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Monday, March 23, 2020

What's going on in the World Today 200323



If Trump Hates Obama’s Nuclear Deal, Why Is He Letting Up on Iran?

Iran is stockpiling enriched uranium and may soon receive advanced weapons from Russia. Trump has an easy way to tighten the screws.

Richard GoldbergMarch 18, 2020

After nearly two years of stunning success imposing maximum pressure on Iran, U.S. President Donald Trump has been holding back on delivering a final blow and abolishing the ill-fated Iran nuclear deal. If he waits too long, he may inadvertently breathe new life into a deal he pledged to dismantle four years ago.

Ever since last summer, when Iran first exceeded the nuclear limits established by the 2015 agreement, Trump supporters in Congress have urged the president to exercise the United States’ right to respond to Iran’s transgression by restoring all United Nations restrictions on its nuclear, missile, and conventional arms programs. This right to fully restore sanctions, known as “snapback,” was marketed by former President Barack Obama at the time as an accountability fail-safe to ensure that the United States could always deny Iran the strategic benefits of the nuclear deal should the regime breach its own commitments.

By late fall, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reporting that Iran was not cooperating with an investigation into possible undeclared nuclear material and activities inside the country, the furor on Capitol Hill grew more intense. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz held up Stephen Biegun’s nomination for deputy secretary of state until the State Department confirmed in writing what legal experts had already opined: The United States can use its right to snapback at any time...

In Historic First, Peace Corps to Evacuate Volunteers Worldwide Amid Pandemic

The U.S. agency announced it was suspending operations globally and recalling volunteers for their safety as the outbreak spread.

Robbie GramerMarch 16, 2020, 11:15 AM

The Peace Corps is for the first time in its history halting its operations globally and evacuating all of its volunteers, a drastic step for the small U.S. agency that shows the knock-on effects of the global coronavirus pandemic even in developing countries still untouched by the outbreak.

“As COVID-19 continues to spread and international travel becomes more and more challenging by the day, we are acting now to safeguard your well-being and prevent a situation where Volunteers are unable to leave their host countries,” Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen wrote in a letter to volunteers.

It joins a raft of other government agencies grappling with how to respond to the rapidly spreading new virus that has roiled markets, upended global trade, and derailed international diplomacy.

Peace Corps volunteers have already been evacuated in China and Mongolia, but “it has become clear in the last 48 hours that numerous posts must follow suit,” Olsen said in the letter. “It is against this backdrop that I have made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend all Peace Corps operations globally and evacuate all of our Volunteers...”

Marine Under Investigation for Allegedly Sharing White Supremacist Material Online

The Marines are investigating an infantryman based at Camp Pendleton for potential violations of the Pentagon's policy against extremism, according to a Marine Corps spokesman. Lance Cpl. ... Martin, 23, posted what some experts called "white supremacist" material across at least two social media accounts over the last two years.... He declined to answer questions about his beliefs or his organization. He also stopped responding to requests for comment over Facebook Messenger.

Sikorsky, Bell Win U.S. Army FLRAA Awards

V-280 Credit: Bell

The U.S. Army has awarded Sikorsky $97 million and Bell $84 million for Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) competitive demonstration and risk reduction (CD&RR), the service’s project manager said.

There is a $7 million difference in the project agreements. That is because although the scope of each proposal was similar, the companies have different technical and costing approaches and phasing of work, Col. David Phillips, FLRAA project manager, told reporters March 17.

The Army issued the project agreements under the Aviation and Missile Technology Consortium Other Transaction Authority. The companies will deliver initial conceptual designs, requirements feasibility and trade studies over two years. This risk reduction work will feed into final requirements before kicking off a program of record in 2022.

Two advanced rotorcraft were constructed for the Army’s Joint Multirole (JMR) technology demonstrator, the precursor to FLRAA. Bell manufactured the V-280 Valor that reached 300 kt., while Sikorsky/Boeing built the SB-1 Defiant that was designed to reach at least 250 kt...






NATO scales down exercises due to coronavirus

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO is scaling down military exercises in Europe to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but alliance missions are continuing, including the drawdown of the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan following a peace agreement last month.

“Some of our exercises have been modified or canceled ... but our forces remain ready,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a video news conference.

The U.S. Army has already announced a halt to movement of military personnel from the United States to Europe and said it plans to scale down its Defender Europe 20 exercises, billed as NATO’s biggest war games in Europe since the Cold War...




