New evidence of sanctions-busting Iran-Turkey cooperation complicates White House sanctions position
- New evidence of sanctions-busting Iran-Turkey cooperation complicates White House sanctions position
- Analysts pile on concerns that Iran nuke deal will collapse sanctions regime without further action
- Journalists press State Dept. over silence in response to anti-Israel incitement by chief Palestinian negotiator
- Explosion at Palestinian embassy prompts accusations of gun running, violating international norms
What we’re watching today:
- The Commerce Department scrambled today to issue what Reuters described as "a rare emergency order" designed to block a Turkish-based company from illegally passing along two U.S.-build commercial jet engines to Iran's Pouya airline. The broad order - which names multiple companies and would impose crippling consequences for any violations - comes amid deepening concern that extensive cooperation between Ankara and Tehran has allowed the Islamic republic to skirt international sanctions designed to force Iran to change its stance on its nuclear program. The Daily Beast assessed in late December that the open political warfare shaking Turkey - which has pitted elites in the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party against followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen - "could destabilize [President Barack] Obama's nuclear deal and threaten the government of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan." Judiciary figures linked to Gulen are pursuing a corruption probe that has already ensnared AKP elites, and that unearthed an oil-for-cash scheme between Tehran and Ankara that - per the Daily Beast - "may only be start of more uncomfortable disclosures about Iranian dealings in Turkey." Fully one-sixth of companies that began investing in Turkey in 2013 were backed by Iranian money, and Turkish outlet Zaman outlined over the weekend how Turkey and Iran building mechanisms to further boost their cooperation in the coming weeks and months. The domestic political stakes in the United States are fairly straightforward. A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced legislation that would boost U.S. leverage in negotiations with Iran by codifying future sanctions should Iran either cheat during an upcoming six-month negotiation period or, after negotiations conclude, refuse to put its nuclear program verifiably beyond use for weaponization. The Obama administration has fiercely fought the legislation, insisting that the remaining sanctions against Iran are sufficient and holding. Evidence that Iran is able to successfully maneuver around international sanctions is likely to deepen skepticism toward the White House's position.
- The Jerusalem Post described over the weekend how the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) announced in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 global powers has "opened the investment floodgates for Western companies seeking to capitalize on a new business environment in Iran," the latest in what has become a stream of analysis suggesting that the financial relief provided to Iran under the JPA has triggered a feeding frenzy of entities seeking to be the first - or at the very least, not the last - to re-enter Iran's markets. Analysis published last week in Der Spiegel noted that "although none of the sanctions have been lifted, droves of Western business people are already flocking to Tehran." A week before that the Washington Post reported that the U.A.E. was scrambling to co-develop energy resources with Iran. Earlier in December Patrick Blain, president of the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, predicted that "international investors are expected to re-enter Iran’s market soon." For its part the Jerusalem Post quoted Bar-Ilan University professor Gerald M. Steinberg assessing that "the gold rush is on to resume business as usual" and Brookings Institute senior Michael Doran explaining that the Western position "has sent a clear message that doing business with Iran is now legitimate... creat[ing] an influential economic lobby in the West dedicated to ensuring that the Americans and Iranians remain on that path." The Post also quoted Tommy Steiner, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, emphasizing that the dynamic "undercuts the negotiating posture of the US and the EU in the next round of negotiations." Concerns over the extent to which the U.S. will have leverage in upcoming negotiations have direct political stakes in Washington, with the House and a bipartisan group of senators insisting that new legislation must be passed to bolster the sanctions regime should Iran refuse to meet its international obligations to dismantle its nuclear program.
- Comments made last Friday by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat - in which Erekat accused Israel of poisoning former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and expressed concerns that Jerusalem would similarly kill sitting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - became fodder for a tense exchange at today's State Department briefing, with journalists pressing Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf on Washington's stance regarding Palestinian incitement. A spike in Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians has deepened Jerusalem's concerns regarding statements and actions made by top Palestinian figures that demonize Israel and celebrate violence. Abbas, for instance, has embraced Palestinian terrorists freed in both December and October as "heroes." Israel's cabinet this weekend blasted what Israeli officials described as the Palestinian "culture of hate," and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had declared the previous week that "true peace cannot exist without stopping the incitement against Israel and educating for peace." At today's briefing, journalists questioned Harf over the State Department's refusal to publicly condemn Erekat's Friday comments, asking among other things why Foggy Bottom refused to be forthright in declaring that the obviously false conspiracy theory regarding Arafat's death was not just false but also "certainly not the kind of thing that prepares or helps prepare the Palestinian people for... an eventual peace deal." Harf responded by delineating between public and private conversations, prompting journalists to ask whether Washington, as a declared "honest broker," had "an obligation to speak out when someone says something that is not honest, when something is dishonest." Harf eventually said that she had not yet seen Erekat's comments and would examine them further. By the end of the afternoon Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee noted that that State Department was continuing to resist taking a public position on the incident specifically or more broadly on Israeli complaints regarding Palestinian incitement.
- Last week's strange episode in the Palestinian embassy in the Prague, in which the Palestinian ambassador to the Czech Republic was killed by an explosion inside the building, escalated over the weekend into a potential scandal as reports emerged that Palestinians may be using the country as a transit point for European weapons smuggling. Jamal al-Jamal was killed last week when materials that were being kept in an embassy safe exploded, fatally injuring the Palestinian official. Conflicting details about the incident almost instantly emerged, with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki saying the safe had not been used for decades and Palestinian Embassy spokesman Nabil El-Fahel insisting on Czech radio that it "was used on a daily basis... and was opened and closed almost every day." On Saturday a Czech media outlet published statements by the country's former chief-of-staff Jiri Sedivy describing the weapons storage as a "blatant violation of diplomatic norms and habits" and speculating that "maybe the affair in question involves a well organised weapons and explosives distribution network." The statements came amid reports that Czech officials had found roughly 70 unregistered weapons in the embassy. Suspicions that the Palestinians severely breached international norms are likely to deepen concerns that the Palestinian Authority lacks sufficiently robust political institutions to declare and sustain an independent Palestinian state.
