Fdd's overnight brief

May 6, 2020

In The News


The United States is expected to deport Iranian professor Sirous Asgari, who was acquitted of stealing trade secrets, once he receives medical clearance to leave, U.S. and Iranian officials said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Iran’s state broadcaster has used hundreds of fake social media accounts to covertly spread pro-Iranian messaging online since at least 2011, targeting voters in countries including Britain and the United States, Facebook said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday U.S. President Donald Trump made a stupid mistake by pulling out of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and called on Washington to lift its sanctions. – Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened a “crushing response” on Wednesday if the United States goes ahead with plans to extend an embargo on Iranian trade of conventional arms, which the United Nations is set to lift later this year. – Reuters

Unknown gunmen on Tuesday killed three members of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in a shootout in a Kurdish area, Iranian media reported. – Associated Press

Iran said it has sent a plane to Germany carrying about 40,000 locally produced test kits that detect coronavirus antibodies. – Bloomberg

Iran’s nuclear program received record scrutiny last year from international monitors who triggered snap inspections in the Islamic Republic. – Bloomberg

The Trump administration is escalating tensions with allies as it seeks to renew a UN arms embargo on Iran that’s set to expire this year, threatening to kill what’s left of the nuclear agreement the U.S. quit two years ago if countries don’t go along. – Bloomberg

An investigation by BBC News Arabic has analysed flight tracking data and open source footage which shows how Iran’s largest airline – Mahan Air – continued to fly while government flight bans were in place, and contributed to the spread of Covid-19 in the Middle East. – BBC

Mohsen Rezaee, the Secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council, said in an April 28, 2020 interview on Al-Jazeera Network (Qatar) that Iran would raze Israel’s cities to the ground if Israel takes “the slightest initiative” against Iran. – Middle East Media Research Institute

General Ali Jafarabadi, the Commander of the Space Division in the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, was interviewed on April 23, 2020 on Channel 1 (Iran) about the previous-day launch of the IRGC Noor 1 military satellite. He said that space is a strategic arena that has tremendous potential and in which Iran’s armed forces need to have a presence. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Behrouz Turani writes: No matter how popular it was with the Iranian and Western media, the categorization of the two leading political factions in Iran as Reformists and Conservatives has become obsolete for a long time now. – Radio Farda

Alex Vatanka writes: Meanwhile, if Zarif is approved by the Guardian Council to run, then it becomes less likely that the reformists will boycott the 2021 elections, as some have been urging them to do. It would take Khamenei full circle and he would still be the master puppeteer pulling the strings. This sort of political charade might just be enough to make the supposed reform leaders feel relevant, even though they lost their flock long ago. – Middle East Institute


Lebanon’s foreign minister summoned the German ambassador on Tuesday to explain Berlin’s decision last week to ban the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement on its soil. – Reuters

In a May 4, 2020 interview with Iran’s English-language channel, Press TV, Muslim-American academic and conspiracy theorist Dr. Kevin Barret said that Germany designated Hizbullah a terrorist organization because Germany is still under “Israeli occupation.” – Middle East Media Research Institute

Anna Ahronheim writes: While the Gaza Strip has for years preoccupied the IDF, with several military operations and dozens of rounds of deadly violence in the last two years alone, Israel’s northern front has once again grabbed the top spot in its list of priorities. Because over 20 years after the last IDF officer – Benny Gantz – locked the gates with Lebanon, Hezbollah has turned into the military’s greatest foe. – Jerusalem Post


For the first time since Iran entered Syria with thousands of troops and militia fighters, the Islamic Republic is reducing its forces and clearing out from bases in the war-torn country, a senior defense source said Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

Israel will keep up its operations in Syria until its arch enemy Iran leaves, Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday after strikes on Iranian-backed militias and their allies killed 14 fighters. – Agence France-Presse

Seth J. Frantzman writes: If one sketches an arc of changes from the fall of 2019 to the spring of 2020, there have been rapid setbacks for Iran in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. […]Its Soleimani replacement, Esmail Ghaani, has offended Iran’s friends in Iraq, Assad is losing friends at home and Hezbollah has been called upon to help in Syria and Iraq when it is nearing bankruptcy at home. In crisis there can be opportunity, but with apparent setbacks for Iran there can also be miscalculation.  Jerusalem Post


