Fdd's overnight brief

September 27, 2019

In The News


President Hassan Rouhani of Iran never met President Trump in New York this week. It was a near miss, according to European officials, who were desperately trying to avert a conflict by putting the two adversaries together in a room and hoping for the best. But in the hours before he took off on Thursday for Tehran, Mr. Rouhani, sounding pensive, did not dismiss the idea that, sometime and someplace, a meeting with an American president was entirely possible under conditions set by the Iranians. – New York Times

A British-flagged oil tanker held by Iran since July was released Friday and was heading toward the United Arab Emirates, the company that owns the vessel said. – Associated Press

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged the United States on Thursday to “cease this policy of maximum pressure” on his nation, saying it was driving the possibility of negotiations even further away. – Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined on Thursday to discuss the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian prisoner swap after the United States deported an Iranian woman who pleaded guilty to exporting restricted U.S. technology to Iran. – Reuters

Iran has committed another breach of its nuclear deal with major powers by enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges, a report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog policing that deal said on Thursday, further fraying the landmark accord. – Reuters

Iran has launched an inspection of security at its key Gulf oil and gas facilities, including preparedness for cyber attacks, the Oil Ministry news agency SHANA said, following media reports of Washington weighing possible cyber attacks on Tehran. – Reuters

The European Union has privately warned Iran that it will be forced to start withdrawing from the nuclear deal in November if Tehran goes ahead with its threat to take new steps away from the deal. – The Guardian

Yonah Jeremy Bob writes: Trump came into office and would have none of the disconnect. He had no interest in allowing Iran to make havoc around the Middle East, while advancing its nuclear program in areas like ballistic missile testing under the guise of “peaceful” and “defensive” missiles. For this reason, Trump will not do a full sanctions removal until he gets an opening from Iran about its broader behavior. – Jerusalem Post

Tom Rogan writes: Iran is the nation responsible for endangering the freedom of navigation that it claims to want to fix. […]These actions were designed to extort the international community into yielding to Iran’s desire for U.S. sanctions relief. But at a most basic level, they are acts of aggression which undercut peace and security in the Persian Gulf. – Washington Examiner

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs writes: American diplomats have said that the goal is to force Iran to the negotiating table, and that the United States will not make the mistake it did during the Obama years of easing sanctions before Iran changes its behavior. If the U.S. and the Iranian regime end up returning to talks, and American diplomats can secure a deal that unwinds and removes Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, fantastic. But even if they don’t, isolating Iran and handicapping its ability to sow conflict abroad is a better bet than the Obama administration’s softer approach. – National Review 

Michael Knights and Tim Michetti write: Because the U.S. and Saudi governments both suffer from trust deficits on matters like Iranian attacks, they should err on the side of greater transparency in this case and let the evidence speak for itself. This means letting the UN or other neutral actors present the case in public. […]Washington should also nudge Riyadh to make use of independent weapon technical intelligence specialists in order to improve evidence handling. And in the longer term, it should support increased funding for the UN PoE system so that it can develop and retain the expertise needed to deliver unimpeachable results. – Washington Institute


Syrian government forces carried out a chlorine attack in May, the first confirmed violation of the international accord banning chemical weapons since President Trump authorized a U.S. military strike on Syria in 2018 over its alleged use of poison gas, a new U.S. intelligence assessment says. – Wall Street Journal

A Russian submarine has moored at Russia’s base in Syria after a patrol mission while another one is getting ready to sail off after replenishing supplies  the rotation that underlines Moscow’s growing military foothold in the Mediterranean Sea. – Associated Press

Josh Rogin writes: After what Assad has done, there’s no chance he can ever bring stability, much less peace. Peace can never come while thousands of innocent people are being tortured each and every day, many of them to death. Peace can never last unless the hundreds of thousands already murdered get some kind of justice. – Washington Post 

