- Experts, diplomats: Impose more sanctions on Iran to strengthen the West's hand
- In latest regime walk-back, Iran nuke chief denies rumored concession on enrichment
- Egypt arrest sweep nets last top Muslim Brotherhood figure
- Israeli Air Force preps first hosted trilateral air exercise, shrugging off Turkish attempts at military isolation
What we’re watching today:
- Members of Congress and a range of analysts are emphasizing the importance of existing and new sanctions on Iran, as the U.S. and the international community prepare to negotiate with the Islamic republic over its nuclear program, which is widely considered to have clandestine weaponization components. This morning's Los Angeles Times saw an article - co-written by former White House Middle East Advisor Dennis Ross, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman, and former Defense Department official Michael Makovsky - calling on the U.S. to "negotiate from a position of strength" by among other things "intensify[ing] sanctions and incentiviz[ing] other countries to do the same." Meanwhile the Washington Post published a recent speech by Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (NJ) declaring that sanctions "have been the single most powerful tool in bringing Iran to the table and bringing us to this pivotal point." Menendez's assessment echoes a broad consensus to the effect that sanctions have been critical in eroding Iran's economy and coercing Iranian leaders to at least engage in negotiations. Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg noted this morning that, given the expert consensus that heightened sanctions brought Iran to the table, it's difficult to credit claims that further sanctions will cause Iran to walk away from the table. The same point was suggested by Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee in last Friday's State Department press briefing, with Lee noting that "one of the main reasons, or maybe the only reason, that Iran agreed to come to the table this time was the sanctions" and asking "so wouldn't it be logical that once you’ve got them to the table, adding more pressure would help and would make them more willing to compromise than saying – than holding off." A Senate bill still in committee would aim to cut Iranian oil sales in half. Administration figures are pushing to hold off on the new sanctions. Asked about a push, Menendez questioned the logic of unilaterally suspending pressure while Iran "continues to move forward" by installing new nuclear-related technology.
- Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi clarified today that Iran is continuing to enrich uranium up to 20%, denying widely conveyed reports that the Islamic republic has ceased adding to its stockpile of 20% purity uranium, with which top experts believe it can sprint across the nuclear finish line in as little time as two weeks. Conservative MP Hossein Naqavi Hosseini had been cited as the source of the original rumor, and now claims he was misquoted. The chair of the Iranian parliament's foreign affairs committee, Allaeddine Boroujerdi, had previously denied suggestions of a halt. The original suggestion had raised hopes - per The New York Times - that Iran was "edging closer to accepting one of the main demands of world powers." The dynamic - in which optimistic coverage produced in Western outlets was quickly followed by an explicit Iranian walkback - repeats a pattern that has become almost routine since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. A Twitter account reportedly linked to Rouhani generated what the Washington Post described as a "frenzied response" when it was used to wish Jews a happy Jewish New Year. Rouhani's office subsequently denied any connection to the post. A little later Iranian citizens were for the first time in years able to directly access social media networks, generating speculation from Western journalists that "Iran’s Berlin Wall of internet censorship crumbling." The ban was reimposed a day later. In September a German paper published rumors that Rouhani was prepared to shut down Iran's underground enrichment bunker at Fordow, a suggestion that regime outlets swatted down. Even walkbacks on Iranian willingness to negotiate over its 20% enriched stock are not new. In early April the Associated Press quoted Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani suggesting that Iran may make concessions on uranium enriched to that level, only to see itself called out by name and condemned by regime figures for misquoting Larijani.
- Egyptian security forces today arrested one of the few prominent Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figures who have thus far escaped the wide-ranging decapitation campaign being waged against the Islamist group by Egypt's army-backed interim government, a move likely to fuel ongoing analyst discussions outlining scenarios under which Cairo may succeed in largely collapsing the Islamist group's influence inside Egypt. Essam el-Erian, arguably the last senior Brotherhood official who had escaped being seized, had been a top adviser to Egypt's former Brotherhood-linked president Mohammed Morsi. While in that position he blamed Jews for the Boston terror attack, the war in Mali, the war in Syria, and the war in Iraq. Though top officials in the interim government continue to press for reconciliation between competing Egyptian factions - Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa El-Din on Tuesday pressed the case in the context of the Brotherhood - rapprochement remains unlikely. Brotherhood members have repeatedly rejected national reconciliation, and for their part military officials likely believe that the reassertion of Brotherhood power would lead to retaliation against the army.
