- Reports: Turkey opens gates to Iran banks "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions"
- Human rights activists accuse Syrian regime of deliberately targeting civilians as wave of barrel bomb attacks kills scores
A meeting of top Israeli political leaders on Thursday, called in order to chart Jerusalem's response to a Wednesday announcement by Palestinian leaders that the rival Fatah and Hamas factions had agreed to a deal that would see the formation of a unity government with members from both groups, concluded with a decision to suspend peace talks until the composition of that government was solidified. The Israeli move was not unexpected. Top figures from Hamas had already declared that the unity government would not see the group accepting the Palestinian Authority's obligations toward Israel, including the recognition of its right to exist and a renunciation of violence. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday emphasized to reporters no fewer than four times that Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist," and the Israelis for their part had declared that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would have to choose between ongoing peace talks and an embrace of Hamas. Al Monitor assessed Wednesday that the agreement had been "the last straw for Congress" regarding perceptions of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in general, and more specifically regarding the degree to which the United States should continue extending assistance to an Abbas-led PA. The piece quoted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) - who had authored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which conditioned aid to any Palestinian government on the absence of terrorists in leadership positions - declaring that "the Administration must halt aid to the Palestinian Authority and condition any future assistance as leverage to force Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to abandon this reconciliation with Hamas and to implement real reforms within the PA." It also quoted Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart on the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East, Ted Deutch (D-FL), emphasizing that observers should "[b]e certain that the Palestinian Authority will face significant consequences if a unity government is formed that includes terrorist members of Hamas." Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, tersely stated that Abbas's reconciliation move "jeopardizes US assistance." Al Monitor also conveyed details of a conference call held Wednesday by The Israel Project (TIP) in which Hillel Frisch, a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, had explained to reporters that a Palestinian unity government was in fact a vital prerequisite to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, but that it could not come at the expense of the Palestinians meeting their past obligations to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The alternative would be tantamount to Palestinian negotiators having spent decades extracting functionally irreversible concessions from Israel at the negotiating table, before pocketing those concessions and then abrogating the commitments.
Turkish outlet Today's Zaman on Tuesday described a rush by Iranian banks to open and expand branches in Turkey in the aftermath of "growth restrictions" being lifted, a decision that the outlet explained was made by the country's Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions after headway was made in negotiations regarding the curbing of Iran's nuclear program." Bank Mellat - which had been contracting due to sanctions-linked restrictions starting in 2012 - was cleared for expansion, a development that was followed by applications from two other Iranian banks that intend to open up in Turkey. The applications were approved. A report published in February by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), identified Turkey as a key global hub of illicit and terrorist financing, and the country has long been criticized for providing Iran both direct resources and financial channels with which to circumvent Western sanctions placed on the Islamic republic. Top officials from the Treasury Department rushed to Ankara in the aftermath of the implementation of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which eroded sanctions against Iran - to warn the Turks that "Iran is not open for business" and that "[b]usinesses interested in engaging in Iran really should hold off." Turkish outlet The Daily Sabah reported this week that, according to Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Alireza Bigdeli, Tehran and Ankara are now set to establish a free trade zone.
CNN on Thursday reported that forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime had, as part of an ongoing attack on the country's largest city, Aleppo, dropped barrel bombs out of helicopters on a vegetable market, killing at least 24 people. Activists and human rights workers distributed video of what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble in what was clearly a market" including an image of "a man attending to a boy whose leg had been ripped off." The wire clarified that "it was unclear whether the child was alive or dead," and also conveyed the assessment of an Aleppo-based activist who explained that "the area that was struck today is a market area, that's why there were so many civilians killed... the regime is hitting back against the civilians who support the revolt." The news comes just days after reports of a similar Monday attack that killed at least 29 people in a single Aleppo neighborhood. The regime's use of the mass-casualty shrapnel-packed IEDs - which can quite literally level entire buildings with a single hit - has consistently been emphasized by analysts and lawmakers as a particularly compelling justification for more robust Western intervention on behalf of opposition elements. Syrian forces also launched airstrikes on Atareb, injuring dozens, and on the nearby village of Tal Rifaat. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that, alongside the violence, almost 3.5 million civilians have little to no access to humanitarian aid.
Palestinian fighters on Thursday detonated a bomb along the northern border of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and launched a mortar shell at an IDF unit operating along the southern border of the territory, developments that the Jerusalem Post contextualized alongside new figures that show that there has been a "major upsurge in projectile attacks" against Israeli soldiers and civilians during 2014. Palestinian media outlets noted that the device was "apparently targeting patrolling Israeli soldiers." Thursday also saw the discovery of two additional bombs that had been planted along the territory's southern border with Israel. The incidents came a day after the Israelis had targeted what Reuters - conveying Israeli military reports - described as "a militant riding on a motorcycle in northern Gaza, from where rockets are often shot at Israel." Missiles and rockets had also been directed at Israeli troops and population centers on Monday, drawing both retaliatory and suppression fire that reportedly wounded four Hamas members. Those barrages, in turn, had been preceded by an attack on Sunday in which Palestinians detonated a bomb near an Israeli patrol and launched at least seven rockets into Israel. The Washington Post read the escalation against the backdrop of a more general uptick in rocket and missile fire, noting that "Gaza militants fired the heaviest barrages" in March since Israel's November 2012 Pillar of Defense campaign, during which Israeli forces decimated much of Hamas's advanced arsenal and its command and control infrastructure.
