- Lebanon government scrambles to evacuate residents as Hezbollah-backed Syrian troops isolate, bombard town
- President Obama signs legislation forbidding Iranian diplomat linked to 1979 hostage-takers from entering U.S. for U.N. post
Iranian media on Friday boasted that sanctions relief provided under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) has allowed the country's crude oil exports to "soar," carrying remarks by Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Mansour Moazzami revealing that "the volume of crude oil and gas condensate exports has doubled." The PressTV report gestured toward figures recently released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which calculated that Iran's February oil exports had hit a 20-month high and were far in excess of the levels set by the JPA's "sanctions cap." Meanwhile a separate PressTV article bragged that private Indian refiner Essar Oil - which it described as "Iran’s top Indian client" - had "imported six times more crude oil from the Islamic Republic in March 2014 compared to March 2013." The outlet noted that the amount was "the highest monthly shipment since at least January 2011." Reuters had already reported by the end of March that Iran was expected to exceed the sanctions cap for the fifth straight month. The White House has insisted that it would continue to enforce remaining sanctions on Iran in order to preserve Western leverage in the context of ongoing nuclear talks. Administration officials have brushed off Tehran's sanctions-busting energy exports by declaring that they expect the flow of Iranian oil to dramatically decrease in the coming months, such that by the end of the JPA's six-month period the average amount of exported oil will have fallen within permitted levels. It is not clear what the administration will do if Iran continues behaving exactly as it is behaving. February - the fourth month in a row that Iran had busted through the sanctions limits - had already seen analysts calling for the administration to take action on the issue. Nat Kern, head of the Washington-based energy consulting firm Foreign Reports, had told the Washington Post that the pattern of oil exports "should be a red flag for the administration." He went on to emphasize that U.S. options would be severely constrained - "the horse would be out of the barn" - if "at the end of May... Iran has punched such a deep hole through the core sanctions on oil."
Israeli and Arabic outlets on Friday published reports, first printed the day before by journalists in Thailand, revealing that authorities had disrupted a Hezbollah terror plot targeting Israeli tourists traveling through the country during the Passover holiday season. Bangkok Post carried descriptions of the suspects, Lebanese-French national Daoud Farhat and Lebanese-Filipino national Youssef Ayad. Both men were traveling on non-Lebanese passports, and records seem to indicate that the current trip to Thailand was Ayad's 17th visit to the country. The data points will likely reinforce analyst concerns that Hezbollah has invested heavily in the development of tradecraft, especially in the context of the Iran-backed terror group's multiple plots against Israeli tourists. A source told the Bangkok Post that Thai authorities believe there are at least nine other Hezbollah terrorists inside Thailand, and that efforts to track them down were ongoing. Lebanon's Daily Star specifically cited both elements - the evidence of extensive preparation and the nine still-uncaptured Hezbollah operatives - in a short write-up about the incident. TIME contextualized the plot alongside a previous Iranian-driven terror attack planned for Bangkok, and in turn contextualized that plot alongside others "against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and India... [and others that] were thwarted in Kenya, South Africa, Cyprus and Bulgaria – and Texas."
Lebanon's Daily Star reported early Friday morning that the Syrian army had launched what the outlet described as "a series of artillery strikes" on the Lebanese town of Tfail, sending Lebanese residents and Syrian refugees who have taken shelter in the town "flee[ing] into the surrounding hills." A Hezbollah-backed offensive on Syrian territory had driven refugees across the border and into the town, and reports indicate that the shelling caused many to flee back across the border and into the surrounding hills for shelter. An aid worker reported that "the village was bombarded throughout Tuesday." Tfail is technically a Lebanese territory with Lebanese citizens, but the only reliable roads connecting it to the outside world run through Syria. Those roads have been closed off by Hezbollah forces in an attempt to stem the transit of rebel elements back and forth across the Lebanon-Syria border. Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk was quoted Friday by the pan-Arab Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper declaring that Beirut was coordinating with Hezbollah to allow residents to flee the town. Syrian forces also attacked the Lebanese city of Arsal on Thursday, dispatching a helicopter to conduct at least two air raids. Hezbollah has been heavily criticized by a range of Lebanese figures for entangling the country in Syria's three-year-long conflict, but regime attacks on Lebanese territory are particularly problematic for the organization. The Iran-backed terror group justifies its existence - and more specifically, the massively armed state-within-a-state that it maintains inside Lebanon - as necessary to protect Lebanese sovereignty and prevent attacks on Lebanese territory. Attacks on Lebanese towns by the Assad regime, to which it has provided critical assistance, are in tension with those claims.
President Barack Obama on Friday signed into law legislation - previously passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate - that would among other things prohibit Iran's pick for its next U.N. ambassador from entering the United States. Hamid Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line in 1979 when the group seized scores of Americans inside the U.S.'s Tehran embassy, and the revelation that he had been appointed by Tehran prompted quick action in Congress to bar him. Politico opened its article on today's developments by observing that "the president noted he still considers the law 'advisory'" but that the legislation "was a rare moment of consensus in D.C." The issue is politically and diplomatically complicated for the White House. Domestically, administration officials fighting against Congressionally imposed pressure on Iran have leaned heavily on the argument that it is critical for the U.S. to maintain a positive diplomatic atmosphere to avoid hampering ongoing nuclear talks. Appointing a figure linked to the embassy hostage crisis to a U.S.-based post has been taken as a sign that the Iranians do not perceive themselves as similarly constrained. Internationally - per Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh - accepting the perceived Iranian slight and allowing Aboutalebi to take up his post would "reinforce the impression among regional allies that Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in [the] pursuit of a nuclear accord." Iran has indicated that it will not consider any alternatives to Aboutalebi, and earlier this week it requested that the U.N.'s Committee on Relations with the Host Country meet to address the issue.