Controversy swirls in Congress as House moves to reframe Iran agreement, Senate delays sanctions legislation
- Controversy swirls in Congress as House moves to reframe Iran agreement, Senate delays sanctions legislation
- European Union audit blasts Palestinian funding, demands overhaul of program elements
- Amid controversy over negotiations, investigators confirm chemical weapons use in Syria
- NYT: Suez attack latest in "string of car bombs and suicide attacks" in Egypt, as government moves toward vote on new constitution
What we’re watching today:
- The Washington Free Beacon late on Wednesday published details of measures emerging from the House of Representatives seeking to - per the outlet - "reset the terms of a controversial nuclear accord reached between Iran and Western nations several weeks ago in Geneva." Language that emerged Thursday evening from the office of Rep. Peter Roskan (R-IL) sought to circumscribe a future deal between global powers and the Islamic republic, and received bipartisan backing from Reps. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Gene Green (D-TX), and Dan Lipinski (D-IL). It insisted that any comprehensive agreement between Iran and the international community should demand that the Islamic republic "completely dismantle all enrichment facilities and cease all centrifuge production" and "completely dismantle its heavy-water plutonium reactor at Arak." The language is in line with half a dozen United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions calling on Tehran to suspend its nuclear program. It comes amid developments in both the House and Senate which conceded to demands from the Obama administration to take no action to increase pressure on the Islamic republic for at a minimum months. In the Senate Bob Corker (R-TN) explained that the White House had prevailed upon lawmakers, via what The Hill described as a "full-scale effect," to put off new sanctions against Iran. In the House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer withdrew previously announced support for motions that would impose conditions on negotiations.
- The Wall Street Journal yesterday noted that few programs funded by the European Union are marked by as much controversy as "EU assistance to the Palestinian Authority," with the bloc having provided more than five and a half billion Euros to the Palestinians since the peace process began in the mid 1990s. The Journal described funding as having "long been the target of a string of claims and counter-claims," and described criticism as having pinpointed not just graft - which has long been a target of internal and external Palestinian Authority (PA) critics - but more specifically the diversion of funds to the pockets of Palestinian terrorists and their families. Evaluation of EU's Pegase plan, according to an audit released this week, indicated that "a number of aspects of the current approach are increasingly in need of overhaul." The Times of Israel late on Thursday conveyed frustration from EU officials and quoted Hans Gustaf Wessberg, the Swedish head of the auditors’ team, saying that "when people who do not work are being paid, this goes against the agreement with Pegase." The robustness of Palestinian economic institutions has been a central pivot point in debates over whether a sustainable Palestinian state is achievable in the short or medium terms. Analysts have expressed doubts over whether an independent state could sustain itself in the absence of international funding, and regarding whether international donors would be willing to continue funding such an entity in the absence of checks on among other things corruption.
- The United Nations late on Thursday confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in the almost three year Syrian conflict, with experts investigating more than half a dozen alleged uses of proscribed weapons and - in what CNN described as "the case that was most clear" - documenting an August incident near Damascus. CNN also described "graphic video footage showed rows of bodies without apparent injury, as well as people suffering convulsions or apparently struggling to breathe." The report comes amid deepening controversy over the context and scope of upcoming Geneva II talks designed to facilitate a resolution to the conflict, with news emerging that over 30 countries, among them Iran and Saudi Arabia, invited to attend. The two states are respectively the key backers of the Bashar al-Assad regime and of elements of the opposition seeking the regime's overthrow. Riyadh has been accused, less so than Turkey and Qatar but more so than the West, of providing support to extremist elements at the expense of more moderate Western-backed forced. The consistent erosion of U.S.-backed fighters became particular pointed this week, with a top commander of the Free Syrian Army being forced out of the country as Islamists overran the positions of the Free Syrian army (FSA). Reuters reported today that the relative power dynamics inside Syria had forced the opposition to seek the protection of Al Qaeda-linked groups.
- The New York Times reported late on Thursday that a bomb had exploded near Egypt's Suez Canal, with one person being killed and dozens being wounded. The NYT contextualized the bombing as one of a "string of car bombs and suicide attacks" that have occurred since the Egyptian military on July 3 deposed the country's Muslim Brotherhood then-president Mohammed Morsi. The violence came shortly after an announcement by the country's military-backed government that a draft constitution designed to facilitate a democratic transition would be put to a national vote in a matter of weeks. English-language Egyptian media outlets wrote that an article in the new constitution dealing with civil liberties "could be seen as an improvement on the equivalent articles from the 1971 and 2012 constitutions as it limits the types of cases for which a civilian could stand trial before a military court," though a different article in the same outlet documented criticism by activists regarding "the potential for future labour action under the provisions of the draft charter." The Israel-oriented Algemeiner outlet noted on Thursday that the draft constitution deemphasized Islamic law, though the outlet acknowledged that the new version had not completely removed mentions to Sharia.
