Fdd's overnight brief

November 21, 2018

In The News


U.S. sanctions permit Iranian purchases of humanitarian goods like medicines. To avoid accidentally triggering penalties, however, foreign drug companies and international banks are taking extra precautions even when dealing with permitted business. The new legal complications, along with panic buying and hoarding, mean some drugs are increasingly difficult to find. – Bloomberg

Britain’s top diplomat has raised the case of a British-Iranian woman who has been detained in Iran for more than two years during his visit to the Islamic Republic. – Associated Press

Iran’s Foreign Minister lashed out at Donald Trump on Tuesday, after the White House released a statement from the president attacking the Islamic Republic as an apparent excuse for maintaining support for Saudi Arabia, despite the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ensuing international condemnation. – Newsweek

The outcome of American efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program will have an “enormous impact” on Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons in the coming decade, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

Denmark is sending its ambassador back to Tehran after he was recalled over Copenhagen’s allegations about an Iranian plot to kill an opposition activist in Denmark. – Associated Press

David Albright, Olli Heinonen, and Andrea Stricker write: How many nuclear weapons did Iran plan to make and how was it going to implement this decision? This question was not answerable in late 2015 and early 2016, based on the information in the hands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)[…]. But now, with Israel’s 2018 seizure of documents, computer files, and images from a “Nuclear Archive” in Tehran, such questions can be far better addressed. – Institute for Science and International Security

Micha’el Tanchum writes: In the medium and long term, then, the latest U.S. sanctions could make things very difficult for Iran. As long as Washington can prevent it from obtaining vital enhanced oil recovery technologies, Iran’s economy will become increasingly fragile. The Iranian government’s lack of sufficient oil, gas, and petrochemical revenues to satisfy basic consumer demands while simultaneously financing bloated state and military institutions could induce Tehran to return to the negotiating table. – Foreign Policy


The U.S. Treasury Department said Tuesday it put sanctions on an international network that allegedly provides oil to the Syrian government and funds militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas. – Wall Street Journal

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a deal to Israel and the US that would see Iran remove its forces from Syria in exchange for an easing of Washington’s sanctions against Tehran, according to an Israeli report Tuesday. – Times of Israel

Iraq launched air strikes on Islamic State targets inside neighboring Syria on Tuesday, destroying two buildings housing 40 fighters and weapons, its military said. – Reuters

Moscow has condemned new US sanctions against Russian organisations for allegedly supplying Iranian oil to Syria as “a statement of support for terrorists.” –  Financial Times


Turkey and the United States have discussed returning a jailed executive from state-owned lender Halkbank to Turkey where he can serve the rest of his sentence from an Iran sanctions-busting case, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in Turkey is a done deal and cannot be canceled, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday, adding that Ankara needs further defense procurement that could be bought from the United States. – Reuters

Turkey’s top diplomat on Tuesday presented top Trump administration officials with a series of big requests, including extradition of scores of people linked to an exiled Turkish cleric and a permanent exemption from U.S. sanctions for importing Iranian oil. – Associated Press


A senior Israeli Cabinet minister is threatening to kill the leader of the militant Hamas movement ruling Gaza. – Associated Press

Israel said Tuesday it would slap high taxes on vacation rental company Airbnb and encourage legal steps against the site over its decision to ban listings from West Bank settlements. – Associated Press

The 18-year-old Palestinian’s right leg was amputated after Israeli soldiers shot him here in April at one of the mass demonstrations against Israel’s long blockade of Gaza that are held every week. […]Eight months after the demonstrations began, there appears to be no end to what has become a predictable routine that yields dozens of new casualties each week. – Associated Press

David Makovsky writes: Netanyahu has outmaneuvered his rivals by going straight to the public. Yet the narrowing of his parliamentary majority will likely embolden coalition members to push their agenda to the maximum, meaning his government may still fold before completing its term. […]Likewise, the Gaza stalemate is very fragile and may not hold until next fall, ensuring a bumpy road ahead. – Washington Institute

Ghaith al-Omari and Assaf Orion writes: Continuing the truce process and implementing its understandings seem like the best means of preventing a pointless confrontation in Gaza and stabilizing the territory’s humanitarian situation. Accordingly, the United States should encourage the parties as they seek to reach practical understandings and promote calm. […]At the same time, Washington can prepare for future obstacles – Washington Institute

