FPI Overnight Brief: March 19, 2012

Middle East/North Africa

Today, as suspicions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions have provoked tough sanctions and threats of military confrontation, top administration officials have said that Iran still has not decided to pursue a weapon, reflecting the intelligence community’s secret analysis. But if that assessment changes, it could lift a brake set by President Obama, who has not ruled out military options as a last resort to prevent Iran gaining nuclear arms.  – New York Times
With Israeli leaders warning of an existential threat from Iran and openly discussing the possibility of attacking its nuclear facilities, pro-Israel groups on all sides have mobilized to make their views known to the Obama administration and to Congress. But it is the most hawkish voices, like the Emergency Committee’s, that have dominated the debate, and, in the view of some critics, pushed the United States closer to taking military action against Iran and another war in the Middle East. – New York Times
Iran's central bank said Sunday that it was lifting the restrictions on foreign currency trading introduced earlier this year in what could be a sign of confidence that the worst speculation is over. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Iran hasn't been shy about its bids to monitor, filter and block content on the Internet. Now it has taken the next leap, turning online censorship into an institution. – Wall Street Journal
The Indian warrants issued [last] week for three Iranian citizens in connection with an attack last month in which assailants on a motorcycle attached a magnetic bomb to the back of an Israeli diplomatic vehicle here, coupled with new accusations about the bombing, seem certain to worsen the deepening crisis between Israel and Iran. – New York Times
The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, detailed the Navy's build-up in the Persian Gulf [Friday], but he downplayed the prospects of any immediate conflict with Iran – even as the fleet develops new weapons for coastal combat and plans to double its deployment of minesweepers and upgunned patrol craft to Bahrain. – AOL Defense
Despite saber rattling from Jerusalem, Israeli officials now agree with the U.S. assessment that Tehran has not yet decided on the actual construction of a nuclear bomb, according to senior Israeli government and defense figures. – Associated Press
Ray Takeyh writes: The task at hand remains to devise an imaginative coercive strategy that moves beyond economic penalties and exploits Khamenei’s political vulnerabilities in a manner that compels him to expand his coalition and reach out to more moderate elements. Only then can Iran be counted on to negotiate and adhere to a viable arms control treaty. – International Herald Tribune
Stephen Schlesinger writes: Caution and diplomacy should be the bywords of this tale. There is still time for sanctions to bite and talks to proceed. Even containment, a strategy that worked against a far more powerful Soviet foe, should not be ruled out. But it is clear that, in any case, Iran can be more than a fearsome adversary; it can be a relentless, indeed irrational, state willing to strike out blindly. – Los Angeles Times
The Syrian authorities briefly detained 11 members of one of Syria’s most moderate opposition groups during a demonstration in central Damascus on Sunday. The move signaled an expanded crackdown and dismayed the protesters, who have called for dialogue with the government and, unlike many other activists, have opposed the use of violence in the yearlong uprising – New York Times
Two large explosions, believed to be car bombs, struck the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Saturday morning, hitting intelligence and security buildings in busy sections of the city and killing or wounding dozens of civilians and security personnel, Syrian state news media reported. – New York Times
Syria's government is open to a cease-fire deal if its opponents lay down weapons first, it has told the special envoy tasked with resolving the country's crisis, a response that fell short of the diplomat's expectations but opens the door for further talks. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
[T]he prospect for regional power shifts, proxy wars and spreading instability — along with a reprise of Cold War-style great-power animosities — goes far beyond Syria's borders. – Los Angeles Times
The State Department has said the U.S. and other countries are consulting with Iraq about Iranian flights of weapons to Syria after Iraq’s prime minister denied a report in The Washington Times saying Baghdad is allowing such flights. – Washington Times
For months, arms merchants such as Abu Ismail have been buying black-market weapons in Lebanon for the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the arms supply has slowed to a trickle, he says. – Los Angeles Times
As President Bashar Assad’s regime continues to shell Homs and escalates attacks on towns in the Idlib province, hundreds of Syrians - including rebel fighters - are fleeing to Turkey. – Washington Times
Many Republicans are hesitant to align with Sen. John McCain’s aggressive stances on Afghanistan and Syria. – DEFCON Hill
Rebels fought security forces in Damascus on Monday, in the most violent gunbattles the Syrian capital has seen since the start of the year-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, opposition activists said. - Reuters
Saudi Arabia is delivering military equipment to Syrian rebels in an effort to stop bloodshed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a top Arab diplomat said on March 17. - AFP
Jackson Diehl writes: This month, John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham are talking about Syria. They are making the case for why the United States should lead an intervention to stop the slaughter being perpetrated by dictator Bashar al-Assad. – Washington Post
Michael O’Hanlon writes: As the death toll from the year-old conflict rapidly approaches 10,000, it may not be too early to raise these types of military possibilities in public—if for no other reason than to signal the murderous Syrian regime that we do have options besides just hoping that Assad will fall of his own weight. – The New Republic
North Africa
Abdullah el-Senussi, the former intelligence chief and brother-in-law of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, was arrested Saturday at an airport in Mauritania, the authorities there said, in the most significant capture of a former official of the Qaddafi government since the apprehension of the dictator’s son Seif al-Islam by Libyan fighters in November. – New York Times
The weekend arrest of Moammar Gadhafi's fugitive former spy chief has kicked off an international row about which of his alleged crimes—ranging from terrorism to war crimes and mass murder—should take precedence in the pursuit of justice for the regime's victims. – Wall Street Journal

