Fdd's overnight brief

October 18, 2018

In The News


Statements by the United States that it would reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero are a “political bluff”, the head of state-run National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) said, according to a report published by Tasnim news agency on Wednesday. – Reuters

The United States’ latest economic sanctions against Iran display a disregard for the human rights of all Iranians, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Twitter published a trove of some 10 million tweets that it said are potentially the product of state-backed operations by Russia and Iran, shedding new light on the scale and nature of misinformation campaigns mounted by the two nations. – Reuters

A group of Iranian security personnel kidnapped on the border with Pakistan this week were unconscious at the time, the commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said, following reports that they had eaten drugged food. – Reuters

Higher oil prices as a result of sanctions on Iran could make it harder for Americans to pay their home heating bills this winter, the federal government said Wednesday. – Washington Examiner

Turkey’s top refiner, Tupras, is in talks with US officials to obtain a waiver allowing it to keep buying Iranian oil after Washington reinstates sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s energy sector in November, industry sources said. –  Reuters



The United Nations’ chief mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said Wednesday that he would step down at the end of November, becoming the third diplomat to leave the job since Syria’s civil war began in 2011. – New York Times

President Trump declared in an interview Tuesday that the U.S. has defeated the Islamic State, even as the military says it will still take months before forces are driven from Syria. – Washington Examiner

The United States has warned of a heightened risk of countries attacking one another over the war in Syria, where recent international incidents have raised new concerns that a wider conflict could be sparked. U.S. Special Representative for Syrian Engagement James Jeffrey recounted to reporters on Wednesday “five examples of state-on-state violence” over the past six weeks in Syria. – Newsweek

The U.S. envoy for the conflict in Syria discussed on Wednesday the dubious allegiances of militant groups fighting to overthrow the war-torn country’s government for seven years, a task for which a number of them once received Washington’s backing. – Newsweek

A year after a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters drove the Islamic State group from the northern city of Raqa, traumatised civilians still live in fear of near-daily bombings. – Agence France-Presse

Nearly 300 Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families who fled Syria for Jordan three months ago have left for resettlement in Western countries under an U.N. sponsored agreement, Jordan said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The Syrian government has given approval for the United Nations to deliver aid next week to thousands of civilians stranded on the Jordanian-Syrian border and threatened with starvation, aid workers and camp officials said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Some militants have withdrawn from the demilitarization zone in Idlib following a deal between Russia and Turkey on the northwestern Syrian region, a U.S. official said on Wednesday. – Reuters


Attempts to quell the months-long uptick in violence along the Gaza Strip border appeared more elusive than ever Wednesday as Israeli military jets pounded targets in the Palestinian enclave in response to rocket fire by militants that ripped through a home in the Israeli city of Beersheba. – Washington Post

A White House official condemned Wednesday the overnight firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israel, causing the destruction of a house in the city of Be’er Sheva. “We condemn the rocket attack launched from Gaza, and call to put an end to this destructive violence,” the official said. – Ynet

Editorial: Some Democrats are trying furiously to push back against a New York Times article reporting what’s been patently clear for years to any honest observer: The party is abandoning its support of Israel. “Senate Democrats are very strongly pro-Israel and will remain that way,” declared Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. – New York Post

Haisam Hassanein writes: Cairo remains an essential component of any future Palestinian peace process, but the Sisi government’s deep anti-Israel propaganda is a persistent stumbling block. The Trump administration needs to convey more signals to tone down the political leadership’s rhetoric against their eastern neighbor. – Washington Institute


The U.S. Treasury Department put sanctions on Afaq Dubai, an Iraq-based money services business that it said has been moving money for Islamic State. – Wall Street Journal

In orphanages in Baghdad and Mosul, which was the Islamic State’s capital in Iraq, children born to both foreign and local fighters are learning to cope with abandonment and reentry into a society they can hardly understand. – Washington Post

A senior American diplomat briefed the leader of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholics on U.S. development aid Wednesday after the cardinal accused the United States of failing to help rebuild Christian villages devastated by the Islamic State group. – Associated Press

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is relying on its regional allies to salvage its premier investment conference next week, after many high-profile Western firms pulled out over accusations that the kingdom was involved in the suspected murder of a prominent Saudi journalist. – Wall Street Journal

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met on Wednesday with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, trying to resolve the international uproar over the alleged killing of a journalist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and said that Saudi officials had promised consequences for anyone — even a member of the royal family — found responsible. – New York Times