Tom Rogan writes: The key point here is that the U.S. has a responsibility to ensure that allies and enemies alike are aware that America will act in conformity with its word. Failing that, those nations will be emboldened to roll the dice against America. Considering China’s endeavor to steal the South China Sea, Russia’s effort to fragment and weaken NATO, and Iran’s continuing escalation in the Persian Gulf, this understanding is not one that Trump can afford. Assad has forced the president’s hand. He must act decisively. – Washington Examiner


Preparations by Turkey and the United States on a safe zone for refugees in northeastern Syria are on schedule, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying on Friday after previously accusing Washington of stalling. – Reuters

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday it was impossible for Turkey to stop buying oil and natural gas from Iran, despite the threat of U.S. sanctions, and added that trade between the two countries would continue, according to broadcaster NTV. – Reuters

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan urged caution over blaming Iran for a Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, adding that it would not be right to place the entire burden on the Islamic Republic. – Reuters


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took to the world stage on Thursday to slam the United States for “depriving the peace process of any credibility” and undermining prospects for a two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. – Associated Press

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz reached out to representatives of the Arab Gulf states in an address to the United Nations General Assembly Thursday, saying they all face a common threat from Iran. – Fox News

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday again warned that Palestinian leadership will renounce all signed agreements with Israel if any government extends Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the Northern Dead Sea. – Jerusalem Post

In a meeting with American Jewish leaders at the Polish Consulate in New York on Wednesday, Polish President Andrzej Duda bemoaned what he called Israel’s lack of regret over its assertion regarding Polish participation in the Holocaust.  – Jewish Insider

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday completed a week-long training program for its senior combat officers aimed at preparing them for a war against the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon, providing them with the latest intelligence, fighting methods and operational plans. – Times of Israel 


Escalating tensions between the United States and Iran have raised the prospect that Iraq could again became the terrain on which these two powers pursue their shadow war and a staging ground for attacks on American and allied forces in the region. – Washington Post

Two years after Vice President Mike Pence promised help to Iraq’s displaced religious minorities, a U.S. official said American aid has yielded mixed results, with many displaced individuals still unable to return to their hometowns. – Washington Examiner

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Maybe that exists, somewhere. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the reality of the war on the remnants of ISIS is that Iraq is a large country and in many areas, the enemy can hide out and wait, and finding them is difficult. Maybe the reality is – as rumors and details appear to confirm – that the Iraqi army has logistical problems in maintenance of its equipment and its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, including UAVs and planes, are not being used in some areas, or used at all. Maybe the reality is that the Iranian-backed militias spend more time trying to just exert control over civilian areas, with secret prisons and creating a business out of their new occupation, that they don’t go out and root out ISIS. And so the enemy waits and watches. – Jerusalem Post

Saudi Arabia

In a moment of need, reeling from a devastating attack on key oil facilities, Saudi Arabia is finding few friends these days in Washington or across the U.S. – Wall Street Journal

The United States military is sending roughly 200 troops, a surface-to-air missile battery and several advanced radars to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon said in a statement Thursday, after well-orchestrated attacks this month on a Saudi oil refinery that United States and Saudi officials blamed on Iran. – New York Times

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has acknowledged for the first time that he is accountable for the killing of prominent critic and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. – NPR

Saudi Arabia took aim at archrival Iran, urging the world to apply “utmost pressure” and cut off the regime’s financial resources, while Tehran insisted that such a policy had failed and would kill all chances of successful negotiations. – Associated Press

Middle East & North Africa

Since a handful of surprise protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi flared around Egypt last weekend, the largest since he came to power in 2014, the government has tightened its grip, arresting nearly 2,000 Egyptians, packing Cairo and other protest hot spots with security personnel and blocking news websites. […]But no one knows if it will be enough to deter a second round of demonstrations that the protests’ original instigator, a self-proclaimed whistle-blower living in exile, has called for Friday. – New York Times

Sudan’s transitional government ordered the immediate closure of the nation’s borders with Libya and Central African Republic on Thursday, citing unspecified security and economic “dangers”. – Reuters

