Fdd's overnight brief

October 29, 2020

In The News


The husband of a British-Iranian woman detained in Iran for more than four years said Wednesday that she has been summoned to a new court hearing and warned she will be sent back to prison. – Washington Post

Top officials in Iran say the upcoming U.S. election doesn’t matter, but nearly everyone else there seems to be holding their breath. The race for the White House could mean another four years of President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Or it could bring Joe Biden, who has raised the possibility of the U.S. returning to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. – Associated Press

Microsoft Corp said on Wednesday that it detected and attempted to stop a series of cyberattacks from Phosphorus, which the company described as an ‘Iranian actor’, with the attacks aimed to target over 100 high-profile individuals. – Reuters

For fragile oil markets, the outcome of next week’s U.S. election poses yet another risk: the prospect that major producer Iran may regain its role in international trade. – Bloomberg

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday drew a direct line between Holocaust denial and cartoons deemed insulting to the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, questioning why the former was a crime while the latter is not. – Agence France-Presse

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday warned that insulting the Prophet Muhammad may encourage “violence and bloodshed” following Paris’s defense of the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet. – Times of Israel

Parisa Hafezi and Arshad Mohammed write: With Iran’s economy crippled, its ties with Washington have been at boiling point ever since, and an international consensus over Iran’s nuclear work — which the West suspected was aimed at creating a nuclear bomb has been in disarray. The pressure on Iran’s leaders to escape from sanctions is severe. Their core support comes from poorer Iranians struggling to survive as the price of bread, cooking oil and other staples has soared and the rial currency has plummeted. – Reuters

Jon Gambrelb writes: But ensuring the survival of the Islamic Republic, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic, may require the same flexibility that saw Iran agree to negotiations with the U.S. in the first place. Iran will hold a presidential election in June, but any decision to re-engage with Washington would have to be made by the supreme leader. – Associated Press


Iran’s judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, told Syria’s ambassador to Iran that it supports the “resistance” to retake the Golan Heights from Israel. The Syrian regime views the Golan as part of Syria, but the US recognized it as part of Israel. In the past week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned Iran and its ally Hezbollah against entrenching near the Golan. – Jerusalem Post 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday Turkey had the legitimate right to act again if militants are not cleared from its border with Syria, where it has carried out several incursions in the last four years. – Reuters

In the recent months, the Syrian regime has taken advantage of several developments in the northeast of the country to increase the incitement against the U.S. forces in Syria and encourage popular resistance against them.[1]The region in question is under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprising mostly Kurdish troops and supported by the U.S.-led international coalition for fighting ISIS. – Middle East Media Research Institute


The top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, Mr. Berman had traveled to Washington in June 2019 to discuss a particularly delicate case with Attorney General William P. Barr and some of his top aides: a criminal investigation into Halkbank, a state-owned Turkish bank suspected of violating U.S. sanctions law by funneling billions of dollars of gold and cash to Iran. – New York Times

Turkey’s president said on Wednesday that Western countries mocking Islam wanted to “relaunch the Crusades”, heightening a confrontation with France over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that have stirred anger in Muslim-majority countries. – Reuters

Turkey has vowed to take “legal, diplomatic actions” over a cartoon of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in French magazine Charlie Hebdo. […]State media say Turkish prosecutors have launched an official investigation into the satirical magazine. – BBC

Vladimir Mukhin writes: The Azerbaijani leadership demands to include Turkey as a member in co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group to identify new requirements for the settlement of the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh. […] In geopolitical terms, such a situation is disadvantageous to the Russian Federation. Even if Yerevan agrees to the entry of Russian peacekeepers into the conflict zone, Baku, supporting Ankara, will propose the presence of Turkish blue helmets there,’ said military expert Shamil Gareev, a reserve colonel. – Middle East Media Research Institute


The Trump administration is reportedly preparing to announce that Americans born in Jerusalem will be able to include Israel on their U.S. passports as their country of birth. – The Hill

US Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz said on Thursday morning that “annexation is not off the table, just pushed off for now” with regard to the recent peace deals signed between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. – Jerusalem Post

The security cabinet met for three hours on Wednesday evening and discussed the southern and northern fronts, as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist groups have increased threats towards Israel in recent days, according to Army Radio. – Jerusalem Post