President Trump said he wanted answers in the disappearance and suspected murder of a dissident Saudi journalist but stressed the importance of protecting business and security ties with Saudi Arabia, as Washington tried to navigate a dispute pitting the kingdom against another regional power, Turkey. – Wall Street Journal

American intelligence officials are increasingly convinced that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is culpable in the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an appraisal that poses challenges to a White House intent on maintaining a close relationship with the kingdom. – New York Times

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire added his name to a growing list of government ministers and prominent business executives cancelling their attendance at a Saudi Arabia investment conference over the fate of a Saudi journalist. – Reuters

Pressure is growing on the European Union and its member states to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia following the alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. An arms embargo is supported in a new resolution by the European Parliament, the latest attempt in a string of actions compelling EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to act against the Middle-Eastern country. – Defense News

Turkish crime-scene investigators searched the home of the Saudi consul general in Istanbul on Wednesday in the disappearance of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, and a pro-government newspaper published a gruesome account of the journalist’s alleged slaying. – Associated Press

The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee called Wednesday for an international investigation into the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Speaking to reporters, Jack Reed of Rhode Island also sharply criticized the Trump administration for not leveraging U.S. support to get answers amid reports the journalist was killed earlier this month at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. – Politico

The U.S. military should end its refueling support of Saudi Arabia warplanes in Yemen no matter where an investigation into the kingdom’s suspected murder of a Washington-based journalist leads, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Wednesday. – Washington Examiner

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that he isn’t interested in discussing the facts behind dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder, after a visit to Riyadh to meet with Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince. – Newsweek

On the heels of the disappearance and apparent murder of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, Senate Democrats are calling on President Donald Trump to divulge his past and current financial ties to the Middle Eastern country. – Newsweek

Max Fisher writes: If you had to pick a year in the past decade when the contradictions of the American-Saudi relationship seemed likeliest to explode into crisis, 2018 would not be the obvious choice. […]Perhaps most unforeseen of all, the breakdown centers not on the deaths, particularly of children, in Yemen, but on a single — if shocking — death, of a Saudi dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. – New York Times

Emily Rauhala writes: Last summer, a standoff between Saudi Arabia and Canada gave us a window into how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deals with critics — but most of the world looked away. […]Now, the disappearance and likely murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey has some in the United States wondering whether it was wrong to ignore Canada’s stance and the crown prince’s overheated reaction. – Washington Post

Simon Henderson writes: If the crown prince or anybody else in his government is responsible, they clearly believed Saudi Arabia could get away with Khashoggi’s abduction and killing without U.S. disapproval. (Or, worse, they thought they had Washington’s implied approval in advance.) There is a reason for that: MBS has developed such a close relationship with the Trump administration that he has gotten almost everything from it that he wants. – Washington Post

Sohrab Ahmari writes: None of this is to suggest that Saudi authorities should be allowed to get away with murdering Khashoggi at their consulate on foreign soil. That would set an unacceptable precedent, all but guaranteeing open season on dissident journalists in a region where they are already an endangered species. But the Western response must be measured.  – Commentary Magazine

Krishnadev Calamur writes: Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Saudis’ alleged role in it, the leaks from Turkey, and a bipartisan eruption of anger at Saudi Arabia in the U.S. Congress have presented the Trump administration with a major diplomatic test: It must extricate arguably its closest ally in the Muslim world from this crisis, placate an often difficult nato ally, and assure lawmakers that the guilty will be punished. – The Atlantic

Korean Peninsula

The Trump administration has barred American aid workers from going to North Korea as it pressures  Pyongyang to dismantle the country’s nuclear weapons program, according to humanitarian groups and a former United States ambassador. – New York Times

Ambassador Nikki Haley used the threat of a U.S. invasion of North Korea to secure a new round of sanctions against the regime last year, according to a new report. – Washington Examiner

The United States opposes a plan by South and North Korea to set up a no-fly zone over their heavily fortified border, the latest sign of a rift between Seoul and its top ally, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters. – Reuters

A Singapore court charged a citizen and a North Korean man with supplying prohibited luxury items to North Korea, the Straits Times newspaper said on Thursday, the latest example of sanctions breaches in the city state. – Reuters

South Korea’s president spoke of “heart-warming” moves toward peace on the Korean peninsula on Wednesday, a day before he is expected to relay an invitation to Pope Francis to visit North Korea. – Reuters


