Fdd's overnight brief

September 20, 2019

In The News


Senior national security officials from across the government met on Thursday to refine a list of potential targets to strike in Iran, should President Trump order a military retaliation for missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oil fields last weekend, officials said. – New York Times

Iran’s top diplomat said a military strike by the U.S. or Saudi Arabia against his country would result in “an all-out war,” a day after Riyadh accused Tehran of orchestrating debilitating attacks on its oil infrastructure and raised the prospect of retaliation. – Wall Street Journal

Tehran denies playing a role in the blitz, which crippled Saudi Arabia’s oil output. But analysts say Iran likely wanted to test a key adversary and jolt global energy markets, building leverage ahead of potential talks with the United States. – Washington Post 

France sounded a downbeat note Thursday on the prospects of direct talks between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US counterpart Donald Trump on the nuclear crisis, saying the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities had created a “new context”. – Agence France-Presse

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday doubled down on accusations Iran is responsible for the weekend bombing on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, telling reporters that the strike was “an act of war.” – Fox News

Iran’s foreign minister on Friday questioned U.S. plans for a coalition for a “peaceful resolution” in the Middle East while listing repeated Iranian diplomatic initiatives. – Reuters

Iran will hold its annual military parade on Sept. 22 in the Gulf with 200 frigates and speedboats at a time of soaring tension between Tehran and Washington. – Radio Farda

The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards says his country has become so powerful that its enemies blame it for any atrocity “even if they know it’s a lie.” – Radio Farda

The United States has issued visas allowing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to travel to New York for the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations next week, Iran’s U.N. mission said on Thursday. – Reuters

Bret Stephens writes: These are not the actions of a leader spoiling for a fight. Iran’s increasingly bellicose behavior is less of a response to U.S. economic pressure than it is an assessment of U.S. strategic will. Trump’s transparent hankering for a deal gives Tehran an opportunity to aggravate the crisis — all the better to extract favorable terms in a negotiation. – New York Times

Tom Rogan writes: For all Zarif’s hyperbolic tendencies, the foreign minister is aligned with a more moderate faction under Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. He knows that there are only two ways for Iran to escape the catastrophic sanctions pressure it now faces: Either wait in hope that a Democrat defeats Trump in 2020 and rejoins the nuclear agreement, or agree to a new nuclear agreement with Trump on terms more favorable to U.S. interests. That’s why Rouhani was moving toward meeting Trump at next week’s United Nations General Assembly. – Washington Examiner 

Michael Rubin writes: Military action against Iran seems increasingly likely as intelligence and forensic evidence collected in the wake of the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations suggests Iranian responsibility. While diplomats, intelligence analysts, and politicians can debate the wisdom of military strikes, if the United States (or Saudi) government makes such a decision, what might be the primary targets? Here are five. – Washington Examiner 

Arabian Peninsula

The United States stands with Saudi Arabia and “supports its right to defend itself,” Pompeo tweeted after his meeting with the crown prince. Unmentioned, however, was the upcoming first anniversary of an event that has deeply shaken the Saudi-U.S. relationship: the murder by Saudi government agents of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist who was critical of the crown prince’s push for reforms. – Washington Post

Washington and Riyadh blamed Iran, despite its denials, and President Trump threatened that the United States was “locked and loaded.” Yet despite months of such bravado, Mr. Trump has been hesitant to take military action that might risk an expanded conflagration. For better or worse, such a muted response could signal another turning point for the region. – New York Times

Even with American intelligence providing the latest in surveillance, the Saudi military has often been unable to act effectively, reinforcing a view among national security officials and humanitarian activists that — despite all the sparkling, expensive hardware — Saudi Arabia remains uninterested or incapable of defending its entire territory or competently and humanely prosecuting a war abroad. – New York Times

A series of attacks on Saudi oil facilities has escalated tensions in the region and put Iran’s ties with Yemen’s Huthi rebels in the spotlight. The Huthis claimed responsibility for the September 14 attacks on two major oil facilities run by state oil giant Saudi Aramco that cut the kingdom’s oil output in half, seriously affecting world crude prices. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The United States will allow Saudi Arabia to decide if there is enough evidence to accuse Iran of conducting last week’s drone and missile strike that crippled two Saudi oil production facilities, the Pentagon says. – Washington Examiner 

