Israeli PM urges France to resist pressure, hold to conditions on Iran's uranium and plutonium progress
- Israeli PM urges France to resist pressure, hold to conditions on Iran's uranium and plutonium progress
- Journalists press State Department on tensions within Israel, Iran policies
- Washington Post: after U.S. aid freeze, Egypt moving "further away from its traditional place within the U.S. sphere of influence"
- Syrian army takes strategic towns, now positioned to advance toward country's largest city
What we’re watching today:
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today urged France to maintain its position on the terms for an acceptable interim agreement on between Iran and the P5+1 global powers Tehran's nuclear program, a week after Paris's objections to what it described as a "sucker's deal" reportedly contributed to blocking a deal that would have swapped relief from international sanctions for limited Iranian concessions. Patrick Maisonnave, France's ambassador to Israel, had earlier in the week outlined the main guarantees that France was demanding. Regarding Iranian progress toward a uranium-based bomb, Maisonnave outlined Paris's demands for more robust enrichment restrictions, and he rejected Iran's claim that it has a right to enrich nuclear material on its soil. France's position on continued Iranian enrichment echoes that of former nuclear inspectors and experts, who have estimated that allowing Iran to narrow the already-short window it needs to rush across the nuclear finish line. The rejection of enrichment rights tracks with analysis from legal experts, think tank scholars, and U.S. lawmakers: not only does Iran simply not have a right under international law to enrich uranium, but accepting its position otherwise - according to a 2006 analysis by Robert Zarate, now the policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative - would endanger the global non-proliferation regime. Regarding Iran's progress toward a plutonium-based bomb, Maisonnave emphasized the French demand that work cease at Iran's Arak facility, which houses a heavy-water production facility and a reactor. Once the reactor goes "hot" it becomes functionally impervious to military attack due to expected fallout, and it produces two bombs' worth of plutonium per year. Iranian negotiators were said to have worked out language that would have allowed Iranian scientists to continue bolstering the facility as long as Tehran committed to not turning on the reactor for six months, something that Tehran had already declared it wasn't going to do anyway. This aspect of the agreement in particular led to comments by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius describing a "fool's game" at the talks.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today took to Twitter today with an post and info-graphic blasting the likely contours of an understanding being pursued by major global powers and Iran on the latter's nuclear weapons program, concluding that "Iran is getting everything and giving nothing!" The post - which garnered international coverage and made its way to the top of the State Department's daily press Q&A - urged Western powers not to "rush into a bad deal with Iran." At the briefing multiple reporters pushed spokesperson Jen Psaki on the degree to which the United States was managing to assure the Israelis that an agreement being pursued with Iran would not endanger the security interests of our allies. Journalists challenged Psaki to justify the administration's repeated and controversial statements implying that advocates of new sanctions on Iran were putting the U.S. on a path to war with the Islamic republic. Among those who have in recent months supported sanctions are the 178 House Democrats who last July voted for new sanctions and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) who yesterday rejected White House calls to delay new financial pressure. It is not known if any of these elected U.S. lawmakers have been briefed specifically on the administration's strange regarding their position. Thursday's briefing had already at times generated confusion, with the State Department simultaneously claiming that U.S. diplomats were closely coordinating with the Israelis over the details of a proposed deal and that the Israelis - who were publicly critical of the negotiations' course - didn't know the details of a proposed deal.
- Egypt yesterday hosted a delegation of top Russian diplomatic and military figures, including Moscow's foreign and defense ministers, in what the Washington Post described as a sign that Cairo was edging "further away from its traditional place within the U.S. sphere of influence." The Obama administration has in recent months distanced itself from Egypt's army-backed interim government, among other things by freezing parts of Washington's aid package to the Egyptian military. The White House has justified its moves as a response to the army's July overthrow of then-president Mohammed Morsi, which came after a week of unprecedented anti-government protests by millions of Egyptians who called for the removal Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-linked government. Washington's decision had been blasted by analysts as not only unlikely to secure substantive results - Egypt's generals view their struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential one, and it is difficult to imagine how they could reverse their ongoing decapitation campaign against the Islamist group's leadership - but as geopolitically unwise. In a narrow sense the U.S. had in the past few decades enjoyed enormous benefits from close military-to-military ties with Cairo, which provided U.S. forces with preferential overflight rights and preferential access to the Suez Canal. More broadly, ties between the U.S. and Egypt had prevented geopolitical rivals from encroaching on the U.S.'s interests in the region. Earlier in November Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who emphasized that they rarely agree on foreign policy prescriptions, bluntly criticized the Obama administration for undermining “nearly seven decades” of bipartisan American efforts aimed at “limiting Moscow’s influence” in the Middle East.
- Rebels sources report that forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime have seized five towns near Damascus over the last 10 days, strengthening the regime's position in advance of upcoming peace talks, as Syrian state television meanwhile announced that the army had captured three towns around Aleppo and were preparing to continue onto the city itself. Aleppo is Syria's largest city and observers have feared since last summer that Syrian forces, backed on the ground by Iranian fighters and fighters drawn from Iran's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, would move to expel opposition forces which have controlled parts of the city since at least 2012. Rami Abdelrahman, an expert from the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, predicted that that "it's a matter of time before the army has full control of Tel Hasel," a reference to a contested town 6 miles south-east of Aleppo. A Syrian air strike on Aleppo earlier this week killed a top opposition commander. Reuters described the death as "a setback to rebels defending the city against a loyalist attack."