Analysts: Iran talks "going nowhere fast," as worries deepen that West lacks sufficient leverage to extract concessions
- Analysts: Iran talks "going nowhere fast," as worries deepen that West lacks sufficient leverage to extract concessions
- Treasury Dept. expresses "serious concerns" as Russia brushes off U.S. objections to $20 billion sanctions-busting Iran deal
- Confusion swirls around peace talks, as Palestinian treaty clock risks locking in damage to negotiations
- Fewer than three weeks left for Syria to hand over chemical weapons, amid declarations of victory by Assad and allies
The New York Times reported late Tuesday that Iran and the global P5+1 powers had concluded two days of talks with - per a statement issued by the parties - "a lot of intensive work" left to be done, a characterization the Times assessed as evidence that 'both sides were still struggling with extensive disagreements.' Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Michael Doran was more blunt, describing the wording as "diplo speak for, 'the talks are going nowhere fast.'" The negotiations have wound down amid a statement from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - broadcast, for emphasis, across multiple digital platforms - forbidding Iranian negotiators from making concessions on any of Iran's "nuclear achievements." The stance echoed a red line against minimal uranium and plutonium concessions repeatedly underlined by top Iranian officials. Meanwhile Iranian media conveyed statements from the country's foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, also ruling out any concessions on Iran's "defense program," a euphemism used by Iranian diplomats to describe Tehran's ballistic missile program. Iran is obligated by binding United Nations Security Council resolutions to roll back - and in the case of its atomic program, to dismantle - infrastructure across all of those programs. Continued Iranian intransigence is likely to fuel concerns that Western negotiators lack sufficient leverage to extract meaningful and robust concessions. Mark Dubowitz and Rachel Ziemba - respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the director of emerging markets at Roubini Global Economics - on Thursday published analysis concluding that "a variety of key macroeconomic indicators" all converged on the conclusion that Iran is experiencing an economic recovery, in part due to American and Iranian officials having undervalued the sanctions relief provided by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). In light of the analysis, Dubowitz suggested that the White House should stop agreeing with Iran's lowball estimations of the relief.
Reuters on Thursday conveyed details of a conversation between Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, in which Lew expressed what a Treasury Department statement characterized as "serious concerns" over a Russian-Iranian oil-for-goods deal that - after having been first revealed last January and then stalling - has recently reemerged as a potential agreement. Lew reportedly told his Russian counterpart that the $20 billion sanctions-busting scheme "could trigger sanctions against any entity or individual involved in any related transactions." Past concerns conveyed to the Russians have been very publicly, and somewhat heatedly, dismissed. Western analysts have in recent days outlined how the deal would enable Iran to create channels for the importation of nuclear technology and next-generation weapons. Reuters also described Lew as having told Siluanov that such a deal would 'run counter' to the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) between the P5+1 global powers, which include Russia, and Iran. The ongoing Ukraine crisis had already weeks ago generated concerns among observers that Moscow would respond to Russian-Western tensions by downgrading its cooperation in talks with Iran, or potentially even by undermining those talks. The worries had been brushed off by Obama administration officials, who instead insisted that the Russians would "compartmentalize" various geopolitical crises.
The status of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks remained unclear through much of Thursday, amid the publication of conflicting reports describing not just ongoing meetings but also regarding proposals to extend negotiations beyond the original April 29 deadline of a U.S.-backed peace push. Substantive final status negotiations have been offline since last Tuesday, when Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced at a rushed press conference that the Palestinians would seek to join 15 international treaties. The move violated the specific terms of an agreement secured by Secretary of State John Kerry, under which the Palestinians would refrain from turning to the United Nations for the duration of a nine-month negotiation window, and very likely abrogated a core Oslo Accord commitment to avoid unilateral moves that would upgrade the status of disputed territories. Israel subsequently responded by cutting off high-level discussions, except those related to security issues and the peace process. Jerusalem also raised the possibility of cutting off aid to the Abbas-led Palestinian government, a possibility that sent the Palestinian leader scrambling for Arab League assistance. Some reports today had the Palestinians closer to agreeing to renewing talks, while others had them as far away as ever. One widely broadcast report - under which the Israelis had agreed to free 26 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for concessions from the U.S. and further talks with the Palestinians - was flatly denied as "premature" by the State Department. The Palestinian decision to accede to the various treaties, however, has established a timeline that may irreversibly - and perhaps terminally - undermine talks. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon confirmed today that Palestinian requests to join 10 U.N.-specific treaties will be granted on May 2nd, one month after they were officially submitted. It is not clear how such a move could be reversed once it's locked in, and it is difficult to see how Jerusalem could accept a Palestinian gambit that, first, pocketed decades of Israeli territorial and security concessions and, second, reversed central Palestinian commitments.
Syria now has only 17 days left to hand over the remainder of its chemical weapons stockpile or it will be in violation of a United Nations deadline that had originally been set as an alternative to a U.S.-led attack on Syrian military infrastructure - and it has since the very beginning of that deal only delivered 54 percent of its 1,200 tons of material - per comments made today by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and reported by the BBC. The outlet did the math on the arsenal, concluding that "552 tons of chemical stocks are still on the ground in Syria, waiting to be transported by armed convoy to the port of Latakia." From there the weapons and materials are to be loaded aboard the M/V Cape Ray, a former container vessel that Reuters reported Thursday has been "fitted out with at least $10 million of gear" to enable it to transport Syrian chemical agents into the Mediterranean. Reuters also reported on the process that the crew intends to use for neutralizing the agents, which mainly seems to involve "hot water." Assuming calm seas, the crew will need "about 60 days of round-the-clock processing to neutralise the chemical agents." It is unclear what consequences Damascus will face, if any, for breaching the deadline. Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, chief of the Hezbollah terror group widely credited with having swung the momentum of the Syrian war back in the regime's direction, have in recent days bragged that the three-year-old conflict has been contained and that rebel elements will be functionally defeated by the end of the year.