European scramble into Iran threatens to undermine White House credibility, heighten calls for Congressional oversight over final deal
- European scramble into Iran threatens to undermine White House credibility, heighten calls for Congressional oversight over final deal
- Kerry tells U.S. lawmakers that Obama administration Syria policy has failed, says time to arm rebels: reports
- Turkish media: Final details being settled in Israel-Turkey reconciliation deal
Hamas reportedly pulls back anti-rocket force from Gaza border, heightens risk of escalation with Israel
- European companies are scrambling to rush back into Iran's newly reopened markets despite Obama administration statements insisting that the Islamic republic "is not open for business," threatening to undermine confidence in the White House's management of the diplomatic battlefield as the West and Tehran head into comprehensive nuclear negotiations scheduled for mid-February. Benjamin Weinthal, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, last week described the dynamic as one in which Germany's "European rivals are scrambling to catch up" to the "over 100 German companies... currently doing business in Iran," with the new capital flooding into Iran worth as much as $20 billion. The Financial Times yesterday described "a delegation of more than 100 French companies" that visited Iran on Monday for a three-day visit that the outlet described as "the biggest demonstration of western business interest in Iran for more than a decade." English-language news distributor Al Bawaba today published an assessment focusing on Iran's energy markets and headlined "Europe muscling for investments with Tehran." The potential for a feeding frenzy specifically in the energy sector has been a persistent concern of observers. In mid-January, foreign policy and energy analyst Aaron Menenberg outlined fears that the relief provided by the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) could trigger a downward spiral in which "how [sanctions] are removed is almost irrelevant in the long-run... no company wants to be the first one in, but none want to be the last." The White House has staked its credibility on predictions that the core sanctions regime against Iran would hold amid the limited relief provided by the JPA, opposite skeptics who predicted the downward spiral that evidence indicates may be occurring. Evidence that the administration had miscalculated the JPA's effects or misled lawmakers about its likely outcome may heighten already emerging calls for close Congressional scrutiny of a comprehensive deal with Iran.
- Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday told a group of 15 U.S. congressmen that the Obama administration's policy toward Syria had failed - and that Washington must rush to arm relatively moderate rebel elements as to offset both Al Qaeda-linked radicals and the Iran-backed Bashar al-Assad regime - according to Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin and Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg both had early Monday morning articles about the leaked meeting, with the former characterizing the remarks as evidence that Kerry "has lost faith in his own administration’s Syria policy" and the latter framing the remarks as calling for "a new, more assertive, Syria policy" that may include "more dramatic arming of moderate Syrian rebel factions." The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, who had also been briefed by Graham on the meeting, dryly opened his article on the incident by noting that "it is no secret that the Obama administration’s Syria policy, to the extent that one exists, is failing." The reports that Damascus has turned over less than 5% of its chemical weapons (CW) arsenal and that Assad was - per a Times of London article - stockpiling WMDs as "an insurance policy." They also came a day after White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough flat out declared on Face the Nation that the deal regarding CWs - which had seen the West forgo attacking the regime after it crossed an Obama administration red line against the use of such weapons - was "not falling apart." Recent days have seen a cascade of grim reports describing carnage inside besieged Syrian cities. A Saturday raid on Aleppo reportedly killed at least 85 people and another 26 people were reportedly killed in attacks on the city today. U.N. World Food Program chief executive Ertharin Cousin on Monday declared that the agency was having trouble accessing besieged areas inhabited by millions of civilians. The Syrian conflict's death toll as of the end of January, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, topped 136,000.
- Turkish media outlet Hurriyet Daily News described early on Monday the final compensation figure that Israel will provide to Turkey as part of a reconciliation deal between the two countries, years after Ankara largely froze bilateral relations in the aftermath of a U.N. report that confirmed Jerusalem's legal interpretation of a 2010 commando raid on a Turkish vessel. The Mavi Marmara was attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Passengers aboard the vessel - who were largely drawn from the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a group that Turkish law enforcement recently raided over terror ties - attacked Israeli forces who boarded the ship, and nine passengers were killed in the ensuing fighting. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and officials from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) pressed for an international investigation into the incident, but were disappointed when a U.N. commission confirmed that Israel's interdiction of the vessel was legal. Turkey had been steadily eroding its ties with the Jewish state - Erodgan famously stormed off a Davos stage in 2009 rather than continue to share it with Israeli President Shimon Peres - and Ankara responded to the report's publication by putting relations into a deep freeze. Erdogan was widely perceived, including by Turkish media, as trying to leverage anti-Israel diplomacy in order to regionally boost Turkey's position and his personal popularity, but the AKP's foreign policy subsequently all but collapsed in ensuing years after a series of failed geopolitical gambles. By 2013 President Barack Obama was able to maneuver Erdogan into accepting a reconciliation deal with Israel largely on Jerusalem's terms, though Turkish backsliding - driven in part by AKP efforts to placate hardline criticism over having folded on previous red lines - hampered negotiations on the agreement. Turkish reports published early this morning - which come amid renewed analysis describing Ankara's foreign policy as being in disarray - indicate that a final $20 million figure for compensation has been agreed to.
- Hamas security sources this weekend told Agence France Presse on Sunday that the Iran-backed terror group was withdrawing roughly 600 fighters from the border between Israel and Gaza, where they had been recently been stationed and tasked with preventing smaller terrorist groups from launching rockets and missiles at Israeli civilians and soldiers. Regular security forces, according to the anonymous source, would remain in place. Escalating rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip had in November 2012 triggered an Israeli offensive that severely degraded Hamas's command and control infrastructure and its arsenal, and was followed by a near-total cessation in projective fire directed at Israel. A recent uptick in attacks from the Gaza Strip had generated blunt warnings that Israel would act to reestablish its deterrent should the escalation continue. Israeli outlet Walla tersely assessed, per a characterization of Walla's report in Ma'an, that 'Hamas' move gives other Palestinian factions a green light to fire rockets at Israeli targets across the border.' Hamas is battling to overcome what is inarguably the worst credibility crisis that it has faced since it violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and analysts fear that it is trying to rebuild its stature by provoking a confrontation with Israel.