A new Insider poll shows that barely one in five Americans view Saudi Arabia as a US ally, even as the Trump administration threatened a military response against Iran for allegedly striking major Saudi oil facilities. – Business Insider

The Saudi-led coalition on Friday launched a military operation north of Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah against what it described as “legitimate military targets”, an incident that could aggravate regional tensions after a weekend attack on Saudi oil installations. – Reuters

Bilal Y. Saab writes: The United States can no longer treat the Middle East as an American protectorate. The region’s stability should be a collective responsibility. The attack on Saudi Arabia is an attack on all nations who care about international security and the stability of the global energy market. – Middle East Institute

Sen. Angus King and Sen. Todd Young write: We recently returned from the first congressional delegation visit to Saudi Arabia in well over a year, where we delivered the kingdom — including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the same message we have been spreading for months: Saudi Arabia has been an important strategic partner, but not one we will support at any cost. – Defense News


Syrian state TV reported on Thursday that a drone was destroyed over the village of Aqraba, a suburb of Damascus. Earlier, there were reports of explosions in the area. – Arutz Sheva

A sprawling refugee camp in northeast Syria is described as a breeding ground for ISIS and a ticking time bomb. A few hundred U.S. allies guard the Al-Hol camp, where the strict laws of ISIS are followed. – CBS News

Elizabeth Tsurkov writes: In the end, the stabilization of Idlib under HTS dominance and a greater Turkish role in the region would essentially create a new Gaza in Idlib: a besieged area, under a long-term cease-fire, dominated by an Islamist authoritarian organization that works to combat more extremist elements. This solution is hardly ideal for the region’s traumatized inhabitants. But given the prospect of mass murder that awaits them if the regime takes over, this appears to be the best option available. – Foreign Policy


Israel’s former military chief Benny Gantz declared victory Thursday in Israel’s election and rebuffed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ’s calls for power sharing, as the country braced for weeks of political uncertainty and geopolitical tensions rise in the Middle East. – Wall Street Journal

Retired Gen. Benny Gantz, possibly weeks away from being Israel’s next leader, would likely follow the same path as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on strengthening his country’s alliance with the U.S., securing its borders and countering Iran at a time of crisis in the Middle East. – Wall Street Journal

The Central Elections Committee on Thursday night announced the near final results of the elections to the 22nd Knesset. The results, which reflect 99.8% of the total votes, find that the Blue and White Party is the largest party in the Knesset with 33 seats, followed by the Likud with 31. – Arutz Sheva

Israeli police said Thursday that security guards at a checkpoint near Jerusalem were in “immediate danger” when they shot and killed a Palestinian woman carrying a knife, after a widely circulated video of the shooting raised concerns about excessive force. – Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu skillfully “played” US President Donald Trump by plying him with inaccurate information, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson said. – Agence France-Presse

Middle East & North Africa

The Pentagon is considering sending additional antimissile batteries, another squadron of jet fighters and added surveillance capabilities to the Middle East to shore up the military’s regional presence in the wake of the attack last weekend on Saudi Arabia’s petroleum industry, U.S. military officials said. – Wall Street Journal

As the United States and Israel escalate their push to contain Iranian influence in the Middle East, countries in Tehran’s orbit are feeling the heat. – Associated Press

The United Arab Emirates said Thursday that it would join a U.S.-led maritime coalition aimed at protecting international shipping in and near the Strait of Hormuz following alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers there. – NPR

In a September 17, 2019 article titled ‘Rescue the World from the Persian Nazism,’ Ahmed Al-Jarallah, editor-in-chief of the Kuwaiti English-language daily Arab Times, wrote that the issue of confronting Iran is no longer just a matter of thwarting the Persian expansion project but a matter of countering a threat to global security. In this situation, he said, American and European notions of going back to the Barack Obama policy of rapprochement with Iran are no longer feasible; the world must act to ensure a steady supply of oil at reasonable prices, for a failure to do so will result in a global recession. – Middle East Media Research Institute

A Lebanese government investigation concluded that two Israeli drones were on an attack mission when they crashed in the capital last month, one of them armed with 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of explosives, Lebanon’s defense minister said Thursday. – Associated Press

