FPI Overnight Brief: May 17, 2012

Middle East/North Africa


Iran is installing more centrifuges in an underground plant but does not yet appear to be using them to expand higher-grade uranium enrichment that could take it closer to producing atom bomb material, Western diplomats say. - Reuters

U.S. plans for a possible military strike on Iran are ready and the option is "fully available", the U.S. ambassador to Israel said, days before Tehran resumes talks with world powers which suspect it of seeking to develop nuclear arms. - Reuters

The negotiating stance from Iranian officials never varies: The Islamic Republic will not give up its capabilities to make nuclear fuel. But embedded in the messages are meanings that reach beyond Tehran’s talks with world powers. It points to the struggles within Iran’s ruling system as it readies for the next round of talks scheduled to begin next week in Baghdad. – Associated Press

The U.N. nuclear watchdog and Iran may be narrowing their differences on how to tackle concerns over Tehran's atomic ambitions, diplomatic sources said on Wednesday, suggesting a previously unexpected agreement was now not ruled out. - Reuters

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid will ask the chamber to approve a new package of oil and economic sanctions on Thursday aimed at further pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear program, a Democratic leadership aide told Reuters. - Reuters

Meier Dagan, August Hanning, Jim Woolsey, Charles Guthrie, Kristen Silverberg, and Mark Wallace write: As the Iranian regime races to fulfill its nuclear ambitions, the world faces a stark choice. Our near future carries the risk of a military conflict with Iran, or a nuclear arms race in the already-volatile Middle East. It is still possible to avoid these outcomes, but only if like-minded nations act immediately to deliver a potentially decisive economic blow to the regime. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)


President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said in an interview broadcast Wednesday that he faced no real domestic opposition in the 15-month-old uprising against him, the violence in his country is entirely the work of foreign-backed terrorists, and the boycott of parliamentary elections last week was a fiction. – New York Times

Six U.N. observers whose convoy was struck by a roadside bomb in northern Syria a day earlier were evacuated to their base in Hama province Wednesday, a U.N. spokesman said. – LA Times’ World Now

Fifteen months into the crisis in Syria, and the Obama administration is, as one U.S. official describes it, in "a holding pattern," waiting for Russia to abandon its support for President Bashar al-Assad, waiting for sanctions to topple the economy and waiting for an organized Syrian opposition to present a coherent vision for a post-Assad Syria. – CNN’s Security Clearance

Syria remains the top destination for Iranian arms shipments in violation of a U.N. Security Council ban on weapons exports by the Islamic Republic, according to a confidential report on Iran sanctions-busting seen by Reuters on Wednesday. - Reuters

The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) hit back at reports on Wednesday a leading dissident had resigned from the organization, saying Fawaz Tello had never been a member. - Reuters

Syria boycotted a hearing by the United Nations' main anti-torture body on Wednesday, avoiding a grilling over its crackdown on civilians during a year-old uprising. - Reuters

Escalating violence in Syria has slowed sugar refining to a virtual standstill, with smuggling set to rise as Western sanctions hobble trade finance and disrupt imports of the staple sweetener, trade sources said. - Reuters

Anne-Marie Slaughter writes: First, as strongly as I support the cause of the peaceful Syrian protesters who began this conflict more than a year ago, the central issue in Syria today should be framed not as the opposition versus the government but as non-violence versus violence. The violence itself must be delegitimised, wherever it comes from. – Financial Times


The leader of Egypt’s ruling military council promised on Wednesday to secure a fair vote in the presidential election beginning next week but also said the military would retain a “duty” to protect Egypt from domestic disturbances as well as to defend it against foreign threats. – New York Times

The [Muslim Brotherhood]’s prodigious political machine, which turned the once-besieged opposition movement into the dominant force in parliament early this year, has to contend with an uncharismatic candidate and a shift in public opinion as many Egyptians have soured on the venerable Islamist organization. – Washington Post

Egypt’s first free presidential election is a week away. The 13 candidates -- those with name recognition and those whose mention draws puzzled expressions -- have been set loose upon the land with staffs and stickers, flags and banners, and sound bites that sometimes go astray – LA Times’ World Now