- Top Iran negotiator: Iranian nuke concessions reversible in one day
- Moves to block bipartisan Senate legislation celebrated by Iranian media and pro-Iran lobbies, blasted by Senate sources
- Observers worry over Hamas campaign amid uptick in Gaza and West Bank operations
- International tribunal's launch focuses attention on Hezbollah violence, impunity
- The Daily Beast today conveyed statements by Abbas Araqchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister and its top nuclear negotiator, boasting that the concessions Iran has committed to making under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - and more specifically, its commitments regarding its stockpile of 20% uranium - can be reversed in one day. Iran has committed to halting enrichment to 20%, diluting half of its existing 20% stockpile to 5% levels, and converting the other half to an oxide form in which it can't be further enriched. Over the weekend Araqchi told Iranian television that "we can return again to 20 percent enrichment in less than one day and we can convert the [nuclear] material again." Substantively, the comments will draw attention to fundamental asymmetries in the JPA. The West's sanctions concessions are straightforwardly irreversible because Iran will get to pocket the billions in financial relief it receives, and it will be difficult - many analysts, backed by a steady stream of new evidence have suggested that it will in fact be functionally impossible - to restore the structure of the international sanctions regime. Diplomatically, Araqchi's boasts are likely to deepen concerns that the Iranians will exploit the JPA's asymmetries and walk away from negotiations. Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji - respectively the director of research and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute - had published an opinion piece in mid-November suggesting that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was laying the groundwork to pocket Western concessions under an interim deal and walk away from further negotiations. An anti-U.S. lash-out by Khamenei later that month deepened those fears. Araqchi's statements will be read within that debate, and may fuel concerns that Western negotiators lack sufficient leverage to force Iran to make robust concessions regarding its nuclear program. The worry is the basis for a Congressional push to pass legislation that would signal now that - should Iran abandon talks later - crippling sanctions would immediately be reposed. The White House has sought to halt momentum for the bill, in part by accusing its advocates of warmongering.
- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) this week signaled that he will not permit the Senate to vote on bipartisan legislation - formally co-sponsored by 59 senators and reportedly supported by a veto-proof majority of 77 - that would impose sanctions on Iran should negotiations over the Islamic republic's nuclear program fail. The Hill noted that the decision came "[a]mid intense pressure from President Obama and the White House," elements of which included accusations of warmongering leveled at Democrats by administration supporters. Iranian state outlet PressTV positively covered Reid's efforts to block a vote in the face of what the station described as "the Israeli lobby's efforts" - the second of at least two such articles that PressTV published this week about the Senate leader - and also conveyed reports of animated personal lobbying by President Barack Obama himself. The Nation noted that the legislation is also opposed by the National Iranian Council, by which the magazine likely meant the National Iranian American Council, which is a lobby that has been accused by members of Congress of pushing pro-regime "propaganda" amid efforts by lawmakers to pressure Iran into making meaningful concessions that would defuse the international crisis over Tehran's nuclear program. The tone inside the Senate differed, with a senior aide expressing frustration at Reid for "blocking a majority of senators who want to stop Iran from going nuclear."
- Observers are expressing deepening concerns regarding efforts by Palestinian groups to destabilize Israel's border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, amid months of foiled attempts by the Iran-backed faction to launch spectacular terror attacks that would bolster its precipitously sliding domestic and regional stature. As many as eight rockets were fired overnight from the Gaza Strip at the Israeli city of Ashkelon, with five being intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome defense system. The barrage followed another one from earlier this week, when two rockets were fired after the funeral of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Upwards of twenty rockets have been fired at Israel this year, as compared with roughly forty in all of 2013, and Hamas is known to be qualitatively and quantatively bolstering its missile arsenal. Meanwhile reports are emerging that the group is engaging in, and boosting its capacity for, suicide bombings and similar terror operations. David Barnett, a Palestinian affairs expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, yesterday outlined a series of recent Hamas terror plots uncovered by Israeli authorities operating in the West Bank. The Times of Israel also reported yesterday that the second year of Gaza's so-called "Pioneers of Liberation" program, which involves training high school-age students to engage in combat and emulate "suicide martyrs," had just concluded. Approximately 18,000 teenagers have reportedly been through the paramilitary programs, with boys and girls - per Hamas's broader educational policies - taught separately.
- Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri today hailed the opening of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) at The Hague as the "first page of true justice" in response to the assassination of his father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as the STL launched its first trial into Hariri's February 2005 murder. The U.N.-backed court has indicted and seeks to try five members of Hezbollah for various roles in the attack. Four of the defendants are accused of direct involvement: Mustafa Badr Al Deen, believed to be the mastermind behind the operation, Salim Ayyash, accused of being in charge of the technical operational details, Hussain Anaissi, and Assad Sabra, both of whom are accused of preparing a propaganda video to claim false responsibility after the attack. Hezbollah has repeatedly interfered in the tribunal's work and refused to turn over the suspects, going so far as to threaten to attack anyone who attempts to apprehend them. The Iran-backed terror group's stance has been blasted - and was again criticized by Hariri at the STL's opening - for putting the organization and its members beyond legal authority. Hudson Institute senior fellow Lee Smith has outlined how Hezbollah mobilizes organized violence - most recently via the car bombing and murder of former Ambassador to the U.S. Mohamad Chatah - to reinforce perceptions of exactly such immunity. The STL will be the first international tribunal to try suspects in absentia since Nuremberg.
