- Syrian opposition head arrives in Washington asking for aid, as strategic city falls to regime forces
- US and EU lawmakers weigh aid cuts to Palestinian Authority after unity deal, evidence of endemic corruption
National Security Adviser Susan Rice arrived in Israel on Wednesday for consultations with top Israeli security and political figures, a day after the White House clarified that the planned discussions would focus significantly on negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 global powers over the former's atomic program. The White House had also emphasized that those consultations - per language used by Reuters - would not actually yield "any new developments on that front." The Jerusalem Post suggested that Rice's trip comes as Washington is preparing for what the outlet described as an "Israeli backlash" to a range of concessions that the Obama administration is rumored to be contemplating. The Israelis have among other things dismissed an Iranian proposal - which top figures from Tehran's atomic program have been hyping as a promising development in the talks - that would see the Iranians rejecting a long-standing Western demand that they dismantle or at a minimum downgrade the heavy water reactor being constructed at the country's Arak facility. The current IR-40 reactor will be able to produce at least one bomb's worth of plutonium per year, and once activated is functionally impossible to destroy. The Iranians have rejected any possibility of meeting their international obligations - codified in United Nations Security Council Resolutions - to halt construction at Arak and keep the reactor offline. They have also drawn a red line against modifying it into a more proliferation-resistant light water model. Instead they are offering to run the reactor at less than full capacity, a compromise that Israeli Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz pointed out would leave Tehran steadily stockpiling plutonium that could eventually be used to construct a nuclear weapon, albeit at a slightly slower pace. Negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran are set to meet next week in Vienna. State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on Tuesday that Obama administration officials "feel like we can start drafting and... like we can get [a comprehensive deal] done by July 20."
Syrian rebel groups on Wednesday began clearing out of the strategic city of Homs under a deal that the Washington Postdescribed as "loaded with poignancy for the opposition," with hundreds of fighters allowed to carry only a single weapon as they boarded buses conveying them to the countryside. The city is considered one of the "cradle[s]" of the now three year old uprising. Its central location in Syria - it lies along the country's main highway linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast - led Agence France-Presse (AFP) to characterize the rebel withdrawal as a "strategic prize" for Assad. Bloomberg News contextualized the events alongside renewed calls for Western military assistance to rebel elements, opening its write-up by noting that "[w]hile U.S.-backed Syrian opposition leaders in Washington are lobbying for better weapons, the Syrian government has forced rebels to abandon the city of Homs." Rebel chief Ahmad Jarba announced Tuesday night that he would specifically request anti-aircraft missiles to counter what seems to be a deliberate move by Syrian forces to heighten the use of barrel bombs against rebel-heavy areas. The use of the shrapnel-packed helicopter-deployed IEDs has been criticized as a war crime by Western leaders, but the rebels have not been able to field a battlefield answer to the Syrian Air Force. The New York Times noted that Jarba's call came as Assad "appears to have gained the upper hand in the civil war and President Obama has continued to express wariness about becoming more deeply involved." Al-Hayat Washington Bureau Chief Joyce Karam on Wednesday conveyed statements from Syrian opposition groups noting that "Assad is still receiving arms from Iran via Iraq[i] airspace." The Obama administration this week announced that it was recognizing the main opposition group's office as a diplomatic foreign mission and increasing its non-lethal assistance by $27 million.
Voice of America (VOA) on Wednesday conveyed statements from Edward Kallon, the U.N.'s resident humanitarian coordinator for Jordan, calling on the international community to boost its support for the Hashemite kingdom in order to forestall a potential domestic backlash against the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees that have flooded into the country over the last three years. Kallon assessed that those refugees will be in Jordan over at least the medium term, and that "we should try to enhance social cohesion rather than creating sensitivities that result in resentment, which is not going to help our total humanitarian effort." Only about one quarter of a U.N. appeal for $4.2 billion - all to be delivered in 2014 - has been fulfilled. The United States for its part earlier sealed an agreement this week to extend loan guarantees to Amman that the State Department insisted would "allow Jordan to access affordable financing from international capital markets, ensuring that Jordan can continue to provide critical services to its citizens." Observers had feared in early 2013 that the country was entering a cycle of instability - where a poor economy drove unrest, and unrest prevented economic fixes from taking hold - but angry demonstrations had eventually tapered off. Recent months have however seen a spike in tensions, and last week there was a wave of violence in southern Jordan that included the death of a civilian apparently at the hands of security forces.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) on Wednesday told the Jerusalem Post that existing U.S. law is sufficient to curtail assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) should a government emerge drawing ministers from both the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, as reportedly envisioned by a recently-announced unity agreement between the two groups. U.S. Legislation stretching back to 2006 is explicit that any government that includes Hamas is ineligible for U.S. funds, and news of the Fatah-Hamas agreement was quickly described by Al Monitor as potentially the "last straw for Congress on U.S. aid to [the] Palestinians." The House will hold hearings Thursday to examine the status of the deal and evaluate its likely consequences. The debate on the Hill comes as the European Union is moving forward on its own investigation into what seems to be endemic Palestinian corruption and mismanagement of E.U. funds. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) on Tuesday rounded up developments that have emerged since last December, when the European Court of Auditors found that some of the billions of Euros given to the Palestinians since the mid-1990s had been allocated in ways that violated restrictions and conditions on that assistance. The JTA indicated that "a lingering corruption problem that has plagued the [PA] since it was formed under Yasser Arafat" has now become the target of "an unprecedented degree of scrutiny" from E.U. officials. The piece quoted Arab politics expert Guy Bechor explaining that "until now, EU aid was unconditional... [but] for the first time, we are seeing serious moves for conditionality and transparency." The Palestinian economy would collapse in the absence of significant outside assistance.
Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Renewed focus on "possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program, as Tehran denies inspectors access to suspected warhead-related test site
Outlets and journalists over the weekend and into Monday continued to unpack what the Washington Post bluntly described as the "failure" of Secretary of State John Kerry's recent Israeli-Palestinian peace push, which had formally expired on April 29 but had functionally been suspended since the declaration of a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki had repeatedly emphasized that among other things Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist." The Washington Post, for its part, on Sunday reminded readers that "the numerous 'unity' plans announced in the past have foundered because of Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel or renounce terrorism," and declared that the aftermath of the talks' collapse had left "plenty of bad options" that U.S. diplomats would have to head off. The Post specifically worried that Kerry may make good on past hints of "embracing one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas, the issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood... [which] would satisfy some partisans but lead nowhere." Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg called on U.S. diplomats to draw lessons from what he described as a series of Israeli gambits aimed at creating space for a Palestinian state stretching back "even before there was an Israel." Goldberg noted that Palestinian leaders and their regional backers had "rejected each previous attempt to bring about [a two-state] solution." Political and even legislative fallout from the end of the talks has been steadily building. A tense exchange between Psaki and veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee in late April had already seen Lee declare "I remember you saying... they made progress on all the issues... I don't understand how you can even make that claim, frankly, with a straight face, because...the situation on both sides is demonstrably worse today than it was back last July when this process began." There had before and have since been a range of proposals on the Hill to slash U.S. assistance to the Palestinians.