- Israel will host its first multilateral air drill next month, assembling nearly 1,000 personnel from three nations for two weeks of air-to-air and air-to-ground exercises modeled on the U.S. Air Force's annual Red Flag military training exercise. Dubbed Blue Flag, the drill will take place at the Ovda training range in the Jewish state's south. The identity of the participants is being withheld on security grounds, but Defense News notes that the Israel Air Force has recently conducted bilateral training with the U.S., Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland. Each of those countries has been suggested as a possible participant. The IAF had for years trained with Turkey's air force, until Turkey cut off relations with Israel and began making concentrated efforts to prevent the Jewish state from participating in security forums and multilateral military exercises. Ankara was criticized for seeking to isolate Israel at the expense of Israeli-European interoperability. Jerusalem subsequently began to explore a series of bilateral and multilateral exercises outside frameworks Turkey could affect. Israel's navy for instance recently participated in trilateral search-and-rescue exercises with Cyprus and Greece, and in August the Israeli Defense Forces and U.S. European Command ran two weeks of military exercises.
- Thailand convicts Hezbollah-linked operative on bomb materials charges
- Iranian media boasts over naval power projection, Sudanese port docking
- Reuters: Turkey PM's pro-Islamist diplomacy has left Ankara isolated, "sidelined," "increasingly lonely"
- Washington Post: "No significant dent in the pace" of Iraq attacks despite government counter-insurgency campaign
What we’re watching today:
- A Thai court today convicted a Lebanese national allegedly linked to Hezbollah for possessing bomb-making materials, a month after a different Thai court sentenced two Iranians to lengthy jail sentences for their roles in the attempted February 2012 attack on Israeli diplomats. Atris Hussein was sentenced to less than three years in jail for possessing a substance banned under the country’s Weapons Act. Iran and Hezbollah have been linked to terror plots staged in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Thailand, Georgia, India, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Singapore, and Turkey. A report published this year by the Washington Institute’s Matthew Levitt concluded that Iran’s global terror operations have “climbed back up the list of immediate threats facing the United States and its allies," and a State Department report published this spring noted that "Iran and Hezbollah’s terrorist activity has reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s."
- English-language Iranian media reports on the docking of what the country is calling its 27th fleet - the helicopter carrier Khark (also spelled Kharg) and frigate Sabalan - at Port Sudan along the Red Sea. PressTV used the event to boast that "in recent years, Iran’s Navy has been increasing its presence in international waters." The Khark has been in the theater before, and in 2011 continued through the Suez Canal to Syria. Iranian military officials earlier this year announced that Tehran would deepen cooperation with the Sudanese navy, part of a broad effort by Tehran to project power beyond the Persian Gulf. Those efforts have generated calls by U.S. Gulf allies for Washington to deepen its commitment to the region amid budget-driven cuts in the U.S. naval presence. Gulf countries have become increasingly vocal in criticizing Iran for seeking to foment instability across region and for pressing territorial claims against its Arab neighbors.
- Reuters describes converging analysis from a range of foreign policy analysts to the effect that Turkish diplomats in general, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in particular, have been left "sidelined" and "increasingly lonely" in the Middle East. The piece heavily emphasizes Erdogan's support for Islamist actors throughout the region, and echoes points recently made by Georgetown Turkey expert Michael Koplow to the effect that Erdogan has "been raging on a daily basis against the Egyptian army" to the detriment of Egyptian-Turkey relations. Reuters notes that Erdogan's support for the Muslim Brotherhood has also generated friction with the U.S.'s Gulf allies, endangering "investment [which] has helped Turkey to prosper over the past decade." Ankara's isolation, according to Standard Bank economist Timothy Ash, now risks "the erosion of benefits from the enormous strides made over the past decade in terms of the development of trade and investment flows."
- A series of car bombs Tuesday in Iraq killed over 30 people and injured more than 100, followed by more car bombs today that took the lives of at least six more. The attacks are the latest in a five-month wave of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence that has swept through the nation and left more than 4,000 dead. On Sunday nearly 60 people were killed by a dozen attacks conducted in mostly Shiite-majority cities. The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently launched a counter-insurgency operation, dubbed "Revenge for the Martyrs," that has thus far mainly targeted Sunni areas and groups. The Washington Post this morning bluntly stated that despite the campaign, "there has been no significant dent in the pace of attacks." Analysts have expressed concerns that the country may be sliding into “the scale [of] sectarian slaughter” of 2006 and 2007.
