- Egyptian presidential frontrunner commits to Camp David peace treaty, as allies urge Hamas to recognize Israel
The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday angrily denounced reports printed by Western outlets alleging that the Islamic republic had supplied Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime with chlorine-filled chemical weapons (CWs), accusing the Daily Telegraph in particular of being a "Zionist news outlet" that "spreads lies to deviate the world's public opinion from realities." Observers have become increasingly vocal in condemning what analysts describe as a coordinated campaign by Syrian to target rebel-heavy areas with the weapons. The campaign had - per the New York Times - "overshadowed" reports that progress was being made in eliminating other parts of Assad's nonconventional arsenal. Syria had agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and destroy its CW stockpile as part of a deal hammered out last September to avert what seemed to be impending U.S. strikes, after the regime had widely been accused of crossing a red line set by the Obama administration against the use of such weapons. The CWC does not ban possession of chlorine, which has industrial uses beyond the battlefield, but weaponizing the substance let alone deploying it is prohibited. The Chinese had been quick in announcing an investigation into whether the weapons had a link to Beijing, and had subsequently denied involvement. The controversy over chlorine weapons comes as progress has stalled in destroying even the CWC-proscribed portions of Syria's arsenal. The chief of the mission charged with destroying those weapons said this week that the last unsecured containers were currently inaccessible on account of nearby fighting. Washington has traditionally shown little patience for such arguments, accusing Damascus of dragging its feet and manipulating the situation on the ground to avoid handing over its weapons. The Americans believe that Syria has been looking to retain portions of its nonconventional arsenal to use "as leverage in a dispute with the international community over the future of facilities used to store the deadly agents."
Several outlets on Thursday reported on Congressional efforts to reassert a measure of control over the trajectory of nuclear negotiations with Iran, with members of the House of Representatives making a variety of moves over the last few days to monitor the status of ongoing talks and to establish acceptable parameters on any deal. Politico's influential Morning Defense bulletin took note of "an amendment from Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) calling for additional restrictions on a potential nuclear deal with Iran, including that Iran cease its support of terror groups and its ballistic missile program." An initial request for a roll call was withdrawn, and the language was approved by voice vote. Meanwhile the Washington Free Beacon reported on efforts by Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) to "legally force the White House into sharing information and provide oversight over the Iran deal, the text of which the Obama administration has kept locked in a secret location." The Obama administration and key members on the Hill have consistently clashed over the wisdom of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) signed between Iran and the P5+1 global powers, with divisions widening after it appeared that White House officials misled lawmakers and the public about the extent of Iranian concessions regarding uranium enrichment technology, plutonium infrastructure, and ballistic missile development. The situation is a delicate one for the administration, which has reportedly been seeking ways to circumvent Congress should Washington commit to undoing sanctions on Iran. Both supporters and skeptics of a potential deal agree that such efforts are unlikely to prove sufficiently robust to succeed.
Analysis published this week by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) conveyed a variety of indicators - ranging from public data about Israeli-Egyptian energy agreements to recent statements by Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi - converging on the conclusion that Cairo is making a concentrated effort to boost and insulate bilateral ties with the Jewish state. The write-up specifically focused on recent statements by Sisi, who is widely expected to breeze to the presidency in upcoming elections, committing to upholding the peace treaty with Jerusalem and suggesting that relations could warm further in the aftermath of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Meanwhile Amr Mussa - a top liberal politician and a notable Sisi ally - called on the Palestinian Hamas faction to recognize Israel in order to boost efforts to establish a viable Palestinian state. Mussa more specifically declared that "Hamas should declare its acceptance of the Arab initiative of 2002, which is the map of normalization and recognition of the state of Israel together with the establishing of the Palestinian state and the withdrawal of the occupied territory." Agence France-Presse (AFP) read the remarks against the backdrop of a recent unity agreement announced between Hamas and the rival Fatah faction. The announcement had been blasted by some analysts for providing Hamas with a lifeline, after almost a year of systematic Egyptian campaigns to economically and diplomatically isolate the terror group. AFP noted that "the deputy leader of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzuq, insisted earlier this week that despite the unity deal his group would never recognize Israel," a stance which puts the Palestinians in tension with almost a decade of international demands and with black-letter American law.
The Wall Street Journal on Thursday conveyed commitments from Iran's oil minister vowing to boost the country's crude exports despite what the outlet described as "a cap agreed upon with the international community." The interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which Iran and the P5+1 global powers had agreed upon last November - eased energy sanctions on the Islamic republic, permitting Tehran to export one million barrels per day (bpd). Iran has busted through that limit every month for six straight months, generating fears that the inflow in foreign currency and capital would erode the leverage of Western negotiators seeking to extract concessions regarding the country's atomic program. The dynamic had also seemed to align with the predictions of JPA critics, who had worried that the JPA's partial erosion of the international sanctions regime would spiral into broader economic gains for Iran. The Obama administration had pushed back against those critics by insisting that so-called core sanctions remained robust. Energy-driven economic stabilization has nonetheless long been identified as a particular vulnerability in the White House's gambit. Iran has sought to split Washington from its European allies, and in recent days Iranian Deputy Energy Minister Ali Majedi floated the possibility of supplying the Continent with gas and fuel. Against the backdrop of Russian energy maneuvering in the context of the Ukraine crisis, Majedi declared that "Iran can be a reliable partner for Europe: there are sufficient energy resources for cooperation with European countries and numerous projects exist in this connection." Writing in Forbes this week, Michael Lynch energy expert Michael Lynch took issue with those who dismissed "[t]he suggestion that Iran might become a natural gas supplier to Europe as a more secure source than Russian gas," outlining several plausible scenarios for delivery of the energy.
Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Renewed focus on "possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program, as Tehran denies inspectors access to suspected warhead-related test site
Outlets and journalists over the weekend and into Monday continued to unpack what the Washington Post bluntly described as the "failure" of Secretary of State John Kerry's recent Israeli-Palestinian peace push, which had formally expired on April 29 but had functionally been suspended since the declaration of a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki had repeatedly emphasized that among other things Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist." The Washington Post, for its part, on Sunday reminded readers that "the numerous 'unity' plans announced in the past have foundered because of Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel or renounce terrorism," and declared that the aftermath of the talks' collapse had left "plenty of bad options" that U.S. diplomats would have to head off. The Post specifically worried that Kerry may make good on past hints of "embracing one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas, the issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood... [which] would satisfy some partisans but lead nowhere." Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg called on U.S. diplomats to draw lessons from what he described as a series of Israeli gambits aimed at creating space for a Palestinian state stretching back "even before there was an Israel." Goldberg noted that Palestinian leaders and their regional backers had "rejected each previous attempt to bring about [a two-state] solution." Political and even legislative fallout from the end of the talks has been steadily building. A tense exchange between Psaki and veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee in late April had already seen Lee declare "I remember you saying... they made progress on all the issues... I don't understand how you can even make that claim, frankly, with a straight face, because...the situation on both sides is demonstrably worse today than it was back last July when this process began." There had before and have since been a range of proposals on the Hill to slash U.S. assistance to the Palestinians.
Tehran is reportedly continuing to deny international nuclear inspectors access to the country’s Parchin military base, a site that Western diplomats and U.N. inspectors have long emphasized - per a 2011 report by the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - shows "strong indicators" of having been used for explosives tests related to "possible nuclear weapon development." Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) on Saturday asserted that the inspectors, who are in the country for a two-day visit, were not legally entitled to visit the Parchin base because it is not directly linked to Iran's nuclear program. The assertion has the potential to be taken as too clever by half. Demands for access to the military facility are grounded in among other things United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929, which calls on Tehran to clarify so-called "possible military dimensions [PMDs] of the Iranian nuclear programme." Non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. Western negotiators hammering out the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) had deliberately put off addressing PMDs, and U.S. officials had subsequently assured journalists and lawmakers that the issues would be addressed in the context of comprehensive talks. Iranian negotiators, for their part, have recently taken to suggesting that they prefer to put off such discussions until some time in the future, and to deal with other issues first. Observers have suggested that Tehran may be trying to maneuver the West into a position where Iranian negotiators will ultimately decline to address PMD-related issues, and instead functionally dare P5+1 diplomats to scuttle a final deal over the Iranian military's entanglement in the country's atomic program.
A top Hamas official declared over the weekend that the possibility of disarming the Iran-backed terror group never came up during unity discussions between it and the rival Fatah faction, a boast that seems set to widen concerns that the agreement - which among other things envisions a single Palestinian government eventually taking control of both the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and of Fatah-ruled parts of the West Bank - may be insufficiently robust to overcome fundamental obstacles to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Hamas Political Bureau Deputy Chief Moussa Abu Marzouk told reporters on Saturday that not only had disarming Hamas never been discussed, despite the almost definitional need for Ramallah to maintain a monopoly on the use of force, but that the organization would also refuse to recognize Israel. Renouncing violence and acknowledging Jerusalem's right to exist are two of three so-called Quartet conditions - abiding by past Palestinian Authority (PA) agreements is the third - that the international community has long demanded any Palestinian government fulfill. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted in recent days that the envisioned unity government will meet those conditions, claims that earned him an explicit rebuke for lying by former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar. The news came amid indicators that the deal was nonetheless providing a lifeline to the group, which until very recently had widely been seen as locked in a political and economic downward spiral. Traditional Hamas allies such as Turkey and Qatar immediately hailed the deal, and the Qataris reportedly pledged to deliver $5 million to the Gaza government in support of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in response to an explicit request made by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Meanwhile Palestinian media reported on Monday that Abbas had held a meeting with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Doha aimed at overcoming remaining obstacles.
South African security site DefenceWeb on Monday rounded up developments surrounding last week's announcement by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that he would block additional security assistance to the Egyptian army as a result of his "growing dismay" at Cairo's heavy-handed tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood, a move that came after the Obama administration had publicly committed to partially unfreezing its own halt in aid, which had in turn been widely blasted for risking bilateral relations while having little chance of affecting Egyptian calculations. Close military ties between Washington and Cairo had for decades granted American forces a range of preferential arrangements seen as crucial to enhancing American air and naval operations in the region. Analysts from across political and ideological lines had criticized the administration for creating a vacuum that could be filled in by other powers or, more worryingly, by geopolitical rivals. Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who by their own descriptions agree on almost nothing, described the freeze as undermining "nearly seven decades" of bipartisan American efforts aimed at "limiting Moscow’s influence" in the Middle East. Yiftah Shapir, Zvi Magen, and Gal Perel - researchers from Israel's Institute for National Security Studies - last week described a recently announced a deal under which Egypt would purchase Russian Mig-29s as "an alarm for decision makers in Washington" regarding a potential Egyptian pivot toward Moscow. Gulf countries meanwhile seen intent on taking the sting out of any aid cuts, and Reuters on Monday revealed that Gulf oil producers have in less than a year provided Egypt with roughly $6 billion worth of free fuel.
Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Daily Beast: Western analysts suspect Assad has secret chemical and biological weapons program, know-how to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade" arsenal
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday conveyed angry remarks from Iranian officials in reaction to this week's publication of the State Department's annual country-by-country terrorism roundup - which veteran Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee had characterized as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful" - with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham complaining that the U.S. was "turning of a blind eye to Zionist [Israeli] crimes." English-language Iranian media translated the same passage as "atrocious acts of the Zionists." The report had also indicated that Iran was facilitating the transfer of both Shiite and radical Sunni fighters into Syria, essentially funding both sides of that country's more than three-year-long conflict in targeting moderate Sunni rebel groups. Other passages revealed that Iran "trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups," which - it was pointedly noted - had been done "despite [Iran's] pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization." Tehran's activities in arming Hezbollah in Lebanon were described as being as blackletter "violation[s]" of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and were linked to Tehran's efforts to provide critical support to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. More broadly, the report catalogued Iran-backed terror activity in more than a dozen countries. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf had already addressed some of the Iranian pushback in a Thursday press briefing, telling journalists that if the Iranians didn't want to be accused of supporting terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism." Meanwhile Iranian Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a former commander of the country's Revolutionary Guards Corps, was reported by Iranian media outlets as bragging that the Islamic Republic has managed to expand its sphere of influence to the Mediterranean Sea. Rahim-Safavi reportedly emphasized that 'Iran's defense perimeter has been extended... above the borders of Israel.'