Israeli team to travel to U.S. after Obama call "to begin consultations immediately" over final Iran deal
- Israeli team to travel to U.S. after Obama call "to begin consultations immediately" over final Iran deal
- After revelations that interim Iran deal not finalized, worries deepen Tehran may pocket concessions and abandon further talks
- Israeli leaders echo Netanyahu doubts over interim Iran deal
- U.S.-Iran dispute over enrichment concessions threatens comprehensive talks
What we’re watching today:
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that an Israeli team would be traveling to the United States to - per the Jerusalem Post - 'work on a final status nuclear deal with Iran,' amid growing criticism of moves by the Obama administration to lock Israel out of months of previous negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Netanyahu made the statements at a meeting of his Likud party today, also emphasizing that Israel's position would be oriented toward promoting and securing a comprehensive agreement that "must bring about one outcome: the dismantling of Iran's military nuclear capability." The Israeli prime minister had earlier spoken with President Barack Obama on Sundayregarding the details of this weekend's interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. A White House readout of the call indicated that Obama told Netanyahu "that he wants the United States and Israel to begin consultations immediately regarding [U.S.] efforts to negotiate a comprehensive solution."
- News broke mid-Monday that the final details of this weekend's interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran had not yet been agreed upon, and that the six month period during which Iran is expected to negotiate over a comprehensive deal - and during which U.S. negotiators had committed to preventing the imposition of new nuclear-related sanctions - had not yet started. Evaluating the development, The Hill pointedly noted that the interim deal's announcement had nonetheless already boosted Iran's economic position, "with the Iran's currency, the rial, jumping three percent on Sunday and oil markets sagging in expectation of increased supply." News also emerged today that the European Union may remove certain sanctions on Tehran within weeks. The sum of the developments may deepen worries that asymmetries built into the interim deal - the terms of which only require Iran to 'freeze' its nuclear program as-is, but provide irreversible concessions to Tehran - may allow the Islamic republic to pocket interim concessions and eventually walk away from further negotiations. Most straightforwardly, Iran will get to pocket the billions in financial relief its gets, which Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), estimated this weekend would ultimately amount to roughly $20 billion. Dubowitz and FDD senior fellow Orde Kittrie today outlined how "the agreement greatly weakens Western economic sanctions" inasmuch as "Iranian sanctions-busters will be in position to exploit the changing market psychology and newly created pathways to reap billions of additional dollars in economic relief beyond those projected by the Obama administration." The New York Times echoed the point, conveying the concerns of critics in "Congress, the Arab world and Israel" to the effect that "the roughly $100 billion in remaining sanctions will gradually be whittled away [by wily] middlemen, Chinese eager for energy sources and Europeans looking for a way back to the old days." Iran may calculate that the direct injection of capital, coupled with the economic benefits of currency gains, are sufficient to wait for the disintegration of the international community's sanctions regime.
- Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum are echoing deep skepticism expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding this weekend's interim deal between the P5+1 and Iran, after Netanyahu blasted the agreement as a "historic mistake" and committed Jerusalem to acting in the "diplomatic arena" and "in other areas" to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who as head of Israel's center-left Hatnuah party ran against Netanyahu and his Likud party in the last elections, described the agreement as a "terrible deal that will threaten not only us, but the entire world." Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who as head of Israel's center-right Jewish Home party also ran against Netanyahu, not only described the agreement as a "bad deal" but emphasized that it would "increase the need for Israeli [military] action." Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz, from Netanyahu's own Likud party, declared that "the present agreement could actually bring Iran closer to building the bomb."
- A dispute over the degree to which Iran won enrichment concessions in this weekend's interim deal has pitted Iran and Russia on one hand against the U.S. and Britain on the other, and is threatening to severely complicate talks aimed at achieving a comprehensive agreement over Tehran's nuclear program. Iranian leader - including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif - boasted over the weekend that the U.S. had caved on its long-standing position that Iran would not be permitted to enrich uranium under a final accord. The U.S. and Britain both flatly denied Iran's interpretation. The interim language, however, describes a future comprehensive solution as involving "a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program." Observers including the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl, the Post's David Ignatius, and the Daily Beast's Eli Lake all noted that a plain reading of the language favors the Iranian interpretation. The diverging interpretations will present a challenge for U.S. diplomats pursuing a comprehensive deal. The U.S. will either have to compel Iran to change its position, which will be difficult inasmuch Iranian leaders are trumpeting the language as a core victory, or the U.S. will have to concede Iran’s position, abrogating assurances made by the administration to U.S. lawmakers and allies, and giving up on half a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend enrichment. In 2009 the New York Times reported that "administration officials... said that any new American policy would ultimately require Iran to cease enrichment, as demanded by several United Nations Security Council resolutions." In 2010 then-White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs ruled out allowing Iran to enrich because "if the Iranians are sincere in a peaceful program, their needs can be met without undertaking its own enrichment program, which call into question its motives." The same year Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley emphasized that Iran "continues to enrich uranium and has failed to suspend its enrichment program as has been called for in UN Security Council resolutions; that’s our core concern." The administration's lead negotiator Wendy Sherman told Congress as recently as last month that "the President has circumscribed what he means by the Iranian people having access… access, not right, but access to peaceful nuclear energy in the context of meeting its obligations."
- Hagel: Israeli pressure was key to bringing Iran to the table, Netanyahu not trying to derail talks
- EU legislation, U.S. sting operations call attention to Iranian regime exploitation of civilian infrastructure
- Palestinian president doubles down on refusal to recognize Jewish state, threatening peace talks
- WSJ: Iranian-American businessman met with Iranian president to map out anti-sanctions push
What we’re watching today:
- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel this week brushed off suggestions that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to derail talks between the international community and Iran, emphasizing instead that Netanyahu is "legitimately concerned" over the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions and that - in any case - Iran had come to the table partly due to "the constant pressure from Israel." Hagel noted that U.S. sanctions had also "done tremendous economic damage." The point, made in a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, echoes years of analysis suggesting that a credible threat of force should be leveraged to minimize what benefits Iran could expect from continued nuclearization. President Barack Obama has also consistently reiterated that diplomatic initiatives must be coupled with a credible threat of force in order to compel Iran to negotiate over its program. Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff took particular note of how Hagel had implied that "Israel's credible threat, not America's, helped bring Iran [to] the table." Golberg's questions, and Hagel's responses, came against the backdrop of comments by Secretary of State John Kerry - widely perceived to be aimed at Netanyahu - criticizing "fear tactics" used by skeptics of Iranian intentions. Kerry's comments were made at an event sponsored by the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that Goldberg described as one "which sometimes seems overly relaxed about the danger of a nuclear Iran."
