Fdd's overnight brief

May 5, 2021

In The News


The White House said on Tuesday there is no agreement with Iran on an exchange of prisoners but that attempts to gain freedom for four Americans held by Tehran are ongoing. – Reuters

An Iranian diplomat sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning a bomb attack in France has dropped his appeal in Belgium and will serve a prison sentence, lawyers said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Dozens of human rights experts, including former United Nations officials, in a Tuesday letter called on the UN to open an inquiry into a series of killings of Iranian political dissidents by Iran’s government in 1988. – The Hill

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that US efforts to free Americans detained in Iran are “separate” from negotiations to curb the country’s nuclear program. – New York Post

Marc A. Thiessen writes: Four years ago, Senate Democrats demanded an investigation of Trump’s alleged disclosures to Russia. But now that it is Kerry who stands accused, the silence from Democrats is deafening. The Iranian foreign minister has said he learned this intelligence information from Kerry. That cannot simply be ignored. Democrats have a responsibility to conduct oversight over the Biden national security team. Kerry should be called to Capitol Hill to explain under oath what he said to Zarif — and when he said it. – Washington Post

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Iran’s Foreign Ministry says it wants stability. It even pitched some oddly named agreement called “HOPE” to reduce tensions in the Gulf, tensions that rose because of Iran’s actions. The problem is that its Foreign Ministry doesn’t speak for Iran. The IRGC does, and the IRGC continues the attacks. – Jerusalem Post

Jonathan A. Greenblatt writes: Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism is a grave threat to the United States’s national security, to Israel’s safety and security and to the security of many other US allies, including in Europe and the Middle East. […]Because Iran’s nuclear provocations are premised on the same extremist ideology that drives the Iranian government’s other violent extremism, the world simply does not have the luxury to grant Tehran a free pass on its incitement of hatred and violence while focusing only on the nuclear issue. – Times of Israel

Peter Brookes writes: Stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons is a clear national security imperative for the United States—and others. So, too, is preventing Iran from developing the means to deliver these weapons to potential targets in the region—or beyond, including against the United States. Nor can the U.S. ignore Iran’s conventionally armed missiles as a significant threat, as evidenced by attacks in the region directly or through Iranian proxies. – Heritage Foundation 


Syrian air defences downed several Israeli missiles during pre-dawn raids on the Mediterranean port city of Latakia, the Syrian army said on Wednesday, a rare attack on the ancestral home region of the Syrian leader and close to a Russian air base. – Reuters

A senior Saudi Arabian delegation led by intelligence chief General Khaled al-Khomedein on Tuesday visited Damascus, Syria, as part of a wide scale attempt by Saudi Arabia to improve relations with those aligned with Iran, the Saudi Al Rai al Youm reported. – Arutz Sheva

Israel fired missiles toward northwest Syria early Wednesday, killing one person and wounding six, Syrian state media reported. – Associated Press

David Schenker writes: Concurrently, the United States should increase its humanitarian efforts in Syria and prevail on those Gulf states leading the normalization charge to provide additional assistance as well, especially in areas outside regime jurisdiction. Assad remains in control of Damascus and its environs, but the decisions to use chemical weapons and commit other mass atrocities against the Syrian people are beyond the pale and should preclude his rehabilitation. At this point, however, only the United States can prevent that outcome. – Washington Institute


Egypt and Turkey will hold two days of political consultations in Cairo on Wednesday and Thursday as part of a push to mend ties between the regional rivals, the two countries said. – Reuters

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz discussed bilateral ties in a call on Tuesday, the Turkish presidency said, the second conversation between the two leaders in less than a month. – Reuters

President Tayyip Erdogan’s nationalist ally said on Tuesday that his party had drafted a new constitution for Turkey that envisages an overhaul of the judiciary, and that it would soon be presented to Erdogan’s ruling AK Party (AKP) for discussion. – Reuters


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu missed a deadline to form a new government, a development that would lead to the end of his 15-year rule if his opponents can patch together their own alternative coalition. – Wall Street Journal 

Israeli security forces have surrounded a house in the West Bank village of Aqraba on Wednesday, with Palestinian media reporting gunfire from the building where the suspect of the Tapuach Junction shooting is thought to be. – Jerusalem Post

The Hamas terror group in Gaza threatened Israel on Tuesday over tensions in East Jerusalem, as a number of Palestinian families face eviction as part of an ongoing effort by right-wing Israelis to take control of homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. – Agence France-Presse

Israeli and Lebanese negotiators engaged in US-mediated indirect talks over their disputed maritime border for six hours on Tuesday. – Times of Israel

Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller write: These are issues that must no longer be ignored by the Israeli government. And we readily admit to having no solution to the underlying problem of occupation or the absence of leadership on both sides.But there’s one thing about which we are very certain: If a solution to the problem of the much too promised land is to be found, the place to look first won’t be abroad, or to the UN, the United States or NGOs, but much closer to home: in the hands of Palestinians and Israelis themselves. – Newsweek


On Tuesday two rockets landed at Ain Al-Asad air base in western Iraq. On Monday three to six rockets fell near Balad Air Base in Iraq according to various reports. The base houses US contractors and has been targeted numerous times in the past by pro-Iranian militias targeting Americans. – Jerusalem Post

Militants using bombs attacked two oil wells at an oilfield close to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on Wednesday but production was not affected, security and oil industry sources said. – Reuters

The Saudi Cabinet approved a license for the National Bank of Iraq to open a branch in the kingdom, the state news agency said on Tuesday on Twitter. – Reuters

Arabian Peninsula

The advent of Instagram in recent years has helped create an international black market for migrant workers, in particular women recruited in Africa and Asia who are sold into servitude as maids in Persian Gulf countries. – Washington Post

U.S. President Joe Biden, in a phone call on Tuesday with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, underlined the strategic importance of the normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, the White House said in a statement. – Reuters

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators pressed the State Department on Tuesday to push international donors to address a $2.5 billion shortfall in assistance to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

An Egyptian court on Tuesday ruled that the container ship which blocked the Suez Canal in March could continue to be held in the waterway, rejecting an appeal by its Japanese owner against its detention, a judicial source said. – Reuters

Tunisia will cut its public sector wage bill and replace subsidies with direct support for the needy, according to a government reform proposal written to support talks with the International Monetary Fund and seen by Reuters. – Reuters 

Even after she was taken off an investigation into alleged financial crimes by a money transfer company, the defiant Lebanese prosecutor charged ahead. She showed up at the company’s offices outside of Beirut with a group of supporters and a metal worker, who broke open the locked gate. – Associated Press

Korean Peninsula

Few details of the plan have been announced, but many foreign policy experts believe the US president has already downgraded Washington’s attention to North Korea — a priority for Donald Trump’s administration — as Biden seeks to tackle domestic problems and sharpen focus on China. – Financial Times

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday met jointly with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts to discuss North Korea, bringing together the allies despite renewed rifts. – Agence France-Presse

Ever since fighting ended in the Korean War nearly seven decades ago, Baengnyeong has been a key location for U.S. allies in Seoul to spy on North Korea. Yet now the island is on China’s radar. – Bloomberg

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) signed a memorandum of understanding with Sharp Technics and Incheon International Airport to set up a factory in which Boeing 777s will be converted from passenger planes to freight planes. – Jerusalem Post


President Biden’s approach to China borrows from the Obama administration’s efforts at cooperation and the Trump administration’s tougher line to counter Beijing’s assertiveness at home and abroad, a senior White House official said Tuesday. – Wall Street Journal

China’s repression of Uyghurs is dividing U.S. allies over whether to characterize human-rights abuses against the mainly Muslim minority as genocide. – Wall Street Journal 

Even in China, where propaganda has become increasingly pugnacious, the display was jarring: a photograph of a Chinese rocket poised to blast into space juxtaposed with a cremation pyre in India, which is overwhelmed by the coronavirus. “Chinese ignition versus Indian ignition,” the title read. – New York Times

A video viewed more than a million times on Facebook and YouTube claims to share “breaking news” about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte winning a case against Beijing over the South China Sea in April 2021. – Agence France-Presse

America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken has rejected claims the US is entering a cold war with China during a visit to London to discuss with G7 counterparts how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing. – Financial Times 

Jonathan Hoffman writes: Guided religious engagement of this type offers a way for China to deflect international criticism of its internal Muslim crackdown. But these efforts also support China’s broader geostrategic and economic aims, helping Beijing to deepen ties within the Middle East and boost alliances with other autocratic leaders who don’t agree with the U.S. or European stance on human rights or democratization. – Washington Post

Kathrin Hille writes: None of this is to downplay China’s growing military prowess, or the pressure it is putting on Taiwan by using it. Chinese military aircraft are flying into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on an almost daily basis now, and those flights are increasing in both frequency and range.But rather than a step towards war, these moves are more likely to be part of a campaign to intimidate Taiwan with so-called grey-zone tactics. Constant fear-mongering over the risk of a Taiwan war only plays into the hands of such a Chinese strategy. – Financial Times 

James Pethokoukis writes: Demographics is perhaps the first stop one makes when setting out to make the bear case on the 21st century being the Chinese Century. […]China’s productivity problem is another reason to think of pro-productivity policy here in the US — more immigrants, more science research, deregulation that makes it easier to start and build a business — as the key element in making sure the 21st century is more informed by America’s values than China’s. – American Enterprise Institute