Senate push for delayed Iran sanctions racks up majority support, reportedly with dozens of Democratic Senators in support
- Senate push for delayed Iran sanctions racks up majority support, reportedly with dozens of Democratic Senators in support
- Khamenei: nuclear talks expose "enmity" of U.S. "Satan"
- Syrian rebel alliance targets Al Qaeda, expels group from key city
- Hamas brags about reinvigorated alliance with Iran
What we’re watching today:
- Senate legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if Tehran refused to dismantle its atomic program at the end of negotiations inched today toward a "near-filibuster-proof majority," with Foreign Policy outlining that 58 Senators now support the proposed bill. Meanwhile William Daroff, the Senior Vice President for Public Policy at The Jewish Federations of North America, revealed information from a "very reliable source" counting 34 Democratic Senators in support of the push. Provided that Iran does not cheat on its obligations while negotiations are ongoing, the legislation would put off any new measures until the end of talks and give the President the flexibility to delay those measures as talks are extended. The White House has nonetheless threatened to veto the bill, and has heavily pressured Senators to oppose it. Foreign Policy unpacked the White House's current legislative strategy, which now involves heavily pressuring Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not to permit a vote on the potential law. A Senate staffer who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon estimated that Reid would be forced to buck White House pressure if the bill gets "60 cosponsors and more than 67 votes on the whip count." The Obama administration insists that the legislation would derail talks with Iran, but supporters counter that it merely codifies the White House's own repeated promise to ratchet sanctions up if negotiations fail. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, for instance, insisted to 60 Minutes last month that "we will ensure that the pressure is reimposed" if Tehran is caught violating agreements to first freeze its program and then put it beyond use for weaponization.
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lashed out against the United States on Thursday, declaring that "we would negotiate with the Satan (the United States) to deter its evil... [but] the nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam and Muslims." The statements came amid growing concerns - including from largely sympathetic outlets corners - that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani lacks the will or ability to substantially change Iranian domestic and foreign policy. By law and assisted by raw political power, the Supreme Leader controls among other things Iran's foreign policy. For his part Rouhani used to be openly acknowledged as close to Khamenei - a Reuters article from 2008 is to the point, and the characterization seems straightforwardly accurate - but since his election he has been framed by Western media outlets as a moderate opponent of the regime. It is not yet clear to what extent the White House will condemn Khamenei's remarks. The administration was markedly slow in condemning past inflamatory statements by Khamenei.
- An alliance of Syrian opposition fighters has seized parts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo that had been controlled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Al Qaeda-linked group operating across the region, dealing what McClatchy assess as "an enormous setback" to the international terrorist organization. The forces that targeted Al Qaeda in Aleppo drew from a wide range of groups, ranging from secularists to unaffiliated hard-line Islamists. ISIS forces executed dozens of imprisoned opponents as they retreated, and The Times conveyed opposition estimates that "as many as 50 prisoners... had been slaughtered in cold blood at the group's hospital headquarters before the militants fled for the northeastern province of Raqqa." The episode is the latest in what has become regular fighting between Al Qaeda and more moderate, or at least not Al Qaeda-linked, rebels. ISIS leaders have called on their followers to target and kill fighters from those more moderate groups, including from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). The internecine fighting has direct diplomatic stakes beyond Syria's borders. Analysts are becoming increasingly vocal in criticizing the United States and its Western allies for de facto siding with Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, and with the regime's Iranian sponsors, due to fears that Al Qaeda might otherwise consolidate territorial gains. The administration's current policy has it giving weapons to Iraq - which the Washington Post's David Ignatius describes as a "virtual client of Tehran - so that Baghdad can fight Al Qaeda in Iran. Meanwhile Washington has partially frozen assistance to rebel groups who are battling Al Qaeda in Syria. The tension between the two positions may prove increasingly difficult to justify.
- The Guardian today conveyed statements from multiple Hamas figures indicating that the Palestinian terror group has rebuilt warm relations with its long-time sponsor Iran, overcoming a temporary break in relations that had some analysts declaring that there was an opening for Western engagement. The outlet quoted Taher al-Nounou, an aide to Hamas's Gaza-based prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, assessing that bilateral relations were "almost back to how they were before" divisions over the Syrian war caused a strain in ties, and that Hamas "believe[s] we will soon be back" to pre-Syrian war levels. Much had been made by analysts and journalists of the distance between Hamas and Iran TIME took it as evidence against what it described as "Israeli p.r." that "likes to portray Hamas as a satellite of Tehran," speculating that Hamas had put itself in a position it to prosper in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The National Interest suggested that the shift should cause the United States to engage Hamas and integrate it into peace efforts. Hamas's time outside the Iranian orbit was short-lived. Reports emerged as early as July 2012 that representatives from the group were secretly meeting with Iranian figures to rebuild ties. By August there were multiple signals that reconciliation was being pursued and by September Hamas was again publicly positioning itself as part of an "Axis of Resistance" anchored by Iran. In early December Hamas senior member Mahmud al-Zahar was ready to declare that "relations between Hamas and Iran have resumed," and by the end of that month Hamas sources were confirming that "warm relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran have been restored." The rapid restoration of ties suggests that Hamas's relationship with Iran may be more robust than some analysts had been willing to grant.
Reuters: New China-Iran oil contract may boost exports to pre-2012 levels, gut efforts to cap nuke deal's financial relief
- Reuters: New China-Iran oil contract may boost exports to pre-2012 levels, gut efforts to cap nuke deal's financial relief
- Bloomberg: Turkey's political war tanking economy, risks reversing decade of economic progress
- Analysts: Israel set for unprecedented year of startup IPOs
- Egyptian moves against Muslim Brotherhood put Hamas on the brink
What we’re watching today:
- A new oil contract being negotiated between China and Iran, which would see the Chinese state-trader Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp purchase light crude from Tehran, could according to Reuters boost imports from the Islamic republic "to levels not seen since tough Western sanctions were imposed in 2012," in the process undermining Western efforts to limit financial relief provided to Iran under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) announced weeks ago in Geneva. Critics of the JPA had almost immediately raised concerns that even a limited erosion in the international sanctions regime would trigger a feeding frenzy, as nations and companies scrambled to ensure that they were not left behind in reentering Iran's markets. Those concerns were derided as "fanciful" by analysts linked to the Obama administration, while administration officials themselves blasted skeptics as uninformed. White House assurances have since come under significant strain. Most straightforwardly, the administration's assessment that the JPA would provide Iran with only $7 billion in relief appears to have neglected fundamental economic considerations including multiplier effects and the benefits of currency stabilization. Fears that a feeding frenzy will erode the sanctions regime even beyond what U.S. negotiators originally envisioned, meanwhile, have also gained traction. Actors ranging from automobile investors to Dubai have rushed to reestablish themselves inside Iran. News of the Chinese oil contract - which Reuters assesses would "go against" the JPA's emphasis on limiting Iranian oil imports to "current average amounts" - are likely to deepen fears that a downward spiral is taking hold.