Tehran is reportedly continuing to deny international nuclear inspectors access to the country’s Parchin military base, a site that Western diplomats and U.N. inspectors have long emphasized - per a 2011 report by the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - shows "strong indicators" of having been used for explosives tests related to "possible nuclear weapon development." Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) on Saturday asserted that the inspectors, who are in the country for a two-day visit, were not legally entitled to visit the Parchin base because it is not directly linked to Iran's nuclear program. The assertion has the potential to be taken as too clever by half. Demands for access to the military facility are grounded in among other things United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929, which calls on Tehran to clarify so-called "possible military dimensions [PMDs] of the Iranian nuclear programme." Non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. Western negotiators hammering out the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) had deliberately put off addressing PMDs, and U.S. officials had subsequently assured journalists and lawmakers that the issues would be addressed in the context of comprehensive talks. Iranian negotiators, for their part, have recently taken to suggesting that they prefer to put off such discussions until some time in the future, and to deal with other issues first. Observers have suggested that Tehran may be trying to maneuver the West into a position where Iranian negotiators will ultimately decline to address PMD-related issues, and instead functionally dare P5+1 diplomats to scuttle a final deal over the Iranian military's entanglement in the country's atomic program.
A top Hamas official declared over the weekend that the possibility of disarming the Iran-backed terror group never came up during unity discussions between it and the rival Fatah faction, a boast that seems set to widen concerns that the agreement - which among other things envisions a single Palestinian government eventually taking control of both the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and of Fatah-ruled parts of the West Bank - may be insufficiently robust to overcome fundamental obstacles to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Hamas Political Bureau Deputy Chief Moussa Abu Marzouk told reporters on Saturday that not only had disarming Hamas never been discussed, despite the almost definitional need for Ramallah to maintain a monopoly on the use of force, but that the organization would also refuse to recognize Israel. Renouncing violence and acknowledging Jerusalem's right to exist are two of three so-called Quartet conditions - abiding by past Palestinian Authority (PA) agreements is the third - that the international community has long demanded any Palestinian government fulfill. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted in recent days that the envisioned unity government will meet those conditions, claims that earned him an explicit rebuke for lying by former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar. The news came amid indicators that the deal was nonetheless providing a lifeline to the group, which until very recently had widely been seen as locked in a political and economic downward spiral. Traditional Hamas allies such as Turkey and Qatar immediately hailed the deal, and the Qataris reportedly pledged to deliver $5 million to the Gaza government in support of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in response to an explicit request made by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Meanwhile Palestinian media reported on Monday that Abbas had held a meeting with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Doha aimed at overcoming remaining obstacles.
South African security site DefenceWeb on Monday rounded up developments surrounding last week's announcement by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that he would block additional security assistance to the Egyptian army as a result of his "growing dismay" at Cairo's heavy-handed tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood, a move that came after the Obama administration had publicly committed to partially unfreezing its own halt in aid, which had in turn been widely blasted for risking bilateral relations while having little chance of affecting Egyptian calculations. Close military ties between Washington and Cairo had for decades granted American forces a range of preferential arrangements seen as crucial to enhancing American air and naval operations in the region. Analysts from across political and ideological lines had criticized the administration for creating a vacuum that could be filled in by other powers or, more worryingly, by geopolitical rivals. Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who by their own descriptions agree on almost nothing, described the freeze as undermining "nearly seven decades" of bipartisan American efforts aimed at "limiting Moscow’s influence" in the Middle East. Yiftah Shapir, Zvi Magen, and Gal Perel - researchers from Israel's Institute for National Security Studies - last week described a recently announced a deal under which Egypt would purchase Russian Mig-29s as "an alarm for decision makers in Washington" regarding a potential Egyptian pivot toward Moscow. Gulf countries meanwhile seen intent on taking the sting out of any aid cuts, and Reuters on Monday revealed that Gulf oil producers have in less than a year provided Egypt with roughly $6 billion worth of free fuel.
- Hamas stages "massive show of force" in West Bank as worries deepen that unity deal will revive group
A diplomatic spat between Turkey and Germany over the human rights policies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government escalated on Wednesday, as Turkish outlets conveyed critical remarks directed at Erdogan by German President Joachim Gauck regarding the behavior of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Gauck had had described himself as "horrified" at a range of recent crackdowns conducted by Ankara, from a massive purge of political opponents from the police and judiciary to ongoing calls and efforts aimed at blocking access to Twitter and YouTube to violent anti-demonstrator crackdowns. Erdogan had responded by mocking Gauck's former role as a former East German Lutheran pastor and doubling down on Ankara's policies, which had already generated suggestions from Berlin that Turkey was not yet ready to ascend to the European Union. Gauck responded Wednesday by declaring that he had actually "restrained himself" in offering his true views. Meanwhile U.S. officials piled on at Wednesday's State Department daily press briefing, with Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf describing conspiracy theories aired by Erdogan - in which the Islamist leader linked the U.S. to unrest in Egypt, Ukraine, and Turkey - as "ridiculous." Independent of controversies regarding human rights and civil liberties, Turkey's defense acquisition policies have also in recent months generated significant tension between Ankara and its traditional allies in Europe. The Turks have since the fall progressively inched forward on a deal that would see them purchase and integrate missile defense assets from China. One top NATO official described putting those systems online as the equivalent of introducing a virus into the alliance's command and control infrastructure. Separately, a speech given last week by Science, Industry and Technology Minister Fikri Isik - in which Isik said that Turkey was bolstering its indigenous production capabilities in order to avoid complications from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) - triggered concerns in the West that Ankara was seeking to circumvent binding non-proliferation treats.
