- Supreme Leader Representative: Incoming Rouhani administration will focus on reinforcing revolutionary ideology
- Kerry announces "basis" for return to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, while Palestinian stance on preconditions remains clouded
- Syria assassinations escalate as Dempsey declares "tide seems to have shifted" in favor of Syrian regime
- Egypt readies large-scale Sinai operation as chaos deepens despite more troops
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani's incoming administration will make a point of reinforcing revolutionary ideology, including enforcing aspirations aimed at Israel and Jerusalem, according to statements made this week by the Representative of the Supreme Leader in the Central Province. The official declared that "The slogan of Quds [Jerusalem] is [a part of] Islam... [and] this slogan is unchangeable until Judgment Day and no one can negotiate regarding Quds, the Palestinian nation or the Resistance," the latter a reference to violent confrontation with Israel. The comments come amid policy debates over the degree to which Rouhani has the political will and capital to moderate Iran's domestic policies and foreign posture. Iranian Member of Parliament Fatemeh Alia emphasized that the "moderation" of Rouhani's cabinet would be measured by the extent to which it excludes "Reformist extremists," a phrase that regime loyalists use to refer to pro-reform dissidents. The evaluation - and the specific contrast between conservative "moderates" and anti-regime "reformists" - has been a mainstay in domestic descriptions of Rouhani. Earlier this month Cultural Advisor to the IRGC Commander Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi emphasized that Rouhani was not a reformist, but rather one who works "within the framework of the Islamic Republic." The president-elect has been described by analysts as a "consummate regime insider" and a clerical revolutionary dating back to before the Islamic revolution.
- Secretary of State John Kerry announced this afternoon that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had "established a basis" for returning to peace talks, after months in which Israeli officials had been calling on their Palestinian counterparts to return to negotiations without preconditions but had been rebuffed. Kerry traveled to the West Bank Friday to meet with top Palestinian officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas, a day after Palestinian factions rejected his peace initiative. The announcement took some analysts by surprise, inasmuch as Palestinian negotiators had as late as last night demanded that Israel make a number of concessions in advance in order to restart talks, including accepting the country's 1948 armistice lines as a basis for negotiations. Israeli officials insist that position would functionally allow the Palestinians to pocket two decades of Israeli concessions and start from scratch, destroying confidence necessary for future negotiations. The Palestinian position had already triggered open tension with the State Department.
- Arab media outlets are reporting on growing regional fears that Iran is seeking to ethnically alter the landscape of the Middle East, and to flood areas of Syria with Shiites in order to solidify sectarian control of the area. Tehran is reportedly spending billions of dollars to purchase land in the country, which has become the epicenter for what analysts increasingly fear will spiral into a full-blown regional Sunni-Shiite conflict. The Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, has been steadily rolling back two years of opposition gains. Support from the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah has been critical in these campaigns, which have included successful efforts to seize the strategic city of Qusayr and then parts of Homs. Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey noted that "the tide seems to have shifted in [Assad’s] favor." It seems that regime troops and rebel forces have begun exchanging tit-for-tat assassinations. Earlier this week, top Syrian official Mohammed Darrar Jamo was shot and killed in neighboring Lebanon, while pro-Assad gunman killed six Syrian mediators sent to reconcile warring factions. Nearly 100,000 people have been killed in the ongoing violence, and almost two million Syrians have fled the country. The U.N. this week declared the resulting refugee crisis to be the worst one in 20 years.
- Egypt is preparing to launch a large-scale operation to dislodge jihadist elements in the Sinai Peninsula, after weeks of consistent attacks by gunmen on security checkpoints, police stations, and government buildings. As many as 30,000 Egyptian troops are reportedly in the territory, with some engaging Islamists in the increasingly lawless region. The pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported that dozens of Hamas members have been killed in the peninsula in recent days, a charge quickly denied by the Iran-backed terror group. The Egyptian military blames Hamas for violence in the country in general, and in the Sinai specifically, dating back at least to the 2011 uprisings that saw the overthrow of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Gaza-based jihadists use smuggling tunnels maintained by Hamas to transit between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip into the Egypt-controlled Sinai. Last week reports emerged that the army had thwarted a "wide-scale plot” to transfer weapons to Cairo and Alexandria to carry out attacks and undermine Egypt's army-backed interim government. Hamas has sought to untangle itself from the unrest roiling Egypt, but has been dogged by media reports to the effect that it is hoping for and advocating for a restoration of Muslim Brotherhood rule.
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