune!” – Newsweek  

The IDF has located the largest known tunnel ever dug by the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah into Israeli territory, it was announced on Wednesday. The Hebrew news site Mako reported that the tunnel was of massive size — 80 meters (262 feet) deep and 77 meters (253 feet) long. It originated in the village of Ramyeh in southern Lebanon and was apparently planned to end between the Israeli towns of Shtula and Zar’it in northern Israel. – Algemeiner

A US delegation headed by President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, along with Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt, arrived in Israel on Wednesday night on a trip to lay the groundwork for the economic section of the administration’s peace plan, just hours before the Knesset voted to dissolve and hold second elections in September. – Associated Press  

Middle East & North Africa

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Thursday urged Muslim nations to confront recent attacks in the region that the U.S. and its allies have blamed on Iran with “all means of force and firmness.” – Associated Press

A defence cooperation agreement between the United Arab Emirates and the United States has come into force, UAE state news agency WAM said on Wednesday, as U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton visited Abu Dhabi. – Reuters  

The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced on 24 May that the State Department has approved United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) request for air-to-surface missiles, additional Javelin anti-tank missiles, RQ-21A Blackjack small tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and United States Marine Corps (USMC) training that are together estimated to be worth nearly USD1.2 billion. – IHS Jane’s

In early June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt — the members of the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an economic blockade of the country, leading to a deep division within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Two years on, we asked eight regional experts to weigh in on the current state of affairs and answer one key question: What are the prospects for resolving the Gulf crisis? – Middle East Institute

US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner met Morocco’s King Mohammed VI on Tuesday in Rabat as part of a fresh push on a long-promised but yet-to-be-delivered peace plan for the region. The trip — which will also include stops in Amman and Jerusalem — comes amid a flurry of other administration moves to shore up alliances with Arab allies against Iran and the deployment of warships and bombers to the region. – Agence France Presse

Samuel Ramani writes: Houthi strikes on Saudi oil facilities also reveal how effective retaliation against perceived Saudi cease-fire violations is vital for the preservation of elite cohesion. The risks of ineffectively retaliating against Saudi bombardments for elite cohesion were revealed by the aftermath of Houthi information minister Abdul-Salam Ali Gaber’s defection to Riyadh in November 2018. Gaber’s defection created considerable angst within the Houthi movement, as he was the most senior Houthi official to switch sides, and his statement that the Houthis were “drawing their last breath” revealed the adverse effect of military setbacks in Hodeida on Houthi elite cohesion. – Washington Post

Nicholas Heras writes: It is unclear if Turkey will seek to bolster the GNA’s arsenal with more sophisticated military hardware, but while the Turkish military has made substantial headway in producing indigenous weapons systems, most of its arsenal consists of Western-made hardware that it does not have permission to sell or give to third parties. For example, when Turkey made a deal to sell 30 attack helicopters to Pakistan for $1.5 billion it needed U.S. approval since some engine parts of the T129 are American made. – Ahval  

Korean Peninsula

North Korea on Wednesday accused the United States of showing bad faith in negotiations by conducting nuclear and missile tests and military drills as part of an “evil ambition” to conquer North Korea by force, even while advocating dialogue. – Reuters  

The US State Department said Tuesday that North Korea’s overall program of weapons of mass destruction violated UN resolutions, after President Donald Trump brushed off recent missile launches. – Agence France Presse  

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches violate a United Nations Security Council resolution, breaking with President Trump. – New York Post  


Huawei is ramping up its legal challenge to American limits on purchases of its equipment, in a sign that it is doubling down on its strategy of fighting the Trump administration through the courts and public opinion rather than through quiet negotiations. The Chinese telecommunications giant filed a motion on Tuesday in the United States to accelerate its lawsuit against the White House, which it filed in March in a federal court in Texas. – New York Times  

Facing new trade sanctions and a U.S. clampdown on its top telecommunications company, China issued a pointed reminder Wednesday that it has yet to unleash all its weapons in its trade war with the Trump administration. – Associated Press

Taiwan’s air, sea and land forces conducted a drill to repel an invading force on Thursday, as its defense minister pledged to defend the self-ruled island against China’s rising military threat. – Reuters  

Provoking trade disputes is “naked economic terrorism”, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Thursday, ramping up the rhetoric against the United States amid a bitter trade war that is showing no signs of ending soon. – Reuters  

The United States, embroiled in a trade war with China, should also impose sanctions on China for detaining an estimated one million Uighurs in its Xinjiang region, where repression has not abated, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. – Reuters  