State Dept.: Palestinian threats to disband government would have "grave implications," force reevaluation of bilateral ties
- State Dept.: Palestinian threats to disband government would have "grave implications," force reevaluation of bilateral ties
- Credibility of Syria chemical weapons deal in jeopardy, as U.S. and French officials describe "indications" of new regime attacks
- "Possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program under scrutiny, as confusion swirls over intentions
Top U.S. and Israeli officials on Monday reacted coldly to threats by Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders that they might disband the Palestinian government and transfer control of their territory to either Israel or the United Nations, with State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki emphasizing that the move would force Washington to reevaluate its relationship with Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring with resignation that "when [the Palestinians] want peace, they should let us know." Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee member Hanna Amerah reportedly told Palestinian media over the weekend that the failure of the peace process "could lead to the disbandment" of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the Palestinian body that controls Palestinian areas of the West Bank, which would impose new costs on either Jerusalem or the international community as they filled in. Agence France-Presse separately quoted an anonymous Palestinian official saying that similar threats had been conveyed to Martin Indyk, the Obama administration's special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself had apparently told Israeli lawmakers last week that a prolonged stalemate in the peace process would lead to the Palestinians handing over the "keys" to the West Bank. Speaking from the State Department podium on Monday, spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned Abbas against making any such moves, tersely assessing that "those kinds of extreme measures would have grave implications" on Washington's "relationship and our assistance." Palestinian officials emerged from their meetings with Indyk declaring that the U.S. was not presenting any new proposals to move forward a U.S.-backed peace initiative launched roughly nine months ago by Secretary of State John Kerry. Abbas has repeatedly rejected a range of U.S. bridging proposals designed to bring the two sides closer to an agreement.
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki revealed Monday that the U.S. had "indications" that a "toxic industrial chemical" had recently been used on the battlefield in Syria, and that Washington was examining the source of the attack, amid deepening suspicions that the Bashar al-Assad regime recently launched another chemical weapons attack against opposition elements seeking its overthrow. State's assessment tracks closely with remarks made on Sunday by French President Francois Hollande suggesting that Paris had "information" but not "proof" that the regime had launched another nonconventional attack, and it precisely echoes recent language about "indications" used by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. The deployment of weaponized chlorine by Syrian forces would present both diplomatic and political challenges for the Obama administration. The White House has battled for months against criticism that it was diplomatically outmaneuvered last September, when Washington dropped a threat of impending military action in exchange for a commitment by Assad to turn over his chemical weapons arsenal for destruction. The Syrians and their Russian backers took public victory laps as the agreement was hammered out by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the administration was subsequently criticized for among other things becoming de facto invested in keeping the regime stable enough to carry out its obligations. U.S. officials have in response circulated figures - including ones published this morning - suggesting that Assad may be steadily exporting portions of his arsenal. Chlorine, however, is not a substance that is outright prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Its use in battle is forbidden, but nations are allowed to possess it due to its industrial uses, and it was not listed among the key chemicals that Assad committed to exporting. Foreign Policy suggested today that evidence of chlorine use against Syrian rebels or civilians will "cast a dark cloud over" the UNSC agreement. The regime has sought to blame rebel groups for the attack, a claim that analysts have dismissed inasmuch as video evidence indicates that the chlorine-filled shells were dropped from helicopters, and rebel groups do not possess helicopters.
Reuters on Monday conveyed statements from Iranian officials describing efforts by the regime to prepare a document that would comprehensively lay out the development of the country's weapons program, a statement that the outlet read alongside long-standing and explicit demands from the West that Tehran must account for possible military dimensions (PMD) of its atomic program. The wire noted, however, that the statements - made to Iranian press by Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran's atomic energy agency - "made no mention" of "Western demands for greater transparency." Iranian diplomats had suggested in March that they might just wait until the very end of negotiations to address PMD-related issues, generating concerns that they intend to maneuver Western negotiators into a position where the Iranians would functionally dare the West to scuttle a mostly written deal over Iranian intransigence on those issues. The West wants Iran to account for activities ranging from what are widely believed to have been tests related to the development of nuclear warheads - in 2011 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accused Tehran of work at its Parchin military facility that provided "strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development" - to Iranian military participation in the development of the country's uranium stockpile. Iran is obligated under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929 to address among other things "the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme," and non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in Congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. A minor controversy occurred in late February when reports emerged that the IAEA had withheld a report documenting further PMDs for which Iran would have had to account. At stake are not just past activities, but the degree to which the Iranian military is tangled in - and must be untangled from - the Islamic republic's ongoing nuclear work.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News over the weekend characterized the country's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as having broken new legal ground - the exact language, per a statement by the head of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB), was that a lawsuit filed by Erdogan was the "first of its kind" - after the Turkish leader applied for damages from the Turkish state as part of an ongoing controversy related to Twitter. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had banned access to both Twitter and YouTube on the eve of recent nationwide elections, a move that was widely seen as aimed at dampening discussions of a massive graft scandal that had ensnared top AKP elites including Erdogan and his family. The bans drew global ridicule and triggered a diplomatic crisis with Europe, and were promptly overturned by Turkish courts on free speech grounds (the government restored access to Twitter but YouTube has remained unreachable). Erdogan's lawsuit appears to claim that the Turkish state allowed Twitter to continue being accessible, and Twitter violated his privacy rights by linking to purported recordings of him discussing how to hide vast sums of money, and so the Turkish state violated his privacy rights and owes him damages. Legal scholars interviewed by various Turkish outlets expressed skepticism regarding the soundness of the legal theory. Nonetheless two anonymous Twitter accounts that posted links to the conversations were apparently suspended in the immediate aftermath of Erdogan's court application.
15 new treaties signed by Abbas - including multiple treaties Palestinians are currently violating - blasted for endangering negotiations
- 15 new treaties signed by Abbas - including multiple treaties Palestinians are currently violating - blasted for endangering negotiations
- Congress launches pushback against Iran's appointment of UN ambassador linked to 1979 hostage takers
- Turkish opposition shows photographs of vote count irregularities, amid swirling charges of election tampering
Palestinian officials on Wednesday issued a release listing 15 international treaties to which they will now seek to join as the "State of Palestine," adding detail to a Tuesday gambit by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas under which Ramallah renewed its campaign to upgrade the Palestinians' status in international institutions. The move was widely seen as violating the terms of U.S.-backed peace initiative pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry, which had among other things been explicitly premised on Palestinian commitments to abstain from such maneuvers. Abbas gave a speech declaring that abrogating those commitments should not be interpreted as a repudiation of the U.S. initiative, but interpretation may have fallen short of being persuasive. A meeting between the Palestinian leader and Kerry, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was promptly canceled. The Palestinians subsequently revealed the list of treaties to which they intend to ascend, with Abbas signing and Palestinian diplomats on Wednesday submitting papers codifying those intentions. The list appears to be a hodge-podge of international agreements, with some having to do with minority rights, others having to do with the trappings of statehood, and still others seemingly chosen as PR bludgeons against Israel. Analysts quickly raised concerns regarding the Palestinians' willingness or abilities to enforce those various treaties. Bar Ilan University Professor Gerald Steinberg, who also heads the watchdog group NGO Monitor, openly ridiculed the suggestion that Abbas - who sits atop of a Palestinian political infrastructure marked by endemic corruption, and who himself is serving a ninth year in his originally four year President term - would enforce the United Nations Convention against Corruption. It is unclear whether the Fatah-controlled PA will be able to enforce treaties such as The Convention on the Rights of the Child in the Gaza Strip, which Palestinian officials consider part of the "State of Palestine" but in which Hamas routinely trains thousands of child soldiers. There were several treaties signed by Abbas on Wednesday which the Palestinians appear to be in straightforward violation of. Northwestern University School of Law professor Eugene Kontorovich had early on Wednesday gestured toward a deep tension between the Palestinians joining The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid while working towards a state from which Jewish settlers would be expelled. He might have added that Palestinian law currently bars West Bank Arabs selling their homes or properties to Jews on pain of execution.
