Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Daily Beast: Western analysts suspect Assad has secret chemical and biological weapons program, know-how to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade" arsenal
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday conveyed angry remarks from Iranian officials in reaction to this week's publication of the State Department's annual country-by-country terrorism roundup - which veteran Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee had characterized as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful" - with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham complaining that the U.S. was "turning of a blind eye to Zionist [Israeli] crimes." English-language Iranian media translated the same passage as "atrocious acts of the Zionists." The report had also indicated that Iran was facilitating the transfer of both Shiite and radical Sunni fighters into Syria, essentially funding both sides of that country's more than three-year-long conflict in targeting moderate Sunni rebel groups. Other passages revealed that Iran "trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups," which - it was pointedly noted - had been done "despite [Iran's] pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization." Tehran's activities in arming Hezbollah in Lebanon were described as being as blackletter "violation[s]" of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and were linked to Tehran's efforts to provide critical support to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. More broadly, the report catalogued Iran-backed terror activity in more than a dozen countries. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf had already addressed some of the Iranian pushback in a Thursday press briefing, telling journalists that if the Iranians didn't want to be accused of supporting terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism." Meanwhile Iranian Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a former commander of the country's Revolutionary Guards Corps, was reported by Iranian media outlets as bragging that the Islamic Republic has managed to expand its sphere of influence to the Mediterranean Sea. Rahim-Safavi reportedly emphasized that 'Iran's defense perimeter has been extended... above the borders of Israel.'
The Daily Beast on Thursday cited a range of Western intelligence analysts converging on the assessment that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime not only has a secret cache of undeclared chemical weapons - which the outlet said included "crude chlorine-filled bombs, secret stockpiles of sophisticated nerve gasses or their components" - but also the stored institutional knowledge to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade chemical weapons effort" once the international community has turned its attention away from Syria. The outlet noted that widely broadcast reports regarding the eradication of Assad's chemical arsenal only take into account "the chemical arsenal Assad admitted he had" as part of a deal under which Damascus agreed to turn over its chemical weapons in exchange for the West suspending what appeared to be imminent airstrikes. The Daily Beast however conveyed that there there is "mounting concern that the Syrian regime may have a second unconventional weapons program—one Assad never told the international community about." That program is thought by Western intelligence analysts to include biological weapons, undeclared chemical materials, and chemical weapons such as chlorine that are not outright banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The news comes amid deepening worries among Western diplomats that Syrian forces have embarked on a campaign of using chlorine bombs to target civilians and fighters in rebel-heavy areas, a development that Foreign Policy had flatly stated if confirmed would "cast a dark cloud" over last September's deal. Meanwhile questions are also mounting about the regime's willingness to turn over even its declared CWC-proscribed arsenal. Reports have been piling up that Assad is dragging his feet on the obligation - the question came up on Friday at a Department of Defense press briefing - and Reuters reported the same day that rebel forces have in the meantime closed in on the last known stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons.
Emerging worries that a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions would provide the latter with a badly needed lifeline seemed set to deepen on Friday, with multiple reports being published indicating that the Iran-backed terror group was surging in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Hamas was reported as making inroads into Ramallah - from which Fatah governs its West Bank territories - as measured by "the amount of Hamas flags that are being waved in PA controlled areas." The Times of Israel also reported on the use of Hamas flags at Palestinian events, conveying Hebrew-language reports of a Palestinian wedding procession in Jerusalem in which participants "displayed the flags of Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda." The news comes a few days after reports emerged that Hamas had held a large-scale demonstration in the West Bank, which Israeli outlets described as a "massive show of force." That rally had already reinforced suspicions - outlined at length on Monday by veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff - that Hamas was maneuvering to use the unity agreement to boost its status. Hamas's command and control infrastructure, as well as huge swaths of its advanced arsenal, had been severely degraded during an eight-day Israeli air campaign in November 2012 that came in response to a sharp escalation in the amount and sophistication of projectiles that the group was using to target Israeli civilians and soldiers. Less than a year later, in the aftermath of the ouster of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian army undertook a systematic campaign to destroy the smuggling tunnels that linked the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the Sinai Peninsula and which served as Hamas's economic channel to the outside world. By October of last year, Hamas officials were publicly bemoaning that they had been "sentenced to death," and by February 2014 analysts were predicting that Hamas was facing "a very bad year." Subsequent months seemed in line with those assessments, with Hamas diplomatically isolated and seemingly caught in a downward economic spiral.
Lebanon's NOW media outlet on Friday published a series of interviews and updates from the besieged Lebanese town of Tfail, which has been targeted by what NOW described as a "campaign of aerial bombardment against... civilians" by Hezbollah-backed forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The attacks have recently escalated to include barrel bombs, air-deployed shrapnel-packed IEDs that can level entire buildings with a single detonation. Tfail is technically in Lebanese territory but is accessible only via roads that run through Syria, and regime forces months ago set up roadblocks and began to choke off the town in an effort to prevent the transit of opposition elements across the Syria-Lebanon border. News of the attacks had been trickling out of Tfail for weeks, with reports emerging in late April that the Syrian army had launched a series of artillery strikes that had sent thousands of civilians - both Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees - scrambling to seek shelter in the surrounding hills. Beirut subsequently managed to send a relief caravan to the town, which by then had according to reports been "without supplies of food, electricity, shelter, or aid for four months." Friday's report by NOW indicated that attacks have resumed and that at least two Lebanese civilians have been killed, and one resident was quoted by the news outlet accusing Beirut of having only come "one day and then left us all alone to deal with the Syrian regime attacks." NOW also confirmed that Syrian forces targeted the center of Tfail with sustained tank fire for at least three hours, in addition to the air strikes. The Syrian campaign has come alongside several other cross-border attacks. The dynamic, under which Hezbollah-backed forces have been shelling Lebanese civilians and territory, has been devastating to the Iran-backed terror group's long insistence that it is an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty from outside interference. It is not clear, however, that the collapse of Hezbollah's decades-long pretense - which had occassionally been echoed in corners of the Western foreign policy community - will materially affect its ability to dominate Lebanon militarily and therefore politically. The group has publicly declared, for instance, that it will not accept a president who is not a "friend" to Hezbollah. An effort by the Lebanese parliament to pick a new president this week failed.
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.