Neri Zilber writes: The threat to Netanyahu’s rule came this time from politicians to his right, who complained that a quick cease-fire with Hamas amounted to a surrender to terrorists. […]Netanyahu may very well still feel pressure from his right flank next time there is an escalation in Gaza or on other fronts. To his credit—and contrary to his public image as a security hard-liner—Netanyahu avoided a major conflagration this past week while retaining his seat as prime minister. –  Washington Institute

Nathan Stock writes: The Egyptian/Qatari initiative has afforded breathing room for Gaza, while Hamas and Prime Minister Netanyahu have demonstrated a determination to avoid war, for now. The international community should build on this window of opportunity, supporting a more comprehensive ceasefire that addresses Gaza’s underlying need for freedom of movement and creates a horizon for political reunification with the West Bank and Palestinian self-determination. Progress in Gaza is rare and often fleeting, and the threat of a wider conflict is ever-present. Failure to capitalize on this limited momentum could see the parties slide back to war. – Middle East Institute

Saudi Arabia

Saudi security officers have tortured jailed women’s-rights activists as part of a government campaign to squelch criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that began before last month’s killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to people familiar with the situation. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump on Tuesday sought to extinguish questions about the future of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, pledging to remain a “steadfast partner” of the kingdom and dismissing U.S. intelligence conclusions that the Saudi crown prince had ordered the killing of a dissident journalist last month. – Wall Street Journal

The Knight First Amendment Institute on Tuesday sued the U.S. government to learn whether agencies complied with what the institute asserted was a duty to warn journalist Jamal Khashoggi that he faced a threat of harm. – Washington Post

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of President Trump’s staunchest allies, warned the president on Tuesday that ignoring Saudi Arabia’s bad behavior would risk America’s moral leadership on the world stage. – The Hill

US arms sales to Saudi Arabia give Washington extensive leverage on Riyadh, while accounting for fewer than 20,000 US jobs a year – less than a twentieth of the employment boost Donald Trump has claimed – according to a new report. – The Guardian

Since Jamal Khashoggi was killed after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in early October, he has been widely characterized as a dissident. Khashoggi considered himself a patriot, rejecting the term dissident, but he was often critical of the Saudi government in his reporting. But Saudi Arabia’s government actually barred him from appearing in media there after he criticized President Donald Trump in late 2016, according to the US State Department. – Business Insider

Turkey is not entirely satisfied with the level of cooperation it is receiving from Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and may seek a formal United Nations inquiry if its liaising with Riyadh comes to an impasse, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday. – Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the “United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.” – Haaretz

Editorial: Like any President, Mr. Trump also needs domestic allies in pursuit of a foreign policy that sometimes requires hard choices. Instead, Mr. Trump’s statement isolates him from his natural supporters on Mideast policy[…]. The reality is that few members of Congress will align themselves with a statement bereft of asserting America’s abhorrence for the murder of political opponents. Without political or public support, Mr. Trump diminishes the odds that his Middle East strategy will succeed. – Wall Street Journal

Middle East & North Africa

An estimated 85,000 children under age 5 may have died of hunger and disease since the outbreak of Yemen’s civil war in 2015, an international aid group said Wednesday. – Associated Press

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged $500 million in aid to assist millions of Yemenis at risk of starvation. – Associated Press

Seth G. Jones, Charles Vallee & Danika Newlee write: Despite the Islamic State’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, an increasingly diffuse Salafi-jihadist movement is far from defeated. […]For the United States, the challenge is not that U.S. officials are devoting attention and resources to dealing with state adversaries like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. These countries present legitimate threats to the United States at home and abroad. Rath­er, the mistake would be declaring victory over ter­rorism too quickly and, as a result, shifting too many resources and too much attention away from terrorist groups when the threat remains significant. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Korean Peninsula

On the militarized front line dividing the Korean Peninsula, South Korea has been busy bulldozing and blowing up some of its guard posts. It is a symbol of what Seoul hopes will be a new era of relations with Pyongyang. But it also one of the few steps South Korea can take to build confidence with the North without violating U.N. sanctions or going against its U.S. allies and protectors. – Washington Post