Reuters reported Wednesday afternoon that Russia and Iran were advancing on a scheme that would see the Iranians bartering roughly 500,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for Russian goods, a plan that the outlet said would "enable Tehran to boost vital energy exports in defiance of Western sanctions" and which the White house had previously gone so far as to identify as the source of "serious concerns." Iranian officials reportedly estimate that the oil-for-goods deal would be worth $20 billion to the Islamic Republic, gifting Tehran with revenue far beyond what was envisioned by the partial sanctions relief provided by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Diplomatically, the move would be read as in tension with State Department talking points - shared with lawmakers and journalists - insisting that Russia would "compartmentalize" tensions over Crimea and continue to back Western efforts to secure Iranian nuclear concessions. Substantively, the deal would deepen increasingly trenchant concerns that Washington had lost control of the partial sanctions relief provided by JPA, and that the patchwork of restrictions is in danger of coming undone. Both issues directly implicate renewed moves on the Hill to reassert a Congressional voice in negotiations with Iran. Bipartisan majorities of lawmakers in both parties have long sought to pass legislation that would impose financial pressure on Iran in the future should negotiations fail to convince Tehran to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. The White House fought something of a political war against those efforts, arguing that new legislation would cause divisions between the West and Russia, and that in any case no new pressure was needed because the sanctions regime was holding. A scenario under which Russia split from the West to bust the sanctions regime would likely complicate the administration's arguments.
Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are moving to enact legislation that would prevent Iran from securing a visa for its newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, just a day after Businessweek had already described the choice of Hamid Aboutalebi as creating a "dilemma" for President Barack Obama's diplomacy toward the Islamic Republic. Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line when the group in 1979 seized scores of Americans inside the U.S.'s Iran embassy and subsequently held them for 444 days. Analysts had quickly assessed that allowing Aboutalebi to serve in New York on Iran's behalf would be seen by U.S. allies as evidence that "Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in our pursuit of a nuclear accord." The Hill reported Tuesday that Senators were urging President Obama to act against the Aboutalebi appointed, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced legislation that would empower the president to deny a visa to any U.N. representative considered a terrorist. The legislation was reported as having bipartisan support - it garnered positive quotes from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) - and on Wednesday parallel legislation was introduced in the House by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO). The administration has sought to remain largely circumspect on the issue, with State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf describing visa procurement procedures as "obviously confidential." It is unclear how long such a stance can be maintained. Skeptics of the White House's engagement with Iran - which administration officials have sought to insulate from interference by insisting that a positive "spirit of Geneva" must be maintained - have portrayed the pick as a deliberate provocation.
An official from Turkey's main opposition party on Tuesday showed journalists a photograph of a top figure from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) standing next to a police chief and an election official as votes were counted in Antalya during the country's March 30 local elections, the latest in a series of alleged irregularities that have generated protests throughout the country. Devrim Kok, the head of the Republican People’s Party (CJP)'s Antalya office, expressed outrage over "a minister who comes to the courthouse and stands over the votes during counting." The controversy comes amid several others related to last weekend's polling, with AKP opponents calling attention to everything from discarded ballots marked for opposition candidates to mysterious blackouts in opposition-heavy areas. Turkey’s blackouts had initially been blamed on a cat said to have wandered into local electrical infrastructure, but subsequent investigation suggested that the NATO country’s electricity infrastructure has probably been hardened beyond the reach of stray felines, and that the blackouts seemed to correlate with areas supplied by pro-government electricity firms. Turkey has recently made a series of moves aimed at dampening criticism of the AKP government, with the most controversial being a series of internationally criticized bans on access to Twitter and Facebook instituted on the eve of the recent elections. The country's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday lashed out at the European Union over such criticism, declaring that EU diplomats should consult with Ankara before criticizing Ankara.
Anniversary of Islamic Revolution marked with huge rallies, chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel"
- Anniversary of Islamic Revolution marked with huge rallies, chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel"
- Iran president declares nuclear tech pursuit will go on "forever," after Supreme Leader dismisses compromise with U.S.
- Analysts focus on Palestinian corruption as political, economic, and security concerns deepen
- Media reports of Israeli "diplomatic isolation" questioned as Israel gains two more memberships in multilateral institutions
- The New York Times on Tuesday described the festive mood at celebrations held today in Tehran to mark the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, reporting that "clowns explained to children the importance of brushing their teeth," "parachutists dropped candy into the crowds," and attendees were led in chants of "Death to America," "Death to Obama," "Death to Kerry," and "Death to [State Department Undersecretary Wendy] Sherman." Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that speakers and crowds had also indulged in chants of "Death to Israel," though those had eluded mention by the Times. The event came a day after the insidery NightWatch security bulletin emphasized policy consistency across the administrations of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, assessing that "Muslim zealots remain in control in Tehran... [and] their political theology relative to the destruction of Israel matches that of the Sunni jihadists" and that "Rouhani is no more tolerant of Israel and the U.S. than is [Al Qaeda leader Ayman] Zawahiri."