- Bloomberg this week reported that the open political warfare rocking Turkey, which has pitted the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, is endangering the country's economy, "driving the currency to unprecedented lows" and tanking Istanbul's stock exchange. Turkish bonds are being dumped by investors at a pace not seen in two years, and the Borsa Istanbul 100 Index this month lost 15 percent of its value, marking Turkey's stock market literally "the world’s worst performer" in recent weeks. The outlet evaluated that the crisis, which it assessed threatens to reverse nearly a decade of economic progress made by Turkey, is at risk of becoming a downward spiral of tit-for-tat moves by the two rival Islamist camps. Gulen-influenced prosecutors have been pursuing and widening a corruption probe that has already ensnared top AKP elites, and those elites - up to and including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - have responded by seeking to purge the judiciary of Gulenists. Turkish media reported yesterday that the battle was "entering a new phase," per an announcement by deputy prime minister Bulent Arınc that the government was developing a plan to "do whatever necessary – legal or judicial – against" opponents in the judiciary.
- The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that, in contrast to previous years in which successfully Israeli startups had focused on mergers and acquisitions, 2014 is shaping up to be a year in which similar companies attempt to go public. 2013 saw more Israeli startups acquired by foreign companies than any other year since 2006, with The Tower assessing in October that "announcements of multi-million and even billion-dollar acquisitions of Israeli startups [had become]... routine." The news site specifically referenced Google's billion-dollar acquisition of maps application Waze and Facebook's $100 million acquisition of data compression technology Onavo. The Journal projected that 2014, in contrast, will see Israeli startups switch to an IPO strategy. The outlet quoted Nimrod Kozlovski, a partner at Jerusalem Venture Partners, describing how "more companies in Israel now are lining up, trying to go to Nasdaq." The story also described a recent IPO by website development platform Wix.com, which last month debuted in the U.S. and raised about $127 billion. After a 70% increase in its stock, Wix.com now has a market valuation of over $1 billion. Wix.com had recently been in the news for non-financial reasons after an investigation discovered that many websites advocating anti-Israel boycotts were built on the Israeli-created platform.
- The Times of Israel reported today that Hamas is being forced to reposition itself in relation to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood - of which it is an off-shoot - in the wake of Cairo's recent decision to brand the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, with the shift likely to deepen an emerging consensus that the Palestinian faction is adrift after a series of failed geopolitical gambles. Hamas's regional influence had enjoyed something of a high-water mark during the year-long tenure of Egypt's Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi, but has all but collapsed since Morsi's government was removed by the army in the wake of massive anti-government rallies. The army quickly moved against not just the Brotherhood but also Hamas, which it blamed for helping the Brotherhood and for facilitating jihadist attacks in the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula. An army campaign cut off access between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the outside world, and Cairo explicitly threatened a "harsh response" should the Palestinian organization continue to be implicated in terrorism on Egyptian soil. Egyptian Ambassador to the Palestinian Authority Yasser Othman this week pointedly told Palestinian media that Hamas would be expected to untangle itself from Egyptian affairs, and that - as far as deciding which groups are terror entities - "the criterion for implementing the law on anyone is their behavior toward Egypt and the extent of their intervention in internal Egyptian affairs." Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, suggested this summer that Hamas's weakened position provides Western lawmakers with the opportunity to strike a financial death blow to the group.
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.
Concern heightens that unbalanced Iran deal will weaken U.S. negotiators, as downward spiral threatens to take hold of sanctions regime
- Concern heightens that unbalanced Iran deal will weaken U.S. negotiators, as downward spiral threatens to take hold of sanctions regime
- U.N. nuclear watchdog reemphasizes concerns on Iran nuclear weaponization
- Israeli officials insist violence won't derail development efforts in country's south
- AP: Hamas cancels anniversary celebration over Egypt-driven 'deep economic woes
What we’re watching today:
- The Washington Post on Thursday described the interim agreement signed between the global P5+1 powers and Iran as "notable for its omissions," and expressed concern that the combination of Western concessions and Iranian victories has left "the United States and its partners at a disadvantage in negotiating the comprehensive settlement." Analysts have been expressing increasingly pointed worries that the reduction of sanctions has triggered a downward spiral that will substantially erode the entire regime, even as Iran in recent days has doubled down on advancing both its uranium and plutonium facilities. The Associated Press reported over the weekend that weakened sanctions on automobile components "could see Iran’s stalled car production again take off," providing not just a "boon" to Iranian automakers but also "potentially draw[ing] in more foreign investment from other manufacturers hoping to break into the market." The AP quoted Patrick Blain, president of the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, as predicting that "international investors are expected to re-enter Iran’s market soon," an evaluation in tension with Obama administration assurances, provided to allies and lawmakers, insisting that investors would be irrational to re-enter Iran's market in the near term. Blain was further quoted by Agence France-Presse asserting that "there is no reason not to come back." Meanwhile Reuters this morning reported on Iranian moves to "reassert Tehran's authority in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries" on basis of expectations that it will soon "return as the cartel's second biggest producer." Iranian state media today conveyed statements from Abbas Araqchi, the country's deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, boasting that Tehran expects to receive $15 billion in oil revenues from the implementation of the Geneva deal. The Obama administration in contrast has assessed that the total relief granted by the agreement is roughly $7 billion, with only $4.2 billion in frozen oil assets being released.