South Korea said Wednesday it will dissolve a foundation funded by Japan to compensate South Korean women who were forced to work in Japan’s World War II military brothels. The widely expected decision, if carried out, would effectively kill a controversial 2015 agreement to settle a decades-long impasse over the sexual slavery issue and threatens to aggravate a bitter diplomatic feud between the Asian U.S. allies over history. – Associated Press

South Korea’s Kim Jong Yang was elected as Interpol’s president on Wednesday, edging out a longtime veteran of Russia’s security services who was strongly opposed by the U.S., Britain and other European nations. – Associated Press


Less than two weeks ahead of a China-U.S. summit, the U.S. Trade Representative accused Beijing of failing to change economic policies that threaten U.S. industry. “China has not fundamentally altered its unfair, unreasonable and market-distorting practices,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in a news release. – Wall Street Journal

President Xi Jinping paid the first visit by a Chinese leader to the Philippines in 13 years on Tuesday, promising investment and cooperation to a key U.S. ally fresh after clashing with Washington at a summit of world leaders over competing visions for trade, security and investment. – Wall Street Journal

A U.S. aircraft carrier docked in Hong Kong on Wednesday, days after a pair of American B-52 bombers flew over the disputed South China Sea. – Associated Press

Nations stretching from India into Southeast Asia see China’s investments and loan practices as a direct threat to their sovereignty as much as Beijing’s military, the editor of a new work on Indo-Pacific security balance said last week. – USNI News

A Chinese university’s plan to conduct a blanket search of student and staff electronic devices has come under fire, illustrating the limits of the population’s tolerance for surveillance and raising the prospect that tactics used on Muslim minorities may be creeping into the rest of the country. – Associated Press

China has installed a new platform on a remote part of the Paracel Islands in the disputed South China Sea which could be used for military purposes, according to recent satellite images reviewed by a U.S. think tank. – Reuters

China’s foreign ministry has recorded its usual annoyance following an investigation into Chinese corporate hacking in Australia that comes only days after US Vice President Mike Pence pointed the finger at Beijing for its overwhelming “intellectual property theft”. – Business Insider

Hal Brands writes: The basic message of Pence’s speech was that the region will find a better friend in a democratic America than a dictatorial China. And that message is not simply spin or propaganda. It reflects the fact that in today’s geopolitical competitions, a democratic superpower has advantages its authoritarian rivals will find hard to match. – Bloomberg

South Asia

The Taliban have denied involvement in a suicide bombing in the Afghan capital that killed at least 55 people. Tuesday’s attack, which targeted a gathering of hundreds of clerics at a wedding hall in Kabul, bore the hallmarks of a local Islamic State affiliate, which has carried out mass bombings targeting minority Shiites as well as perceived supporters of the U.S.-backed government. – Associated Press

Afghan authorities were struggling on Wednesday to identify the group behind a suicide bomb attack that killed at least 55 people attending a gathering of religious scholars in Kabul after the Taliban denied any responsibility. – Reuters

An American visitor to one of the islands in India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar chain has been killed by a community of hunter-gatherers who live there isolated from the outside world, two police officials said on Wednesday. – Reuters

India has officially selected Russian firm Rosoboronexport as the winner for Indian Army’s $1.5 billion Very-Short-Range Air Defence, or VSHORAD program, after months of delays over complaints made by other competitors in the competition. – Defense News


Russian banks are finding ways to cope with Western sanctions, as a renewed focus on retail banking and greater reliance on state-backed investments fuels a profit boom. Andrey Kostin, chief executive of state-owned VTB, says Russian banks are being forced to rely on funding and projects from the state to maintain revenue streams in the face of the measures. – Wall Street Journal

A bid by a Vladimir Putin loyalist to become president of Interpol was thwarted Wednesday following a lobbying campaign by the U.S. and European allies. The Trump administration opposed the candidacy of Maj. Gen. Alexander Prokopchuk of Russia’s Interior Ministry, saying his election would allow Moscow to abuse Interpol’s red notice system to go after political opponents. – NBC News

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and its cash-strapped space agency Roscosmos are in conflict over a $1bn contract to launch private satellites on behalf of a US company. – Sky News (UK)