Senior advisor to the US president and his envoy for negotiations Avi Berkowitz on Thursday morning told Galei Tzahal’s “Good Morning Israel” program with Efi Triger about the advanced contacts with other countries ahead of normalization with Israel and the behind-the-scenes of the arms sale to UAE. – Arutz Sheva

Tovah Lazaroff writes: On Wednesday, the US picked up on that normalization philosophy and laid it out clearly in its statement to the media when it stated that “geographic restrictions are no longer consistent with US policy” in Jerusalem, the Golan and the West Bank. […]But the initiative to eliminate the territorial clause predated the elections, and its impact goes beyond the cosmetic or the election gimmick. Among the benefits of US-supported annexation, had it occurred, is the extent to which the application of sovereignty is an antidote to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. – Jerusalem Post


One critical foreign policy issue that has been almost entirely absent from the U.S. election debate is Iraq—and with it, the U.S. role in the wider Middle East. – Foreign Policy

Katie Bo Williams writes: The Iraqis have also done a better job integrating their conventional ground units with their special operations forces, officials said. Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service, or CTS, forces were long seen as more professional and capable than their regular military. Officials have differing explanations as to why, but one is that the special operations forces were able to maintain a training relationship with the U.S. embassy even in the years when the U.S. military had pulled out of Iraq. – Defense One 

Michael Rubin writes: It is time to focus on the future rather than demand Iraqis return to the status quo ante and it is time to recognize that the moral failings of U.S. efforts to undermine the Sinjar administration are no different than President Donald Trump and Special Envoy James Jeffrey’s efforts to undermine Kurdish autonomy in Syria, a decision for which the United States is still paying the price in terms of renewed insurgency and empowered rivals. – The National Interest


Lebanon pushed for more maritime territory than had previously been under negotiation with Israel, media based in Beirut reported on Wednesday, as the second round of talks began near the border between the countries. – Jerusalem Post

Lebanon’s influential Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said on Wednesday that a new government could be formed within a few days if talks keep going positively. – Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Hezbollah on Wednesday against attacking Israel, as he visited a large-scale military drill in the north of the country simulating a war against the Lebanese terror group. – Times of Israel 

For the people of Lebanon, the wreckage of the port, and the failure to heed the warnings of Skaf and others, has a wider symbolism. Nearly three months on from the blast, they are still waiting for the results of an investigation their leaders promised would reveal the truth within days. Efforts to form a new, non-partisan government foundered on Lebanon’s sectarian politics. In this chaos, international aid money, contingent on a new government stamping out corruption, has yet to flow. – Reuters

Gulf States

The Saudi-led coalition said on Wednesday it intercepted and destroyed two ballistic rockets, one targeting Saudi Arabia’s Jazan and the other was launched towards the Saudi city of Najran. – Reuters

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh on Wednesday alerted American citizens living in Saudi Arabia of a potential attack on the city. In an alert, the embassy said it is tracking reports of possible missiles or drones that may be headed toward Riyadh on Wednesday. – Washington Times

The United Arab Emirates is set to become the first Arab state to open a consulate in the disputed Morocco-controlled Western Sahara region, Rabat said on Tuesday. – Middle East Eye 

Joe Biden’s top foreign policy adviser said the campaign was concerned about the Trump administration’s plans to sell stealth combat aircraft to the United Arab Emirates. – Jerusalem Post

Middle East & North Africa

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said on Wednesday freedom of expression should stop if it offends more than 1.5 billion people, following the display of images in France of the Prophet Mohammad that Muslims see as blasphemous. – Reuters

Gareth Jonas writes: With the above points in mind, it is apparent that the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean is as much, if not more, about identity and territory as it is competition over hydrocarbons. […]These all possess significant merit and should be considered in combination. With these other mutually constitutive drivers in mind, greater attention should also be given to the role of identity in prolonging the most recent tensions. – The National Interest

Stefania D’Ignoti writes: Ever since Libya’s regional fragmentation, the European Union has failed to form a unilateral diplomatic approach to the country. That, combined with Europe’s growing worries over migration, has allowed Libya to quietly claim a bigger portion of the Mediterranean: a controversial move that has put the lives and livelihoods of Italian fishermen at greater risk for almost a decade. – Foreign Policy

Korean Peninsula

The Supreme Court of South Korea on Thursday upheld a 17-year prison term for ​former President Lee Myung-bak ​and ordered him sent back to prison. – New York Times 