- The Wall Street Journal yesterday described efforts being made by European Union (EU) officials to maintain pressure against Iran's national cargo fleet, and more specifically against the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), after the EU General Court overturned sanctions on the fleet last September. The U.S. Treasury Department in 2008 imposed sanctions on IRISL and on 123 of its ships for the company's and vessels' roles in "providing logistical services to Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics." IRISL officials subsequently moved to evade U.S. sanctions via a campaign of what Adam Szubin, the director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, described as "deception, fraud and dangerous activities on behalf" of Iran. The Journal also notes - in addition to cataloging an array of other ways that IRISL has allegedly collaborated with the Iranian regime - that sanctions have nonetheless "had a visible effect on the group's usefulness to the Iranian regime," underscoring the degree to which pressure has limited the utility of ostensibly private and civilian infrastructure to Tehran. The story came on the same day as the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security published a report outlining how U.S. sting operations have netted Iranian operatives seeking to evade missile export restrictions. Reza Olangian is alleged to have been a so-called "'core' Iranian procurement agent," which is to say one who "who works with relative immunity from inside Iran placing orders directly for the Iranian military or for companies procuring for it." He had been lured outside the safety of Iranian territory by a U.S. operation revolving around the ostensible sale of surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles.
- Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated on Monday his refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state even in the context of a final peace agreement, complicating the efforts of negotiators engaged in U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to reach a formula acceptable to both sides. The fundamental Israeli demand stretches back years, and in 2011 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the condition as a "basic demand," imploring Abbas to "accept a Jewish state" after Netanyahu had "stood before [his] people and said [he] would accept a Palestinian state." Israeli officials have gone so far as to foreground the issue as one covering "90% of the conflict." Abbas has consistently refused to meet those requests - to the point where meetings have been adjourned due to his stance - raising fears that Palestinian leaders view the conflict as one of Israel's existence rather than as a limited territorial dispute. Specifically the Israelis fear that Abbas's instransigence is borne of a desire to maintain territorial claims on Israeli territory even after a peace deal is hammered out. Rumors floated yesterday by Israeli politicians hinted that the U.S. is preparing its own bridging proposals in case the Israelis and Palestinians are unable to forge such an agreement.
- A Wall Street Journal opinion piece reveals that top Iranian officials - including Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and his chief of staff Mohammad Nahavandian - met in September in New York with Iranian-American businessman Ekram Manafzadeh and that, according to the Journal, they 'hatched' an idea described by Manafzadeh as having him "register... an organization" in his U.S. office to "advance trading with Iran." Manafzadeh indicated to the Journal that he will use the recently founded Iran America Chamber of Commerce Inc to "lobby the people who are considering relaxing the sanctions," a move that the Journal suggested indicates Tehran "is already positioning itself to profit from" concessions that it expects American lawmakers to offer during upcoming talks. Meanwhile, The Hill today described the Obama administration as having "played down" a recent anti-America rally in Iran - the largest in years - in which U.S. flags were burned and the crowds chanted "Death to America." Observers had suggested that the evidence of Iranian hostility might give pause to advocates of engagement
- Rouhani interview stops short in probing root causes of Middle East instability
- New estimates, political maneuvers call into question viability of Syria chemical weapons deal
- Al Qaeda blamed for Yemen attacks that kill 40
- Turkish court sentences world-famous pianist, government critic to jail for blasphemy
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is blaming Israel for - per Iran's Fars news agency - being the "main cause of regional insecurity" across the Middle East. The recently inaugurated revolutionary-era cleric made the comments in an interview aired Thursday with NBC's Ann Curry, blasting the Jewish state for bringing "instability to the region with its war-mongering policies." Rouhani sits atop a country that has been repeatedly blasted by the U.S.'s Gulf allies for fomenting "sedition" throughout the region and for "interference" in their internal affairs, including by working to overthrow Bahrain's government, pressing territorial claims against the UAE, endangering Kuwait via unsafe nuclear practices, conducting extensive espionage in Saudi Arabia, and bringing the entire Middle East to the brink of a spiraling nuclear arms race. Egypt has similarly blasted Tehran for interfering in the African country's internal affairs. In Iraq, Iranian-backed Shiite militias are on one side of what increasingly risks becoming another full-blown sectarian civil war. Iran has provided logistical aid to terrorists in Yemen, and has been linked to Al Qaeda elements inside that country. Iran also sponsors the Palestinian terror group Hamas and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, both of which have within the last decade triggered hot wars by attacking and kidnapping Israelis. As for Lebanon domestically, Hezbollah has been described by analysts as the single greatest force working to destabilize the country's security, institutions, and political system. And of course, Iranian support has been the key element in ensuring the survival of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, with Tehran channeling troops and supplies from across the Middle East and enabling Assad's forces to continue waging a war that has cost over 100,000 lives and seen the gassing of thousands of Syrian civilians. That conflict has spilled over into Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, and has critically undermined the stability of the Jordanian monarchy. Curry ran out of time before she could follow up with Rouhani about the contrast between the scope of Iran's regional activities and his assertion that Israel is the root cause of Middle East insecurity.