- U.S. lawmakers sign letter calling on E.U. to fully blacklist Hezbollah
- Support for Israeli strike on Iran reportedly increasing inside White House
- Al Qaeda conference sheds light on group structure, including role of Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula
- Four Israeli soldiers injured in Lebanese border explosion, triggering fears of security deterioration
What we’re watching today:
- Forty-nine U.S. lawmakers have signed a letter praising the European Union for its decision last month to partially blacklist Hezbollah, while urging the bloc to fully designate the Iran-backed group. The E.U. listing was limited to Hezbollah's so-called military wing, and excluded what the E.U. described as the group's political wing. Hezbollah officials have explicitly rejected the E.U.'s distinction, emphasizing both before and after the blacklisting that the group's military and political wings are the same. The July designation came less than a year after Bulgarian officials linked Hezbollah to a July 2012 bus bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian. A Cypriot court subsequently convicted a confessed Hezbollah operative on terrorism-related charges, the suspicion being that Hezbollah seemed ready to carry out a similar attack against Israeli tourists in Cyprus. The combination generated substantial pressure on the E.U. to overcome the reluctance of some members and to formally acknowledge that an organization that commits terror acts on E.U. soil that kill E.U. citizens ought, for the purposes of the E.U., be considered a terror group. The bipartisan letter notes that the ban and accompanying sanctions "will help disrupt Hezbollah’s dangerous operations around the world," which include attempted and at times successful terror attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Thailand, Georgia, India, Azerbaijan, Singapore, and Turkey.
- The Obama administration is softening reported past resistance to a potential Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, shifting from "the brightest red [light]" to "definitely yellow," according to statements made by former chief of the IDF’s Intelligence Directorate Amos Yadlin. The revelation comes during a week when the Wall Street Journal reported on "significant advances" that Iran has made in building the infrastructure necessary to construct a nuclear bomb. Earlier this year, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming U.S. support for Israel if the Jewish state were to take action to defend itself against Tehran. The election victory and subsequent inauguration of revolutionary cleric Hassan Rouhani as president has triggered sharp divisions in the foreign policy community. Rouhani's gestures toward the need for nuclear negotiations have engendered optimism among some analysts, while other analysts have pointed out that Rouhani has long bragged about using such negotiations to buy time for Iran to lock in its nuclear infrastructure.
- National security journalists Eli Lake and Josh Rogin broke a story today about a terrorist conference call intercepted by U.S. officials, which was reportedly behind the numerous terror alerts and the closings of U.S. embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa. The call involved more than 20 Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-linked operatives, including those stationed in the Sinai Peninsula. The Al Qaeda presence in the Egyptian-controlled territory has been deepening and consolidating in recent months, and the group is now reportedly led by Ramzi Mowafi, a former physician for Osama bin Laden. Other Al Qaeda-linked operatives on the call reportedly hailed from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, the Islamic Maghreb, Uzbekistan, Iraq, and Yemen. The group reportedly spoke in vague terms about plans for an upcoming attack.
- Four Israeli soldiers were injured today in an explosion near the country’s border with Lebanon. Lebanese security sources declared that the blast, likely the result of a landmine explosion, may have taken place on the Israeli side of the designated "Blue Line" border that separates the two countries. The claim was echoed by a second security source. Observers increasingly fear that the Israeli-Lebanese border will follow Israel's border with Syria in becoming destabilized by spillover from the Syrian conflict. As with the Syrian border, the United Nations peacekeeping force tasked with maintaining security has threatened to withdraw as a security vacuum develops in the area.
Reports: Gulf nations to take action against Hezbollah, “more comprehensive than the European Union decision”
- Reports: Gulf nations to take action against Hezbollah, “more comprehensive than the European Union decision”
- Bipartisan Iran sanctions bill set to overwhelmingly pass House of Representatives this week
- After Israeli concessions, focus shifts toward Palestinian intentions during peace talks
- More than 50 killed as sectarian violence rocks Iraq
What we’re watching today:
- Gulf nations will impose harsh sanctions on Hezbollah, with diplomats making a point of telling journalists that their approach will be “more comprehensive than the European Union decision” made earlier this month to blacklist the so-called military wing of the Iran-backed terror group. The E.U.’s distinction between the group’s political and military wings has been rejected by, among others, Hezbollah officials. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council had already taken steps against Hezbollah, with Saudi Arabia deporting the group’s supporters and Bahrain in April blacklisting the organization in its entirety. Meanwhile Bulgarian media reported that the operatives behind the July 2012 bombing of an Israeli tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria – which Bulgarian investigators had linked to Hezbollah, a declaration that was in large part responsible for the E.U.’s blacklisting decision – had been smuggled into Bulgaria from Poland.