- Kerry to brief Senate on Iran talks amid widespread criticism of Iran diplomacy
- Four Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria as analysts worry group expanding to "entire Middle East"
- Hamas blames rival Palestinian Fatah faction for Gaza Strip fuel shortages, power outages
- Egypt to let curfew expire, permit Muslim Brotherhood-linked group to participate politically
What we’re watching today:
- Efforts by the international community to secure an interim agreement with Iran regarding Tehran's nuclear program floundered this weekend after Iran reportedly refused to yield on demands that global powers recognize its "right" to enrich uranium, a claim consistently rejected by analysts, U.S. lawmakers, and journalists. The collapse of the talks triggered worries that Iran was not ready to realistically address international concerns regarding its program, as well as calls for further financial pressure to change the regime's calculus. Reports late in the day indicated that the Senate will wait for a Wednesday briefing by Secretary of State John Kerry before advancing sanctions legislation. The State Department's approach to the talks has come under withering criticism in the last 48 hours, with analysts and lawmakers insisting that U.S. diplomats gave away too much too easily. Calculations conducted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) estimated that the offer being given to Iran would have restored roughly $20 billion to Tehran. Iran would have been allowed to continue enriching uranium and building centrifuges - which could have been activated at the end of the interim period, swamping whatever concessions Iran made in the meantime - and bolstering its plutonium complex at Arak. The Daily Beast had revealed earlier in the week that the Obama administration had been quietly easing financial pressure since the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. The result, according to Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was that the administration ended up getting badly outmaneuvered. Critics particularly focused on overeager signals sent by Washington. The Telegraph had already described a White House meeting that "ended with officials admitting that a 'bad deal is better than no deal.'" Michael Doran, a senior fellow at Brookings, over the weekend blasted Kerry for "rush[ing] to Geneva when a deal wasn't ready" and making the U.S. "consistently look too eager." The Iranians may have been able to leverage U.S. eagerness. The Jerusalem Post reported on Saturday that the U.S. actually got pushed off the plan with which it came into the talks.
- Four Hezbollah members were recently killed in Syria "while carrying out their sacred Jihadist duty," according to claims posted Saturday to a website aligned with the Iran-backed terror group. The declarations come amid reports that Hezbollah is taking the lead in organizing what is expected to be a massive campaign on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime to secure Qalamoun, a strategic corridor between Damascus and Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters have in recent months been critical in allowing the regime to steadily erode nearly two years of rebel gains, and more specifically in enabling the regime to wrest control of what had been the rebel stronghold of Qusayr. USA Today late last week published analysis outlining how Hezbollah is "expanding networks and deployment of fighters from Lebanon to the entire Middle East as part of its deepening alliance with Iran," and how that expansion is being done for sectarian reasons and justified in sectarian terms. The BBC over the weekend quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif warning that sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites "probably the most serious threat to world security."
- The Associated Press reported over the weekend that widespread power outages throughout the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip were the result of "political infighting" between rival Palestinian groups, which had in turn led to a fuel shortage, which had in turn negatively impacted the territory's only power plant. A Hamas spokesman specifically blamed the Palestinian Fatah faction that controls the West Bank for imposing new taxes on fuel it provides, echoing claims that Hamas made weeks ago at the beginning of the crisis. Analysts at the time had rolled their eyes at the accusations, calling them "insane" and noting that the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority "pays for [the fuel] with donor funds, Hamas bills Gazans for it, and then pockets the cash." Instead Hamas is being accused of repeating a tactic the group used in 2008 and deliberately attempting to manufacture a humanitarian crisis by blacking out the Gaza Strip. There have been intermittent media attempts to frame whatever fuel shortage might exist as the fault of Israeli policies, though those have proven difficult to sustain inasmuch as Israel continues to supply electricity to the Gaza Strip.
- Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim announced today that Cairo will allow a three-month curfew to expire as scheduled this Thursday, the latest in a series of gestures from the country's army-backed interim government that observers hope mark a trend toward expanding civil liberties. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy revealed last Friday that the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, would be allowed to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections. The curfew had been one of several security measures imposed as security officials tried to contain the spike in violence that followed the army's moves against Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi. The government had meanwhile in parallel sought to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership hierarchy and uproot the group from Egyptian institutions.
- U.S.-based think tank outlines bare minimum for robust interim deal on Iran nuclear program
- No progress in negotiations over Syria peace talks, as reports emerge of secret undisclosed Syrian chemical weapons cache
- Israel expresses worries to Kerry over peace talks as Palestinian leaders reject Jewish state recognition, celebrate murderer release
- Iranian prisoners go on hunger strike over health conditions as Iran deepens execution wave
What we’re watching today:
- The New York Times late Wednesday published as assessment from an Obama administration official describing the West as close to a temporary deal with Iran regarding the country's nuclear program, amid increasingly assertive Congressional moves to circumscribe the White House's ability to ease sanctions in the absence of meaningful concessions from the Iranians.The administration is said to be close to accepting a deal that would trade what the Times described as "limited relief from economic sanctions" in exchange for undisclosed concessions from Iran on nuclear enrichment and its stockpile of enriched material. Congressional lawmakers had already criticized any deal that would permit Iran to continue enrichment activities or would leave parts of Tehran's enriched stockpile intact, and today Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) floated legislation that would prevent the loosening of sanctions in the absence of Iran meeting United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for a full halt in the country's enrichment activities. For their part analysts had already outlined how a deal that left enrichment intact would, given Iran's current enrichment technology, allow the Islamic republic to dash across the nuclear finish line at will. The resulting uncertainty, according to Washington Institute managing director Michael Singh, would risk a full-blown a regional nuclear arms race. Yesterday the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) published an assessment [PDF] describing the minimum details of any interim agreement that would meaningfully extend Iran's breakout time. The ISIS report described five prerequisites which Iran would have to undertake: (1) halting all centrifuge installation and production, and disabling all but 9,000 existing centrifuges (2) halting all production of 20% uranium and putting beyond use all 20% enriched uranium (3) disabling all centrifuges at the country's underground military enrichment bunker at Fordow (4) halting progress at its Arak complex, which includes a plutonium reactor and a heavy-water production facility (5) accepting new inspection and monitoring requirements, up to and including cameras at all centrifuge plant locations or daily inspections.