Afghan security forces fought back a major Taliban offensive in southern Helmand province in the last 24 hours, officials and residents said on Tuesday, as militants launched assaults around the country after a missed U.S. deadline to withdraw troops. – Reuters

A bomb targeted a minibus carrying medical workers in the Afghan capital Wednesday morning, killing one person, a Kabul police official said. – Associated Press

U.S. intelligence analysts are arguing that the Taliban would likely “roll back” rights for women in Afghanistan should the Islamist extremist group regain wide-reaching power in the country. – The Hill

The U.S. military has completed about 2 percent to 6 percent of the process of entirely withdrawing from Afghanistan, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) said Tuesday. – The Hill



The top White House Asia official has warned that any declaration that the US would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack would carry “significant downsides”. – Financial Times 

Myanmar’s security forces moved in and the street lamps went black. In house after house, people shut off their lights. Darkness swallowed the block. – Associated Press

A group of militants in Afghanistan fired across the border at troops in southwest Pakistan, on Wednesday, killing at least four soldiers before fleeing, the military said. – Associated Press

A top Australian military general reportedly told forces last year that while the country sought to prevent a war with China, there was a “high likelihood” that conflict could break out. – The Hill

The Philippines has rejected an annual summer fishing ban imposed by China in the disputed South China Sea and encouraged its boats to keep fishing in the country’s territorial waters. – Reuters

Myanmar’s National Unity Government, set up by opponents of army rule, said on Wednesday it had formed a “people’s defence force” to protect its supporters from military attacks and violence instigated by the junta. – Reuters

New Zealand’s parliament unanimously declared on Wednesday that severe human rights abuses were taking place against Uyghur people in China’s Xinjiang region, spurring the Chinese embassy to decry the move as interference in internal affairs. – Reuters

The Australian Defense Forces will stop using Israeli defense company Elbit’s Battle Management System (BMS) starting in mid-June, Australian Defense Magazine reported last week. – Jerusalem Post

Joseph Bosco writes: But the president himself must reinforce a message of clarity and resolve to end the  ambiguity on defending Taiwan. If Biden has delivered a private warning to Beijing, as Trump said he did, Xi will decide whether a deniable message is even less credible than President Obama’s public “red line” on Syria proved to be. Meanwhile, Kissinger is left to ponder whether the policies he helped create and perpetuate for four decades have now brought China and the United States to the verge of a “colossal” conflict. – The Hill

David Fickling writes: There are real issues on which Canberra should be confronting Beijing, such as the status of arrested Australian citizens; freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; and the diminishing rights of people in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. […]International diplomacy isn’t a school-yard fight, and Australia is only going to lose in a tit-for-tat battle with its far larger partner. Let’s hope Canberra’s defense bureaucrats show more foresight than its politicians. – Bloomberg

Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek writes: China and Russia are eyeing each other. Central Asia is a place where both can engage—Russia as a political power, and China as an economic power — but the military dimension is increasingly tricky. For now, at least, both countries have enough to keep them occupied elsewhere. [..]U.S. policymakers have a real opportunity to make headway in Central Asia, helping the region and furthering U.S. interests. But this is also a complicated area where the stakes are high and where error is harshly punished. America will have to step carefully to reap rewards. – Center for European Policy Analysis


President Biden said Tuesday he expects to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his trip to Europe in June. – Wall Street Journal 

When Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Ukraine this week he’ll be carrying a tough anti-graft message and strong U.S. backing for the country’s response to Russian aggression. He’ll also be bringing along a familiar face in the Washington-Moscow tug-of-war over the former Soviet republic: Victoria Nuland. – Associated Press

U.S. military forces in Europe started an exercise Tuesday that will put 28,000 troops from 26 countries near Russian territory for over six weeks, with a focus on the Balkans and Black Sea region. – Washington Examiner

Vladimir Kara-Murza writes: Russia has known many dark periods for its freedom-loving citizens, ranging from the triumph of reaction in the late 19th century to mass purges under Soviet rule to the near-complete stifling of dissent under KGB chairman-turned-party chief Yuri Andropov in the early 1980s. Ever the optimists, Soviet dissidents, whose movement was broken during Andropov’s rule by arrests, imprisonments and forced exiles, contended that “night is always darkest before the dawn.” Amazingly, they turned out to be right. – Washington Post


The European Union plans to unveil draft rules on Wednesday aimed at cracking down on state-subsidized foreign companies in Europe, a move that could allow regulators to pursue big Chinese companies in much the same way they have targeted U.S. multinationals such as Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. – Wall Street Journal 