Saud Al-Sharafat writes: As Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood struggles to avoid continued fragmentation and domestic isolation, the groups are likely to hone their focus on external targets, such as the ‘Deal of the Century,’ in order to bolster domestic support. Even so, and despite some parliamentary willingness to engage, it appears increasingly unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan will be able to return to the type of strength demonstrated just eight years ago during the Arab Spring. – Washington Institute


Attorneys for China’s Huawei Technologies Co. argued in court Thursday that a law barring it from doing business with U.S. government agencies is unconstitutional for selectively targeting the company for punishment using legislation. – Wall Street Journal

Chinese authorities have detained a FedEx Corp. pilot in the southern city of Guangzhou, elevating pressure on the express shipping giant that is already in Beijing’s crosshairs amid a U.S.-China trade war. – Wall Street Journal

Uighurs living abroad have started to hear reports of family members being arrested and jailed on suspicion of financing terrorism after sending money to relatives abroad. Those relatives have also had their savings and assets confiscated by the state, they say. This new and alarming effort appears aimed at keeping Uighurs in China from having any contact with their family members beyond the country’s borders, analysts say. – Washington Post

One of America’s most recent espionage cases started with a friendly hello over the Internet. It ended with a jury in Virginia finding former CIA officer Kevin Mallory guilty of spying for China. The Mallory case — a rare counterintelligence investigation to go to trial — provides a lesson in how Chinese spies use social media to try to recruit or co-opt Americans. – NPR

Joseph Bosco writes: The question Xi Jinping and his communist comrades must face is whether the clash of value systems will end with another Chinese civil war rivaling America’s titanic struggle if they continue to resist the inextinguishable urge for freedom, or with a premeditated evolutionary plan that will bring China to a system of peaceful political reform. – The Hill


Afghan civilians continued to die by the dozens on Thursday in violent attacks, this time in what Afghan officials said was an American drone strike in eastern Afghanistan, and in a separate Taliban bombing that leveled a hospital in southern Afghanistan. – New York Times

The State Department cut $100 million in aid for Afghanistan on Thursday as the Trump administration’s chief peace negotiator briefed House lawmakers on the failed efforts to strike a deal with the Taliban and wind down the 18-year war. – New York Times

President Donald Trump on Thursday expressed his rising frustration over trying to reach an accord between warring oil and biofuel interests by saying the negotiations were more difficult than dealing with the Taliban. – Bloomberg

Taliban leaders have an interest in negotiating with the United States because of the risk that an Islamic State offshoot will establish a caliphate in Afghanistan, according to a senior diplomat. – Washington Examiner 

Ahmad Katawaza 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

South Asia

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India prepares for a big trip to the United States, human rights groups and three Nobel Peace Prize winners have criticized the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a prestigious award they plan to bestow upon Mr. Modi next week during his visit. – New York Times

Her face was everywhere — on the news, at police stations and at the airports where the Pakistani government had put her on a list of the nation’s most wanted. […]But somehow Gulalai Ismail, a 32-year-old Pakistani women’s rights activist on the run, managed to slip through the dragnet last month and escape to America. She is now staying with her sister in Brooklyn and has applied for political asylum in the United States. – New York Times 

Despite its economic challenges, Pakistan has maintained progress on critical modernization programs to strengthen its conventional military forces, according to a recently revealed government document. – Defense News

Sri Lankan presidential nominee Gotabaya Rajapaksa would “restore relations” with the country’s top lender China if he wins the Nov. 16 vote and met with a senior Chinese official this week, according to an adviser and his spokesman. – Reuters


Taiwan lashed out at China on Friday after the tiny island nation of Kiribati switched its recognition to Beijing, the second diplomatic defection in the strategically important Pacific in less than a week. – Agence France-Presse

For Taiwan, the Pacific Islands had been relatively stable as China siphoned off diplomatic partners elsewhere after independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen took power in 2016. That all changed this week. On Monday, the Solomon Islands — one of the biggest economies in the region — recognized China and ended formal relations with Taiwan that began in 1983. – Bloomberg