- The House of Representatives is set to overwhelmingly pass legislation this week that would significantly ratchet up sanctions against Iran, specifically with an eye on impacting the Islamic republic’s oil industry.The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act is co-sponsored by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and will broaden economic sanctions against Tehran and enhance the enforcement of existing ones. An expanded blacklist would apply to foreign individuals or firms conducting trade with Iran’s Central Bank, and would impose measures to restrict Iran’s options for leveraging its hard currency, most of which is kept in Euros. Other key sections target Iranian regime figures suspected of gross human rights violations. It also adds Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to the official list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Roughly parallel legislation is being prepared in the Senate, where it will likely be voted on after the August recess.
- Israel is set to release more than 104 jailed Palestinian terrorists ahead of the resumption of peace talks in Washington this week, as part of a goodwill gesture toward Palestinian diplomats who have been demanding the concession as a condition for returning to talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also sought to fast-track legislation for a referendum on any agreement, and reports indicate he has also expressed a willingness to cede huge portions of the West Bank. Israeli cabinet officils moved to dampen blowback over the release, which is drawn largely from those convicted for murdering Israelis. Meanwhile, the Facebook profile of one of two key Palestinian diplomats sent to Washington for negotiations was noted by a journalist from The Tower for having a cover photo showing a map that erases all of Israel and replaces it – according to the Arabic emblazoned on the picture – with “Filastin” (Palestine). The news is likely to deepen skepticism of Palestinian intentions regarding a final status agreement with Israel.
- A surge of violence in Iraq, including as many as 15 car bombings, has left more than 50 people dead. Iraqi police officers said that many of the bombs went off in largely Shiite neighborhoods, heightening concerns that the sectarian conflict in Syria may spill over into a full-blown sectarian war across the region. Sunni jihadists based in Iraq have escalated their campaigns against Shiites, targeting both civilians and government institutions, and Al Qaeda-linked groups are believed to be behind the Monday attacks. Al Qaeda is also taking credit for two prison breaks that freed approximately 500 prisoners. The Daily Beast described the spectacular assaults as a “counterterrorism nightmare,” with one intelligence analyst bluntly stating that “we just lost track of everyone we didn’t kill who was in al Qaeda during the surge.” Analysts have speculated that, in addition to exacting retribution against domestic opponents, many of the escaped jihadists would travel to Syria to join the increasingly Islamist-dominated opposition in seeking to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime.
- Palestinian negotiators impose new conditions on Kerry peace initiative, threaten to boycott talks
- Hezbollah spokesman: "Everyone knows that Hezbollah's political and military wings are one and the same," threatens E.U. with "repercussions" over blacklisting
- NYT: "Tens of thousands of flag-waving people" respond to army call for anti-violence demonstrations
- Turkish authorities release falcon suspected of being Israeli spy after bird cleared by X-ray exams
What we’re watching today:
- Palestinian officials have imposed further preconditions that they are demanding Israel fulfill before they will sit down for peace talks scheduled to begin next week in Washington, according to a Palestinian source "close to the negotiations" who spoke to the left-leaning Israeli outlet Ha'aretz. The source explained that while Israel had already made a variety of concessions - including reportedly agreeing to the controversial demand that negotiations begin from Israel's 1949 armistice lines - Palestinian negotiators were also insisting on the release of over 100 so-called pre-Oslo prisoners jailed for attacking Israelis, including some with Israeli citizenship. The meetings in Washington are preliminary in nature, and are aimed at setting the agenda for future negotiations. Palestinian officials nonetheless throughout the week downplayed prospects for their success. Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said that many "sticking points" remained before they could progress, while Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a top Palestinian Authority spokesman, emphasized that any peace deal with Israel would only bind the Palestinians temporarily.