Back on Oct. 22, the FBI, the intelligence community, and other government agencies called a press conference to discuss what was described as “an urgent matter of national security.” The announcement, per Fox News, was that both Russia and Iran were taking steps to interfere with the 2020 election, with both those nations having obtained voter registration data. – The National Interest 

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un awaits the winner of next week’s U.S. presidential election armed with greater leverage in their high-stakes nuclear diplomacy thanks to a more powerful and versatile arsenal of weapons than at the start of the Trump presidency. – Reuters

The head of the Iran-South Korea Chamber of Commerce, Hossein Tanhaei, has said that Iran’s blocked money in South Korea amounts to “$8.5 billion” and the release of the money “depends on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.” – Radio Farda 


The Justice Department announced charges on Wednesday against eight people accused of conspiring to conduct an aggressive harassment campaign on behalf of China to pressure political dissidents and fugitives in the United States to return home to face trial. – New York Times

A lawyer for a senior executive of Chinese tech giant Huawei on Wednesday accused a Canadian police officer of lying about why he didn’t arrest her immediately at Vancouver’s airport two years ago. – Washington Post

The United Nations is not doing enough to investigate reported abuses in China’s Xinjiang region against members of Muslim minority groups, the U.S. envoy for women’s issues said Thursday. – Associated Press

James Palmer writes: The Chinese leadership is currently meeting in Beijing to set economic and political goals for the next five years—a plenum at which, as usual, the outcomes are already agreed. On the agenda: a “Vision 2035” program that will likely cement a new focus on domestic consumption and technology, as well as an increased role for Chinese Communist Party leadership in the private economy. It may also cement Xi’s place as a president-for-life. – Foreign Policy


The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday unsealed an indictment charging Haji Najibullah, an Afghanistan national, with six counts related to the 2008 kidnapping of an American journalist and two Afghan nationals. – Reuters

Rioting at a prison in western Afghanistan has left at least eight inmates dead, provincial officials said Thursday. – Associated Press

Al-Qaeda is still “heavily embedded” within the Taliban in Afghanistan, in spite of a historic US-Taliban agreement earlier this year, a senior United Nations official has told the BBC. – BBC 

Four years later, as the United States faces one of the most momentous elections in its history, the situation couldn’t be more different. In February, Washington signed a peace deal with the Taliban as part of Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan after almost 20 years. Now, Kabul is hoping that whoever wins the election will stay that course—withdrawing U.S. troops, not leaving them in Afghanistan forever. – Foreign Policy

South Asia

The United States will establish an embassy in the Maldives for the first time since the countries opened diplomatic relations in 1966, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday, signifying the archipelago’s growing role in the U.S. strategy to increase America’s presence in the region. – New York Times

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday the Chinese Communist Party was operating as a “predator” in Sri Lanka, as the top U.S. diplomat kept up tough criticism of China on a tour of Asia. – Reuters

India has amended a law in Jammu and Kashmir allowing Indian citizens to buy land in the disputed territory, said officials, sparking opposition criticism about a steady erosion of the rights of Kashmiri people. – Reuters 

Robbie Gramer and Amy Mackinnon write: Pompeo and Esper signed a major new military agreement with their Indian counterparts during the trip, which would give New Delhi increased access to U.S. geospatial intelligence required for targeting missiles and armed drones. The move comes as India and China are locked in an intense standoff at their shared border in the Himalayas, the most significant escalation of tensions in over four decades. – Foreign Policy


Tony Chung had been planning his asylum bid for weeks. He had sent documents to Washington earlier this month, the advocacy group helping him with the process said, and he hoped he could soon resettle in the United States. – Washington Post

A former leader of Hong Kong pro-independence group Studentlocalism was charged on Thursday with secession, money laundering and conspiracy to publish seditious material, the latest person to be targeted under a new national security law. – Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said Washington would find new ways to cooperate with Indonesia in the South China Sea and respected Jakarta’s efforts to safeguard its own waters while rejecting China’s “unlawful” claims in the area. – Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday urged Indonesians to focus on the treatment of Muslim Uighurs in China, describing it as the “gravest threat” to religious freedom in a speech to an Islamic group. – Reuters 

A U.S. citizen sentenced last year to 12 years in a Vietnamese jail for “attempting to overthrow the state” spoke of his 27-month detention at a Zoom news conference on Wednesday, after he was released and returned to his home in California last week. – Reuters

