Fdd's overnight brief

October 30, 2018

In The News


Iranian officials say President Hassan Rouhani’s mobile phone was tapped, without providing details on who was behind it or what information they might have gleaned. – Associated Press

In the Iranian capital, a pious crowd assembled on cue for Friday prayers. From the pulpit there was spiritual guidance, mixed with the usual anti-American rhetoric. All Iranians — be they religious or not — are worried right now about punishing American sanctions due to kick in on November 4. – CBS News

South Korea has asked the United States for “maximum flexibility” on its request for a waiver to prevent South Korean companies from being affected by renewed U.S. sanctions against Iran, the foreign ministry said. – Reuters

Gerard Gayou writes: Her husband is Xiyue Wang, a history graduate student at Princeton arrested in Tehran in August 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in the notorious Evin Prison. He is one of at least five Americans currently detained in Iran—and the only one who doesn’t also hold Iranian citizenship. […]Ms. Qu wishes for a solution detached from the U.S.-Iran clash over the nuclear deal – Wall Street Journal

David Albright, Olli Heinonen, and Andrea Stricker write: The documentation indicates that Iran’s nuclear weaponization efforts did not stop after 2003, following a so-called “halt order.” To conduct this assessment of the evolution of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Institute obtained vital archive documentation from the media and during interviews with senior Israeli intelligence officials familiar with the archive. In this report, we assess and compare new information with other public documents and information. – Institute for Science and International Security

Patrick Clawson writes:  Given the outrage in Iran about those who reap privileges from widespread graft, the U.S. government has much room to spread information about how the aqazadeh—the children of the elite—are living. […]While some say that the Trump administration has little credibility with the Iranian public, it can offset this problem by drawing on the extensive information about corruption provided by Iranian sources. – Washington Institute

Mehdi Khalaji writes: Once again, it appears that the adage of many Iran watchers holds true: Tehran does not respond to pressure, it only responds to great pressure. Washington will have to sustain and likely increase (smarter) pressure on Iran’s decisionmaking centers before the hardliners reluctantly agree to allow negotiations, which they will criticize even while allowing them to go forward. – Washington Institute

Eric Brewer writes: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that if Europe could not meet Iran’s demands for sustained economic benefits following the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Tehran would be within its rights to resume some of its nuclear activities. […]If the Trump administration is to successfully manage the risks in this new environment while it tries to reach a better deal, there are six points that the White House, Congress, and American public would do well to keep in mind. – War on the Rocks


Tens of thousands of Syrians stranded in a desert camp near the Jordanian border are at risk of starvation amid dwindling supplies and the approach of winter, while regional powers trade blame over who is responsible for this latest humanitarian catastrophe in Syria’s civil war. – Associated Press

Syrian Kurdish special forces have joined an offensive against Islamic State militants in eastern Syria, a commander said, after the jihadists recovered ground from U.S.-backed forces in a fierce counter attack. – Reuters

U.S. Defense Department officials are pushing back hard against Russian claims that they were involved in a drone attack on a Russian air base in Syria earlier this year. – Military Times

The Syrian opposition on Monday presented a “road map” to peace, including steps to be taken ahead of an election and guidelines for a plan to write the country’s post-war constitution. – Agence France-Presse

From Turkish-language classes for Syrian children to the state-owned Turk Telekom company erecting its first cell towers on Syrian soil, Ankara’s role in the rebel-held region around Azaz has been expanding. – Agence France-Presse

Gregory Waters writes: The Tiger Forces is a Syrian Air Intelligence-affiliated militia fighting for the Syrian government and backed by Russia. While often described as the Syrian government’s elite fighting force, this research portrays a starkly different picture. […]Despite a decentralized command structure, the Tiger Forces’ capabilities far exceed any other unit currently fighting in the Syrian civil war. – Middle East Institute

