Fdd's overnight brief

September 19, 2019

In The News


Tensions between the United States and Iran ratcheted up Wednesday as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decried the weekend attacks on the Saudi oil industry as an “act of war” and President Trump ordered a substantial increase in sanctions against the government in Tehran. – Washington Post 

The White House is pushing to build an international coalition to exert pressure on Iran through the United Nations as its chief response to the attack on Saudi oil facilities, an approach consistent with President Trump’s aversion to military intervention, but also reflecting limits on his retaliatory options. – Wall Street Journal

The recent attack on Saudi oil facilities was approved by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, but only on the condition that it be carried out in a way that made it possible to deny Iranian involvement, a U.S. official told CBS News. – CBS News 

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he thinks the Iranian president and foreign minister should be granted U.S. visas to attend next week’s United Nations General Assembly. – Associated Press

Donald Trump wanted to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani badly enough to break with his national security adviser, entertain a French initiative that would undercut U.S. oil sanctions on Tehran and defy the wishes of a stalwart ally, Israel. – Bloomberg

Editorial: President Trump announced Wednesday that the U.S. will impose new sanctions on Iran, and later in the day proposed an international coalition at the United Nations to shape a response. Neither of these initiatives is likely to deter Iran from further attacks, as its leaders conclude that Mr. Trump has no desire for a tougher response. – Wall Street Journal

Josh Rogin writes: U.S. officials often say Iran’s regional expansion is a threat to the entire world, but they have done little to address it. Trump says he cares about Syria, but he rarely lifts a finger to help the people suffering there. The key to addressing both problems is to realize they are two parts of the same issue. There’s no way to contain Iran while letting Syria fester. There’s no way to solve Syria while Iran has a free hand there. […]But the risk of action must be weighed against the risk of inaction. If Iran is allowed to attack Saudi Arabia with no real consequences, it will only be emboldened further. Then, the next Iranian attack could be the one that sparks the wider conflict we are all trying to avoid. – Washington Post 

Ariel Cohen writes: A non-response in the wake of this assault on the world’s oil supply and a U.S. ally will send a message to Tehran that it can continue to test the limits and act with impunity. Tehran and the world must know that armed aggression against a neighbor—and the global markets—will not go unpunished. If Iran is indeed responsible for the attack, a powerful retaliatory precision action aimed at Iranian command-and-control and /or oil export capabilities would punish Iran but could still fall short of lighting the fuse for a full-blown war. This may be the best middle-of-the-road option for President Trump. – Newsweek

Michael Eisenstadt writes: An effective U.S. gray zone strategy could help blunt Iran’s counter-pressure campaign, constrain its ability to engage in destabilizing regional activities, and dissuade it from eventually attempting a slow-motion nuclear breakout. Conversely, failure to pursue such a strategy could embolden Tehran on all of these fronts. More fundamentally, if the United States does not operate successfully in the gray zone against a third-tier power like Iran, this will raise questions about its ability to counter much more capable actors like Russia and China in the years to come. – Washington Institute

Tom Rogan writes: But short of Saudi military action, it makes sense for President Trump to pledge, as he did on Wednesday, to “substantially increase sanctions” on Tehran. Absent this new pain, Iran will see its attack as a stunning success: as proof that it can escalate against America’s international order without consequence and thus as a reason to risk more aggressive attacks in the future, including against America. – Washington Examiner 

Ilan Berman writes: The stakes are exceptionally high. A cogent, hard-hitting response to the Saudi attacks could go a long way toward reassuring America’s Middle Eastern partners that it remains committed to repelling Iranian aggression and safeguarding their security. A lackluster U.S. reply, on the other hand, would inevitably result in a massive loss of confidence in the Trump administration among the countries of the region. That, in turn, raises the risks of a wider conflict, as the Saudis (and perhaps others) are prompted to take matters into their own hands.  – The Hill

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: As Iran may well have already demonstrated, cruise missiles and UCAVs can also be used to counter or supplement economic warfare and deal with sanctions. They reinforce the fact that the ability to escalate in some military ways is not producing some new form of mutually assured destruction, but is integrating political, economic, and military warfare. Seen from a broader perspective, they are a warning that the only rules to future warfare are that there are no rules, and that the only fully predictable aspect of the future of warfare is that it will be at least as unpredictable as in the past. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabia said it holds Iran responsible for attacks that debilitated Saudi oil facilities, directly implicating Tehran for the first time but stopping short of explicitly accusing it of conducting the strikes. – Wall Street Journal