The Daily Beast on Thursday cited a range of Western intelligence analysts converging on the assessment that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime not only has a secret cache of undeclared chemical weapons - which the outlet said included "crude chlorine-filled bombs, secret stockpiles of sophisticated nerve gasses or their components" - but also the stored institutional knowledge to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade chemical weapons effort" once the international community has turned its attention away from Syria. The outlet noted that widely broadcast reports regarding the eradication of Assad's chemical arsenal only take into account "the chemical arsenal Assad admitted he had" as part of a deal under which Damascus agreed to turn over its chemical weapons in exchange for the West suspending what appeared to be imminent airstrikes. The Daily Beast however conveyed that there there is "mounting concern that the Syrian regime may have a second unconventional weapons program—one Assad never told the international community about." That program is thought by Western intelligence analysts to include biological weapons, undeclared chemical materials, and chemical weapons such as chlorine that are not outright banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The news comes amid deepening worries among Western diplomats that Syrian forces have embarked on a campaign of using chlorine bombs to target civilians and fighters in rebel-heavy areas, a development that Foreign Policy had flatly stated if confirmed would "cast a dark cloud" over last September's deal. Meanwhile questions are also mounting about the regime's willingness to turn over even its declared CWC-proscribed arsenal. Reports have been piling up that Assad is dragging his feet on the obligation - the question came up on Friday at a Department of Defense press briefing - and Reuters reported the same day that rebel forces have in the meantime closed in on the last known stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons.
Emerging worries that a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions would provide the latter with a badly needed lifeline seemed set to deepen on Friday, with multiple reports being published indicating that the Iran-backed terror group was surging in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Hamas was reported as making inroads into Ramallah - from which Fatah governs its West Bank territories - as measured by "the amount of Hamas flags that are being waved in PA controlled areas." The Times of Israel also reported on the use of Hamas flags at Palestinian events, conveying Hebrew-language reports of a Palestinian wedding procession in Jerusalem in which participants "displayed the flags of Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda." The news comes a few days after reports emerged that Hamas had held a large-scale demonstration in the West Bank, which Israeli outlets described as a "massive show of force." That rally had already reinforced suspicions - outlined at length on Monday by veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff - that Hamas was maneuvering to use the unity agreement to boost its status. Hamas's command and control infrastructure, as well as huge swaths of its advanced arsenal, had been severely degraded during an eight-day Israeli air campaign in November 2012 that came in response to a sharp escalation in the amount and sophistication of projectiles that the group was using to target Israeli civilians and soldiers. Less than a year later, in the aftermath of the ouster of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian army undertook a systematic campaign to destroy the smuggling tunnels that linked the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the Sinai Peninsula and which served as Hamas's economic channel to the outside world. By October of last year, Hamas officials were publicly bemoaning that they had been "sentenced to death," and by February 2014 analysts were predicting that Hamas was facing "a very bad year." Subsequent months seemed in line with those assessments, with Hamas diplomatically isolated and seemingly caught in a downward economic spiral.
Lebanon's NOW media outlet on Friday published a series of interviews and updates from the besieged Lebanese town of Tfail, which has been targeted by what NOW described as a "campaign of aerial bombardment against... civilians" by Hezbollah-backed forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The attacks have recently escalated to include barrel bombs, air-deployed shrapnel-packed IEDs that can level entire buildings with a single detonation. Tfail is technically in Lebanese territory but is accessible only via roads that run through Syria, and regime forces months ago set up roadblocks and began to choke off the town in an effort to prevent the transit of opposition elements across the Syria-Lebanon border. News of the attacks had been trickling out of Tfail for weeks, with reports emerging in late April that the Syrian army had launched a series of artillery strikes that had sent thousands of civilians - both Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees - scrambling to seek shelter in the surrounding hills. Beirut subsequently managed to send a relief caravan to the town, which by then had according to reports been "without supplies of food, electricity, shelter, or aid for four months." Friday's report by NOW indicated that attacks have resumed and that at least two Lebanese civilians have been killed, and one resident was quoted by the news outlet accusing Beirut of having only come "one day and then left us all alone to deal with the Syrian regime attacks." NOW also confirmed that Syrian forces targeted the center of Tfail with sustained tank fire for at least three hours, in addition to the air strikes. The Syrian campaign has come alongside several other cross-border attacks. The dynamic, under which Hezbollah-backed forces have been shelling Lebanese civilians and territory, has been devastating to the Iran-backed terror group's long insistence that it is an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty from outside interference. It is not clear, however, that the collapse of Hezbollah's decades-long pretense - which had occassionally been echoed in corners of the Western foreign policy community - will materially affect its ability to dominate Lebanon militarily and therefore politically. The group has publicly declared, for instance, that it will not accept a president who is not a "friend" to Hezbollah. An effort by the Lebanese parliament to pick a new president this week failed.
- News leaks: Palestinian unity agreement will install Hamas within PLO, allow terror group to keep munitions
- Reports: Palestinian negotiators repeatedly rejected Israeli efforts to craft compromise peace process language
The State Department on Wednesday published [PDF] its annual country-by-country terrorism roundup, a 318-page document that veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matt Lee nonetheless described as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful." The report described Iran as funding both Sunni and Shiite fighters, both across the region and globally. Specific sections of the report took harsh tones not often found in diplomatic assessments, at one point emphasizing that "[d]espite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups." Another paragraph blasted Iran for facilitating the movement of Al Qaeda members across the Middle East, describing the operations of a "core facilitation pipeline through Iran" that "enabl[ed] AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and also to Syria." The final allegation has sometimes been controversial in the intelligence community. Iran has been unequivocal in its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a point of underlining Tehran's commitment to the Assad regime in the immediate aftermath of his election - and some analysts and diplomats doubted that the Iranians would also allow Sunni jihadists battling the regime to transit through Iranian territory. Other observers emphasized that Iran had every interest in using both Shiite and Sunni fighters to crowd out the moderate opposition facing Assad, which would allow Damascus to characterize the country's bloody war as an anti-terror struggle. The Treasury Department last February announced that it had evidence that - per Lebanon's Daily Star- "Iran is assisting key Al-Qaeda figures to transfer Sunni fighters into Syria." The State Department report's broad criticism of Iran came up during Thursday's daily State Department press briefing, with a journalist telling Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf that "Iran was not pleased about being kept on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism" and noting "[t]hey reacted quite angrily this morning to it." Harf responded that if the Iranians did not want to be listed as state sponsors of terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism."
