With help from Daniel Lippman.
Soon we’ll know whether the Iran deal “is” or “was.”
Representatives for the United States are in Vienna for indirect talks with Iran to revive — or pronounce dead — the Iran nuclear deal as we know it. It’s the first time negotiations kicked off in earnest after a five-month break punctuated by the arrival of a more hardline president in Tehran.
Previewing the talks, our own NAHAL TOOSI and STEPHANIE LIECHTENSTEIN wrote that compared to the run-up to a deal in 2015, “the stakes are arguably higher now. Iran’s nuclear program — which Tehran has always maintained is for peaceful purposes, not a bomb — is more advanced, and Iranian leaders are less optimistic about the benefits of potential sanctions relief.” To date, there’s no sign that President JOE BIDEN would offer partial sanctions relief to bring tensions down, while Iran says it solely wants to discuss the lifting of penalties even as it enriches uranium to levels prohibited by the accord.
That was today’s theme, experts said. “Iran kept the discussion focused on sanctions relief and seems to have reiterated its position that such relief be wide ranging in scope and subject to verification measures,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ ERIC BREWER told NatSec Daily. The first day of talks “didn’t really move the needle in either direction.”
If there was progress, it was the Iranian side promising to discuss the nuclear component as early as Wednesday — a step that wasn’t guaranteed before negotiations began. That led ENRIQUE MORA, the European Union’s top representative to the talks and main conduit between the American and Iranian delegations, to tell reporters “I feel extremely positive about what I have seen today.”
The new Iranian administration has “accepted that the work done over the first six rounds is a good basis to build our work ahead,” he continued. “We will be of course incorporating the new political sensibilities of the new Iranian administration.”
Analysts we spoke to don’t share Mora’s optimism. The Eurasia Group’s HENRY ROME said all signs indicate “the talks are going to be a slog, and it’s still hard to see good outcomes at this point,” while Dartmouth College’s NICHOLAS MILLER wrote us that “unless Iran and/or the Biden administration show significant flexibility in their positions, we are headed for an impasse.”
It’s no less tense outside the room. In a Twitter video, Israeli Prime Minister NAFTALI BENNETT warned the U.S., which unilaterally left the nuclear deal in 2018 during the Trump administration, not to “give in to Iran’s nuclear blackmail.” Meanwhile, longtime opponents of America’s return to the deal are pushing Biden’s team to keep former President DONALD TRUMP’s “maximum pressure” course and stay out of the deal.
Biden’s team is “about to face the same situation that the Trump administration faced throughout 2019 and 2020 — how to contain an Iranian regime engaging in nuclear extortion and regional aggression primarily through military and economic coercion. And I’ll venture to guess they’re about to have a bit more empathy and appreciation for the policies his administration took as well,” said GABRIEL NORONHA, executive director of the Forum for American Leadership, who worked on Iran at the State Department.
Adding to that is open talk the U.S. is considering a “Plan B” should negotiations fail — among them “[o]rdering military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or supporting Israeli military action,” NBC News’ DAN DE LUCE and ABIGAIL WILLIAMS reported last week. And today Axios’ BARAK RAVID reported that Israel shared intelligence with the U.S. about Iran’s technical preparations to enrich uranium to 90 percent, which is weapons grade.
For now, at least, the Biden administration wants to see what comes from this round of Iran deal talks, despite the current dim prospect of success. “First and foremost, unquestionably, our best approach here is through diplomacy,” White House press secretary JEN PSAKI said today. “So I’m not going to give a timeline for when that would end. That is what we’re going to continue to press forward on.”
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — 46 GROUPS ASK SENATORS TO OPPOSE SAUDI MUNITIONS SALE: A coalition of antiwar, arms control and human rights groups sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to support joint resolutions blocking $650 million in munitions sales to Saudi Arabia.
