- Iran atomic agency spokesman: Uranium enrichment concessions could be reversed "within two to three weeks"
- Beirut claims progress in relieving Lebanese town besieged by Hezbollah, bombed by Hezbollah-backed Syrian forces
A top official linked to Iran's atomic agency bragged this week that a critical uranium-related concession made by Tehran under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) could be reversed "within two to three weeks," part of a broader speech that included boasts about the quality of new Iranian centrifuges - a twentyfold increase in enrichment capacity - and the creation of new Russian-built energy plants. Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), declared that oxidizing portions of Iran's 5 percent stockpile - which Iran is obligated to do under the JPA - does not prevent Iran from "transform[ing] our 5% uranium to 20% within two to three weeks if needed." Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-born analyst and currently an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, bluntly assessed the speech as a statement that the Iranian regime views the JPA as a deal in which "all the advantages accrue to Tehran." The JPA requires Iran to turn portions of its 5 percent and 20 percent pure uranium stockpiles into uranium oxide, temporarily preventing that stock from being enriched further. Regarding its 20 percent stockpile, Iran is obligated to either dilute the material back down to 5 percent ("downblending") or to oxidize it at 20 percent. Regarding its 5 percent stockpile, Iran is obligated to ensure that - at the end of the JPA's six-month negotiation period - there is only as much of that stock on hand as there was at beginning of the deal's implementation. Iran is permitted unlimited enrichment to 5 percent, but the new material that's created has to be oxidized until the total amount of 5 percent pure stock is equal to what it was when the JPA period began. The deal was touted by the Obama administration as putting "time on the clock" by "freezing" the Iranian nuclear program, ensuring Tehran could not use the negotiation period to inch closer to creating 90 percent enriched weapons-grade uranium. Skepticism regarding the robustness of the JPA emerged in the days immediately following the announcement agreement, was sharpened by what appeared to be several places in which the administration had either misunderstood or misled the public about Iranian obligations, and will be fueled further by Kamalvandi's comments. His remarks about the enrichment capacity of next-generation centrifuges are likely to prove particularly problematic, inasmuch as Iran controversially maneuvered the West into allowing continued development of advanced centrifuges under the JPA. A report published last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) introduced an additional complication, revealing that the commissioning of a facility designed to convert 5 percent enriched gas into oxide - this is the facility that was supposed to ensure that Iran stayed under the JPA's cap for un-oxidized uranium, even as its scientists continued to enrich unlimited amounts of the material - had been put off. No reason was given for the delay. Kamalvandi's remarks will in any case be seen as underscoring that the JPA may well leave Iran with more enriched uranium and with more centrifuges, which will themselves be more advanced than previous technology. Should the conversion facility finally open, the difference will be that the additional enriched material will be in oxide form. Mark Hibbs, writing on the Arms Control Wonk blog partially sponsored by the left-leaning Ploughshares Fund, had already pointed out last April that Iran could use existing facilities to reverse the oxidization process, and that such reconversion would only take a few weeks.
The Associated Press on Tuesday described Syrian rebels as "making their last desperate stand in Homs," as forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime pressed what has been an unsteady march of advances across the war-torn country. The wire conveyed assessments by analysts predicting that the city could fall to the regime "[i]n the next few days." Homs, which is Syria's third largest city, has been a strategically critical hotspot for much of the country's roughly three-year-long conflict. It links Damascus with Aleppo, the country's largest population center, and a city that itself saw dozens killed this week by Syrian airstrikes. The attacks reportedly deployed mass casualty barrel bombs, helicopter-deployed shrapnel-packed IEDs that have been condemned as "barbaric" by Secretary of State John Kerry and as a "war crime" by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Meanwhile Mohammad al-Lahham, the president of the Syrian parliament, announced Monday that the country's presidential elections would be held on June 3, promising that the process would be "free and fair." Al Arabiya opened its coverage of the statement by noting that "[t]he United Nations harshly criticized" the decision, conveying comments from both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi to that effect. Opposition elements for their part denounced the election as a "farce." A range of observers, including Brahimi himself, expressed concerns that spectacles aimed at consolidating the legitimacy of the Assad regime would undermine negotiations aimed at ending the conflict. Talks held earlier this year, which took place alongside reports of new atrocities being committed by Syrian forces, ended in deadlock.
Top Palestinian figures spent much of Tuesday walking back statements - aired in recent days by a range of Palestinian Authority (PA) figures, including reportedly by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself - threatening to dissolve the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) if Israel refused to make sufficient concessions to entice Ramallah to rejoin peace talks. The comments had generated exasperated eye rolls from the Israeli political echelon, and led State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki to emphasize that Washington would be forced to reevaluate its relationship with the Palestinians should they make good on their threats. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Agence France Presse (AFP) that "[n]o Palestinian is speaking of an initiative to dismantle" the PNA, a move that would force either the Israeli government or the international community to fill in and take control. Abbas himself echoed the point in talks with reporters. Veteran Israeli analyst Avi Issacharoff noted that threats to dissolve the PNA are part of a "recurrent ritual" leveraged by Palestinian negotiators, and outlined both political and financial considerations that would likely constrain such a move. Issacharoff specifically suggested that "PA officials benefit financially from the existence of the PA and, in addition to their salary, enjoy many economic bonuses that come with their jobs — via connections with Israel, involvement in economic projects, and so on." The Israel HaYom newspaper editorialized that - more specifically - Palestinian leaders waiting in the wings to take over for Abbas, and thereby to gain access to "the royal honors and red carpets... [and] the donations from around the world," would not permit him to dissolve the PA.
The Lebanese government on Tuesday reported progress in providing relief to residents of the besieged border town of Tfail, a remote Lebanese outpost functionally accessible only via Syrian roads, has been subject to isolation and bombardment by Hezbollah-backed forces fighting on behalf of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The Iran-directed terror group has sought to seal portions of the Lebanon-Syria border as part of an effort to contain sectarian blowback generated by its support of Assad. A Lebanese army official explained to the Associated Press that, as a result of Hezbollah's tactics, Tfail had at times been severed from the rest of Lebanon. The country's NOW outlet went further, describing how over 4,000 Lebanese citizens and thousands of Syrian refugees in the town had "lived without supplies of food, electricity, shelter, or aid for four months." The siege had in recent days escalated to active cross-border shelling, sending residents fleeing into the surrounding landscape. Beirut had committed to trying to alleviate the situation and on Tuesday a convoy of food and aid was able to enter the town. The Syrian attack on Tfail took place alongside several other recent cross-border attacks by Assad-linked forces. The dynamic is particularly problematic for Hezbollah, which for years had sought to brand itself - occasionally with help from elements of the Western foreign policy establishment - as an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese territory from military violations. There are open debates, however, about the degree to which damage to Hezbollah's image will affect its political position inside Lebanon generally, or more specifically its maneuvering in anticipation of upcoming presidential elections. The group has not been subtle in leveraging its superiority in arms and infrastructure to politically paralyze Lebanon in order to achieve its objectives. It is widely expected that Beirut faces at least a short-term deadlock in selecting a new president.