FPI Overnight Brief: May 18, 2012

Middle East/North Africa

Iran

Iranian oil production, the backbone of the Islamic republic’s economy, fell by 12 percent in the first three months of the year and is likely to fall even more, industry experts say, as sanctions make it increasingly hard for the country to find markets for its crude. – New York Times

The American ambassador to Israel said this week that not only was America willing to use military force to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but that preparations had already been made for a possible attack. – New York Times

Japan's largest bank, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, said Thursday it has frozen financial transactions with Iran's government and central bank, as ordered by a U.S. federal court. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Senate Republicans blocked an Iran sanctions package on Thursday saying the bill needs to include stronger language reiterating that the United States is prepared to use force to stop any nuclear weapons program. – The Hill’s Floor Action Blog

Prominent lawmakers and Middle East experts on Thursday urged Washington to enact stricter sanctions on Iran, with one former senior diplomat urging "the most robust sanctions in history." - DOTMIL

World powers want to move towards the first in a series of confidence-building deals with Iran over its nuclear activities next week, hoping Tehran halts the production of highly enriched uranium in return for a package of concessions by the international community. – Financial Times

Negotiators from Iran and European Union have worked on a potential "confidence-building package" that could serve as an initial basis for assuaging international fears over possible steps by the Persian Gulf power toward acquiring nuclear weapons, the London Guardian reported on Wednesday – Global Security Newswire

An Iranian plan to fire a research instrument into space next Wednesday has generated little reaction in the United States and elsewhere, in part due to technical factors limiting the project's relevance to potential development of an ICBM capability, Wired magazine reported on Wednesday – Global Security Newswire

Iran and the U.N. nuclear watchdog are making headway towards a framework deal on how to tackle concerns about its atomic activity, diplomats say, a potential bargaining chip for Tehran in next week's negotiations with world powers. - Reuters

South Korea is considering cutting its exports to Iran - mainly steel, cars and electronics - to reduce the risk of payment defaults as sanctions strangle Iran's earnings from oil exports, two sources with knowledge of the issue said. - Reuters

Iran's Foreign Ministry threatened on Thursday to take legal action against Google for dropping the name Persian Gulf from its Google Maps and leaving the waterway between Iran and Arab states nameless, state television reported. - Reuters

Iran's parliament on Thursday approved President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's $462 billion annual budget, the official IRNA news agency reported, a drop in real terms from last year as international sanctions took their toll. - Reuters

John Hannah writes: That a weapon this effective [sanctions against the CBI] was not deployed several years ago, at a time when Iran's nuclear program was far less advanced, is indeed a great pity. It's also a potent reminder of the kinds of shortcomings that the U.S. government is perfectly capable of -- even when it comes to the most pressing national security issues. – Shadow Government

Cliff Kupchan and Greg Priddy write: Western sanctions on Iran are on the threshold of an overreach. That evolving reality might provide leverage at the talks in Baghdad. If it doesn’t, the West will have to dodge an approaching bullet, and turn its new leverage over Iranian oil revenue into a potent tool of diplomacy. – International Herald Tribune

Syria

In the presence of United Nations monitors, hundreds of students converged on the campus of the leading university in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, on Thursday for an antigovernment protest that was set upon by pro-government students and security forces. – New York Times

Syria’s main opposition group is in disarray, and its leader Thursday offered to step down, nearly 15 months after the start of an uprising aimed at toppling President Bashar Assad’s regime. – Washington Times

An oil tanker belonging to Iran’s state-owned shipping line has been switching flags and using multiple companies to transport crude from Syria to Iran, illustrating how Tehran is helping to sidestep international efforts to choke the finances of Bashar al-Assad, Syrian president. – Financial Times

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday he believed al Qaeda was responsible for two suicide car bombs that killed at least 55 people in Syria a week ago and that the death toll in the country's 14-month conflict was now at least 10,000. - Reuters

Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) writes: [I]t is clear that without greater intervention the current course of events will lead to greater danger: a humanitarian and strategic disaster that will directly implicate our moral values and national security interests. The way to avoid this outcome is for the military balance inside Syria to change, quickly — and once again that depends most of all on U.S. leadership. – Washington Post