- Intelligence officials and world leaders are expressing renewed doubts about the potential for Syria's chemical arsenal to be safely secured and destroyed, amid newly published figures describing Syria's stockpile and political maneuvering by actors involved in the crisis. The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international community's chemical weapons watchdog, today again postponed meeting to discuss the recently inked Kerry-Lavrov plan to destroy the arsenal. The announcement came after Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed doubts over whether all of Syria's chemical weapons assets would be seized, a statement widely read as a bait-and-switch maneuver under which the Bashar al-Assad would be allowed to keep some of his stockpile. Western diplomats have at times demanded that any deal preserve the option to use force against Damascus, a requirement that Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad on Wednesday predicted would fail to pass in the United Nations. A declassified French intelligence report indicated that Syria has over 1,000 tons of chemical agents, and Assad this week estimated that removing them would take at least a year and cost one billion dollars. He suggested that the U.S. should foot the bill.
- Simultaneous attacks on Yemeni army targets killed at least 40 people early Friday, underscoring the challenges that Sana'a faces as it attempts to weaken Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Security and military officials in Yemen told The New York Times they believe AQAP was behind the series of attacks in the country’s south, which included two car bombs and saw a gunmen opening fire on a group of soldiers. The Washington Post reported last month that Al Qaeda was shifting its footprint inside Yemen, moving from the southern province of Abyan - which had been targeted by a 2012 army offensive - to the eastern province of Hadramaut. The province is Yemen's largest and borders Saudi Arabia. The dynamic is likely to renew calls for U.S. support to critical Gulf allies threatened by jihadist activities.
- A world-renowned Turkish pianist has been sentenced to 10 months in prison for blasphemy, following a retrial over a series of social media posts he made criticizing Islam. Fazil Say – a noted critic of the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – was previously tried and convicted in April on charges of denigrating the religion. Weeks after his first trial, millions of Turkish citizens participated in mass anti-government protests. Ankara violently put down the unrest, killing dozens and injuring thousands, and generating sharp criticism from both the U.S. and the European Union. Say's conviction will deepen skepticism regarding the possibility, long advocated in some corners of the foreign policy community, that Erdogan seeks to blend Islamism with recognizably modern civil liberties. The human rights watchdog Freedom House recently criticized the Erdogan government for "jail[ing] hundreds of journalists, academics, opposition party officials, and military officers in a series of prosecutions aimed at alleged conspiracies against the state and Kurdish organizations."
- Analysts express concerns over Russian-facilitated proposal to defuse Syrian conflict
- Lebanese media: Hezbollah "interferences" cause top Lebanon judge to resign from assassination tribunal
- U.S. renews criticism of Iran atomic program, blasts "troubling developments"
- Reports swirl that Russia again set to deliver advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran
What we’re watching today:
- Analysts are expressing a range of concerns regarding a proposed Russian-facilitated plan designed to defuse the crisis surrounding what is widely believed to be the mass use of chemical weapons by Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, a day after President Barack Obama declared that Washington would carefully examine the plan. Criticism of the proposal, which would see Syria's vast chemical weapons arsenal subjected to international inspections and confiscation, had already begun piling up as the speech approached. Writing in Foreign Policy, Yochi Dreazen emphasized that that the plan would functionally put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, which was exactly what U.S. policymakers had long sought to avoid. Experts are uncertain whether international inspectors could even find all of Syria's chemical weapons facilities, many of which are movable. It is not clear that inspectors could even be safely inserted into Syria given the current conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Thursday to further discuss the proposal.
- A judge presiding over the trial chamber of four Hezbollah members accused of killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has resigned, months before the anticipated January 2014 start date of the trial itself. The members of the Iran-backed terror group are implicated in a 2005 Beirut car bombing that killed 23 people, among them Hariri and former Minister of the Economy Bassel Fleihan. Judge Robert Roth's resignation makes him the latest of several top officials to step down from the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon since its 2009 creation, and Lebanese media reported that his move came as a result of "some interferences in the appeal made by the defense teams of the accused." International efforts to try and convict the suspected assassins have consistently been hampered by Hezbollah, which has been linked to a series of leaks designed to intimidate likely witnesses in any murder trial over Hariri’s death. In January a Lebanese newspaper linked the group to the publication of confidential details regarding 17 witnesses thought likely to testify, and in April hackers reportedly posted the names of 200 additional potential witnesses on the compromised server of the pro-Hariri Al-Mustaqbal newspaper. Lebanon expert Tony Badran has emphasized that Hezbollah's repeated moves to undermine Lebanese and international institutions are in tension with claims made by some foreign policy analysts defending the group as a Lebanese organization advancing Lebanese interests.
- The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nation's nuclear watchdog today expressed U.S. concerns over what he described as “troubling developments” in Iran’s nuclear program. Joseph Macmanus, Washington's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, called for new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to take steps to ease international concerns surrounding Tehran’s program. Macmanus, who was speaking in Vienna at IAEA's Board of Governors meeting, slammed Tehran for refusing to comply with international calls - expressed among others by the U.N. Security Council and the IAEA - to increase transparency around Iran's atomic work. Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) reiterated the bloc's intentions to increase diplomatic pressure on the Islamic republic should Tehran continue to stonewall U.N. nuclear inspectors. Newly inaugurated Iranian President Hassan Rouhani yesterday declared that Iran "will not give up one iota of its absolute rights" on the nuclear issue, a statement in line with declarations made by advisors to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the effect that Rouhani's government will follow the same strategic line as his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
- Russian media outlets are reporting that the country's president Vladimir Putin has authorized an $800 million sale of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran, potentially setting up a scenario in which Iranian airspace would be denied to Israeli aircraft conducting a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Analysts fear that the introduction of the missiles will destabilize the region by setting in motion a dynamic that will force the Israelis to act before the S-300 batteries come online. By the end of the day the Putin administration had denied the report, which is in line with leaked cables indicating that Russia has long assured diplomats that Moscow had no intention of actually sending the missiles to Iran. A Xinhua report last month in fact quoted the head of the company producing the missiles as saying that Russia had dismantled and disposed of the S-300s intended for delivery to Iran.
