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.
Analysts: Syria retains 95% of chemical arsenal, can likely produce bio-weapons, and has restored missile production to pre-war levels
- Analysts: Syria retains 95% of chemical arsenal, can likely produce bio-weapons, and has restored missile production to pre-war levels
- Fears of Iran "gold rush" deepen as Tehran moves to bolster European and Asian financial ties, Switzerland drops range of restrictions
- Top Israeli military officials: Hezbollah has installed "thousands" of military bases in civilian buildings, set to use vast network of human shields in future conflict
- Palestinian Fatah official declares hope for boost in Iran ties
- Syria retains the vast majority of its chemical arsenal, can likely weaponize biological agents, and has restored the pace of its missile production to pre-war levels, according to a stream of analysis and reporting published on Tuesday and Wednesday. A written statement by James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, disclosed that U.S. intelligence analysts "judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare programme might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production." Reporting on Clapper's disclosure, The Telegraph noted that Syria's program is sufficiently advanced that Syrian scientists may be able to create biological weapons even out of existing viruses, including out of strains of small pox. Meanwhile the Times of Israel conveyed assessments from Jane's Defence Weekly describing Syria's success in reconstituting its missile and rocket program, after Iran, North Korea, and Belarus provided assistance in circumventing international restrictions. The Jane's report indicates that the Bashar al-Assad regime has boosted production to address both its own and Hezbollah's need for projectiles. Regarding chemical weapons, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons revealed today that less than five percent of Assad's chemical arsenal has been removed from Syria.
- Israel's air force chief Major-General Amir Eshel today described "thousands" of military installations created by Hezbollah in residential buildings across Lebanon, declaring that Israeli forces would be forced to "deal aggressively" with the Iran-backed terror group’s infrastructure during any future conflict. Eshel gestured toward what has traditionally been described as Hezbollah's double war crime - using Lebanese civilians as cover for rocket and missile attacks on Israeli civilians - and blasted the group for systematically creating a network of behind human shields. Hezbollah is thought to possess more 100,000 projectiles, including what Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi today described as "hundreds of different kinds of advanced antitank missiles, advanced mortar shells." Hezbollah leaders have threatened to saturation bomb Israeli cities should another conflict with Jerusalem break out, and a senior Iranian military commander recently bragged to Iranian media that the group's arsenal can "pinpoint" targets anywhere in Israel. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah late last year explicitly called for the destruction of the Jewish state, stating that it was "a cancerous presence" and that "the only solution when it comes to cancer is to eradicate it."
- The Swiss government today fully suspended some trade bans on Iran and relaxed mandatory reporting requirements across a range of additional sectors, a day after news emerged that Iran intends to use banks in Japan, South Korea, and Switzerland to reestablish ties to the international financial system. Agence France-Presse reported on Tuesday that Tehran had settled on the banks it seeks to use as sanctions relief mandated by the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) takes hold, after years in which American and European restrictions "had effectively shut Iran out of the international banking system, making all foreign trade difficult." Today Switzerland's Federal Council announced that the country was suspending its ban on the trade of precious metals with Iran, relaxing mandatory reporting requirements on sectors associated with the trade of Iranian petroleum, and increasing tenfold the threshold for declaring money transfers to the Islamic Republic. The suspensions are set to remain in effect at least through August 2014. The developments come as Obama administration officials scramble - most recently and publicly in Turkey - to convince countries and companies that Iran is not yet "open for business" despite the JPA-driven erosion in the international sanctions regime. Washington's success in conveying the sentiment has been uneven, and empirical evidence is growing of a global race to reenter Iranian markets. Meanwhile Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today hailed the rebirth of Turkey-Iran ties, and a group of British lawmakers revealed that a delegation of Iranian parliamentarians would soon visit Britain. Tehran’s moves to shrug off its economic and political isolation came as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reported today to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Iran "has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons."
- A top official from the Palestinian Fatah faction declared on Wednesday that his organization may move to bolster ties with Iran, after years in which Tehran had largely eschewed backing Fatah and had opted instead to provide military, financial, and diplomatic support to the more radical Hamas faction. Fatah negotiators are currently engaged in peace talks with Israeli counterparts, while Iran and Hamas remain committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. Jibril Rajoub, a top Palestinian official considered by Western diplomats to be a relatively moderate voice inside Palestinian polity, told a Lebanese outlet that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) was "willing to consider a renewal of Palestinian-Iranian ties." Iranian state media boasted that Rajoub had 'praised the important role of the Islamic Republic in supporting the Palestinians and their cause and said Fatah and other Palestinian groups consider Iran as a main and influential player in the Middle East.' Rajoub's comments may prove particularly controversial if read alongside statements made by the Palestinian official last May, in which he reportedly declared "in the name of Allah, if we [the Palestinians] had nuclear weapons, we’d be using them." Iran is widely assumed to be pursuing a nuclear weapon, and top global intelligence officials have long feared - per a 2012 Telegraph story on the issue - that "a nuclear-armed Iran would increase the chances of terrorists using a 'dirty bomb' in the future."