- Reports emerged overnight and throughout Tuesday of new challenges to Western efforts meant to dampen Syria's almost three year conflict and to dismantle the Bashar al-Assad regime's chemical weapons arsenal. CNN reported last night that U.S. officials were examining classified documents showing that Damascus had hidden some of its chemical weapons, potentially leaving the Assad regime with "a secret cache" that would slip through the international agreement - hammered out as the U.S. signaled it was preparing to attack Syria - to destroy the country's stockpile. Top U.S. policymakers have not yet openly commented on the substance of the allegation, which would have involved a rogue regime lying about its rogue activities. Meanwhile Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nation's top envoy to Syria, briefed reporters regarding ongoing talks between the United States and Russia designed to create the framework for the so-called Geneva II talks between Syria's warring camps. Brahimi emphasized that though the global powers "still striving" to hold a conference before the end of the year, Washington and Moscow had failed to reach an agreement on the participation of Assad's ally Iran. Tehran is widely seen as having provided crucial military and logistical support enabling the regime to survive. Meanwhile Gulf states, which have supported rebels seeking the Assad regime's overthrow, took aim at the run-up to Geneva II and emphasized that talks could not be "unconditional" and "shouldn't just go on indefinitely." The reports came amid new violence that included the bombing of a railway company in Damascus that killed eight and wounded roughly 50 people
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed worries to Secretary of State John Kerry over the willingness of Palestinian leaders to make peace with the Jewish state, days after Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated long-standing statements that he would never consent to recognizing the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Kerry's visit was preceded by a stumble in talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with Palestinians negotiators threatening to walk out of talks due to Israeli construction of Jewish communities beyond its 1948 armistice lines and the Israelis accusing their counterparts of manufacturing pretexts to break off talks. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had for years gone on in the absence of a construction freeze by the Israelis. The Palestinian signal that they may walk away from the table comes after Israel conducted the second of four planned releases of Palestinian prisoners convicted of murdering Israelis. TIME noted that there were "joyful Palestinian celebrations welcoming the prisoners home as heroes," which the outlet said "added to the Israeli public’s anger." More precisely, among other things, Fatah leader Abbas Zaki told Israeli victims' families to "go to your cemeteries and recite over your dead whatever you recite" and described the released murderers as "fighters, knights, free men!"
- More than eighty Iranian prisoners have gone on a hunger strike to protest a lack of medical care, according to a statement released yesterday by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Defenders of Human Rights Center (DRRC), and League for the Defense of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI). The statement also described "torture during pre-trial detention and harsh sentences after extremely unfair trials" and stated that "the Iranian authorities are silently preparing the death of prisoners of conscience." It came on the same day as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that another 12 Iranian prisoners had been executed amid what the outlet described as "a surge in the use of the death penalty there." The United Nation's special rapporteur on human rights in Iran had reported weeks ago that there have been no fundamental improvements in Iran's human rights situation since the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Instead a wave of executions had already caused Iranian dissidents to declare the "end of reform." Rouhani had appointed as his justice minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, a figure despised by human rights advocates and anti-regime dissidents for helping to oversee the 1988 executions of thousands of political prisoners. Rouhani, himself a revolutionary-era cleric, has a history of advocating the mass roundup and imprisonment of dissidents.
Experts: Iran nuke program well-hidden, concessions on enrichment put non-proliferation efforts at risk
- Experts: Iran nuke program well-hidden, concessions on enrichment put non-proliferation efforts at risk
- Top House figures call on Senate to move forward with Iran sanctions
- New video documents Iran arming, training, and directing pro-regime Syrian forces
- Reports: IAF strikes Syrian missile cache bound for Hezbollah
What we’re watching today:
- Iran has made significant progress in concealing components of its nuclear program, and is "getting better" at the construction and protection of potential undisclosed enrichment facilities, according to statements by senior intelligence officials and analysts published yesterday by the Daily Beast. David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), described the Islamic regime as "better at keeping better secrets, better at compartmentalization of their program and they are better at cyber security," while a retired senior U.S. intelligence official explained - per the Beast - that 'it would be easy to hide a secret enrichment facility in downtown Tehran' through technological means. Tehran has also boosted its cybersecurity capabilities, in the aftermath of the discovery of several computer viruses used to sabotage and monitor the Iranian nuclear program. The existence of undisclosed facilities would dramatically change assessments regarding Iran's ability to dash across the nuclear finish line, which Olli Heinonen - a former Deputy Director of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog and currently a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School - this week pegged at two weeks. Heinonen and Washington Institute fellow Simon Henderson yesterday published a call urging Washington to "negotiate expeditiously" and emphasizing that any concessions offered to Iran - including the right to continue enriching uranium, which Tehran has repeatedly indicated it will demand - will "soon be demanded by other countries that have previously been denied those rights." The United Nations Security Council has demanded a full end to Iranian enrichment in half a dozen binding resolutions, and Heinonen and Henderson that "rewarding Iran in this way for noncompliance with its nonproliferation commitments would seem indulgent." Indeed Gulf states have repeatedly signaled that they intend to acquire nuclear weapons if they perceive that Iran is doing the same. Speaking last week in Washington, former Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal declared that Iran’s obtainment of a nuclear weapon "will make nuclear arms proliferation in the Middle East the norm" and suggested that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Riyadh is a member, should consider acquiring a "nuclear deterrent" of its own.