Leon Wieseltier writes: In recent weeks I have been conducting a local and anecdotal study of the likelihood that the United States will take decisive action in Syria—which would serve not only our tenderhearted values but also our hard-hearted interests—and I have concluded that the likelihood is close to zero. What follows are some observations on the alibis for the inconsequential action—some nonlethal aid is getting through!—and the absence of alacrity that is our policy. – The New Republic

North Africa

An Egyptian court on Thursday found 14 policemen not guilty in the killing of protesters during last year’s popular uprising, the latest verdict in what activists claim to be a pattern of acquittals for police blamed for the deaths of hundreds of people during the revolt. – Associated Press

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood organized a 760-km (470-mile)-long human chain of supporters across the country on Thursday to back the group's presidential candidate Mohamed Mursi in a show of strength ahead of next week's historic vote. - Reuters

Israel has become a punchbag for politicians vying for votes in Egypt's presidential race, playing on popular antipathy in Egypt towards its neighbor, but the realities of office are likely to ensure a 33-year-old peace treaty is not jeopardized. - Reuters

Morocco said on Thursday it had lost confidence in the U.N. envoy to the contested Western Sahara territory, in the latest in a long series of setbacks in efforts to settle a decades-old dispute over the region's status. - Reuters

A House of Representatives committee voted on Thursday to cut off economic aid to any country that hosts Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and other crimes. - Reuters

Gil Shefler writes: Next spring, Tunisia will again hold elections—with the winners empowered to draft a new constitution. That process will be a major indicator of whether the Arab Spring holds promise for human rights and religious liberty in the Middle East. The Djerba pilgrimage suggests that Tunisia still has promise. – Wall Street Journal

Gulf States

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri on Thursday urged Saudis to rise up against the kingdom's ruling Al-Saud family, suggesting they draw inspiration from uprisings that have deposed leaders across the Middle East and Africa in the past year and a half. - Reuters

Iran on Thursday summoned Bahrain's charge d'affaires to complain about a statement from the Gulf country which accused Tehran of violating its sovereignty, state television reported. - Reuters

Analysis: Saudi Arabia's thrust for a Gulf Union, driven by fear of Arab Spring contagion and spreading Iranian influence, has stumbled on misgivings among smaller neighbors about a loss of sovereignty and increasing domination by Riyadh. - Reuters

Yemen

Yemeni troops battling al Qaeda fighters in the country’s south have forced them to retreat, but military officials said Thursday the push in a major southern city is going slowly because of concerns the militants could stage a surprise counterattack. – Associated Press

Foreign governments should back secessionists who want to recreate the vanished state of south Yemen, because it would crush the Islamist militants who have taken over much of the region, a secessionist leader said on Wednesday. - Reuters

Israel

As the deadline for a decision draws nearer, the public pronouncements of Israel's top officials and military have changed. After hawkish warnings about a possible strike earlier this year, their language of late has been more guarded and clues to their intentions more difficult to discern. - Reuters

The United States plans to bolster an Israeli anti-rocket system with $70 million in assistance this year and more funding is likely in the future, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said May 17 - AFP

Turkey

Turkish drones were responsible for the initial intelligence footage that prompted a deadly strike against civilian smugglers, Turkey's armed forces said Thursday, seeking to damp a furor sparked by a Wall Street Journal article that described the role played by a U.S. drone. – Wall Street Journal

Asia

Afghanistan

[E]ven as American officials prepare a list of benchmarks they can cite as achieved in the war effort — expect to hear much about strategic partnership agreements and assurances that the Afghan people have not been abandoned — they acknowledge privately that the bar has been significantly lowered on how success in Afghanistan is defined after 11 years of combat. – New York Times

At least 11 people died Thursday after Taliban insurgents attacked a provincial governor’s office, but were beaten back by security forces, Afghan officials said. – New York Times

The House endorsed the continued war in Afghanistan on Thursday despite acknowledgment from Republicans and Democrats that the American people are war-weary after more than a decade of conflict. – Associated Press