The IDF confirmed on Tuesday night that IDF tanks struck three sites belonging to Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip, after a rocket was launched from Gaza towards southern Israel earlier in the night. – Jerusalem Post

Israel’s Ministry of Defense has procured the FireFly, a lightweight loitering munition designed for infantry and special forces. – C4ISRNET

Annexation has placed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas under tremendous pressure to abandon his commitment to the Oslo Accords and to end security coordination with Israel even though it could have “catastrophic” consequences, Professor Khalil Shikaki said on Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

A senior official in the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs is one of four international mediators working to arrange a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, reported the German weekly Die Zeit on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

David Friedman writes: Publicly seeking to frustrate the foreign policy of our duly elected president is downright obnoxious. It’s even worse when the effort comes from members of a prior administration that never achieved any steps towards peace and that damaged the US-Israel relationship. And it is still worse than that when the critique is flat-out wrong in so many respects. – New York Post

David Makovsky and Dennis Ross write: History will not take a kind view to annexation of all settlements, a step that in any case Netanyahu himself did not intend less than a decade ago. Just to be clear: we think that all unilateral annexation is a mistake and hope the prime minister refrains from doing so. At minimum, we hope he will at least recognize the difference between annexing designated bloc areas versus all the settlements, including the Jordan Valley. The former would not close the door to two states, but the latter would doom Israel to becoming a binational state that fundamentally alters its identity. – Times of Israel


Three Katyusha rockets landed in the “perimeter” of Baghdad International Airport on Wednesday, the Iraqi military said. – Reuters

When shops and homes shutter at curfew, some Iraqis in this Baghdad district say it reminds them of past traumas that destroyed lives and livelihoods: sectarian death squads, foreign invasion, and the ruin wrought by international sanctions. – Reuters

A service member deployed to Erbil, Iraq, in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve died May 4 in what officials described as a non-combat incident, according to an announcement from the task force. – Military.com

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is taking unprecedented measures to cushion the blow of rock-bottom oil prices and the new coronavirus pandemic, as the monarchy seeks to extricate the kingdom from its worst financial predicament in decades. – Wall Street Journal

Saudi Arabia’s cabinet affirmed late on Tuesday that the Palestinian cause will remain a “central issue” for Arabs and Muslims, Saudi news agency said in a statement issued early on Wednesday. – Reuters

Relations between Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians, and especially Hamas, which have been strained for several years, recently grew even more tense. […]The cartoon, commenting on the current plunge in  oil prices, shows a figure in garb typical of the Gulf Arabs running from a large oil barrel that is hurtling down the hill behind him. It sparked furious responses from Saudis, especially on Twitter, who construed it as an expression of glee at their country’s troubles. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Middle East & North Africa

Egypt’s public prosecutor said Tuesday that alcohol poisoning caused the death in jail of a young music-video maker after he drank liquid sanitiser he had mistaken for water. Shady Habash, 24, who died in Tora prison in Cairo at the weekend, was imprisoned for directing a music video critical of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. – Agence France-Presse

The head of Libya’s internationally recognized government Tuesday called for a renewal of U.N.-brokered talks to end divisions in the oil-rich country, amid escalating military clashes and increasing tensions between the main players in the capital Tripoli. – Associated Press

France and Tunisia urged the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in major conflicts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic after weeks of contentious negotiations that have paralyzed the United Nations’ most powerful body. – Associated Press

Korean Peninsula

There are no signs North Korean leader Kim Jong Un received heart surgery when he disappeared from state media for three weeks, but he reduced public activity due to coronavirus concerns, Yonhap news agency reported on Wednesday. – Reuters

A new facility near Pyongyang International Airport is almost certainly linked to North Korea’s expanding ballistic missile programme, according to a report from a Washington-based think-tank. – Reuters