- Top Republicans and Democrats from the House of Representatives are calling on their Senate colleagues to move forward with legislation to increase sanctions on Iran, brushing aside concerns being expressed by administration figures that new pressure will damage efforts to negotiate with the Islamic republic over its nuclear weapons program. Experts and diplomats had already this week questioned the logic of the administration argument, pointing out that, inasmuch as heightening sanctions-driven pressure had coerced Iran to come to the negotiating table, increasing that pressure could hardly cause them to walk away. The Hill yesterday quoted Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) emphasizing that "the only reason that [the Iranians] are negotiating now is because of the success of the sanctions in place... need to enhance the pressure" and Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) saying that "existing sanctions have forced Tehran to the negotiating table, and we should be building more pressure instead of slowing down." The House passed its own sanctions legislation in July by a margin of 400-20, and parallel legislation is currently waiting for mark up by Senate Banking Committee. On the Senate side, Mark Kirk (R-IL) questioned why the U.S. should forgo strengthening its negotiating position while Iran was strengthening its hand by installing new nuclear technology, pointedly telling Reuters that "if Iran is capable of negotiating while violating international law, the United States should be equally capable of negotiating while imposing new sanctions pressure."
- The BBC yesterday posted footage captured from an Iranian cameraman who had been embedded with a unit of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fighters in Syria, documenting how top Iranian military figures are on the ground in the war-torn country not just supplying but also "instructing and organizing" pro-regime forces against rebels seeking the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime. BBC experts verified the video, which included interviews with a top IRGC figure explaining that he viewed the war as one between "Islam and the infidels," and describing how domestic and foreign fighters had been trained in Iran before being dispatched to Syria. Meanwhile Assad today complained to Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations' special envoy to Syria, about the presence of foreign fighters in the country. The Syrian strongman reportedly told Brahimi that "[o]nly the Syrian people are authorized to shape the future of Syria." It is not known whether Brahimi or any other official queried Assad about the crucial assistance provided to the regime by Iran and by Iran's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, which is known to have been critical in helping Damascus steadily erode nearly two years of rebel gains in the nearly three year war.
- Israeli Air Force (IAF) jets today struck a Syrian military base with advanced missiles that Israel may have thought were intended for Hezbollah, according to an Obama administration official who spoke to CNN. If confirmed the move would be the most recent of several times that the IAF has reportedly acted to enforce Jerusalem's long emphasized double red line against the transfer of advanced Syrian weapons to, or their capture by, terror groups. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon last week reemphasized that Israel would continue "strictly adhering to our 'red lines' in regards to Syria," and emphasized that Israel was monitoring the situation. Ya'alon's comments had come hours after Kuwait's Al-Jarida newspaper reported that Israel had intercepted a convoy of missiles being transferred to Lebanon from Syria. Asked to comment last May on Israeli airstrikes against Syria, President Barack Obama declared that "the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah."
- Syrian opposition attacks Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite forces in Damascus
- Iran disappears seventeen after raid on "network of homosexuals and Satanists"
- Murder of Israeli retired colonel is third murder, fourth terror attack by Palestinians in recent days
- Israeli military conducts long-range flight exercises as Iran brushes off U.S. "no enrichment" condition
What we’re watching today:
- Opposition forces battling to overthrow Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime launched an attack Thursday on regime-allied forces - drawn from Iraq and Syria, and fortified near a Shiite shrine in Damascus - underscoring the regional and sectarian dimensions of what Reuters described as "an increasingly internationalized conflict." Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite forces stationed in the Saida Zainab suburb of Damascus were attacked with mortar and gunfire, as rebel leaders struggled to launch a counter-attack in response to the loss of several Damascus suburbs over recent days. Hezbollah's role in the Syrian conflict has also come under heightened scrutiny in recent days. A video posted online appeared to show Hezbollah soldiers pulling severely wounded Syrian rebels out of vans and executing them, possibly during the Iran-backed terror group's fighting in Qusayr, where Hezbollah support was critical in the regime's successful efforts to seize control. Blowback from Hezbollah's entanglement - which has included both opposition strikes on Hezbollah positions and jihadist attacks on Hezbollah-dominated Shiite neighborhoods - has shattered Hezbollah's image as an indigenous Lebanese party promoting Lebanese interests. The group is rumored to be partially withdrawing from Lebanon, though sources who spoke to Lebanon's Daily Star yesterday were explicit and adamant that the group is remaining inside Syria.
- A Tuesday night raid at a birthday celebration in Iran resulted in the arrest of what regime officials described as "a network of homosexuals and Satanists," according to an announcement issued Thursday by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The arrested Iranians - among whom were people "who had tattoos, make-up, or were wearing rainbow bracelets," - were blindfolded and taken to an unknown location. LGBT outlet Queerty covered the story and noted that "in Iran, anyone suspected or confirmed of being gay, or being associated with homosexuality in any way, can be punished," including by death, and that the "arrests have prompted more alarm over the treatment of LGBT people in the Islamic republic." The arrests underscore systematic human rights abuses routinely conducted by the regime. Anti-regime activists have blasted Iranian president Hassan Rouhani for a wave of executions that have occurred since his election, and Green movement figures have called attention to the ongoing imprisonment of political prisoners. Observers are unsure whether Rouhani is able or willing to moderate Iran's human rights abuses. The revolutionary-era cleric has in the past called for the mass incarceration and execution of political dissidents.