Actor George Clooney on Sunday spoke out against the Sudanese hunger crisis and called on the United States to pressure China to step in and help put an end to “war crimes” in the northern African nation. – Washington Times

Pope Shenouda III, who led the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt for four decades, expanding the church’s presence around the world as he struggled, often unsuccessfully, to protect his Christian minority at home, died on Saturday after a long illness, state media reported. – New York Times
NATO has failed to properly investigate or provide compensation for civilian deaths caused by its air strikes during the seven-month operation in Libya that helped bring about the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Amnesty International said on Monday. - Reuters
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) this week called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not to certify that Egypt's government is promoting freedom of expression and religion, a finding that would allow the U.S. to offer Egypt military aid. – The Hill’s Floor Action Blog
More than 2,000 people have been killed in a year of political turmoil that led to the resignation of Yemen’s longtime president, the government disclosed Sunday. The number is much higher than human rights groups had estimated. – Washington Post
For all the challenges that Yemen’s new president faces, none may be more imperative than the unsettled state of the south, where many are eager for secession and a security breach has allowed an Al Qaeda affiliate to grow strong. – New York Times
An American teacher affiliated with a missionary organization was shot and killed by two men on a motorcycle in the central Yemeni city of Taiz on Sunday, according to Yemeni officials. – New York Times
The U.S. Embassy here identified an American citizen who was purportedly held captive for nine months by a militia loyal to Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr before his release over the weekend. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Senior Iraqi government officials said Friday that Exxon Mobil Corp. has told Iraq's central government that it has frozen an exploration contract with the nation's Kurdistan region, a deal Baghdad strongly opposes. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
[The] ominous prospect [of a retaliatory strike by Iran against Israel] has some critics here slamming the mask and shelter shortage as woeful neglect of Israeli civilians, who for most of the nation’s turbulent 64-year history have been far from the front lines. – Washington Post
A onetime rising star of Israeli politics, opposition leader Tzipi Livni is finding it hard to convince members of the centrist Kadima that she deserves another shot as head of a party that has struggled to articulate a clear alternative vision to Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative Likud bloc. – Los Angeles Times