Al-Monitor on Wednesday published a translated English-language version of an article by Gaza-based Palestinian journalist Hazem Balousha, in which Balousha revealed a range of previously unknown details regarding a recent unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, including news that Hamas had secured a commitment enabling its personnel to take up posts inside the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO is one of the parties with which Israel officially conducts peace negotiations, and is - in theory - bound to core obligations including the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel. Top Hamas figures have in recent days been unequivocal in emphasizing that any unity deal would see them maintaining their commitment to the eradication of the Jewish state. Balousha noted in Al-Monitor that Hamas's demand for a voice inside the body "had long been an obstacle to the implementation of all the previous agreements" but that "Abbas has seemingly made a concession" on the issue, with Hamas - in return - agreeing to yield any significant participation in the near-term Palestinian government that would guide the West Bank and Gaza Strip toward elections. Another aspect of the agreement would reportedly allow Hamas to "keep controlling the security forces in Gaza without any change or amendment," establishing a situation in which the terror group was allowed access to Palestinian institutions long backed by the West without having to yield - for instance - what are suspected to be tens of thousands of Iranian-supplied missiles and rockets. If confirmed, the description of the unity agreement is likely to reinforce growing analyst concerns that the unity deal amounts to a life-line thrown to the otherwise spiraling Hamas by the Western-backed Fatah faction.
The Times of Israel on Wednesday conveyed leaks from Israeli negotiators revealing that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had repeatedly rebuffed a series of Israeli proposals aimed at bridging the gaps regarding Jerusalem's long-standing condition that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state," describing the Palestinian leader and his negotiators as being "adamant in refusing to consider" a range of wordings that "would have described the Jewish people's and the Palestinian people's right to self-determination in precisely equivalent terms, and would have also included phrases to guarantee the rights of Israel’s Arab minority." The Times of Israel went on to describe the Israeli formula as one in which "both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people [would] mutually recognize each other's rights to sovereignty in the framework of an agreement that would end all remaining claims," noting that there would be a clause that "explicitly state[d] that a recognition of the Jewish state does not in any way impact on the status of non-Jewish Israelis, and does not coerce the Palestinians into accepting Israel’s historical narrative." The story, which is likely to deepen skepticism regarding Abbas's willingness to seal a comprehensive peace agreement, aligns with months of previous reporting. Abbas had been explicit in late March that he opposed "even holding a discussion" on Israel's demand, which was and is considered a proxy for the Palestinians' willingness to genuinely renounce claims against the Jewish state. The Palestinian leader had publicly underlined his stance as recently as April 26th, bluntly telling the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council that Palestinian negotiators would never acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. Agence France-Presse (AFP) secured a quote about Abbas's speech from Bassem Naim, an adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Naim told the wire that "[t]he speech had mostly positive points, and we cannot but support it on topics such as Jerusalem, reconciliation and not recognizing (Israel as) the Jewish state, in addition to the failure of (peace) negotiations."
Turkey has fallen into the "not free" category of countries ranked by Freedom House's annual "Freedom of the Press" survey, with the NGO watchdog citing a steady decline in how Ankara treats journalists - the "largest numerical change" in the region - while noting that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of December 1." The country has maintained its status as the world's top jailer of journalists for several years, and journalists who are not behind bars have been expelled from the country for criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party. A wave of expulsions last February took place amid a broader crackdown on free speech, triggering fears that a systematic sweep was underway. Multiple Turkish outlets covered the news revolving around Freedom House's ranking. Hurriyet Daily News wrote up its story under the headline "Turkey no longer even 'partly free,' according to press freedom report," and specifically cited portions of the NGO's report that discussed how "journalists were harassed while covering the Gezi Park protests and dozens were fired or forced to resign due to their coverage of sensitive issues." Zaman covered the same passages, and also described "several high-profile dismissals" of critics at top papers. Israel, meanwhile, was ranked by Freedom House as "free," marking the Jewish state as the only Mideast country with no significant media restrictions.
- Hamas stages "massive show of force" in West Bank as worries deepen that unity deal will revive group
A diplomatic spat between Turkey and Germany over the human rights policies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government escalated on Wednesday, as Turkish outlets conveyed critical remarks directed at Erdogan by German President Joachim Gauck regarding the behavior of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Gauck had had described himself as "horrified" at a range of recent crackdowns conducted by Ankara, from a massive purge of political opponents from the police and judiciary to ongoing calls and efforts aimed at blocking access to Twitter and YouTube to violent anti-demonstrator crackdowns. Erdogan had responded by mocking Gauck's former role as a former East German Lutheran pastor and doubling down on Ankara's policies, which had already generated suggestions from Berlin that Turkey was not yet ready to ascend to the European Union. Gauck responded Wednesday by declaring that he had actually "restrained himself" in offering his true views. Meanwhile U.S. officials piled on at Wednesday's State Department daily press briefing, with Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf describing conspiracy theories aired by Erdogan - in which the Islamist leader linked the U.S. to unrest in Egypt, Ukraine, and Turkey - as "ridiculous." Independent of controversies regarding human rights and civil liberties, Turkey's defense acquisition policies have also in recent months generated significant tension between Ankara and its traditional allies in Europe. The Turks have since the fall progressively inched forward on a deal that would see them purchase and integrate missile defense assets from China. One top NATO official described putting those systems online as the equivalent of introducing a virus into the alliance's command and control infrastructure. Separately, a speech given last week by Science, Industry and Technology Minister Fikri Isik - in which Isik said that Turkey was bolstering its indigenous production capabilities in order to avoid complications from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) - triggered concerns in the West that Ankara was seeking to circumvent binding non-proliferation treats.