- A retired Israeli colonel was bludgeoned to death overnight by two Palestinians wielding iron bars and axes, the latest in a string of deadly terror attacks that have generated fears that a spike in violence against Israelis is being deliberately driven both by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its rival Hamas. Recent weeks have also seen two other Israelis killed by Palestinians, and a nine-year-old girl was shot last week by attackers who approached her family's home. Top-ranking PA officials, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have among other things paid tribute to convicted terrorists, praised them on social media, and called on terrorists to launch attacks on Israelis. Meanwhile, in a statement on Wednesday, senior Hamas leader Husam Badran also called for renewed violence against Israelis. Analysts have linked what Jerusalem Post National Security reporter Yaakov Lappin describes as an "unmistakable increase" in attacks to Hamas's efforts to rebuild its terror infrastructure in the West Bank. Those efforts, according to U.S.-based counterterrorism specialists and Hamas's own material, are being orchestrated out of Turkey.
- The Israeli military on Thursday made a point of highlighting a "special long-range flight exercise," posting footage of the drill online and allowing journalists to draw their own conclusions as Iran prepares to offer a basket of concessions that fall far short of what analysts have said would be required to put nuclear weapons out of the regime's reach. Jerusalem has consistently said that it will act alone if necessary to prevent nuclear weapons acquisition by Iran, a country whose top leaders have repeatedly called for the Jewish state's annihilation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave interviews yesterday and today to a series of European outlets, warning of the dangers of offering a "bad deal," which the prime minister described as "a partial agreement which lifts sanctions off Iran and leaves them with the ability to enrich uranium or to continue work on their heavy water plutonium." Meeting with Netanyahu last month, President Barack Obama reaffirmed that that the U.S. was keeping all options on the table in order to force Iran to meet its international obligations, while National Security Advisor Susan Rice clarified that the U.S. would not accept any deal that allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium. Iranian officials have repeatedly brushed off the U.S. condition, emphasizing what they describe as an "absolute right" to enrich uranium.
- Analysts: Keep sanctions on Iran until program "fully dismantled"
- After Obama White House meeting, Netanyahu blasts Iran president as "loyal servant of the regime"
- Captured Iran spy targeted U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, "followed playbooks of most advanced intel agencies"
- Syria peace negotiations in danger after Assad nixes talks with Western-backed opposition
What we’re watching today:
- The New York Times reports that Western sanctions against Iran have put the country on the brink of economic collapse, with restrictions on financial transactions in particular having created severe hard currency shortages.Iran's expulsion from the Swift global banking network has compounded the country's difficulties and forced the regime to physically transport money into and out of Iran. International sanctions are being credited by some analysts with having forced the Iranian regime to at least make overtures to the West, even as the country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has in recent months banned meaningful concessions to the West and insisted that negotiations must not include any Iranian "retreat." Commenting on the efficacy of sanctions, Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael Doran this afternoon emphasized that they must be kept up and lifted only when Iran's nuclear program is "fully dismantled." An opinion piece in The Economist, which was generally favorable to the prospect of dialogue between the United States and Iran, also noted that sanctions were "crucial" in pushing Iranian leadership to the negotiating table. The Economistcalled for President Barack Obama to approach any negotiations in a "clear and tough" manner, and to pursue a comprehensive strategy that addressed Tehran's uranium enrichment work, its plutonium-related activity, and its existing stockpiles of enriched nuclear material. Iranian negotiators are set to meet with the P5+1 countries - the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K, France, and Germany - in mid-October.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke this afternoon to the United Nations General Assembly, questioning the assurances being voiced in some corners of the foreign policy community that newly inaugurated Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is willing or able to alter what is widely believed to be an Iranian drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Netanyahu described Rouhani as a "loyal servant of the regime," echoing statements made by Rouhani committing himself to following the dictats of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Rouhani served for decades as Khamenei's personal representative to Iran's Supreme National Security Council, in which capacity he played a key role in planning a wave of global terror attacks. Netanyahu's speech came a day after a Monday meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama, during which Obama reaffirmed that that the U.S. was keeping all options "including military options" on the table in its efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Writing in Foreign Policy on the eve of the meeting, veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller dismissed suggestions that there was daylight between Jerusalem and Washington, declaring that the West would strike a deal that satisfied both the U.S. and Israel "or there will be no deal at all." The West has called on Iran to meet the multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Tehran to dismantle its nuclear program. Iran will be expected at a minimum to cease uranium enrichment and plutonium-related work, to ship already enriched uranium overseas, and to open up military facilities like its Parchin installation, where Tehran is widely suspected of having conducted work relevant to nuclear detonations. National Security Adviser Susan Rice emphasized on Sunday that Iran would not be permitted to continue enriching uranium under any potential deal with the West.
- Israeli officials over the weekend released details regarding the arrest of an Iranian-Belgian citizen accused of conducting extensive espionage against Israeli and American targets inside the Jewish state, deepening concerns regarding the scope of Iranian terror networks and the sophistication of Iranian tradecraft. Ali Mansouri was captured with photographs of, among other things, Israel's Ben Gurion airport and the U.S. embassy. Veteran Israeli military correspondent Yoav Limor unpacked six lessons to be drawn from the incident, beginning with the observation that "Iran followed the playbooks of the most advanced intelligence agencies in the world" and had recruited "a quality asset" who had undergone "prolonged training (more than a year) that included various methods of intelligence gathering, with an emphasis on photography." Limor also noted that "Mansouri was sent by the Quds Force... [which] operates terror networks and orchestrates attacks," and so "it stands to reason that when the Quds Force sends a spy on a mission, the intelligence gathered will ultimately be used to perpetrate a terror attack." Washington Institute senior fellow Matt Levitt has become increasingly vocal in calling attention to what he last April termed a "return to tradecraft" by Iran and the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah. Levitt had previously described efforts by the Quds force to engage in "large-scale campaigns... to carry out acts of violence targeting not only Israel but also U.S. and other Western interests." A State Department report published in June described Iranian-backed terrorism as having reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s.