Mountainous eastern Afghanistan, with its proximity to Kabul and to insurgents' Pakistani havens, is about to become the war's final battleground with a large American combat force arrayed against the Taliban. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The Afghan government qualified President Hamid Karzai's demand for an immediate withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces from Afghan villages, saying it will be the subject of negotiations that could take months. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Friday accused the United States of stonewalling an investigation into the killings of 16 Afghan civilians and suggested that more than one soldier may have been involved in the massacre. – Washington Post
The killings in Panjwai [last] Sunday have left both sides grasping for a way to stabilize the deteriorating relationship. Mr. Obama and other senior American officials have repeatedly apologized, but the expressions of regret have done little to placate angry Afghans, including Mr. Karzai. – New York Times
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the Army soldier who is set to be charged in the killings of 16 Afghan civilian men, women and children, spent the weekend in pretrial isolation as military prosecutors prepared a case that may carry the death penalty. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The U.S. Army soldier suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a predawn rampage was a combat veteran who once characterized himself as knowing "the bad guys from the noncombatants," and whose past decade was studded with traumas and run-ins with the law. U.S. officials on Friday confirmed the suspect was Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who has taken part in notable battles through years of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. – Wall Street Journal
Despite a shared sorrow and bewilderment, a jarring disparity has emerged in the way Americans and Afghans view the killings of 16 villagers in rural Kandahar province, allegedly at the hands of a lone U.S. Army staff sergeant named Robert Bales. – Los Angeles Times
Sometime before midnight Saturday, a pair of rights groups — one Afghan, the other American — quietly posted online a report on how American authorities have continued to send detainees to Afghan prisons even though coalition forces ordered a halt to such transfers last year because of concerns about torture. – New York Times
Women visiting relatives at a notorious men’s prison on the edge of Kabul have in recent weeks been subjected to invasive body-cavity searches at the order of the prison’s commandant, who has told guards and American officials that the measure is needed to keep out contraband, Western and Afghan officials said. – New York Times
An Afghan interpreter in a speeding truck tried to run down a top American commander and his British deputy, forcing the two and others to scatter as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s plane taxied toward them at a military base in Afghanistan, defense officials said on Friday. – New York Times
The Afghan government is giving companies extensions ranging from a few weeks to 90 days to change from private security guards to a government-run force, NATO officials and security company managers said Sunday. – Associated Press
Editorial: [A] Commander in Chief's job is to relentlessly explain what the war strategy is, why it is being pursued, and why the sacrifice is worth it. Mr. Obama behaves as if he thinks the Afghan campaign will hurt him as he runs for re-election, so better to say as little as possible. It's no way to run a war, much less end it with honor. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Max Boot writes: President Obama’s hesitancy and irresolution should not be an excuse for Republicans to abandon the war effort. They should continue to pressure the president to respect the advice of his commanders in the field, who want to keep 68,000 troops through 2014, with a substantial residual presence after that. – The Weekly Standard
Kori Schake writes: President Obama deserves our praise and support for keeping a strategic perspective on what needs doing in Afghanistan, even with the buffeting of damaging events in the last couple of weeks – Shadow Government
Joshua Partlow writes: Karzai does not appear to want a total U.S. military withdrawal, but his staunch opposition to the current strategy could end up hastening that departure. Then his insistence that Afghanistan is ready to defend itself will be put to the test. – Washington Post
[A]s Pakistan and the United States try to restart their troubled relationship after a year of spectacular crises, the difference could come down to drones. – New York Times
Scores of Sherpao kin, party workers and friends have been killed or wounded in the bombings, which come in retaliation for the family’s support of military and law-enforcement operations to rout the region’s Islamic extremists. Sikander Sherpao and his father also have been targeted separately 14 other times, police have told them, in plots that were foiled. – Washington Post
Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), received a new director general [Sunday] when Lt. Gen. Zaheer-ul-Islam took over from the retiring incumbent, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. – Defense News
North Korea