Quarantines in Afghanistan may slow down US withdrawal, meanwhile deployments there on pause

Shawn Snow, Diana Stancy Correll, Leo Shane III

The coronavirus is throwing a wrench into American plans to exits its longest war serving as a potential spoiler for peace.

The New York Times reported that quarantine procedures implemented to halt the spread of COVID-19 are impacting efforts that could potentially slow a draw down of forces over the next several months.

A U.S.-Taliban deal inked Feb. 29 in Doha, Qatar, calls for U.S. troop levels to reduce to 8,600 by mid-July and complete a full withdrawal within 14-months.

But some troops entering and exiting Afghanistan airfields are undergoing a14-day quarantine period, according to the New York Times.

Resolute Support said in a news release that it “is making the necessary adjustments to temporarily pause personnel movement into theater," and that adopted screening guidelines from the World Health Organization “will necessitate some servicemembers remaining beyond their scheduled departure dates.”

Roughly 1,500 personnel, troops and contractors arriving in Afghanistan within the last week are living in screening facilities to help stop the spread of the virus, according to the release...


The Coronavirus Shutdown Slashed China’s Household Finances

Xi Jinping is desperate to get the economy back to life.

Christopher AstonMarch 18, 2020, 7:00 PM

COVID-19 spreads fast, and it spreads easily—through kisses, cash, and hospitals. But in China, fear spread even faster than the virus—resulting in a mass lockdown of villages, towns and cities. That made new cases drop sharply, but the economy ground to a halt, with no workers to produce goods, no logistics to transport them, and no customers to buy them.

This gave President Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Communist Party, a capitalist migraine: If the government kept implementing draconian measures to reduce infection rates, it would risk the economy and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, which rules on the promise of economic prosperity. But as the goverment sends people back to work, it risks the virus spreading even further.

It is no surprise then, that the state-run Xinhua News Agency described leaders as saying it would be “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.” That test comes back not just to the virus, but to the government’s credit—financial and political. And it’s a problem that Western countries are going to be facing in a few weeks, if the initial strategy of containment works but the economy falters.

Faced with a stark choice, the central authorities have warned local officials not to let virus containment measures harm the economy. That’s a risky measure, given the number of unknowns surrounding virus transmission and infection rates, and one tough to implement when entire communities are gripped by fear.

Xi also reiterated that China will strive to achieve this year’s development targets—and above all else to meet its goal of doubling gross domestic product from 2010 to 2020. That arbitrary goal was set by the CPC in 2012, but Xi, who from the start promised “a moderately prosperous society,” is determined to stick to the timeline. Most critically, though, as the country gets back to work and the virus seems contained—for the moment—Chinese households currently face grimmer financial prospects than medical threats...


Coronavirus in the Corridors of Power
Which politicians and senior officials have the coronavirus?

Darcy PalderMarch 18, 2020, 7:51 PM/Updated March 19, 2020, 11:30AM EDT

The coronavirus knows no borders, and no continent—except for Antarctica—has been spared. The virus has also made its way into the corridors of power, and scores of national and local politicians around the world have announced that they have contracted the bug. In Iran, at least a dozen current and former officials, politicians, and religious figures have died after contracting the virus...

Iran Knows Who to Blame for the Virus: America and Israel
The regime’s ideological army is spinning conspiracy theories even as it helps spread the virus among Iran’s long-suffering people.

Kasra AarabiMarch 19, 2020, 9:51 AM

If one is to believe the official numbers, Iran lags only China and Italy in the severity of its coronavirus outbreak, but Tehran continues to downplay the scale of the crisis. As of Wednesday, Iran has confirmed 17,361 cases and 1,135 deaths, but many sources suggest the actual totals could be much higher. In Qom, one of the centers of the outbreak, satellite photos appear to show mass graves being dug for virus victims. Several prominent members of the Iranian government, parliament, and clergy are either sick or already dead.

As if to follow the dictum never to waste a good crisis, the regime’s ideological army—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—has seized the pandemic as an opportunity to burnish its tarnished image by presenting itself and its Islamist ideology as the nation’s savior.
But whether out of callousness or outright cynicism, the IRGC’s propaganda activities aren’t only not helping, but have helped spread the virus among Iran’s population.

Since its founding as the Iranian regime’s ideological army in 1979, the IRGC has been the ruling clergy’s principal mechanism for enforcing its theocracy at home, and exporting its Shiite Islamist ideology abroad. The Guard’s constant presence in Iranian life plays a crucial role in sustaining the regime and its ideology across every sector in society, using a toxic mix of violence and propaganda.