Weekly Standard: White House scrambling to address evidence of Iranian economic boom, sanctions deterioration
- Weekly Standard: White House scrambling to address evidence of Iranian economic boom, sanctions deterioration
- New report identifies Turkey as global terrorist financing hub, calls for White House pressure to address illicit finance
- Reuters: Iran boosting military support to Assad, thousands of elite and volunteer Iranian personnel in Syria
Analysts: Palestinian state collapse "liable to become a subversive and hostile entity and develop into a grave security threat to Israel"
- The upcoming edition of The Weekly Standard will evaluate how the White House is positioning itself in relation to growing evidence that the Iranian economy is improving much faster than it should be given previous White House assurances about the limited scope of sanctions relief provided by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). The White House had been blasted by skeptics for misjudging the benefits of the JPA, and more specifically for miscalculating at least two dynamics. Administration economists were criticized for straightforwardly undercounting the value of the eased sanctions, making an array of undergraduate-level and easily identifiable math errors, while administration diplomats were said to have far too glibly dismissed the possibility that even a mild easing in sanctions would trigger a feeding frenzy that further eroded the international sanctions regime. Empirical evidence has piled up in recent weeks indicating that skeptics were correct and the Obama administration was wrong. Writing in the Standard, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith, noting among other things that White House economists were unlikely to have made undergraduate-level calculating errors, asserts that "the plan rather was to get Iranian president Hassan Rouhani lots of cash, the more the better," on the hope that it would become "in his interest to petition Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for more concessions on the nuclear file." He quotes Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), assessing that relief beyond what was publicly disclosed was "key to [the administration's] whole economic strategy of giving Iran's economy a lift to incentivize Rouhani to deliver more on the nuclear file." Dubowitz predicts in the piece that the administration will soon openly claim that the excessive relief "was their strategy all along."
- Turkey has become a key global hub of illicit and terrorist financing - undermining U.S. counter-terrorism efforts against Sunni jihadists and playing a key role in busting Washington's sanctions against Iran - according to a new report [PDF] published on Friday by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). The report cites at least eight distinct schemes involving Iran, Al Qaeda, jihadists in Syria, Hamas, the recently raided Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), China, and huge swaths of the international banking world. The National Journal had already reported earlier in February that Turkey ignored U.S. calls made from "the highest levels" to assist in tracking terrorists availing themselves of Turkish soil and resources. ABC News covered the new FDD report, conveying a call from Schanzer urging the Obama administration to exert pressure on Ankara regarding illicit finance, opposite what the outlet described as "a clear hands-off message" sent last month by Secretary of State John Kerry in a press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The Washington Free Beacon also highlighted portions of the report evaluating the White House's position, specifically citing a passage that worried that the White House "has remained on the sidelines... electing not to mention terrorism finance issues publicly." Schanzer's report comes a day after over 80 top foreign policy figures from across the political spectrum dispatched a letter to President Barack Obama calling for elevated pressure on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to halt an ongoing assault on democratic liberties.
- Reuters on Friday conveyed reports from what the outlet described as multiple "sources with knowledge of military movements" assessing that Iran has boosted the logistical and material support it provides to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, dispatching elite intelligence-gathering teams and training personnel alongside the battlefield support provided by Iran's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. More specifically, Damascus has recently been provided with hundreds of additional Iranian military specialists, including many drawn from Iran's Quds Force, who are in turn "backed up by thousands of Iranian paramilitary Basij volunteer fighters as well as Arabic speakers including Shi'ites from Iraq." A Turkish official cited by the outlet noted that the tempo of Iranian personnel operating in Syria has increased in recent months, and Reuters noted that many of them stream in from across the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Reuters also cited risk consultant Torbjorn Soltvedt describing Iran's role in Syria as "constitut[ing] a lifeline for the regime," and noting that "the involvement of Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel and Shiite militias such as Hezbollah remains crucial to the Syrian regime's war effort." The White House for its part has long maintained that Iran can be coaxed to play a positive role in dampening the violence in Syria, with Secretary of State John Kerry seeking to integrate Tehran into the recent round of peace talks and President Barack Obama describing "work" on Iran and Russia as "our best chance of seeing a decent outcome" in Syria.
- A report published on Thursday by the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) moved to unpack what Senior Research Fellow Kobi Michael described as the "4-level game" that will determine whether the current round of U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks successfully yield a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Michael emphasized that in addition to "the military element" - which thus far has been the focus of the U.S.'s security-related efforts - negotiators must also account for the elements of "Palestinian governance... of regional cooperation... [and] of international legitimacy." He worried that "a Palestinian state that falls into the pattern of a failed state is liable to become a subversive and hostile entity and develop into a grave security threat to Israel," pointing out that "a viable Palestinian state that takes governmental responsibility and exercises a monopoly on the use of force is an essential condition for ensuring stability and security." Whatever elements are mobilized to bolster its viability, analysts have long identified at least four critical dynamics that would have to be addressed to prevent a Palestinian state from collapsing into a failed state: the absence of political legitimacy, the absence of economic stability, the absence of a monopoly on the use of force, and the existence of rival governments in some of the territories that Palestinians reserve for a future state. Despite the peace process, it is difficult to find evaluations citing progress along these four dimensions. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is currently in the ninth year of his four-year term, Palestinians are scrambling to avoid an economic collapse due to donor fatigue, there is a growing jihadist presence throughout territories controlled by Palestinian governments, and efforts to unite the Fatah-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have again stalled. The latter factor has often been left unaddressed in peace talks, but a single state under two governments is almost by definition a failed state.
Iran FM: White House misleading Americans over interim deal implementation, Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything"
- Iran FM: White House misleading Americans over interim deal implementation, Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything"
- U.S. condemns Syrian "inflammatory rhetoric" as Geneva 2 peace talks open
- West Bank terror growth risks peace process complications
- Sanctions reduction triggers Iran "gold rush" -- analysts, journalists, business leaders
- Controversy is likely to deepen in the coming days regarding the Obama administration's refusal to publicly release the text describing how the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) is to be implemented, after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN late on Wednesday that the White House's public description "both underplays [Western] concessions and overplays Iranian commitment." Zarif's statements mark at least the second time that a top Iranian official has explicitly claimed that the administration is misleading journalists and the public regarding the details of the implementation agreement, which among other things clarifies when Iran is required to take a range of actions and to forgo so-called non-actions. Chief Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi declared last week that Iran won more latitude regarding ongoing nuclear work than the White House was publicly conceding, and that "no facility will be closed; enrichment will continue, and qualitative and nuclear research will be expanded." Zarif today went arguably further, flat out declaring that Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything," in contrast to how "the White House tries to portray [the agreement] as a basically a 'dismantling' of Iran's nuclear program." Zarif's language is a gesture toward administration positions consistently maintained in fact sheets and briefings in which officials described Iran as committing to dismantling and disconnecting various parts of its enrichment infrastructure. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer described Zarif's remarks as "stunning and truly provocative," and noted that the foreign minister's comments will "give ammunition" to calls for Congress to advance Senate legislation that would increase pressure on the Islamic republic by signaling the imposition of future sanctions should Tehran refuse to put its nuclear program beyond use for the production of nuclear weapons.