A cruise missile and drone fragments that Saudi Arabia says it recovered from an attack on its oil industry bear similarities to Iranian-manufactured weapons, though more information is needed to make a definitive link, analysts told The Associated Press on Wednesday. – Associated Press

Two Democratic US senators on Wednesday urged Trump administration officials to halt talks with Saudi Arabia on building nuclear reactors after weekend attacks that halved the country’s oil output and increased instability in the Middle East. – Reuters 

The Saudi ambassador to Germany said on Thursday all options were on the table in retaliation to attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities over the weekend that the kingdom has blamed on Iran. – Reuters

A claim from Yemen’s Houthi rebels they were responsible for the attack on Saudi oil facilities is “not very credible,” France’s foreign minister said on Thursday. – Reuters

Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels on Wednesday threatened to attack dozens of targets in the United Arab Emirates, including in the skyscraper-filled city states of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. – Agence France-Presse 


The U.N. Security Council is facing rival resolutions calling for a cease-fire in Syria’s last rebel stronghold in Idlib, “to avoid a further deterioration of the already catastrophic humanitarian situation.” – Associated Press

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that a planned “safe zone” in northern Syria could host 2 million to 3 million Syrian refugees who have settled in Turkey and Europe after eight years of war at home. – Reuters 

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have been blamed for recent airstrikes targeting pro-Iranian militias in the Albukamal area in Syria near the border with Iraq, according to Arab media. The attacks resulted in a number of deaths and injuries and the destruction of weapon storage facilities and rocket launchers. – Jerusalem Post 


U.S. President Donald Trump has become more understanding about why Turkey has purchased a Russian missile defense system and he is not expected to impose U.S. sanctions on Ankara over the issue, a senior Turkish official said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Iranians are in tight competition with Iraqis over becoming the leading nation in buying homes in Turkey. – Radio Farda

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that a planned “safe zone” in northern Syria could host 2 million to 3 million Syrian refugees who have settled in Turkey and Europe after eight years of war at home. – Reuters

A Turkish court ruled on Wednesday to keep a U.S. consulate employee in jail as his trial on espionage charges continues, a lawyer said, meaning he will remain in detention until the next hearing in December. – Reuters


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday there was no choice but to form a unity government with his rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, after the country’s election ended in a deadlock. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump appeared to distance himself from embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, declining to offer either encouragement or praise to his most enthusiastically loyal foreign ally now that he faces potential electoral defeat. – Washington Post 

The Palestinians are prepared to engage in dialogue with any future Israeli leader, Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said Wednesday in Oslo, the day after general elections in Israel ended in deadlock. – Agence France-Presse 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cancelled his planned visit to the United Nations General Assembly due to the “political context” in Israel, sources in his office told AFP Wednesday. – Agence France-Presse 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised US President Donald Trump for announcing his intention to bolster sanctions on the Tehran regime. “Iran’s aggression has increased of late, including in the Gulf, and this is precisely the time to increase pressure and sanctions,” Netanyahu said. “I am pleased that President Trump has done exactly this.” – Algemeiner 

Middle East & North Africa

Petroleum infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations critical to the global economy remains vulnerable to new attacks in the future, whether from Iran, its regional allies or other groups, industry experts, security analysts and former U.S. officials warn. – Wall Street Journal

Lebanon’s military court acquitted one of four brothers accused of planning to blow up a flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi nearly two years ago, state news agency NNA said on Thursday. – Reuters

Kuwait’s oil sector is on high alert and has raised its security to the highest level as a precautionary measure in the wake of the weekend attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, a Kuwaiti oil official said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander Qasem Soleimani secretly visited Baghdad this week and met with pro-Iranian Iraqi militia leaders, according to Jordan’s weekly Al Hadath. Iraqi media reported that Soleimani called on militia leaders to target United States interests in Iraq. – Jerusalem Post 

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet has approved extending Germany’s military participation in an international coalition against the Islamic State group. Merkel spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said Wednesday the Cabinet extended the Bundeswehr’s training of local Iraqi forces until Oct. 31, 2020. – Associated Press