Malaysia’s foreign ministry said it had summoned France’s charges d’affaires in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to express concern over alleged hate speech and defamation of Islam. – Reuters

A Taiwanese fighter jet crashed and its pilot was killed while training over the Western Pacific, highlighting concerns about the island’s aging military fleet at a time of increased pressure from China’s air force. – Bloomberg

Michael Singh and Ehud Yaari write: On October 29, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will briefly visit Jakarta for discussions with Indonesian president Joko Widodo—popularly known as Jokowi—and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. Topping Pompeo’s agenda will undoubtedly be the U.S. effort to organize Asian allies around resisting China’s increasing assertiveness in and beyond the region. […] But unlike Malaysia, whose leaders have espoused virulent anti-Semitism, and tiny Brunei, Indonesia has a history of positive (albeit inconsistent) signals toward Israel, raising hopes that movement toward normalization may be possible even if it is not imminent. – Washington Institute

South Caucasus

Azerbaijan and Armenia accused each other of killing civilians by shelling cities in and around Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday, in an escalation of a month-long conflict over the mountain enclave that has defied three ceasefires. – Reuters

The European Union said an escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was “unacceptable” and called for new peace talks as Armenia and Azerbaijan once more traded accusations of shelling in and around the mountain enclave on Thursday. – Reuters

Emil Avdaliani writes: Turkey’s very vocal and active support of Azerbaijan cuts at the very essence of Russia’s role as regional arbiter. […]Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has, on the contrary, demanded a seat for Turkey at the table. Whatever the final outcome of this nasty, increasingly deadly war, it’s clear that there’s no going back to the way things were. Russia will remain a powerful player in the region, but it will probably no longer be the decisive one. It’s a reality that Moscow is going to have to get used to. – Center for European Policy Analysis


The Trump administration is taking new steps to tighten ties with Greenland as part of an attempt to exert more influence in the Arctic region and ice out China, the U.S.’s chief global competitor. – Wall Street Journal 

A judge in Barcelona is probing possible links between some of the promoters of Catalonia’s 2017 attempt to declare independence from the rest of Spain with an alleged misinformation campaign and overall effort to destabilize Europe that Spanish investigators link to Russia. – Associated Press

Britain will on Thursday chide the “pernicious” trade practices of the United States and Europe, even as it tries to pin down deals with the its most important allies in a post-Brexit drive to reinvent itself as a free trading nation. – Reuters

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday greeted Britain’s Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage at one of his final reelection rallies, bestowing on him the title “king of Europe.” – Agence France-Presse

Albania held an online forum against anti-Semitism Wednesday, the first time such a meeting has been staged in the Balkans, with Prime Minister Edi Rama calling anti-Semitism “a threat to our own civilization.” – Associated Press

At least two people are confirmed dead and several others have been injured after a man went on a stabbing spree not far from the Notre Dame church in the southern city of Nice, France. – Arutz Sheva


Heavy-handed tactics by Tanzania’s government to silence opponents, the media and civil society threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the presidential election Wednesday — and the country’s reputation for political stability. – Washington Post

Nigeria’s Lagos state government asked the army to intervene to restore order amid anti-police brutality protests, but soldiers did not shoot civilians, the military said, an assertion an Amnesty International investigation disputed on Wednesday. – Reuters

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, spoke about his country’s agreement on normalization of ties with Israel in an interview with Sudan TV earlier this week. – Arutz Sheva

Three weeks of protests in Nigeria that provoked a violent response from the military have been followed by a looting spree, highlighting the divide between the nation’s rulers and its poverty-stricken citizens. – Bloomberg

Latin America

In the face of widening American financial restrictions on Cuba, more than 400 Western Union offices on the island will close, Cuban authorities said, a move that could severely restrict the flow of remittances from abroad and worsen a profound economic crisis that has led to widespread food shortages on the island. – New York Times

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday said the country’s Amuay oil refinery was victim of a terrorist attack on Tuesday that involved a “powerful weapon”, but said the country had gasoline reserves equivalent to 20 days of consumption. – Reuters

Ryan C. Berg writes : One thing is clear: If the US and Mexico are to succeed in pushing back the menacing cartels, both countries will have to get serious about rooting out corruption at all levels of Mexico’s security forces. Until then, drug traffickers will continue to flourish with the help of their allies in uniform. – American Enterprise Institute