- Damascus has ruled out talks with a bulk of the opposition forces battling to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, excluding among others the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and calling into question the viability of peace talks scheduled to take place between various factions in November. Speaking to Italian press, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad said he would not negotiate with Al Qaeda-linked opposition elements, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem ruled out talks with the SNC on the basis of the group’s support for Western strikes on Syria. The statement was not the first time that Damascus has sought to exclude opponents based on their expressions of opposition, a standard that some have suggested may permanently stymie diplomacy. Earlier this year Syria's Foreign Ministry lashed out at the U.N.'s Middle East peace envoy for "flagrant bias" after Lakhdar Brahimi told a BBC interviewer that Assad was resisting the aspirations of the Syrian people. Russian officials today publicly suggested that the troubled talks would not take place as scheduled, and accused the West for being unable to deliver opposition forces to the table.
- Focus Shifts to Iran's willingness to make concessions, as Obama and Rouhani speak by phone
- Russia, Syria boast of victory as UNSC prepare to pass chemical weapons resolution
- European, global leaders call for E.U. to reverse itself on Israeli settlement restrictions
- Daily Beast: "global slaughter of Christians" must be addressed
What we’re watching today:
- President Barack Obama announced today that he had spoken by phone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, becoming the first U.S. president to speak to his Iranian counterpart since Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran and seized fifty two American hostages. The New York Times notes that Rouhani, himself a revolutionary-era cleric who subsequently spent decades as a consummate regime insider, had just days ago "declined to attend a lunch at the United Nations where American officials hoped the two presidents might shake hands." The Times also suggested that the "telephone call on Friday reinforced optimism at the White House" that Rouhani might be able and willing to change Iran's foreign policy and its posture on nuclear weapons, after Secretary of State John Kerry had already suggested that Iran and the U.S. could close a deal even sooner than the three to six month timetable floated by Rouhani. International arms control officials quoted by Bloomberg this morning expressed strong skepticism regarding the possibility that a deal could be cut in the short term. Evaluating Rouhani's Tuesday speech to the United Nations, Reuters yesterday emphasized that Rouhani had "offered no new concessions" on Iran's nuclear program. David Kenner, the Middle East editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, echoed the point in the context of Syria, noting that a speech given by Rouhani today ended without "offering the slightest prospect of a policy change." The White House briefing on today's phone call was kept on background, and so it is unclear whether Rouhani suggested a willingness to make any concessions.
- The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seemed set Friday night to adopt a resolution aimed at dismantling Syria's vast arsenal of chemical weapons, after the United States, Britain, and France were maneuvered into dropping their original demand that the measure include some means of automatic enforcement if Syria fails to comply. The result is that any future action against Damascus would require the UNSC to pass another resolution, which would in turn be subject to a Russian or Chinese veto. Moscow's insistence on limiting the scope of any mandate for current action against Syria had been a persistent sticking point in negotiations, and Reuters notes that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declared victory today and boasted on Voice of Russia radio that "no concessions have been made." Syrian lawmaker Issam Khalil echoed the contention, telling the Associated Press that the U.S. failed to "impose its will" in pursuing a so-called Chapter 7 mandate that would have provided the U.N. the authority to enforce the resolution. Analysts have expressed concerns that Syria's 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents and precursors cannot be located, seized, moved, and dismantled under the current lawless conditions that reign in parts of war-torn Syria. President Barack Obama today hailed a draft of the resolution as a "potentially huge victory for the international community."
- The Jerusalem Post reports that a group of European and global leaders - drawn from political, military, intellectual, and activist circles - are calling on European Union foreign ministers to reevaluate recently passed guidelines cutting off cooperation between European institutions and Israeli establishments beyond Israel's 1948 armistice lines. The letter, which was sent out last Monday, is signed by among others Jose Maria Aznar, former Prime Minister of Spain, Lord David Trimble, former First Minister of Northern Ireland and a Nobel Peace Price laurette, and Alejandro Toledo, the former President of Peru. The letter blasts the current E.U. policy as "discriminatory" and criticizes it for "prejudging the question of Israel’s borders, and in doing so... undermining the delicate negotiations that are currently transpiring." The latter critique echoes evaluations made when the measures were first passed, to the effect that the E.U. policy undermined the current U.S.-backed peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians. The measures have also triggered strain between Israel and Europe, and European programs in Israel have suffered as a result.
- At least 78 people were killed in a bombing outside of a Pakistani church Sunday, calling renewed attention to what the Daily Beast today labeled a "global slaughter of Christians." Anti-Christian violence across the Middle East and Africa has intensified in recent months, most prominently in Egypt where Islamist supporters of the country's deposed former President Mohammed Morsi have engaged in the country's worst organized anti-Copt violence in 700 years. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.301 by a vote of 402-22. The bill provides "for the establishment of the Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia," which Christians United for Israel Executive Director David Brog described as "an important first step" to addressing religiously-driven persecution in those regions. The legislation now moves to the Senate, where it is expected to face pushback from officials who argue that the legislation would limit the U.S.'s diplomatic flexibility.