The Hill: Obama scores "crucial diplomatic win" in mobilizing majority support for Syria action at G-20
- The Hill: Obama scores "crucial diplomatic win" in mobilizing majority support for Syria action at G-20
- IAEA to meet next week, will discuss Iranian efforts to lock in capacity for undetectable breakout
- Obama supporters and critics express concerns over U.S. credibility should Congress reject Syria strike authorization
- WSJ blasts "ecstatic" Western journalists for incorrectly reporting Rouhani Jewish outreach
What we’re watching today:
- President Barack Obama scored what The Hill describes as a "crucial diplomatic win" at the G-20 today, with 10 countries plus the United States supporting "efforts undertaken by the U.S. and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons" even in the absence of an international consensus backing retaliation against the Bashar al-Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons. The Hill emphasized that the eleven signatories constituted "more than half the countries attending" the summit, and noted that the international support will be "crucial for the administration to win over recalcitrant House members" on the fence over a request by the President to authorize unilateral military action. Meanwhile the Associated Press reports on France's efforts to hasten the European Union's decision-making regarding the August 21st chemical weapons attack on rebel-controlled suburbs of Damascus. Obama expressed appreciation for Paris's support at the G-20 summit.
- An overview published this morning by the Washington Institute (WINEP) provides context for next week's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Board of Governors. Discussion will revolve around a recent IAEA report documenting how Iran is steadily locking in uranium enrichment technology that will permit Tehran to rush across the nuclear finish line without the West being able to detect or stop the dash. The article co-authors - Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director-general, and Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at WINEP - also point out that journalism about the IAEA report has proven difficult for non-experts. They contrast a New York Times headline focusing on the amount of nuclear material Iran has ("Iran Slows Its Gathering of Uranium, Report Says") with a Financial Times headline highlighting the regime's technological capacity to enrich the material it already has ("Iran Boosts Advanced Uranium Enrichment Capacity, UN Report Shows"). Experts and analysts have sought to bring particular attention to the latter dynamic. At stake is how quickly Iran could enrich a sufficient amount of its uranium stockpile to create a nuclear warhead, once it makes a decision to do so. The recent IAEA report revealed that Iran has installed 18,000 IR-1 centrifuges and over 1,000 of its advanced IR-2m centrifuges, which can enrich uranium at a pace orders of magnitude faster than the IR-1s. Given the report, and without a change in the regime's behavior, it will have locked in enough sophisticated technology by mid-2014 to conduct an undetectable breakout. The IAEA is also expected to discuss other elements of the report, including progress that Iran is making toward a plutonium bomb and ongoing Iranian efforts to literally pave over evidence of experiments geared toward "development of a nuclear payload for a missile."
- Analysts and lawmakers are heavily emphasizing the potential costs to American credibility should Congress decline to grant President Barack Obama authority to respond militarily to what is widely considered to have been a mass chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had already on Tuesday stated bluntly that "a refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments," and the President yesterday starkly described the stakes as involving "America and Congress' credibility." Even critics of the President's policies have described action as necessary "to repair the damage done to U.S. credibility among friend and foe alike." The Chicago Sun Times was more explicit, insisting that inaction on Syria would be viewed by Iran as "a green light to go ahead with developing nuclear weapons." The point echoes one made by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who declared this week that U.S. credibility on weapons of mass destruction would be eroded with both Iran and North Korea.
- The Wall Street Journal covers the controversy over a Jewish New Year greeting that - according to Iranian state media - was incorrectly linked to recently inaugurated Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. An unverified account under Rouhani's name posted wishes for a "blessed Rosh Hashanah" to "all Jews, especially Iranian Jews." Iranian state-run media quickly published a denial quoting a Rouhani advisor, who clarified that the account and the greeting were not sanctioned by the president. Nonetheless the Journal describes how "Western journalists eager for signs of moderation in the Tehran regime [became] ecstatic," celebrating the single Twitter post as among other things the "most significant public [diplomatic] outreach since [the 1979 Islamic] revolution." The Journal blasts the reporters and analysts for neglecting "reportorial duties like follow-up and verification," and notes that the official repudiation demonstrates that "Tehran remains hard-wired for resistance and extremism." The reporting errors regarding Rouhani came amid another Twitter-driven controversy, driven by a post of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claiming that Iran never denied the Holocaust. It is unclear whether Zarif is familiar with the speeches and publications of Iranian Supreme Leader Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who in 2006 told Iranian air force servicemen that the Holocaust was a "myth" and then had the transcript posted to his personal webpage.
- Syria crisis brings world powers into eastern Mediterranean, raising geopolitical stakes
- Iran escalates threats against Israel, declares Israel will be drawn "deep into the fire"
- Egypt moves against Qatar-funded Al Jazeera affiliate for "rumors and claims which are harmful to Egyptian national security and threaten the country's unity"
- Israel preps cyber defenses in anticipation of Syrian, Iranian campaign
What we’re watching today:
- World powers are streaming naval and air assets into the eastern Mediterranean, deepening concerns that the Syrian conflict may further destabilize the Middle East and expand to impact nations from outside the region. The U.S. and Russia, which many have suggested are on a geopolitical collision course for a variety of reasons, are both deploying warships into the theater. The U.S. this afternoon announced that a fifth destroyer, the USS Stout, would join ships that were already repositioning toward Syria in anticipation of possible strikes against regime infrastructure. The U.K. confirmed the deployment of six Typhoon fighter jets to Cyprus. State-owned Russian media reported that that Moscow has sent a missile cruiser and a large anti-submarine vessel to the eastern Mediterranean Sea. As world powers begin to mobilize in the Mediterranean, reports are emerging that Russia and Iran would engage in "extensive cooperation" to thwart Western action against Syria, even as Washington dismissed as a stalling tactic a request by Syria to extend chemical weapons inspections in the country.