The European Union agreed on Tuesday to establish a framework for screening foreign investments in an attempt to safeguard strategic EU assets following a Chinese buying spree, though questions remain about the rules’ effectiveness. – Wall Street Journal

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives in Brussels on Wednesday to attempt to agree a blueprint of Britain’s post-Brexit ties with the European Union, which the bloc’s diplomats said was being held up by disagreements over Gibraltar, fisheries and trade. – Reuters

France and Germany have reached an agreement on the next steps in a joint program to design a next-generation combat jet, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said on Tuesday. – Reuters

The European Union has unveiled a new batch of projects under its fledgling Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) defense pact. The new activities cover areas such as training, capability development and operational readiness on land, at sea and in the air, as well as cyber-defense. – Defense News

An attacker shouting “Allahu akbar” stabbed a Belgian policeman several times in the neck in central Brussels on Tuesday, prosecutors said. “We have not yet establish the subject’s motives,” the city prosecutors said. – Reuters


With Boko Haram still thousands of fighters strong and able to control entire swaths of West Africa, the U.S. State Department is about to invest millions of dollars into an alternative strategy that is locally born: a deradicalization program started by a governor in Niger that promotes defections and prepares ex-combatants for reintegration into society. – Washington Post

Gunmen have kidnapped an Italian volunteer along Kenya’s coast and wounded several people, police said Wednesday. The motive for the attack isn’t clear and the identity of the attackers is not yet known. – Associated Press

Sudan has been flying military aircraft of Russian and Chinese origin alongside American fighter jets — and sharing data among them, according to the chief of staff of the Sudanese Air Force. – Defense News

Will Todman writes: As GCC states increase their interventions in Africa, they must continue to broaden and deepen their ties with African states. To secure their economic interests in an arena of greater international competition, they should enhance their lateral engagement with African governments significantly to ensure that their interventions are meeting African governments’ needs and priorities. – Center for Strategic & International Studies

Latin America

The United States and Brazil have been uneasy allies during the best of times. But Brazilian voters may have put an end to that dynamic by electing as their next president Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right lawmaker who is unabashedly pro-American and strikingly similar to President Trump in temperament, tactics and style. – New York Times

Colombia’s government has asked Cuba to capture ELN rebel commander Nicolas Rodriguez, the foreign ministry said on Tuesday, a sign peace talks with the insurgent group are unlikely to resume soon. – Reuters

Argentina vowed on Tuesday to crack down on any anarchists and anti-capitalist protesters who try to disrupt next week’s Group of 20 gathering in Buenos Aires, saying it was working with foreign governments to identify and block entry to potential trouble-makers. – Reuters

James Stavridis writes: A recent bit of high-visibility branding by National Security Adviser John Bolton created quite a reaction in Latin America. In a forceful speech delivered to South Florida anti-Castro true believers, he called Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela a “troika of tyranny.” […]Instead of over-focusing on the troika of tyranny, our energies should go into working with our Three Amigos in South America: Argentina, Brazil and Colombia. – Bloomberg


The Army general in charge of the Trump administration’s controversial border mission is interested in beginning to redeploy some of the U.S. troops who were dispatched several weeks ago to assist Customs and Border Protection, U.S. military officials said Monday. – Washington Post

Support by the U.S. military for Customs and Border Protection Agents has cost taxpayers an estimated $210 million dollars, a report from the Pentagon said. – Newsweek

Jill Aitoro writes: The Department of Defense completed its first-ever audit. It failed, but officials don’t seem terribly bothered by that. Because, you know, they figured they would; and the real success here is that it was done at all. – Defense News

Trump Administration

Lawyers for President Trump said they have submitted written responses to questions posed by special counsel Robert Mueller about possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump told the White House counsel in the spring that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute two of his political adversaries: his 2016 challenger, Hillary Clinton, and the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey, according to two people familiar with the conversation. – New York Times

President Donald Trump rebuffed rumors that he’s too afraid to visit U.S. troops in a war zone, telling reporters that he does plan to visit a combat area at some point. “Are you afraid to go into a war zone?” a reporter asked Trump as he was leaving the White House on Tuesday for Mar-a-Lago. “No, I’m going to a war zone,” the president retorted without specifying which combat area or when he may go. – Politico