“Despite the claim of ‘defensive use,’ the proposed sale of these AIM-120 air-to-air missiles and hundreds of missile launchers are not exclusively defensive, and can reasonably be used to support offensive operations,” wrote the NGOs, led by Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and Amnesty International USA. “Misleading claims about the defensive nature of these weapons fail to recognize that this sale would constitute continued U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s role in the armed conflict in Yemen. Congress must make clear that the U.S. instead should end all support and arms transfers to parties to this conflict, namely the Saudi-led coalition — which it must pressure to end its brutal campaign in Yemen.”
“These wrongful sales risk fueling further civilian harm and human rights violations in Yemen and beyond — as well as U.S. complicity in these abuses and possible war crimes,” they asserted.
The letter, obtained exclusively by NatSec Daily, offers a boost to the joint measures first proposed by Rep. ILHAN OMAR (D-Minn.) and Sen. RAND PAUL (R-Ky.), both of whom want to stop sending weapons to Riyadh.
“The main purpose of air to air missiles is to achieve air superiority over the enemy. The goal is to destroy the opposition Air Force. The Royal Saudi Air Force gained air superiority over the much smaller remnants of the Yemeni Air Force aligned with the Houthis early in the war in 2015. Securing air superiority is an inherently offensive action,” said BRUCE RIEDEL, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Weapons are weapons. The new false dichotomy of defensive vs offensive weapons is nothing more than a political ploy to justify selling more arms to abusive governments,” RAED JARRAR, the advocacy director for DAWN, the organization founded by JAMAL KHASHOGGI, told NatSec Daily. “The United States should not sell any weapons to Saudi Arabia or other abusive governments, period. The Senate should vote to block this and similar deals in the future.”
This is yet another indicator that the era of easy arms sales to Saudi Arabia is over. Any time an administration authorizes weapons transfers, members of both parties rise up to oppose it. It’s a swift turnaround from decades of near unanimity in Washington on the wisdom of arming Riyadh.
DOD FAILS TO MAKE STRATEGIC FORCE POSTURE CHOICES: The Pentagon’s global posture review is an opportunity for America’s military and defense leaders to look at the world, decide which threats require the nation’s resources and focus, and plan accordingly. Per the Wall Street Journal’s GORDON LUBOLD, the administration failed to do that in its latest edition.
“A Pentagon review of military resources world-wide plans improvements to bases in Guam and Australia to counter China but contains no major reshuffling of forces as the U.S. moves to take on Beijing while deterring Russia and fighting terrorism in the Middle East and Africa,” he first reported on the document’s contents.
So much for that pivot to the Indo-Pacific, then. Experts and U.S. officials told NatSec Daily that massive geostrategic shifts don’t happen overnight: there genuinely are threats around the world that require America’s attention, and moving forces out of, say, Europe would cause a major diplomatic headache for the administration at a time they aim to shore up alliances.
But prioritizing everything while also countering China isn’t realistic, experts say. “There’s nothing strategic — or even useful — about a global force posture review that fails to accept the notion of resource constraints and declines to face any hard choices about America’s place in the world. If the Biden administration’s proposed changes to America’s force posture abroad are as minimal as reporting suggests, then this review amounts to little more than sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that it’s still 1992,” said the Atlantic Council’s EMMA ASHFORD.
Still, the Pentagon claims they got the review right. “The more you look at any given region, the more complicated the region becomes. … But I do think we were able to make some decisions through this that really reinforced our commitment to getting after the Indo-Pacific,” an unnamed defense official told Lubold. “We’ve moved the needle.”
U.S. WANTS TO TALK NUKES WITH CHINA: “For the first time, the United States is trying to nudge China’s leadership into a conversation about its nuclear capability. U.S. officials, describing the American strategy, say Mr. Biden and his top aides plan to move slowly — focusing the talks first on avoiding accidental conflict, then on each nation’s nuclear strategy and the related instability that could come from attacks in cyberspace and outer space,” the New York Times’ DAVID SANGER and WILLIAM BROAD report.