Benjamin R. Young writes: The symbols of the “Baekdu Revolutionary Bloodline,” whether it be photo-ops of Kim Jong-un riding a white horse in the snow-covered Mount Baekdu terrain or students taking pilgrimages to Mount Baekdu, has allowed the regime to retain a certain amount of legitimacy and popularity within North Korea. As someone with this ancestry and bloodlines, Kim Yo-jong would be uniquely situated to take on the legacy of the “Baekdu Revolutionary Bloodline.” – The National Interest

Wendy Cutler and Seok Young Choi write: These are just three examples of how KORUS brought far-reaching benefits to both countries, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world that went way beyond the chapters of the FTA. It’s tempting to think of the benefits of an FTA in strict terms tied to the provisions of the agreement. However, it’s important to look beyond the legal text and recognize the positive and impactful spillover effects that are often hard to anticipate and quantify. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


China’s Hong Kong affairs office warned on Wednesday that the city will never be calm unless “black-clad violent protesters” were all removed, describing them as a “political virus” that seeks independence from Beijing. – Reuters

The top U.S. general said on Tuesday it was still unknown whether the coronavirus emerged from a wet market in China, a laboratory or some other location, but reaffirmed the U.S. view that it was probably not man-made. – Reuters

China has successfully launched a new rocket and prototype spacecraft, according to state media, in a major test of its ambitions to operate a permanent space station and send astronauts to the Moon. – The Guardian

Hal Brands writes: The lesson is that economic, political and diplomatic tools of competition are vital — but as tensions rise, they may not be sufficient. A policy of confrontation, however justified, can invite disaster if undertaken without an adequate military shield. It would be a perilous irony if the coronavirus was what finally convinced many Americans to take the challenge from China seriously, but left the nation too weak to do much about it. – Bloomberg

Derek Scissors writes: If it were easy to split from China, we’d have started as COVID spread in January, when they threw hundreds of thousands of people into reeducation camps, while they were stealing tens of billions in intellectual property, and so on. It will have costs. But many of those insisting it’s a bad time to act are personally committed to there never being a good time. Implementation can happen in phases; change is required now. – American Enterprise Institute

Tristan Kenderdine writes: Naturally, strengthening geoeconomic ties with Iran serves internally coherent economic goals. But China building a maritime sphere of influence in the north-western Indian Ocean is impossible to ignore. China in the Middle East is a new global economic dynamic. And China’s long-term institution building in Iran is a vanguard of China’s wider Indian Ocean geoeconomic policy. – Middle East Institute


U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday that the Taliban were not living up to their commitments under an agreement signed this year, amid signs the fragile deal is under strain by a political deadlock and increasing Taliban violence. – Reuters

Afghanistan’s government began distributing free bread to hundreds of thousands of people across the country this week as supplies have been disrupted during the coronavirus shutdown and prices have soared, officials and experts said. – Reuters

U.S. Air Forces Central Command has stopped publicizing monthly reports on the number of airstrikes and bombs dropped over Afghanistan due to ongoing deliberations between the U.S. and the Taliban. – Military.com

Sabera Azizi writes: The coronavirus adds complexities to the peace deal and intensifies Afghanistan’s challenges. Since 9/11, Washington has assisted the Afghan government in alleviating political crises. Now, as the world faces a global health crisis, and as Washington and Kabul are both impacted by the virus, the pandemic tests the enduring partnership between Washington and Kabul. – The National Interest


The Philippine government on Tuesday ordered the country’s largest broadcasting network to halt operations, a blow to press freedom and the flow of information in the middle of a pandemic. Media giant ABS-CBN signed off after its evening news broadcast, leaving the screens of millions of viewers black and the jobs of 11,000 employees in jeopardy. – Washington Post

Taiwan’s health minister asked the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday to ensure the island had access to first-hand information about the coronavirus, saying that not having the full picture slows down epidemic-prevention work. – Reuters

Michael Rubin writes: It has been easy for Pakistani nationalists to use anti-Americanism and grievances real or imagined in order to shirk responsibility for their own actions and cynically drive a wedge between Islamabad and Washington. China has simultaneously courted Pakistan as Islamabad looked for new partners. Pakistanis may soon recognize, however, that China seeks not a partner, but a colonial vassal, the deaths of whose citizens it sees as wholly irrelevant. – The National Interest