- The BBC this afternoon provided an overview of today's Geneva 2 opening session - being held in Montreux, Switzerland, with the aim of dampening the violence in Syria's almost three-year war - describing "extraordinarily ill-tempered scenes and some very direct language." Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi emphasized to journalists at the conference that Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad would refuse to cede power, opposite calls by the U.S. for Assad to do exactly that. Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem lashed out at among others Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, rejecting Kerry's call for Assad to step down and openly dismissing Ban's entreaties to leave the podium once his 10-minute speaking time had elapsed. The United States almost immediately condemned Muallem for "inflammatory rhetoric." Meanwhile observers are expressing deepening concerns over the degree to which the U.S. has positioned itself to secure Assad's exit. Washington's interpretation of the previous Geneva I understanding has the deal calling for Assad's removal, but the interpretation is rejected by Damascus and Moscow. Meanwhile Marwan Kabalan, a former dean of the faculty of international relations at the University of Kalamoon in Damascus, told RFE/RL that the Assad regime believes it has "succeeded in changing the whole focus of the international community from democratic transition in the country into fighting terrorism." The assessment comes weeks after Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, outlined how the Obama administration has begun acting as if it viewed Assad as a partner in stemming extremists in the Syrian opposition.
- Israel's Shin Bet security service appears to have confirmed that Israeli officials captured three Al Qaeda-linked Palestinian terrorists plotting a mass-casualty terrorist attack against the American embassy in Israel. A gag order lifted late Wednesday allowed journalists to disclose details of the arrest. The Jerusalem Post carried extensive details of the plot, and described the goal as one of carrying out "massive bombings." Three Gaza-based operatives were allegedly recruited and directed via Internet platforms, including Skype and Facebook. The terrorists' targets appear to have included - in addition to the American embassy - a major bus line and the Jerusalem Convention Center. There also appear to have been plans to launch coordinated attacks, which would have included targeting first responders as they arrived on the scene. The news comes shortly after revelations that the Shin Bet arrested a separate terrorist cell in the West Bank directed by the Palestinian Hamas faction. Evidence of steadily increasing West Bank terror infrastructure is likely to have diplomatic consequences, and to strengthen Israeli arguments that a robust Israeli security presence is required in sensitive areas of the territory in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement.
- Multiple outlets and analysts are assessing that the West's reduction of sanctions on Iran, implemented on Monday per the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreed to by the P5+1 global powers and Tehran, has triggered a "gold rush" into the Islamic republic as companies and nations scramble not to be left behind as the country's markets are reopened to the world. The phrase is an explicit echo of statements made by Vienna-based Iranian business consultant Bijan Khajehpour and conveyed by Reuters, in which Khajehpour described a "gold rush" mood in Tehran that has Russia and China rushing to lock in oil-based barter deals before Western companies penetrate the Iranian energy sector. The Wall Street Journal contrasted assurances from the Obama administration emphasizing that sanctions relief was limited with evidence that a "growing number of European governments and businesses [are] moving to cash in on the opening created by the interim agreement." Specifically, the Journal piled on examples indicating that "Tehran's trading partners have lifted sanctions, sent delegations, agreed to export deals and signaled their readiness to expand ties across nearly every major industry." Mark Dubowitz and Emanuele Ottolenghi - respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a senior fellow at the foundation - noted in Politico today that the "gold rush" is partly a function of a psychological change that has seen "greed... overcome fear," with the improved economic climate already generating "some illegitimate deals as companies test the waters." Reuters reported today that Iranian oil sales rose in January for the third consecutive month, and tomorrow Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is to address global business leaders and urge them to pursue further energy co-development deals. The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency meanwhile announced yesterday that it will resume trade with Iran, cracking open a market that had in the past seen robust trade in auto exports and energy. The degree to which Iran benefited economically from the JPA has both diplomatic and policy stakes. Diplomatically, the loss of U.S. leverage will make it difficult to pressure Iran into verifiably putting its nuclear program beyond use for nuclearization. Politically, evidence of such a loss is likely to deepen calls for Congress to pass legislation imposing new sanctions on Iran should negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program fail, a move that proponents insist would boost the bargaining position of U.S. negotiators.
Experts: Turkey corruption earthquake sheds light on Obama administration commitment to Iran sanctions enforcement
- Experts: Turkey corruption earthquake sheds light on Obama administration commitment to Iran sanctions enforcement
- Iran announces development of next-generation centrifuges, deepening concerns over 'freeze' agreement details
- Critics slam EU response after top Lebanese Hezbollah foe murdered in Beirut massive car bombing
- Egypt pressing allies for counter-terror support after designation of Muslim Brotherhood as terror group
What we’re watching today:
- The domestic upheaval rocking Turkey - which has now slipped into open political warfare between the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the powerful Islamist movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, and which is threatening to bring down Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - seems set to directly impact policy discussions over the robustness of international sanctions against Iran and the degree to which the Obama administration has balanced sanctions enforcement with diplomatic outreach. At the broadest levels, a Turkish corruption probe led largely by Gulen-linked police and judiciary officials has ensnared AKP elites, and AKP leaders up to and including Erdogan have responded by purging hundreds of police officers and prosecutors. More specifically, according to Mark Dubowitz and Jonathan Schanzer - respectively the executive director and vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) - a so-called "gas-for-gold" scheme in which a bank linked to the Turkish government helped Iran circumvent international sanctions is figuring prominently in the corruption scandal. Dubowitz and Schanzer describe police moves against Suleyman Aslan, the CEO of state-owned Halkbank, and Reza Zarrab, an Iranian businessman heavily involved in the gold trade. Officers have reportedly found shoe-boxes containing $4.5 million in Aslan's home, and Zarrab has been arrested on corruption-related charges. Halkbank is being accused of among other things having permitted Iran to access billions of dollars in escrow accounts to purchase and move gold into Iran, allowing the Islamic republic to bolster its increasingly inaccessible foreign reserves. The mechanism Halkbank used, per Dubowitz and Schanzer, was a "golden loophole" that allowed "the transfer of billions of dollars of gold to so-called "private" entities in Iran," during a period of time when the Obama administration didn't blacklist all gold transfers to Iran and delayed congressional efforts to do so by six months. Dubowitz and Schanzer suggest that the White House's calculations were driven in part by a desire to "coax Iran into signing a nuclear deal." The dynamic has the potential to directly impact policy debates over how to approach negotiations with Iran. The administration is locked in a pitched battle with a bipartisan group of dozens of Senators who are seeking to move forward legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran in the future under certain conditions. New restrictions would be placed should Tehran either violate its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) during an upcoming six month negotiation period or, at the end of that period, refuse to verifiably put its nuclear program beyond use for weaponization. The administration has argued that such legislation is unnecessary because so-called core sanctions on Iran remain in place even after the financial relief provided by the JPA, and the administration is committed to enforcing those. Evidence that the White House declined in the past to enforce sanctions as an olive branch to Tehran may undermine Congressional confidence in those assurances.