Mapping the way out of an unpopular war, the United States and NATO are trying to build an Afghan army that can defend the country after 130,000 international troops pull out…The problem with the exit strategy is that someone has to pay for that army in an era of austerity budgets and defense cutbacks. – Associated Press

Ronald Neumann and Michael O’Hanlon write: In Chicago this weekend, while recommitting their forces to a gradual, careful withdrawal, NATO officials also need to make clear that reducing Afghan forces in the coming years is a hope — and not a binding plan. – Washington Post

Pakistan

For nearly six months after U.S.-led forces accidentally killed two dozen Pakistani troops at the Afghanistan border, officials at the highest reaches of the Obama administration have been locked in a heated debate over what might appear to be a small step—apologizing for the loss. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

China

Blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng filled out an application for a Chinese passport Wednesday in a small but important step that brings him and his family closer to being allowed to leave for the U.S. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

The country's most famous murder suspect may have laid bare divisions in Chinese society, but friends and foes alike are united in their demand that her trial be a test case for justice in a system notorious for secrecy and flouting of the rule of law. – Los Angeles Times

That a dealmaker like Mr. Jiang would be included in an undertaking like that of DreamWorks is almost a given in today’s China. Analysts say this is how the Communist Party shares the spoils, allowing the relatives of senior leaders to cash in on one of the biggest economic booms in history. – New York Times

A court sentenced a man once labeled China's most-wanted fugitive to life in prison, according to state media, bringing an end to a case that highlighted the depth of official graft there and had inflamed tensions between China and Canada. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

China is allowing more companies to export rare earth after they met new environmental standards, but a steepening decline in China's exports of the strategic minerals suggests that its policy restrictions haven't kept pace with how swiftly market demand has soured. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

The United States on Thursday announced the imposition of antidumping tariffs of more than 31 percent on solar panels from China. – New York Times

U.S. and Chinese regulators are headed toward a possible clash over how Chinese companies are audited. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, who was President Obama’s initial candidate to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a speech this week that the Pentagons’ new battle concept is “demonizing China.” – Washington Free Beacon

The nephew of blind activist Chen Guangcheng has been denied his family's choice of lawyers to defend a charge of "intentional homicide" in what one said was an attempt to manipulate a case that has focused world attention on China's human rights. - Reuters

Three retired Chinese Communist Party officials issued a call on Friday for leaders to disclose their family wealth before a looming succession, warning that a scandal over the fallen politician Bo Xilai has exposed dangerous abuses of power. - Reuters

Paul Mooney writes: [T]his is not the time for the international community to back down from shining a light on China's treatment of dissidents. There are numerous other examples of abuse of rights activists and lawyers. Some, like Chen's lawyer Teng Biao, remain under scrutiny. Some, like human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, have disappeared into the maw of state security. Meanwhile, her body broken, Ni still sits in prison. – Foreign Policy

Koreas

Unidentified people in North Korea have held 29 Chinese fisherman in detention for more than a week and are seeking more than $180,000 to free them, according to Chinese media reports—a rare moment of public tension between North Korea and its major patron. – Wall Street Journal

South Korea's foreign minister pledged to step up diplomatic efforts to secure the release of four South Korean activists held by China on the North Korean border, in the latest case of friction between Seoul and Beijing over human-rights issues involving their shared neighbor. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

North Korea is seen to be enhancing its older missile launch facility at Musudan-ri, installing a bigger platform that could be used to fire a long-range missile, anonymous diplomatic insiders told news organizations in Japan and South Korea this week – Global Security Newswire

The South Korean government is somewhat hopeful the United States will permit it to manufacture ballistic missiles with longer ranges than those now permitted under a 2001 bilateral agreement, the Korea Herald reported on Wednesday – Global Security Newswire

A U.N. panel of experts that monitors compliance with sanctions on North Korea is investigating reports of possible weapons-related deals between Pyongyang and Syria and Myanmar, the panel said in a confidential report seen by Reuters on Thursday. - Reuters

Ten thousand rolls of tobacco, 12 bottles of Sake, and a handful of second-hand Mercedes-Benz cars are among the latest reported breaches by North Korea of a U.N. ban on luxury goods sales to the reclusive state, according to a confidential draft U.N. report. - Reuters