Top Hamas figure: Palestinian president "is not telling them the truth" in assuring West over Palestinian unity government
- Top Hamas figure: Palestinian president "is not telling them the truth" in assuring West over Palestinian unity government
Reuters on Tuesday conveyed remarks made by Mahmoud Al-Zahar - a former Hamas foreign minister who the outlet described as one of the terror group's "most influential voices" - emphasizing that Hamas would maintain its commitment to the eradication of Israel in the aftermath of a recently revealed unity agreement with the rival Palestinian Fatah faction, and that the Palestinian government envisioned by the agreement would follow that rejectionist stance. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had earlier in the week declared that the unity cabinet would remain under his political and ideological control, and that he would ensure that it recognized Israel, fulfilled binding Palestinian treaty obligations, and renounced violence. The announcements - aimed at meeting international demands stretching back almost a decade that any such government accept those three Quartet conditions - were widely carried by international, Arab, and Israeli media outlets. The remarks prompted some diplomats to criticize the Israelis for having misread the situation, amid moves by Jerusalem to suspend talks pending the actual formation of the new Palestinian cabinet. Zahar belittled Abbas's assertions, telling Reuters that "Abbas is not telling them the truth [when he] says 'this is my government'... it is not his government" and that the Fatah leader's statements about the new cabinet accepting Israel were hollow. Zahar suggested that the promises were efforts "to minimize the pressure" that Abbas is feeling from the West and to "guarantee that U.S. financial support will continue." Meanwhile lawmakers on Tuesday advanced legislation that would cut off aid to the PA in the aftermath of the unity announcement, absent assurances that the PA had met a host of conditions including the Quartet conditions. The new bills advanced language that has existed in one form or another in U.S. law since at least 2006.
Iran is reportedly set to bust through oil sale caps set by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) for the sixth straight month, according to a report published late Tuesday by Reuters assessing that the Islamic republic will have managed to send abroad an average of 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude exports in April. The JPA permits Iran only 1 million bpd's, a level that Tehran has thus far exceeded every single month since the announcement of the deal. Reuters wrote up the April numbers under the headline "Iran's oil exports fall in April, closer to Western limits," a gesture toward administration assurances that Iranian energy exports will very shortly crash to such a degree that - by the end of the JPA's six-month negotiating period - the average figure for exports will indeed converge on Iran's permitted limits. Observers have expressed skepticism that the White House will have robust diplomatic options should those predictions prove over-optimistic, and have worried that in the meantime Western negotiating leverage is steadily eroding as Iran's economy improves and it reestablishes trade channels to outside markets. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Russia was seeking to create and then shore up exactly such channels, and that Moscow and Tehran had that weekend held talks aimed at making progress on "over $10 billion worth in electricity deals." The New York Times described the development as the "second significant economic collaboration under negotiation between the two countries that could undercut the efficacy of the sanctions on Iran," the first being a sanctions-busting $20 billion oil-for-goods deal. The news came on the heels of revelations that Iran and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq had just locked in an agreement under which they would trade natural gas for crude oil, and which would see the construction of at least two pipelines.
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to impose "an arms embargo on Syria’s government, as well as on any groups implicated in widespread or systematic human rights abuses," generally citing a surge in the deployment of so-called "barrel bombs" by the Bashar al-Assad regime and specifically describing two such attacks "on clearly marked official hospitals." The use of the helicopter-deployed IEDs - which are packed with explosives and shrapnel, and can level entire buildings with a single hit - had long ago been condemned as "barbaric" by Secretary of State John Kerry and as a "war crime" by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. The Syrian regime's Iranian backers, for their part, have celebrated the effectiveness of the weapons, and last December a Twitter account associated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards reportedly posted that "the easiest way to send infidels to hell is through [the] 'barrel of death'." Activists had in recent days sought to call attention to an increase in the tempo of barrel bomb attacks. Syrian forces had killed hundreds in the country's third largest city of Homs - where rebels were said to be making a "last desperate stand" - and in its largest population center, Aleppo. Reports that emerged regarding the Aleppo attacks, which included a strike on what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "clearly a market" filled with civilians, conveyed "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble." Tuesday separately saw at least 60 people killed in attacks across Homs and Damascus.
A recent announcement from a top Turkish official - in which Science, Industry, and Technology Minister Fikri Isik declared that Ankara will begin indigenously producing weapons in order to circumvent potential import restrictions from supplier countries - has left "Western diplomats and military officials... puzzled" over Turkey's intentions, according to a report on the speech by Hurriyet Daily News. Isik had given a speech in which he outlined a plan by Turkey to create a "national" factory that will produce "warheads, airplane bombs[,] and [600 tons of] plastic explosives," with the initiative supposed to be completed within the year. The impetus for the new facility, Isik explained, came from Turkish concerns that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) - which imposes import and export conditions on certain materials, and to which Ankara has been a party since 1997 - makes it more difficult for the Turks to build the weapons that they want. A NATO defense attache based in Ankara told Hurriyet that "the minister's statement is not clear for many reasons" and emphasized that "if Turkey is planning to bypass the MTCR... that would be worrying.” A Brussels-based NATO ambassador worried that "we are not sure what kind of ammunition Turkey intends to produce at this new factory, and why it hopes to bypass the MTCR." Hurriyet also spoke with a Turkey specialist who noted that Isik's remarks "can be interpreted in a way that Turkey may be targeting to exceed the limits specified in the treaty." Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have increasingly found themselves at odds with counterparts in fellow NATO countries. Plans to purchase missile defense assets from a Chinese company - the integration of which has been described as the equivalent of introducing a hostile virus into NATO's command and control infrastructure - have progressed despite vociferous criticism from top NATO officials. AKP officials have been unreceptive to Western calls to put off the deal, and last October Erdogan lashed out at critics of the sale. Top executives from European and U.S. defense firms this month traveled to lobby Turkish firms against the move, explaining that it would severely constrain future security cooperation.