- Iranian officials today escalated their threats against Israel, with multiple military figures declaring that Israel would be attacked in the event of Western air strikes against the Iranian-allied Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Iranian media conveyed statements by Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, the chief of staff of Iran's Armed Forces, declaring that Israel will be drawn "deep into the fire" in the event of such strikes. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, asserted that U.S. military action against Syria would trigger the Jewish state's "imminent destruction." Other Iranian officials have recently threatened that Israel would become the "first victim" of Western air strikes against Syria, and that it would be consumed by "flames of outrage" in the event of such strikes. In Lebanon, Iran's terror proxy Hezbollah began to mobilize troops in the country's south, and declared that it would launch attacks against Israel if the West made moves to topple Assad.
- Egypt’s army-backed interim government is reportedly moving toward banning Al Jazeera’s local affiliate, which it alleges has been spreading "rumors and claims which are harmful to Egyptian national security and threaten the country's unity." Ongoing criticism of Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr has generated geopolitical blowback for Al Jazeera funder Qatar, which has been accused of seeking to promote extremist Islamist movements across the Middle East among other things, via biased coverage on Al Jazeera. Following the July 3 ouster of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-backed former President Mohammed Morsi, Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr aired statements by fugitive Islamist leaders and broadcast hours of protests by supporters of the Brotherhood and Morsi. Last month dozens of Egypt-based Al Jazeera employees resigned over what they alleged was editorial control from Doha enforcing pro-Brotherhood coverage. A leaked cable produced by a U.S. Ambassador to Qatar described Al Jazeera as "one of Qatar’s most valuable political and diplomatic tools." During Morsi’s year of power, the Egyptian government received approximately $8 billion in aid from Doha.
- Israel is preparing for an array of cyber threats in the event that Syria and its Iranian backers make good on days of threats to lash out against the Jewish state should the West act militarily against the Bashar al-Assad regime. An IDF spokesperson told The Media Line that there are already hundreds of attempted cyber attacks on Israel every day, and that the number was expected to spike in the event of a military strike against Damascus. Pro-Syrian hacking groups have garnered renewed focus recently, including this week, for attacking Western websites. Israel's cyber efforts are taking place alongside more concrete efforts to prepare for attacks by Syria and its allies. Two batteries of Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system have been deployed in northern Israel, and there is now an ongoing, two-day security exercise being held on Israel’s northern Golan Heights. Nearly five million gas masks have already been distributed to the Israeli population, against the backdrop of what is widely suspected to be the mass use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians by the Syrian regime. Syria has one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals, containing roughly 1,000 tons of nerve agents.
- U.S., Britain, and France ready militarily, politically for Syria attack
- Iran threatens war that will "engulf the whole region" if Syria attacked
- Israel prepares for Syrian lashout as Syrian official declares Israel will "burn with the fire of war"
- Egyptian media describe "sharp decline" in pro-Brotherhood rallies, as new polling shows broad support for army's moves against Islamists
What we’re watching today:
- The West appears prepared to strike Syrian military infrastructure perhaps as soon as this week, amid threats by both Damascus and its Iranian patrons to respond to Western action by attacking Israel and with "surprises." Both U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron are being presented with a range of contingency plans for degrading assets of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which is widely believed to have last week crossed Washington's long-standing red line against the use of chemical weapons with an attack on rebel-controlled Damascus suburbs. France declared itself "ready to punish" the regime, with French President Francois Hollande describing the chemical attack as a threat to "world peace." The extent to which London and Paris will be involved in any military action is unclear. Cameron still needs to weather a parliamentary debate on the issue - he has recalled parliament into session - and Hollande has only declared that France will boost support to the Syrian opposition. For its part Washington is declaring that no decision has been made regarding military action, but the U.S. naval mobilization in the region makes it unlikely that the administration will stop short of at least limited strikes.
- Iran yesterday threatened that Western action against Syria would escalate into a war that would "engulf the whole region," pointedly warning of "perilous consequences" in the aftermath of harsh statements from the State Department and White House accusing the Bashar al-Assad regime of crossing Washington's long-standing "red line" against the use of chemical weapons. The Guardian conveyed the statements of Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi, contextualizing them as evidence that Tehran was "resolved" to defend the Assad government. Iran's commitment to the embattled Damascus regime has been a mainstay in the foreign policy declarations of newly inaugurated Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Iranian officials yesterday declared that Western strikes against Syria would trigger attacks at least on Israel.
- Iranian media today carried statements by a top Syrian officer declaring that Syria will lash out at Israel - the exact phrase was that the Jewish state "will burn with the fire of war" - in the event of Western strikes against Damascus. Top Israeli officials had met earlier at the Israeli Defense Ministry to prepare responses to potential attacks by Syria and its Shiite allies Iran and Hezbollah, which Syrian and Iranian officials had already threatened in the event of increasingly likely Western strikes. Attendees at the meeting included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, and what Israeli outlet Yedioth Ahronoth describes as 'an array of top IDF officers.' Netanyahu gave a statement after the meeting emphasizing that Israel is "not part of the Syrian civil war" but will take military action if attempts are made to harm the Jewish state. The Israeli military has raised its alert levels across the north of the country, and there is now an ongoing, two-day security exercise being held on Israel's northern Golan Heights. U.S.-Israeli military consultations on the potential strikes are ongoing. Yaakov Amidror, the chairman of Israel's National Security Council, met overnight with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice. Maj. Gen. Nimrod Shefer, the head of the IDF's Planning Directorate, held meetings with American counterparts in the Pentagon to evaluate potential scenarios in the aftermath of a strike on Syria.
