Thursday, 6 Aug 2020

Iran, Paul Manafort, Black Panther: Your Thursday Briefing

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Good morning.

A covert U.S. effort to undermine Iran, Spain’s government teeters and suspicious transfers to a Bulgarian bank. Here’s the latest:

U.S. revives secret mission to sabotage Iran’s missiles

The Trump administration has accelerated efforts to impair Iran’s missiles and rockets as part of an expanding campaign to isolate the country, according to current and former officials.

The efforts, initiated under former President George W. Bush and then eased under President Barack Obama, covertly slip faulty parts and materials into Iran’s aerospace supply chains. The Trump administration maintains that the country’s space program is merely a cover for developing powerful ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is in Warsaw this week for an international meeting focused on Iran, is expected to push European and Arab countries to expand economic sanctions against Tehran.

Accused of spying: A former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence agent was charged with espionage after she defected to Iran to help the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards target her former American colleagues.

An attack in Iran: A suicide bomber killed 27 Islamic Revolutionary Guards in one of the deadliest attacks in Iran in years, for which the paramilitary force quickly blamed the U.S.

Spain’s government is on the brink of falling

The fragile minority government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, one of the few Socialist leaders left standing in Europe, could go down after Parliament rejected his budget in a fight over the restive northeastern region of Catalonia. New national elections look almost certain before the summer.

What happened: Mr. Sánchez was hoping to pass a national budget to address inequalities that have come with Spain’s economic recovery. But Catalan lawmakers, infuriated that Mr. Sánchez had rejected holding a second referendum on Catalan independence after the first, in 2017, was ruled unconstitutional, pulled their support. It was the first defeat for a Spanish government’s budget since 1995.

What’s next? With Spain’s two-party system becoming more of a mélange of parties and the Catalan question superheating, new elections could be politically unsettling and unpredictable. Recent polls suggest enough votes for a right-wing coalition government, which would be expected to take a much harder line on Catalonia. But Mr. Sánchez’s survival instincts can’t be counted out.

Three Syrians charged in Europe with crimes against humanity

Eyad A. allegedly operated a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus where, typically, 100 people were arrested every day. They were taken to a prison run by Anwar R., a high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer who directed “the use of systematic and brutal torture” on inmates.

Those are the accusations against two men arrested in Germany. They were charged with crimes against humanity in Syria dating to between 2011 and 2012, and a third suspect was detained in France. Officials declined to give their full names.

Evidence: French and German prosecutors working together on the case interviewed survivors of torture in a Syrian detention center. They also have access to an archive assembled by a nonprofit organization of hundreds of thousands of documents detailing the activities of the Syrian government.

Ahead: A former war crimes prosecutor told us that Anwar R. “is the most serious regime perpetrator detained so far by some distance.” This case could portend more like it, and if it comes to trial, it would be a milestone in holding the regime of President Bashar al-Assad accountable for horrors in Syria’s eight-year civil war.

Bulgarian bank may have laundered Venezuelan money

Tipped off by the U.S., the Bulgarian authorities froze the accounts of a small bank that they did not name and said they were investigating other institutions after finding suspicious money transfers from Venezuela’s oil company, the state-run Petróleos de Venezuela, or Pdvsa.

The money: Sent 6,000 miles to Bulgaria, much of the Pdvsa funds then vanished to accounts in other countries for listed purposes that the authorities said were bogus. A Bulgarian official said of the amounts involved, “We can’t be exact, but millions of euros.”

In Venezuela: Once a crux of global oil production, Pdvsa is now a wheezing giant suspected of overwhelming corruption. In the past five years, Venezuela’s crude oil production has about halved, and opposition politicians contend that as much as $30 billion of the company’s money has gone missing in recent years.

Recent U.S. sanctions could inflict a further beating, and they are hurting already strapped Venezuelans. The battle over who is the legitimate leader of Venezuela now revolves around a single shipment of humanitarian aid that the government of President Nicolás Maduro is blocking from Colombia. The opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, seems unsure how to respond.

Here’s what else is happening

Belgium: A national strike over pay and working conditions led to the cancellation of all flights and halted public transport.

Russia investigation: Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, repeatedly lied to prosecutors after he agreed to cooperate with the special counsel, a federal judge ruled.

A black panther: Scientists spotted the rare animal in Africa, the first such sighting in almost 100 years.

U.S. border deal: President Trump inched toward embracing a bipartisan border deal that fell far short of his demands for funding for a wall. Our Washington correspondents write that it is a “punishing defeat” for Mr. Trump, whose aides have tried to tamp down criticism on the right.

Yemen: The U.S. House voted to end military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a rare move to limit presidential war powers that turns up pressure on the Senate to do the same.

France: A private Facebook group that included many male journalists was behind waves of online humiliation aimed at women in journalism.

Apple: A former senior lawyer at the tech giant who oversaw its insider trading policies was himself accused of insider trading. Separately, the company is under pressure, along with Google, to pull an app in Saudi Arabia that allows men to track female relatives.

China: A film by the prominent director Zhang Yimou that is set during the Cultural Revolution was abruptly withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival for “technical reasons” — a term often used as a euphemism for government censorship.

Indonesia: An Instagram account that featured a comic strip with gay Muslim characters disappeared days after Indonesian officials derided it as pornographic and threatened to block the entire social media platform — underscoring the rise of the country’s hard-line Islamic movement.

Opportunity: NASA’s Mars rover is dead after exploring the planet’s red plains for 14 years. It was the longest-lived roving robot ever sent to another planet.

Plastic is forever: More than 20,000 people in Britain have purchased a plastic engagement ring that costs about a pound. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, maybe? Some women welcome them as placeholders for a ring they can pick out.

Smarter Living

Tips for a more fulfilling life.

Recipe of the day: Make this Valentine’s Day special with a chocolate lava cake for two.

If you’ve received a bouquet, here’s how to keep the flowers fresh.

Brokenhearted? Here are some books that will help you escape.

Back Story

For Valentine’s Day, we have a special display of affection.

Julia Child and her husband, Paul, sent Valentine’s Day cards to their friends every year. Your Back Story writer’s grandparents were the recipients of some of those handmade notes.

But one encounter left much to be desired.

My grandfather was on a Fulbright scholarship in Oslo in 1960 when he met Mr. Child, who was stationed there. One night, he returned from a visit to the Childs’ raving about the most extraordinary dish — quiche.

My grandmother waited, impatiently, to also be invited for a bite. But when the invitation finally came, Mrs. Child served a tray of reindeer salami, not the quiche. My grandmother still feels the letdown.

Mrs. Child went on to publish “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and corresponded with my grandparents occasionally, most notably on Valentine’s Day. (Here are two of their Valentines.)

As for the salami? “I do not recommend it,” my grandmother said.

Remy Tumin, on the briefings team, wrote today’s Back Story.

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