The US Treasury expanded the number of countries subject to scrutiny in a semi-annual report released Tuesday, but again found that neither China nor any other trading partners was manipulating its currency. – Agence France Presse   

China’s grip on the global market for rare-earth metals gives it the ability to target American weaponry in its trade war with the U.S. Everything from Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet to guided missiles and lasers used to determine targets rely on the elements to perform key functions. China accounts for as much as 95% of global output and the U.S. relies on the Asian nation for 80% of its rare-earths requirement. – Bloomberg  


Fishing boats in Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea shone lasers at the pilots of Australian navy combat helicopters during a recent exercise, Australian officials said, which follows similar incidents targeting U.S. military aircraft in the western Pacific and Indian oceans. – Wall Street Journal

Papua New Guinea, an impoverished South Pacific nation that joined the ranks of the world’s significant energy exporters five years ago, installed a new prime minister who has called for greater local control of resources, in a move that may upset a gas deal with international energy giants. […]Mr. O’Neill had come under intense pressure in recent weeks over a plan the government agreed to in April with French oil major Total SA, U.S. petroleum giant Exxon Mobil Corp. and Australia’s Oil Search Ltd. – Wall Street Journal  

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is calling for talks to resolve ongoing trade dispute between Washington and Beijing and is urging the world to accept China’s technological prowess. – Associated Press

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan met his Indonesian counterpart on Thursday as the United States looks to improve ties with an Indonesian special forces unit that have been limited due to human rights abuses in the 1990s. – Reuters  


Russia has likely been secretly carrying out nuclear tests with very low explosive power to help it upgrade its nuclear arsenal, according to a new U.S. intelligence assessment that challenges Moscow’s claims that it is faithfully adhering to an international treaty banning nuclear tests. – Wall Street Journal

Two Russian crewmembers on the International Space Station ventured into open space Wednesday to conduct scientific research and help maintain the orbiting outpost. – Associated Press

U.S. President Donald Trump will not decide until next year whether he will extend a nuclear treaty with Russia, a White House aide said on Wednesday. – Reuters  

Editorial: Mr. Putin’s years in power have been characterized by a gradual silencing of independent voices, often when owners friendly to the Kremlin take over news outlets, as occurred at Kommersant. Only a few truly independent organizations remain. It is extraordinary and encouraging to see so many journalists push back. Analyst Kirill Rogov correctly noted that such collective action “is the main enemy of despotism.” And collectively, some Russians are stirring.- Washington Post


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heads to Europe on Thursday to meet with officials from two governments that maintain close ties with Iran, just days after President Trump suggested he would welcome negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program. – Washington Post

Boris Johnson, the front-runner to replace Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, was ordered on Wednesday to appear in court for a preliminary hearing over allegations that he lied to the public during the 2016 Brexit referendum. – New York Times  

The Trump administration has moved to punish Huawei on national security grounds amid a bitter trade dispute with China. But in Europe, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker has received a different reception. – Washington Post

Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said Wednesday that any Brexit deal should be put to a referendum, the strongest signal yet that a major British political party is willing to open the door to a vote that could cancel the U.K.’s exit from the European Union. – Wall Street Journal

Spain must release three jailed Catalan separatist leaders denied bail while facing trial for their role in the region’s failed bid for independence in 2017, a United Nations expert group will say in a report on Wednesday. – Reuters  

An art installation in Vienna featuring images of Holocaust survivors is being repaired and protected by Viennese residents after being slashed and defaced earlier this week. – Algemeiner

Carrying signs urging an end to antisemitic hatred and waving Israeli flags, about 250 demonstrators on Wednesday gathered in the center of The Hague — where the government of The Netherlands has its seat — for a demonstration under the slogan, “#KeppelOp!”, Dutch for “kippah on!” – Algemeiner   

Croatian Defence Minister Damir Krstičević on 23 May reiterated the government’s commitment to fighter procurement, stating, “Talks are being conducted … with our strategic partner, the USA, and with the Swedes.” Despite official optimism, industry in both countries indicated that a new request for proposals by Croatia was necessary. – IHS Janes

Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak announced May 28 that his ministry “sent a letter of request today” to the United States regarding Poland’s plan to acquire 32 F-35A fighter jets. – Defense News

With Spain on track to join a German-French quest for a new European combat aircraft, lawmakers in Germany next week are expected to decide on Berlin’s initial funding contribution. – Defense News