Taiwan

Taiwan is due to receive two coastal minehunters from the United States within months in a deal aimed at enhancing the island’s ability to defend itself against China, the Taiwanese Navy said Thursday. - AFP

Karl Eikenberry writes: The U.S.-Taiwan relationship faces growing risk from complacency on both sides as each increasingly takes the other for granted to focus instead on "getting it right" with mainland China. Now, the United States has a brief window of opportunity to get an important friendship back on track. – Foreign Policy

Southeast Asia

The Obama administration on Thursday lifted most prohibitions on Americans’ doing business in Myanmar, ushering in a new era of diplomatic relations between the United States and what was until recently one of the world’s most repressive countries. – New York Times

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called for an end to attacks by all parties in Myanmar on Thursday after receiving a letter from a rebel independence group in the country's Kachin State asking the United Nations to help end its conflict with the government - Reuters

The Philippines needs to develop new overseas markets so that a maritime standoff with China, which has thrown relations into turmoil, does not take a toll on tourism and fruit exports, a senior official said on Thursday. - Reuters

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa will order the release of his ailing former army chief this week, sources close to the president said on Thursday, in a bid to quell criticism of the government and its human rights record. - Reuters

Security

Defense

Defense contractors already are preparing for the layoffs and plant closures that will occur if Congress fails to reach a deal on the federal deficit this year, triggering $600 billion in automatic Pentagon spending cuts. – Washington Times

The House got through 92 amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Thursday and early Friday morning, but finally adjourned shortly after 1:30 a.m. and planned to return later Friday morning for votes and consideration of the last 50. – The Hill’s Floor Action Blog

A handful of Democrats put forward amendments that would have canceled or cut funding to weapons so that more money would be available for deficit reduction during House debate of the 2013 defense authorization bill May 17. All of the amendments were voted down. – Defense News

Each American taxpayer’s share of the cost of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan would be calculated and posted on the U.S. Defense Department’s website, under an amendment to the 2013 defense authorization act passed May 17 by the House on a voice vote. – Defense News

In an era of shrinking budgets, the military's future is less about buying new hardware than making better use of what it already has, the armed forces' top officer said [Wednesday], and that kind of change requires focusing not on equipment but on people. – AOL Defense

Boeing is paring its workforce, consolidating facilities and cutting overhead to prepare for the “distinct possibility” that U.S. defense spending will be cut by a total of $1 trillion over the next decade, the head of the company’s defense business said May 15. - Reuters

The War

Al-Qaeda’s core organization in Pakistan was staggered last year by the death of Osama bin Laden and the toll of CIA drone strikes. But in an interview, [outgoing NCTC Director Anthony] Liepman said that predictions of al-Qaeda’s demise seem increasingly premature. – Washington Post

The Obama administration is weighing policy changes that would lift a tattered veil of secrecy from its controversial campaign of drone strikes, a recognition that the expanding program has become a regular part of U.S. global counterterrorism operations. – Wall Street Journal

A U.S. District Court in New York has blocked provisions in last year’s Defense authorization bill that allow for military detention for terror suspects, throwing a wrench in the debate that will take place on the House floor Thursday. – DEFCON Hill

Missile Defense

The House is expected to vote this week on a bill that calls on the Pentagon to start on an East Coast Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system site...But before any of that becomes law, it will have to be hashed out in the Senate, where the leaders of the subcommittee in charge of missile systems are far from mutually assured. – Aviation Week

A top Republican in the Senate urged President Barack Obama on Tuesday to refrain from giving Russia and China any assurances about possible limits to U.S. missile defenses, days before a NATO summit in Chicago. - Reuters

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) writes: Now is the time for Congress to step up and do what the president’s budget does not — fund a missile-defense system to protect the U.S.  Fiscal responsibility must mean more than just measuring which political party has the bigger budget ax — especially on issues of national defense.  - Politico

Law of the Sea Treaty

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a hearing next week on the decades-old international Law of the Sea Treaty, confirming the Senate's desire to try again for ratification after failing five years ago. – The Hill’s Global Affairs