Analysts: Hezbollah push for Lebanon off-shore drilling risks war with Israel "through miscalculation or intentional effort" at escalation
- Analysts: Hezbollah push for Lebanon off-shore drilling risks war with Israel "through miscalculation or intentional effort" at escalation
- Reports: Ongoing economic problems, human rights violations eroding Iran president's domestic support
- After Hamas unity deal, Palestinians announce intention to seek membership in 60 international groups, treaties
The Washington Examiner on Friday outlined a scenario under which the next war in the Middle East may break out as a result of what the outlet described as competing "Israeli and Lebanese claims over a potentially lucrative plot of [underwater] territory," with the recently formed Lebanese government set to "move ahead with decrees that signal the beginning of bidding for drilling rights" to energy resources underneath disputed waters along the Israel-Lebanon border. The outlet cited David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explaining that Jerusalem would have to react to any such Lebanese move, which would be an implicit claim of sovereignty that would in addition potentially cost the Israelis "billions of dollars of revenue." The Israeli daily financial newspaper Globes had already explained months ago that Israel would be "liable to lose territory if it does not object to the Lebanese acts in court, or even militarily," and Weinberg emphasized that "there's a very significant possibility that this could lead to increased tension on both sides, either as conflict through miscalculation, or an intentional effort by Hezbollah to escalate." The Examiner noted that the Israelis have deliberately "avoided issuing tenders" so as not to inflame the situation. Meanwhile Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah recently reemphasized that his Iran-backed terror group would seek a military confrontation with Israel and has claimed an April attack on Israeli soldiers. The group is widely thought to be seeking a way to rebuild its shattered brand as a Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty from Israel, and last October Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea slammed Hezbollah for trying to open "another front with Israel" by pressuring the Lebanese Energy Ministry - which it controlled by proxy - to issue drilling tenders to disputed waters. National Liberal Party leader Dori Chamoun piled on, accusing then-Energy Minister Gebran Bassil of being used by Hezbollah to among other things cause "another clash with Israel." Observers fear that Hezbollah has been specifically setting up a naval confrontation. The group has for years been accusing Israel of stealing Lebanon's energy resources - going so far as to describe Israel's Leviathan field as inside Lebanese waters - and has even warned that Lebanon's oil and gas sector was "becoming vulnerable to Israeli piracy" specifically by the "deliberate obstruction of issuing licenses." A February speech by Nasrallah saw him insisting at least three times that Israel is engaged in a plot to plunder Lebanese oil. Journal of Diplomacy’s Ziad Achkar noted in that context that a war over off-shore energy would be attractive for Nasrallah because it would allow him to "come off as Hero of Lebanon, defending resources where government can’t" and to justify holding on to advanced anti-ship weapons that Hezbollah uses to maintain its Lebanese state-within-a-state. Achkar situated the strategy as a "flashback to 2006, provoking Israeli war to regain public support that was dwindling."
Analysts through the weekend and into Monday continued to trace signs that - per a headline published at the top of one Agence France-Presse (AFP) story - Rouhani's "honeymoon" with the Iranian public was over amid evidence that he was either unable or unwilling to implement promised social reforms and economic improvements. AFP had last week reported on what the wire described as Rouhani's "first major political defeat," after 95 percent of Iranians chose to accept government hand-outs that his government had urged they forgo. The second AFP story, published on Sunday, assessed that "the public's goodwill towards [Rouhani] is showing the first signs of fading" due to stalled economic progress. Meanwhile the Jerusalem Post reported on the fallout from reports - which had recently been revealed by the Wall Street Journal - that there had recently been a mass beating of imprisoned Iranian dissidents incarcerated in the country's Evin prison. The Post described a growing movement to show solidarity with the political prisoners, dozens of whom had been sent to the hospital by the beatings, with "Iranian men and women posted pictures on social media of themselves with shaved head," a gesture developed after the publication of "a photograph of human rights lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani [who had been beaten in the raid] that showed him last week with a shaved head." The outlet also contextualized the developments against broader trends in the Islamic republic, suggesting that "with 25 percent of the Islamic Republic’s population unemployed or underemployed, the ingredients are present for mushrooming social unrest." Reports published on Saturday indicated that Iranian officials had officially banned the reformist newspaper Ebtekar, the third such move in recent months.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) on Sunday announced that the group's central committee had adopted a plan under which the Palestinians would seek to join 60 United Nations bodies and international treaties, per a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) subsequently cited in both Arabic and Israeli media. The moves came a day after Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech doubling down on a recent decision by his Fatah faction to reconcile with the rival Hamas group, and then offering to listen to Israel in the context of peace talks provided that Jerusalem would offer a raft of concessions beforehand. The speech fell flat. The Palestinian push to join international institutions - which reemerged in earnest at the beginning of April, with Abbas announcing that Ramallah would seek to ascend to over a dozen multilateral treaties - had quickly been criticized for fundamentally undermining the core gamble of the peace process. Several decades of Israeli-Arab peacemaking had been premised on the notion that Israel could reliably trade fundamentally irreversible tangible concessions, usually but not always land, for theoretically reversible intangible commitments, most often normalization. Palestinian moves to boost their diplomatic status outside of negotiations with Israel, which violate among other things Olso Accord obligations that Israel secured via territorial concessions spanning decades, were blasted for creating a situation in which those theoretically reversible intangible commitments were in fact pocketed. Independent of the peace process, the new move will deepen fears of what has been described as a kind of "scorched earth" campaign, under which Palestinian diplomats ascend to and then politicize international institutions, turning them against Israel and in the process endangering their neutrality and credibility. U.S. lawmakers had expressed exactly such fears when the Palestinians sought and eventually secured an upgrade via the United Nations General Assembly to become a nonmember state. Ramallah had previously gained a seat at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) over similar U.S. objections, triggering a congressional backlash that financially crippled UNESCO. By 2014 - after several sessions in which Israel was subject to lopsided criticism by the body - Palestinian media outlets were openly boasting about how the organization was now focused on pursuing anti-Israel resolutions and investigations.