Even though President Donald Trump held fire earlier this month on auto tariffs that have the potential to further roil Europe’s struggling economy, a litany of domestic dilemmas on both sides of the Atlantic threaten to frustrate efforts at a trade pact before they’ve even begun. – Bloomberg  

Kathleen R.McNamara writes: These national elections, taken together, suggest that the European Parliament will be balanced across a dramatically different swath of ideologies and interests. The center-right and center-left parties that once dominated the European Parliament have shrunk as both Euroskeptic parties on the right, and liberal and green parties on the left, fill the seats that were occupied by the politicians of the past. The center is weaker — but neither the right nor the left has won. – Washington Post

Desmond Lachman writes: At the same time that Nigel Farage has upended U.K. politics, Matteo Salvini has done the same in Italy. He has done so by leading his far-right League Party to a crushing victory over its supposedly senior Five-Star Movement coalition partner in Italy’s current populist government. This now gives Salvini the upper hand in determining the government’s economic policy agenda. – The Hill

North America

Canada’s Liberal government on Wednesday introduced legislation that would ratify the revised version of the North American free-trade pact, moving ahead less than two weeks after the Trump administration lifted tariffs on the country’s steel and aluminum exports. – Wall Street Journal

U.S. allies, looking to buck American control over international trade, are developing alternate systems that don’t rely on U.S. currency. – Wall Street Journal

The Justice Department’s watchdog said a high-ranking FBI official leaked “sensitive” information to reporters multiple times with authorization and had improperly accepted a gift from the media. – Washington Examiner

Editorial: But the NSA has a great responsibility, too. Weaponized computer code can be a crucial tool in counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations, and in the case of EternalBlue, it was. Yet this code can also be crucial to enemies. The NSA has a process in place for evaluating when to disclose vulnerabilities, but the guidelines dictating tool development, disclosure and protection deserve outside input and scrutiny. The country still needs answers on how these tools fell into the wrong hands in the first place. It also needs mechanisms in place to keep them in the right ones going forward. – Washington Post

Latin America

Venezuela’s widespread gasoline shortages are starting to affect some cities in Colombia, where drivers depend on cheap fuel smuggled in from their socialist-governed neighbor. – Associated Press

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido vowed to press ahead with street protests after talks with government officials hosted by Norway ended on Wednesday without progress towards resolving the South American country’s long-running political crisis. – Reuters  

Norway’s government on Wednesday praised progress made in talks between representatives of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the political opponents trying to oust him, even as tensions mounted back home. – Associated Press


As the U.S. continues its campaign against Huawei Technologies Co., the Chinese telecom-equipment maker’s two biggest rivals are battling each other to take advantage. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Air Force wants to use a small satellite in low earth orbit to help offer beyond-line-of-sight tactical communications to soldiers on the battlefield. – C4ISRNET   

Marc A. Thiessen writes: Regardless, Assange is not a journalist. He is a spy. The fact that he gave stolen U.S. intelligence to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, China, Iran and other adversaries via a website rather than dead-drops is irrelevant. He engaged in espionage against the United States. And he has no remorse for the harm he has caused. He once called the innocent people hurt by his disclosures “collateral damage” and admitted WikiLeaks might get “blood on our hands.” Sorry, he does not get to aid and abet our enemies, put countless lives at risk and then hide behind the First Amendment. The Justice Department is right to indict him for his crimes. – Washington Post


When the Soviet Union fell, many of the former Warsaw Pact nations founded their new militaries on the back of leftover military equipment. And in the thaw of the Cold War, many of those same nations invested in Russian gear, often cheaper than its American equivalents. – Defense News

Senate authorizers would transfer responsibility of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) from the Missile Defense Agency to the Army, according to an executive summary of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the fiscal year 2020 defense authorization bill. – Defense News

Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak announced May 28 that his ministry “sent a letter of request today” to the United States regarding Poland’s plan to acquire 32 F-35A fighter jets. – Defense News  

Trump Administration

Special Counsel Robert Mueller said Wednesday that charging Donald Trump with a crime of obstruction was not an option because of Justice Department policy not to indict a sitting president. “Under longstanding department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office,” Mueller said in his first public comments in two years. “That is unconstitutional. – Agence France  Presse 

The Trump administration on Wednesday asked a federal judge to allow construction of the president’s border wall to commence while it appeals an unfavorable ruling from last week. – Politico

Special counsel Robert Mueller handed Democrats a new weapon on Wednesday that they hoped would convince Speaker Nancy Pelosi to open an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. – Politico