Japan's Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka said Monday he may order the country's military to shoot down a North Korean missile if it poses a danger to Japan, after Pyongyang said last week it plans to launch a rocket to send a satellite into space in April. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
North Korea on Sunday lashed out at the U.S., South Korea and other countries critical of its plan to launch a rocket next month, saying their belief that it was actually testing a military missile amounted to "gossip" and "loose outbursts." – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The U.S. threatened not to restart planned food aid to North Korea after Pyongyang said Friday it plans to launch a rocket next month. – Wall Street Journal
South Korea on Monday condemned rival North Korea's planned rocket launch as a "grave provocation", saying it was a disguised attempt to develop a long-range ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons. - Reuters
Josh Rogin reports: The Obama administration is close to finalizing a deal to send 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea, but there are at least 5 U.S. senators who think that constitutes "appeasement" of the North Korean regime. – The Cable
Japan's prime minister issued a new warning about Beijing's military build-up Sunday, two days after his government made a fresh protest over a Chinese ship's entering waters near a chain of islands claimed by both countries. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Xi Jinping, the man expected to take over China's top post in the fall, made a public appeal for "purity" and unity among senior leaders, capping an extraordinary week in Chinese politics that saw the fall of the Communist Party's most charismatic and controversial figure. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The dramatic events this week in China underscored one of this country’s most baffling dichotomies: between an increasingly sophisticated and globally connected economy, now the world’s second-largest, and the opaque, Leninist-style Communist Party that still runs it, with almost no transparency or public accountability and seemingly resistant to calls for political reform. – Washington Post
Even as the U.S. mounts a legal challenge to China's stranglehold on the global market for a class of key minerals, the U.S. Defense Department is playing down the impact on the U.S. military of the Chinese export limits. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
With no arrest papers and no trials required, Chinese authorities commonly resort to forced psychiatric hospitalization if someone is considered a troublemaker but hasn't committed a crime…Now, for the first time, Chinese lawmakers have drafted a law spelling out when people can be confined to psychiatric hospitals against their will. – Los Angeles Times
Thousands of Tibetans took to the streets of a city in China’s northwest Qinghai Province on Saturday after the death of a farmer who set himself on fire at a Buddhist religious site, according to Tibetan exile groups. It was the second large protest in Qinghai this week. – New York Times
One week before Hong Kong chooses its next leader, the city's richest man, Li Ka-shing, weighed in on the heated race for the first time, voicing his support for former finance chief Henry Tang. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
The three candidates to become the next chief executive of Hong Kong engaged in a vituperative, televised debate on Friday evening in an election campaign that is being closely followed in mainland China. – New York Times
Under new rules, Tibetan monasteries must now be run by Chinese government officials, a step that worries a human rights group that says it will worsen tensions in an already inflamed region. – LA Times’ World Now
Editorial: Quite possibly the power struggle that surfaced in Chongqing may just be getting underway: Seven of those nine standing committee seats are up for grabs. Mr. Wen’s gloss notwithstanding, outside observers, like the Chinese people, are unlikely to learn what is happening, or what is at stake, until it is over. – Washington Post
India signaled it wants to levy a heavy retroactive tax on some international mergers, the latest discouraging development for foreign companies in one of the world's largest emerging markets. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
India on March 16 boosted military spending by 17 percent to $40 billion for the coming year as it seeks to counter China’s rapid military buildup and its traditional rival, Pakistan. - AFP
Sadanand Dhume writes: The sooner India realizes that nonalignment has about as much relevance to the 21st century as Nehruvian economics, and the sooner it begins to root its foreign policy in reality rather than abstraction, the more likely it is to start doing right by its people and its partners. – Foreign Policy
Southeast Asia
Vietnam is protesting plans by a Chinese oil company to take bids on developing energy deposits in the contested South China Sea, in a fresh sign that territorial disputes in the region may rise as Beijing, Hanoi and other regional claimants push ahead with development plans. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Monday his government was "inclined" to vote in support of a U.S.-sponsored resolution pressuring Sri Lanka to thoroughly investigate war crimes committed by its soldiers during the 26-year conflict that ended in 2009. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


