Fdd's overnight brief

September 6, 2018

In The News


U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he remained open to the possibility of talks between Washington and Tehran, but said Iran was in turmoil and struggling to survive. – Reuters

Iran’s foreign minister sharply criticized President Donald Trump Wednesday for abusing the U.S. presidency of the Security Council this month by holding a meeting on Iran’s international activities during the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. in late September. – Associated Press

Iran’s rial fell to a record low on Wednesday as worried residents of Tehran lined up outside beleaguered moneychangers, part of a staggering 140-percent drop in the currency’s value since America pulled out of the nuclear deal only four months ago. –Associated Press

With four more Iranian human rights defenders arrested in Tehran since August 31, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the country’s authorities have “ramped up” their crackdown against activists. – Radio Free EuropeRadio Liberty

Even though Iran has rescinded a request to repatriate 300 million euros ($347 million) it has in a Hamburg-based bank, German authorities say financial regulators are still examining the proposed transaction. – Associated Press

Farzin Nadimi writes: On August 23, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei promoted the acting commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), Alireza Tangsiri, to full commander… Yet his promotion does not necessarily signal a shift back to tense naval provocations in Persian Gulf waters, depending on how Khamenei decides to respond to forthcoming oil sanctions. – Washington Institute


Russian warplanes struck rebels in Syria’s last major opposition stronghold on Tuesday, forcing the Trump administration to confront a looming regime offensive that is expected to deliver a fatal blow in the seven-year conflict and hand Moscow a diplomatic victory. – Wall Street Journal

There was “zero intelligence” of chemical weapons capabilities possessed by groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the province of Idlib, U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said, adding that the facts did not back Russian assertions. – Reuters

International calls mounted Wednesday to avoid a “massacre” by regime forces in Syria’s last rebel-held province of Idlib, two days before a summit between key powers backing the government and opposition. – Agence– France Presse

Syrian rebels bracing for battle in northwest Syria are pinning their hopes on ally Turkey to intervene with Russia and prevent an all-out Syrian government offensive that could deal a final blow to their seven-year-long uprising. – Reuters

President Donald Trump denied expressing a desire to kill Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack, but he has warned the Syrian leader against harming civilians in an upcoming offensive against the country’s last Islamist rebel-held province. – Newsweek


Paraguay announced Wednesday it would immediately move its embassy in Israel out of Jerusalem and back to Tel Aviv, less than four months after opening the new mission. – Associated Press

Israel’s spy chief publicly revealed for the first time the extent of his country’s involvement in neighboring Syria, where Iran has been accused of boosting its military capabilities. – Newsweek

The U.S. ambassador to Israel said in remarks published on Thursday he expected Israel to keep the Golan Heights in perpetuity, in an apparent nod towards its claim of sovereignty over the strategic plateau captured from Syria in a 1967 war. – Reuters

Middle East

Iraqi authorities braced for a fresh round of violent protests Wednesday after security forces killed six demonstrators in two days during angry marches in the southern city of Basra over government corruption and a lack of basic services. – Washington Post

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths has engaged in shuttle diplomacy for months, repeatedly meeting the parties to the conflict in Yemen, in a bid to bring peace to a country where thousands of civilians have died and millions are at risk of starvation. Finally, he persuaded the warring sides to come to the negotiating table. – Washington Post

Saudi Arabia’s air defence forces intercepted and destroyed a ballistic missile fired by Yemen’s Houthis in the southern city of Najran, wounding 26 people with shrapnel, Saudi civil defence said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Turkey is in the process of constructing a site for a Russian missile system despite warnings from the United States to not buy the platform, according to a source with firsthand knowledge of an intelligence report covering the subject. – CNBC

All operations have halted at Iraq’s Umm Qasr commodities port near Basra on Thursday, after protesters blocked its entrance overnight, port employees said. The spread to the port of demonstrations that have swept southern Iraq in recent months raises the stakes in the country’s civil unrest. – Reuters

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “unequivocally committed to denuclearization” but feels constrained by international doubts about his true motives, South Korea’s national security adviser said Thursday after returning from a visit to Pyongyang a day earlier. – Wall Street Journal

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will visit Pyongyang to meet his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un on Sept. 18, and the two countries have also agreed to set up a joint liaison office in the North ahead of time, a top South Korean official said Thursday. – Washington Post

Offering an olive branch to President Trump, Kim Jong-un told a South Korean envoy that he wanted to denuclearize North Korea before Mr. Trump’s current term ends in early 2021, the envoy said on Thursday. – New York Times

As nuclear talks with United States stall, North Korea is preparing to hold a big military parade on the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding. Satellite photos indicate troops have been practicing for weeks at a mockup of Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square. – Associated Press

North Korea’s top disarmament and peace envoy has urged the U.S. to declare an end to the Korean War and move toward a “lasting peace.” Kim Yong-guk, head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Disarmament and Peace Institute, reiterated calls to Washington and Seoul to officially bring the conflict on the Korean Peninsula to a close on Tuesday. – Newsweek


Beijing expressed anger on Thursday after a British Royal Navy warship sailed close to islands claimed by China in the South China Sea late last month, saying Britain was engaged in “provocation” and that it had lodged a strong complaint. – Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that the United States was not yet ready to come to an agreement over trade disputes with China but he said talks would continue. – Reuters