In the past few months, however, Iran’s aging ayatollahs have been unnerved by a new wave of hostility against the IRGC, even among the regime’s traditional support base. The Guard has been blamed for the deaths of 1,500 Iranian civilians during anti-regime protests in November, and it was responsible for downing a Ukrainian passenger plane in January, killing all 176 people on board—an atrocity the regime only admitted to after several days of silence. Videos recently posted online show Iranians in cities such as Tehran and Isfahan chanting a new slogan that compares the IRGC to the Islamic State. The mood on Iranian streets suggests domestic support for the Guard has reached an all-time low.

Desperate to regain credibility, the ruthlessly opportunistic Guard has jumped on Iran’s coronavirus crisis in an attempt to resuscitate its appeal and ideology.

As news of coronavirus cases in Iran spread, the IRGC quickly developed a narrative for the disease. It portrayed the virus as a conspiracy orchestrated by the United States, in an attempt to rejuvenate the anti-Americanism that lies at the heart of the regime’s ideology. Hossein Salami, the commander of the Guard, has suggested the coronavirus may be an “American biological invasion,” leading some of the regime’s defenders to call for a retaliatory response. Indeed, a deeper look at IRGC-linked communications networks reveals a systematic propaganda campaign to seize the pandemic as an opportunity to vilify not only the United States, but also the regime’s other traditional ideological enemy, Israel, as well. The propaganda includes claims that the virus is a “Zionist biological terrorist attack,” in line with previous allegations that the so-called Zionist regime has conducted “12 bioterrorist attacks against the people of Iran...”

Iran has been one of the countries hardest-hit by the coronavirus, and the virus has spread rapidly among the country’s political elite and religious figures. According to the Jerusalem Post, at least 24 members of parliament have contracted the virus, and two have died: Fatemeh Rahbar, from Tehran, and Mohammad Ali Ramezani, from Gilan.

Others reported to have contracted the virus, according to the United States Institute for Peace, include:

• Iraj Harirchi, deputy health minister

• Masoumeh Ebtekar, vice president for women and family affairs

• Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign-policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

• Fatemeh Rahbar, member of parliament, Tehran

• Mohammad Ali Ramezani, member of parliament, Gilan

• Mojtaba Rahmanzadeh, local mayor of Tehran’s District 13

• Mahmoud Sadeghi, member of parliament, Tehran

• Mohammad Reza Ghadir, director of Qom’s state medical university and head of coronavirus management in the city

• Pirhossein Kolivand, director of Iran’s emergency medical services

• Eshaq Jahangiri, above, first vice president

• Ismail Najjar, chief of Iran’s Crisis Management Organization

• Mostafa Pourmohammadi, former minister of justice and minister of the interior

• Reza Rahmani, Minister of Industry, Mines and Business (has since recovered from the virus)

• Ali Asghar Mounesan, minister of cultural heritage, handicrafts, and tourism

• Reza Salehi Amiri, president of the National Olympic Committee of Iran

• Mojtaba Zonnour, chairman of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee

• Masoumeh Aghapour Alishahi, member of parliament from East Azerbaijan province

• Zohreh Elahian, member of parliament from Tehran...


US hands over base to Iraqi forces in area known to be a hotbed for Iran-backed militia
Shawn Snow

The U.S. military announced Tuesday it had handed over a strategic outpost near the Iraq-Syria border to Iraqi forces in a region known to host an Iran-backed militia responsible for more than a dozen rocket attacks targeting coalition troops.

Two experts who spoke to Military Times worry the base nestled near a key border crossing area could fall into the hands of the Iran-backed group — cementing what national security experts have warned is Tehran’s goal of a land route to the Mediterranean Sea for the movement of arms, proxies and illicit goods.

Officials with Operation Inherent Resolve — the U.S.-led mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria — say the al-Qaim base transfer is about consolidating coalition forces following successful operations against ISIS militants...




More Underground Facilities Near Yongbyon: A Potential Challenge for Future Denuclearization Deals
Jacob BogleMarch 20, 2020
Commercial satellite imagery reveals a previously publicly unidentified underground facility (UGF) beneath a hill in Bungang, the worker’s district adjacent to the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. Initial excavations of a 10-meter-wide tunnel into the side of the hill began in 2004, adjacent to a walled compound, along with a second excavation site within the compound. When tunnel excavations were completed in 2006, three small structures at the second site had also been erected, suggesting a moderately sized underground facility built beneath the hill.