- Iran is constructing what the Associated Press describes as 'a new generation of centrifuges' able to enrich uranium at a faster pace, potentially shortening the amount of time it would take Tehran to convert its enriched nuclear stockpile to weapons-grade purity, per statements made by Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi and conveyed by the wire. The AP assessed that 'Salehi's comments appeared aimed at showing the country is moving ahead with its nuclear program [in] order to fend off criticism by Iranian hard-liners' over the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) announced weeks ago in Geneva. Skeptics have countered that Iran is moving ahead with its nuclear program because the country's leaders want to move ahead with its nuclear program. The latter interpretation would be in line with statements from both Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani committing to pushing ahead with Iran's atomic activities in the context of international negotiations designed to curb that work, which is widely suspected of including clandestine weaponization dimensions. The AP also noted that the JPA 'does not stop [Iran] from developing centrifuges.' The agreement additionally permits Tehran unlimited enrichment of uranium to 3.5% purity - arguably the most difficult hurdle to clear on the path to creating weapons-grade material - as long as that material is stored in an oxide form unsuitable for further enrichment. It would take Iran only weeks, however, to convert that oxide into material that can be enriched further. Salehi's announcement, if confirmed, would position the Irnians to use the deal's six month negotiation period to increase their stockpile of enriched uranium and to increase the technology they have on hand to quickly enrich that stockpile further.
- A top Lebanese leader prominent for his opposition to Iranian interference in Lebanon - and more specifically to attempts by Hezbollah and Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime to dominate the country - was murdered this morning by a massive car bomb that ripped through central Beirut, killing him and at least five other people. Mohamad Chatah was a former ambassador to the United States and a close adviser to top figures in the anti-Syrian March 14 movement. His final tweet blasted Hezbollah for an ongoing political crisis that has paralyzed Lebanon, describing the Iran-backed terror group as "pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security [and] foreign policy matters that Syria exercised" during a 15 year period when Beirut legitimized Damascus's military occupation of Lebanon and gave the Syrians broad control over the country's defense policies. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri quickly identified Hezbollah as behind the assassination. The murder will likely be read against deepening sectarian violence spilling into the region from inside Syria, where the Iran-backed Assad regime has been fighting a nearly three year war against largely Sunni rebel groups. An upcoming conference in Geneva designed to dampen the violence has been severely criticized for potentially maneuvering Syrian Sunnis into accommodating the regime, and the international reaction to Chatah's assassination has fueled similar criticism. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reacted to the attack by calling on "Lebanon's political leaders and the Lebanese people to put aside all differences and join forces... to restore security in the country." Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), characterized Ashton's statement as one that urged "Lebanese leaders being killed by Hezbollah to join Hezbollah to restore security," also declaring that it "mirrors the premise" behind the Geneva talks where he implies the Syrian opposition will be asked to "join with their killers." Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael Doran was similarly acerbic, describing Ashton's call as one that urged "Lebanese murdered by Assad and Hezbollah to let bygones be bygones."
- Egyptian authorities are intensifying their most recent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood - this morning's Reuters headline tersely noted "Egypt arrests more Brotherhood supporters, more protests anticipated" - days after the country's army-backed interim government designated the Islamist group as a terrorist organization. At least 32 figures linked to the Brotherhood have been arrested in the aftermath of the Wednesday designation, which came amid an escalation in terror attacks that saw Islamist violence, which had largely been limited to the Sinai Peninsula, spread across Egypt. The move will enable Cairo to shutter Brotherhood-linked institutions and freeze the group's assets. It also has the potential to affect regional and global diplomacy, with various actors being called upon to position themselves in response to the designation. The Egyptians have already announced [Arabic] that they will press Arab countries to make good on signed counter-terror obligations and cooperate against the Brotherhood. The Palestinian Fatah faction called on the Brotherhood-linked Hamas faction to untangle itself from the organization for the sake of advancing Palestinian interests. Egyptian media reported yesterday on statements supporting the designation from liberal political groups that had last summer demanded the resignation of the country's then-Brotherhood linked government. The United States for its part has expressed reservations over Egypt's moves against the Brotherhood - State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki conveyed to reporters the details of a call between Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy in which Kerry expressed as much - and is reportedly not considering following Cairo's lead in designating the group.
White House sanctions position questioned as currency stabilization boosts Iran economy, countries scramble to co-develop energy
- White House sanctions position questioned as currency stabilization boosts Iran economy, countries scramble to co-develop energy
- Nearly 500 dead in Syrian regime's "barrel bomb assault" on Aleppo
- Deadly sniper shooting latest attack in Palestinian terror spike
- WSJ reveals Pentagon probing defense firm for Iran sanctions violations, setting up potential enforcement controversy
What we’re watching today:
- News reports from yesterday have deepened concerns that both of the Obama administration's central claims about sanctions relief provided to Iran under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - specifically, that the relief would be worth only $7 billion and that so-called "core sanctions" would still be effective - may prove difficult to sustain. Skeptics have long questioned both claims, arguing that the actual value of the relief is much higher and that the sanctions regime will be substantially eroded as companies and states scramble to rush back into Iranian markets. Regarding the $7 billion figure, reports indicate that U.S. officials have already acknowledged that $20 billion worth of relief - a number originally worked out by Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) - is closer to the correct value. In calculating its $7 billion figure, the Obama administration appears to have neglected basic economic considerations, including multiplier effects and the benefits of currency stabilization. The Washington Post yesterday published analysis describing renewed UAE-Iranian trade ties, noting that 'a rebound in the value of Iran’s currency, the rial, is returning the flow of goods to pre-sanctions levels' and that a 15% increase in the rial since Rouhani's election has 'return[ed] some of the spending power of Iranian consumers that had been decimated by the weakened currency.' Regarding the robustness of the overall sanctions regime, skeptics had almost immediately worried that eroding the psychology of sanctions - under which corporations and states stayed on the sidelines to steer clear of sanctions violations - would trigger a feeding frenzy during which no one would want to be the last to reenter Iran. Reuters yesterday revealed that Qatar is positioning itself to help Iran advance its energy sector 'amid signs that western sanctions might ease after [Iran] signed a deal in November.' Evaluating the story, Dubowitz commented that the "[m]arket is shifting from fear to greed."