The U.S. Navy expects cost growth on its largest shipbuilding project to continue, and will need to ask Congress next year for permission to pay the higher-than-planned-for bills. – Defense News
Construction contracts for four more Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) were awarded March 16 by the U.S. Navy, bringing the total number of LCS vessels under order or in service to 12. – Defense News
The War
Osama bin Laden pushed his organization to develop plans to kill President Obama in the belief that the United States would tumble into chaos if an “unprepared” Vice President Biden became commander in chief, according to new details published Friday about the documents recovered from the compound where the al-Qaeda leader was killed. – Washington Post
The Pentagon is accelerating efforts to develop a new generation of cyberweapons capable of disrupting enemy military networks even when those networks are not connected to the Internet, according to current and former U.S. officials. – Washington Post
Nuclear Weapons
Bradley Thayer writes: No superpower has contemplated such drastic muscle loss, such reductions in essential weapons that it and its allies need now and in the future. – Defense News


Several hundred mostly young protesters gathered outside the main television center here Sunday afternoon to shout their disapproval of a television program that purports to show opposition demonstrators getting paid for their efforts and coordinating with the U.S. State Department. – Washington Post
Police on Saturday detained 23 protesters, including Russia’s best-known environmental activist, on charges of holding an unsanctioned rally. They had been demonstrating in Revolution Square in the heart of the capital in support of two men arrested Tuesday in southern Russia in a dispute over construction in a forest of rare pines – Washington Post
The pampered “it girl” of Putin’s Russia, author of “Philosophy in the Boudoir” and “How to Marry a Millionaire,” has restyled herself as a leader of the opposition. – New York Times
In American presidential politics, high oil prices are a problem. For Vladimir V. Putin’s new presidential term in Russia, they will be a necessity — crucial to fulfilling his campaign promises to lift government spending by billions of dollars a year. – New York Times
Josh Rogin reports: Four more senators joined the opposition to repealing the Jackson-Vanik trade sanctions law against Russia on Friday, unless that repeal is accompanied by a new law specifically targeting human rights violators inside the Russian government. – The Cable
Editorial: The White House reluctance to sanction Russian human-rights abusers speaks to a bigger clash over foreign policy visions. Seeing itself as an heir to the "realist" school, the Obama Administration extends a hand to dictators and plays down talk of democracy and human rights. In its view, a waning global power like America can't afford to annoy authoritarian regimes this way. But an American voice on behalf of the powerless is part of a long, bipartisan tradition. We're glad some Senators think it's worth preserving. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Melik Kaylan writes: If the mystique of Russian hegemony were to deflate, if formerly subject colonies suddenly rose to stability and affluence—as is happening in Georgia—Mr. Putin's threadbare illusionism would fall apart entirely. He would never recover from the triumph of freedom in Syria and Iran. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Belarus confirmed in a government television report on Saturday night that the two men convicted of bombing a subway station last year in its capital had been put to death. – New York Times


United States of America
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other GOP leaders on Sunday sharply criticized President Barack Obama's handling of the war in Afghanistan, accusing him of mismanaging the military campaign and relations with the country's president, Hamid Karzai. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Josh Rogin reports: Longtime Senate staffer and respected Asia hand Frank Jannuzi is leaving government to take over the leadership of the Washington, D.C., office of Amnesty International, the organization announced [Friday]. – The Cable
Cuban police evicted 13 dissidents from a church they had been occupying for two days demanding that Pope Benedict XVI air a list of grievances during his upcoming trip to the island, a Roman Catholic Church spokesman said. – Associated Press
Venezuela President Hugo Chavez returned home Friday to lingering questions about his health and political future after spending three weeks in Cuba undergoing cancer treatment. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
While the government has said little about the president’s ordeal, Bocaranda’s dribs and drabs, via Twitter, a Web site and a newspaper column, have revealed major developments. That has infuriated officials who say the author of the “Murmurs” column in El Universal is destabilizing the country ahead of an October presidential election that Chavez has vowed to win despite his illness. – Washington Post


At least five people were killed when a salvo of mortars targeting Somalia's presidential palace missed and landed on a nearby refugee camp overnight, residents and the African Union's peacekeeping force said on Monday. - Reuters

Obama Administration

Brad McKeon, a former national security adviser for Vice President Biden, will serve as a national security adviser to President Obama, the White House announced Friday. – DEFCON Hill
Josh Rogin reports: President Barack Obama announced his intention late on Friday to appoint Derek Chollet to be assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, replacing Sandy Vershbow, who has already assumed his new role as deputy secretary general of NATO. – The Cable

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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