Marwan Kabalan writes: Putin’s remarks on Idlib were also an indication that his ultimate goal in Syria is to end all foreign military presence there, including Turkish, French, and particularly the US. […]With all these different agendas, interests and objectives, it is extremely difficult to see how the main powers in the Syrian conflict can reach an agreement. In the end, even if they do, it will certainly be at the expense of the Syrian people – Al Jazeera


Municipal elections take place across Israel on Tuesday, but few cities are being watched as closely as Jerusalem, whose contested status and polarized population have made the race for city hall particularly dramatic — even drawing in rare Palestinian candidates. – Washington Post

Palestinians on Monday accused Israel of excessive force after an air strike on the Gaza border killed three teenagers accused of trying to damage the fence and of possibly placing a bomb there. – Agence France-Presse

In an October 28, 2018 article, Muwaffaq Matar, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and a regular columnist for the Palestinian Authority (PA) daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, attacked Arab countries for normalizing their relations with Israel, especially the UAE and Qatar, which are hosting Israeli athletes as part of the 2018 Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi and the 2018 Artistic Gymnastics Championship in Doha. [..]The following are excerpts from his article – Middle East Media Research Institute

David Pollock writes: Popular attitudes in Gaza are arguably more attuned to reality than either the militant image propagated by Hamas or the desperate anger at Israel often portrayed in outside media. […]Pundits and policymakers on all sides would be well advised to pay much more attention to how the people of Gaza themselves see their admittedly very difficult situation, and the realistic shorter and longer term options they prefer for some improvements in their plight. – Washington Institute

H. Varulkar and S. Schneidmann write: The Palestinian street is in an uproar after a right-wing religious Jewish organization purchased a three-story building in Jerusalem’s Old City, near Herod’s Gate. […]This report reviews the affair and the controversy it sparked among the PA, Dahlan’s camp, the Islamic Movement in Israel, the Palestinian public in East Jerusalem, and additional circles. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Saudi Arabia

Turkey’s foreign minister warned Saudi Arabia on Monday against prolonging an inquiry into Jamal Khashoggi’s slaying, urging the kingdom to accept its “very large” responsibility in investigating the writer’s death as the Saudi chief prosecutor arrived in Istanbul for talks. – Washington Post

Turkish officials say Ankara is growing increasingly impatient with Riyadh because the Saudi government’s latest version of events remains at odds with the findings of Turkish investigators. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. is raising pressure on Saudi Arabia to wind down its political and economic isolation of Qatar, according to three people familiar with the effort, as the kingdom continues to be buffeted by its role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. – Bloomberg

Mohamad Bazzi writes: Saudi Arabia’s allies and clients realize the danger of crossing Prince Mohammed, who has shown the world that he can be reckless and ruthless. Those who stay in the prince’s good graces hope that he will reward fealty, especially since he has positioned himself to rule for decades as Saudi Arabia’s next king. – New York Times

Mike Giglio writes: Iranian leaders have been uncommonly silent about the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the crisis that has engulfed Prince Mohammed in its wake. Iran appears content not to get in the way as an international uproar threatens to weaken Prince Mohammed and undermine the Trump administration’s so-called deal of the century strategy in the Middle East that would bring Israel together with Saudi Arabia in a coalition against their common enemy. – Buzzfeed News

Middle East & North Africa

Almost a year after Saudi Arabia pressured him into a now-rescinded resignation, Lebanese leader Saad Hariri remains beholden to Riyadh as he struggles to form a government and manage a looming economic crisis. – Wall Street Journal

A woman blew herself up in the center of Tunisia’s capital on Monday, state media said, shaking the North African nation that has in recent years become a symbol of political unrest. – Wall Street Journal

At least four people were killed and 10 kidnapped when suspected Islamic State militants attacked a town in central Libya, military officials said on Monday. – Reuters

A British academic accused of spying by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been released on bail. Matthew Hedges, a 31-year-old PhD student at Durham University, was arrested on 5 May in Dubai and has reportedly been held in solitary confinement for almost six months. – BBC