- Reports: Iran sanctions legislation clears Senate hurdle, now has majority support
- United Nations literally gives up trying to count Syrian war casualties
- Midnight purge of Ankara police officers deepens worries over long-term political warfare damage
- Palestinian unity progress renews focus on Palestinian treaty commitments
What we’re watching today:
- Journalists late on Tuesday conveyed counts showing that a majority of the Senate now supports bipartisan legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran should Tehran cheat during an upcoming negotiation period or, at the conclusion of that period, refuse to put its nuclear program verifiably beyond use for weaponization. Reuters had already reported on Monday that the "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013" had secured 48 Senate co-sponsors, up from the original mix of 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans who had put their names to the bill when it was announced on December 19. Reporters Tuesday evening counted Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and John Hoeven (R-ND) as supporters 50 and 51. The White House has threatened to veto the legislation if it passes, with Obama administration officials insisting that it will derail ongoing negotiations with Tehran over the latter's atomic activities. Supporters of the bill have countered that the U.S. lacks sufficient leverage to coerce Iran into meeting its international obligations to suspend uranium enrichment - an assessment explicitly granted by Secretary of State John Kerry - and that in any case the White House's position is incoherent inasmuch as sanctions pressure is widely acknowledged to have brought Iran to the table in the first place. It also appears that the value of financial relief provided to Iran under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) vastly exceeds the Obama administration's public estimates, the upshot being that Washington's bargaining position is substantially weaker than it might otherwise have been. Mark Dubowitz, executive director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), has further calculated that Iran desperately needs the JPA's sanctions relief and quite literally can't afford to abandon at least the initial round of negotiations.
- The United Nations announced Tuesday that it was ceasing to update the death toll in Syria's nearly three-year war because it can no longer reliably keep track of those killed by the conflict. The Associated Press noted that the last official figures, which were current as of July 2013, estimated that at least 100,000 people had perished. Since then an offensive by the Bashar al-Assad regime has eroded years of rebel gains, at times deploying chemical weapons against civilian areas in which opposition forces were entrenched. Support from Iran and its Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah have been critical in the regime's efforts, to the point where by late November United Press International was quoting experts assessing that 'the Iranians now control the [Syrian] regime's military campaign.' Secretary of State John Kerry declared this weekend that the Obama administration hopes that Iran will contribute to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and that Washington would be "happy to have Iran be helpful."
- A midnight purge of 350 Ankara police officers has deepened worries that the political warfare shaking the country - which has pitted the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against judiciary and police figures linked to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen - will significantly erode the robustness and legitimacy of Turkey's political institutions. A corruption probe driven largely by Gulenist police and judiciary figures has in recent weeks ensnared several AKP elites, and AKP figures have been responding by systemically removing hundreds of Gulen-linked figures from their posts. Yesterday's midnight sweep in Ankara seems to have ousted all of the officers who had taken part in a critical December 17 anti-corruption operation, weakening units dedicated to combating terrorism, organized crime, financial irregularities, cybercrimes, and smuggling. CNN reported that the Ankara action was matched by similar moves in at least nine other Turkish cities. Observers are describing the AKP's retaliation in stark terms. The Washington Post had already assessed that the political crisis risked severely damaging the legitimacy of Turkish political institutions, and CNN on Tuesday quoted former AKP parliament member Suat Kiniklioglu worrying that the "the future of law enforcement, the separation of powers, the constitution is in danger." The point was echoed by Michael Clemens, a senior fellow and research manager at the Center for Global Development, who tersely described the resulting dynamic as one in which "corruption cannot be prosecuted" any longer in Turkey.
- Reconciliation talks between the two largest Palestinian factions have reportedly accelerated in recent days, with Hamas officials on Monday announcing a range of goodwill gestures toward Fatah, and Fatah officials on Tuesday revealing that top officials will soon travel to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to discuss ending the two groups' long-running feud. Fatah-controlled portions of the West Bank have been governed separately from Gaza since 2007, when Hamas fighters violently ended Fatah rule over the latter territory via a bloody week-long battle that saw at least 118 people killed and over 550 injured. News that the factions were making progress in unity negotiations - which would see Gaza and the Fatah-controlled areas of the West Bank brought under a single government - began to leak earlier this week, when Palestinian officials disclosed that reconciliation negotiations had been ongoing. On Monday Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh announced that some Fatah members imprisoned by Hamas would be released, and a day later Fatah declared that Azam al-Ahmed, a senior official from the group, would soon travel to Gaza. Analysts quickly linked Hamas's new-found willingness to compromise to the precipitous decline in domestic and international stature that the terrorist organization has recently suffered as a recent of several failed geopolitical gambles. McClatchy yesterday became the latest outlet to describe the downward spiral, assessing that Hamas "has sunk to a new low." A joint Fatah-Hamas Palestinian government risks complicating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Hamas remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, and would likely impose severe restrictions on the degree to which any unity government could interact with - let alone recognize - Israel. The Israelis, however, have over the course of several decades made functionally irreversible territorial concessions in exchange for among other things recognition and a Palestinian renunciation of violence. Should the Palestinians pocket those concessions and establish a government that violates previous agreement, it is unclear whether to what extent Israeli negotiators would be positions to offer further concessions in exchange for Palestinian assurances.