Top former Obama advisors: White House, Congress must signal consequences to Iran if negotiations fail
- Top former Obama advisors: White House, Congress must signal consequences to Iran if negotiations fail
- Palestinian president rejects Kerry request to reverse negotiations-wrecking diplomatic gambit, boasts that Israel diplomatic moves "scare no one"
- Diplomatic meeting put off as diplomats, analysts, journalists worry that Erdogan driving permanent wedge between Ankara and Brussels
- Lebanese leaders scramble to convince Hezbollah to stand down destabilizing Resistance Brigades militia
The Wall Street Journal on Friday morning conveyed comments by former Obama administration advisers Robert Einhorn and Dennis Ross calling on the Obama administration and Congress - per the outlet - "to increase the threat of using military force against Tehran if talks aimed at curbing its nuclear program fail – or the country’s Islamist government is caught cheating on the terms of an agreement." The Journal noted that while the two are "both strong proponents of President Barack Obama‘s diplomacy with Iran," existing and persistent gaps between the P5+1 global powers and Iran have reinforced diplomatic unease over whether negotiations can convince Tehran to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Their remarks came during the launch of a new paper authored by Einhorn and released by the Brookings Institute - where Einhorn is a senior fellow - calling for [PDF] a range of Congressional actions, including a prior authorization for the President to use military force should Iran attempt to sneak across the nuclear finish line. Ross elaborated during the study's launch that "the Iranians must see the consequences, not just of cheating if there is an agreement, but the failure of diplomacy," and that "the more we demonstrate resolve, including by talking about consequences of violations... the more we signal to the Iranians that we mean what we say... that will be key if we are to produce an agreement in the first place." Top Iranian officials have repeatedly emphasized that Tehran will refuse to dismantle nuclear centrifuges, downgrade its plutonium-producing Arak reactor, or make concessions regarding ballistic missile development. Western analysts - including Einhorn in his new report as well as U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security head David Albright - have assessed that any robust agreement on Iran would have to include the dismantlement of tens of thousands of centrifuges, the modification of the Arak reactor, and at a minimum confidence-building measures on ballistic missiles.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday rejected a request from Secretary of State John Kerry to reverse his position - announced earlier this week at what the Associated Press described as a "hastily convened" press conference - to turn to the United Nations and join 15 international treaties as the "State of Palestine," telling the U.S.'s top diplomat that he was unafraid of diplomatic retaliation from Jerusalem because "Israel's threats scare no one." The expression of bravado comes two days after Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki bragged to reporters that he didn't "expect any consequences coming from the U.S. Congress... at all" in response to the Palestinians' diplomatic gambit, which among other things violated commitments made by Ramallah in the context of a nine-month U.S. peace push and, more broadly, under the Oslo Accords. Analysts and journalists have in recent days expressed increasingly public worries regarding Palestinian recklessness. Veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff assessed on Wednesday that "what appears to be an attempt to pressure Israel and the US could easily inflame the Palestinian street," triggering a spiral of responses and reactions that "could push Abbas and the Palestinian leadership once again up a tree from which it would be hard to climb down." Issacharoff emphasized that heightening unrealistic expectations for territorial and diplomatic gains risked triggering an eruption of public anger "on the Palestinian street [that] could be directed at Ramallah and Abbas first, even before Israel." Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party supports renewed and ongoing negotiations, worried that a list of new Palestinian demands presented yesterday - widely and immediately seen as nonstarters - was evidence that Abbas was working against his interests. State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Friday that the United States remained committed to pursuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, though the Washington Post had previously reported that Kerry was likely to "lower the volume and see how things unfold."
Hurriyet Daily News reported on Friday that a planned meeting between European Union (EU) and Turkish officials is set to be postponed because diplomatic interactions between the parties are currently more likely to worsen relations rather than improve them, amid EU unease over recent moves by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to ban social media, turn water cannons on protesters, threaten to make political rivals "pay" for their opposition, impose conditions regarding when the EU is permitted to criticize Ankara, and so on. The outlet quoted an EU diplomat predicting that 'the relationship would go from bad to worse' if a meeting of the Turkey-EU Association Committee was held next week as originally planned. The news comes just a day after veteran New York Times correspondent Alan Cowell assessed that Turkey under Erdogan had "turned its back on the EU," and that upcoming elections "may deepen its estrangement." Cowell quoted Andreas Scheuer, a prominent German politician, tersely suggesting that "it is becoming clear that Erdogan's Turkey does not belong to Europe." He also quoted Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall worrying that Erdogan's moves to retain power may serve to undermine political freedoms and deepen internal Turkish divisions. Meanwhile Sohrab Ahmari, an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, called on European conservatives to shun the AKP, citing among other things the Islamist party's "contempt for such core conservative principles as individual liberty and separation of powers."
Lebanon's Daily Star on Friday reported that religious and political figures from the Lebanese city of Sidon have been traveling to Hezbollah's offices in Beirut to try to convince Hezbollah leaders to reverse their recent decision to reactivate and boost the activities of the organization's Resistance Brigades inside Sidon. The Daily Star cited local political sources worrying that 'the move could disrupt the relative calm of the last few months.' The militia, created by Hezbollah in 2009, has been a source of tension inside Lebanon in general, and specifically in Sidon. Hezbollah let it be known through Lebanese media that - in response to local concerns over the thuggishness of Resistance Brigades members - it was disbanding the militias in Sidon. Those reports turned out to be false, and in December Hezbollah reportedly ordered a "general mobilization" of Resistance Brigades fighters in response to a possible "snowball" of Sunni-Shiite conflict. The gangs were deployed a few weeks ago against several Sunni towns in Lebanon, after Hezbollah seized the strategically critical Syrian border city of Yabroud. Hanin Ghaddar - the managing editor of the Lebanese-focused NOW outlet - described the sudden upsurge in violence as Hezbollah spiking the football, writing that the group "needed to prove that its conquest of Yabroud would bear fruit on the ground in Lebanon... [after] the Lebanese people, mainly the Shiite community, had stopped buying into theatrical propaganda."
Reports: "Surprise move" by Palestinians to renew UN diplomatic warfare endangers peace process, U.S. interests
- Reports: "Surprise move" by Palestinians to renew UN diplomatic warfare endangers peace process, U.S. interests
- New figures estimate over 150,000 dead in Syria, as analysts warn Hezbollah involvement "could fan flames into a wider regional conflict"
The Associated Press reported late Tuesday on what the outlet described as a "surprise move" by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to go to a range of United Nations bodies requesting membership for the "State of Palestine." The AP noted that the declaration came "despite a promise to suspend such efforts during nine months of negotiations with Israel," and that it risked collapsing the delicate U.S.-backed effort to push forward a framework peace agreement. Israel had in recent days made an offer to extend talks, and had even reportedly teed up another prisoner release aimed at securing further negotiations. The Israelis had undertaken three previous rounds of releases to bring the Palestinians to the table and keep them there. The Israeli offer to extend talks was rejected, and the Palestinian announcement that they were turning to the UN came within days. Abbas said that he would like to continue pursuing negotiations with the Israelis despite the Palestinian gambit. The position is likely to come off as too clever by half. The entire basis of the nine month-long U.S.-backed peace initiative was that the Palestinians would abstain from seeking membership in UN institutions. Kerry almost immediately canceled a planned trip to Ramallah, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, in light of Abbas's decision. Any Palestinian success would immediately trigger black-letter U.S. laws that cut off funds to UN bodies that give the Palestinians membership. U.S. diplomats, hoping to avoid such confrontations, have long opposed unilateral moves by the Palestinians to gain membership in UN institutions. A Heritage Foundation report co-authored by Brett D. Schaefer and James Phillips a few years ago went even further, bluntly identifying past unilateral moves as "threaten[ing] United States and Israeli interests" and "undermin[ing] all internationally accepted frameworks for peace." Palestinian gambits at the UN have more pointedly been seen as corroding the basic framework of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The land-for-peace formula requires the Israelis to give up tangible, functionally irreversible concessions in exchange for Palestinian commitments. The fear has always been that the Palestinians will negotiate only as long as they can extract territory or prisoners, and that they will then pocket what they've gained and walk away. Abbas’s moves seem set to confirm those fears.