- The Syrian army's ongoing assault on Aleppo - which over the course of a week has killed nearly 500 people, among them scores of children - has drawn attention to a relatively new and cheap improvised explosive device being deployed by forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Telegraph described the campaign as the "Syrian regime's barrel bomb assault on Aleppo," and quoted one activist describing the last nine days of sustained fighting as "the most violent in the whole of the Syrian revolution." Journalists and doctors first began documenting the Syrian air force's use of so-called barrel bombs - drums packed with explosives and shrapnel, and literally rolled out of helicopters onto people and buildings - in August 2012. Since then the weapons have been refined, until now the Syrian air force is able to use a single bomb to level entire buildings. The shrapnel packed inside the devices leaves those who aren't killed maimed and disabled. CNN spoke to Dr. Ammar Zakaria, who described himself as having "lost count of the amputations" necessary to save many of the bombing victims. The outlet described images taken by the doctor as showing 'a mangled ambulance stopped in its path and doctors operating in pools of blood, watching children cling to their last breath through a breathing tube.' U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced yesterday that preparations for the January 22 Geneva II conference, in which the Assad regime and its backers will attempt to present terms for an end to the bloodshed, are "on track." Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael Doran yesterday echoed concerns that the talks - which will be attended by pro- and anti-Assad groups and by international parties - are "more about Assad-Western reconciliation than Assad-Syrian opposition negotiation."
- The Associated Press this morning reported on what the outlet described as "the latest in a string of Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets in recent days," after a Palestinian sniper shot and killed an Israeli Bedouin defense contractor who was working on the border fence separating Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The shooting occurred Tuesday morning. On Monday a Palestinian terrorist stabbed an Israeli policeman in the West Bank. On Sunday another Palestinian terrorist left a pipe bomb on an Israeli bus near Tel Aviv. Last month another Palestinian terrorist stabbed to death an Israeli soldier who was sleeping on a bus. The wave of violence has been linked to among other things the reemergence of regular incitement by top Palestinian officials in both the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared after the shooting that Jerusalem will not tolerate a "drizzle" of terror attacks from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military deployed assets from its air force, Armored Corps, and infantry to strike six Gaza Strip targets, among them training sites, weapons manufacturing facilities, and a concealed rocket launcher. The Jerusalem Post reported this evening that, despite the recent spike in terror attacks, Israel is still expected to release a group of convicted Palestinian terrorists - the third of four such groups - in an effort to boost U.S.-backed peace talks.
- The Wall Street Journal this morning reported that that the Pentagon's criminal investigation arm is probing allegations that Anham FZCO, a Dubai- and Virginia-based company awarded an estimated $8.1 billion contract to supply troops inside Afghanistan, has been moving some of its supplies through Iran. The investigation was triggered by a previous Journal article, published in September, which revealed that the company had 'used Iran's Bandar Abbas seaport last year to land equipment and building materials that were then transported across Iran.' The company's actions, per Obama administration officials cited in this morning's Journal scoop, 'may have violated strict U.S. sanctions laws that prohibit American entities from conducting trade with Iran or Iranian companies by moving materials through the country.' The possible violations are likely to be read against ongoing policy debates regarding the costs and benefits of Senate legislation revealed last week by a bipartisan group of twenty-six lawmakers. The bill would impose new sanctions on Iran should the Islamic republic either violate the terms of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) during an upcoming six-month negotiation period or refuse, at the end of that period, to put its nuclear program beyond use for weaponization. The White House has threatened to veto the legislation, insisting that new sanctions are unnecessary, partly because it committed to enforcing existing sanctions. The administration will likely be pressured to meet those commitments should Anham be found to have violated U.S. restrictions.
Iran FM signals intent to restart negotiations, after analysis predicts Tehran bluffing over talks suspension
- Iran FM signals intent to restart negotiations, after analysis predicts Tehran bluffing over talks suspension
- WSJ: Washington's Gulf allies 'stunned' by Iran diplomacy
- Hamas officials blame catastrophic Gaza Strip flooding on fuel shortage, after months of blaming Egypt and Palestinian Authority for fuel shortage
- Focus turns to growing Hezbollah control over Lebanese army, after deadly cross-border killing of Israeli solider
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CBS News this weekend that Iran is willing to restart implementation talks revolving around the recently announced Geneva interim agreement, a posture accordant with analysis assessing that the Iranians are bluffing when they threaten to forgo the financial relief offered by the so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Iranian negotiators had abruptly halted talks after the Treasury Department last week announced new enforcement measures against entitled in violation of still-existing sanctions against Iran, asserting that the move violated the "spirit" of the JPA.. It is not clear why the Iranians believed that gestures toward the spirit of the JPA would have diplomatic of public purchase, inasmuch as Tehran has in recent weeks committed to enriching uranium, bolstering its plutonium production complex, and testing ballistic missiles - all actions which it insists are permitted under the letter of the JPA. There have been suggestions that the Iranians may be attempting to brush back future Congressional legislation which would impose sanctions after the JPA's six-month interim window should no deal materialize. Such language does not seem to violate the JPA's prohibition on new sanctions taking effect during the interim period, and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said over the weekend that the Senate is "very likely" to approve new financial pressure on Iran that Politico describes as taking effect "in about six months if there are no more breakthroughs in negotiations.'