Fresh off securing trade agreements with South Korea, Canada and Mexico, President Trump is embarking on a new plan: refashioning the Trans-Pacific Partnership to his liking through a flurry of bilateral trade deals. – New York Times

President Trump plans to withdraw from a 144-year-old postal treaty that has allowed Chinese companies to ship small packages to the United States at a steeply discounted rate, undercutting American competitors and flooding the market with cheap consumer goods. – New York Times

Facing U.S. trade sanctions, the world’s largest exporting nation, China, is cultivating a new image—as an importer. – Wall Street Journal

It is more likely than in the past that China and the U.S. could enter into a military conflict, and the possibility of such a battle going nuclear is higher than many analysts believe, a security expert from Georgetown University has warned. – Newsweek

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis held high-profile talks with his Chinese counterpart on Thursday, as the United States seeks to forge to more resilient military ties that can withstand mounting pressure between the world’s two largest economies. – Reuters

Mohamed A. El-Erian writes: Rather than wait it out, China would be better advised to follow the approach of South Korea, Mexico and Canada by making concessions to reach an accommodation with the US. […]Making concessions now won’t deliver China’s theoretical “first best,” nor will it be free of costs and risks. Yet it may well be the best feasible option the government has if it is to avoid the bigger threat of seeing its development process derailed. – Bloomberg

Noah Smith writes: Beyond the name change, President Donald Trump’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement isn’t that different from the North American Free Trade Agreement that it replaced. But hidden in the bowels of the new trade deal is a clause, Article 32.10, that could have a far-reaching impact. […]This is just another part of Trump’s general trade war against China. – Bloomberg

John Lee writes: Trump’s America holds the stronger hand and is appearing more resolute, whereas behind the feigned confidence China is the more desperate for a deal to make it all stop. The important question is whether Trump will choose to advance the noble objective of achieving free, fair and reciprocal trade — or simply punish China for no higher gain. – The Australian


When the White House ordered American diplomats this summer to engage the Taliban directly in the hopes of jump-starting an Afghan peace process, many in Afghanistan welcomed it[…]Publicly, President Ashraf Ghani was among them, projecting a measured tone. But officials say that in private, the Afghan leader repeatedly expressed concern and resistance to American officials about the prospect of talks that did not include his government. – New York Times

In the past 17 years of war and crisis in Afghanistan, no one remembers a season quite like this one, with peril and hopelessness at every turn. People here struggle for words to explain how it feels. […]If there is a common theme in this upswell of alarm and worry that seems so widespread, it is a sense that no one sees any clear path through a minefield of crises. – New York Times

A suicide bomber killed two Afghan civilians and wounded at least three foreign soldiers and two other civilians in an attack near the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan on Wednesday, government officials said. – Reuters


Australia’s suggestion that it could follow in the footsteps of the United States and move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has won plaudits from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But critics say the diplomatic move could have unintended consequences closer to home — risking not only the Australian government’s fragile majority in Parliament but also potentially scuppering a proposed $11 billion free trade agreement with Indonesia after years of talks. – Washington Post

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday a billion-dollar free trade agreement with Indonesia will be signed this year, despite Indonesian concern over an Australian proposal to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. – Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump plans to nominate former Air Force General David Stilwell to be the State Department’s top diplomat for East Asia, a post that has remained unfilled for more than a year despite major challenges in the region. – Reuters


A gunman attacked his fellow students at a technical college on the Crimean peninsula on Wednesday, killing at least 19 people and wounding dozens of others, the Russian authorities said. – New York Times

A second explosive device found among the personal possessions of the chief suspect in a deadly attack on a college in Crimea that left at least 17 dead on Wednesday has been disarmed, the RIA news agency cited officials as saying. – Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi signed a strategic cooperation treaty Wednesday that is intended to bolster trade and other ties between the two nations. The treaty capped a three-day visit to Russia by the Egyptian leader.  – Associated Press


Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Wednesday that President Trump wanted quick results from trade talks with the European Union and warned that progress was unsatisfactory. – Wall Street Journal

For most of the 20th century, the Baltic nations were dominated by the Soviet Union, its behemoth neighbor to the east. Today, almost three decades after gaining independence from Moscow, the physical remnants of that rule are still scattered across the region. – Washington Post

Brexit is seriously stuck. Nobody really wants Britain to crash out of the European Union without a withdrawal deal, but time is running out and the sides have bogged down over the contentious issue of how to manage the Irish border. Prime Minister Theresa May traveled to Brussels on Wednesday and was given 30 minutes behind closed doors to make another appeal to her European counterparts. – Washington Post