The Trump administration pushed China to engage in arms control talks over concern about advances in hypersonic missiles and cyber weapons. But critics said those entreaties, which aimed to have Beijing join Washington and Moscow for trilateral talks, were meant to stop the extension of the New START treaty.
Biden’s team aims for bilateral strategic talks — a different approach — but the push for chats underscores they recognize the same threat the Trump administration did.
INSANE IN THE UKRAINE: If you avoided the news because of Turkey Day — the correct move, we hasten to add — you might have missed some wild development out of Ukraine: President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY claimed there was a plan to remove him in a coup on Dec. 1 or 2.
The Ukrainian leader told reporters that “a group of Russians and Ukrainians planned to attempt a coup in Ukraine next month and that the plotters tried to enlist the help of the country’s richest man, RINAT AKHMETOV,” per the Washington Post’s DAVID STERN. “The president offered no other details, however, leaving many questions about his motives for making the allegations public and what possible actions authorities have taken.”
Both Akhmetov and the Kremlin denied the charge.
Oh, and there’s still that pesky issue of nearly 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border. Ukrainian Foreign Minister DMYTRO KULEBA said Monday that Russia still won’t explain why it has so many forces and equipment on his nation’s doorstep.
NOLAN PETERSON, a former U.S. Air Force special operator who’s in Ukraine, wrote to our own BRYAN BENDER about the state of play. “No overt signs of AFU [Armed Forces of Ukraine] buckling down for a wider war, although some units are moving around. … I’ve been in regular touch with the Kyiv territorial defense force and they say they’ve heard nothing — no instructions to go on alert or any new deliveries of weapons, ammunition.”
“I have heard from some soldiers who have had their New Years holiday leaves canceled. Seems to me that the overall AFU response is pretty muted — whether it’s because they don’t take the threat seriously, or are trying to not signal signs of escalation to Moscow, it’s hard to tell,” he continued.
#WERUNNATSEC 5K: Reminder that NatSec Daily’s first-ever 5k will happen on Saturday, Dec. 4. When most convenient for you, go out and run (at least) 3.11 miles, then share your photos using #WeRunNatSec on Twitter. We’ll “see” you out there!
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CHINA VOWS RETALIATION FOR USICA: The House this week is finally going to take up the Senate version of a $250 billion China-targeted bill known as the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act — and Beijing is already firing warning shots.
“Its officials have warned that reprisals are coming, should the bill become law, and experts caution that the effect could be severe on key U.S. economic sectors,” our own PHELIM KINE and GAVIN BADE reported. “China experts say those reprisals may include deliberate disruptions in imported parts’ supplies for U.S. manufacturers and curbs on Chinese purchases of U.S. exports.”
“The Chinese government is likely to signal its anger by tapping the brakes on select exports essential to key U.S. industries, such as the automotive sector. Such intentional disruption of targeted supply chains will allow Beijing to retaliate with a degree of plausible deniability while avoiding the blunter weapon of an escalating series of tit-for-tat tariffs,” they continued.
No question that such a retaliation would test the newly chummy relationship between Biden and Chinese leader XI JINPING.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: BIPARTISAN AMENDMENT ON FED TECH PERMITS: A bipartisan trio will today file an amendment to add key technologies — like semiconductors or electric vehicle batteries — to the FAST-41 federal permitting program.
The measure, introduced by Sens. BILL HAGERTY (R-Tenn.), ANGUS KING (I-Me.) and ROB PORTMAN (R-Ohio), “would build upon the successful FAST-41 permitting program, which promotes increased coordination between permitting agencies without compromising health, safety, or environmental protection, by adding ‘key technology focus areas impacting national security’ as eligible sectors, so that these projects can benefit from the same program,” states a press release exclusively obtained by NatSec Daily along with the amendment text.
“Developing and re-shoring key technologies impacting national security, from semiconductors to electric car batteries, will not only create millions of American jobs, but boost American supply chains and national security,” Hagerty said in a statement. “By creating greater permitting process certainty and coordination and encouraging these industries of the future to invest in the United States, we will win the strategic competition with Communist China to develop the technologies of tomorrow.”