- The European Union has begun implementing its unanimous decision, made earlier this week, to blacklist Hezbollah's "military wing" as a terror organization. The E.U.'s Official Journal - a record of the bloc's decisions and how they are implemented - added the "Hezbollah Military Wing" to its list of individuals and groups affiliated with terrorist activity. For its part Hezbollah threatened Europe with "repercussions" to be decided by the Iran-backed terror group's leadership. Meanwhile analysis turned to the usefulness and sustainability of the distinction that the E.U. had made between Hezbollah's "military" and "political" wings. Hezbollah officials have consistently declared that no distinction exists. The point was reiterated Thursday by Hezbollah international relations official Ammar Moussawi, who declared after a meeting with E.U. officials that "[e]veryone knows that Hezbollah’s political and military wings are one and the same." Washington Institute scholars Matthew Levitt and Jonathan Prohov yesterday described the E.U.'s policy as based on "a political distinction of convenience," and quoted Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah flatly declaring "we don't have a military wing and a political one." Meanwhile new details emerged regarding Hezbollah's terror activities in Europe. A Canadian outlet reported that Hezbollah wired almost $100,000 to the two men who Bulgaria yesterday identified as suspects in the July 2012 Burgas, Bulgaria bus bombing that killed six people.
- Rival rallies between Egyptian opponents and supporters of former President Mohammed Morsi are set to take place throughout the dayFriday and have already claimed two lives, as prosecutors moved to file formal charges against Morsi for conspiring with the Palestinian terror group Hamas to foment violence in Egypt. The Egyptian military removed the Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president from power, in the aftermath of mass anti-government protests calling for his Islamist-oriented administration to step aside. Morsi's Islamist supporters quickly vowed indefinite protests as violence broke out, and clashes erupted earlier this week, marked by "running battles with firearms, bottles and rocks." General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on Egyptians to stage anti-violence rallies. The New York Times described the scene at a Cairo rally, where "tens of thousands of flag-waving people in Tahrir Square cheered the military takeover, with many in the crowd holding up posters of the general who ousted Mr. Morsi." The AFP quoted Morsi supporters, some declaring they will march peacefully and others shouting "we will kill everyone who kills our freedom... we will die in this place to secure [Morsi's] return."
- Turkish authorities have released a bird that officials had accused of being an Israeli spy, after forcing the animal to undergo X-ray tests at a university hospital and discovering that it was not carrying any surveillance or communications equipment with which it could transmit intelligence to handlers in the Jewish state. Reports of the kestrel's release were carried today in Turkish media outlets, and the Milliyet newspaper carried a front-page image of the X-ray results under a the headline "Israeli agent." The kestrel is a monogamous raptor and, unusual for falcons, is subject to sexual dimorphism, with plumage often differing between males and females. It had been captured and turned over to authorities by villagers because of a metal band attached to its foot with the words "24311 Tel Avivunia Israel," likely a tracking ID placed by Israeli scientists or conservationists. The incident echoes another from last year, in which a Turkish counterterrorism unit became involved after a dead European bee-eater with a ring stamped "Israel" was turned in by villagers for having unusually large nostrils potentially embedded with Israeli electronic devices. Accusations of Israeli spy birds have also been raised in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
- Lebanese and Iranian media: Rouhani celebrates Hezbollah "jihad"
- Hamas renews attacks on journalists, shutters three news outlets
- Controversy engulfs Palestinian Fatah after Facebook posts celebrating mass terrorist as "brave prisoner"
- Hezbollah chief: only surprise about being blacklisted by Europe is that it took this long
What we’re watching today:
- Lebanese and Iranian media outlets are reporting on a cable from Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani to Hezbollah supporting the Iran-backed terror group and praising it for waging "jihad" against Israel. Rouhani declared that the group and its chief Hassan Nasrallah were "the hope of the Lebanese and Palestinian people for victory against Israel,” according to a source who spoke to Naharnet. The statements are in line with previous expressions of support for the Iran-backed terror group by the Iranian president-elect. Iranian lawmakers have stressed that Rouhani would deepen Tehran's policy of supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, which with Hezbollah support has succeeded in recent weeks in eroding two years of opposition gains, and that Rouhani's administration would seek to reinforce the regime's ideology domestically and internationally. Iranian conservatives this week rallied in support of Rouhani and in anticipation of his August 4 inauguration.
- Hamas on Thursday deepened its campaign against journalists operating in the Gaza Strip, which the Palestinian terror group controls and over which it has tried to exert increasingly authoritarian rule. Three media companies, including the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television station and the Palestinian news agency Ma'an, were shuttered. Employees of the organizations reported that armed Hamas officers had conducted the raids on the basis of an attorney general order. Hamas has long been criticized for attempting to stifle journalistic freedom and for directly endangering journalists. A 2011 incident saw several journalists beaten and harassed for coverage critical of the Palestinian faction. Hamas has also attempted to disguise terrorists as reporters and has used media facilities to launch rockets at Israeli civilians.