European Union leaders will switch their focus from the internal headache of Brexit on Thursday to a slew of external challenges that are testing the limits of the bloc’s so-called soft power. – Bloomberg

Italy’s euroskeptic government is pushing for a reduction of tensions between the European Union and Russia but risks isolation in Brussels as EU partners seek instead stronger measures to deter Moscow from interfering in EU affairs. – Reuters

Tom Rogan writes: The tragic loss of an American service member in Ukraine this week is a reminder of President Trump’s robust support for that nation. Since entering office, Trump has indeed done far more than his predecessor to support Ukraine against Russian aggression, as he recently pointed out. – Washington Examiner


The World Health Organization called for an intensified response to a worsening Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including more assistance from United Nations peacekeeping troops, as rebel violence and other challenges are preventing health workers from stopping the virus’s spread. – Wall Street Journal

America’s wars in Yemen, Somalia, and Niger are not secret, but they manage to fly under the radar for months at a time, unless something goes dramatically well, or terribly wrong. Last year […]most Americans had no idea the U.S. had roughly 800 troops in the North African nation, more than were in Syria at the time. This week, Africa Command issued a routine news release noting a previously announced U.S. airstrike was believed to have killed 60 al-Shabaab militants on Oct. 12 – Washington Examiner

Democratic Republic of Congo has summoned the Angolan ambassador over the expulsion of thousands of Congolese migrants from Angola during a crackdown on artisanal diamond mining this month, Congo’s foreign minister said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The Americas

More Honduran migrants tried to join a caravan of several thousand moving through Guatemala on Wednesday, defying calls by authorities not to make the journey after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to cut off regional aid in reprisal. – Reuters

Mexico sent federal forces to its southern border Wednesday after President Trump called on several Latin American nations to stop a large caravan of Honduran immigrants heading toward the United States. – LA Times

The United States plans to turn up sanctions pressure on Venezuela but sees less need to immediately target its energy sector, given sagging production from the OPEC member’s state-run oil company, a senior U.S. administration official said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales said Wednesday his government rejects “conditions” placed on foreign aid, after threats this week from U.S. President Donald Trump to cut assistance if a Central American migrant caravan is not stopped by local authorities. – Reuters

Shannon K. O’Neil writes: With the catastrophe unfolding in Venezuela, Latin American governments can no longer give China a pass. Instead, they should use the deepening humanitarian crisis as an entree to press the Chinese government to change its lending ways.  – Bloomberg


Judging by the breathless coverage, it can seem as if the only countries developing A.I. are the United States and China. But while companies in those two countries are leading the way in cutting-edge research and products, it’s still early for the industry and other nations are working hard to become major A.I. players. Here are six that could challenge the two juggernauts. – New York Times

President Trump announced on Wednesday that the fiscal 2020 budget request for national defense will be $700 billion, a drop of $16 billion from the previous year but above the levels of the past few years. – Washington Examiner

Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N) has been awarded a $697 million U.S. defense contract for upgrades to the EA-18G Growler and EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft for the U.S. Navy and the government of Australia, the Pentagon said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The F-35 is set to move into operational testing next month — a major milestone that precedes the Pentagon’s decision on whether to begin full-rate production of the jet — but there are already signs that it may not be able to complete testing on time. – Defense News

Trump Administration

A senior Treasury Department employee was charged Wednesday with leaking to a reporter confidential government reports about the financial transactions of Trump associates and others under scrutiny in the special counsel’s probe of Russian election interference. – Washington Post

Donald F. McGahn II departed as White House counsel on Wednesday, ending a tumultuous 21-month tenure during which he spearheaded some of President Trump’s most significant political accomplishments, including two appointments to the Supreme Court, but also became a chief witness against him in the special counsel investigation. – New York Times

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended the special counsel’s investigation into Russian election interference as “appropriate and independent,” a message that contrasts with President Trump’s description of the inquiry as a “witch hunt” and “rigged.” – Wall Street Journal

President Donald Trump should visit U.S. troops in war zones to get a firsthand view of military operations and show gratitude to the thousands of American soldiers serving in harm’s way, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee advised Wednesday. – Politico

President Trump said it’s not “overly necessary” to visit U.S. service members in the war zone, but added in an interview Tuesday that he does plan to make a trip to Iraq or Afghanistan at some point. – Washington Examiner

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections as he faces intensifying pressure to produce more indictments or shut down his investigation, according to two U.S. officials. – Bloomberg