“Expanding the FAST-41 permitting process improvements to more projects — especially those affecting national security — is common sense,” added Portman. Over the past six years, the FAST-41 process has substantially reduced the permitting process timeline for covered projects by increasing agency communication and accountability. This bipartisan amendment will leverage that process to make America more competitive and secure.”
NEW CHINESE SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM: Reuters has a haunting story about Henan, one of China’s largest provinces, acquiring a new surveillance system to track reporters and foreign students.
“A July 29 tender document published on the Henan provincial government’s procurement website — reported in the media for the first time — details plans for a system that can compile individual files on such persons of interest coming to Henan using 3,000 facial recognition cameras that connect to various national and regional databases,” an unnamed reporter for Reuters wrote. “A 5 million yuan ($782,000) contract was awarded on Sept. 17 to Chinese tech company Neusoft … which was required to finish building the system within two months of signing the contract, separate documents published on the Henan government procurement website showed. Reuters was unable to establish if the system is currently operating.”
The roughly 200-page document, which is no longer publicly available as of Monday, “does not give reasons why it wants to track journalists or international students” per Reuters. “Another category of people it said it wants to track were ‘women from neighbouring countries that are illegal residents.’”
KAI STRITTMATTER, a German journalist who’s reported extensively on China’s surveillance systems, says it’s unclear if Beijing can actually use facial recognition and other technologies as well as the government claims. But that’s not really the point.
“It doesn’t even matter whether it’s true or not, as long as people believe it,” he told NPR in January. “What the Communist Party is doing with all this high-tech surveillance technology now is they’re trying to internalize control. … Once you believe it’s true, it’s like you don’t even need the policemen at the corner anymore, because you’re becoming your own policeman.”
ARMY’S HYBRID ELECTRIC BRADLEY: Breaking Defense’s ANDREW EVERSDEN reports that the Army plans to turn on the first hybrid electric Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle in January.
“The Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office [RCCTO] is developing two hybrid electric Bradley prototypes, an effort that could have implications for the service’s future fleet of 225,000 vehicles,” he wrote. “Next summer, the hybrid electric Bradleys will undergo testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. and Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz. At APG, the Bradley will be driven through rough terrain to see how it performs. In Yuma, Darbro said, it’ll basically compete against another vehicle.”
“If this works, we would use this kind of technology and apply it as we look at our requirements for other vehicles in the future,” STANLEY DARBRO, RCCTO’s deputy director, told Eversden.
NDAA PASSES THIS WEEK?: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) note that the Senate is looking to pass the National Defense Authorization Act this week. Yes, you read that right.
On tap: Senators vote at 5:30 p.m. to shut off debate, triggering a series of procedural votes that will likely culminate in final passage.
Where debate stands: Efforts to hold votes on an array of amendments broke down before recess amid objections from several Republicans aiming to force votes on their proposals.
SASC Chair JACK REED (D-R.I.) had sought to secure separate votes on 19 amendments, including proposals to slash the defense budget, boost lethal aid to Ukraine by $50 million and repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization. Reed was able to tack on a separate package of 58 bipartisan amendments, including Sen. TAMMY DUCKWORTH’s (D-Ill.) measure to establish an independent commission to study the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
Will there be more amendments? Amendment votes are still possible if a deal is struck. If not, expect the Senate to pass the defense bill in its current form and then head into talks with the House.
Conference clock ticking: The delay means lawmakers are racing against the clock to finish the fiscal 2022 NDAA before the end of the year. HASC and SASC leaders will have just a few weeks to reconcile their competing bills and get a final measure to Biden’s desk. Committee staff have been hashing out issues for weeks to ease the process, but negotiators can’t afford many snags.
LAWMAKERS VISIT TAIWAN: Five members of Congress visited Taiwan over the holiday, another sign that lawmakers from both parties want to shore up America’s support for the democratically run island off the coast of China.