- A report by a watchdog group on renewed Palestinian incitement has sparked a debate over the capacity and willingness of Palestinian officials in general, and of the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas specifically, to make peace with Israel. Fox News reports on the controversy, which erupted after Palestinian Media Watch called attention to social media posts glorifying terrorists who murdered scores of Israelis, and were posted on the official Facebook page of the Enlistment and Organization Commission of Fatah. A picture posted to the page glorifies Abdallah Barghouti, who prepared bombs that killed 67 Israeli civilians across almost half a dozen terror attacks, as a "brave prisoner." The incident comes days after revelations that Abbas had described another Palestinian terrorist as a "pure soul." U.S. officials including President Obama have repeatedly condemned Palestinian incitement to violence as a critical barrier to successfully negotiating peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Concerns over incitement stretch back to the early days of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and observers have linked Palestinian intransigence and violence to lack of progress in the arena. A 2000 speech by Congressman Eliot Engel linked burgeoning violence to incitement by then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, noting that "The violent Palestinian riots we are witnessing today and for the past several days... result directly from the fact that Yasir Arafat did not prepare his people for peace."
- Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on Wednesday brushed aside a recent European Union decision to blacklist the military wing of his Iran-backed group as a terrorist organization, telling a Hezbollah-controlled television station that he was only surprised that it "had taken so long" for Western leaders to issue the designation. Other Hezbollah figures were less circumspect, with Hezbollah's head of international relations Ammar Moussawi lashing out against the Europeans and describing the E.U.'s decision as an "insult because it equates resistance with terrorism." The E.U. decision came after intelligence was presented in European capitals describing in detail Hezbollah's campaign to target and murder civilians across the Continent and demonstrating the group's responsibility for a July 2012 bus bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria that killed six. Today Bulgarian investigators released more details about the bombing, to which they had previously linked Hezbollah, including the identities of the suspects. The Western-backed, anti-Syrian March 14 coalition issued a statement blasting Hezbollah for activities beyond Lebanon's borders, linking those activities to the European designation, and calling the group to "return to Lebanon under Lebanon's conditions... and to hand its weapons to the Lebanese Armed Forces and immediately withdraw from Syria." Hezbollah militarily controls southern Lebanon and has thus far refused to cede sovereignty to Beirut.
Western-backed Syrian opposition praises E.U.'s partial blacklisting of Hezbollah as "step in the right direction"
- Western-backed Syrian opposition praises E.U.'s partial blacklisting of Hezbollah as "step in the right direction"
- Congress moves to maintain Egypt assistance as public turns against pro-Morsi demonstrators
- Israel offers to release "hardcore" prisoners to boost Kerry peace push, Palestinian officials downplay prospects
- NYT: Khamenei speech rejecting comprehensive talks "threw some cold water" on engagement efforts
What we’re watching today:
- The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the umbrella group fighting to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime, issued a statement today describing this week's European Union decision to blacklist Hezbollah's military wing as "a step in the right direction." The SNC urged more action against the Iran-backed Shiite group and called on the international community to try Hezbollah leaders for providing critical assistance to the Assad regime. Hezbollah's aid has allowed the Syrian army to steadily erode two years of rebel gains. The SNC's stance, which rejects the E.U.'s distinction between political and military Hezbollah officials, echoes statements made by Hezbollah leaders and assessments issued by the American intelligence community. Iran and Hezbollah both blasted the partial designation, with Hezbollah going so far as to threaten European interests. Reluctance within the E.U. to blacklisting the group was reportedly overcome after E.U. officials were presented with evidence that the bomb used in the July 2012 Burgas, Bulgaria bus bombing - in which five Israelis and a Bulgarian were killed - matched the signature of Hezbollah bombs discovered in locations as distant as Nazareth and Bangkok.
- The House of Representatives today unveiled a draft spending bill maintaining foreign aid to Egypt at $1.3 billion, brushing aside calls to eliminate assistance to Cairo in the aftermath of the army's removal of the country's former president Mohammed Morsi. The Egyptian military has been struggling to restore order to the country, as demonstrations in favor of Morsi continue to trigger violence both in the country's cities and in the increasingly anarchic Sinai Peninsula. At least nine people were killed today in violence surrounding the demonstrations in Cairo, while another two were killed in the Sinai Peninsula. The New York Times described "running battles with firearms, bottles and rocks near Tahrir Square in Cairo and on the edges of two protest sites that have been held by Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters for weeks." Meanwhile, a public opinion poll published by the Baseera Public Opinion Research Center found broad opposition to the demonstrators protesting in favor of Morsi.