The tiny Micronesian state of Nauru is demanding a formal apology after a dispute with China’s representative at this week’s Pacific Islands Forum brought to the surface tensions with Beijing over its support for Taiwan. – Reuters

South Asia

Two bomb blasts just minutes apart tore through a mainly Shiite Muslim neighborhood in the Afghan capital on Wednesday, killing at least 20 people and wounding 60 others and reviving fears of a growing sectarian conflict in a country already racked with violence. – Wall Street Journal

As the first Afghan-run election since the Taliban regime fell in 2001, the Oct. 20 poll is seen as a democratic milestone and a make-or-break step toward successful presidential elections in April. But the election is already under violent threat from Afghan insurgents. – Washington Post

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. and Pakistan have still got a long way to go to reset troubled ties after a visit in which he sought Islamabad’s help in ending the war in Afghanistan. – Wall Street Journal

The choice of Zalmay Khalilzad as a U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan has raised some hackles in the region, with many saying the veteran diplomat’s tough stance on Pakistan could hinder his mission to convince a resurgent Taliban to engage in peace talks. – Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis were set to hold long-delayed talks Thursday with top Indian officials, looking to shore up the alliance with one of Washington’s top regional allies. – Associated Press


GRU isn’t as well-known a baleful acronym as KGB or FSB. But Russia’s military intelligence service is attracting increasing attention as allegations mount of devious and deadly operations on and off the field of battle. – Associated Press

Russia’s space agency said on Wednesday it hopes to announce the origin of a small hole found on a Russian module docked at the International Space Station in the coming weeks, including addressing whether the damage was deliberate. – Reuters

An appeals court has upheld the 30-day jail sentence handed down to opposition activist Aleksei Navalny for what Russian authorities say were violations of the law on public gatherings and protests. – Radio Free EuropeRadio Liberty


British authorities charged two men that they believe are Russian military intelligence officers with the attempted murder of a former spy and his daughter in March, an incident that prompted the largest-ever collective expulsion of Russian diplomats from the West. – Wall Street Journal

The German government has presented an ambitious plan for beefing up the country’s armed forces over the next 10-plus years. The strategy comes in the form of a new “capability profile,” described by Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen as a “grand, comprehensive modernization concept.” –  Defense News

Editorial: The word “brazen” hardly does justice to the nerve-agent attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England.[…] It appears that whoever ordered this operation wanted the killers to be showy about it — to poke Britain in the eye. – Washington Post


The State Department has designated the Mali-based Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM, as a terrorist organization after the group claimed responsibility for a string of attacks on international interests in sub-Saharan Africa. – Wall Street Journal

Armed groups in Mali are undermining a peace agreement signed with the government three years ago because of their links to drug smuggling, human trafficking and terrorism, according to a UN report. – The Guardian

Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somalia leaders are set to meet in Eritrea’s capital Asmara, furthering the diplomatic thaw in the strategic Horn of Africa region. – Associated Press

The Americas

Polls showed that Canadians cheered when their prime minister announced this summer that Canada would not be pushed around by President Trump. But Canadian experts warn that playing to that crowd is a dangerous temptation that could hurt talks over trade in North America. – Washington Post

President Trump said Wednesday that U.S. and Canadian negotiators were engaged in “intense” discussions as part of the latest attempt to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement. “If it doesn’t work out, it’ll be fine for our county but it won’t be OK for Canada,” the president said. – Wall Street Journal

The United States on Wednesday declared Nicaragua’s civil unrest a threat to the region’s security, saying government repression of protests risked creating an overwhelming displacement of people akin to Venezuela or Syria. – Reuters

Ben Judah and Nate Sibley write: Globalization is playing out unexpectedly as governments, businesses, and individuals around the world are connected to one another at an unprecedented rate. These new connections were at first widely hailed as enhancing the influence of the United States, but their true political consequences are only just beginning to become clear. – Hudson Institute


Cyberweapons and sophisticated hacking pose a greater threat to the United States than the risk of physical attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Wednesday while urging state election officials to add more safeguards to their voting systems. – Washington Post

Regardless of which party controls Congress following the November elections, future defense budgets will begin to shrink starting next year, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee said on Wednesday. – USNI News

The U.S. military is working at lightning speed to ensure training aligns with the growing complexity of today’s operational environments. The synthetic and virtual training improvements will help to rapidly shape future capabilities and benefit joint operations with allies against peer adversaries. – Defense News

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry warned Wednesday that political infighting on Capitol Hill is having a harmful effect on national security, both in defense budget debates and Congress’ strategic planning. – Defense News

Trump Administration

President Trump and his aides reacted with indignation Wednesday to an unsigned opinion column from a senior official blasting the president’s “amorality” and launched a frantic hunt for the author, who claims to be part of a secret “resistance” inside the government protecting the nation from its commander in chief. – Washington Post

An explosive new account of friction between President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis threatens to impair their relationship and undermine the retired Marine general’s role as an influential voice for foreign policy continuity. – Washington Post

Op-ed: President Trump is facing a test to his presidency unlike any faced by a modern American leader.[…] The dilemma — which he does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. – New York Times