- Iran denies willingness to make nuclear concession, nixes possibility of "fresh proposal"
- CNN: Western and Russian diplomats deadlocked on Syria resolution
- Iran reimposes Internet ban, claims "technical faults"
Car bomb explodes at Turkey-Syria border crossing, underscoring spike in tensions
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian media is flatly denying the details of a Der Spiegel report published yesterday describing Iranian president Hassan Rouhani as ready to decommission the country's uranium enrichment facility at Fordo in exchange for the West easing economic sanctions. Fordo is an underground military bunker that Iran has converted for enrichment purposes, and not only did Iran's ISNA news agency indicate that it would not be closed, but - per the Tehran Times - "Iran would not come up with any fresh proposal to the 5+1 group" with which Tehran is negotiating. Analysts and diplomats had already expressed skepticism regarding the offer. Robert Einhorn, who until recently was the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, cast doubt on Tehran's willingness to actually shutter the facility. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, emphasized that Iran has 18,000 centrifuges at its Natanz facility capable of enriching Iran's stockpile of low- and medium-enriched uranium to weapons-grade quality. Yuval Steinitz - Israel's Minister of Intelligence, International Relations, and Strategic Affairs - explained to Israeli Army Radio that "most of the centrifuges are not there; without Fordo they might be able to produce 6, not 7, nuclear bombs."
- CNN describes "bickering" between Western and Russian diplomats struggling to hammer out the details of an agreement that would see the international community acting to seize Syria's vast arsenal of chemical weapons. Russia is demanding that the threat of force against the Bashar al-Assad regime be absolutely dropped. France and the United States are demanding that the threat of force be absolutely maintained. Negotiators have found it difficult to reconcile those two positions. The proposal had already been written in a way that allowed Damascus to keep its biological weapons, which like its chemical weapons are classified as weapons of mass destruction. The lack of progress being made in the multilateral talks are being taken, in some quarters, as an indication that a multilateral approach incorporating Russia and China is unlikely to productively resolve the Syrian conflict.
- Iranian officials today blamed "technical faults" for the creation of a brief window yesterday in which Iranian citizens were allowed to access banned social media sites, reimposing restrictions and pointedly warning that they would be "investigating to see which... companies" had lifted the filters. Direct access to social media sites was blocked in 2009 following mass protests that swept the country after being organized via the Internet, and a crackdown earlier this year ahead of the June presidential elections was attributed to regime fears of another wave of protests. Western journalists stationed in the country announced that they were able to access Twitter and Facebook without the use of proxies, sparking what the BBC described as hopes of "the start of a more tolerant attitude towards social media by the government." Thomas Erdbrink, Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times, for example celebrated on Twitter "that feeling when the Iranian authorities finally decide you are wise enough to use Twitter and FB" and asked if "Iran’s Berlin Wall of internet censorship [was] crumbling down." The reimposition of restrictions is likely to renew criticisms of Tehran's efforts to create a “halal Internet” on which it can control and filter content. Secure Google searches, some Western political sites, and social media outlets are all blocked in the country.
- A car bomb exploded today at a border crossing between Syria and Turkey, injuring a dozen people and heightening long-held fears that the Syrian conflict would spread to Turkey. The explosion came a day after a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Syrian military helicopter that Ankara reported had entered Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings to leave. Turkey has intermittently threatened military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime, after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish jet that reportedly violated Syrian airspace. The spike in tensions comes after years in which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Assad enjoyed warm personal and bilateral ties, with Erdogan at one point inviting the Syrian dictator to vacation in Turkey.
- Leaked U.N. Report Piles on Evidence Assad Regime Conducted Mass Chemical Weapons Attack
- Amid Renewed Threats From Hezbollah, Israel Reemphasizes Chemical Weapons Transfer “Red Line”
- Greek Ambassador Blasts Turkey for Vetoing NATO-Israeli Cooperation
- Palestinian Gunmen Open Fire on Soldiers Protecting Worshippers After Fatah Officials Call for Attacks
What we’re watching today:
- A leaked United Nations report, likely set for publication on Monday, piles on evidence linking the Bashar al-Assad regime to the August 21 mass chemical attack on opposition-controlled Damascus suburbs. While the report will not explicitly implicate the regime, diplomats indicate that it will offer a "wealth" of evidence implicating Assad's forces. Analysts had already identified what kind of evidence might tie the Syrian army to the attack, and had emphasized that the detection of chemical stabilizers and dispersal agents would signal sophistication unavailable to other parties fighting in Syria's more than two-year war. Secretary of State John Kerry met Thursday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, as well as a large team of arms control specialists, to begin exploring a Russian plan to defuse the crisis by placing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under external control. Analysts have broadly - and increasingly - expressed skepticism regarding the workability of any such international effort. Also today, Syria announced that it had formally asked to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which would require Damascus to give up its weapons. By means of clarification however, Assad indicated that Damascus would not implement the treaty's requirements in the absence of U.S. guarantees that it would not attack Syria.
- Israeli officials reemphasized today that Jerusalem would enforce its long-established "red line" against any Syrian efforts to transfer advanced weapons, including portions of Damascus's chemical weapons arsenal, to the Bashar al-Assad regime's Hezbollah allies. Hezbollah leaders have in recent days repeatedly and explicitly threatened to attack the Jewish state, doubling down on rhetoric and threats that had already heightened over the summer. Hezbollah has also in recent days moved to redeploy troops into locations near to Israel's border. Meanwhile on Thursday, several mortar shells fired from Syria landed in Israel’s Golan Heights near the Israeli-Syrian border, increasing concerns that spillover from the war will threaten stability along Israel’s borders.