Egypt’s revolutionary activists have spent much of the past year joking about the verbal gaffes of Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander who served as prime minister in the final days of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. But Mr Shafiq may have the last laugh. The latest opinion polls suggest he is a strong contender in the country’s first free presidential election, which is to be held on May 23 and 24. – Financial Times

Foreign observers of Egypt's first real leadership contest will be unable to say whether the process is free and fair because their movements are being restricted by election authorities, one of the groups supposed to be monitoring the vote said. - Reuters

One of the 13 candidates running for the Egyptian presidency pulled out of the race on Wednesday to support veteran diplomat Amr Moussa, state news agency MENA said. - Reuters


Bahrain issued arrest warrants on Wednesday for 20 people accused of injuring policemen and civilians with homemade bombs during months of pro-democracy unrest in the island kingdom. - Reuters


Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's son has refused to appoint a Libyan lawyer to defend him against accusations of murder and torture during a crackdown on a revolt against his father's rule, the country said on Wednesday. - Reuters


In an escalation of America’s clandestine war in Yemen, a small contingent of U.S. troops is providing targeting data for Yemeni airstrikes as government forces battle to dislodge Al Qaeda militants and other insurgents in the country’s restive south, U.S. and Yemeni officials said. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen has released a new guide for would-be Western recruits urging those Western militants who were thinking of traveling to join the group in Yemen to, in effect, think twice before making the trip. – CNN’s Security Clearance

Yemeni troops, backed by local tribesmen, captured a strategic mountain that controls access to cities long held by al Qaeda-linked militants amid heavy fighting that has killed at least 24 people, residents and local officials said. - Reuters

A suspected U.S. drone attacked a convoy of Islamist militants in eastern Yemen overnight, killing three people, a local security official said on Thursday, as Washington intensifies its aerial campaign against fighters linked to al Qaeda. - Reuters


Iraq replaced Iran as India's second-largest crude oil supplier in the recently ended financial year, preliminary government data showed Wednesday, as New Delhi cut shipments from Tehran ahead of impending sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

As it adjusts, along with everyone else, to life without the US military occupation that ended in December, the bourse is struggling to grow amid investor nerves, a stagnant listings market and structural problems in the Iraqi economy. – Financial Times


Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad kept the top job in a Cabinet shakeup Wednesday but relinquished his duties as finance minister, a position that earned him praise abroad and criticism at home. – LA Times’ World Now

The shadowy financial adviser of the late Yasser Arafat is being sought on suspicion he stole millions of dollars in public funds, the top Palestinian anti-corruption campaigner said Wednesday. – Associated Press


Turkey is seeking to revive its stalled bid to join the European Union, at a time of mounting fears its neighbor and longtime rival, Greece, could become the first country forced to exit the euro zone. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)



Taliban attacks are jumping in the southern Afghan areas that were the focus of the 2010 U.S. troop surge, posing a renewed challenge to the American-led coalition that hoped to pacify the crucial region before withdrawing from the country. – Wall Street Journal

There are few certainties for Afghanistan as the NATO troop withdrawal moves into high gear, but one of them is this: the Continental Europeans have a grimmer prognosis for what can be accomplished than do their American and British counterparts. – New York Times

Just days before a NATO summit that leaders had hoped would present a carefully scripted display of unity on Afghanistan, the inauguration of a French president committed to an early drawdown has instead intensified a rush for the exits from an unpopular war. – Los Angeles Times

We aren't leaving Afghanistan -- except, of course, to the extent we are. That's the high-wire balancing act that the top commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, had to perform in his remarks today ahead of the upcoming NATO conference in Chicago. – AOL Defense

NATO is prepared to set up a training, advising and assistance mission to help Afghans when they take over full responsibility for security after the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan ends in late 2014. – Defense News

In the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, where the United States has already trimmed its forces ahead of the coming NATO withdrawal, a modest number of al Qaeda fighters have re-established operations, U.S. officials say, a worrying sign of the risks that could jeopardize Western hopes of a smooth exit. - Reuters

The Czech government announced plans May 16 to begin withdrawing its troops from their NATO mission in Afghanistan, bringing the number down from 590 at the moment to 170 by the end of 2014. - AFP

Australia will contribute $100 million annually for three years beginning in 2015 toward the $4 billion a year cost of running the Afghan National Security Forces after they take responsibility for their country’s security. – Associated Press