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared on Tuesday that Iran would continue bolstering its atomic program "forever," the latest in a string of intransigent statements from top Iranian officials that had already weeks ago been labeled a diplomatic "train wreck" by CNN host Fareed Zakaria. Rouhani's boasts came a few days after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed hopes for a compromise with the U.S., instructing Iranians to "pay attention to the recent negotiations and the rude remarks of the Americans so that everyone gets to know the enemy well" and blasting Washington for "hypocrisy and the bad and evil will of the enemy." Reuters noted for readers that 'Rouhani's comments appeared largely aimed at a domestic audience rather than signaling any shift away from a thawing in Tehran's ties with the West,' analysis that has become a mainstay of media reports and political analysis dismissing these and similar statements. Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and former top nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian have all in recent weeks, for instance, flatly declared that Iran would not consent to dismantling uranium enrichment centrifuges. A report published last month by the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) calculated that Iran would minimally have to dismantle roughly 15,000 centrifuges, alongside a series of other concessions, under any nuclear deal that could credibly claim to verifiably put Tehran's nuclear program beyond use for weaponization.
- A series of recent reports and developments have refocused attention on links between weak Palestinian institutions and endemic Palestinian corruption, underlining decades-old worries that internal structural barriers that may hamper the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Analysts have long called attention to at least four fundamental dynamics that risk rendering any Palestinian state a failed state: a lack of political legitimacy for Palestinian governments, a lack of economic sustainability in either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, the existence of rival governments in territories claimed by the Palestinians for a state, and the inability of Palestinian governments to check armed groups unconnected to those governments. The Jerusalem Post reported over the weekend that pressure is mounting on Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to appoint a deputy president. Abbas is more than halfway through the ninth year of his four-year term as president, and mounting accusations of corruption throughout 2013 - to say nothing of long-held suspicions of deep-seated corruption - have sapped the PA's political legitimacy. Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen last week blasted the PA as a "corrupt" organization and assessed that a recent uptick in Palestinian violence stemmed from the lack of a "financial horizon" in the West Bank. Last October the European Court of Auditors reported that roughly billions of euros of European assistance provided to the PA between 2008 and 2012 had been "misspent, squandered or lost to corruption." Auditors specifically cited "high-level risks, such as corruption or funds not used for their intended purpose." For its part The New York Times on Monday published an expose on what the outlet described as the "personal conflict" of Palestinians who work in Israeli-owned businesses in the West Bank where - because those businesses are subject to Israeli rather than Palestinian laws - they receive benefits and compensation orders of magnitude over what they would otherwise earn. The story cited multiple "Palestinian officials and boycott advocates" who blamed Israeli for "the moribund Palestinian economy." It is not clear how to what degree the reporting aligns with recent analysis and developments.
- Israeli officials today announced that the Jewish state had gained membership in two international organizations, one focused on democratic norms and the other emphasizing trade liberalization, with the country's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, pointedly noting that the developments contrast sharply with "reports of diplomatic isolation or a wave of boycotts threatening Israel." Israel formally joined deliberations with JUSCANZ, a 15-nation consultative grouping of non-European Union democracies linked to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, upping its standing in the body and redressing what Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor described as a "historic wrong." Prosor contextualized the decision as evidence "of the international respect for Israel democracy." The U.S. and Canada were reportedly critical in securing Israel's admission, and the Jerusalem Post noted that it came two months after Jerusalem was also admitted to the U.N.'s Western European and Others Group. Lieberman also announced that Israel had been granted observer status in the Pacific Alliance, a bloc of five Latin American member states – Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico - focused specifically on generating growth via policies promoting trade liberalization. The ascension will allow Jerusalem to take part in the alliance's staff work and attend its conferences. Israel is the first Middle Eastern country to secure the status.
Iranian and Russian media outlets, French officials highlight erosion of international sanctions regime against Iran
- Iranian and Russian media outlets, French officials highlight erosion of international sanctions regime against Iran
- Hezbollah Dep. Sec. declares group will battle, defeat Sunni ‘takfiri’ in Lebanon
- Reports: Hamas at ease with moves by Fatah rivals to boost ties with Iran
- State Dept. blasts Turkey over new internet regulations locking in censorship and surveillance
- Russian and Iranian media boasted this week about impending trade deals that may see Iran shrug off international sanctions, amid predictions from French figures that a trade deal between Paris and Tehran may be sealed within weeks. The Tehran Times today conveyed details from a Swiss-Iranian trade meeting, and quoted Gholam Hossein Shafe'ee - the head of Iran's Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture - describing Iran as particularly eager to leverage the stability of Switzerland's economy. Bern's scramble to suspend trade bans and relax reporting regulations relating to Iranian trade had weeks ago already been cited as evidence of an emerging "gold rush" mentality taking hold internationally as Iranian markets were reopened to the global community. Meanwhile Voice of Russia published analysis, datelined Saturday, assessing that "Russia and Iran are getting ready for a new stage in their economic cooperation" as "Western sanctions relief opens doors for an array of huge opportunities in a range of sectors, primarily energy and oil industries." Earlier this week Francois Nicoullaud, who served as France's ambassador to Iran from 2001 to 2005, predicted to Bloomberg that "initial agreements" between Paris and Tehran would be reached "if not in coming days then maybe within the next few weeks." Obama administration officials have rushed to triage what increasingly appears to be a feeding frenzy of countries and companies rushing back into Iran, warning off both France and Turkey in recent days and yesterday targeting a range of businesses across Europe and the Middle East for violating U.S. sanctions.
- Statements recently made a top Hezbollah figure and published today by Hezbollah's Al-Manar media outlet risk accelerating a wave of sectarian strife that, having been largely imported from the nearly three-year conflict in neighboring Syria, has increasingly generated open fighting between various factions and a wave of car bombs targeting Hezbollah in retaliation for its critical role in ensuring the survival of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. Al-Manar conveyed statements from Naim Qassem, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General, declaring that the Iran-backed terror group will 'continue its war against the takfiri plot and will defeat it,' and 'noting that the achievements in this context are to appear soon.' Al-Manar also described Qassem as asserting that 'the suicide bombings [against Hezbollah] are planned and executed by multinational takfiri criminals.' The gesture toward 'takfiri' is an accusation of apostasy, and is used by Hezbollah and its Shiite allies to describe not just Sunni jihadists but also moderate Sunnis battling the Assad regime and Sunni Muslims in general. It has been repeatedly used by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to justify warfighting inside Syria. Its increasing prevalence in Hezbollah’s rhetoric regarding Lebanese violence will deepen fears that hardened sectarianism, which has complicated efforts to dampen Syrian violence, will take hold in Lebanon.