- Israel has agreed to release "hardcore" Palestinian prisoners as part of Jerusalem's efforts to boost a peace initiative being pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry, though the concession may prove insufficient to overcome Palestinian opposition to renewing negotiations between the parties. Palestinian factions have resisted exhortations by President Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to talks, with some describing a return to negotiations as "political suicide." Abbas was one of several Palestinian officials yesterday and today who downplayed the prospects for Kerry's peace initiative. Palestinian officials are demanding that Israel agree in advance to a number of stipulations, and are demanding preemptive Israeli concessions on broad issues such as borders. Israeli officials for their part have called on Palestinian counterparts to return to negotiations without preconditions.
- The New York Times describes statements made this weekend by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the outlet says "threw some cold water on recent efforts to reinvigorate diplomatic contacts between Iran and the United States." Khamenei described American diplomats as "unreliable and illogical," emphasizing that he did not trust them sufficiently to engage in comprehensive direct talks. Gesturing toward statements made by President-elect Hassan Rouhani promising outreach to the international community, Khamenei went further and stipulated that Iran would not modify its policies as a result of talks. The Supreme Leader, who controls Iran's foreign policy, had already preemptively banned presidential candidates in the June election from making concessions to the West should they win. The Times story outlining Iranian intransigence comes two days after the outlet published an editorial encouraging engagement with Iran and criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for skepticism regarding Iranian intentions.
- E.U. partially designates Hezbollah as terror organization
- Syrian army mows down scores of opposition fighters
- Sinai chaos erupts as attacks on police, army escalate
- Top Palestinian official: Still many "sticking points" before return to peace talks
What we’re watching today:
- The European Union on Monday officially designated the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The blacklisting comes just over a year after the July 2012 bus bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian, and which Bulgarian investigators linked to the Iran-backed terror group. A Cypriot court subsequently convicted a confessed Hezbollah operative on terror-related charges, and the combination of the Bulgarian investigation and the Cypriot conviction brought significant pressure on the E.U. to formally acknowledge that a group that conducts terrorism on E.U. soil is indeed a terrorist organization for E.U. purposes. The bloc distinguished between Hezbollah's military wing and political wing, and only blacklisted the military wing. Focus and analysis will now shift toward the degree to which that separation is sustainable or accurate. Hezbollah does not recognize the distinction. Hezbollah's Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem gave a speech in 2012 in which he declared that "we don't have a military wing and a political one," echoing comments he made in 2009 to the effect that the "same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions." U.S. counterterrorism specialists have concluded that Hezbollah simply isn't structured that way, and the U.S. intelligence community has determined [PDF] that the group's organizational structure "combines political, social, paramilitary, and terrorist elements."
- Scores of rebel fighters were killed Sunday near Damascus, underscoring concerns that the momentum in the conflict has shifted in favor of the Bashar al-Assad regime. At least 75 opposition fighters were killed by regime forces, which - with significant support from the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah - have made substantial progress in rolling back two years of opposition gains. Meanwhile reports emerged that the Syrian military used chemical weapons against Palestinians in a Damascus refugee camp over the weekend. Opposition officials said that 22 people died in the attack on the camp, which was also attacked last December. The Syrian military has long leveraged its air assets to battle against the rebels. Observers have emphasized that, to be effective, Western lethal assistance to the opposition would have to be provided with an eye on degrading those assets.
- At least six Egyptians were killed on Monday in a string of attacks carried out against police stations and army checkpoints in the Sinai Peninsula. Two policemen and two army officers were among the dead. Over the weekend gunmen killed four security officials in separate attacks in the northern city of el-Arish, and earlier Monday at least six people – five policemen and one civilian – were wounded in an attack on a security camp near Rafah. Violence in the increasingly anarchic territory has spiked since the removal from power of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi earlier this month, and Egyptian security officials have linked the uptick to supporters of Morsi and his Islamist Muslim Brotherhood-linked government. The Egyptian army blames the Iran-backed terror group Hamas for the much of the violence, accusing the group of maintaining tunnels between the Sinai and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip through which jihadists move personnel and weapons.