A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday that would bar federal agencies from buying drones from China and any other country deemed a national-security risk. – Wall Street Journal

China has long deployed propaganda and censorship to subject its citizens to government-approved narratives. As the nation’s place in the world grows, Beijing has increasingly turned to internet platforms that it blocks within the country including Twitter and Facebook  to advance its agenda across the rest of the planet. – New York Times 

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has strongly rejected claims by five human rights groups that he hasn’t condemned the Chinese government’s detention of more than a million Muslims in the Xinjiang region, saying he has spoken out forcefully. – Associated Press

Chinese tech giant Huawei launches its latest high-end smartphone in Munich on Thursday, the first that could be void of popular Google apps because of US sanctions. – Agence France-Presse 


A powerful early morning suicide truck bomb devastated a hospital in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, killing as many as 20 people and wounding more than 90 others, an official said. – Associated Press

A rushed peace deal in Afghanistan could leave millions of unemployed men at risk of being recruited by terrorist groups and criminal gangs, according to a Pentagon watchdog who’s been tracking the war 18 years after the U.S. invaded to oust the Taliban. – Bloomberg

Ahmad Katawazai writes: It would be wise for the Taliban to engage into an intra-Afghan dialogue to orchestrate a workable broad-based government preserving the gains that have been made. As Ghani and Trump both pointed out, there can be no peace without a truce or ceasefire. Taliban should consider that as a precondition for the resumption of peace talks. – Washington Examiner 

David Tafuri writes: President Trump and Democratic candidates should realize that exit from Afghanistan at all costs is too costly. Trump should pursue a deal to draw the Taliban into a political process and encourage them to cut ties with terrorist groups. A complete withdrawal of NATO forces can only be ordered when we are certain that Afghanistan will not revert back to a terrorist state without them. – The Hill


The allegations raise questions over whether Mr Moon’s policy of engagement with Mr Kim to abandon nuclear weapons has also included efforts to silence critics and shift public focus from problems such as human rights abuses in North Korea. – Financial Times

Parliament in the tiny South Pacific country of Tuvalu elected a new prime minister on Thursday, making a change that analysts say could give China a chance to further undermine Taiwan in a region that has been a pillar of support. – Reuters

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare may miss the United Nations General Assembly in New York, two parliamentary sources said, amid rising tension in the Pacific nation over its decision to sever ties with Taiwan and align with Beijing. – Reuters

Jamie Tarabay writes: Two forces are now colliding: Australia’s ethnic Chinese community is increasing in size and power just as the country is becoming more skeptical of its economic dependence on China and raising alarms about Chinese influence in Australian institutions. Countries around the world are grappling with how to handle China’s sweeping ambitions, but the challenges are especially pronounced in Australia. – New York Times 

George F. Will writes: This lack is a strength and a weakness. The movement has no leader with whom the local government, which is an appendage of Beijing — and, hence, of the Chinese Communist Party — might negotiate. Fortunately, however, a movement without a head cannot be easily decapitated, which otherwise probably would be Beijing’s default position. – Washington Post


Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to increase sanctions on Iran in the aftermath of an attack on Saudi oil facilities, saying the move would solve nothing. – Reuters 

A campaign in support of jailed Russian demonstrators gained momentum Wednesday, with celebrities, priests and teachers calling for their release and hundreds of people protesting outside the presidential administration. – Agence France-Presse 

NATO has stood up a new command whose job it is to speed alliance troops and tanks around Europe in order to defend against a Russian invasion. – The National Interest


The European Union’s two top officials handling troublesome Brexit talks warned Wednesday the risk of a no-deal exit looms large unless British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government swiftly offers concrete proposals. – Agence France-Presse

The European Union must introduce a new, automatic system of taking in migrants saved from the Mediterranean, the leaders of Italy and France said on Wednesday, as they sought to patch up bruised bilateral relations. – Reuters

Free movement between Australia and the UK would be explored by the government in “post-Brexit” business talks, Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, has announced. – The Guardian


British Arab Commercial Bank PLC agreed to pay $4 million to settle allegations that it violated U.S. sanctions on Sudan, the U.S. Treasury Department said. – Wall Street Journal