Michael Peck writes: How can India defeat China in a war, even though China has a larger and more technologically advanced military? By essentially using the same tactics that China successfully used to fight the United States in the Korean War in 1950-53. Hit-and-run tactics in which Indian troops lurk in the Himalaya mountains, and then swooping down to surprise Chinese troops in the valleys below. – The National Interest


The novel coronavirus pandemic, plummeting oil prices and a decline of confidence in Mr. Putin’s leadership are threatening to erode his efforts to project himself as the only person who can unite Russia’s people and cement the nation’s relevance on the world stage. – Wall Street Journal

Around the world, religious believers of many faiths have been among the most resistant to restrictions on public gatherings, seeing it as an infringement on their right to worship. But the clash between faith and public health has been particularly divisive in Russia, where memories of religious persecution in the Soviet Union have made priests and their flocks highly sensitive to any limits on their rituals. – New York Times

Russian operatives are engaged in a large-scale effort in Libya to bolster eastern commander Khalifa Haftar through a mix of technical support, direct involvement in combat operations and sophisticated influence campaigns, according to United Nations experts. – Bloomberg

Russian President Vladimir Putin has awarded Kim Jong Un a commemorative war medal marking the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, the Russian embassy in Pyongyang said Tuesday. – Associated Press


The Trump administration is pressing the European Union to support an international inquiry into China’s handling of the new coronavirus, including the origins of the pandemic, as Brussels seeks to avoid taking sides in an increasingly bitter battle between Beijing and Washington over responsibility for the crisis. – Wall Street Journal

Germany’s highest court conditionally approved a giant bond-buying program launched five years ago by the European Central Bank, but demanded more information about its economic justification, in a move that could set limits on the ECB’s firepower and invite fresh lawsuits in Germany. – Wall Street Journal

Three refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Cameroon are suing the German state for accessing personal data on their mobile phones, arguing it was an unnecessary invasion of privacy, their lawyer said on Tuesday. – Reuters

European Union (EU) leaders host a summit on Wednesday with their six Balkan counterparts whose praise for Chinese and Russian support during the coronavirus crisis has ruffled feathers in the bloc, officials and diplomats said. – Reuters

Hungary should no longer be considered a democracy after an unprecedented consolidation of power by the European Union member’s leader, according to an annual survey of countries that once lay behind the Iron Curtain. – Bloomberg

Thomas Erdbrink writes: Belgium, one of the hardest hit countries in Europe, went into total lockdown in March, issuing fines to anyone who ventured from home without a good reason. But the Netherlands took a far more relaxed approach, allowing take-away restaurants, retail shops and government offices to remain open and people to roam the streets. […]In Baarle-Hertog-Nassau, those conflicting visions made everyday life confounding for its 11,000 residents of both nationalities. – New York Times

Christopher Caldwell writes: You can call these national assertions of economic and political sovereignty expedient or cynical. But they are not unreasonable. Destroying national sovereignty has always been the European Union’s overriding purpose, a purpose as undeviating as it was unavowed. Leaders in Brussels have met every crisis with calls for “more Europe.” In a time of the coronavirus, that remedy is proving inadequate. – The New Republic


Zimbabwe will get $7 million from the World Bank to fight the coronavirus pandemic despite being in arrears with the Washington-based lender. – Bloomberg

Somalia’s president has promised his Kenyan counterpart a “thorough investigation” into the deadly crash of a Kenyan plane carrying medical supplies in Somalia, while one Somali official asserts that the aircraft was shot down. Six people on board were killed. – Associated Press

Islamic extremists in West Africa’s Sahel region are trying to exploit COVID-19 to gain followers but haven’t had much success, according to the commander of the French military’s Operation Barkhane there. – Associated Press

Tens of thousands of migrants are trapped in dangerous conditions at frontiers, mines, ports and in transit camps across Africa after states shut their borders in an attempt to stem the spread of Covid-19. – The Guardian

The Americas

An apparent attempt to invade Venezuela involving several Americans remained shrouded in confusion Tuesday as the two countries traded accusations but offered little new information about the mysterious mission. – Washington Post