Iran's Fars News outlet reported on Tuesday that Tehran is aggressively courting foreign investors, conveying among other things statements made by Valiollah Afkhamirad, the head of Iran’s Trade Development Organization, declaring that the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) inked last November in Geneva had created "a suitable atmosphere... [for] investors in Iran and they have become highly interested in business" with the Islamic Republic. The article more specifically discussed a call made on Monday by Mahmoud Vaezi, Iran's Minister of Communications and Information Technology, emphasizing that "Iran has invited world countries to invest and collaborate in projects to establish partnerships for ultra broadband corridors" across the country. The calls echo a February boast by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif announcing that the sanctions relief outlined by the JPA had transformed Iran into a place that was "open for business." They came alongside other reports describing a "steady flow of Western executives" into Iran. Meanwhile British financial reporter Matt Lynn assessed on MarketWatch that Iran seems primed to become "one of the hottest investment opportunities of the next two decades." The Iranian strategy seems primed to deepen a very particular worry regarding the possibility that the JPA's partial erosion of the international sanctions regime will prevent financial pressure from being reimposed on Iran: Foreign entities that become invested in Iranian markets are likely to mobilize political pressure to prevent any moves to close those markets back off. Brookings fellow Michael Doran had already in January speculated that the JPA "has created an influential economic lobby in the West dedicated to ensuring" that sanctions are not tightened again. Such concerns have become more pitched in recent months, as Iran has moved in to encourage foreign investment across a range of industries.
Turkish security officials on Tuesday turned water cannons on protestors marching in reaction to widespread allegations that this weekend's local elections - which saw the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan secure a plurality of the votes - were marked by fraud, intimidation, and mysterious power outages in opposition-heavy districts. Residents of the Turkey’s Duzici district, where the AKP candidate beat his nearest opponent by 440 votes, reported finding discarded ballots marked for an opposition party in at least six area polling stations. Reports of power outages were brushed off by municipal authorities as mostly the result of bad weather or - in one case - a rogue feline. Ankara, where the AKP candidate defeated the next opponent by less than a percentage point, was one of several cities in which protestors demanded recounts. The election had already been marked by irregularities, most prominently a government ban against Twitter and YouTube that had generated global ridicule and international condemnation. The new controversies, to say nothing of the government's response to those controversies, are unlikely to dampen growing criticism that Turkey has more or less ceased to be a functioning liberal democracy. In late February over 80 top U.S. foreign policy figures called on President Barack Obama to take action to halt "Turkey’s current path," and declared that "silence will only encourage Prime Minister Erdogan to diminish the rule of law in the country even further."
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Tuesday conveyed recent figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) assessing that more than 150,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, amid another string of prominently reported gains by forces fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Exact figures have been notoriously difficult to come by - the United Nations has quite literally stopped trying to tally the deaths - but SOHR calculated that the numbers include over 7,900 children. On Monday Al Arabiya reported that pro-regime forces had "recaptured on Monday a key position in the coastal province of Latakia," a victory that came shortly after "government forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters... triumphed against the opposition along the border area with Lebanon." The victories were seen as critical to Hezbollah's effort to stop the transit of Sunni jihadists across the Lebanon-Syria border, and triggered what local media described as "an atmosphere of contentment" in areas of Lebanon controlled by the Iran-backed terror group. Washington Institute Senior Fellow Andrew Tabler on Tuesday nonetheless emphasized that Hezbollah's activities in Syria were hardening sectarian divisions in Lebanon, with the result being "increased suicide car bombings, Sunni-Shiite tension, and armed clashes." The resulting political instability, according to Tabler, "could fan the flames into a wider regional conflict that Hezbollah and Iran cannot put out and cannot afford."
Bloomberg: "dilemma" for President Obama as Iran appoints diplomat linked to 1979 hostage crisis to top UN post
- Bloomberg: "dilemma" for President Obama as Iran appoints diplomat linked to 1979 hostage crisis to top UN post
Businessweek on Monday assessed that Iran's appointment of Hamid Aboutalebi to be Tehran's new ambassador to the United Nations may become "a dilemma" for President Barack Obama, just days after the outlet originally revealed that the Iranian diplomat - who had belonged to the group that captured and held 52 Americans hostage in 1979 - was having trouble acquiring a visa to enter the United States. Aboutalebi has reportedly been waiting to enter the U.S., and there are fears that the situation could escalate diplomatically. Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh told Bloomberg that granting Aboutalebi a visa now would "reinforce the impression among regional allies that Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in our pursuit of a nuclear accord." The President had already last week reportedly received a chilly reception in Saudi Arabia due to Washington's diplomacy toward Iran. The incident itself may damage the White House’s credibility in reading Iranian intentions. The administration has for months leaned heavily on the Iranian claim that any Congressional move against Iran would shatter the delicate "spirit of Geneva" needed for negotiations to succeed, Geneva being the site where the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) had been hammered out. The theme may be difficult to reconcile with what critics of the President were quick to characterize as a poke in his eye. Bipartisan lawmakers from both chambers of Congress have lately again begun calling for a broader Congressional role in negotiations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Israel late Monday as reports emerged that Jerusalem had presented Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas with a draft proposal designed to extend U.S.-brokered negotiations beyond their originally scheduled April 29 deadline. Palestinian diplomats threatened last week to abandon talks should the Israelis refuse to release a fourth batch of prisoners, after Jerusalem had previously released three other groups to entice the Palestinians to join and then stay at the negotiating table. Israeli leaders - including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has consistently pushed for talks from within the government - emphasized that Israel would not release dozens of murderers after the Palestinians had spent the last several months flatly rejecting a U.S.-backed peace framework. Palestinian leaders, up to and including Abbas, had also repeatedly threatened to renew diplomatic warfare against the Jewish state, and Reuters had reported last January that Ramallah had a list of "international bodies from which they could harass Israel - including the International Criminal Court." Palestinian boasts aired last week, which cited potential long-term campaigns in international bodies, deepened concerns that they will pocket functionally irreversible Israeli concessions and walk away anyway. Abbas and other top PA figures had also soured the Israeli public on additional releases by ostentatiously celebrating previously freed terrorists and murderers as heroes.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Sunday that he will "enter the lair" of his rivals and force them to "pay for" having leveled accusations of corruption against him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), after local elections held across Turkey saw the AKP securing a plurality of the national vote. At least six people were killed in clashes during the polling. A range of graft scandals, which eventually ensnared AKP elites including Erdogan and his family, last year plunged Turkey into open political warfare. The AKP initially moved to purge thousands of judiciary and police officials, and in recent days had also sought to dampen the tempo of public criticism by banning Twitter and YouTube, generating by turns international condemnation and widespread ridicule. Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News on Monday published an interview with Sabanci University professor Ahmet Evin, in which Evin linked what he described as a "deliberate effort" to stifle free speech inside Turkey to a broader collapse in Ankara's regional stature. Erdogan had nonetheless long been expected by analysts to ride a superior political infrastructure and his enthusiastic political base to continued electoral success. The post-election dynamics seem set to reignite long-standing criticisms of Erdogan as a majoritarian ruler who - per a June 2013 write-up in The Economist on his ideology - "holds that electoral might always makes you right."
Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi on Monday blasted Iran for seeking to destabilize the country “through its support” for a range of separatists and rebels, a repeat of accusations that he has consistently and explicitly been leveling against Tehran for quite literally years. In February 2013 Sana'a announced that it had intercepted an Iranian vessel trying to smuggle explosives and surface-to-air missiles into Yemen, prompting Hadi to accuse the Iranians of trying to directly assist Shiite rebels fighting in the country's north. The charges have been widely echoed by other Gulf countries. In March of that year Saudi Arabia announced that it had arrested 18 people on charges of spying on behalf of Iran. In May Bahrain blasted the Islamic Republic for "flagrant interference" in its affairs. The renewed expressions of concern come amid increasing analyst recognition that the region has fractured and hardened into three regional blocs, with an Iranian-led camp aligned opposite a group comprised of the U.S.'s traditional regional allies, and both aligned opposite a radical Sunni alliance anchored at various times by Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Turks, for their part, have also within the last week accused Iran of having infiltrated the Turkish government. One English-language Turkish outlet bluntly opened its coverage of the incident by conveying comments from Ali Fuat Yilmazer, a former chief of the Istanbul Police Department's intelligence unit, claiming that the 'Iran-linked notorious terrorist organization Tawhid-Salam has penetrated deep into the Turkish government in what amounts to international espionage.'
Israel puts off prisoner release after Palestinian President rules out U.S.-backed peace concessions
- Israel puts off prisoner release after Palestinian President rules out U.S.-backed peace concessions
- As Obama visits Saudi Arabia, White House faces scrutiny for statements brushing off Arab allies' concerns
Palestinian officials today threatened to suspend negotiations with Israel after Jerusalem declined to release 26 Palestinian prisoners in the coming days, with the Palestinians insisting that the releases had been promised to them and top Israeli politicians dismissing those claims as simply false. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who had run in the last election on a peace platform and has continued to prominently press for Israel to make concessions, nonetheless was explicit that Jerusalem had not made any "automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations." Progress in those negotiations had been uneven for months, with Ramallah rejecting U.S. bridging proposals calling for mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian states, a definitive stance ending refugee claims against Israel, and an Israeli security presence along the border with Jordan. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas told the Arab League on Tuesday that he now rejects "even holding a discussion" over Israel's long-standing and U.S.-backed requirement that any comprehensive peace deal include a formal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Former Israeli national security advisor Yaakov Amidror on Thursday gauged the situation as one in which the Palestinians "have not moved one inch" in their negotiating position. The Israelis had already conducted three previous rounds of releases as good-will gestures in the context of on-going peace talks. Top PA figures, up to and Abbas, had for their part had ostentatiously celebrated the freed terrorists and murderers as heroes,badly undermining Israeli politicians who sought to push through a fourth round of releases.
The erosion in the international sanctions regime against Iran has generated what the Wall Street Journal on Thursday described as "a steady flow of Western executives" - a signal that the outlet read as suggesting that "economic detente with the rest of the world may be on the horizon" - generating renewed concerns among journalists and analysts that the Obama administration may have been over-optimistic when it repeatedly insisted that the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) would not leave Iran open for business. Emanuele Ottolenghi and Benjamin Weinthal, respectively a senior and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, had on Tuesday published an extensive description of Swiss economic activity with the Islamic Republic under the headline "Switzerland Is Open To Iranian Business." The reports came alongside others noting that Iran is on track to exceed its permitted oil exports for the fifth straight month and that it is now in position to become the largest gas storage facility holder in the region. Analysts reacting early to the JPA had explicitly warned that reducing sanctions risked triggering a downward spiral as companies scrambled to access reopened Iranian markets - the dynamic has since been described variously as a feeding frenzy and a gold rush – and they had called for the administration to firmly signal to Tehran that failure to dismantle its nuclear program would be met in the future with crippling financial restrictions. Those concerns were derided as "fanciful" by analysts linked to the administration, and the White House subsequently expended significant political capital to block Congressional legislation that would have imposed future sanctions if nuclear negotiations failed.
President Barack Obama on Friday traveled to Saudi Arabia for what had long been anticipated as a fence-mending visit, after months of increasingly public disagreements between the US and its traditional Gulf allies over Washington's posture towards Shiite expansionism, on the one hand, and political Islamists within the Sunni world, on the other. The Saudis have been openly furious with the White House over what they consider to be weakness toward Iran and disregard for the dangers posed to Arab regimes by the Muslim Brotherhood. The BBC explained that "the Saudis have yet to forgive [President Obama] for turning his back on Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011" - a controversy that was followed by further disagreements over how to approach Egypt's subsequent Muslim Brotherhood-linked government and, a year later, the Egyptian army's overthrow of that government - and that "the Sunni royals feel encircled by Shia Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, and are worried the US is indifferent to the anxiety this causes." The outlet bluntly stated that "the Saudis may not be entirely wrong." The Telegraph described Washington and Riyadh as "at loggerheads over every burning issue in the Middle East." The Hill described the administration as "at odds with all" of America’s key Middle Eastern allies. A New York Times article from last December had already quoted former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal blasting the administration for inaction against Iranian clients in Syria, describing President Obama's red lines against the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime as having become "pinkish as time grew, and eventually... completely white." Comments from administration officials on the eve of the visit however downplayed reports that the President would seek to substantially ease Riyadh's concerns. The Daily Caller conveyed comments from White House foreign policy chief Ben Rhodes brushing off suggestions that President Obama would agree to take a tougher line with Iran or change his stance regarding the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Reports of the visit will be closely scrutinized as signals regarding Washington's broader approach to the region. Recent years have seen the emergence and hardening of three regional blocs in the Middle East, with Washington's Arab and Israeli allies aligned opposite Iran and its clients, and both aligned opposite a radical Sunni camp composed of Turkey, Qatar, the Brotherhood, and their allies. Observers have at various times expressed frustration over what they insist is Washington's refusal to decisively side with its traditional allies.