Douglas J. Feith and Shaul Chorev write: A key to understanding what Russia is doing in the Eastern Mediterranean region is to recognize that it wants to have the power to influence the energy-related decisions of Saudi Arabia and other important producing states. This helps explain why it is wrong to assume that Russia shares US interests in Middle East stability. On the contrary, Russia often favors instability precisely because it contributes to upward pressure on energy prices. – Jerusalem Post

Jason Pack writes: As explained, the UN’s pronouncements on Libya simply count for more than the body’s resolutions on Syria or Yemen  in those conflicts the UN is not the body “recognizing” which governments or institutions are legitimate and then all the world’s major powers claim to follow suit. […]Nonetheless, the UN has not been unbiased in its approach to Libya. And the crux of today’s Libya problem in international foreign policy lies in an underappreciated UN misstep in the most important international treaty concerning Libya, the 2015 Skhirat Agreement. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

Japan has raised its caution level about North Korea’s missile capability, saying in a defense report that the country resumed missile tests while taking no concrete denuclearization steps and had succeeded in making miniaturized warheads. – Associated Press

North Korea said Friday it wants President Donald Trump to make a “wise option and bold decision” to produce a breakthrough in stalled nuclear diplomacy, in an escalation of pressure on the U.S. ahead of an expected resumption of talks. – Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday the United States has not been able to arrange working-level meetings with North Korea in September, but Washington is ready to meet and believes it is important to do so. – Reuters

Additional tests may add at least $500 million to Japan’s price tag for two U.S.-built ballistic missile interceptor stations that could struggle to shoot down the latest North Korean missile types, four government and defense sources said. – Reuters


The United States and China are making conciliatory gestures ahead of trade talks, but they are showing no signs of progress toward ending a tariff war that threatens global economic growth. – Associated Press

China needs the strong, unified leadership of the Communist Party or the country will “crumble,” the government said in a policy paper released on Friday ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. – Reuters

China’s growing military might has replaced North Korean belligerence as the main security threat to Japan, Tokyo’s annual defense review indicated on Thursday, despite signs that Pyongyang could have nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. – Reuters

No matter who takes the top job in Canada at the next elections, the new government will likely have to take a harder line on China, analysts say. – CNBC

Beijing has not only become a major defense spender, but increasingly analysts say China is also turning into a top arms exporter. – CNBC


The main challenger to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Saturday’s election said Thursday that a fraud-marred result “will be contested” and that his supporters would not be willing to “sacrifice” a legitimate victory at the polls. – Washington Post

Now, Afghanistan is lurching again toward what is likely to be a violent and bitterly disputed presidential vote on Saturday. The Taliban have promised widespread violence to disrupt the election, political factions are digging in for a protracted fight, and voters are expressing contempt for politicians and the election process itself. – New York Times

But many Afghans are having second thoughts about heading to the polls. They are rattled by an increasing lack of security that some say is caused as much by criminal gangs as insurgents. And they are frustrated by rampant corruption in the government. – Associated Press

Afghanistan deployed more than 100,000 troops and police on Thursday to guard polling stations in a presidential election which the Taliban has threatened to disrupt with suicide bombings and rocket attacks. – Reuters


Days before China celebrates 70 years of Communist rule, Hong Kong’s leader held a public meeting with citizens to try to defuse tensions after months of antigovernment protests, but signaled little inclination to accede to demonstrators’ demands. – Wall Street Journal 

From doing homework by torchlight to hurling flaming molotov cocktails at riot police: the character of Hong Kong’s protests has changed dramatically in five years, with young demonstrators hardened by the failure of their peaceful Umbrella Movement. – Agence France-Presse

The United States wants New Delhi to quickly ease restrictions imposed in Kashmir, a senior official said Thursday, declaring President Donald Trump’s willingness to mediate to ease tensions between India and Pakistan over the territory. – Agence France-Presse