- A statement issued last week by the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, emphasizes that the organization continues to be concerned about possible clandestine elements in Iran's nuclear program oriented toward the production of a nuclear weapon. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told the organization's board of governors that the agency was not "in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities." The statement was followed by declarations from top Iranian officials committing the Islamic republic to making continued progress on both Tehran's uranium and plutonium infrastructure, and insisting that the country would never suspend uranium enrichment or its plutonium ambitions, as has been called for by half a dozen United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s nuclear chief, declared over the weekend that Iran would never cease work on its Arak facility, which top analysts - including those sympathetic to engagement with the Islamic republic - have described as a plutonium bomb factory. For their part - per a weekend report by the Wall Street Journal - U.S. officials "have said they no longer believe it is feasible or practical to reach an agreement with Iran that completely dismantles its nuclear program," and more specifically Iran's uranium enrichment efforts.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres this weekend declared that Israel would continue pursuing a multi-year plan to economically develop the country's southern Negev region and politically integrate the Bedouin populations that live in the area, after activists late last week staged violent rallies opposing the so-called Prawer-Begin plan. Israel's Negev region constitutes almost half of the country's pre-1967 territory. It is home to roughly 200,000 Bedouin, as many as 90,000 of whom live in conditions of chronic underdevelopment. Close to half of all Bedouin citizens in the Negev live in 40 encampments with little to no access to basic municipal services such as water and sanitation, and some villages are illegally located on lands reserved for public use, including near Israel’s main toxic waste depository. The unemployment rate for Israeli Bedouins is 70 percent, compared with a national average of 7 percent, and only 4 percent of Bedouins graduate from higher education institutions. The Prawer-Begin plan would require Jerusalem to invest almost $2 billion in developing the Negev and moving some Bedouin communities to areas with education, health care, water, and electricity, where were they could legally live and in many cases claim ownership over their land. Organizations and activists critical of Israel, however, last week urged a so-called "day of rage" to oppose the plan, which they insisted was an instance of Israel dispossessing Palestinians. Media outlets pointedly described the Israeli cities being constructed in the Negev as "Jewish settlements" and the Israeli Bedouins were called "Palestinian Bedouins." Critics blasted such rhetoric as part of an effort to conflate the Bedouin cause with the Palestinian issue, noting that it was being done in the context of efforts to mainstream notions that Israel was targeting Palestinians. Analysts fear that the conflation will harm both the Bedouin cause and efforts to establish a Palestinian state. Regarding the Bedouins, the violence has threatened passage of the Prawer-Begin bill, potentially leaving the Negev underdeveloped. Regarding efforts to achieve a Palestinian state, the conflation is likely to deepen worries that the claims of Palestinians and their allies extend between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and into territories that have been Israeli since the country's birth and are internationally recognized as such.
- The Associated Press reported this weekend that Hamas had cancelled the terror group's previously scheduled 26th anniversary rally, with the terror group citing what the outlet described as 'deep economic woes' in the Gaza Strip territory that it rules. The AP linked Hamas's financial troubles to moves made by the Egyptian military to destroy the smuggling tunnels running between Gaza to the Egypt-controlled Sinai Peninsula, which the Egyptians blame for facilitating the movement of personnel and materials used by jihadists to conduct attacks in the Sinai. Egyptian security officials had began seeking to undermine both the tunnels and the Hamas officials who they blame for maintaining and profiting from them even before the July ouster of then-president Mohammed Morsi, who along with his Muslim Brotherhood-linked government was widely seen as a regional ally of Hamas. After Morsi was removed from power in the wake of massive anti-government rallies, the army stepped up its efforts to destroy the tunnels. Palestinian and Egyptian media outlets over the weekend conveyed reports of what the Jerusalem Post described as 'intensifying tensions between Egypt and Hamas,' specifically citing efforts by Egyptian authorities to revoke the citizenship and passports of of Hamas leaders.
Observers worry over another "sucker's deal" as foreign ministers rush to Geneva for likely Iran deal
- Observers worry over another "sucker's deal" as foreign ministers rush to Geneva for likely Iran deal
- Saudi Arabia: U.S. Middle East allies have "no confidence in the Obama administration doing the right thing with Iran"
- Advanced Hamas surveillance techniques stoke worries of spectacular terror campaign
- Talk of widening Israeli governing coalition after opposition Labor party elects new leader
What we’re watching today:
- The State Department announced late Friday that Secretary of State John Kerry would be traveling to Geneva overnight to attend talks between the global powers and Iran, adding about an hour later that Kerry would be pursuing "the goal of continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement" over Tehran's nuclear program. News quickly followed that the other P5+1 foreign ministers not already in Geneva were also en route. Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff noted that the flurry of activity means an interim deal - widely expected to be for a six-month period - is overwhelmingly likely to be secured in this round of talks. Observers will be watching for changes from a previous draft agreement that was almost agreed to two weeks ago, and which the French blasted as a "sucker's deal." That deal had reportedly allowed Iran to continue making progress on developing its Arak plutonium-breeding facility, which once activated will be able to produce between one and two bombs' worth of nuclear material per year. Reports had the West conceding to continued development of the facility in exchange for an Iranian promise not to activate the facility's nuclear reactor for six months - something Iran had already announced it did not intend to do anyway. Regarding Iran's uranium track, analysts will especially focus on whether Tehran will be permitted to continue constructing centrifuges. Such a concession would give Iran the option of installing those centrifuges at the end of the six-month interim period, increasing its enrichment capacity and quickly swamping whatever material had been ceded under the initial deal. Weeks ago David Albright, director of the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), had already explained that a deal that dealt only with Iran's existing stock of 20% enriched uranium would be “nowhere near enough” since Iran would “emerge if the deal fell apart with several thousand IR-1s and IR-2Ms to be deployed rapidly in Natanz, and possibly even a third centrifuge plant.”