A weekend scoop by The Daily Beast documenting off-the-record comments made by Secretary of State John Kerry to influential world leaders - in which Washington's top diplomat was recorded saying that Israel may become an "apartheid state" should it fail to quickly secure a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - put the State Department on the defensive Monday, with journalists, lawmakers, and Israel-focused organizations from across the political spectrum questioning the wisdom of the remarks. The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) expressed "deep disappointment" and called on Kerry to apologize, while the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) described the statements as "deeply troubling" and suggested that "the true focus of those who support peace should be on urging President Abbas to revoke his destructive agreement with the terrorist organization Hamas." The AIPAC statement also cited 2008 statements by President Barack Obama that "injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn’t advance [the] goal" of securing peace between Israel and its neighbors, and that the term is "emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and... not what I believe." The Anti-Defamation League quickly declared it "startling and deeply disappointing that... [Kerry] chose to use such an inaccurate and incendiary term." The Emergency Committee for Israel - which has been historically critical of the administration for seeking to put distance between Washington and Jerusalem - called on Kerry to resign or be fired, a stance echoed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee - who has been clear that he thinks the controversy is overblown, and who has been harshly critical of some of the groups that have blasted Kerry - nonetheless on Monday pressed State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki on the wisdom of Kerry's remarks. Lee conveyed criticisms from both supporters and detractors of Israel, ultimately asking whether using 'apartheid' was "smart" given that the move was "going to cause him a lot of grief." Psaki declined to answer a question about whether Kerry appreciated that such rhetoric - even if suggesting a future scenario - was out of step with "American officials, who are supposed to be... neutral — you know, the arbiter, the honest broker." In response to a question about why Kerry was unwilling to cede to the demands of pro-Palestinian advocates who insist that Israel is already an apartheid state, Psaki bluntly stated that Kerry "believes that Israel is a vibrant democracy with equal rights for its citizens."
- 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.
- Palestinian president's office scrambles to deny reports he condemned deadly terrorist attack on Israeli family
- Reports: U.S. and European defense firms urging Turkish counterparts to block China-Turkey missile defense deal
Iran's ambassador to Russia, Mehdi Sanaei, on Wednesday announced on Facebook that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will visit Russia next week to participate in a conference on Caspian energy and that the country's president, Hassan Rouhani, would follow in September for a similarly themed meeting with counterparts. The Times of Israel read the announcement against the backdrop of warming Iranian-Russian ties, noting that Tehran and Moscow are "close allies" and are supporting Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and cooperating on the development of Iran's atomic program. The developments are also likely to be read alongside deepening concerns that tensions between the Kremlin and the West are likely to undermine international talks between Iran and the P5+1 global powers, a group in which Russia is a member. Slate international affairs writer Joshua Keating wrote yesterday that a range of geostrategic and diplomatic dynamics - from European energy considerations to straightforward retaliation by the Russians - may see the Ukraine crisis boosting Iran's prospects. Top Russian diplomats have threatened to "raise the stakes" of the crisis by shifting their stance on Iran talks, and Moscow has very publicly declared that it is in any case forging ahead with a $20 billion sanctions-busting scheme that would see Iran barter oil for goods. The Obama administration has thus far brushed off concerns that Russian calculations may see their diplomats undermining the West's approach to Iran, insisting instead that the Kremlin would "compartmentalize" various processes. At stake is the degree to which Washington and its European allies have sufficient leverage to convince the Iranians to verifiably put their atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Quantitative economic indicators, summed up this week in a new IMF report, indicate that Iran's economy has stabilized and is primed for growth "even if sanctions relief under [the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA)] deal proves short-lived." Iranian officials on Wednesday seized on an anticipated U.N. report, which will document that Tehran is meeting its JPA obligations to dilute the most highly enriched portions of its uranium stockpile, to demand the next tranche of money promised by the JPA. Arms control expert Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's nuclear policy program, has estimated that it would take Iran roughly one to two weeks to reverse the dilution process. It is unlikely that, should Iranian lawmakers choose to do so, they would return the money.
The office of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday rushed to deny reports - given to media outlets by a delegation of opposition Israeli lawmakers who had just returned from Ramallah - that the Palestinian leader had condemned a deadly Monday terrorist attack on an Israeli family, a day after Abbas's silence on the matter had been blasted by Jerusalem as deeply complicating efforts to sustain flagging peace talks. Terrorists had riddled the family's car with bullets, killing the male driver and wounding his wife and child. Abbas and other figures from his Fatah faction had through the week remained conspicuously silent on the matter, amid celebrations of the murder by other groups, triggering a harsh condemnation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Multiple members of Israel's Knesset parliament visited Abbas today and came back telling journalists that "it didn't take much convincing" for him to specifically condemn the Passover eve attack, to offer assistance in "the investigation of the attack," to commit "to bring[ing] those accountable to justice," and to express "his disgust from bloodshed and terrorism." Members of the Israeli delegation criticized Netanyahu for among other things failing to acknowledge that "there is a Palestinian partner in Ramallah." Abbas's office remembered the conversation differently, with spokesman Nabil Abu Ruaineh insisting that Abbas condemned violence in general but did not speak out against the attack. Israeli and American lawmakers have long expressed concerns that Palestinian leaders, up to and including Abbas, stoke violence both by failing to dampen it and at times by explicitly glorifying it. Peace talks originally scheduled for Wednesday were pushed back at the request of the United States.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News disclosed on Wednesday that figures from European and U.S. defense firms have been heavily lobbying their counterparts in Turkey's defense industry for help in blocking a controversial move by Ankara - announced last September, only to be met with immediate pushback by the West - to purchase a missile defense system from a Chinese company blacklisted by Washington for violating anti-proliferation measures. The FD-2000 system, made by China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC), would have to be integrated with Turkey's existing defense assets. One top NATO official has described the dynamic as being equivalent to implanting a Chinese computer virus inside NATO's command and control infrastructure, and then-NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had been quite explicit that he expected the Turks to reverse their position. Last December Congress considered legislative responses to Turkey's moves, amid something of a lash-out by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Hurriyet reported that officials from Western defense firms are emphasizing to top Turkish officials that it will become impossible for them to establish or maintain partnerships "in certain fields" should Ankara go through with the purchase. The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced on Wednesday that it would this week host the third "Joint Working Group" between Turkish and Chinese officials, focusing on "bilateral relations... as well as the current developments in the region and internationally." Other Turkish media outlets assessed that while no details had been disclosed regarding the various meetings, "the Turkish acquisition of Chinese long-range air and missile defense system has remained one of the most important issues between the countries" and that "talks between Turkey and China on the missile tender are expected to be concluded by the end of April."