George F. Will  writes: U.S. policy actually is that Taiwan will remain effectively a sovereign nation as long as it wants to. U.S. practices should respond to Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan with a reciprocal defiance worthy of a great nation friendly to a small nation that has few friends. For starters, America should encourage senior Taiwanese officials to visit the United States, and senior U.S. officials should travel to Taiwan to cultivate personal relationships with their Taiwanese counterparts. – Washington Post 

Gary Schmitt writes: China has been waging a diplomatic war with Taiwan for years, whittling away at the international standing of its neighbor by getting Taiwanese diplomatic allies to switch ties to China. Just this month, the Solomon Islands and the Pacific island of Kiribati broke relations with Taiwan. With far more resources than Taiwan, along with an intimidating global agenda, Beijing is able to bully and buy new ties with countries that are typically small, poor, and have leaders who are willing to deal. – The Hill 


Russia said on Thursday that Belarus’s refusal to host a military air base backed by President Vladimir Putin had been an “unpleasant episode”, a rare public display of disagreement between the close allies. – Reuters

Russia and China appear to be increasing their economic, political and military ties amid poor relations with the West. But the relationship is far more nuanced than it first appears with strengths and weaknesses on both sides, experts note. – CNBC

Taylor Dinerman writes: A Russian moonbase would prevent the U.S. and its allies from dominating the Earth-moon system and would make it harder to establish a space-commerce regime friendly to free enterprise. The longer it takes for Russia and China to gain a manned foothold on the moon, the easier it will be to entrench U.S. interests there and eventually elsewhere in the solar system. – Wall Street Journal


At the outset, the German officers investigating the brazen daylight assassination of a former Chechen separatist commander were lucky. […]Since then, that early luck appears to have run out. Investigators have a suspect in custody, but they aren’t certain who he is. The man with a shaved head, a hangdog face and arm tattoos, has mostly stayed silent, meeting only consular officers from the Russian Embassy. – New York Times

A slight drop in the number of antisemitic incidents in Berlin during the first half of this year is no excuse for complacency, the city’s antisemitism commissioner emphasized on Thursday following the publication of statistics for hate crimes targeting Jews in the German capital from January-June 2019. – Algemeiner

Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid slammed the British Labour Party on Twitter on Friday morning for their support of Palestinian right of return demands. – Jerusalem Post

The Americas

Something secret was supposed to start on Saturday related to the case of a Malaysian prisoner who has been held as a terror suspect for 13 years at Guantánamo Bay. Then a federal judge put a stop to it following a classified hearing. – New York Times

That older brother, Juan Orlando Hernández, is the president of Honduras, and an ally of President Trump on immigration and security, which are Washington’s top priorities in the region. But even as President Hernández agreed on Wednesday to a deal that will allow the United States to force some migrants to seek asylum in Honduras — a cornerstone in Mr. Trump’s plan to curb migration — federal prosecutors were preparing to present evidence that the Honduran president was a member of the drug trafficking conspiracy his brother was charged in. – New York Times

President Trump is barring Cuban Communist leader Raúl Castro and his children from entering the United States, citing human rights abuses and his regime’s support for Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro. – Washington Examiner

The United States and Latin American countries will blacklist the “senior management” of Nicolás Maduro’s regime under an oft-forgotten treaty that American officials regard as the key to driving the Venezuelan dictator from power. – Washington Examiner


Despite increased efforts by internet platforms like Facebook to combat internet disinformation, the use of the techniques by governments around the world is growing, according to a report released Thursday by researchers at Oxford University. Governments are spreading disinformation to discredit political opponents, bury opposing views and interfere in foreign affairs. – New York Times

The Navy is hiring a new cyber chief in an attempt to better shield its military secrets from Chinese hackers and other nation-state thieves who have aggressively targeted naval operations in recent years, according to Navy officials. – Wall Street Journal

A coalition of tech groups on Thursday sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to reject calls to ban facial recognition technology, arguing the sensitive software can help law enforcement “keep communities safe.” – The Hill