The Palestinian Hamas faction is reportedly making something of a comeback in territories long dominated by its rival Fatah - staging rallies in the West Bank and in the Jerusalem campus of the Palestinian Al-Quds university - after a series of bad geopolitical gambles had left the terror group economically and politically isolated in the Gaza Strip. The Times of Israel on Friday described Hamas's West Bank leader as leading a funeral procession in the West Bank town of Jenin that "was almost an exact reenactment of the first days of the Second Intifada, when [Sheikh Hassan Yousef] stood at the head of the organization’s gatherings and called for revenge." The outlet quoted Yousef insisting that "the rallies and processions we have seen in recent months, in which most of the participants were Hamas supporters, show the clear support for the organization," opposite claims that support for Hamas is dropping. The funeral came a day before a separate Hamas rally on the Jerusalem campus of Al-Quds University in which "demonstrators were seen with black ski masks and carrying replicas of rockets." The Fatah-linked president of the university, Sari Nusseibeh, announced three days later that he was stepping down from his post. Tensions between Hamas and Fatah have long been cited as among at least four structural barriers threatening the viability of any future Palestinian state. Analysts have recently and particularly emphasized the dynamic as a threat to state cohesion - Fatah rules the West Bank, Hamas rules Gaza, and any state with territory divided between rival governments is by definition a failed state - but the rivalry also risks generating security-based problems. It is not at all clear that Fatah security forces, left to their own devices, would be capable of preventing Hamas from seizing control of the West Bank as Hamas did in the Gaza Strip.
Al-Monitor on Thursday reported that top House lawmakers are in the early stages of drafting terror-related sanctions - the outlet described any legislation as "a work in progress" - that would target Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors due to the group's global terror activities and its fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor that Iran could not be allowed to "blackmail" the United States via terrorist proxies, even and especially amid ongoing negotiations being conducted over Tehran's nuclear program. The outlet contextualized the effort as at least partially a response to the Obama administration, after the White House conducted a publicly controversial but nonetheless successful campaign to prevent lawmakers from moving forward on legislation that would have potentially imposed nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in the future should current negotiations fail. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, had assessed in late February that lawmakers would continue to investigate how to impose pressure on Iran, and that there would also be "strong momentum behind another push" should the six-month interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) expire without a comprehensive agreement for putting Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization. A report published earlier this month in Congressional Quarterly assessed that "groups on opposite sides of the Iran debate" were converging on the need for a strong congressional role in shaping Washington's diplomacy with Iran.
National Journal on Wednesday conveyed details of what the outlet described as an "explosive" hearing held that day by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which saw senators from both parties "eviscerate" Obama administration officials over what Sen. Bob Corker described as a "delusional" understanding of the Syrian conflict. Corker leveled the characterization at Tom Countryman, State's Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, after Countryman suggested that the Bashar al-Assad regime has sustained "actual losses" due to a deal in which the regime committed to giving up its chemical weapons arsenal. Statements made this week by Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, indicated that Syria will miss the deadline set by the deal for dismantling its arsenal. An exchange between Corker and Anne Patterson - the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs - also grew heated, after Patterson insisted that the Obama administration had a secret plan to deal with the Syrian crisis but that she wouldn't tell the committee about it during that session. Senators broadly criticized the administration for having objectively propped up the Assad regime by inking the chemical weapons deal, a concern that had been made early by skeptics of the White House's diplomacy but that had been brushed off. The hearing came amid the release of a U.N. report that assessed that "massive and indiscriminate use of violence" on the part of the Assad regime was the “single most important factor” impeding Syrian civilians from receiving access to humanitarian relief workers. Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters continued to make advances near the Lebanese border on Thursday, the latest in a series of campaigns that have seen the regime consolidating control along the Syria-Lebanon border and restrict the flow of materials to opposition forces.
Ars Technica on Thursday reported on an "administrative measure" implemented by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) shutting down access to YouTube, which the tech-oriented outlet noted was done in an attempt "to stem a flood of leaked audio recordings of government officials before elections this Sunday." The platform had been used by anonymous uploaders to post what seem to be leaked conversations between AKP elites, ranging from discussions of how to hide vast sums of money to ones outlining potential military measures against Syria. The restrictions on YouTube come roughly a week after a globally ridiculed, largely failed, and legally overturned decree banning access to Twitter, and Ars noted that it appears that Turkey's telecommunications authority had initially implemented both bans similarly, by changing the Domain Name Service listings for the targeted sites. Ankara had subsequently escalated how it prevented access to Twitter - specifically by instituting a block to the microblogging platform’s IP addresses - and Ars suggested that the Turkish government will eventually get around to similarly restricting YouTube. Hurriyet Daily News conveyed statements from U.S. and European Union officials condemning the new restrictions. The State Department called on Turkey to stop blocking both YouTube and Twitter, while Neelie Kroes - one of several vice-presidents of the European Commission, and bloc's European Commissioner for Digital Agenda - blasted what she described as "another desperate and depressing move" from Ankara.
"Killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq were responsible for a global rise in capital punishment in 2013, according to a new Amnesty International report described Thursday by a range of outlets. The Guardian prominently quoted Amnesty's secretary general declaring that "the killing sprees we saw in countries like Iran and Iraq were shameful," and noted that Tehran and Baghdad were responsible for at least 538 out of the 778 documented state-sanctioned executions last year. Tehran publicly admitted to executing at least 369 people in 2013 - roughly 15 percent more than in the previous year - but is widely suspected of having conducted another 250 or so executions in secret. The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran has repeatedly emphasized - most recently last week - that there has been no fundamental change in the Islamic Republic's human rights approach since the inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and he has more specifically declared that its capital punishment policies "contraven[e] universally accepted human rights principles and norms." The assessments are in line with statements made by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Zeya expanded on the point, noting that the U.S. has “seen little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran under the new government, including torture, political imprisonment, [and] harassment of religious and ethnic minorities.”
A speech last Friday by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - in which the Shiite cleric questioned the existence of the Holocaust and committed to never recognizing the Jewish state - continued to draw commentary and analysis over the weekend and into Monday, with Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Suzanne Maloney noting that while she supported robust diplomacy with the Islamic Republic, she parted ways with fellow engagement advocates who "discount[ed] Khamenei's repeated indulgences in intolerance" or suggested that he was "a fading figure in Iran's convoluted power structure... [or] likely to refashion himself at this late date as a liberalizer." Instead Maloney emphasized that "Iran's ultimate authority harbors a vicious, conspiratorial, wicked… [and] erroneous… view of the West." Maloney also gestured to traditional Western readings of Iranian Holocaust denial as a proxy for regime intransigence, though some analysts have given far less attention to that indicator since the Obama administration began vigorous outreach to Tehran in the aftermath of President Hassan Rouhani's June 2013 election. Both Lebanon's Daily Star and Israel's Jerusalem Post noted that Khamenei used the same speech to equate how the West approaches Holocaust denial with how Iran treats anti-government dissidents. Human rights groups regularly blast Tehran for its treatment of regime critics, who are subjected to institutionalized arrests, tortures, rapes, and a recent a surge in executions. Top United Nations officials, including the body's Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have recently noted that there has been no fundamental change in Iran's human rights situation since Rouhani's election.