“We are here in Taiwan this week to remind our partners and allies, after two trying years that we’ve endured, that our commitment and shared responsibility for a free and secure Indo-Pacific region remain stronger than ever,” said Rep. MARK TAKANO (D-Calif.), who led the delegation. Joining him were Reps. SARA JACOBS (D-Calif.), ELISSA SLOTKIN (D-Mich.), COLIN ALLRED (D-Texas) and NANCY MACE (R-S.C.).
China wasn’t pleased by the visit of American lawmakers to Taiwan — which included an audience with President TSAI ING-WEN — the second such trip this month. “That individual U.S. politicians wantonly challenge the one-China principle and embolden the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces has aroused the strong indignation of 1.4 billion Chinese people,” said ZHAO LIJIAN, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry.
In retaliation, China conducted what it called a “combat readiness patrol” near the Taiwan Strait while the lawmakers were in Taipei.
RUSSIAN AND CHINESE AMBOS PAN DEMOCRACY SUMMIT: The Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the U.S., ANATOLY ANTONOV and QIN GANG, penned a joint op-ed in the National Interest slamming the Biden administration’s Dec. 9-10 virtual Summit for Democracy.
“An evident product of its Cold-War mentality, this will stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new ‘dividing lines,’” they wrote. “This trend contradicts the development of the modern world. It is impossible to prevent the shaping of a global polycentric architecture but could strain the objective process. China and Russia firmly reject this move.”
Both diplomats go on to implausibly claim that their governance systems are democratic in nature and then blame the U.S. for its “anti-democratic” action of organizing the summit.
Russia and China are famous for their whataboutisms and blame deflection, but this op-ed is on a whole other level.
— MATTHEW DANIELS is now assistant director for space security and special projects in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House. He most recently worked on space and artificial intelligence issues in the Office of Net Assessment at the Defense Department.
— DAVID PATRIKARAKOS, New Lines Magazine: “On the Kurdish Front Lines, It’s an Endless Struggle”
— IAN URBINA, The New Yorker: “The Secretive Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe”
— MARI SAITO, YIMOU LEE, JU-MIN PARK, TIM KELLY, ANDREW MACASKILL, SARAH WU and DAVID LAGUE, Reuters: “As China menaces Taiwan, island’s friends aid its secretive submarine project”
— Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN departs for South Korea: He “will meet with [Republic of Korea] Minister of Defense SUH WOOK for the 53rd U.S.-Republic of Korea Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) and visit U.S. troops on the peninsula,” per the Pentagon.
— Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 10 a.m.: “Full Committee Hearing: U.S. Policy On Democracy In Latin America And The Caribbean — with BRIAN A. NICHOLS and TODD ROBINSON”
— SailPoint, 11 a.m.: “The 2021 Government Identity Security Summit — with CHRIS CLEARY, ADAM FORD, JENNIFER FRANKS, SEAN CONNELLY, GREG MCCARTHY and more”
— The National Defense Industrial Association, 1 p.m.: “Air Force Category Management Roundtable — with CAMERON HOLT and RICHARD LOMBARDI”
— Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, 2:30 p.m.: “Full Committee Hearing: FedRAMP Reform: Recommendations to Reduce Burden, Enhance Security, and Address Inefficiencies in the Government Cloud Authorization Process”
— Senate Intelligence Committee, 2:30 p.m.: “Open Hearing: Nomination of Ms. SHANNON CORLESS to be the Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, Department of the Treasury”
— The American University Washington College of Law, 3 p.m.: “Combating Ransomware: A Matter of National Security — with GARY CORN, KURT SANGER, KRISTEN EICHENSEHR and SUJIT RAMAN”
— The George Washington University Sigur Center for Asian Studies, 6 p.m.: “Inheriting Abe’s Legacy? Japan’s Security Discourse under the Kishida Administration”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to our editor, Ben Pauker, who consistently refuses to curb his nuclear advances.