- Congress pushes forward on legislation targeting Hezbollah finances, with potentially devastating consequences for Lebanon banking sector
- Experts: Palestinian unity government risks enabling Hamas "to take the helm of the Palestinian national movement"
Reuters on Thursday reported that efforts by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog (IAEA) to clarify issues surrounding the so-called possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's atomic program had - per the outlet's headline - shown "no sign of breakthrough," even as the May 15th deadline by which Iran was to have implemented seven transparency measures expired. Iran is bound by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929 to provide the IAEA with transparency into a range of suspected weapons-related research, and analysts have long emphasized that meeting those obligations is necessary to ensure the verifiability of any nuclear agreement. Western negotiators had declined to address the PMD issue when inking the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA), but Obama administration officials had responded to subsequent criticism by assuring lawmakers and the public that Tehran would be forced to meet its obligations in the context of comprehensive negotiations. The Thursday Reuters report revealed that Iranian negotiators had outright "ignored" an American request "to discuss the PMD issue," despite public U.S. declarations that "every issue" related to Iran's atomic program would be addressed. Analysts have in recent days emphasized that the PMD issue - in addition to being a critical test for the robustness of any deal - has become a test of whether Washington's credibility in negotiating with the Islamic Republic. David Albright and Bruno Tertrais - respectively the president of the U.S.-based Institute of Science and International Security and a senior Research Fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique (FRS) - on Wednesday tersely asked in the pages of the Wall Street Journal "what is the point of striking an agreement with Iran if Tehran will be able to hide its weapons work?"
Bipartisan legislation targeting Hezbollah and its enablers continued this week to wind its way through the Senate, with Al Monitor describing the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2014 - introduced by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) - as part of an effort by U.S. lawmakers to "snuff out the Shiite militia." The bill had been preceded by parallel legislation in the House, and final language is expected to press for "sanctions against financial institutions... that knowingly facilitate Hezbollah's illicit activities, including money laundering, and targets providers that knowingly transmit the militia's propaganda channel, Al-Manar." Sheehan's office put out a statement quoting the Senator declaring that "Hezbollah is one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations and we must block the group's access to financial and logistic support," and noting that "in addition to being responsible for the murder of hundreds of American citizens, Hezbollah continues to sponsor terrorism across the globe and destabilize the Middle East." The Senate developments were picked up on Thursday by Lebanon's NOW, which extensively described the bill's various details and implied it was a response to moves by Hezbollah over the years to develop "a worldwide network of charities and businesses whose profits go directly into the party’s pocket." NOW also assessed more specifically that "the draft... might be bad news for the Central Bank in Lebanon." The news seems set to reverberate domestically in Lebanon, where the Iran-backed terror group has come under increasing criticism for prioritizing its own and more so Iran's interests to the detriment of relatively straightforward Lebanese interests. Hezbollah had for literally decades sought to brand itself as an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty. Critics of the group had ridiculed the notion, arguing instead that Hezbollah was a key force in destabilizing Lebanese institutions. Foundation for Defense of Democracies fellow Tony Badran had once branded the claim a "nifty conceit," in no small part precisely because Hezbollah's illicit financial activities exposed Lebanon's banking sector to potential Western sanctions.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday acknowledged that what he described as "raw data" - viewed by him as well as by other U.S. officials - indicated that "there may have been, as France has suggested, a number of instances in which chlorine has been used in the conduct of war." The French had earlier alleged that they had evidence of at least 14 instances in which the Bashar al-Assad regime had deployed chlorine-filled chemical weapons against rebel-heavy areas. Human Rights Watch had been equally unequivocal in asserting that "evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in northern Syria in mid-April 2014." Paris's statements come as part of a broader diplomatic and media push in which French officials vocally criticized the Obama administration for suspending impending strikes against Damascus last September, which had been set in motion after evidence emerged that the Assad regime had crossed President Barack Obama's red line against the use of chemical weapons. Syria and its Russian backers had bragged that the United Nations Security Council resolution forestalling the strikes - under which Syria agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and give up portions of its nonconventional arsenal in exchange for the West standing down - represented an outright diplomatic victory. Kerry's acknowledged on Thursday that the use of chlorine weapons "would be against the agreements of the chemical weapons treaty and against the weapons convention that Syria has signed up to," a reference to the CWC's prohibition on the use of chlorine-based chemical weapons. The Wall Street Journal had a day earlier come to a similar conclusion, noting that the agreement "is in jeopardy on several fronts, with the regime in Damascus facing growing allegations that it violated the agreement by attacking rebels and civilians with chlorine gas."
Reuters described as "the most concrete sign yet that [the group and Abbas's Fatah faction] are moving toward reconciliation" - amid deepening analyst concerns that the reconciliation deal would empower Hamas at the expense of its traditional more moderate rivals. A series of indicators had in recent days seemed to converge on the conclusion that Hamas has not only halted a year-long downward spiral, but has actually begun establishing something of a foothold in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Israeli Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, assessed on Wednesday that "Hamas is clearly pleased with the international stamp of approval it expects to attain with [Abbas's] help" and that "Abbas is providing Hamas and Islamic Jihad [with a ticket] into the PLO enables them to compete for control of the PLO institutions and, through elections, to take the helm of the Palestinian national movement." Abbas and Secretary of State John Kerry have been meeting in London this week, with Abbas openly aiming to convince the top U.S. diplomat that Israel should still be expected to negotiate with the Palestinians in the aftermath of an implemented unity agreement. The position has been explicitly and repeatedly dismissed by the State Department, and a poll published this week by The Israel Project indicates that likely voters reject it by a 66%-34% margin.
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