Iran FM signals intent to restart negotiations, after analysis predicts Tehran bluffing over talks suspension
- Iran FM signals intent to restart negotiations, after analysis predicts Tehran bluffing over talks suspension
- WSJ: Washington's Gulf allies 'stunned' by Iran diplomacy
- Hamas officials blame catastrophic Gaza Strip flooding on fuel shortage, after months of blaming Egypt and Palestinian Authority for fuel shortage
- Focus turns to growing Hezbollah control over Lebanese army, after deadly cross-border killing of Israeli solider
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CBS News this weekend that Iran is willing to restart implementation talks revolving around the recently announced Geneva interim agreement, a posture accordant with analysis assessing that the Iranians are bluffing when they threaten to forgo the financial relief offered by the so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Iranian negotiators had abruptly halted talks after the Treasury Department last week announced new enforcement measures against entitled in violation of still-existing sanctions against Iran, asserting that the move violated the "spirit" of the JPA.. It is not clear why the Iranians believed that gestures toward the spirit of the JPA would have diplomatic of public purchase, inasmuch as Tehran has in recent weeks committed to enriching uranium, bolstering its plutonium production complex, and testing ballistic missiles - all actions which it insists are permitted under the letter of the JPA. There have been suggestions that the Iranians may be attempting to brush back future Congressional legislation which would impose sanctions after the JPA's six-month interim window should no deal materialize. Such language does not seem to violate the JPA's prohibition on new sanctions taking effect during the interim period, and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said over the weekend that the Senate is "very likely" to approve new financial pressure on Iran that Politico describes as taking effect "in about six months if there are no more breakthroughs in negotiations.'
- Statements from a top Saudi Arabian official published over the weekend have the potential to deepen concerns that the US's traditional Arab allies are preparing to pivot away from Washington - and potentially towards American rivals - as actors throughout the region continue sorting themselves into three solidifying and opposing camps. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was at the time attending a security conference in Monaco, and described him as 'assailing the Obama administration for working behind Riyadh's back' on a deal with Iran and as 'panning other recent US steps in the Middle East.' The Journal characterized Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors as being 'stunned by the secret American-Iranian diplomacy' that preceded the recently signed Geneva interim agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 global powers, and as 'echo[ing] concerns raised by Israel and members of the US Congress that the... accord with Iran didn't go far enough to ensure Tehran won't develop atomic bombs.' Political and diplomatic developments in the Middle East - most prominently in Egypt, Syria, and Iran - have in recent years generated and hardened three opposing blocs in the region, with an Iran-dominated Shiite camp aligned against the US's traditional Israeli and Arab allies aligned against a Sunni camp composed of Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Israeli radio reported on Sunday that a "historic" meeting had been held at the Monaco security conference between Faisal, former Israeli ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich, and Israeli Knesset member Meir Sheetrit.
- Hamas officials today linked much of the devastation from this weekend's historic storm to a lack of fuel in the Gaza Strip, a scarcity that the Palestinian outlet Ma'an pointedly noted Hamas has for months been blaming on Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The storm generated flooding that reportedly displaced at least 5,000 residents just in the Hamas-controlled territory. Ma'an quoted Muhammad al-Midna, a spokesman for Gaza's civil defense force, explaining that a lack of electricity had 'limited the ability of civil defense forces to pump water from flooded areas' and that a lack of fuel had more generally 'effectively crippled the ability of civil defense forces to respond for large periods of time.' Hamas has repeatedly blasted both Egypt and the PA, the latter controlled by Hamas's Palestinian rival Fatah, for creating a fuel shortage in Gaza. The terror group blames Egypt for systematically destroying the tunnels linking the Gaza Strip to the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula, a campaign that has sharply curtailed the once-thriving smuggling industry between the two territories. It also blames Fatah for levying what it insists are unreasonable taxes on fuel deliveries to Gaza, a charge that Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has flatly described as "insane." Meanwhile Palestinian media reported that Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), blamed Israel for the flooding.