- Statements from a top Saudi Arabian official published over the weekend have the potential to deepen concerns that the US's traditional Arab allies are preparing to pivot away from Washington - and potentially towards American rivals - as actors throughout the region continue sorting themselves into three solidifying and opposing camps. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was at the time attending a security conference in Monaco, and described him as 'assailing the Obama administration for working behind Riyadh's back' on a deal with Iran and as 'panning other recent US steps in the Middle East.' The Journal characterized Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors as being 'stunned by the secret American-Iranian diplomacy' that preceded the recently signed Geneva interim agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 global powers, and as 'echo[ing] concerns raised by Israel and members of the US Congress that the... accord with Iran didn't go far enough to ensure Tehran won't develop atomic bombs.' Political and diplomatic developments in the Middle East - most prominently in Egypt, Syria, and Iran - have in recent years generated and hardened three opposing blocs in the region, with an Iran-dominated Shiite camp aligned against the US's traditional Israeli and Arab allies aligned against a Sunni camp composed of Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Israeli radio reported on Sunday that a "historic" meeting had been held at the Monaco security conference between Faisal, former Israeli ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich, and Israeli Knesset member Meir Sheetrit.
- Hamas officials today linked much of the devastation from this weekend's historic storm to a lack of fuel in the Gaza Strip, a scarcity that the Palestinian outlet Ma'an pointedly noted Hamas has for months been blaming on Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The storm generated flooding that reportedly displaced at least 5,000 residents just in the Hamas-controlled territory. Ma'an quoted Muhammad al-Midna, a spokesman for Gaza's civil defense force, explaining that a lack of electricity had 'limited the ability of civil defense forces to pump water from flooded areas' and that a lack of fuel had more generally 'effectively crippled the ability of civil defense forces to respond for large periods of time.' Hamas has repeatedly blasted both Egypt and the PA, the latter controlled by Hamas's Palestinian rival Fatah, for creating a fuel shortage in Gaza. The terror group blames Egypt for systematically destroying the tunnels linking the Gaza Strip to the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula, a campaign that has sharply curtailed the once-thriving smuggling industry between the two territories. It also blames Fatah for levying what it insists are unreasonable taxes on fuel deliveries to Gaza, a charge that Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has flatly described as "insane." Meanwhile Palestinian media reported that Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), blamed Israel for the flooding.
- The Associated Press this afternoon reported on efforts to prevent escalation in the aftermath of what it described as "a deadly border skirmish" between Israel and Lebanon, with "the enemy countries holding a face-to-face meeting with U.N. peacekeepers." The Sunday incident - which was similarly described as a "skirmish" by among others the Guardian - involved the unprovoked murder of 31 year old IDF Master Sgt. Shlomi Cohen, who was shot in the neck and chest by a Lebanese sniper as Cohen was driving a civilian vehicle near an Israeli naval base. Roughly four and a half hours after the 8:30pm Sunday shooting, Israeli forces opened fire into a forested area across the Israeli-Lebanese border after spotting "suspicious movement." The Guardian quoted Daniel Nisman, a Tel Aviv-based security analyst, drawing attention to "rogue elements" which have established a presence in the Lebanese army (LAF). American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin had already noted as early as 2010 that it is "an open secret among Lebanese of all political stripes that Hezbollah has infiltrated the Lebanese Armed Forces," an assessment that came in the wake of years in which Israeli military officials had warned over exactly such Hezbollah efforts. Analysts increasingly fear that the Iran-backed terror group is now seeking to provoke Israel into a conflict. Hezbollah's brand as an anti-Israel group has been shattered by its participation in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and it may be looking to ignite a confrontation in order to begin rebuilding that image.
Controversy swirls in Congress as House moves to reframe Iran agreement, Senate delays sanctions legislation
- Controversy swirls in Congress as House moves to reframe Iran agreement, Senate delays sanctions legislation
- European Union audit blasts Palestinian funding, demands overhaul of program elements
- Amid controversy over negotiations, investigators confirm chemical weapons use in Syria
- NYT: Suez attack latest in "string of car bombs and suicide attacks" in Egypt, as government moves toward vote on new constitution
What we’re watching today:
- The Washington Free Beacon late on Wednesday published details of measures emerging from the House of Representatives seeking to - per the outlet - "reset the terms of a controversial nuclear accord reached between Iran and Western nations several weeks ago in Geneva." Language that emerged Thursday evening from the office of Rep. Peter Roskan (R-IL) sought to circumscribe a future deal between global powers and the Islamic republic, and received bipartisan backing from Reps. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Gene Green (D-TX), and Dan Lipinski (D-IL). It insisted that any comprehensive agreement between Iran and the international community should demand that the Islamic republic "completely dismantle all enrichment facilities and cease all centrifuge production" and "completely dismantle its heavy-water plutonium reactor at Arak." The language is in line with half a dozen United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions calling on Tehran to suspend its nuclear program. It comes amid developments in both the House and Senate which conceded to demands from the Obama administration to take no action to increase pressure on the Islamic republic for at a minimum months. In the Senate Bob Corker (R-TN) explained that the White House had prevailed upon lawmakers, via what The Hill described as a "full-scale effect," to put off new sanctions against Iran. In the House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer withdrew previously announced support for motions that would impose conditions on negotiations.
- The Wall Street Journal yesterday noted that few programs funded by the European Union are marked by as much controversy as "EU assistance to the Palestinian Authority," with the bloc having provided more than five and a half billion Euros to the Palestinians since the peace process began in the mid 1990s. The Journal described funding as having "long been the target of a string of claims and counter-claims," and described criticism as having pinpointed not just graft - which has long been a target of internal and external Palestinian Authority (PA) critics - but more specifically the diversion of funds to the pockets of Palestinian terrorists and their families. Evaluation of EU's Pegase plan, according to an audit released this week, indicated that "a number of aspects of the current approach are increasingly in need of overhaul." The Times of Israel late on Thursday conveyed frustration from EU officials and quoted Hans Gustaf Wessberg, the Swedish head of the auditors’ team, saying that "when people who do not work are being paid, this goes against the agreement with Pegase." The robustness of Palestinian economic institutions has been a central pivot point in debates over whether a sustainable Palestinian state is achievable in the short or medium terms. Analysts have expressed doubts over whether an independent state could sustain itself in the absence of international funding, and regarding whether international donors would be willing to continue funding such an entity in the absence of checks on among other things corruption.
