- Reports: Iran oil recovery should be "red flag" for White House, February will be fourth consecutive month in Iran energy export growth
- Calls grow for PM's resignation as Turkey rocked by second round of leaked wiretaps
- As Syrian regime counter-offensives widen, Hezbollah "tipping the scales in Assad's favor"
- Iraqi officials extend damage control campaign as U.S. lawmakers react to leaked Iraq-Iran arms deal news
- Reuters reported on Wednesday that February figures will show Iranian oil exports having risen for the fourth consecutive month, with "extra cargoes... headed to Syria and South Korea" and the overall spike accelerating a recovery in Iran's energy sector. The Washington Post had earlier in the week noted that Iran has also "sharply increased its oil exports to China and India over the past few months," spurring Nat Kern - the head of Foreign Reports, a Washington-based energy consulting firm - to describe the dynamic as "a red flag for the [Obama] administration." The Post more pointedly quoted Kern asking "what is the U.S. going to do at the end of May if Iran has punched such a deep hole through the core sanctions on oil?" Critics of the administration's diplomatic approach to Iran have long insisted that the White House squandered away the leverage it needs to secure substantive concessions regarding Iran's nuclear program, assessing that the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) gave away billions more in relief than the administration acknowledged and set into motion a feeding frenzy that will further erode the sanctions regime. Congress had sought to boost negotiators’ leverage by pursuing legislation that would impose a range of sanctions should Iran eventually refuse to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization, and the White House responded by insisting that it had sufficient leverage and by expending massive political capital to block the efforts. Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, on Monday reemphasized Tehran's broadly expressed position that it will not dismantle any centrifuges or shut down any uranium enrichment facilities.
- A second set of audio recordings purporting to be wiretaps of phone conversations between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son Bilal - this time with Erdogan instructing Bilal to hold out for more money in a business deal - was anonymously uploaded to YouTube on Wednesday, days after a first set of recordings, seemingly exposing efforts by the two to hide vast amounts of money from authorities, set off national calls for Erdogan's resignation. Reuters described the new recordings, in which Erdogan scoffs at the sum that a particular businessman is willing to bring to a transaction, as "the latest and potentially most damaging allegations in a graft scandal that Erdogan has cast as concocted to unseat him." Erdogan had on Tuesday declared that the first round of tapes were a "treacherous attack," and had lashed out at among other elements a "robot lobby" that he maintained was attempting to undermine Turkish institutions in general and him personally. The Turkish leader had also insisted that the tapes were a composite created by stitching together various quotes. McClatchy noted on Wednesday that forensic analysis of the recordings indicated the opposite. The wire conveyed statements by Joshua Marpet, a U.S.-based cyber analyst who has served as an expert witness on the validity of computer evidence, indicating that there was no sign the conversations had been faked.
- Veteran French-Lebanese journalist Mona Alami on Wednesday published an assessment in USA Today detailing recent military campaigns by Hezbollah on behalf of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, broadly concluding both that the Iran-backed terror group has taken the lead in counter-offensives against rebel elements and that those counter-offensives "now appear to be tipping the scales in Assad's favor." A CNN report published on the same day described an ambush conducted by forces loyal to Assad that day in which 175 rebels were said to be killed. Alami's piece quoted Abou Ali, a Hezbollah commander, confirming that the group has taken the lead in many Syrian battles and that it has "recaptured about 70% of the Qalamoun territories," describing a region that stretches about 50 miles into Syria from the Lebanese border. Alami also contrasted quotes from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry declaring that there is "no military solution" to the Syrian conflict with analysis from Washington Institute Fellow James Jeffrey, who noted that Assad and his sponsors seem to have a very definitive idea of what a military solution might look like: "a de facto military victory in the very center of the Middle East by an Assad rump state, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, on top of the humanitarian tragedy and attrition of U.S. global prestige."
- Top Iraqi officials on Wednesday deepened their efforts to stem the damage from a recently published Reuters report revealing that Baghdad had inked a weapons deal with Iran worth $195 million, breaking a U.N.-imposed arms embargo on the Islamic republic and fueling concerns that the Obama administration had allowed Iraq to slip into the Iranian orbit. Baghdad - facing what the Daily Star described as "heavy pressure from the United States" - had quickly denied that a deal had ever been signed. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Wednesday doubled down on the denial, flatly stating that "no agreement has been made for purchasing weapons from Iran." The protestations come amid legislative moves in Washington in response to news of the arms deals. On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) insisted that the U.S. must reconsider a coalescing agreement to sell 24 Apache helicopters to Baghdad. Reuters conveyed statements from multiple lawmakers and Congressional aides noting that Congress had not been informed by the Obama administration of the Iraq-Iran agreement.
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