The Defense Innovation Unit has selected Ball Aerospace and Microsoft to demonstrate how cloud processing can handle the torrent of data that would produced by a distributed constellation of small satellites in low-Earth orbit. – C4ISRNET

The Department of Homeland Security is not “well-positioned” to carry out its cybersecurity role, according to the agency inspector general. The agency watchdog wrote in a Sept. 23 report that the Cabinet agency’s lack of a cybersecurity workforce strategy and insufficient workforce assessments prevent the agency from being prepared for its duty in federal cybersecurity. – Fifth Domain


The U.S. Air Force is considering establishing a new program office inside its research laboratory to run pathbreaking “vanguard programs,” the head of Air Force Materiel Command told Defense News in an exclusive interview. – Defense News 

A new, more realistic verification process will help the Army work out software bugs and hitches in networking equipment it fields. – C4ISRNET 

Though the Navy had already advertised it was updating its desired fleet size and composition, after a 2016 effort pegged the future fleet at 355 ships, the service is now taking an even bigger step: working on an Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment that also includes emerging unmanned and expeditionary platforms to support new concepts of warfare, according to a memo signed by the chief of naval operations and commandant of the Marine Corps. – USNI News

Hypersonic weapons travel more than five times the speed of sound and can evade traditional missile defense systems. It’s no wonder why Russia, China and the United States all want them as part of their military arsenals. – CNBC

Bill Brown writes: Today, our technical leadership is being challenged by near-peer adversaries, particularly in areas related to national security – such as cyber, artificial intelligence, hypersonics and space capabilities. This challenge, similar to the race to reach the Moon, creates a clear opportunity for America: to establish a vision and rededicate itself to invest in the innovation and talent necessary to deliver new technologies that will extend our leadership for decades to come. – Defense News

Trump Administration

For the second time in three years, Ukraine, the former Soviet republic between Russia and the West, has been caught in the glare of American news cameras because of an American political drama. In 2016, the spotlight was trained on the campaign chairman for Donald J. Trump, then the Republican candidate for president, and the aide’s undisclosed business with a pro-Russia political party. This year, the cameras are directed at President Trump and his dealings with Ukraine’s new president, a former comedian who played a teacher-turned-president on TV. How did Ukraine get here? – New York Times

Senior White House officials tried to “lock down” a record of President Trump’s call with the leader of Ukraine in an attempted cover-up of Mr. Trump’s efforts to compel an investigation of a Democratic rival, a whistle-blower alleged in an explosive complaint released Thursday. – New York Times

President Trump told staff members at the United States Mission to the United Nations on Thursday that he wants to know who provided information to a whistle-blower about his phone call with the president of Ukraine, saying that whoever did so was “close to a spy” and that “in the old days” spies were dealt with differently. – New York Times

The whistleblower’s identity remains obscured, the details of his work for the CIA cloaked in secrecy. But the document he delivered reveals almost as much about the investigative mission he carried out in stealth as it does about the alleged abuses of power by the president. – Washington Post

Rudolph W. Giuliani spent months cultivating current and former prosecutors in Ukraine with a particular goal: Help President Trump in next year’s election by ensuring that Ukrainian authorities pursued allegations that could damage his Democratic rivals. – Washington Post

The White House has taken extraordinary steps over the past two years to block details of President Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders from becoming public, following embarrassing disclosures early in his administration that enraged the president and created a sense of paranoia among his top aides. – Washington Post

The House Intelligence Committee released a declassified whistleblower complaint Sept. 26 that alleged Trump explicitly asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to locate servers used by the Democratic National Committee. Trump claims those servers are located in Ukraine. – Fifth Domain 

Ukraine is the unwitting participant in a political battle in Washington between President Donald Trump and the Democrats ahead of the 2020 election. – Reuters

The Senate voted to send President Donald Trump a measure to avoid a government shutdown and extend Ukraine military aid that’s at the center of the House’s presidential impeachment inquiry. – Defense News