- The Associated Press this afternoon reported on efforts to prevent escalation in the aftermath of what it described as "a deadly border skirmish" between Israel and Lebanon, with "the enemy countries holding a face-to-face meeting with U.N. peacekeepers." The Sunday incident - which was similarly described as a "skirmish" by among others the Guardian - involved the unprovoked murder of 31 year old IDF Master Sgt. Shlomi Cohen, who was shot in the neck and chest by a Lebanese sniper as Cohen was driving a civilian vehicle near an Israeli naval base. Roughly four and a half hours after the 8:30pm Sunday shooting, Israeli forces opened fire into a forested area across the Israeli-Lebanese border after spotting "suspicious movement." The Guardian quoted Daniel Nisman, a Tel Aviv-based security analyst, drawing attention to "rogue elements" which have established a presence in the Lebanese army (LAF). American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin had already noted as early as 2010 that it is "an open secret among Lebanese of all political stripes that Hezbollah has infiltrated the Lebanese Armed Forces," an assessment that came in the wake of years in which Israeli military officials had warned over exactly such Hezbollah efforts. Analysts increasingly fear that the Iran-backed terror group is now seeking to provoke Israel into a conflict. Hezbollah's brand as an anti-Israel group has been shattered by its participation in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and it may be looking to ignite a confrontation in order to begin rebuilding that image.
- Kerry to brief Senate on Iran talks amid widespread criticism of Iran diplomacy
- Four Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria as analysts worry group expanding to "entire Middle East"
- Hamas blames rival Palestinian Fatah faction for Gaza Strip fuel shortages, power outages
- Egypt to let curfew expire, permit Muslim Brotherhood-linked group to participate politically
What we’re watching today:
- Efforts by the international community to secure an interim agreement with Iran regarding Tehran's nuclear program floundered this weekend after Iran reportedly refused to yield on demands that global powers recognize its "right" to enrich uranium, a claim consistently rejected by analysts, U.S. lawmakers, and journalists. The collapse of the talks triggered worries that Iran was not ready to realistically address international concerns regarding its program, as well as calls for further financial pressure to change the regime's calculus. Reports late in the day indicated that the Senate will wait for a Wednesday briefing by Secretary of State John Kerry before advancing sanctions legislation. The State Department's approach to the talks has come under withering criticism in the last 48 hours, with analysts and lawmakers insisting that U.S. diplomats gave away too much too easily. Calculations conducted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) estimated that the offer being given to Iran would have restored roughly $20 billion to Tehran. Iran would have been allowed to continue enriching uranium and building centrifuges - which could have been activated at the end of the interim period, swamping whatever concessions Iran made in the meantime - and bolstering its plutonium complex at Arak. The Daily Beast had revealed earlier in the week that the Obama administration had been quietly easing financial pressure since the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. The result, according to Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was that the administration ended up getting badly outmaneuvered. Critics particularly focused on overeager signals sent by Washington. The Telegraph had already described a White House meeting that "ended with officials admitting that a 'bad deal is better than no deal.'" Michael Doran, a senior fellow at Brookings, over the weekend blasted Kerry for "rush[ing] to Geneva when a deal wasn't ready" and making the U.S. "consistently look too eager." The Iranians may have been able to leverage U.S. eagerness. The Jerusalem Post reported on Saturday that the U.S. actually got pushed off the plan with which it came into the talks.
- Four Hezbollah members were recently killed in Syria "while carrying out their sacred Jihadist duty," according to claims posted Saturday to a website aligned with the Iran-backed terror group. The declarations come amid reports that Hezbollah is taking the lead in organizing what is expected to be a massive campaign on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime to secure Qalamoun, a strategic corridor between Damascus and Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters have in recent months been critical in allowing the regime to steadily erode nearly two years of rebel gains, and more specifically in enabling the regime to wrest control of what had been the rebel stronghold of Qusayr. USA Today late last week published analysis outlining how Hezbollah is "expanding networks and deployment of fighters from Lebanon to the entire Middle East as part of its deepening alliance with Iran," and how that expansion is being done for sectarian reasons and justified in sectarian terms. The BBC over the weekend quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif warning that sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites "probably the most serious threat to world security."
- The Associated Press reported over the weekend that widespread power outages throughout the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip were the result of "political infighting" between rival Palestinian groups, which had in turn led to a fuel shortage, which had in turn negatively impacted the territory's only power plant. A Hamas spokesman specifically blamed the Palestinian Fatah faction that controls the West Bank for imposing new taxes on fuel it provides, echoing claims that Hamas made weeks ago at the beginning of the crisis. Analysts at the time had rolled their eyes at the accusations, calling them "insane" and noting that the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority "pays for [the fuel] with donor funds, Hamas bills Gazans for it, and then pockets the cash." Instead Hamas is being accused of repeating a tactic the group used in 2008 and deliberately attempting to manufacture a humanitarian crisis by blacking out the Gaza Strip. There have been intermittent media attempts to frame whatever fuel shortage might exist as the fault of Israeli policies, though those have proven difficult to sustain inasmuch as Israel continues to supply electricity to the Gaza Strip.
- Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim announced today that Cairo will allow a three-month curfew to expire as scheduled this Thursday, the latest in a series of gestures from the country's army-backed interim government that observers hope mark a trend toward expanding civil liberties. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy revealed last Friday that the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, would be allowed to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections. The curfew had been one of several security measures imposed as security officials tried to contain the spike in violence that followed the army's moves against Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi. The government had meanwhile in parallel sought to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership hierarchy and uproot the group from Egyptian institutions.
- West Bank attack on Israeli nine year old shifts focus to Palestinian incitement
- "Brazen attacks" on Egyptian security forces follow weekend of violence between Morsi supporters, opponents
- Fears of Palestinian scorched earth campaign deepen after UNESCO targets Israel
- Israeli analysts: new Iran diplomacy gambit may be "the last opportunity" before force required
What we’re watching today:
- A nine year old Israeli girl was shot and wounded this weekend by attackers she described as masked gunmen who approached her family's house in the Israeli community of Psagot. The incident comes a week after Palestinians killed two Israelis in two separate incidents, deepening fears - already aired in the aftermath of those murders - that incitement by official Palestinian organs was driving a spike of violence in the West Bank. Jerusalem Post national security reporter Yaakov Lappin described the environment as marked by "an unmistakable increase in violent attacks" by Palestinians against Israelis. Following the Saturday evening attack in Psagot, the Facebook page of the Palestinian Fatah faction praised the shooter, declaring that "the sniper of Palestine was here... he left a signature of [real] men." The incitement echoed other recent statements from the organization and its top officials, including statements glorifying convicted terrorists, calls for further attacks against Israelis, and claims that Jews are endangering Muslim holy sites.
- At least eight Egyptian security officials were killed today in what the New York Times described as "three brazen attacks," a day after at least 53 people killed in clashes between supporters of opponents of Egypt's former Muslim Brotherhood-linked president Mohammed Morsi. Six soldiers were killed in a drive-by shooting near Cairo just hours after car bomb exploded Monday at a Southern Sinai security headquarter, and multiple grenades also hit a compound on the outskirts of Cairo that houses Egypt’s telecommunications center. Cairo's army-backed government is struggling to curtail a wave of attacks against civilian and military institutions conducted both by Brotherhood members and by Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups which have taken root in the Sinai Peninsula. U.S. military assistance has proven critical in those efforts.
- Fears that Palestinian officials have politicized a once-credible United Nations organization deepened last Friday, after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed no less than six anti-Israel resolutions. Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s envoy to the body, called the resolutions part of UNESCO's recent "obsession" with Israel. The Palestinians ascended to UNESCO in 2011 over U.S. objections, triggering U.S. sanctions that financially crippled the organization. Palestinian diplomats almost immediately moved to orient UNESCO in an anti-Israel direction, launching an initiative revolving around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that also drew broad condemnation. The combination is part of what observers increasingly worry is a diplomatic scorched-earth style campaign being conducted by Palestinians diplomats: hijacking international forums to promote anti-Israel diplomacy at the expense of those forums' viability and credibility. A largely symbolic Palestinian push last year to gain non-member statehood status via the United Nations General Assembly (UNHRC) was criticized by U.S. lawmakers for politicizing the body. The campaign was also conducted in defiance of the United States and endangered critical U.S. funding.Even more pointedly, anti-Israel diplomacy conducted by rogue regimes inside the United Nations Human Rights Council has made that body a diplomatic punchline. Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, has already outlined how the Palestinians have tried to mirror their moves in the UNGA and the UNHRC inside the International Criminal Court (ICC).
- Israeli analysts are warning that a series of expected upcoming nuclear talks between Iran and the West may be "the last opportunity" for the parties to reach a nuclear deal "before Israel concludes that time has run out, that Iran has gotten too close to creating its first atomic bombs, and that the time for a military strike has arrived." The next round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 are schedule for next week in Geneva. An ongoing charm offensive by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has been praised for changing Iran's tone toward the West, but criticized for offering zero new concessions that might move negotiations forward. Questions continue to swirl regarding whether Rouhani is willing or able to fundamentally change Tehran's stance on its nuclear program. Recent days have seen renewed focus on an interview with Rouhani, filmed earlier this year, in which the revolutionary-era cleric bragged that Iran was able to leverage negotiations he conducted in the 2000's to develop Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Tehran's stance on its nuclear program is in any case set by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has clarified that whatever room for negotiations he has given Rouhani, it stops short of anything that would prevent Iran from "advancement and realization of the Islamic Revolution and System."
- Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps statement deepens controversy over U.S.-Iran negotiations
- Iran Parades Advanced Missiles, Boasts It Can "Destroy" U.S. Naval Assets
- Palestinian officials blamed for incitement after two Israeli soldiers murdered
- Israel sends personnel to help end Kenya terror crisis
What we’re watching today:
- Top officials from Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned Iranian diplomats over the weekend that they were courting danger by diplomatically engaging the United States. A statement issued by the IRGC stated that "those who favor interaction" must "skeptically monitor the behavior of White House officials so that the righteous demands of our nation are recognized and respected." Newly inaugurated Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is traveling this week to the United States for what is expected to be a diplomatic whirlwind, while analysts are struggling to untangle the degree to which he has the freedom - let alone the intention - of negotiating with the West in a fruitful manner. Iran's foreign policy is set by the country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has been very explicit and precise that he will permit Rouhani to negotiate with the West, but not if such negotiations approach making fundamental concessions. Earlier this year Khamenei explicitly forbade the eventual winner of Iran’s June presidential election from making concessions to the West. Ali Akbar Velayati, a top advisor to Khamenei on nuclear issues, told the Associated Press that – because Khamenei is ultimately in charge of Iran’s nuclear policy – Rouhani’s government would follow "the same trend strategically as the former government" and that Iran would "have to talk with a different language" and pursue the "same purposes but a different language." Last week a senior Iranian official ruled out the possibility that Tehran would curb its enrichment program.
- Iran on Sunday paraded through Tehran dozens of advanced missiles with ranges of up to 2,000 km, with Iranian media conveying boasts from Iranian military officials that they "have the necessary equipment to destroy American aircraft carries [sic] and warplanes in the Gulf." The military display, which coincided both with the anniversary of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war and with what has been touted as an irenic trip to New York by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, involved 30 Ghadr and Sejil missiles, solid-fueled ballistic missiles. Iranian media outlets also carried boasts to the effect that such rockets had transformed Iran into a global power. A Pentagon report released earlier this year estimated that that Tehran could test an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015, especially given assistance it is widely suspected of receiving from rogue regimes.
- Two Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinians in recent days, rattling U.S.-backed peace negotiations and renewing criticism of Palestinian leaders accused of inciting violence and failing to prepare the Palestinian public for co-existence with the Jewish state. A 20-year-old soldier was kidnapped and murdered by a Palestinian co-worker on Friday and a second soldier was killed by a sniper on Sunday while protecting Jewish worshipers celebrating the holiday of Sukkot in the town of Hebron. Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders pointedly declined to condemn the murders, with PA President Mahmoud Abbas's office going so far as to declare itself unaware of any condemnations that may or may not have been issued by Palestinian officials. Another Palestinian official, Fatah central committee member Abbas Zaki, actually blamed Israel for the sniper attack. Observers have, for decades, expressed concerns that the glorification of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish terrorism - which has been conducted at the highest levels of the Palestinian political echelon - would endanger the prospects for a final negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli personnel joined the efforts of Kenyan officials seeking throughout the day to end a bloody three-day jihadist assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Early news reports described everything from active Israeli involvement in the fighting to Israeli assistance in helping the Nigerians formulate a "negotiating strategy," and by the end of the day Kenya's Interior Ministry announced that its forces were "in control" of the mall. Dozens in the mall have already been identified as killed. The attack on the reportedly Israeli-owned mall was widely blamed on Al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda offshoot, but late-breaking reports describe Kenyan officials as blaming Al Qaeda and not Al-Shabaab proper. The Somalia-based Al-Shabaab has in recent years threatened to directly attack the Jewish state and its interests. For its part Al Qaeda is widely suspected of being involved in several terror attacks against Israeli targets in Kenya, including the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned Mombasa hotel that killed 15 people and was timed to coincide with the failed downing of an Israeli holiday jet carrying 261 passengers. Al-Shabaab condemned Israel for seeking to help Kenyan officials end the crisis.
- Leaked U.N. Report Piles on Evidence Assad Regime Conducted Mass Chemical Weapons Attack
- Amid Renewed Threats From Hezbollah, Israel Reemphasizes Chemical Weapons Transfer “Red Line”
- Greek Ambassador Blasts Turkey for Vetoing NATO-Israeli Cooperation
- Palestinian Gunmen Open Fire on Soldiers Protecting Worshippers After Fatah Officials Call for Attacks
What we’re watching today:
- A leaked United Nations report, likely set for publication on Monday, piles on evidence linking the Bashar al-Assad regime to the August 21 mass chemical attack on opposition-controlled Damascus suburbs. While the report will not explicitly implicate the regime, diplomats indicate that it will offer a "wealth" of evidence implicating Assad's forces. Analysts had already identified what kind of evidence might tie the Syrian army to the attack, and had emphasized that the detection of chemical stabilizers and dispersal agents would signal sophistication unavailable to other parties fighting in Syria's more than two-year war. Secretary of State John Kerry met Thursday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, as well as a large team of arms control specialists, to begin exploring a Russian plan to defuse the crisis by placing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under external control. Analysts have broadly - and increasingly - expressed skepticism regarding the workability of any such international effort. Also today, Syria announced that it had formally asked to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which would require Damascus to give up its weapons. By means of clarification however, Assad indicated that Damascus would not implement the treaty's requirements in the absence of U.S. guarantees that it would not attack Syria.