Korean Peninsula

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea takes every opportunity to describe Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, as a “young and candid” strategist, one who is ready to bargain away his nuclear arsenal to secure economic growth for his impoverished nation. In doing so, Mr. Moon is […]changing North Korea’s global image as a regime that simply cannot be trusted. – New York Times

South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered a Japanese steelmaker on Tuesday to compensate Korean men forced to toil in its factory for Japan’s World War II efforts, a landmark ruling that threatened to intensify friction between the two key American allies in Asia. – New York Times

Olivia Enos writes: The Vatican should instead learn from the failures of the Singapore Summit meeting between Donald Trump and the North Korean leader. That high-profile meeting placed Kim Jong-un in the limelight and yielded little to no progress on stated objectives of denuclearization or improving human rights. A papal meeting with Kim Jong-un would prove equally non-productive. – Heritage Foundation


The United States said on Monday that it would block a Chinese state-owned technology company from buying American components because it posed a national security threat, the latest volley in an escalating dispute between the world’s two largest economies.New York Times

Faculty members at Cornell University said on Monday that they were cutting ties with a leading Chinese university after reports that it was harassing and intimidating students campaigning for workers’ rights. – New York Times

Scientists from China’s military are significantly expanding research collaboration with scholars from the U.S. and other technologically advanced countries, at times obscuring their affiliation from their hosts, according to a new research report and interviews with academics. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. is preparing to announce by early December tariffs on all remaining Chinese imports if talks next month between presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping fail to ease the trade war, three people familiar with the matter said. – Bloomberg

This week Chinese president Xi Jinping ordered the Southern Theatre Command, responsible for monitoring the South China Sea and Taiwan, to boost its military capabilities to prepare for a possible conflict, according to a Hong Kong newspaper. – Defense One

Michael Stumo writes: Countries around the world prefer America’s global leadership over the potential dominance of China’s authoritarian government. As such, Pence’s speech will be seen as a clear moment when a democratic nation acted sensibly to check the rise of a superpower challenge that is wrong for America and wrong for the world. – Washington Examiner


Leading members of the Taliban who were once held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay have joined the group’s political office in the Gulf nation of Qatar, according to sources inside the Taliban, a potentially important development in tentative peace talks now under way between the insurgency and Washington. – Wall Street Journal

A former Australian prime minister has warned the government to expect a negative reaction from Indonesia if Australia follows the United States by shifting its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. – Associated Press

Australia must restrict foreign firms with government ties from its 5G mobile communications network because it is critical infrastructure, the head of one of the country’s intelligence agencies said, helping to explain why China’s Huawei was banned. – Reuters

A decision by Sri Lanka’s president to fire the prime minister has raised doubts among global investors and credit analysts about the near-term economic health of a country already grappling with slow growth and a falling currency. – Reuters

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to seek closer economic and military ties on Monday as the Japanese leader extended a diplomatic charm offensive that last week took him to India’s regional rival, China.-  Reuters

Paul Nadeau writes: The result is that Abe’s relationship with Trump and his steadfastness on trade policy are two sides of the same coin—protecting Japan’s national interest by avoiding outright confrontation (and jeopardizing security cooperation) and making clear where Japan’s red lines are drawn. Whether this is the right approach is a fair question, but Abe’s approach is more consistent with precedent than is often appreciated. Foreign pressure may seem like an enticing strategy but still has its limits in Japan. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


One exciting frontier for drone body shape is biomimicry, masking the outward appearance of the robot by giving it a form that resembles an animal. Consider, if you will, a Russian drone, built to resemble an owl. This owl-shaped drone comes from the Zhukovsky/Gagarin Air Force Academy. – C4ISRNET

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is warning that Washington’s plans to withdraw from a decades-old nuclear arms agreement will have “serious consequences” for Europe. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