Palestinian media outlet Ma'an conveyed comments yesterday by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declaring that the kidnap of Israeli soldiers was a "top priority" for the Iran-backed terror group, statements that are bound to deepen already widespread concerns that Hamas is looking to halt a precipitous slide in its power and popularity via a spectacular operation against the Jewish state. The Ma'an report was covered by both Israeli and U.S. media outlets, which contextualized the statements in light of the 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas used an underground tunnel to infiltrate Israel and seize Shalit, triggering Israel's Operation Summer Rains and setting the stage for 2008's Operation Cast Lead. The beginning of Israel's 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense saw the Israeli Air Force eliminate Ahmed Jabari, Hamas's "chief of staff" and the mastermind behind the operation to seize and hold Shalit. Israeli security forces have in recent months uncovered multiple similar tunnels - including elaborate structures stretching miles into Israel and costing millions of dollars - designed to facilitate new kidnapping campaigns against Israel. Last October Hamas went so far as to both claim a particularly extensive tunnel, the third discovered that year by Israeli forces, and to boast that it had been intended for use in an attack on Israel. The Jerusalem Post editorialized that the discovery was "a reminder of Hamas’s intentions" and suggested that within "the warped internal logic of Palestinian politics, a successful terror attack or a kidnapping of an Israeli soldier or civilian would succeed in strengthening Hamas’s popularity."
Iranian officials accuse Americans, Zionists, and Hollywood of producing Iranian arms ship carrying advanced missiles
- Iranian officials accuse Americans, Zionists, and Hollywood of producing Iranian arms ship carrying advanced missiles
- Hamas official brags that group will blanket Israel with advanced missiles in next war
- US, Israeli officials float possibility of expanding Israeli missile shield to protect U.S. Arab allies
- U.S.-UAE relations in crisis after State Dept. blasts Abu Dhabi for suppressing terror-linked political party
- · Iranian officials have become more vocal and more explicit in airing conspiracy theories regarding last week's Israeli interdiction of the Klos-C, a Panamanian-flagged Iranian arms ship bound for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, with one military figure suggesting that "the Americans and the Zionists probably ordered (from) Hollywood the production of a movie with the scenario of a cargo ship carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza in Palestine." UPI quoted Iranian Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazzayeri making the accusation as part of a longer story detailing the weapons on board the ship, which included 40 M302 rockets with ranges capable of blanketing much of Israel, as well as "180 12mm mortar shells and about 400,000 7.62mm bullets." Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had previously taken to Twitter to question the timing of the vessel’s interception, linking it to the annual AIPAC policy conference and describing the incident as the "same failed lies." Zarif is considered by some foreign policy analysts to be a key moderate figure in the Iranian regime, and a Reuters story on his nomination by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had declared that Rouhani "could hardly do better" than to pick him as a "signal [of] his determination to rebuild relations with the United States." It is not clear to what degree Zarif's public conspiracy theories can be aligned with that image, and observers may instead contextualize his comments within recently published analysis - based on his recently-available autobiography - assessing him "to be every bit as religiously ideological as the radicalized student activist he was in the late 1970s."
- A Hamas official reportedly told Agence France-Presse (AFP) over the weekend that any future war between Israel and the Iran-backed terror group will see Hamas launching missiles at Israeli civilians far in the country's north, a boast bound to deepen increasingly open concerns within Israel's military and political establishments that Hamas is stockpiling an arsenal capable of the sustained saturation bombing of Israeli civilian centers. The comments were occasioned by a Hamas ceremony unveiling a life-sized statue honoring M75 rockets, which Hamas had used in its 2012 war with Israel to reach cities in central Israel. AFP conveyed other boasts from the ceremony, including one by a masked figure who bragged that "Hamas managed to take the battle to the heart of the Zionist entity (Israel) after developing its rocket system." Israel last week intercepted a Gaza-bound arms ship dispatched by Iran and carrying missiles capable of putting roughly five million Israelis under fire. The nature and substance of Hamas's threats, especially coupled with the Palestinian faction’s ongoing efforts to stockpile advanced missiles, are likely to solidify Israeli skepticism toward calls from some corners of the international community that Jerusalem lift its blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
- Reuters on Monday conveyed statements from U.S. Brigadier-General John Shapland, the chief American defense attache Israel, suggesting that Israel could expand its anti-missile umbrella to protect Jordan and Egypt, with the outlet also noting that the head of Israeli Missile Defence Organisation (IMDO) "cautiously welcomed the idea." Shapland, who was speaking at a security conference convened by Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, sketched out "a regional defense capability in, say, Jordan, that... could easily defend Israel, Jordan and even Egypt.” Commenting on the proposal - which Shapland took pains to emphasize was "just one idea to consider" - IMDO head Yair Ramati noted that "the policy of the (Israeli) Defence Ministry is always to cooperate with the countries of the region, including the countries cited." Regionally, any such moves would be seen as evidence of increasingly open cooperation between Jerusalem and the U.S.'s traditional Arab allies. Globally, the suggestion is likely to be read alongside growing international interest - going back to mid-2013 in the case of South Korea, and as recently as last week in the case of India - in acquiring Israeli missile defense assets.
- The Daily Beast assessed on Monday that the alliance between the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was "straining after a rare outburst from the UAE," which Abu Dhabi unleashed after an annual State Department human rights report criticized the Gulf nation for blocking the formation of a political party that the UAE insists is tied to terrorism. The outlet described the UAE as "angry that the State Department's human rights report makes it appear that the founder of the Ummah Party, Hassan al-Diqqi, is just a regular democratic organizer," while leaving out evidence that al-Diqqi is currently running a jihadist training camp in Syria. Gulf states have taken to expressing open anger at the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, which they accuse of promoting destabilizing Islamist parties at the expense of Washington's traditional allies. Arab leaders expressed open frustration at what they characterized as the White House’s haste to abandon the Egypt’s regime of Hosni Mubarak, and they vented with something close to disbelief at U.S. policies punishing the interim Egyptian government that formed after Mohammed Morsi's subsequent Muslim Brotherhood-linked government was overthrown. The anger extended to the top reaches of the UAE, and the Daily Beast noted that the "UAE’s rulers have quietly seethed at how President Obama has managed affairs in the Middle East and particularly his support for the toppling of America’s former client in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak."