Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Iran talks set up balancing act for Biden | Pentagon on alert amid Russian saber rattling | Lawmakers urge Pentagon to be pickier about commanders' requests for more troops

Happy Monday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: All eyes are on Vienna this week as the United States and Iran participate in indirect talks to revive the flagging nuclear deal.

The talks, in which the United States and Iran will meet separately with the other signatories of the deal, are slated to start Tuesday.

Over the weekend, The Hill's Laura Kelly took a look at how the talks set up a delicate balance for the Biden administration.

The meeting is likely to draw intense scrutiny from Capitol Hill, where hundreds of lawmakers have signed on to a handful of letters to the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken over their concerns of engaging with Iran.

Why it matters: The United States and Iran are not expected to meet face-to-face, but the Vienna talks mark the most forward movement yet on the Biden administration's goal to revive the 2015 deal limiting Iran's nuclear program.

The Biden team and Iran have been in a "who goes first" conundrum over each side's demands.

At the meeting, U.S. officials will engage with European, Russian and Chinese counterparts over what steps the U.S. can take to achieve a "mutual return" for both America and Iran.

On the agenda: The meeting in Vienna will seek to establish a road map of steps both sides can take to bring them back to compliance with the deal, including identifying "sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation measures," according to a statement released Friday by the JCPOA signatories - China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and Iran.

State Department Principal Deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said in a briefing with reporters that the U.S. would not preview any specific sanctions to be lifted, but that sanctions relief steps will be discussed during the meeting.

"We're going to talk about nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to compliance with the terms of the JCPOA and, we won't preview any specific sanctions, but we'll definitely say that sanction relief steps that the U.S. would need to take in order to return to that compliance as well, we'll be up for discussion," she said.

Tough road ahead: Naysan Rafati, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that both Washington and Tehran are in agreement about returning to the JCPOA, but that the path to mutual compliance is not going to be easy.

"The discussions are likely to encounter challenges regarding scope and sequencing on both the nuclear and sanctions relief fronts, as well as skepticism in Washington as well as Tehran," he said.


Russia has been upping its saber rattling in Eastern Europe and the Arctic, and over the weekend, The Hill's Ellen Mitchell took a look at how that's put the Biden administration on alert.

In the past two weeks, Moscow has moved to test Washington and its allies on land, in the air and at sea with a buildup of military equipment in eastern Ukraine, military flights near Alaskan airspace and submarine activity in the Arctic.

"I think we've been very clear about the threats that we see from Russia across domains. ... We're taking them very, very seriously," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said last week.

In the Arctic: In the latest development, CNN reported Monday on satellite imagery that shows Russia is building up military equipment and testing new weapons in the Arctic

Russia is building upon military bases, hardware and underground storage facilities on its Arctic coastline, with bombers, MiG31BM jets and new radar systems close to the Alaskan coast, according to satellite images provided to CNN by space technology company Maxar.

Included in the buildup is the Poseidon 2M39 unmanned stealth torpedo, a so-called super-weapon powered by a nuclear reactor. Russia is quickly developing the armament and tested it in February, with further tests planned this year, according to Russian state media.

Moscow intends for the torpedo to be able to elude U.S. and NATO coastal defenses and is "part of the new type of nuclear deterrent weapons," the head of Norwegian intelligence, Vice Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes, told CNN.

Pentagon response: Asked Monday about the satellite imagery and Russia's buildup in the Arctic, Kirby said he would not discuss intelligence assessment but that "obviously we're monitoring very closely."

"Nobody wants to see the Arctic as a region become militarized," Kirby said at a press briefing. "We obviously recognize that the region is key terrain that's vital to our own homeland defense and as a potential strategic corridor between the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the homeland, which would make it vulnerable to expanded competition if you will."


A bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging Pentagon leaders to be more selective in approving requests from U.S. military commanders around the globe for more troops.

In a Monday letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, the 14 lawmakers expressed concern that "near limitless" requests from combatant commanders in recent years for additional troops "are driving readiness costs to unsustainable levels, service members and platforms are getting burned through at breakneck paces and much-need modernization efforts are getting delayed as restricted funds are directed to addressing short-term requirements and risks."

The letter was organized by Reps. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and Seth Moulton (D-Mass.). They and all but one of the other co-signers are on the House Armed Services Committee.

The lawmakers argued that approving such requests should be weighed against long-term readiness and modernization needs for so-called great power competition against China.

"The 'tyranny of the now' is wearing out man and machine at too high a rate to ensure success both now and later. Future readiness can no longer be sacrificed at the altar of lower-priority requirements," they wrote. "At this rate, the desire to solve every immediate problem, regardless of strategic prioritization, may hollow the force for the next generation."


Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, and Lauren Knausenberger, chief information officer of the Air Force, will speak at the 2021 Space Innovation Summit at 11:30 a.m. and 12:40 p.m. respectively. https://bit.ly/3cPNYG0

The Atlantic Council will host a panel on "After the insurrection: Countering domestic extremism in the US military and law enforcement" with speakers including retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré at 1 p.m. https://bit.ly/3dFTuKA


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