Fdd's overnight brief

September 17, 2019

In The News


U.S. intelligence indicates Iran was the staging ground for a debilitating attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, people familiar with the matter said, as Washington and the kingdom weighed how to respond and oil prices soared. – Wall Street Journal 

President Trump on Monday stopped short of directly blaming Iran for a major attack on Saudi Arabian oil installations, allaying, at least for the moment, fears of a military conflict between the United States and Iran. – Washington Post

The assault on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia this past weekend has highlighted what analysts say is a rapidly evolving threat from Iranian-made weapons in the region, marking a potentially alarming shift toward precision strikes on critical infrastructure. – Washington Post

President Trump has said Iran is the greatest threat in the Middle East, a would-be nuclear power that he has brought low through the stiffest sanctions ever applied to a single nation. He has warned that the United States is “locked and loaded” to punish Iran if it is found to be responsible for the attack on Saudi oil facilities over the weekend. – Washington Post 

Iran’s supreme leader announced on Tuesday that “there will be no talks with the U.S. at any level” — remarks apparently meant to end all speculation about a possible U.S.-Iran meeting between the two countries’ presidents at the U.N. later this month. – Associated Press  

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Tuesday he would meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the end of the month, as regional tensions rise in the Middle East after the weekend attacks on Saudi oil facilities, public broadcaster NHK said. – Reuters 

The Iranian regime threatened Monday to retaliate against Canada after Global News reported that Tehran’s assets in Toronto and Ottawa had been sold to compensate terrorism victims. – Global News

The attacks on vital Saudi Arabian oil installations have thrust western powers into a dilemma: whether and how to retaliate against Iran, which Washington alleges is the mastermind behind the offensive. – Financial Times 

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have seized a vessel in the Gulf for allegedly smuggling 250,000 litres of diesel fuel to the United Arab Emirates, Iran’s semi-official Students News agency ISNA reported on Monday. – Reuters  

Adam Taylor writes: The key question, however, is who was responsible. Yemen’s Houthi rebels, at the center of a civil war against Saudi-backed forces, have claimed responsibility; on Monday, they threatened additional attacks. But Western and Saudi officials have cast doubt on the claim, saying the attack did not originate in Yemen. They have instead pointed at a known backer of the Houthis: Iran. – Washington Post 

Quin Hillyer writes: Iran must be deterred, and U.S. presidential power must be both asserted and simultaneously delimited. The overall impression, and reality, should be that sober, balanced, nuanced, rightful judgment is being exercised, in pursuit of the manifestly just interests of the U.S. and international order. – Washington Examiner

Tom Rogan writes: The U.S. should support Saudi Arabian retaliation against Iran for its attacks on Saudi oil facilities. […]But Iran would destroy Saudi Arabia’s better future and regional stability if it could. And Iran will regard America and Saudi Arabia as weak if this incident goes without a response. Trump is correct to pursue a diplomatic strategy towards Iran, but this action is far more serious than other Iranian hostile acts in recent memory. It cannot be tolerated. If it is, more will follow. – Washington Examiner

Tom Rogan writes: And let’s be very clear about something: Iran is directly responsible. While the Iranian government and others suggest that the attacks actually came from (Iran-backed) Houthi forces in Yemen, there is no evidence of a Houthi attack. On the other hand, U.S. intelligence, attack site assessments, and the Iranian modus operandi all point toward Iran’s culpability. It is likely that the attacks came from Iran proper, or less likely, from Iranian-controlled forces in Iraq. – Washington Examiner

Ray Takeyh writes: The theocracy’s most important vulnerability is still its weakening economy, and it is that nerve that Washington should continue pinching. Given this latest Iranian act of terror, the Trump administration may have stumbled on a unique opportunity to multi-lateralize its strategy of maximum pressure. – Washington Examiner

Michael Knights writes: Even if Iran is uninterested in direct talks with the United States at the moment, it does seem keen on obtaining sanctions relief and a credit line in the near term, so it may be susceptible to a diplomatic full court press. Another justification for substantial international action lies in the scope of the latest attack—Iran has deliberately gone much further than its previous provocations, and if it avoids consequences once again, it may decide it has a free pass to go even further, whether against Saudi Arabia, Israel, or other U.S. partners. – Washington Institute 


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Monday to annex “all the settlements” in the West Bank, including an enclave deep in the heart of the largest Palestinian city, in a last-ditch move that appeared aimed at shoring up nationalist support the day before a do-over election. – Associated Press 

But a planned Israeli community named “Ramat Trump” in Hebrew, or “Trump Heights,” around 12 miles from the Syrian border – right in the heart of territory the United States alone recognizes as legal Israeli territory – nevertheless encapsulates a defining tenet of U.S. foreign policy: Every American president in modern times, citing shared history and values and an unshakeable security commitment, has been staunchly pro-Israel. – USA Today

The District Court of the Hague will hold a hearing on Tuesday about whether a war crimes case against Benny Gantz is admissible relating to his command decisions during the 2014 Gaza War. – Jerusalem Post

Editorial: Netanyahu ought to remember that Israel’s long-term interest lies in preserving sustained, bipartisan support from the U.S. To ensure this, he must be reasonable, not reckless, in his dealings with the Palestinians. […]The peace process was difficult enough already. Heedless campaign promises won’t help. – Bloomberg

Gilead Sher and Alon Pinkas write: What lies behind the tweets, the headlines and the frantic Washington-Jerusalem consultations is a political gimmick, designed to attain meaningless public relations points ahead of a difficult election. A defense treaty concocted by Prime Minister Netanyahu for political benefits and possibly entertained by President Trump or his staff is not a treaty. It’s nothing more than a hollow stunt. – TIME

Michael Rubin writes: Many U.S. supporters of Israel embrace the notion of a U.S.-Israel defense pact for its symbolic value. That too is likely why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now discusses it against the backdrop of a political campaign. But whenever U.S. and Israeli militaries become tools of a political game, strategic imperatives would suffer. For this reason alone, the Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House should shut down discussion of any U.S.-Israel defense pact immediately. – National Interest 

Saudi Arabia

Pentagon officials on Monday recommended a restrained response to the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, arguing against a potentially costly conflict with Iran, which the administration has blamed for the strike on a key American ally, according to officials familiar with Defense Department deliberations. – Washington Post

A little over a week ago, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman finally attained the job for which he had long prepared: energy minister of Saudi Arabia, one of the most crucial positions in the country. […]Now the new energy minister, who for many years served as a kind of understudy and royal family observer to the country’s top oil leadership, must oversee the recovery of Saudi Arabia’s most important industry. – New York Times

The U.S. administration released images on Sunday that it said highlights the precision and sophistication of the attack on Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil-processing plant at Abqaiq. – Bloomberg

The style of attack used against oil plants in Saudi Arabia that knocked out half of the country’s production on Saturday is unlikely to be a risk in the United States, energy and security experts say. – Reuters 

Saudi Aramco’s trading arm is looking for oil products for prompt delivery after Saturday’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities, several trade sources said this week. – Reuters 

The United States is considering increasing its intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia after Saturday’s attack on Saudi oil facilities, which halved the kingdom’s production and jolted world oil markets, U.S. officials told Reuters. – Reuters

The head of the Nato military alliance has said he is extremely concerned that tensions will escalate after an attack on Saudi oil facilities. – BBC

Catherine Rampell writes: We still don’t yet know the full effect of the attack, or what the White House perceives its political interests to be. […]Even so, it still seems unlikely that Trump’s lucky streak will continue indefinitely. Which is why it would sure be nice if the U.S. economy were not so reliant on luck right now. – Washington Post

Andrew J. Bacevich writes: Supporting Saudi Arabia today in its misbegotten war in Yemen is no less shortsighted. Power confers choice, and the United States should exercise it. We can begin to do so by recognizing that Saudi Arabia’s folly need not be our problem. – New York Times

Quill Robinson writes: Over the weekend, attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities sent shock waves through the global energy network. […]As long as we continue to rely on fossil fuels for the bulk of our energy supply, we will remain entangled in a global supply chain that is neither secure nor sustainable. Embracing an all-of-the-above approach primes us for the next hundred years of American energy dominance. – The Hill

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: Looking further into the future, the strikes on Saudi Arabia provide a clear strategic warning that the US era of air supremacy in the Gulf, and the near U.S. monopoly on precision strike capability, is rapidly fading. […]All of these systems can be used at low levels of conflict intensity and in “gray area” wars, as well as in far more intense conflicts. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Yemen’s Houthi rebels are threatening additional attacks on Saudi oil facilities after claiming responsibility for drone strikes that disrupted Saudi Arabia’s crude oil output, the group’s al-Masirah TV reported Monday. – The Hill 

Martin Griffiths writes: These two statesmen believed not only that ending the fighting was the right thing to do, but also that it could be done. They were right then, and it is right now. My hope is that the people who care will now turn that call into a present reality. Let us be clear: Yemen cannot wait. And moreover, Yemen need not wait. And neither should we. – New York Times

Ibrahim Jalal writes: There is no doubt that the state of the Hodeida Agreement reflects that of the peace process more broadly. More than eight months on from the signing of the Hodeida Agreement in Sweden, the situation is worse than when the process started, and there seems little hope of change. If the next UNMHA chair is to accomplish something different, it will require charting a new course and correcting the agenda Griffiths has pursued over the past 18 months. – Middle East Institute 

Middle East & North Africa

Attacks on oil plants in Saudi Arabia are a dangerous escalation and the international community should stand by Riyadh and ensure regional stability, a senior United Arab Emirates official said on Tuesday. – Reuters  