- The Palestinian Hamas faction is content to let its rivals in the Fatah faction reach out to Iran - despite a decades-old proxy relationship between Hamas and its Iranian sponsors - according to a report published yesterday by Al Monitor. Hamas officials who spoke to the outlet emphasized that any rapprochement between the two sides should be seen as Fatah altering its long-held stance opposing Iranian influence, and that in any case "the road to a true rapprochement between Ramallah and Tehran is still long." Evidence began to emerge last month of active moves by Fatah officials to deepen their ties with Iran, after years in which conventional wisdom held that relations between the Palestinian group and the Islamic republic were somewhere between chilly and functionally nonexistent. The assessments were not without their problems - in early 2013 Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas thanked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Iran's stance on Palestinian issues - but the ongoing rivalry between Fatah and Hamas placed limits on the degree to which Fatah and Iran could or would cooperate. Fatah officials regularly blasted Iran for interfering in Palestinian affairs via its sponsorship of Hamas. Hamas's domestic and regional position has all but crashed in recent months, and efforts by Hamas to bolster its stature via spectacular terror attacks have repeatedly been disrupted. The new geopolitical configuration may have created an incentive for Iran to diversify its investment in Palestinian groups, but it may even be pushing Hamas to countenance closer coordination between Fatah and Iran as a way of bringing Fatah around to Iranian positions.
- The State Department on Thursday condemned new Turkish legislation passed this week that places sharp limits on internet use and freedom, with State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki describing the new measures as "not compatible with international standards on freedom of expression" and worrying that they would "significantly impact free expression, investigative journalism, the protection of journalist sources, political discourse, and access to information over the internet." Turkey's move to crack down on the internet comes as the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) - which has controlled the country for over a decade - faces arguably the most significant challenge to the rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he took power in 2003. Followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who are scattered throughout Turkey's state and non-state institutions, have been locked in open political warfare with the AKP. Gulenist figures have launched sweeping anti-corruption and anti-terror campaigns that have ensnared top AKP elites, and the AKP has responded with a wave of purges ejecting Gulenists from their positions and jobs. The AKP has also pursued further legislation limiting free expression. Erdogan had already last summer begun mobilizing populist opposition to the use of internet technologies - including and especially social media - when mass anti-government riots broke out over perceptions of government overreach. The new internet regulations, which still have to be approved by Turkey's president, provide broad mechanisms for blocking websites and dramatically expand the ability of government officials to monitor internet activity. The Australian Times reported Friday that the legislation is being viewed as an attempt by the AKP "to suppress corruption allegations and silence dissent. The New York Times described how websites with details of AKP corruption - including the popular sound-sharing website SoundCloud, where audio was posted of Erdogan seemingly trading zoning favors in exchange for two villas - have been blocked. Turkey's top business group, the Turkish Industry and Business Association, had already blasted the new internet regulations as a violation of "the individual’s fundamental rights and freedoms,” and the European Union had similarly expressed concerns.
- Calls grow for strong Congressional voice in shaping Iran deal
- Former U.S. Ambassador: Turkey ignored calls made at "highest levels" to assist in counter-terrorism, blocking Al Qaeda
- Dutch pension fund brushes off calls to cut off Israeli banks, undermines "increasing public perception that Israel is on the verge of wholesale boycotts": reports
- Concerns grow that Israel losing U.S.-backed Qualitative Military Edge in Middle East
- Senators from across the political spectrum, including some who have largely stayed on the sidelines during recent debates revolving around Iran, on Thursday called on the White House to ensure that Congress is given a significant voice is shaping a comprehensive nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. Politico conveyed a letter to White House and State Department officials from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) - who the outlet noted "has declined to antagonize the president legislatively on" Iran - to demand that "any further agreement... that lifts statutory sanctions on Iran should require approval by the Congress before taking effect." Politico contextualized Paul's concern as a reaction to recent statements by State Department Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, in which Sherman was asked about the possibility of unilateral Obama administration moves on Iran. Paul declared in his letter that "the intent of Congress was not simply to allow the President to waive all the sanctions in perpetuity at his behest." Meanwhile Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) took to the floor to sketch out the contours of what an acceptable deal with Iran would have to include, stating that Tehran must be forced to dismantle its atomic program to such an extent that "alarm bells will sound - from Vienna to Washington, Moscow and Beijing - should Iran restart its program anytime in the next 20 to 30 years." More precisely, the New Jersey Democrat emphasized that "a final agreement should move back the timeline for nuclear breakout capability to beyond-a-year - or more and insist on a long-term, 20 year plus, monitoring and verification agreement" and noted that David Albright, the head of the non-partisan U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), has calculated that "for Iran to move from an interim to a final agreement, it would have to close the Fordow facility and remove between 15,000 and 16,000 of its 20,000 centrifuges." Menendez committed to ensuring that "any deal the Administration reaches with Iran is verifiable, effective, and prevents them from ever developing even one nuclear weapon."
- National Journal on Thursday published analysis detailing how terror activities being facilitated by the Turkish government - Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top officials have provided "protection and access" to terrorist members from a range of groups, including Hamas and Al Qaeda - have now reached a point where they "threaten future cooperation on security issues." Revelations have been steadily emerging for months that Turkey is harboring Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas's West Bank chief and the one reportedly responsible for overseeing an uptick in violence in the territory. Recently leaked evidence also connects Erdogan to Saudi businessman Yasin al-Qadi, who the U.S. has designated for being an Al Qaeda financer. In one example, al-Qadi was provided VIP treatment and protection by Erdogan's security detail as he traveled through Turkey. Ilhan Tanir, the Washington correspondent for Turkey’s Vatan outlet, specifically called attention to quotes in the piece from former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey, who represented Washington from 2008 to 2010. Jeffrey was quoted describing efforts at "the highest levels" to ask Ankara to detail Al Qaeda members transmitting through Turkey, and notes that Turkish officials not only largely failed to comply but in fact "use terror if Turkey sees their political goals as commendable."
- The Jerusalem Post reported on Thursday that the Dutch pension fund ABP - one of the largest such funds in the world - has publicly rejected calls to disassociate from Israeli banks, with the Post describing the decision as running "firmly against the grain of the increasing public perception that Israel is on the verge of wholesale boycotts by European financial institutions." ABP had been pressed by anti-Israel activists to bend to the so-called Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and to cut its ties with three Israeli financial institutions. Even long-time detractors of Israel have criticized BDS advocates for dishonestly characterizing Israeli activities and for too openly seeking the elimination the Jewish state, and for its part ABP flatly asserted that the Israeli banks "do not act contrary to international law and regulations." The pension fund's decision is the latest in a string of setbacks for the BDS movement. Efforts to secure academic boycotts of Israel by U.S. institutions have triggered an intense backlash from literally hundreds of U.S. intuitions, and those efforts by now have become something of a punch line. Commercial boycott efforts - which seek to economically suffocate Israeli Jews, a strategy that the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has identified as soaked in anti-Semitism - have been covered heavily in recent weeks after an extended public campaign to urge Scarlett Johansson to drop her association with Israeli company SodaStream backfired badly. Johansson not only rejected those calls but also disassociated herself from Oxfam, where she had been a goodwill ambassador, over the group's increasingly public ties to pro-BDS groups. The Israel Project (TIP) received broad coverage for a Super Bowl campaign mobilizing support for Johansson. The campaign, conducted largely on Facebook and Twitter, offered links to a "Thank Scarlett" page where activists and others could send letters of support to the American actress, model, and singer. The TIP campaign continued into this week, and the page is here.
