Security Brief

Iran Moves Forward on Enrichment

The latest breach could significantly reduce the time it will take Tehran to amass enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon.

An Iranian woman walks past a mural painting depicting the late founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the Iranian capital Tehran on June 25, 2019.
An Iranian woman walks past a mural painting depicting the late founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the Iranian capital Tehran on June 25, 2019. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Good Monday morning and welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief.

What’s on tap today: Iran’s latest breach of the 2015 nuclear deal, Trump’s provocative fighter jet sale to Taiwan advances, and the admiral set to take over as the Navy’s top officer resigns instead

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Iran’s Latest Breach

One step closer. Iran announced Sunday that it would breach the limits on uranium enrichment levels set by a landmark 2015 nuclear deal, a move that brings Tehran one step closer to producing a nuclear weapon. The move is Iran’s latest violation of the deal, which President Trump withdrew from last year.

While Tehran’s first violation of the deal, a July 1 breach of the limits set on the country’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, was seen as more of a symbolic move than a concrete step toward obtaining a nuclear weapon, the latest step—to increase enrichment levels beyond 3.67 percent purity—is more threatening. Increasing enrichment levels significantly reduces the time it will take Iran to amass enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb. 

What’s next? There are still a number of steps Iran would have to take in order to actually produce a nuclear weapon, writes Lara Seligman. Tehran would need 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium–90 percent purity–to make the core of one bomb. It would then have to convert that uranium from gas to metal, fit it with an explosive package that could ignite the fission reaction, and mount it on a ballistic missile. 

‘Not a dash to a nuclear bomb.’ Though experts agree that Tehran has the capability to eventually produce a nuclear weapon, it’s more likely the regime is trying to gain leverage to pressure the West into easing crippling sanctions. 

Still, the latest breach indicates that Iran is losing patience with a deal that has not provided the economic relief promised, writes NPR.

Iranian hackers. The conflict between Iran and the United States is also playing out online, with U.S. Cyber Command warning last week that hackers are exploiting an Outlook vulnerability linked to Iranian online operatives. 

Private security researchers warn that they are seeing increasing activity linked to Iranian hackers that appears to be aimed at laying the groundwork for digital attacks. With the United States having already carried out cyberattacks against Iran in retaliation for shooting down a U.S. drone, the ongoing conflict could be the first time that two countries trade tit-for-tat cyberattacks in real time. 

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Fighter Jet Sale 

China won’t like this. The Trump administration’s plan to sell more than 60 new F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan is now moving forward after longer-than-anticipated negotiations, paving the way for a deal that is sure to prompt fresh protests from China only days after Washington and Beijing agreed to restart trade talks, Lara Seligman reports.

Significantly more provocative. The United States has long been a primary arms supplier to Taipei, though it does not officially recognize the island nation. But the new F-16 sale would be significantly more provocative, as China maintains that such a deal would be a red line.


What We’re Watching

Syria commitments. The American special envoy to Syria has formally requested that the German government supply ground troops to replace American forces supporting Kurdish forces in Syria. The ask comes amid new concerns that without a U.S. troop presence in the war-torn country, the Islamic State terrorist group could return stronger than ever. 

Huawei’s Beijing connection A new study of leaked Chinese CVs found a closer relationship than previously understood between Chinese state security and employees of telecom giant Huawei. The finding may add further scrutiny to the company’s relationship with the government in Beijing, and whether that relationship should prevent Huawei from playing a key role in future global telecommunications systems. 

The beginning of the end in Yemen? The United Arab Emirates is beginning to withdraw its troops and equipment deployed in support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen out of what appears to be a growing concern over conflict with Iran. 

Sweden poised to join ‘Tempest.’ Sweden is expected to join a British project to develop a next-generation fighter jet, which is expected to compete with a Franco-German project and will provide British defense firms a boost, the Financial Times reports

Top secret leaks. The FBI has uncovered a major leak of highly classified Air Force documents, Forbes reports. The haul amounts to more than 1,000 pages brought home by a contractor working for an Air Force center examining foreign air, space, and cyber capabilities. It is unclear what the contractor did with the material. 


Tech & Cyber

State surveillance. Chinese border guards are forcing foreign tourists crossing some borders into the Xinjiang region, where the government is conducting a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Uighur population, to install surveillance software on theirphones, Vice’s Motherboard reports. The software appears to give the Chinese government access to contacts and messages and scans the phone for content associated with Islam. 

Jigsaw. Google’s Jigsaw was supposed to be the company’s incubator for projects and technology to improve the web and protect its most vulnerable users. Instead, the Google unit has become a toxic workplace geared more toward generating positive PR for its boss Jared Cohen, a former State Department official, than delivering concrete results, Vice’s Motherboard reports

Disinfo. A highly touted European Union system to alert member states of Russian disinformation efforts is falling short of its mission, failing to produce alerts and risking becoming defunct, the New York Times reports

Troll farmers. Libyan security officials claim to have broken up a Russian effort to influence its elections after arresting two men said to work for a Russian troll farm, Bloomberg reports.

Facial recognition. U.S. authorities are using photo databases for state drivers licenses to carry out searches for suspects using facial recognition technology, the Washington Post reports

RIP Mike Assante. The cybersecurity community is mourning the death of Mike Assante, a pioneering figure in industrial cybersecurity who conducted groundbreaking research in the field. 


Quote of the Week 

“We don’t really believe this Administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.” –British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch describing the Trump White House in a cache of leaked cables


Movers & Shakers

Admiral tapped to lead Navy resigns. The man set to take over as the Navy’s top military officer has declined the position and decided to retire instead, less than one month before he was scheduled to begin the job, NBC’s Courtney Kube reports. Adm. Bill Moran declined the appointment to Chief of Naval Operations because of a probe into his association with an officer who was accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward women, including junior officers, during a 2016 holiday party at the Pentagon, Kube writes. 

That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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