Turkey’s president has said that up to three million Syrian refugees could return to their country to live in a “safe zone” in the north. Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the zone – which is already being set up in co-operation with the US – needed to be extended for the goal to be met. – BBC

The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran meeting in Ankara on Monday agreed to try to ease tensions in northwest Syria’s Idlib region, but disagreements between the countries appeared to linger, especially over the threat from Islamic State. – Reuters 

Multiple Iranian-backed Shiite militias near the Iraq-Syria border were targeted in a series of reported airstrikes late Monday night, according to both Syrian and Iraqi local media. One Iraqi news channel pointed to Israel as the perpetrator of one of the attacks, according to Israeli daily Haaretz. – i24 News

Korean Peninsula

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday declined to comment on a newspaper report that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had invited him to visit Pyongyang and said conditions were not ready yet for such a visit. – Reuters  

South Korea is to invest 88 billion won ($74 million) to develop a weapons system by 2023 that can detect and strike drones, its procurement agency said on Tuesday, after incidents of infiltration by North Korean spy drones. – Reuters  

North Korea has laid out its conditions for discussing denuclearization ahead of the next round of planned talks with the United States, striking a positive tone for North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump’s historic peace process. – Newsweek


U.S. and Chinese officials will restart trade talks at the end of this week, but any agreement the world’s largest economies carve out is expected to be a superficial fix. – Reuters 

A Chinese government employee was arrested Monday and accused of participating in a visa fraud scheme to allow Chinese government employees to enter the country under the guised intention of research recruitment. – The Hill

China and the United States are deadlocked over a U.N. Security Council resolution to extend the world body’s political mission in Afghanistan, with Beijing signaling it will cast a veto because there is no reference to its global Belt and Road infrastructure project, diplomats said on Monday. – Reuters   

Mathew Burrows and Julian Mueller-Kaler write: If not coalition building, a much more effective strategy for the U.S. would be to improve its game politically as well as economically, ensuring, for example, that American companies have attractive 5G technologies that other countries want to buy, rather than banning Huawei. The idea of trying to keep a country of 1.3 billion people down is ludicrous. There is simply no telling that a new cold war would end the same way the old one did. – The Hill


A bomb blast at a campaign rally for President Ashraf Ghani in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday narrowly missed the president, killing at least 24 people and wounding at least 31, officials said. – New York Times

An American Special Forces soldier was killed in eastern Afghanistan on Monday, according to Defense Department officials, a little more than a week after President Trump called off peace negotiations with the Taliban. – New York Times

An average of 74 men, women and children were killed every day in Afghanistan throughout the month of August, the BBC has found. The findings show unrelenting violence affects almost the entire country as US negotiations to withdraw after 18 years of war are in disarray. – BBC

Thomas Gibbons-Neff writes: Even as we want it all to stop, we know on one level that it won’t. After any peace deal, now, later, in another decade, we’ll still be fighting the war in one place. Our heads. – New York Times

South Asia

Vigilantism by religious extremists has been a problem on Pakistani campuses since the 1980s military dictatorship of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who emboldened them with his Islamization of the country’s laws, said Tahira Abdullah, a human rights activist. – New York Times

Rohingya Muslims remaining in Myanmar still face a “serious risk of genocide”, UN investigators said Monday, warning the repatriation of a million already driven from the country by the army remains “impossible”. – Agence France-Presse 

U.S. and Indian officials are nearing a trade negotiation breakthrough, according to multiple administration officials and industry insiders familiar with the talks, hoping to unveil at least a preliminary agreement during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit this week. – Washington Examiner


The Solomon Islands has decided to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and cast its lot with China, Taiwan’s president said Monday, as Beijing increases pressure on Taiwan ahead of the self-governed island’s closely watched presidential election in January. – Wall Street Journal

Hundreds of students marched through a Hong Kong campus on Monday and broke the glass on several doors to protest the arrest of a college reporter who was taken into custody during a rally this weekend for carrying what his school’s president described as a table knife. – New York Times 

Officials in Japan appeared wary over the prospects for a trade deal with the U.S. after President Donald Trump said he was prepared to sign a pact soon. – Associated Press  

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday she plans to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump in New York next week, in what would be the first formal bilateral discussions between the two leaders. – Reuters 

Editorial: Unfortunately, Trump foreclosed that possibility three days after taking office. If he wants a truly transformative trade deal — one that goes well beyond the modest gains he has secured with Japan — there’s still time to fix that mistake. – Bloomberg

Walter Russell Mead writes: The view from Tokyo is that the U.S. has begun to put the Indo-Pacific at the center of its foreign policy but hasn’t yet developed a coherent strategy for success. Asia, meanwhile, is changing rapidly as Beijing becomes bolder and more powerful. Japan is threatened by North Korea’s missile program and facing the full force of Chinese economic and political assertiveness. The great question is whether the U.S. can get its act together before China changes the rules of the game. – Wall Street Journal