The tunnel appeared to remain open until 2013, when its entrance was blocked, and the access road was subsequently fenced off from the main road. The small structures within the walled compound were also removed. Activity in and around the area of interest has been light since 2013, with the exception of terracing the side of the hill where the external structures were located in 2015.

The purpose of the underground facility remains unknown. Underground structures in residential areas are not unusual and may be used for storage, civil defense or other innocuous purposes. While there is no evidence that it is related to the North Korean nuclear program, the site’s proximity may raise suspicions. Moreover, there is reason to believe there may be other underground sites in the area that may also provoke the same concerns. Therefore, any future denuclearization agreements covering the Yongbyon nuclear facility may need to take this site and any others discovered nearby into consideration when formulating verification provisions...


In Russia, COVID-19 Border Closures Risk Cutting Off Its Public Works

Sim Tack Global Analyst , Stratfor Mar 19, 2020

As Russia starts to see its number of COVID-19 patients rise, it has started to impose more stringent measures to contain the virus and limit the fallout. As elsewhere, some measures to slow down the disease will have major economic impacts. Russia closed its border to foreigners on March 18, and will stop processing requests for work visas. While this will surely stem the potential flow of COVID-19 carriers into Russia, it will also likely hit its construction sector, which heavily depends on migrant labor. And this, in turn, could upend Moscow's long-term plans for Russia's economy...

Russia: Vessel Slated to Finish Nord Stream 2 Pipeline Spotted Off-Course

What Happened: Russia's only pipe-laying vessel equipped to finish the last leg of the Nord Stream 2 project, the Akademic Chersky, has been located off-route near Mozambique, Kommersant reported March 17. The vessel began making its voyage several weeks ago, and was initially expected to resume work on the Russian-German pipeline in Danish waters on the Baltic Sea.

Why It Matters: The Nord Stream 2 pipeline was originally scheduled to come online at the end of 2019, but harsh U.S. sanctions have since thwarted the project's completion. If the Akademik Chersky is no longer headed to the Baltic Sea, or is taking a serious detour, it could further delay the resumption of construction until the fall.

Background: Russia has access to only two pipe-laying vessels fit to complete Nord Stream 2: the Akademic Chersky and the Fortuna. Unlike the Akademic Chersky, however, the Fortuna lacks a dynamic positioning system that Denmark requires to operate in its waters.




Coronavirus Reality Check: Yes, U.S. And EU Will Track Our Smartphone Location Data—Get Used To It

In Homeland Security StaffMarch 20, 2020

There’s an irony to the surveillance measures being put in place to combat the global coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak started in China. The country with the most extensive population surveillance capabilities on the planet quickly put it to work. Extensive data analysis, facial recognition, phone tracking, apps, even drones. The state set out to know who was where and when. And with who, of course. Where they’d been and where they were allowed to go. China did what China does.

We are inured to such stories from China. We have read countless reports over the last two to three years about the emergence of this domestic surveillance capability. Added to its extensive controls on information, the internet, the economy, it came as no surprise. We had not yet had our own coronavirus shocks to our stable systems. This, coming from China, just seemed to be more of the same.

Then we had stories of government surveillance in South Korea and Singapore. More transparent, certainly, but extensive and mandatory. Again, we put this down to a level of cultural difference. What happens in Asia, we told ourselves, is very different to what happens here, in the U.S. and Europe. And while we acknowledged the success such measures had in containing early infections, it felt far from home.

Meanwhile, there were reminders as to what governments might do if let off the leash—Iran comes to mind with its stupidly simple app pushed out by the government as a self-diagnosis tool. This was quickly uncovered for what it was. Crude spyware intended to monitor the population, to build a dataset.

But then came Israel. “All means will be used to fight the spread of the coronavirus,” the country’s prime minister said last weekend. He was announcing the use of “digital means” to monitor the population, technology designed for counter-terrorism that Benjamin Netanyahu admitted “until today I have refrained from using among the civilian population.” There was a twist here. This was not about monitoring known patients—that’s more easily done. This was data mining...


Lessons From a Hezbollah Honey Trap

Scott Stewart VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor Mar 17, 2020 | 11:00 GMT


- The arrest of a U.S. military translator accused of spying for Hezbollah shows that state intelligence agencies are not the only ones who can conduct human intelligence operations.