As the waves pounded the gray rubber boat carrying more than 100 Africans hoping to reach Europe from Libya, those aboard dialed the number for migrants in distress frantically. In the series of calls to the Alarm Phone hotline, passengers explained that the dinghy had run out of fuel while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and was quickly filling up with water and panic. – Associated Press

Editorial: Rarely have the ties that bind the United Kingdom seemed so at risk of coming undone. As in Scotland, Brexit has destabilised the unionist cause; in Northern Ireland, too, a majority of voters backed remain. But an additional source of friction is the protocol linked to prime minister Boris Johnson’s EU withdrawal agreement. Unionists dislike the way that deal treated Northern Ireland differently from Great Britain; it was already a factor in the worst riots in years last month. – Financial Times 

Constanze Stelzenmüller writes: President Joe Biden has made it clear that he really, really wants to work with Europe. After the four traumatic years of the Trump presidency, that seems an opportunity not to be missed. […]Of course, elections are generally not fought, or won, on foreign policy. But German voters would do well to remember that their country’s wealth and power depends on the stability and security of its neighbourhood. Maybe it is time to pay attention, and get a little worried. Its neighbours and allies already are. – Financial Times


Nigeria’s armed forces have dismissed suggestions that they should take over from President Muhammadu Buhari, who is facing mounting pressure over the country’s worsening insecurity. – Agence France-Presse

At least two people were killed near Kenya’s eastern border with Somalia when the vehicle they were travelling in ran over an explosive device suspected to have been planted by the extremist al-Shabab rebels, officials said Tuesday. – Associated Press

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan is on a two-day state visit to Kenya aimed at improving trade relations between the two East African neighbors which had deteriorated as a result of her predecessor’s denial of COVID-19. – Associated Press

Aba Yosief Desta preferred not to discuss the ethnicities of victims in the widening conflicts threatening Ethiopia’s unity. – Associated Press

One of the key people accused of war crimes and genocide in Darfur in the early 2000s said on Tuesday he would prefer to be tried in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) rather than what he said were biased Sudanese courts. – Reuters

The Americas

The protests erupted on April 28 in response to a tax proposal by the government of President Iván Duque and turned markedly more violent on Monday, with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights denouncing the national police for “opening fire” on demonstrators in Colombia’s third-biggest city. – Washington Post

But as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with fellow Group of 7 foreign ministers in London this week, a key item on the agenda will be what Mr. Blinken called, in remarks to the press on Monday, “defending democratic values and open societies.” – New York Times

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed on Tuesday that Washington would work with partners in the region to maintain pressure on the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for a peaceful return to democracy. – Reuters 

Editorial: The United States has extraordinary leverage over El Salvador, and the Biden administration shouldn’t hesitate to use it to deter Mr. Bukele from dismantling its democracy. Ms. Harris said Tuesday that the United States “must respond” to the coup against the judiciary; she should quickly follow through. – Washington Post


Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) has received a record number of responses to a survey on how it should handle world leaders on its site, a spokeswoman said on Tuesday, an issue in the spotlight ahead of the possible return of former U.S. President Donald Trump to Facebook. – Reuters

U.S. Cyber Command is shifting the majority of its special task force aimed at targeting the Islamic State group to focus more on nation-state actors, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, which the command and the Department of Defense are prioritizing. – C4ISRNET

David Ignatius writes: The American roots of the Internet seem to both upset Putin and fuel conspiratorial talk. […]Russia is ready to rumble over the rules that will shape the future of Internet communications. Fortunately, the Biden administration seems determined to fight back hard to maintain fair and open rules. – Washington Post


Top defense officials are closing in on recommendations for creating a Space National Guard, the chief of the National Guard Bureau said Tuesday. – The Hill

The Marine Corps has collected proposals to design and build a prototype Advanced Reconnaissance Vehicle, meant to far surpass the capabilities of the legacy Light Armored Vehicle and help reconnaissance Marines observe their surroundings, find targets and even take out threats on their own. – USNI News

A top commander at U.S. Space Command says it may be time to establish a “deconfliction channel” between the U.S. and adversary countries to ensure the safety of operations in space. – Military.com

Long War

Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, was acquitted on Tuesday in a criminal case involving graphic photographs of acts of violence by the Islamic State that she posted on Twitter in 2015 after comparisons were drawn between the group and her party. – New York Times

Germany is banning Islamic organisation Ansaar International, which it says has financed terrorism around the world, the interior ministry said on Wednesday. – Reuters

A French journalist kidnapped by Islamist militants in the northern Mali city of Gao last month has appeared in a video appealing to French authorities to do everything they can to free him. – Reuters

The United States currently designates as state sponsors of acts of international terrorism the governments of Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba. A terrorism designation is but one part in the bilateral relationship between the United States and each of these governments. – USNI News