United States

The U.S. opposed the selection of former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the World Trade Organization’s new leader, officials said Wednesday, the latest Trump administration challenge to the body. – Wall Street Journal 

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe went off script when he alleged during a press conference last week that Iran was sending intimidating emails to Americans in order to “damage President Trump,” according to two senior administration officials with knowledge of the episode. – Politico

Two senators introduced bipartisan legislation this week that would expand the Department of Homeland Security’s visa screening process, with the goal of rooting out potential terrorists among foreign visitors. – The Hill


Eastern European criminals are targeting dozens of U.S. hospitals with ransomware, and federal officials on Wednesday urged healthcare facilities to beef up preparations rapidly in case they are next. – Reuters

Facebook Inc FB.O Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said on Wednesday that a warning from the FBI on hack-and-leak operations before the Nov. 3 presidential election played a role in its decision to limit the reach of stories from the New York Post that made claims about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son. – Reuters

The international community needs to quicken its attribution of malicious cyber activity to enforce norms in cyberspace, Rep. Jim Langevin said Wednesday at CyberCon. – C4ISRNET

Amid reports the Trump administration is fast-tracking sales of the high-tech F-35 warplane to the United Arab Emirates, the State Department remains committed to consulting Congress on arms sales to foreign governments, a senior administration official said Wednesday. – Defense News 

Certain cyber-artificial intelligence attacks could pose an existential threat to the US and the West, former US cyber command chief, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Brett Williams said on Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

Tim Wu writes: When it comes to foreign election meddling in elections, disinformation is a serious threat, but the most disruptive form of intrusion is electoral cyber-interference: the freezing of voting systems, the mass deletion of voter registration information, altering vote counts and so on. Such feats may not be easily accomplished, but if they were successful, they could throw the United States into chaos. – New York Times

Elena Schneider and Zach Montellaro write: When Facebook and Google announced plans to ban new political ads around the end of the election, they left one key thing out of the new policies: an end date. Now, as Facebook’s pre-election blackout on new ads begins and a total post-election freeze on Google and Facebook ads looms, digital strategists in both parties are worried that ads on the biggest digital platforms may never come back — or, at the very least, they’ll be down so long that they paralyze campaigns in major races set to stretch beyond Nov. 3. – Politico


The Navy fleets signed out a revision to the Optimized Fleet Response Plan Instruction, the first such update since OFRP was introduced in 2014. – USNI News

Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite made a full-throated call for U.S. naval expansion, citing the growing Chinese Navy as the prime driver of the need for a larger fleet. – USNI News

As the Pentagon races to develop hypersonic weapons, it is turning to universities for help on speeding up the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the field. – Defense News

The U.S. Army has completed its pilot program that would allow teleworkers to access classified information, a capability that military leaders first rolled out over the summer, a top IT officer said Wednesday. – C4ISRNET

Mark F. Cancian writes: The U.S. Army plans slow expansion through FY 2025, but a constrained budget environment will force it to choose between maintaining the units it has and building new kinds of structures. With modernization, the Army has increased production of proven systems and shifted billions into development of high-priority programs to prepare the Army for great power conflict. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Long War

A federal appeals court has refused to review the 2010 war crimes conviction of a former Guantánamo Bay prisoner who after his return to his native Sudan ran away and rejoined Al Qaeda. – New York Times 

At least three people were killed and several others were injured in a knife attack outside a church in the southern French city of Nice on Thursday morning, the mayor announced. – Washington Post

A Malian court handed a death sentence to a suspected jihadist and his co-defendant on Wednesday, his lawyer said, after he pleaded guilty to shooting five people to death in a 2015 attack and planning two other attacks targeting Westerners that killed 37. – Reuters

Algeria’s defence ministry said on Wednesday it had detained a suspected jihadist militant who was released this month by Mali as part of a prisoner swap, underscoring its fears of insecurity in the Sahel region. – Reuters

The United States strongly backed efforts to disrupt the illegal financing methods used by Somalia’s al-Shabab extremist group, which according to U.N. experts raised more than the $21 million it spent last year on fighters, weapons and intelligence. – Associated Press

A court in Mali handed the death sentence to a Mauritanian member who planned terror attacks on a luxury hotel and a restaurant, marking the country’s first conviction of a high-profile al-Qaeda militant, Agence France-Presse reported Wednesday. – Bloomberg