Arab League officials over the weekend predicted that the bloc's upcoming meeting in Kuwait will revolve around "rifts" dividing the Arab world - the phrase was used both by international wires and regional outlets - amid converging reports that a Friday visit by President Barack Obama to Saudi Arabia will see the President seeking to reassure Riyadh that Washington appreciates those dynamics and can be relied upon to side with its traditional allies. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy reemphasized the point on Monday, more explicitly highlighting a "deep" divide between Egypt and Qatar, with the countries split across two out of the three regional camps that analysts have seen emerging in recent years. A bloc of traditional U.S. allies - Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and most of the Gulf countries - has become aligned opposite a second bloc of Qatar, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both are in conflict across various theaters with Iran and Iranian-backed proxies. Cairo - followed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - pulled its ambassador from Qatar over Doha's ties to the Brotherhood, and the Egyptians and the Saudis for good measure also formally outlawed the Islamist group as a terrorist organization. The divisions have complicated U.S. diplomacy toward the region across a range of issues. Traditional U.S. allies have taken to openly expressing frustration with the Obama administration over what they insist is reckless disregard for the dangers posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, with Saudis have publicly signaling that they intend to have a candid discussion with the President over Washington's approach to Egypt. The administration has been accused of being too quick to abandon then-strongman Hosni Mubarak amid Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring, which subsequently saw the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government. The concerns come alongside similar frustration regarding the administration's diplomacy toward Iran, which Riyadh views as marked by inappropriate eagerness to cut a deal over Tehran’s nuclear program. The State Department and the White House have been heavily courting the Arab League for support on among other things the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Secretary of State John Kerry has more specifically sought assistance in overcoming Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas's ongoing rejection of a U.S.-backed framework.
Reuters on Monday conveyed statements from Secretary of State John Kerry expressing his "hope" that the Ukraine crisis, which has pitted Washington against Russia, would not impact the international effort to degrade Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, a context in which the Obama administration had gambled heavily on extensive cooperation from the Kremlin. A separate Reuters report quoted Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, noting that Syria might miss its final deadline for the destruction of that arsenal. Uzumcu was the first OPCW official to publicly air the possibility, though the assessment was not unexpected. Kerry's statements came after weeks of assurances from the State Department, made both to lawmakers and to journalists, assessing that the Russians would be able to "compartmentalize" hostilities in Crimea and continue cooperating with the West not just in Syria but also in Iran. Analysts had been skeptical of the claims, a view subsequently reinforced by Russian statements - issued last Wednesday by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov - threatening to "rais[e] the stakes" of events unfolding in Ukraine by altering Moscow's stance on Iran talks.
Turkish officials over the weekend and on Monday deepened their efforts to cut the country off from Twitter, despite being met with quite literally global ridicule last week for trying and conspicuously failing to stifle public use of the popular microblogging service. The country's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had vowed to "eradicate" Twitter. The effort was quickly characterized as designed to stifle discussion of a still-widening graft investigation that had long ago expanded to include top elites from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), including the Prime Minister and his family. Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News reported Monday that Ankara's efforts to block Twitter had expanded to include the service's URL shortener t.co, "making it harder for those who successfully circumvent the ban reach the content shared elsewhere." Hurriyet had reported over the weekend on a previous series of moves designed to thwart efforts to circumvent the ban, including an IP-level block that defeated one popular way of sidestepping the restriction. From a strictly technical perspective Ankara's efforts are a non-starter: technological penetration in Turkey is too extensive, and the central government's control over that technology is too weak, for the ban to hold up. However Fadi Hakura, the manager of the Turkey Project at London's Chatham House think-tank, assessed today that Erdogan is unlikely to see his political support significantly eroded by the move. Hakura emphasized that "[w]hat the Twitter ban indicates is that the Turkish leadership psychology is incapable of tackling effectively the myriad serious political, economic and external challenges facing the country."
WSJ: "New challenge" for Iran talks, as Iranian diplomats put off addressing military dimensions of nuclear program
Iranian negotiators are trying to put off addressing suspected military dimensions related to the country's atomic program until negotiations with the global P5+1 powers have substantially progressed, creating what the Wall Street Journal on Monday described as "a new challenge for efforts to reach a broad nuclear deal with six world powers." Iran's obligations to clarify what are widely suspect to be military-related links to its nuclear program - ranging from detonations related to nuclear warheads to army involvement in Iranian uranium production - are codified in binding United Nations Security Council resolutions. Full cooperation with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog on such dimensions has long been a core demand of the international community. Obama administration officials who have defended the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) to journalists and lawmakers have repeatedly emphasized that Tehran will be held to those obligations. Iranian media covered Tehran's newly declared position - under which discussions of those issues would be put off until some time in the future - under the headline "Iran will address all Western concerns about its nuclear program: negotiator." Observers fear that the Islamic Republic is positioning itself to extend negotiations and thereby increase the West's investment in the talks, before ultimately refusing to genuinely meet its obligations regarding transparency. One scenario has Iran making limited concessions regarding future nuclear work, and then functionally daring the West to scuttle a settlement over its refusal to disclose its past military-related programs.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday that human rights in Iran have not improved since the election and inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, with Ban specifically citing what Reuters described as "the prevalent use of capital punishment" by the Islamic republic. The assessment is in line with multiple evaluations - from U.N. monitors, from international human rights groups, and from the State Department - all concluding that there has been no shift in Iran's domestic repression since Rouhani's ascension. Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, last fall declared that there had been no fundamental improvements in Iran's human rights situation. He later accused Tehran of capital punishment practices that "contravene universally accepted human rights principles and norms." In February, Uzra Zeya - the State Department's acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor - assessed that the U.S. has "seen little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran under the new government, including torture, political imprisonment, harassment of religious and ethnic minorities." For his part Ban bluntly declared on Tuesday that Rouhani's administration "has not made any significant improvement in the promotion and protection of freedom of expression and opinion, despite pledges made by the president during his campaign and after his swearing in," and called attention to the ongoing house arrest of prominent reformist politicians.
The New York Times reported on Monday that Hezbollah's warfighting in Syria is bolstering the organization's capabilities, despite whatever losses it may be suffering, and that Israeli military officials now assess that the Iran-backed terror group's involvement in the nearly three-year-old conflict has become "a major burden... but also a major advantage." Though opposition elements have been able to degrade Hezbollah's forces - news published earlier this week conveyed casualty figures as high as 120 fighters - there are roughly five thousand soldiers from the group who are gaining invaluable battlefield experience and emerging battle-hardened. Intelligence assessments also describe the Bashar al-Assad regime as having engaged in a quid-pro-quo with Hezbollah, under which Damascus would repay the Lebanese organization for its military assistance by providing advanced weapons to be used in a future war with Israel. The dynamic is one of several behind deepening concerns that Hezbollah has set up the next conflagration with Israel to be particularly intense. Analysts have also called specific attention to the vast network of human shields that Hezbollah has created, to the sheer quantity of its stockpiles - thought to contain roughly 100,000 rockets and missiles - and to advanced weapons that are expected to be used against Israeli civilian centers and energy infrastructure.