Cybersecurity

The White House moved quickly Thursday to name Michael Daniel as President Obama's cybersecurity adviser to replace retiring Howard Schmidt. – AOL Defense

The United States is woefully unprepared to counter a “catastrophic cyber-attack” that's expected within 12 to 24 months, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Thursday. – The Hill’s Global Affairs

Russia/Europe

Russia

Russian opposition forces said their surprise gains in Moscow's 125 district councils in March would give them a modest platform to challenge Mr. Putin's authoritarian system and have a say in how the capital is run during his third presidential term, which began last week. But an early attempt to test their clout on a sensitive political issue fell short. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

The harsh anti-American tone that sounded so loudly here over the past six months has grown quiet, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visits the United States for Friday’s Group of Eight meeting representing a country that has officially declared good U.S. relations as a principle of its foreign policy. – Washington Post

A Russian government media campaign to attack U.S. officials reached a new level this week with the airing of a highly personal attack on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a KGB-linked television outlet. – Washington Free Beacon

Dozens of opposition activists remain camped on a central Moscow square, despite police arresting some 20 fellow protesters overnight. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Ukraine

Meeting with members of the European Parliament in Brussels this week, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov acknowledged what the critics of President Viktor Yanukovych have been saying all along: The much-ballyhooed April 2010 Kharkiv natural-gas deal with Russia has brought the country no tangible benefits. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

United Kingdom

The 40-year-old cornerstone of Britain’s nuclear deterrent doctrine – the ability to overwhelm Moscow’s ballistic missile defences and obliterate the Russian capital – is being challenged in a government review. – Financial Times

NATO

Patrick Keller and Gary Schmitt, Nicholas Burns and David Manning, and French Air Force Gen. Stephane Abrial assess the future of NATO ahead of the Chicago Summit

Americas

United States of America

Lawmakers have pressed a top State Department official on whether the Obama administration believes that a group of Iranian dissidents in an Iraqi camp have given up their weapons. – Washington Times

The Obama administration granted a visa this week to the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro but rejected visas for nearly a dozen other Cubans to attend an academic conference in California, angering both conservative Cuban American leaders and American scholars seeking to improve U.S.-Cuban academic ties. – Washington Post

The chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said the State Department has told her it may cease to inform lawmakers when it grants visas to Cuban officials. – The Hill’s Global Affairs

Latin America

Police and human rights activists headed to an isolated river town along the Honduran coast Thursday to investigate what happened last week during a gun battle that local officials say left four innocent people, including two pregnant women, dead in a drug bust orchestrated by U.S. agents. – Washington Post

Africa

West Africa

A West African bloc is sending hundreds of troops to Guinea-Bissau, part of a regional attempt to restore order after the latest military coup in the small nation's tumultuous history. – LA Times’ World Now

Nigerian authorities found improvised bombs in two primary schools in the northern city of Kano on Thursday, hours after the schools were attacked using explosives and gunfire by suspected militants from Islamist sect Boko Haram. - Reuters

The Justice Department is pressing the State Department to designate Boko Haram, a Nigerian militant group alleged to be responsible for hundreds of deaths, as a "foreign terrorist organization," according to a document obtained by Reuters. - Reuters

East Africa

African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki flew to Khartoum on Thursday after Sudan and South Sudan missed a U.N. Security Council deadline to resume peace talks. – LA Times’ World Now

The U.N. Security Council demanded on Thursday that Sudan immediately and unconditionally withdraw troops from the disputed Abyei border region but Khartoum pledged only to do so after a joint military observer body was created for the area - Reuters

Democracy and Human Rights

Former President George W. Bush writes: America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East or elsewhere. It only gets to choose what side it is on….It takes courage to ignite a freedom revolution. But it also takes courage to secure a freedom revolution through structural reform. And both types of bravery deserve our support. – Wall Street Journal

Sunday Shows

As of publication, the following shows had announced that they will host foreign policy-related guest on their programming, Sunday:

Face the Nation: Clarissa Ward, journalist who independently reported from inside Syria

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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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