- The United Nations late on Thursday confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in the almost three year Syrian conflict, with experts investigating more than half a dozen alleged uses of proscribed weapons and - in what CNN described as "the case that was most clear" - documenting an August incident near Damascus. CNN also described "graphic video footage showed rows of bodies without apparent injury, as well as people suffering convulsions or apparently struggling to breathe." The report comes amid deepening controversy over the context and scope of upcoming Geneva II talks designed to facilitate a resolution to the conflict, with news emerging that over 30 countries, among them Iran and Saudi Arabia, invited to attend. The two states are respectively the key backers of the Bashar al-Assad regime and of elements of the opposition seeking the regime's overthrow. Riyadh has been accused, less so than Turkey and Qatar but more so than the West, of providing support to extremist elements at the expense of more moderate Western-backed forced. The consistent erosion of U.S.-backed fighters became particular pointed this week, with a top commander of the Free Syrian Army being forced out of the country as Islamists overran the positions of the Free Syrian army (FSA). Reuters reported today that the relative power dynamics inside Syria had forced the opposition to seek the protection of Al Qaeda-linked groups.
- The New York Times reported late on Thursday that a bomb had exploded near Egypt's Suez Canal, with one person being killed and dozens being wounded. The NYT contextualized the bombing as one of a "string of car bombs and suicide attacks" that have occurred since the Egyptian military on July 3 deposed the country's Muslim Brotherhood then-president Mohammed Morsi. The violence came shortly after an announcement by the country's military-backed government that a draft constitution designed to facilitate a democratic transition would be put to a national vote in a matter of weeks. English-language Egyptian media outlets wrote that an article in the new constitution dealing with civil liberties "could be seen as an improvement on the equivalent articles from the 1971 and 2012 constitutions as it limits the types of cases for which a civilian could stand trial before a military court," though a different article in the same outlet documented criticism by activists regarding "the potential for future labour action under the provisions of the draft charter." The Israel-oriented Algemeiner outlet noted on Thursday that the draft constitution deemphasized Islamic law, though the outlet acknowledged that the new version had not completely removed mentions to Sharia.
Top pollster: American voters across all lines "united" in distrusting Iran, demanding lawmakers impose sanctions
- Top pollster: American voters across all lines "united" in distrusting Iran, demanding lawmakers impose sanctions
- Iranian FM boasts that "collapse" of international sanctions regime impossible to stop
- White House reveals interim agreement on Iran nuke program allows Tehran to test ballistic missiles
- Reports: Top commander of U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forced to flee the country as Islamists overrun headquarters, seize warehouses
What we’re watching today:
- A new poll – conducted on behalf of the news websites Al-Masdar.net and TheTower.org, and released this afternoon after it was presented to reporters by pollster Frank Luntz – concludes that lopsided majorities of Americans from both political parties overwhelmingly favor deepening sanctions against the Iranian government, regardless of current negotiations, and documents overwhelming distrust of the Islamic republic across demographic and political identities. Luntz emphasized, per the Times of Israel, that 'over two decades of experience, he had never before encountered such unanimity of opinion among voters across disparate demographic breakdowns,' specifically quoting him as saying that "the fear of Iranian nuclear weapons unites just about everyone." The poll comes amid evidence that voter sentiment toward Iran is hardening, after a several-week period - beginning immediately after the announcement of the Geneva interim agreement between the P5+1 global powers and Iran - where broad swaths of the American electorate were undecided on a range of issues related to the Iranian nuclear program. In late November a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that one-third of Americans described themselves unsure on questions ranging from their support for the interim agreement to whether Iran's nuclear program was being developed for peaceful purposes. By early December a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center poll found that those who had heard about the deal distrusted Iranian leaders to negotiate seriously over Tehran’s nuclear program by a 2-1 margin, with approval of the Geneva deal running 32% in favor vs. 43% against. The USA TODAY/Pew poll was conducted between Dec 3-8, and the Al-Masdar.net/TheTower.org poll began a day earlier and ended a day later. Luntz untangled four overarching themes that emerged from the data: Americans fear Iran more than they fear all the other Middle Eastern antagonists combined, they are universally skeptical about Iranian intentions, they want Iran's ability to produce a nuclear weapon severely constrained both by interim and final agreements, and they prefer lawmakers who deepen sanctions over those that would reduce them. Fully 77% of Democrats and a near unanimous 96% of Republicans would rather vote for a senator who favors sanctions, including "increased pressure on Iran until Iran accepts a final agreement that removes their ability to build nuclear weapons." Only 14% of voters would prefer a senator who wants to reduce pressure on Iran during negotiations. The Hill quoted a Democratic staffer describing the poll as evidence that the White House faces "an uphill battle" in trying to convince lawmakers to put off passing new sanctions legislation. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to brief senators on the administration's policy tomorrow.
- Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham earlier this week brushed aside statements from U.S. officials insisting that Washington can easily reverse the erosion in sanctions entailed by the recent Geneva interim agreement, declaring instead that "the structure of sanctions has cracked and its collapse has started." The White House has insisted that its sanctions relief is reversible since literally the evening when the deal was announced, and the claim was reiterated this week by President Barack Obama. Skeptics have in contrast emphasized the possibility that any weakening of the sanctions regime would trigger a feeding frenzy of companies and nations racing into Iran's economy in order to avoid being left behind, a scenario ridiculed as "fanciful" by administration-linked analysts. In addition to the worry that the administration misjudged the robustness of the sanctions regime, this week saw mounting evidence that the White House had also underestimated the magnitude of the sanctions relief it was committed to providing. Israel's left-leaning Haaretz recently revealed that American officials have admitted to their Israeli counterparts that Iran is set to receive a windfall more than double what administration figures had publicly estimated. CNN today described how Iran oil exports spiked by 10% in November.
- The White House today admitted to the Washington Free Beacon that an Iranian ballistic missile test would not put Tehran in violation of the recently signed Geneva agreement, reversing assurances given last week to the Pulitzer Prize winning site PolitiFact by a National Security Council (NSC) source. Those characterizations had the interim deal "ceas[ing] to exist" if Iran conducted a missile test. The controversy over the administration's interpretation took on added urgency this week, with Mehdi Farahi, Iran's Deputy Defense Minister and Head of Iran's Aerospace Organization General, announcing that Iranian scientists will test a ballistic rocket within a week. The NSA misstatements risk being read against a similar incident, in which the administration announced via a fact-sheet that "Iran has committed to no further advances of its activities at Arak and to halt progress on its plutonium track," only to back off that characterization after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif declared that that Iran would continue work on its Arak plutonium facility. The new admission comes amid statements from Iranian military officials boasting that Israel is within the reach of Tehran's missile arsenal and claiming that new laser technology had been installed to improve the accuracy of Iranian missiles to within 2 meters. It is now known that the administration's interpretation of the Geneva Joint Plan of Action allows Iran as to conduct unlimited uranium enrichment up to 3.5% purity, to bolster its plutonium production facility at Arak, and to test of ballistic missile technology that could be used to delivery nuclear weapons.