- Turkey continues to veto "even the most innocent" cooperation between Israel and NATO - extending a policy that stretches back years and which diplomats had hoped would cease amid a U.S.-backed reconciliation effort - according to Greek Ambassador Spiros Lampridis. The Jerusalem Post notes that the programs Turkey has nixed include 'joint exercises, intelligence exchanges, and research and technological development programs.' Turkey's efforts to undermine ties between Israel and NATO had been blasted for damaging interoperability between Israeli and Western forces, undermining among other things America's power projection capabilities in the region. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had explicitly bragged about his government's repeated successes in cutting off Israel from NATO initiatives, but a rapprochement facilitated by President Barack Obama was to see Ankara suspend efforts to diplomatically and militarily isolate Jerusalem. Lampridis lauded Israel for making a series of gestures designed to facilitate reconciliation, and - addressing increasingly vocal accusations that Erdogan is driven by anti-Jewish animus - declared that the Islamist Turkish prime minister "can do it privately if he wants... [but shouldn't] do it openly and expose a whole country."
- Officials linked to the Palestinian Fatah faction declared yesterday that Friday will be the "first day of popular resistance" against Israel, and have called for attacks against Jewish Israelis and the Jewish state. The statement by the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade was followed today by clashes that broke out after Palestinians opened fire on Israeli soldiers protecting some 1,400 worshippers at the Jewish holy site of Joseph's Tomb. Israeli soldiers returned fire, injuring one of the gunmen and eventually capturing another. The Palestinian government-linked media outlet Wafa earlier this week published an article blasting the rabbi of "Jewish fanatics" for asserting that Judaism's ancient Second Temple was built in Jerusalem. Palestinian officials - including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - have repeatedly and specifically sought to deny the existence of an ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and to vitiate the Jewish connection to Israel's capital. The position has been widely criticized as incitement, and is difficult to reconcile with public Palestinian pronouncements regarding the PLO's willingness to make concessions in the interest of a negotiated final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- Analysts, diplomats raise doubts over Moscow-facilitated Syria chemical weapons bargain
- Rouhani: Iran "will not give up one iota" of nuclear rights
- Day of sectarian violence rocks Iraq amid government efforts to stem Sunni insurgent violence
- WSJ: Movement to draft Egypt general as president highlights popular backing for military
What we’re watching today:
- Confusion swirled throughout the day as to the nature and scope of a series of Russian-facilitated deals designed to defuse the international crisis triggered by what is widely suspected to be the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime. NBC News reported that by day's end Damascus "appeared poised to accept the Russian proposal for Syria to hand over chemical weapons" and to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. In what Washington Post foreign affairs writer Jackson Diehl called a flat-out trap, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that any Syrian proposal be accompanied by a U.S. commitment not to use force against the Assad regime, with which Moscow is allied. It is unclear whether Washington would be willing to issue such a guarantee. Foreign Policy noted that Assad has dozens of movable facilities, and that "the U.S. intelligence community would have a hard time knowing where more than a fraction of the sites were at any one time. Reuters emphasized that in addition to the normal problems that inspectors face when confronting dictatorial regimes - the Iraqis, for instance, "lied through their teeth" according to non-proliferation expert Amy Smithson - it "would be difficult" to protect arms inspectors. Moreover fears that negotiations could be used by the regime to stall for time have been broadly aired, including by officials from the Syrian opposition, Gulf states, and Israel. Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled Al-Khalifa instead called on the United Nations to take what he referred to as "necessary deterrent measures" against the regime, echoing calls made on Monday by Saudi officials urging the international community to "assume its humanitarian responsibility to rescue the Syrian people."
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared Tuesday that Tehran "will not give up one iota" of its nuclear rights, deploying rhetoric that AFP described as "echoing his hardline predecessor" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The statements come a day after the chief of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog (IAEA) emphasized that it was "essential and urgent" for Tehran to address international concerns surrounding its atomic program. A recent IAEA report called specific attention to Iran's efforts to lock in advanced uranium enrichment technology, to bring online its plutonium reactor, and to destroy evidence of work possibly related to the development of nuclear weapons. Rouhani's response to the IAEA's call for greater transparency is in line with a similar statements made by an advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, to the effect that the revolutionary-era cleric's government will follow "the same trend strategically as the former government" of Ahmadinejad. It comes alongside Rouhanis's vocal support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, and may heighten skepticism regarding the new president's self-described moderation.
- A series of bombings and shootings in Iraq killed at least 24 people today, deepening fears that ongoing government efforts to stymie Sunni terror groups had failed - per the Associated Press - "to have dented the insurgents' ability to stage attacks at a high place." At least seven police officers were among today's victims. The deadliest attack took place south of Baghdad when gunmen shot and killed six people preparing the body of a Sunni man ahead of his funeral. Coordinated car bombs targeted multiple Shiite-majority areas, prompting suspicions that Al Qaeda forces were behind the bombings. More than 4,000 people have been killed in Iraq since summer began and approximately 800 Iraqis were killed in August alone. Analysts have expressed explicit concerns that Iraq may slide into "the scale sectarian slaughter" of 2006-07.
- A grenade attack on a military checkpoint in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula Monday left one soldier dead and two others injured, as insurgents sought to push back against an ongoing, widespread campaign by the army to uproot jihadist infrastructure in the increasingly anarchic territory. Scores of security officials have been killed in recent clashes across Egypt, with jihadists targeting both the army and institutions of the interim army-backed government. Leaders of the mass movement that called for the removal of Egypt's former president Mohammed Morsi have been targeted for assassination, as have government officials. The military's efforts to dampen the violence have long enjoyed widespread popular backing, and a Wall Street Journal article published this morning outlined that "a movement to nominate Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as Egypt's next president is gaining pace" as a signal of "Egyptians' yearning for stability and order."