- A string of recent developments and revelations in the Middle East has refocused attention on the degree to which a long-time national security priority of the United States - ensuring that Israel maintains its so-called Qualitative Military Edge (QEM) in the region - is being eroded. The Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) this week published its insidery The Military Balance 2014 report, documenting among other things that Saudi Arabia has risen to #4 in global defense spending, 10 slots ahead of Israel. Video of IISS Director-General John Chipman discussing the report and its main themes is here. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), last Monday published an assessment evaluating a dozen regional trends and concluding that while "the balance of power in the Middle East is getting increasingly difficult to determine," there are indicators that Israel's "vaunted qualitative edge" - especially and specifically in the context of air power - "may now be diminishing." Schanzer also revealed that FDD has "spent the last six months compiling data for a new website that helps visitors to visualize the complex balance of power the Middle East," and has created a site that "allows users to compare open-source data on armaments and capabilities by country or by coalition" in order to understand the shifting dynamics. That website is here.
European scramble into Iran threatens to undermine White House credibility, heighten calls for Congressional oversight over final deal
- European scramble into Iran threatens to undermine White House credibility, heighten calls for Congressional oversight over final deal
- Kerry tells U.S. lawmakers that Obama administration Syria policy has failed, says time to arm rebels: reports
- Turkish media: Final details being settled in Israel-Turkey reconciliation deal
Hamas reportedly pulls back anti-rocket force from Gaza border, heightens risk of escalation with Israel
- European companies are scrambling to rush back into Iran's newly reopened markets despite Obama administration statements insisting that the Islamic republic "is not open for business," threatening to undermine confidence in the White House's management of the diplomatic battlefield as the West and Tehran head into comprehensive nuclear negotiations scheduled for mid-February. Benjamin Weinthal, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, last week described the dynamic as one in which Germany's "European rivals are scrambling to catch up" to the "over 100 German companies... currently doing business in Iran," with the new capital flooding into Iran worth as much as $20 billion. The Financial Times yesterday described "a delegation of more than 100 French companies" that visited Iran on Monday for a three-day visit that the outlet described as "the biggest demonstration of western business interest in Iran for more than a decade." English-language news distributor Al Bawaba today published an assessment focusing on Iran's energy markets and headlined "Europe muscling for investments with Tehran." The potential for a feeding frenzy specifically in the energy sector has been a persistent concern of observers. In mid-January, foreign policy and energy analyst Aaron Menenberg outlined fears that the relief provided by the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) could trigger a downward spiral in which "how [sanctions] are removed is almost irrelevant in the long-run... no company wants to be the first one in, but none want to be the last." The White House has staked its credibility on predictions that the core sanctions regime against Iran would hold amid the limited relief provided by the JPA, opposite skeptics who predicted the downward spiral that evidence indicates may be occurring. Evidence that the administration had miscalculated the JPA's effects or misled lawmakers about its likely outcome may heighten already emerging calls for close Congressional scrutiny of a comprehensive deal with Iran.
- Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday told a group of 15 U.S. congressmen that the Obama administration's policy toward Syria had failed - and that Washington must rush to arm relatively moderate rebel elements as to offset both Al Qaeda-linked radicals and the Iran-backed Bashar al-Assad regime - according to Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin and Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg both had early Monday morning articles about the leaked meeting, with the former characterizing the remarks as evidence that Kerry "has lost faith in his own administration’s Syria policy" and the latter framing the remarks as calling for "a new, more assertive, Syria policy" that may include "more dramatic arming of moderate Syrian rebel factions." The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, who had also been briefed by Graham on the meeting, dryly opened his article on the incident by noting that "it is no secret that the Obama administration’s Syria policy, to the extent that one exists, is failing." The reports that Damascus has turned over less than 5% of its chemical weapons (CW) arsenal and that Assad was - per a Times of London article - stockpiling WMDs as "an insurance policy." They also came a day after White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough flat out declared on Face the Nation that the deal regarding CWs - which had seen the West forgo attacking the regime after it crossed an Obama administration red line against the use of such weapons - was "not falling apart." Recent days have seen a cascade of grim reports describing carnage inside besieged Syrian cities. A Saturday raid on Aleppo reportedly killed at least 85 people and another 26 people were reportedly killed in attacks on the city today. U.N. World Food Program chief executive Ertharin Cousin on Monday declared that the agency was having trouble accessing besieged areas inhabited by millions of civilians. The Syrian conflict's death toll as of the end of January, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, topped 136,000.
- Turkish media outlet Hurriyet Daily News described early on Monday the final compensation figure that Israel will provide to Turkey as part of a reconciliation deal between the two countries, years after Ankara largely froze bilateral relations in the aftermath of a U.N. report that confirmed Jerusalem's legal interpretation of a 2010 commando raid on a Turkish vessel. The Mavi Marmara was attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Passengers aboard the vessel - who were largely drawn from the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a group that Turkish law enforcement recently raided over terror ties - attacked Israeli forces who boarded the ship, and nine passengers were killed in the ensuing fighting. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and officials from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) pressed for an international investigation into the incident, but were disappointed when a U.N. commission confirmed that Israel's interdiction of the vessel was legal. Turkey had been steadily eroding its ties with the Jewish state - Erodgan famously stormed off a Davos stage in 2009 rather than continue to share it with Israeli President Shimon Peres - and Ankara responded to the report's publication by putting relations into a deep freeze. Erdogan was widely perceived, including by Turkish media, as trying to leverage anti-Israel diplomacy in order to regionally boost Turkey's position and his personal popularity, but the AKP's foreign policy subsequently all but collapsed in ensuing years after a series of failed geopolitical gambles. By 2013 President Barack Obama was able to maneuver Erdogan into accepting a reconciliation deal with Israel largely on Jerusalem's terms, though Turkish backsliding - driven in part by AKP efforts to placate hardline criticism over having folded on previous red lines - hampered negotiations on the agreement. Turkish reports published early this morning - which come amid renewed analysis describing Ankara's foreign policy as being in disarray - indicate that a final $20 million figure for compensation has been agreed to.