Afghanistan, which has only a semblance of a capital market, intends to sell Islamic bonds as it braces for a possible sharp fall in Western financial support as the war against the Taliban winds down, a senior central bank official said this week. - Reuters


Pakistani negotiators have proposed a fee of about $5,000 for each NATO shipping container and tanker that transits its territory by land into and out of Afghanistan – Washington Post

The Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the largest Taliban faction in Pakistan, has issued a video in which the group brags of pulling off the largest prison break in Pakistani history. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty


North Korea has resumed construction of a nuclear reactor that can be used to expand the country’s nuclear weapons program, an American-based institute said Thursday, citing the latest satellite imagery of the building site. – New York Times

China has been quietly and gently pressuring North Korea to scrap plans for a third nuclear test, said two sources with knowledge of closed-door discussions between the countries, but there is no indication how the North will react. - Reuters

North Korean officials have demanded payment before they will release Chinese fishing boats with a total of 29 men on board, Chinese media reported on Thursday, in a rare public spat between the neighbors and longtime allies. - Reuters

Editorial: Reports like these deserve wide attention so that the rest of the world has the same epiphany. Sustaining Pyongyang with aid only extends the misery of those imprisoned in the North's gulag. – Wall Street Journal Asia (subscription required)


In a rare sign of open opposition against two of China’s most powerful leaders, a group of retired Communist Party members have called for the resignation of the country’s security boss, Zhou Yongkang, and a top propaganda official, Liu Yunshan. – New York Times

In early February, Bo Xilai, then Communist Party chief of Chongqing city, visited a military complex in Kunming, some 400 miles from his political base. It was home to the 14th Group Army, a direct descendant of guerrilla forces his father led in the 1930s…State media noted that Mr. Bo was there to "cherish the memory of revolutionary ancestors." But China's top political leaders saw it as something more alarming, according to Communist Party and military officials. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Throughout the drama this spring revolving around the dismissal of the ambitious Chinese official Bo Xilai and the investigation of his wife as a murder suspect, the most mysterious figure has been a French architect named Patrick Henri Devillers. – New York Times

China may have sown the seeds of its next human rights row with the United States even as it looks to end the current one over blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, with its treatment of him inspiring a band of lawyers to join his human-rights battle. - Reuters

Southeast Asia

The Philippines' dispute with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea is threatening to exact an economic toll on key Philippine industries, including its vital tourism and agricultural sectors. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

The Philippines is looking at arming itself for the first time with dedicated fighter jets made outside of the United States, President Benigno Aquino said May 16 amid a territorial dispute with China. - AFP

A further lifting of U.S. sanctions on Myanmar, which could come during a visit by officials to Washington this week, would be crucial to opening its long-isolated economy, a senior Myanmar government official said. - Reuters

[W]ith years to go before it is up and running, the $50 billion port and industrial complex in the southern city of Dawei is already struggling to look relevant as Myanmar emerges from untouchable state to Asia's latest Eldorado. - Reuters

Sadanand Dhume writes: To be sure, national reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and with it an end to international censure, won't happen overnight. But by addressing fears of permanent militarization of the north, scheduling provincial elections, addressing at least the most egregious human rights abuses from the war and restoring the independence of the country's once feisty press, Sri Lanka can make a start. If it fails to do so, Mr. Rajapaksa may go down in history as the Sri Lankan leader who won a famous war but squandered the peace that followed. – Wall Street Journal Asia (subscription required)



Members of the House will spend several hours Thursday debating a slew of controversial amendments to the National Defense Authorization act (NDAA) of 2013, including provisions related to detainee policy, same-sex marriage on military bases, and potential military action in Iran. – The Hill’s Floor Action Blog

U.S. Army reset and modernization programs face several budgetary risks over the next several months, Army chief Gen. Raymond Odierno said May 16. – Defense News

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said Wednesday he’s opposed to a plan from House Republicans to slow the reduction of U.S. forces over the next five years. – DEFCON Hill

Tens of thousands of troops could be cut, the Navy could lose 50 ships and the Air Force could be unable to modernize its fleet if the U.S. Congress fails to change the law that will impose huge defense spending reductions in January, top officials said. – Defense News

A quick look at what the Democratic national security establishment thinks about the National Defense Authorization Act now moving through the House. – AOL Defense

During a decade of relentless focus on counterinsurgency, the military has let other skills erode, skills it will have to struggle to get back even as budgets tighten. In particular, the capacity of the US and allied navies to hunt enemy submarines has suffered even as potential adversaries like China and Iran have built up their sub fleets. – AOL Defense

So enough with all the Zen koans, the circular logic, the tautologies and the buzzwords — just what the hell is Air-Sea Battle? Why, the chiefs of the Air Force and Navy were glad to answer that question, in language even a human being could understand, in a packed auditorium Wednesday morning at the Brookings Institution. – DoD Buzz

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has slapped restrictions on the Air Force's prized F-22 fighter fleet amid safety concerns, but insiders say they aren't that confining. - DOTMIL

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is pressing the Pentagon on whether a plan to overhaul its entire fleet of F-22 Raptors will harm ongoing Air Force operations around the world. – DEFCON Hill

FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly writes: [S]ticking our heads in the sand in the hope that the world will allow us to resolve our fiscal challenges at a cost to our security will only increase the risks America faces. House Republicans have commendably chosen a different path, voting last week to support the Ryan budget’s efforts to put defense once again at the top of our priorities. – National Review Online

The War

The F.B.I. director told a Congressional committee on Wednesday that the authorities were investigating how information about a thwarted plot by Al Qaeda to detonate a bomb on an airliner bound for the United States was leaked to the news media. – New York Times

An ideologically diverse alliance that includes liberal Democrats, Tea Party Republicans, and the libertarian-minded Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is attempting to throw out a post-9/11 law that grants the president broad authority to indefinitely detain any person apprehended on American soil, including U.S. citizens, without due process if they are suspected of terrorist activity. – USA Today

The Senate Intelligence Committee plans to finish a long-awaited report on “enhanced interrogation techniques” this summer, reviving the debate over whether the United States has engaged in torture. – DEFCON Hill

The director of the National Counterterrorism Center made it clear Wednesday where he stands in the debate over whether it is better to capture suspected terrorists or kill them outright. Matthew Olsen prefers capture. – CNN’s Security Clearance

Bill Gertz reports: Judicial Watch outlined the disruptive tactics of the five terrorism suspects, who stretched out the proceedings for 13 hours through a series of deliberate delaying actions. – Washington Times’ Inside the Ring

Editorial:  As early as Thursday, the House is due to vote on a measure that effectively declares the war on terror over in the U.S. and dismantles the legal architecture that has protected the homeland since 9/11. Any wonder Americans have so little respect for Congress? Or the Constitution has Presidents run the nation's wars? - Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Nuclear Weapons

The top uniformed U.S. Air Force official criticized a report conducted by an influential retired general that recommends the U.S. reduce its nuclear stockpile. – Defense News


The White House’s cybersecurity coordinator said Thursday that he is stepping down at the end of this month after a 2 1 / 2-year tenure in which the administration has increased its focus on cyber issues but struggled to reach agreement with lawmakers on the best way to protect the nation’s key computer networks from attack. – Washington Post



The Russian authorities pressed their crackdown on antigovernment protesters on the streets of Moscow on Wednesday, while in Parliament lawmakers prepared to consider a bill that would impose stiff fines on participants and organizers of unsanctioned demonstrations. – New York Times

Russia's top central banker warned on Wednesday that capital flight is a "serious problem," as newly released figures showed $42 billion has left the country in the first four months of the year. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Russia is back, at least in the minds of U.S. national security leaders. From halting Iran's nuclear program to squeezing Syria's regime to listening to President Obama's hopes for fewer nuclear arms, "Russia is the key," as one former official says. - DOTMIL


On Wednesday, Mr. Mladic finally faced his judges as his trial opened at a United Nations tribunal here. Sitting upright between two guards, Mr. Mladic, 70, looked more frail and aged than the burly soldier he once was, a power-strutting commander who inspired deep terror among Bosnian Muslims and Croats and great admiration in Serbia. – New York Times

Just a day after it started, the war crimes trial of the former Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic, was delayed on Thursday without a new date being set to restart because of what the presiding judge called “significant” errors by the prosecution in disclosing evidence to the defense. – New York Times

Challenger Tomislav Nikolic may not win, but he can sure spoil the party as Boris Tadic bids for a new term as president of Serbia and the right to lead the country into talks on joining the European Union. - Reuters