- A top Palestinian official on Sunday rejected reports that Palestinian factions had agreed to return to U.S.-mediated negotiations with Israel, telling Palestinian radio that direct talks were "conditioned on many clarifications." Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a leading figure involved in the peace initiative being pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry, went on to emphasize that there are a number of remaining "sticking points," despite declarations by State officials that the path had been cleared for renewed negotiations. Palestinian conditions have consistently stymied talks and led to tensions between the State Department and the Palestinian Authority (PA). PA President Mahmoud Abbas was still struggling to secure support for Kerry's initiative as late as last Thursday. His Fatah faction's rival Hamas condemned him for "succumbing to American extortion."
- Bulgaria reemphasizes Hezbollah bombing as E.U. meets to consider blacklisting
- Gunfire and mortars shot into Israel, underscoring risks of Syria spillover
- Egypt's new cabinet begins work, Muslim Brotherhood vows continued efforts against military-backed government
- In feud over unpaid bills, Palestinian hospitals refusing care to PA personnel
What we’re watching today:
- Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev today emphasized that Sofia had in recent months uncovered additional evidence implicating Hezbollah in the July 2012 bus bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian. His statements come on the eve of the bombing's July 18th anniversary, and as European Union officials are scheduled to meet again to discuss blacklisting the Iran-backed group as a terror organization. There has been substantial pressure on the E.U. to acknowledge that a group that kills E.U. citizens in terror attacks on E.U. soil is in fact a terrorist group. The Bulgarian investigation, coupled with the Cypriot conviction in March of a confessed Hezbollah member on terror-related charges, has heightened that pressure. Diplomats from countries seeking to overcome internal E.U. resistance have become increasingly public about their frustrations regarding the reluctance of some fellow member states to blacklist Hezbollah, with one official bluntly telling AFP this week that "the evidence that it [Hezbollah] committed terrorism on EU soil is strong."
- Multiple incidents of cross-border fire deepened tensions along the Israeli-Syrian border Tuesday, with unidentified gunmen firing on Israeli troops and dozens of blasts being linked to mortars fired across the border. The incidents underscored months of concerns that a power vacuum being created along the Israeli-Syrian border risked triggering escalating military incidents. In recent months, several countries comprising the United Nations peacekeeping force in the region (UNDOF) have withdrawn their contributions, while Syrian troops withdrew in substantial numbers. Multiple sides engaged in the Syrian conflict, including both the Bashar al-Assad regime and the opposition seeking its overthrow, have in recent months threatened to attack Israel. The regime has also reportedly empowered sub-state actors, including Palestinian terrorist groups and the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah, to launch attacks against the Jewish state. Following Tuesday’s attacks, Israel’s envoy to the United Nations called on the international body to condemn the violations. In another incident along a Syrian border, Turkish troops returned fire after errant bullets from Syria struck several homes and a police station.
- Egyptian President Adly Mansour swore in the country’s new cabinet on Tuesday, formally rolling back what critics had blasted as the "Brotherhoodization" of Egypt's political institutions. For its part the Brotherhood vowed again to resist efforts aimed at reconciliation in the aftermath of the Brotherhood-linked President Mohammed Morsi being removed from power by the Egyptian military. Thousands of Morsi supporters protested outside Cairo’s main government office buildings today as the new cabinet attempted to begin its first day of work. New polling released this week shows that the Egyptian military continues to enjoy broad and deep support with the Egyptian public, results that are consistent with polling conducted by The Israel Project last fall.
- Private Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank are refusing to provide medical services to Palestinian Authority (PA) personnel because the government has been unable or unwilling to pay outstanding bills for past work. The news comes in the aftermath of a similar announcement by private West Bank gas stations, which have begun refusing to accept tenders in exchange for fuel. Observers have long feared that financial mismanagement by Palestinian officials, coupled with endemic corruption, would prevent the emergence of a stable Palestinian economy - a critical prerequisite in efforts to achieve a viable Palestinian state. A Palestinian man recently set himself on fire in front of the PA's West Bank finance ministry to protest financial and economic conditions in the Palestinian-run territory.
Israel in June hosted the UEFA Under-21 Championships, showcasing the rising stars of European soccer. Israel was awarded hosting rights to this year’s tournament two years ago, beating out bids from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, England, and Wales. The selection as host came despite the efforts of the anti-Israel activists of the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” (BDS) movement to have the matches relocated. A special blue-and-white “Israel 2013” ball was unveiled last year.