- Iran's neighbors throughout the region have "no confidence in the Obama administration doing the right thing with Iran," according to Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, with "Israel, Saudi Arabia, [and] the Middle East countries" being among the traditional U.S. allies who believe that Washington is being woefully outflanked by Iranian negotiators. Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed bin Talal and described him as believing that "Iran, in its ongoing negotiations with the world’s major powers, will pocket whatever sanctions relief it gets without committing to ending its nuclear program." Goldberg specifically quoted the Saudi prince as advocating that the U.S. "keep the [sanctions] pressure on" inasmuch as "sanctions are what brought about the negotiations to begin with." Bin Talal's analysis echoes that of Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji, respectively the director of research and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, who recently warned that "Khamenei has been laying the groundwork to walk away from any deal by warning that the West is untrustworthy and will not deliver on its promises." Under this scenario Iran would use the billions of dollars it received to stabilize its economy, bolster its nuclear program, and fund its global terror infrastructure - and would hope that the initial erosion of the sanctions regime would trigger a downward spiral as global powers sought to preempt each other by rushing into the newly reopened Iranian market. Brookings Institute fellow Michael Doran today pointed to evidence that such a downward spiral was already beginning, with Paris looking to reopen a trade-related attache office in Tehran next year.
A senior Israeli army officer yesterday told [Hebrew] the country's Channel 2 that Hamas had developed new surveillance infrastructure - including cameras mounted to balloons - for collecting intelligence deep inside of Israel. The statements are likely to fuel already growing fears that Hamas - having seen both its regional and domestic
position erode after a series of geopolitical missteps - is looking to restore its stature via spectacular attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers. The group is known to have attempted spectacular terror attacks in the West Bank, and it was recently caught having constructed attack tunnels underneath the border between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, of the kind but more advanced than those used in previous operations. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has suggested that the West and its allies have a narrow window - while Hamas is still struggling to regain its balance - in which it can take financial action to strike a death blow to the terror organization.
- Veteran Israeli lawmaker Isaac Herzog was yesterday elected the new leader of Israel's Labor Party, currently the country's main opposition party, wining a landslide 58.5% to 41.5% victory over previous leader Shelly Yachimovich and setting the stage for a potential re-configuring of Israel's governing coalition. Israeli outlet Yediot Aharonot pointedly noted that while Herzog used his acceptance speech to attack the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - especially in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process - he had also regularly criticized Yachimovich for staying out of that government during her two-year tenure. Herzog also used his speech to flatly declare that "fates are now being sealed" regarding the trajectory of Iran and its nuclear program. The Associated Press tersely evaluated that Herzog's victory could make Labor "more amenable to joining Netanyahu’s coalition should nascent peace talks with the Palestinians gather steam."
Amid bipartisan commitment to moving forward sanctions, Senate Majority Leader comes out in favor of pressure and promises December vote
- Amid bipartisan commitment to moving forward sanctions, Senate Majority Leader comes out in favor of pressure and promises December vote
- Khamenei plasters Internet with posters calling Israel "sinister, unclean rabid dog," underscoring diverging French and U.S. stances
- Azerbaijan arrests Iranian suspected of plotting terror attack on Israeli embassy, being Quds Force operative
- TIME: After stock "plummeted in the past year," Hamas now "keen to cozy back up to Iran"
What we’re watching today:
- Efforts by U.S. lawmakers to impose new financial pressure on Iran picked up momentum today, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid committing to having the Senate vote to boost sanctions after the body's Thanksgiving recess, and 14 other senators, hailing from both parties, declaring that they would cooperate to push through such legislation. Reid's office published floor remarks made by the Nevada Democrat declaring himself to be a "strong supporter of [the] sanctions regime" and committing not only to "mov[ing] forward with a new bipartisan Iran sanctions bill" but more specifically to "support[ing] a bill that would broaden the scope of our current petroleum sanctions; place limitations on trade with strategic sectors of the Iranian economy that support its nuclear ambitions, as well as pursue those who divert goods to Iran." Amid controversial comments being leveled by some administration officials and by Hezbollah - in which sanctions proponents are being accused of seeking to derail negotiations and drag America into war - Reid stated that while he "support[s] the Admiration’s diplomatic efforts" he is committed to keeping the U.S.'s "legislative options open." Meanwhile more than a dozen U.S. senators published a bipartisan statement promising to "work together to reconcile Democratic and Republican proposals over the coming weeks and to pass bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation as soon as possible."
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last night doubled down on a controversial Wednesday speech in which he branded Israel a "rabid dog" - part of a diatribe in which he also declared that Israeli leaders "cannot be called humans" but "are like animals" - by posting images to Twitter and Facebook with the line "Israel is the sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region." Commenting on the controversy, the Wall Street Journal described how the "French government quickly... [called Khamenei's] speech 'unacceptable,' while the Obama administration offered a much milder response." A senior Obama administration official, who spoke to reporters during a background briefing in Geneva, had in fact pointedly declined to condemn Khamenei not only for his attack on Israel but also for his insinuation that the U.S. had launched a nuclear attack on Japan after the country had functionally surrendered. Instead the administration official noted while they "don't ever like it" when people speak about the United States in such terms, America for its part has "had many people... say difficult things about Iran and Iranians, and not always necessarily [drawing] a difference between governmental decisions and culture and people and - this is a very difficult terrain." Amid widespread international disbelief at the U.S. stance, administration officials today issued what the Jerusalem Post described as "belated condemnation."
- Israel's Channel 10 reported yesterday that an Iranian national was arrested two weeks ago in Azerbaijan after authorities observed him walking through the Israeli embassy displaying "suspicious behavior," and after a raid of his house revealed plans and photographs indicating he intended to attack the building. If it is confirmed that 31-year-old Hasan Faraji was planning to launch a terror attack against the Israeli installation, the incident would become the latest of almost a dozen recent terror plots linked to the Islamic republic and staged not just repeatedly in Azerbaijan but also in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Thailand, Georgia, India, Nigeria, Singapore, Nepal, Turkey, and even Israel. The Channel 10 broadcast described Faraji as a member of the Iranian Quds Forces, the branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard responsible for conducting overseas terror operations. A State Department report published this summer noted that "Iran and Hezbollah’s terrorist activity has reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s," echoing a report published this year by the Washington Institute’s Matthew Levitt concluding that Iran’s global terror operations had "climbed back up the list of immediate threats facing the United States and its allies."
