- Reports: White House efforts to block Iran pressure generating broad, bipartisan House and Senate skepticism
- As Kerry prepares to present Israel with security plan, speculation swirls over credibility of U.S. security assurances
- As reports mount Hezbollah preparing for war against Israel, leaders blame Jerusalem for overnight assassination claimed by Sunni group
- Buzzfeed: debunked Arafat poisoning story divided Al Jazeera, generated broad international coverage anyway
What we’re watching today:
- Multiple outlets reported yesterday and today on persistent bipartisan skepticism in Congress towards the Obama administration's stance on Iran, with the White House meeting resistance as it tries to convince lawmakers that they should wait for the formal implementation of a recently announced interim agreement - which would subsequently be followed by a minimum of six months of negotiations - before passing any new legislation pressuring the Islamic republic. The State Department last week formally acknowledged that the Geneva agreement between the P5+1 global powers and Iran had not yet come into force, giving Iran a window during it could continue its nuclear activity without regard to the deal, even as the anticipation of reduced sanctions began to ease Iran's economic isolation. Politico quoted Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) expressing frustration over the sequencing and insisting that the U.S. "shouldn't step first." The outlet more broadly described how 'despite nearly two hours of questioning from lawmakers, concerns linger among both Democrats and Republicans,' including over language in the Geneva agreement that allows Iranian scientists to continue expanding their stockpile of enriched material. Foreign Policy Magazine (FP) had earlier in the week noted that "like perhaps no other foreign policy issue, Iran sanctions have pitted President Obama against a sizeable portion of his own party," and revealed that a bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers was "closing in on legislation that would impose new sanctions on Tehran after six months." FP quoted Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) questioning the consistency behind the Obama administration's simultaneous claims that old economic sanctions had coerced Iranian leaders to come to the table against their will, but that new economic sanctions would cause Tehran to walk away from the table by evaporating bilateral good will. Journalists have for weeks been pressing administration officials on exactly that tension.
- The Associated Press (AP) late on Wednesday provided an overview of a security plan that Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to present to Jerusalem this week in an effort to boost U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian talks that the outlet bluntly assesses "have made no progress, despite an April target date for reaching a deal." Israel's left-leaning Ha'aretz had previously disclosed the existence of the proposal, noting that it would seek to address among other things Israel's provision that it be allowed to station military forces in the geo-strategically critical Jordan Valley for an extended length of time. Palestinian leaders have demanded the opposite, and it is widely thought that Washington will attempt to bridge the two positions by offering the Israelis a range of security assurances. The Ha'aretz report however triggered speculation by experts and journalists regarding the credibility of such assurances, with AP diplomatic writer Matthew Lee tweeting that "post-Iran deal [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] can be expected to be skeptical." Obama administration officials have recently faced criticism for seemingly reversing themselves on a range of assurances provided over the years to allies and lawmakers. The White House has specifically been blasted for conceding that Iran will be allowed to continue enriching uranium in the context of a comprehensive agreement, and for misleading journalists who in early 2013 were probing whether government-to-government negotiations were taking place between Washington and Tehran.
- The New York Times today outlined the range of motives for, and the potential cascade effects of, the overnight assassination of Haj Hassan Hilu Laqis, a top Hezbollah figure who the outlet noted was "variously described as running the group's sophisticated telecommunications network and working to procure strategic weapons." The Times emphasized both that Laqis's death was a "significant loss" for the Iran-backed terror group, and that "any of the group’s primary enemies - Israel, the Syrian insurgents the group is battling, or their backers, such as Saudi Arabia or Lebanese Sunni militants - could have had reason to want him dead." Laqis was widely believed to have been playing a central role in Hezbollah's military operations in Syria against the largely Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime, and a previously unknown Sunni group claimed responsibility for the killing. Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, further outlined to Jerusalem Post that "Sunni jihadists... promised long ago that they would kill [Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah]... in this case, it seems they were able to get [his] friend." For their part Hezbollah leaders almost immediately blamed Israel, declaring that the Jewish state would face "all the consequences for this heinous crime." The Christian Science Monitor late Wednesday reported that Hezbollah has been openly preparing for war with the Jewish state, setting up camps across southern Lebanon "which include firing ranges, assault courses and urban warfare sites." The group was described as "training thousands of new recruits to the organization." Hezbollah has seen its decades-old brand as an anti-Israel 'resistance' organization shattered by its participation in the Syrian conflict, and analysts are increasingly concerned that it might seek to provoke a conflict with Jerusalem in order to halt a precipitous slide in its domestic and regional stature.
- Controversy intensified today regarding the degree to which national and global media outlets had been overly credulous in suggesting earlier this year that the 2004 death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was due to polonium poisoning, after the disclosure earlier this week of a new French forensic report debunked the conspiracy theory. Despite there being zero plausible scenarios under which tests conducted in recent years could have detected polonium poisoning dating to Arafat's death, an explicitly inconclusive Swiss lab report describing heightened polonium on some of the terrorist's personal belongings was sufficient to generate broad international coverage suggesting poisoning. Skeptics quickly uncovered evidence that the conspiracy theory was being driven in part by Al Jazeera, as fodder for a multi-year series of sensational broadcasts suggesting that Arafat had been murdered. Buzzfeed today published an expose based on documents leaked from inside the Qatari outlet that reflected 'deep internal concern... with the scientific researcher involved in the [Swiss] report.' One Al Jazeera journalist worried at the time that the station's coverage - which included a story touting the report as a "smoking gun" - "is going to look biased." Buzzfeed noted that the Swiss report nonetheless generated headlines "in most of the Arabic and English-language press." Prominent examples include the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, the BBC, the Telegraph, Salon. The Guardian went so far as to demand a new investigation into Arafat's death, declaring that "the proposition that he was poisoned with polonium-210 will surprise few," that "suspicion points strongly" at Israel as the party which poisoned him, and that "if peace is ever to be achieved between Israelis and Palestinians, the culture of assassination and killing has to stop."
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