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wanted control of the police in Rio de Janeiro, where his sons are being investigated, and in March told his justice minister, Sergio Moro, to permit him that oversight, according to testimony made public Tuesday. – Wall Street Journal

Salvadorans took a gamble when they elected Nayib Bukele president: He was a political outsider, a millennial who had run his campaign largely over social media and offered few concrete details about how he would govern. […]His actions in recent months, however, have left many Salvadorans — lawyers, business leaders, human rights advocates, journalists and others — afraid that Mr. Bukele is backsliding into the kind of authoritarian leadership the country fought a civil war to overturn. – New York Times

Ken Abramowitz and Jon Sutz write: And, as with the Coronavirus Task Force, the top leadership must be high-level in terms of knowledge and experience, and report directly to the president. Above all, President Trump must insist on US victory in these ideological wars. We have been trying to accommodate or pacify both the Reds and the Greens for too long. Now it is time to fight. – Algemeiner


The de facto head of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, apologized on Wednesday for the corruption and union-busting scandals that have bedeviled his conglomerate, declaring that he will be the last of his family members to lead the South Korean corporate empire. – New York Times

Britain and the United States warned Tuesday of a rise in cyber attacks against health professionals involved in the coronavirus response by organised criminals “often linked with other state actors”. The transatlantic allies’ cyber security agencies issued a joint warning to healthcare and medical research staff, urging them to improve their password security amid the threat. – Agence France-Presse

The Air Force won’t be holding a second round of experiments for the Advanced Battle Management System until at least August or September, the head of U.S. Northern Command said Monday. – C4ISRNET

Two U.S. senators called on the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that federal regulation banning the government’s use of Chinese telecommunications technology include “explicit processes” to help small businesses with compliance. – Fifth Domain

David Ignatius writes: Huawei poses a threat not because it has great products, but because it has so little competition. Its 5G telecom products are cheap, low-profit items; U.S. companies have mostly stayed away, and European rivals such as Nokia and Ericsson have been sluggish. Huawei, with, one expert estimates, 80 percent of the Chinese market and approaching 45 percent of the world market, keeps increasing its share. – Washington Post

James Andrew Lewis writes: Semiconductors are the backbone of the digital economy. Their primary use is commercial, but there are also important military applications. The ability to manufacture chips plays a leading role in the growing technological competition between the United States and China, not just in semiconductors but in other important areas such as AI.. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Army rotorcraft programs could net industry an average of $8 billion to 10 billion per year over the next decade — but defense companies can expect major challenges for its lower-tier suppliers, some of whom might choose not to come along for the ride. – Defense News

If the Pentagon faces tighter budgets in the coming years, departmental planners should look to cut legacy programs first in order to preserve funding for modernization requirements, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Tuesday. – Defense News

The Space Development Agency is seeking proposals for its first batch of satellites, which will make up its initial transport layer — an on-orbit mesh network that will connect space-based sensors with terrestrial shooters. – C4ISRNET

Support for adding a second Virginia-class fast attack submarine to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget is growing on Capitol Hill, according to executives from BWX Technologies, the maker of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion units. – USNI News

Naval Special Warfare Center is resuming its training of SEAL and special warfare combatant-craft crewmen (SWCC) candidates this week after taking a pause in March to ensure it could keep the coronavirus away from young recruits already putting their bodies through punishingly tough physical training courses. – USNI News

Trump Administration

President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the US intelligence community said Tuesday that he would focus on China as the country’s greatest threat, saying Beijing was determined to supplant the United States’ superpower position. But John Ratcliffe, an outspoken Trump defender nominated to become director of national intelligence, came under pressure in a Senate confirmation hearing over whether he would politicize the intelligence process to keep the president happy. – Agence France-Presse

A wave of frustration with the Chinese Communist Party has followed the coronavirus pandemic around the world, but President Trump’s administration and Western allies aren’t sure how to cooperate in response. – Washington Examiner

To hear U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo tell it, the evidence is clear: The novel coronavirus that has killed more than a quarter million people worldwide likely escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory that studies some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens. But inside the halls of the U.S. intelligence community, the evidence is less definitive, while intelligence agencies around the world are also casting doubt on that theory. – Bloomberg