- Egyptian media outlets report on dwindling crowds at Muslim Brotherhood rallies being held in support of the country's former President Mohammed Morsi, even as the pro-Brotherhood National Alliance to Support Legitimacy announced that it was seeking to conduct new demonstrations. Al-Awsat evaluated the situation as one in which Morsi supporters are being "met with public condemnation across Egypt" - to the point where some anti-Brotherhood protesters are reportedly attacking Islamist protesters and destroying their placards - and noted a "sharp decline" in turnout. The assessment is in line with an array of qualitative and quantitative data showing broad support for the military, as well as new polling data published in recent days by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research (Baseera). The new poll asked respondents to evaluate the army's recent campaign to disperse Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins, moves that quickly escalated into nationwide clashes that killed hundreds. Two out of every three Egyptians described themselves as "content" with the Egyptian military moves, while fewer than 25 percent described themselves as "not content." Asked specifically if the army used excessive force, 65 percent of respondents said that the military's tactics were not too violent, while 23 percent said they were excessive. Fifty-six percent of respondents thought the death toll was too high, but 62 percent blamed the Brotherhood for the high number of casualties while only 13 percent held security forces responsible. An lopsided majority of Egyptians - 78 percent versus 8 percent - rejected international pressure on the army.
- Twin car bombings target Sunni mosques in Lebanon, triggering fears of Sunni-Shiite terror cycle
- After rocket attack, IAF conducts overnight pinpoint strike in Lebanon against terror group that boasted of erecting "missile batteries to directly attack Israeli targets"
- WaPo: "Dramatic shift in [Egyptian] public opinion" toward army action against Muslim Brotherhood
- Treasury blacklists four top Hezbollah officials, declares group is "significant global terrorist threat" not "resistance" organization
What we’re watching today:
- Twin car bombings targeted Sunni mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday, killing at least 42 people and generating fears that Lebanon is slipping into cyclical sectarian violence of the kind that has recently gripped Iraq. The attacks came eight days after a car bomb detonated in Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold of Dahiyeh killed at least 22 people and injured hundreds. That bombing itself was the second such attack in Dahiyeh in as many months, and came after Sunni groups threatened to target Hezbollah in Lebanon in retaliation for Lebanon's activities on behalf of the Shiite-backed Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah subsequently vowed to double the group's deployment in Syria, and Hezbollah this week sought to contain future blowback by transforming its southern Beirut areas into what Agence France Presse described as a "fortress."
- Israeli Air Force jets conducted a pin-point strike on a target in southern Lebanon Friday morning, less than a full day after four rockets were fired at Israel out of the Hezbollah-dominated region. A statement by the Israeli Defense Forces described the target as “located between Beirut and Sidon” and reiterated that the Israeli government holds the Lebanese government responsible for attacks emanating from within Beirut’s sovereign borders. Debate in the hours after the strike revolved around the likely target, which social media accounts and news outlets narrowed to the Na'ameh area. The region contains military infrastructure controlled by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization aligned with Iran that earlier this year was activated by Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and bragged about setting up "missile batteries to directly attack Israeli targets." PFLP-GC officials nonetheless expressed surprise at the overnight IAF action. Very early speculation regarding the raid had also suggested that the IAF may have been targeting Hezbollah or the Al Qaeda-linked group Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB). The rocket attack on Israel that preceded the IAF action took place out of Hezbollah territory, and were claimed by the AAB. The sheer range of different groups linked to these incidents will be read against a general deterioration of security in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) had begun withdrawing from the region last spring, creating a power vacuum that analysts predicted at the time would be filled in by terror groups. Alongside the LAF’s withdrawal, Hezbollah began pointedly threatening the U.N.’s peacekeeping force along the Israeli-Lebanese border, and E.U. contributors have threatened to withdraw their troops due to the environment.
- Supporters of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed government demonstrated Friday in "Friday of Martyrs" marches, a week after the Brotherhood held "Day of Rage" protests during which over 60 people were killed in violence the Washington Post described as being between "the security forces, protesters and armed civilians on both sides of the nation’s widening political divide." Late reports Friday afternoon had one person dying and over 50 injured in today's marches. Meanwhile Egyptian security forces arrested some 40 people for involvement in what the Daily Beast describes as "the Muslim Brotherhood's war on Coptic Christians." The army, which backs the current interim government, also moved to arrest some Brotherhood officials in anticipation of today's marches. A Washington Post article published this morning described a "dramatic shift in [Egyptian] public opinion" over the last two years, with sentiment turning in favor of direct action against the Muslim Brotherhood by the military. The army's recent arrest of the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie was broadly hailed by Egyptian media, with several television network presenters congratulating Egyptians on the development, and one journalist calling the arrest "joyful news."
- The U.S. Treasury department on Thursday designated four top members of Hezbollah as terrorists, describing the Iran-backed group as "a significant global terrorist threat" and noting that the designations are in tension with claims - made both by Hezbollah and by some foreign policy analysts - that the group is an indigenous Lebanese "resistance" organization. The four men conducted activities on behalf of Hezbollah in Iraq, Syria, and throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The U.S. and its allies have increasingly sought financial means to pressure the organization. In June Treasury designated four Lebanese nationals for conducting Hezbollah-linked operations in western Africa. Around the same time, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council unanimously decided to impose sweeping sanctions against Hezbollah and Lebanon, a situation that experts evaluated "could suffocate the country." Hezbollah’s willingness to promote Iranian interests via global terror campaigns, but at the expense of Lebanon's economic and financial stability, has been used by analysts to ridicule the suggestion that Hezbollah is not an Iranian proxy.