China’s foreign ministry on Thursday accused U.S. congressional leader Nancy Pelosi of making irresponsible remarks about pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, one day after she welcomed activists from the city to the U.S. Capitol. – Associated Press


In 2013, Edward Snowden was an IT systems expert working under contract for the National Security Agency when he traveled to Hong Kong to provide three journalists with thousands of top-secret documents about U.S. intelligence agencies’ surveillance of American citizens. – NPR

Dimitar Bechev writes: Washington’s bellicose rhetoric about Iran is likely to bring Moscow and Tehran even closer. Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, pushed back strongly against the U.S. line that Iran is to blame for the drone attacks against the oil and gas processing facilities at Khurais and Abqaiq. To be sure, if tensions get out of hand and the United States ends up starting a war against Iran, the Russians will stand on the sidelines. But given the Trump administration’s penchant to rattle sabers and then back away, Putin could well reap another opportunity to burnish his image as the Middle East’s rising star. – Foreign Policy 

Anna Mahjar-Barducci writes: For official Russia, democracy is not a value per se, identity is the real value worth fighting for. The former Kremlin advisor Sergey Karaganov believes that authoritarian regimes command “an advantage over modern democracies,” since they are better at consolidating resources and promoting a consistent long-term policy. – Middle East Media Research Institute


France and Germany said on Thursday they were close to an agreement on how to remove obstacles to exporting weapons manufactured in joint programs, after French firms called for easing German export restrictions. – Reuters

The U.S. House on Thursday passed legislation to make sure Ukraine can spend $250 million in military aid after White House delayed it this summer. – Defense News

The defense chiefs of France, Belgium and Cyprus have signed an agreement to pursue a common anti-tank missile meant for wider adoption in Europe — an effort that puts the spotlight once again on accusations of protectionism in defense programs here. – Defense News

The Austrian parliament passed legislation on Thursday allowing the descendants of those who were persecuted by the Nazis in the country to obtain citizenship. The scope of the new law includes both those who fled Austria and those who survived concentration camps. – Jerusalem Post

Off the Atlantic coast of Portugal’s Sesimbra and Troia peninsulas, NATO is hosting a gathering of its robot ships and aircraft that the partner nations hope will soon pepper the ocean with sensors for hunting submarines, mines and ships, fused together in a surveillance network unrivaled in maritime history. – Defense News


A South Sudanese oil consortium directly financed militias accused of committing atrocities in the country’s civil war, according to an investigative report released on Thursday amid growing calls for accountability for the conflict’s human rights abuses. – New York Times

The army in northeastern Nigeria forced non-profit Action Against Hunger to close its office in the region, accusing it on Thursday of aiding terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State. – Reuters

At least 28 people have been killed in a northeastern province of Democratic Republic of Congo in the past two days, the UN stabilizing mission in the country (MONUSCO) said on Thursday. – Reuters

Mohammed Soliman writes: The United States has specifically designated former Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service director Salah Gosh for his involvement in “gross violations of human rights.” The United States must expand on this by threatening to impose sanctions on prominent Sundanese military leaders implicated in human rights violations[…]. Most notably, this action will showcase the United States and the international community’s commitment to a smooth democratic transition from the TMC leadership, and helping to curb any ambitions of RSF leader General Hemediti to spoil the current agreement between the TMC and the FFC. – Washington Institute

United States

The Trump administration moved to expel a pair of Cuban diplomats from their posts at the country’s mission to the United Nations, alleging they attempted to conduct “influence operations” against the U.S. ahead of next week’s gathering of world leaders in New York. – Wall Street Journal

One of the leaders of the Women’s March revealed that she was removed from the board on Thursday, days after a litany of controversial tweets came to light. Zahra Billoo, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was one of 17 women to be appointed to the organization’s national board earlier this week. Her Twitter account is filled with anti-Zionist tweets, which the Anti-Defamation League has deemed “anti-Semitic.” – Washington Examiner 

A judge was expected to rule Friday whether a 20-year-old former college student should stand trial on charges of firing an assault rifle inside a synagogue, killing one woman and injuring three, including a rabbi and an 8-year-old girl. – Associated Press


India is planning to set up one of the world’s largest facial recognition systems, potentially a lucrative opportunity for surveillance companies and a nightmare for privacy advocates who fear it will lead to a Chinese-style Orwellian state. – Bloomberg

Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg met with President Donald Trump on Thursday as he tried to sway Congress and policy makers who have been critical of the practices of the social media platform. – Bloomberg

Rafael Loss and Joseph Johnson write: An appreciation for technical detail, however, is necessary to arrive at realistic assessments of any new technology, and particularly consequential where nuclear weapons are concerned. Some have warned that advances in AI could erode the fundamental logic of nuclear deterrence by enabling counter-force attacks against heretofore concealed and mobile nuclear forces. Such secure second-strike forces are considered the backbone of effective nuclear deterrence by assuring retaliation. Were they to become vulnerable to preemption, nuclear weapons would lose their deterrent value. – War on the Rocks


The first two of an eventual 20 F-35 jets arrived Thursday at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington, the first Guard unit to receive the next-generation fighter. – Associated Press

The Corps’ potential fight across the expanse of the Pacific will require a mix of unmanned ground, aerial and ships to move supplies and create dilemmas for enemy forces. On Sept. 11, the Corps put out a request for information from industry leaders for an unmanned vessel capable of traveling 500 nautical miles without resupply. – Marine Times

The Air Force has informally submitted a plan to Congress that would trade a troubled weather satellite program that has failed to make headway for a proliferated low earth orbit constellation, according to a report from the Senate Appropriations Committee. – C4ISRNET

As Congress reviews the Pentagon’s plans for U.S. hypersonic weapons programs, it might consider questions about the rationale for hypersonic weapons, their expected costs, and their implications for strategic stability and arms control. – USNI News

The Navy has a large backlog of surface ship maintenance it is trying to dig out of; that’s not new. And while the sea service and ship repair industry are making some progress in cutting back on administrative and other burdens that slow down maintenance availabilities, the contractors here in San Diego are so backed up that the Navy has received zero bids for several recent maintenance availabilities. – USNI News

The US Air Force has just released some interesting photographs of one of the B-2 Spirit bombers deployed to RAF Fairford, UK, as part of a Bomber Task Force as it refuels from a KC-135 Stratotanker over England, August 29, 2019. – Business Insider

A US Air Force general said this week that the US needs a lot more bombers if it is going to stand up to great power rivals like China and Russia. – Business Insider

Long War

A New Jersey man who became a naturalised U.S. citizen in 2008 after lying about his ties to Hezbollah has been indicted on charges he conducted surveillance in New York City and Washington, D.C. to support possible terrorist attacks, federal prosecutors said on Thursday. – Reuters

Police have vowed to thwart the rise of the far right, which they have said is the fastest-growing terrorist threat in the UK, as they try to stop race hate ideologues from bringing violence to the country’s streets. – The Guardian

An Australian court has found a man guilty of planning to blow up an Etihad Airways flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi nearly two years ago with a bomb hidden in a meat grinder, a spokeswoman for the New South Wales Supreme Court said on Friday. Police had accused the man, Mahmoud Khayat, and his brother Khaled Khayat of planning two terrorist attacks: the bomb and a chemical gas attack on the flight to Abu Dhabi in July 2017. – Reuters

Trump Administration

But until this week, only Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and his wife, Brigitte, had been invited for a state visit and the formal dinner that goes with it, compared with four leaders who had been honored at this point in the Obama administration. On Friday, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, will be the second. – New York Times

A whistleblower complaint that prompted a standoff between the U.S. intelligence community and Democrats in Congress involves President Trump ’s communications with a foreign leader, a person familiar with the matter said. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration plunged into an extraordinary showdown with Congress Thursday over access to a whistleblower’s complaint about reported incidents including a private conversation between President Donald Trump and a foreign leader. The blocked complaint is both “serious” and “urgent,” the government’s intelligence watchdog said. – Associated Press

President Donald Trump on Thursday denied making an improper promise to an unnamed foreign leader. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee criticized the administration for hiding the details of a whistleblower’s complaint against the president. – USA Today

Rudy Giuliani acknowledged on Thursday that he had asked top Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, an admission that comes as Capitol Hill Democrats investigate whether President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer are pressuring Ukraine’s government to dig up dirt on a 2020 election rival. – Politico