Russia on Monday urged countries in the Middle East and outside the region not to draw “hasty conclusions” on who staged the attacks on Saudi oil facilities. – Reuters 

Russia is ready to help Saudi Arabia following attacks on the Saudi oil industry if needed, Russian President Vladimir Putin said after talks with leaders of Turkey and Iran in Ankara on Monday, and proposed Russian weapons for purchase. – Reuters  

The Russian government hacked into the FBI’s communication system to stop the bureau from being able to track Russian spies working in the US, Yahoo News reported in a bombshell investigation published Monday. – Business Insider


Spain’s National Court ordered Venezuela’s former top spy released from jail Monday, rejecting a U.S. extradition request seeking the former official on drug-trafficking charges.  – Wall Street Journal 

The U.S. is poised to impose new tariffs on European Union exports over the bloc’s subsidies to Airbus SE , the EU’s trade chief said Monday, citing the Trump administration’s unwillingness to settle a long-running commercial dispute over aircraft manufacturers. – Wall Street Journal  

The European Union’s top official told U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson the bloc is still awaiting concrete proposals from London for how to avoid a physical border on the island of Ireland, damping hopes of a swift breakthrough in Brexit talks. – Wall Street Journal  

French President Emmanuel Macron and Jordan’s King Abdallah expressed their shared concern on Monday over Israeli comments on the annexation of Palestinian territories, the French presidency said in a statement. – Reuters  


Forced recruitment of child soldiers is increasing in South Sudan despite a peace deal last year, the head of a United Nations investigating body said on Monday, adding that a return to full-blown conflict remained a possibility. – Reuters  

Uganda and Rwanda agreed to conclude an extradition agreement to govern future exchanges of criminal fugitives after months of tension that saw the East African nations accuse each other of attempts at destabilization. – Bloomberg 

Loren B. Landau writes: South Africa has taught the world many lessons about forgiveness and reconciliation. As violent anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies ripple through Europe, the United States and elsewhere, perhaps it can teach the world another lesson — about how local hatreds emerge, and how they can be stopped. – New York Times

The Americas

A senior Canadian intelligence official facing five charges for violating the country’s state-secrets law had access to intelligence collected domestically and by Canada’s foreign allies, such as the U.S. and U.K., Canadian police said Monday. – Wall Street Journal  

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer railed against Rep. Ilhan Omar for comments she made in response to criticism from the son of a 9/11 victim. – Washington Examiner

A minority group of opposition parties in Venezuela agreed Monday to enter negotiations with President Nicolas Maduro’s government without the participation of U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, eroding his efforts to hold together a coalition to confront the socialist administration. – Associated Press  

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered the NY State Police Hate Crimes Task Force to investigate after swastikas were found carved into a bathroom door at a Starbucks location in Nyack, located near Monsey in Rockland County. – Arutz Sheva


A former National Security Agency contractor accused of leaking classified information on drone warfare is arguing that his actions are protected under the First Amendment, in a challenge to the Espionage Act that has implications for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. – Washington Post

The head of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program will temporarily take over for the company’s aeronautics business while its current leader, Michele Evans, goes on leave due to a medical issue, Lockheed Martin confirmed Monday. – Defense News 

Raytheon has announced the development of a new air-to-air missile, one it claims will be half the size of current weapons but achieve greater speed and maneuverability. – Defense News 

A war game that concluded Sept. 13 allowed the National Reconnaissance Office and U.S. Space Command to test out a new agreement for defending the nation’s spy satellites during a conflict in space. – C4ISRNET 

According to Air Force planning documents obtained by Defense News, an “initial Space Force staff” will be ready to stand up within 90 days of the new branch’s formal establishment by law. The group will take over all planning work currently done by the Air Force, and it will hash out the finer details of the branch’s structure. – Defense News

Long War

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ordered his followers to redouble their efforts to further the extremist group’s cause, in an audio message apparently aimed at raising morale after it lost control over its self-proclaimed caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq earlier this year. – Wall Street Journal  

The Taliban promised Washington during months of negotiations that the United States would never again be attacked from Afghan soil. Such a pledge would have included al-Qaida, which planned the 9/11 attacks from inside Afghanistan. – Associated Press 

Zachary Abuza and Colin P. Clarke write: Southeast Asia, in particular, has assumed a greater role in the terrorist group’s global strategy, despite having been overshadowed by higher-profile wilayats, or provinces, of the self-proclaimed caliphate in the past. The number of ISIS fighters, suicide bombers, organized training programs, and propaganda videos originating from the region has grown steadily in recent years. […]Now that the caliphate is gone and ISIS must transform itself into an insurgency, however, the largely untested lands of Southeast Asia may yield rich rewards. – Foreign Affairs