On October 20, U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a key Cold War arms deal with Russia, after accusing Moscow of violating it. Russian expert Pavel Felgenhauer argued in an article, titled “A signal has been given to the missiles” that Trump, by announcing his withdrawal from the INF Treaty, awarded a gift to the Russian “war party.” – Middle East Media Research Institute


Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a seemingly invincible figure in German politics. […]The chancellor said she would step down as leader of her conservative party in December and would not seek re-election in 2021. – New York Times

Former Vice President Joe Biden warned that the world may soon be without the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, lamenting about the state of affairs in the U.S. under President Trump. – Washington Examiner

NATO and the European Union need to spend significantly to reestablish high-end naval presence and invest in rail cars and maritime containers, ports, bridges, highways, tunnels and airfields if they want to successfully deter potential Russian aggression, a panel of Northern European security experts said on Wednesday. – USNI News

Editorial: Ms. Merkel has been a strong champion of the European Union, NATO and protecting a rules-based international order. […]That’s a tough act for Ms. Merkel’s successor to follow, and major challenges lie ahead: reshaping a European Union without Britain, strengthening institutions that govern the euro, clashes with the Trump administration and neighboring populists, dealing with Russia. – New York Times

Editorial: The long, slow exit of Angela Merkel as German Chancellor took a big step forward Monday as she announced she’ll step down from her party’s leadership within months. The problem is that no one is emerging as an alternative even as Germany’s two-party ruling coalition takes another electoral beating. – Wall Street Journal

Erin Dunne writes: German Chancellor Angela Merkel will soon be out of power in Germany. She leaves behind a country divided by populist pressure and a fractured Europe fueled by xenophobia. As contenders vie for her power, the increasingly authoritarian governments of Hungary, along with the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia, demonstrate one path forward — one that Merkel’s successor should be keen to avoid. – Washington Examiner


French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed support for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ambitious reforms and diplomatic peace efforts. – Associated Press

Pirates boarded a container ship off the coast of Nigeria, seizing 11 crew including eight from Poland, the vessel’s management firm and Polish state media reported. – Reuters

Violence in South Sudan is blocking deliveries of food aid needed to stave off severe hunger in some areas, the World Food Programme said, adding to evidence that a peace deal signed last month is not holding. – Reuters

A Nigerian Shiite group said soldiers opened fire on a procession of its members heading to a demonstration in the capital, killing at least 10 of them. – Bloomberg

Pittsburgh Shooting

Robert Bowers sat before a federal judge in a downtown courtroom on Monday afternoon. Mr. Bowers, the man accused of killing 11 congregants in a hate-filled attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue named Tree of Life, arrived in a wheelchair pushed by a United States marshal. – New York Times

An alternative social media platform used by the Pittsburgh shooting suspect to generate anti-Semitic sentiment hours before his deadly attack on a synagogue has been taken offline, but it vows to return. – Washington Examiner

A 2017 study conducted by Brandeis University estimated that 70 percent of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community was a little or somewhat concerned about anti-Semitism occurring in their neighborhoods. Sixteen percent said they had recently experienced anti-Semitism directly, with most describing the incidents as “minor” microaggressions. – Huffington Post

United States

The Trump administration has freed an American citizen whom the military imprisoned without trial for more than 13 months as a suspected Islamic State member, United States officials said on Monday. His release brings a close to a legal saga that raised novel issues about the scope of the government’s national security powers and individual rights. – New York Times

The Florida man accused of sending more than a dozen possible bombs to prominent Democratic and media figures who have been critical of President Trump kept a list of more than 100 possible targets, a law enforcement official said Monday, as authorities intercepted another suspicious package addressed to CNN. – Washington Post

A person with a gun fired at least four bullets into a Republican Party office in Florida, officials said Monday as concerns about political violence have risen in advance of the midterm elections. – Washington Post

Another suspicious package addressed to CNN was intercepted at an Atlanta post office, network President Jeff Zucker said Monday. – Washington Examiner