- Hamas security sources this weekend told Agence France Presse on Sunday that the Iran-backed terror group was withdrawing roughly 600 fighters from the border between Israel and Gaza, where they had been recently been stationed and tasked with preventing smaller terrorist groups from launching rockets and missiles at Israeli civilians and soldiers. Regular security forces, according to the anonymous source, would remain in place. Escalating rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip had in November 2012 triggered an Israeli offensive that severely degraded Hamas's command and control infrastructure and its arsenal, and was followed by a near-total cessation in projective fire directed at Israel. A recent uptick in attacks from the Gaza Strip had generated blunt warnings that Israel would act to reestablish its deterrent should the escalation continue. Israeli outlet Walla tersely assessed, per a characterization of Walla's report in Ma'an, that 'Hamas' move gives other Palestinian factions a green light to fire rockets at Israeli targets across the border.' Hamas is battling to overcome what is inarguably the worst credibility crisis that it has faced since it violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and analysts fear that it is trying to rebuild its stature by provoking a confrontation with Israel.
WSJ: After fiery comments, renewed concerns that Iran president lacks "ability to deliver" nuke deal
- WSJ: After fiery comments, renewed concerns that Iran president lacks "ability to deliver" nuke deal
- Egyptian military promotes army chief Sisi, sets stage for presidential ascension
- Focus on Israeli red lines, Russian arms shipments after mysterious Syria explosion
- Jihadists release tape showing successful missile strike on Egyptian helicopter
- Reuters today conveyed statements from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf confirming that the first round of comprehensive nuclear negotiations with Iran will begin in New York in mid-February, amid both news and analysis reflecting unease over the willingness and ability of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to offer meaningful concessions. The Wall Street Journal this morning evaluated interviews recently given to CNN by Rouhani and by Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, dryly noting that their intransigent tone and positions had "rekindled concerns in Washington and Europe about [Rouhani's] ability to deliver" a robust agreement. Zarif had explicitly accused the Obama administration of lying about Iranian commitments to dismantle nuclear centrifuges in the context of the current interim agreement, while Rouhani had ruled out dismantling centrifuges during any future agreement. The stance was quickly echoed, as Iranian media pointed out last Friday, by a senior Iranian cleric who cited statements from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A report published last week by the U.S.-based Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) had calculated [PDF] that Iran would minimally need to dismantle 15,000 centrifuges to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Obama administration efforts to contain the fallout from the Iranian statements, which saw White House officials describing the CNN interviews as geared for domestic consumption, were literally, openly mocked by members of the White House press corps. The Associated Press had already assessed last week that the Rouhani and Zarif's statements were set to "renew criticism that Iran is stalling and energize the push in Congress for tougher sanctions," while Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg noted that if Rouhani's statement is sincere then "there is no possibility of a nuclear deal between Iran and the six powers."
- Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was today cleared to run for president by the country's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), setting the stage for what is widely expected to be an easy glide into the presidency by the broadly popular and seemingly teflon military figure. SCAF also promoted Sisi to the rank of Field Marshal, part of what is being read as an all-but-explicit endorsement of his ascension by Egypt's military hierarchy. Sisi emerged as Egypt's most popular figure after the army's July 2013 ouster of then-president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-linked government, which came amid mass protest calling for Morsi's resignation and early elections. Egypt's English-language Ahram Online this weekend described Sisi as "the Brotherhood's arch-foe" and assessed that the Islamist organization is "more outcast than ever." The description is in line with an Agence France-Presse report from last week describing the Brotherhood as "in complete disarray." It follows arguments stretching back months by Washington Institute fellow Eric Trager evaluating that the Brotherhood's rigid, hierarchical structure made it vulnerable to disruption and decapitation. A presidential win by Sisi, especially if it is read as a firm popular rebuke of the Islamist organization, may complicate bilateral relations between Washington and Cairo. Last August the then-general expressed open anger at the Obama administration for what he described as America "[turning its] back on the Egyptians" as they battled Islamists. A diplomatic snub this week by the State Department risked further diplomatic deterioration.
- An overnight explosion reported in Syria's Mediterranean port city of Latakia, which Syrian opposition sources linked to action by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), has refocused attention not just on Jerusalem's oft-reiterated commitment to stem the flow of advanced weapons through Syria but on Russia's increasingly open efforts to arm the Bashar al-Assad regime. Reuters had reported on Friday that in recent weeks Moscow has "stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria," part of a campaign by the Russians to "raise [their] diplomatic and economic influence in the Middle East." The opposition sources that described this week's incident in Latakia suggested that the target was a shipment of Russian S-300 missile launchers, anti-aircraft assets that the Israelis have emphasized for years they would seek to interdict should Syria move to acquire them. Lebanese sources had earlier in the day reported unusually intensive IAF overflights in Lebanese airspace, potentially en route to Syria. The Israelis are thought to have taken action more than half a dozen times to enforce Jerusalem's "red line" against Syrian acquisition or transfer of advanced weapons. That said, details of this incident are murky - and as usual the Israelis have refused to confirm or deny an attack - and veteran Israeli defense correspondent Alon Ben-David this morning flatly ruled out [Hebrew] reports linking the IAF to the explosion.
- Islamists over the weekend released a tape showing fighters from the Al Qaeda-aligned Ansar Jerusalem jihadist group using a surface-to-air missile (SAM) to down an Egyptian helicopter operating in the northern Sinai Peninsula, the first time the group has demonstrated the capability to successfully deploy SAMs. David Barnett, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, described the video and read the attack alongside a late 2013 declaration by Ansar Jerusalem to wage a protracted war against Egyptian forces. For its part, TIME’s Karl Vick contextualized the strike as one of several recent incidents in which sophisticated weapons have been deployed by jihadists near Israel's borders. Vick outlined how "[t]he flight approach to [Israel's] Eilat airport comes uncomfortably close to Sinai foothills on the Egyptian side of the border," the upshot being that terrorists could use SAMs to down Israeli commercial aircraft. Vick outlined a number of scenarios that would mitigate such risk, the most straightforward being Egyptian move to secure the territory. Egyptian security officials have for months sought to do exactly that, albeit with uneven success. Moves by the Obama administration to freeze military aid to Cairo due to the army's ouster of the country's former president Mohammed Morsi were criticized for potentially interfering with Egypt's efforts to uproot the jihadist infrastructure in the Sinai.