- Honey traps continue to be an effective tactic that can be used against anyone at any age.

- Employees of governments, companies and organizations that could be targeted for recruitment by state or nonstate intelligence officers should be educated about such tactics.

FBI special agents arrested Mariam Taha Thompson, an American contract interpreter, Feb. 27 in Arbil, Iraq. Thompson, who held a top-secret security clearance, has been charged with passing classified information to a man with links to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Following her arrest, the 61-year-old Thompson, who is from Rochester, Minnesota, reportedly waived her Miranda rights and admitted to interviewing agents that she had passed information to a man with whom she was romantically involved, and that the man had a nephew in the Lebanese Interior Ministry. Under further investigation, she admitted that she suspected the nephew was likely linked to Hezbollah. Thompson's Lebanese paramour was reportedly overseas when she passed him the classified information...


Coronavirus makes Taliban realise they need health workers alive not dead

KABUL, March 18 (Reuters) - Scared by the prospect a coronavirus epidemic in parts of Afghanistan under their control, the Taliban have pledged their readiness to work with healthcare workers instead of killing them, as they have been accused of in the past.

Back in September, the Taliban lifted a ban on the World Health Organisation and Red Cross from operating in militant-held territory, having warned them off in April because of suspicions over polio vaccination campaigns.

Whatever reservations the militants held over eradicating that crippling disease, they have clearly grasped the dangers posed by coronavirus pandemic sweeping the rest of the world.

“The Islamic Emirate via its Health Commission assures all international health organizations and WHO of its readiness to cooperate and coordinate with them in combating the coronavirus,” said Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s spokesman, on Twitter, using the term the group uses to describe itself.

In a report in December, the World Health Organisation refrained from naming the Taliban or any other militant group as it counted the human and social cost of targeted attacks on healthcare during 2019.

At least 51 healthcare workers, patients and supportive staff were killed and 142 others wounded. As a result of the attacks 192 health facilities were closed, of which only 34 were re-opened. The Taliban denied responsibility for the attacks that Afghan authorities have blamed on their fighters.

Afghanistan currently has 22 confirmed coronavirus cases, with concerns growing particularly over the danger of infections among the thousands of Afghans crossing the border with Iran – one of the worst-affected nations...


Exclusive: Trump cancels G7 at Camp David over coronavirus, to hold video-conference instead
Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump will cancel an in-person meeting of G7 leaders at Camp David in June because of the coronavirus and will hold a video-conference instead, the White House said on Thursday.

The decision comes as nations around the world seal their borders and ban travel to stop the virus’ spread.

Trump held a video-conference with the leaders of the world’s major industrialized countries earlier this week and plans to repeat that in April, May and June, when the physical meeting at the presidential retreat in Maryland was scheduled to take place.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who also serves as Trump’s G7 “sherpa,” has informed his counterparts about the move...

Coronavirus Forces Us To Rethink Infrastructure For An Age Of Biological Risk

In Homeland Security StaffMarch 20, 2020

Coronavirus Forces Us To Rethink Infrastructure For An Age Of Biological Risk

With hours-long screening lines at America’s airports causing confusion and frustration, with supply chain shortages limiting access to essential goods, with economically important events being cancelled and mass transit ridership plummeting as people create social distance, it is clear that the country’s infrastructure is ill-prepared for the type of natural disaster that coronavirus presents: the kind that drives people apart rather than bringing them together.

Many natural disasters are characterized by people coming together to help and support one another, and are often catalysts for closing the physical and emotional distance between us. The threat of coronavirus, conversely, is actually creating physical and emotional distance. It’s caused people to stockpile food and stay home. It’s caused employers to close offices, schools to cancel class, cities to ban large gatherings and even churches to shut their doors. This social distancing is vital to stemming the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19, but runs contrary to the purpose of our infrastructural systems. Our infrastructure—including everything from mass transit systems and roads to buildings and structures to utilities and power grids to railways and waterways—is intended to connect people and enable the movement and accessibility of information, goods and services. We rely on it to enable our daily lives and help us bounce back after other types of disaster. In the case of pandemics like coronavirus, however, this connectivity works against us by making it easier for contagions to spread. Crowded subways. Busy airports. Concentrated retail centers. Centralized workplaces. Ubiquitous roadways. Coalescing and connecting people is what these systems were designed for. These same qualities, however, are also what makes our physical systems the perfect vehicles for viruses...

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