Eastern Europe

Opposition candidate Bidzina Ivanishvili has run into difficulties in the republic of Georgia, where the government has stripped him of his citizenship and questioned his allies about their political spending. So Ivanishvili and his supporters are pressing their case in Washington, spending more than $1 million in recent months on a U.S. lobbying campaign ahead of pivotal parliamentary elections in Georgia this fall, U.S. disclosure records show. – Washington Post

Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov says the European Union can send experts to assess both the medical state of his jailed predecessor Yulia Tymoshenko and the legal process that led to her conviction and seven-year sentence. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Editorial: Mrs. Merkel, like too many of her fellows on both sides of the Atlantic, has pursued a values-based foreign policy only when it benefits her politically. Even neo-Soviet leaders like Mr. Yanukovych can tell that from the real thing. – Wall Street Journal Europe (subscription required)


Anders Fogh Rasmussen writes: I have always thought of the alliance as a family. And when times get tough, good families come together to share the burden in dealing with shared problems. That’s why we need to keep the NATO family strong. That’s what we’ll do in Chicago. – International Herald Tribune

Stephen Larrabee and Peter Wilson write: U.S. officials should give Hollande time to digest many of the complex issues the alliance faces. This may mean that some issues, particularly missile defense, may not be completely resolved in Chicago. However, such an outcome is preferable to getting into a fractious spat with the new French government at a time when French cooperation will be crucial in managing Europe’s growing economic and political challenges as well as sustaining the military capacity of a viable Atlantic alliance. – International Herald Tribune


United States of America

One House Democrat is looking to codify a ban on the Pentagon from buying weapons from Russian arms dealers who also supply weapons to Syria. – DEFCON Hill

Peter Feaver writes: The "are you better off today than you were four years ago" test is easy to grade in terms of the domestic economy. One can imagine more grade-grubbing in terms of foreign policy because of some tactical successes and short-run popular steps that may obscure longer-term erosion of our global position. But in the end it is a test that Romney could, and should, impose on Obama. It is worth asking the question and looking at the issue with the long-run in view: Obama has made his global position better, but has he made America's better? – Shadow Government

Latin America

A commando-style squad of Drug Enforcement Administration agents accompanied the Honduran counternarcotics police during two firefights with cocaine smugglers in the jungles of the Central American country this month, according to officials in both countries who were briefed on the matter. – New York Times

Signs that President Hugo Chávez has no intentions of backing down from Venezuela's upcoming presidential elections, despite his battle with cancer, are putting a damper on the country's red-hot sovereign debt. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Investigators are questioning Mexico's former deputy defense minister and a top army general for suspected links to organized crime, in the highest level scandal to hit the military in the five-year-old drug war. - Reuters

A bombing that killed two bodyguards of an archconservative former interior minister and injured at least 39 people Tuesday in a busy commercial district of Bogota has raised fears that violence not seen in the Colombian capital in years could return. – Associated Press

Cuban President Raul Castro's daughter is scheduled to visit California next week to speak at a conference of experts on Latin America during a rare U.S. trip by a member of Cuba's ruling family. - Reuters

A prominent Honduran radio journalist was killed by drug gangs in retaliation for a government crackdown on cartels, the country's security minister said on Wednesday. - Reuters


West Africa

Mali is confronting its worst challenges since independence in 1960, including a severe humanitarian emergency, human rights abuses committed by government troops and rebel militias, and international isolation after a military coup two months ago, Amnesty International said in a report released Wednesday. – LA Times’ World Now

Former Liberian president Charles Taylor, convicted of war crimes last month by an international court in The Hague, has told judges at his sentencing hearing that he was a victim of a “conspiracy” by the US. – Financial Times

East Africa

Influential church leaders are calling for an end to the 26-year rule of President Yoweri Museveni, who is resisting efforts to restore term limits on his office and is facing record-low public-approval ratings. – Washington Times

Ngahaga is one of many who have fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to escape the fighting between the army and rebel soldiers led by General Bosco Ntaganda, a renegade general wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes. - Reuters


A general who defected from the Congolese army last month has forced at least 149 boys and young men to join his mutinying forces, repeating the alleged acts for which he has long been wanted by the International Criminal Court, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch – LA Times’ World Now

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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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