- A collapse of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and a series of geopolitical missteps have led to the isolation of the Gaza Strip and the Hamas terror group that controls it, such that not only has Hamas's "stock... plummeted in the past year" but "time is not on the [terror group's] side," according to an extensive write-up published today by TIME. The Palestinian organization went all-in last year on an emerging Sunni extremist axis in the Middle East anchored by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and in many contexts including Qatar. The decision saw Hamas distance itself from the two other solidifying camps in the region: the Iranian camp that includes Syria and Hezbollah - and that had included Hamas - and the more moderate Arab Sunni camp of traditional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Subsequent months saw severe declines in the foreign policy influence of both Turkey and Qatar, while the leadership of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was largely decapitated by that country's military. The result, according to TIME, is that Hamas is now "keen to cozy back up to Iran." TIME's analysis is in line with multiple statements not just by Hamas leaders, but also top figures from Hezbollah and Iran. Tehran's diplomats have not been shy in letting it be known that their former Palestinian terror proxies are now seeking rapprochement.
AP diplomatic correspondent: Obama administration outreach to Senate might have been "coup de grace for Iran talks"
- AP diplomatic correspondent: Obama administration outreach to Senate might have been "coup de grace for Iran talks"
- Analysts: Israel "right to be wary," has "good reason to worry" over Iran deal terms
- Israeli soldier stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorist amid Hamas terror rebuilding, Fatah incitement spike
- Palestinian peace process team resigns amid growing questions of political readiness
What we’re watching today:
- Obama administration officials dispatched to the Hill today to explain the White House's approach to Iran negotiations largely failed to reassure senators, with the Associated Press's Matthew Lee summing up a Banking Committee meeting that included Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman as perhaps a "coup de grace for Iran talks." Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) walked out of the meeting and blasted administration officials in general and Sherman in particular, accusing the White House of taking a "Chamberlain"-style approach to negotiations and of promoting "anti-Israel" statements in response to Israeli assessments that the deal recently offered to Iran would only "set back the [Iranian nuclear] program about 24 days." Meanwhile the administration is facing the possibility that it is courting political controversy by accusing lawmakers who are pushing for sanctions of placing the U.S. on a "march to war" with Iran. Former Democratic Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley went public with her concerns over the deal today and called for new pressure until a final settlement is achieved. Berkley, who is a member of the Board of Directors of The Israel Project, took to the pages of the Las Vegas Review Journal and bluntly stated that "now is the time to increase the pressure, not withdraw it."
- Analysts continue to debate the details of the failed deal proposed last weekend between the international community and Iran, discussing both the substantive concerns of skeptics and the political consequences of what was very early on described by critics as over-eagerness by the Obama administration to cut a deal at any cost. An extensive analysis published on Monday by TIME World had already assessed that "experts say Israel is right to be wary" of the contours of the deal, which would have allowed Iran to continue bolstering the elements that it needs for constructing both uranium and plutonium-based nuclear bombs. TIME describes a series of conference calls hosted by The Israel Project (TIP) in which experts outlined the mechanics of Iran's nuclear program and what would constitute an Iranian drive for a nuclear weapon. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency, had explained on a TIP call how Iran's stockpile of 3 percent enriched uranium was "something like 60 percent" of the way toward weapons-grade levels, while David Albright, the head of the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security, had assessed on another TIP call how Iran could go nuclear in "as little as a month." Yesterday Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji, respectively the director of research and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, published an opinion piece in the Washington Post outlining fears that "Khamenei has been laying the groundwork to walk away from any deal by warning that the West is untrustworthy and will not deliver on its promises," and that "Israel has good reason to worry" that Tehran will pocket whatever concessions the West offers and then violate signed agreements.
- A 19-year-old Israeli soldier was stabbed to death this morning on an Israeli bus by a 16-year-old Palestinian terrorist, sustaining several wounds to his neck and chest and eventually succumbing to his injuries after being admitted to to a hospital. In what one Twitter commenter described as "affirmation," the Twitter channel of Hamas's al-Qassam Brigades posted a childhood picture of the murdered Israeli teenager. The attack comes amid both concentrated efforts by Hamas to rebuild its terror infrastructure in the West Bank - the Palestinian terror group has been largely stymied in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, and so may be shifting its focus to the territory - and a wave of incitement by Hamas's rival, the Palestinian Fatah faction. The Jerusalem Post today published assessments from Israeli intelligence officials describing "an elevated risk of armed terror attacks" in the West Bank town of Hebron. Israeli soldiers last week seized a large cache of ammunition and arrested two Palestinians on security charges in the area. An unnamed intelligence officer told the Post that the cache represented only "a small drop in the bucket" of arms flowing through the Hebron region.
- Reuters late Wednesday conveyed reports that the Palestinian delegation charged with negotiating opposite Israel had resigned and cited for its resignation Israeli construction within communities beyond the Jewish state's 1948 armistice lines. The move comes despite both the cancellation of previously announced massive building plans by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the brute fact that until a few years ago Palestinian negotiators had for decades conducted talks while Israel bolstered such communities. For their part the Israelis have recently released two batches of Palestinian prisoners convicted of murder as goodwill gestures designed to jump-start and maintain negotiations. The most recent was done despite a wave of Palestinian incitement and in the absence of reciprocal Palestinian gestures, and was particularly politically controversial. The Israel Project yesterday hosted a conference call with Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in which he described systemic problems - with endemic Palestinian Authority (PA) corruption being among the most trenchant - that have undercut efforts to create robust and sustainable institutions in the West Bank. The audio for the call is here.