The Americas

Homeland Security and Pentagon officials said Monday that they will send 5,200 troops, military helicopters and giant spools of razor wire to the Mexican border in the coming days to brace for the arrival of Central American migrants President Trump is calling “an invasion.” – Washington Post

Mexico deployed hundreds of police officers, helicopters and boats along its porous southern border with Guatemala on Monday in a bid to halt the entry of about 1,500 mostly Honduran migrants, as the U.S. moved to beef up its own southern border. – Wall Street Journal

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned Mexico that their trade agreement with the U.S. and Canada may be in jeopardy if the country doesn’t help Trump stymie a caravan of migrants from Central America who are headed to the U.S. – Washington Examiner

The Royal Canadian Navy is moving toward Britain’s Type 26 frigate design, a multimission ship designed to cut through the water quietly, hunt submarines, and defend against hostile missiles and aircraft. – Defense News

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro offers the hope of a new Latin American government that will partner with the Trump administration to stymie the influence of socialist regimes in the region and back Trump’s pro-Israel, anti-Iran push in the Middle East, according conservatives. – Washington Examiner

Just days before Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel is slated to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has reportedly given Cuba a $50 million loan to buy Russian military equipment. – Fox News

Cyber Security

The U.S. Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman a $54 million contract to become the system coordinator for U.S. Cyber Command’s top weapons system, the Unified Platform. – Fifth Domain

Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist warned government contractors Monday that the first agencywide financial audit might reveal “a laundry list” of cybersecurity problems. – Fifth Domain

The Army has published its formal electronic warfare strategy document in response to broader strategy shifts in the Department of Defense. – C4ISRNET

The Pentagon is taking new steps to build cyber talent in the U.S. military, but experts suggest the armed forces have structural problems that prevent them from becoming a digitally cohesive unit. – Fifth Domain

Erin Dunne writes: Want to export malware to U.S. government systems? Link it to porn and, chances are, a government employee will download those files to his work computer. That sounds crazy — who would think it was a good idea to watch porn on a work computer? But many government employees do just that, and it’s exactly how one employee at a U.S. Geological Survey satellite imaging facility let the Russians into the network. – Washington Examiner


Maj. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland has been assigned as the next director of operations at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, according to an Oct. 29 release from the Army’s chief of staff. – C4ISRNET

Boeing Co. views the low-ball bids that helped it win contracts for a Navy drone and an Air Force training jet as spending money to make money. – Washington Examiner

If the Pentagon is serious about changing how it tackles space, the department must clamp down on old ways of thinking and dump duplicative systems, the department’s No. 2 official said Friday. – Defense News

The U.S. Coast Guard hopes to keep its aging fleet of short-range search and rescue helicopters flying for another dozen years while evaluating the potential of vertical lift studies from the Pentagon to fulfill future missions.- USNI News

The U.S. Air Force is planning to spend nearly $200 million on special glasses and visors to protect pilots’ eyes from dangerous lasers like the ones the Pentagon accuses China of firing into the cockpits of U.S. warplanes. – Defense One

Trump Administration

A trio of companies — ES&S of Omaha, Nebraska; Dominion Voting Systems of Denver and Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas — sell and service more than 90 percent of the machinery on which votes are cast and results tabulated. Experts say they have long skimped on security in favor of convenience, making it more difficult to detect intrusions such as occurred in Russia’s 2016 election meddling. – Associated Press

A CNN guest apologized on-air Monday for suggesting President Trump has been better at stoking radicalization than the Islamic State with his bellicose political rhetoric. – Washington Examiner

Walter Russell Mead writes: The return of geopolitics means the basic framework for economic policy has changed. In periods of great-power rivalry, national leaders must often put geopolitical goals ahead of economic ones. […]President Trump cannot be blamed for the return of geopolitics. Russia, China and Iran decided to challenge the American power on which the economic order depended, and Mr. Obama’s response to that challenge was, regrettably, insufficient. – Wall Street Journal