Middle East Institute Scholar Mohamed Elmenshawy on Tuesday published an extensive analysis of the psychological and geopolitical role played by the Egyptian army in the Arab world, amid increasing coverage and analysis in the Arab world regarding President Barack Obama's potentially pivotal upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia. The visit comes at a time of unprecedented public strain between Washington and its traditional Gulf allies, and earlier this week the Daily Beast revealed that relations between the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were in an unprecedented crisis. Gulf nations are known to be livid with the administration over its handling of Egyptian political turmoil, which they believe the White House has irresponsibly stoked without regard for the risks presented by populist Islamist movements. Elmenshawy's analysis - published in Ahram Online under the headline "Egypt, the wound in US-Saudi relations" - quoted one Gulf diplomat as explaining that Cairo is looked to as the source of "tens of thousands of soldiers if needed" to help repulse threats to Arab countries. Elmenshawy described Washington's reaction to the Egyptian revolution - during which the Obama administration was publicly blasted by Riyadh as too quick to abandon former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak - as when "the real cleft between the [U.S. and Saudi Arabia] began," and noted that "[o]ver the past three years, the Egyptian situation was a talking point during all meetings between Saudi and US officials."
Crimea crisis seen eroding confidence in Obama foreign policy wisdom, amid renewed calls for congressional voice in negotiations
- Crimea crisis seen eroding confidence in Obama foreign policy wisdom, amid renewed calls for congressional voice in negotiations
- Egypt court outlaws Hamas activities, in latest blow to reeling Palestinian terror group
- Netanyahu AIPAC speech calls on Palestinians to "stand with Israel and the United States" in forging peace, regional benefits of Israeli-Palestinian deal
- WSJ: Initiatives to boost Palestinian economy "slow to show" benefits
- · Analysts, journalists, and lawmakers on Tuesday continued to unpack the geopolitical consequences of Russia's invasion of Ukraine - both in general and specifically in the context of Middle East crises the White House is scrambling to contain - with evaluations building on assessments that the impending U.S.-Russia chill will badly complicate the Obama administration's strategy of relying on Russia to help resolve diplomatic deadlocks with Syria and Iran. The New York Times reported that President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Ukraine in their Monday Oval Office meeting, while David Rieff - a foreign policy voice not known for sympathy toward robust U.S. interventionism - tersely evaluated public debate over the Crimean conflagration as one in which "those who believe that Iran will never relinquish its nuclear weapons program... look at American impotence in Ukraine and worry it’s a harbinger of the future." Walter Russell Mead went further, declaring that "Putin’s Crimean adventure... shakes the foundations of the President’s world strategy," and specifically asking "if [Obama] could be this blind and misguided about [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, how smart is he about the Ayatollah Khamenei, a much more difficult figure to read?" Mead suggested that the White House's near-total failure to predict Russia's behavior - U.S. intelligence got its prediction of the Crimean invasion exactly backwards - will undermine Obama's efforts to convince Middle East allies, most especially Israel, that Washington can be trusted in evaluating those allies' security needs. The erosion in the president's foreign policy credibility seems set to fuel renewed calls, supported by lopsided majorities of Americans, for stricter Congressional oversight over negotiations with Iran.
- An Egyptian court on Tuesday outlawed all activities by the Palestinian Hamas faction inside the country, the latest move in a campaign to isolate the terror group, which has been waged by Egypt's army - and later by the country's army-backed government - since well before the July 2013 overthrow of the country's then-President Mohammed Morsi. The ruling comes months after senior Hamas officials had already begun publicly bemoaning how Egypt's army-backed government had left them politically and economically "sentenced to death." The inauguration of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Morsi had been seen as a boon for Hamas, which describes itself as the Brotherhood's Palestinian wing. The Egyptian army, which blames Hamas for facilitating the movement of jihadist equipment and personnel into the Egypt-controlled Sinai Peninsula, soon launched a media campaign to consolidate public sentiment against Hamas and began acting against the group while sidelining Morsi. The army's campaign to target Hamas's smuggling tunnels, which link the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the Sinai, quickly picked up pace after Morsi's ouster, alongside efforts by Egypt's subsequent army-backed government to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership hierarchy. By last January senior Egyptian security officials were telling Reuters that they were ready to focus more of their resources on targeting the Gaza Strip. The reemergence of an Egyptian government sympathetic to Hamas currently seems unlikely. Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi signaled on Tuesday that he will compete in upcoming presidential elections, in which he is widely expected to glide to victory.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Tuesday to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, calling on Palestinian leaders to "stand with Israel and the United States on the right side of the moral divide, the side of peace, reconciliation and hope." Israel's left-leaning Ha'aretz headlined its coverage of the speech "Netanyahu: Israel prepared to make peace, but Abbas must recognize Jewish state," sub-headlined the story with "millions in the Arab world could benefit from Israeli technology and innovation, prime minister tells AIPAC conference," and quoted the prime minister declaring he was "prepared to make historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors." The outlet's evaluation was echoed by the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who noted that Netanyahu "dwelled at length on the peace process" and "gave a new rationale for Israel’s desire for a peace deal – the promise of improved and robust relations with Arab states." For their part top Palestinian officials declared that Netanyahu's speech was unacceptable to the point that it amounted to "an official announcement of a unilateral end to negotiations."
- The Wall Street Journal assessed on Monday that a series of initiatives designed to bolster the Palestinian economy had - per the outlet's archly written headline - been "slow to show" any benefits, with half a year having passed since "Secretary of State John Kerry announced an ambitious economic plan to channel $4 billion into Palestinian business sectors." The Journal described "promised investments" as having remained "as hazy as the sandstorm that enveloped... Jericho’s Intercontinental Hotel" during a recent investment conference. February had seen a wave of analysis linking halting economic progress to endemic Palestinian corruption stretching back literally decades, and Palestinian journalist and activist Daoud Kuttab wrote on Monday that efforts have recently renewed in the Palestinian Legislative Council to pass transparency laws. Palestinian economic dysfunction has traditionally been identified as one of at least four structural barriers hampering the emergence of anything that might pass for a viable Palestinian state. Analysts and scholars have also focused on Ramallah's lack of political legitimacy - Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is in the ninth year of a four-year term - as well as on the persistence of rival Palestinian governments and the existence of multiple armed Palestinian factions. A territorial split between rival governments, with Fatah ruling the West Bank and Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip, or the absence of a monopoly on violence would by definition render a Palestinian state a failed one.