- Israeli officials reemphasized today that Jerusalem would enforce its long-established "red line" against any Syrian efforts to transfer advanced weapons, including portions of Damascus's chemical weapons arsenal, to the Bashar al-Assad regime's Hezbollah allies. Hezbollah leaders have in recent days repeatedly and explicitly threatened to attack the Jewish state, doubling down on rhetoric and threats that had already heightened over the summer. Hezbollah has also in recent days moved to redeploy troops into locations near to Israel's border. Meanwhile on Thursday, several mortar shells fired from Syria landed in Israel’s Golan Heights near the Israeli-Syrian border, increasing concerns that spillover from the war will threaten stability along Israel’s borders.
- Turkey continues to veto "even the most innocent" cooperation between Israel and NATO - extending a policy that stretches back years and which diplomats had hoped would cease amid a U.S.-backed reconciliation effort - according to Greek Ambassador Spiros Lampridis. The Jerusalem Post notes that the programs Turkey has nixed include 'joint exercises, intelligence exchanges, and research and technological development programs.' Turkey's efforts to undermine ties between Israel and NATO had been blasted for damaging interoperability between Israeli and Western forces, undermining among other things America's power projection capabilities in the region. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had explicitly bragged about his government's repeated successes in cutting off Israel from NATO initiatives, but a rapprochement facilitated by President Barack Obama was to see Ankara suspend efforts to diplomatically and militarily isolate Jerusalem. Lampridis lauded Israel for making a series of gestures designed to facilitate reconciliation, and - addressing increasingly vocal accusations that Erdogan is driven by anti-Jewish animus - declared that the Islamist Turkish prime minister "can do it privately if he wants... [but shouldn't] do it openly and expose a whole country."
- Officials linked to the Palestinian Fatah faction declared yesterday that Friday will be the "first day of popular resistance" against Israel, and have called for attacks against Jewish Israelis and the Jewish state. The statement by the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade was followed today by clashes that broke out after Palestinians opened fire on Israeli soldiers protecting some 1,400 worshippers at the Jewish holy site of Joseph's Tomb. Israeli soldiers returned fire, injuring one of the gunmen and eventually capturing another. The Palestinian government-linked media outlet Wafa earlier this week published an article blasting the rabbi of "Jewish fanatics" for asserting that Judaism's ancient Second Temple was built in Jerusalem. Palestinian officials - including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - have repeatedly and specifically sought to deny the existence of an ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and to vitiate the Jewish connection to Israel's capital. The position has been widely criticized as incitement, and is difficult to reconcile with public Palestinian pronouncements regarding the PLO's willingness to make concessions in the interest of a negotiated final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Execution-style" killings of Egyptian police officers raise stakes as U.S. Middle East allies throw support behind army
- "Execution-style" killings of Egyptian police officers raise stakes as U.S. Middle East allies throw support behind army
- Amid sectarian bombings, Hezbollah chief renews commitment to battling for Syrian regime
- Reports: Reconciliation meeting between Hamas and Fatah "failed to make progress"
- U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.: Pro-Hezbollah Swiss official "unfit for continued service" at U.N.
What we’re watching today:
- At least 25 Egyptian police officers were murdered this morning in what the Associated Press describes as "execution-style" killings, with suspected Islamists ambushing two police minibuses traveling near border between Sinai Peninsula and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.The attackers forced the officers to kneel on the ground before shooting them in the backs of their heads, raising to more than 70 the number of security officials killed in recent clashes across Egypt. The Telegraph notes that the killings occurred "after 36 Islamist prisoners were killed in an attempted jailbreak," and comments that the two incidents are likely to "deepen the turmoil roiling the country, where nearly 1,000 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi since last Wednesday." Meanwhile regional actors are aligning themselves for and against the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur today urged the Egyptian army to "remain firm and strong" in seeking to quell Egyptian unrest, echoing the stance of Saudi King Abdullah, who according to the Wall Street Journal pledged support over the weekend "for what he called Egypt's fight against 'terrorism and extremism.'"
- Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last Friday literally doubled down on his organization's commitment to battle on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, declaring that "if we have a thousand fighters in Syria, they will become 2,000, and if we have 5,000 fighters in Syria, they will become 10,000." The boasts and threats came a day after a car bomb ripped through Hezbollah's stronghold in the southern Beirut district of Dahiyeh. The attack was claimed by a previously unknown jihadist group, which described the car bombing as retaliation for Hezbollah's critical role in helping the Assad regime erode nearly two years of gains by the largely Sunni rebels. Hezbollah has been under increasingly vocal criticism by Lebanese officials for entangling the country in the Syrian war, and the leader of one of the country’s largest Christian political parties declared that the Iran-backed terror group was "plung[ing] Lebanon into fire." A top Hezbollah commander was reportedly killed last week during a battle in Syria outside of Damascus.