Bobby Ghosh writes: The most useful thing President Donald Trump’s administration can do immediately for Sudan is to take it off the State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism. That designation severely restricts the country’s access to international aid, foreign investment and remittances, all critical to the survival of the new civilian-led government and to hopes for a smooth democratic transition in Khartoum. – Bloomberg

Michael Rubin writes: In short, Mr. President, welcome back to the United States. You have an incredibly difficult job, but that should not mean a blank check. Can you assure Congress and the broader public that Somalia is better off under your leadership and that its trajectory remains positive? Does aid do more harm than good? Or is Somalia destined to another decade or more of state failure? – Washington Examiner


Huawei Technologies Co. has been suspended from membership in a global trade group of companies, governments and experts set up to tackle computer security breaches and share information about vulnerabilities. – Wall Street Journal

Facebook Inc. FB 0.03% CEO Mark Zuckerberg will travel to Capitol Hill on Thursday to pitch his vision for moderate internet regulation and seek to placate lawmakers who are weighing tougher moves. – Wall Street Journal

Democratic lawmakers joined by some Republicans challenged the Trump administration’s push to renew a domestic phone-surveillance program, expressing skepticism that the tool serves a legitimate purpose and indicating bipartisan support for letting it lapse later this year. – Wall Street Journal


The U.K. halted the $5 billion sale of a British defense company to an American investor on national-security grounds, pending further government review, in a rare move for a country that hasn’t typically inserted itself in big, cross-border deal making. – Wall Street Journal

In the high latitudes, where presence increasingly equals power, the U.S. Coast Guard shoulders much of today’s mission load. But experts think the Arleigh Burke destroyers of the future could share the operational burden. – USNI News 

Lockheed Martin broke ground this month on two new weapons factories in the southern US states of Alabama and Arkansas. The two-building facility in Courtland, Alabama, will assemble, integrate, and test hypersonic strike weapons, a growing focus of the US Department of Defense. – Jane’s 360 

Long War

An Alabama man has been apprehended as part of a yearslong terrorism probe in which the FBI says he told agents he would execute a U.S. soldier if ordered to do so by the Islamic State group. – Associated Press 

A mechanic accused of sabotaging an American Airlines jetliner had expressed a desire for Allah to hurt non-Muslims, stored violent Islamic State videos on his cellphone and has a brother in Iraq possibly involved with the extremist group, according to new evidence unveiled at his bail hearing Wednesday. – Associated Press

The remnants of the Islamic State have returned to the group’s insurgent roots since the destruction of its land caliphate earlier this year, but it may be regrouping to make another land grab, the Pentagon says. The terrorist group has been operating in a “clandestine” fashion since losing the last of its territory in Iraq and Syria, said Chris Maier, director of the Pentagon’s Defeat-ISIS Task Force, in a Wednesday press briefing. – Washington Examiner 

Trump Administration

President Trump named Robert C. O’Brien as his new national security adviser, picking a top hostage-affairs official for the high-profile White House role at a time when the U.S. is weighing how to respond to attacks on Saudi Arabia. – Wall Street Journal

U.S. intelligence officials have agreed to meet with the House Intelligence Committee, apparently ending a standoff over a still-mysterious whistleblower’s report. The agreement was announced on Wednesday evening, hours before the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed sources, that the complaint involved communications between President Donald Trump and a foreign leader. – Bloomberg

Eli Lake writes: There was a real risk that Trump would choose a national security adviser who would indulge the president’s worst instincts on foreign policy, arranging for flashy summits with the world’s most loathsome leaders. […]The danger, of course, is that Trump is capable of changing his mind in a flash. A year ago, it was Bolton who had the president’s ear and trust. A year later, Trump announced his firing on Twitter. Now it will be O’Brien’s turn to advise a mercurial president on how to lead a world in crisis. – Bloomberg 

Theodore Bromund writes: The U.S. should work in advance with democratic nations to propose a General Assembly resolution affirming that Interpol has the power and the responsibility to suspend the access of abusive nations and directing Interpol’s General Secretariat to carry out a factual study (to be published at the 2020 General Assembly meeting) on which nations have submitted the most requests, and the highest proportion of requests, that it rejected as abusive. – Heritage Foundation