- Islamist forces this weekend overran key facilities which until then had been controlled by the more moderate Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), seizing warehouses containing U.S. military gear sent to the FSA and forcing the group's commander Gen. Salim Idris to flee the country. Buzzfeed had reported on Tuesday that Washington had abruptly suspended direct U.S. assistance to opposition-controlled areas northern Syria, due to what the outlet described as 'concerns over gains by Islamist rebels there.' The Wall Street Journal today reported out portions of the story, detailing some of the FSA's losses and revealing that Idris's headquarters were among the facilities seized by the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists. Idris is said to have fled to Doha via Turkey. The Journal bluntly described the incident as 'the strongest sign yet that the US-allied FSA is collapsing under the pressure of Islamist domination of the rebel side of the war.' Earlier this week the Daily Beast's Josh Rogin assessed that facts on the ground had already forced the Obama administration to "to reach out to the very Islamist groups it once hoped to marginalize."
Reports: Senators closing in on new sanctions legislation amid deepening bipartisan skepticism toward Iran
- Reports: Senators closing in on new sanctions legislation amid deepening bipartisan skepticism toward Iran
- Senior PLO official: Kerry proposal to address Israeli security concerns means "total failure" of peace talks
- Backed by Hezbollah, Syrian army on the verge of consolidating control over Lebanon border region
- Turkish FM survives opposition censure motion over mishandling foreign policy, aligning Turkey with Muslim Brotherhood
What we’re watching today:
- Reuters this afternoon reported on accelerating efforts in the Senate to pass legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if progress in dismantling the country's atomic program stalls over a coming six-month interim period, during which global powers are to negotiate with Tehran over what is widely believed to be Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons. Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the latter being the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are reportedly set to agree on measures that "would target Iran's remaining oil exports, foreign exchange reserves and strategic industries." The news comes amid widening skepticism on the Hill that the U.S. has sufficient leverage to coerce Iran to meaningfully limit its nuclear program, in the aftermath of language in the Geneva deal that has undermined the international sanctions regime while allowing Tehran to continue progressing on its uranium and plutonium programs. On the House side, Republican Rep. Mike McCaul and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff both expressed skepticism on Sunday that the interim deal will be successful, with Schiff criticizing the administration for already having made critical concessions regarding Iranian enrichment. The Iranians, for their part, have not gone out of their way to signal that Tehran is willing to adopt a less bellicose posture. In recent days Iranian officials have announced that they are pushing ahead with next-generation enrichment technology and that they have installed laser systems improving the accuracy of their ballistic missiles by fully two orders of magnitude, from 200 meters to 2 meters.
- Palestinian leaders today doubled down on weekend declarations in which they categorically rejected U.S. bridging proposals designed to balance Israeli security needs - including Jerusalem's concerns about a security vacuum that might emerge in the strategically important Jordan Valley in the context of a comprehensive peace deal - with Palestinian demands for autonomy over the West Bank. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) official, told Agence France-Presse that security arrangements suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry would lead to the "total failure" of the U.S.-backed peace talks. Jordanian officials, in contrast, have reportedly sided with the U.S. and Israel in endorsing Jerusalem's continued presence along the border. Veteran Israeli military correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai had last week outlined at length the basis for Israel's insistence that it be allowed to maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley. Ben-Yishai described how "Israeli control over the border crossings between the West Bank and Jordan has it been possible to prevent a massive spillover of al-Qaeda activists and explosive devices into the West Bank and Israel" and emphasized that "even more important is thwarting terror in the West Bank by collecting intelligence and conducting arrests" of terrorists who threaten both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
- Hezbollah and Syrian army forces battling on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime are close to seizing the town of Nabuk, one of the last areas in the Lebanon-adjacent Qalamoun region still controlled by opposition forces, amid renewed concerns from Lebanese officials that blowback generated by Hezbollah's participation in Syria's nearly three-year war will trigger violence inside their own country. Agence France-Presse (AFP) today assessed that taking control of Nabuk - where Al Qaeda-linked rebels have a large presence, and which the Syrian army and its Hezbollah allies have been attacking for two weeks - "would cement regime control of territory linking Damascus province with Homs province in central Syria." The gains would be the latest since the Syrian army, with critical backing from Hezbollah, launched a sustained offensive last summer with an eye toward eroding years of opposition gains. Several Hezbollah figures including Ali Bazzi, a senior commander, have reportedly been killed in recent days fighting in Syria. Meanwhile Lebanese media this weekend reported on comments made by the country's Interior Minister, Marwan Charbel, in which Charbel worried that Al Qaeda was seeking to consolidate its presence inside Lebanon after several attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian interests. Ya Libnon conveyed quotes from Sirajuddin Zureiqat, the head of the Lebanese branch of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades, committing his group to conducting continued "operations" inside Lebanon "until two things are achieved: withdrawing the members of Iran's Party [i.e. Hezbollah] from Syria, and releasing our prisoners from the prisons of oppression in Lebanon."
- English-language Turkish media reported this afternoon that the country's parliament, which the Daily News described as "dominated by deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)," rejected an opposition-filed censure motion filed against AKP Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu over his role in generating the recent precipitous decline in Turkey's regional stature. The motion cited among other things souring relations between Ankara and Cairo, which collapsed after Egypt's army removed from power the country's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi in the wake of mass anti-government protests. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan subsequently and repeatedly lashed out against Cairo's army-backed government, accusing the army of acting against the Brotherhood as part of a Jewish plot - a statement defended by Davutoglu - and pledging to continue supporting Morsi. The posture was part of a broader policy that saw the AKP aligning Turkey with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, in opposition to a bloc of more moderate Sunni states and Israel, and with both opposing a Shiite camp anchored by Iran and including its Syrian client and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. The Republican People's Party (CHP) gestured toward the dynamic, declaring in its censure motion that "the international public almost identifies [Turkey's] Justice and Development Party government with the Muslim Brotherhood." The Asia Times theorized this morning that Davutoglu is looking to "partner up" with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in order to break Turkey out of its growing isolation.