- Palestinian media sources describe a meeting held late Sunday between Hamas and Fatah as having "failed to make progress" in achieving reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions, with Hamas rejecting calls to hold general elections in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and in Fatah-controlled West Bank territories. Efforts to bring the territories under a single Palestinian government have repeatedly failed despite pledges from both sides to make progress. A reconciliation deal inked in 2011 had the two sides agreeing to cease politically motivated arrests, but Fatah officials accused Hamas of targeting the group's members as recently as this weekend. Hamas accused Fatah of arresting six Hamas members in the West Bank, while Fatah slammed Hamas for detaining Fatah affiliates in the Gaza Strip. Establishing a single government capable of overseeing currently divided Palestinian territories is often considered a prerequisite to establishing a viable Palestinian state. A single state whose territories are ruled by competing governments is almost by definition a failed state.
- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power slammed the Swiss government last week for nominating Jean Ziegler - who has defended Hezbollah, Holocaust deniers, and the Gaddafi regime - for a position on the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Power tweeted that Ziegler was “unfit for continued service” at the UNHRC, a body that has come under repeated and consistent criticism as one that allows illiberal regimes and their supporters to target the Jewish state. Ziegler generated controversy in 2006 by telling an interviewer that he "refuse[d] to describe Hezbollah as a terrorist group." The European Union later unanimously blacklisted Hezbollah's "military wing" as a terrorist group.
Proposed Rouhani foreign policy team sparks concerns over extremism, links to Hezbollah
Palestinians ready celebrations after Israeli announcement it will release terror-linked prisoners as goodwill gesture
Egyptian military describes massive Hamas infiltration, as anti-jihad campaigns in the Sinai Peninsula continue
In Lebanon, tensions spike between Palestinian supporters and opponents of Syrian regime
What we’re watching today:
- The Iranian parliament began debate today on the proposed cabinet of newly inaugurated president Hassan Rouhani, after which a formal vote of confidence is expected to follow. Western analysts have described the group as stacked with regime insiders drawn from Iran's security services, and have in particular raised concerns over Rouhani's proposed foreign policy team. Video published last week showed proposed foreign Mohammad Javad Zarif minimizing the Holocaust, sparking fears that a Rouhani administration will extend the anti-Semitic incitement that had marked the administration of former Iranian hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Meanwhile the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs published a report exposing the leadership role played by presumed defense minister Hossein Dehghan in Hezbollah's 1983 bombing of the U.S. marine base in Lebanon. Dehghan was at the time overseeing Hezbollah's operations on behalf of Tehran. Ali Hashem, the Al Mayadeen news network's chief correspondent, noted that "there are no signs that it has any members who oppose Iran's support for Hezbollah" and emphasized that "Rouhani himself is regarded as a hard-liner when it comes to Israel and Iran's relationships with resistance groups.
- Jerusalem has published the names of Palestinian prisoners slated for release as part of a series of confidence-building measures aimed at coaxing Palestinian diplomats to participate in U.S.-backed peace talks. Among the 26 convicts who will be released Tuesday night are the convicted murderers of Isaac Rotenberg, a 69-year-old Holocaust survivor who was axed to death, and Amnon Pomerantz, a 46-year-old who was stoned and burned alive in his car after he took a wrong turn into a Palestinian refugee camp. The National Post quoted the wife of Mohammed Nashabat, who was convicted as an accessory to Pomerantz's murder, declaring that her "house turned into a big dance floor" when his impending release was announced. Palestinian diplomats went further, distributing letters to embassies and ambassadors hailing the convicts as "freedom fighters" and declaring that Israelis were the actual terrorists.
- An Egyptian military source told journalists over the weekend that a mysterious blast in the northern Sinai Peninsula last week was the result of an unannounced security operation to crack down on "terrorists and jihadists," and was not as some had speculated an Israeli drone strike targeting a missile team. Confusion has swirled around the incident, which the source contextualized as part of an ongoing operation. Eyewitness accounts published by Egyptian media outlets described ongoing helicopter raids late into the weekend. The Egyptian army has sought to uproot extensive jihadist infrastructure in the Sinai, and Islamist-driven violence in the territory has spiked since the removal of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former President Mohammed Morsi. Yesterday UPI conveyed evaluations made by the Egyptian military that, since Morsi's ouster, as many as 600 Hamas fighters have infiltrated Egypt from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. For its part, Hamas again denied interfering in Egypt's internal affairs.
- Spillover from the Syrian conflict is threatening to destabilize the dozen or so Palestinian refugee camps throughout Lebanon, as tensions rise between fighters linked to rebel groups and Palestinian factions that still support the Bashar al-Assad regime. Voice of America reported on the dynamic this morning, quoting a representative from the Palestinian Fatah faction who described difficulties in trying to negotiate between pro- and anti-Assad Palestinians. Reports emerged as early as last year that Palestinian camps in Syria were similarly divided between supporters and opponents of the regime. Meanwhile weekend fighting in Deir Ezzor, the largest city in eastern Syria, reportedly left 60 Syrian soldiers and rebels dead. The death toll for the war is estimated at over 100,000.