Reports: Sanctions-busting Iran-Russia oil deal would open door for "bomber-killing missile," "sanctioned nuclear equipment," "military hardware"
- Reports: Sanctions-busting Iran-Russia oil deal would open door for "bomber-killing missile," "sanctioned nuclear equipment," "military hardware"
- State Dept. scrambles to correct Kerry testimony coverage, emphasizes Israeli PM's "courageous decisions" on peace process
Analysts and journalists continued on Tuesday to unpack the potential implications of a planned oil-for-goods program between Iran and Russia, after the $20 billion sanctions-busting barter agreement reemerged last week as a controversy in the wake of a Reuters report. Reuters had outlined some details of the deal last January, assessing that it "would enable Iran to lift oil exports substantially, undermining Western sanctions" and quoting Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) declaring that the "reckless and irresponsible move raises serious questions about Russia's commitment to ending Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons." Both concerns – regarding the robustness of international restrictions on Iran and the potential for Moscow to undermine negotiations - have since then deepened. Iran has for five straight months exceeded the amount of oil it is allowed to export under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), and on Monday Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent a letter [PDF] to President Barack Obama arguing that further moves by the Islamic Republic to "violate the terms of oil sanctions relief provided for in the JPA" should prompt Washington to act by "re-instating... and sanctioning any violations" of crude oil sanctions. Meanwhile fears have been building that White House assurances regarding Russia’s willingness to "compartmentalize" the crisis in Ukraine - that is, to insulate the spike in Western-Russian tensions from Iran talks - may have been over-optimistic. The Daily Beast on Tuesday assessed that "if the pressure mounts on Moscow, then the West may end up paying the price for punishing Russia, at the bargaining table with Iran," and that the Kremlin may use the oil-for-goods scheme not just to undermine sanctions in general but more specifically to provide Iran with "super-sophisticated, bomber-killing” S-300 missiles "that could defend its centrifuges and reactors from allied air strikes." The Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday also reported on potential weapons-related implications of the deal, quoting Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), noting that it could open a "channel for the transfer of sanctioned nuclear equipment or military hardware to Iran, not to mention other illicit financial transactions."
The State Department went on offense late Tuesday to correct what spokeswoman Jen Psaki underlined was wrongheaded media coverage of Congressional testimony given earlier in the day by Secretary of State John Kerry, in which statements by Kerry were widely described as having blamed Israel for the breakdown in peace talks between Jerusalem and the Palestinians. Psaki quickly took to Twitter to emphasize that Kerry had been "crystal clear" in not blaming one side over the other, and that he had "even singled out by name Prime Minister Netanyahu for having made courageous decisions throughout [the] process." A more formal statement provided to reporters by the State Department repeated those tweets almost verbatim. Initial media coverage had largely echoed the descriptions provided by a quickly published article in Israel's left-leaning Haaretz, which stated that Kerry had placed the blame for failed peace talks on Israel (Haaretz subsequently changed the subhead of that article to gesture toward criticism of its coverage, shifting from "Secretary of state says Israel did not release prisoners on time, approved construction in Jerusalem and 'poof' we found ourselves where we are" to "U.S. officials later try to play down Kerry's comments, saying he did not engage in a blame game and that both sides took 'unhelpful steps'"). Any timeline that holds Israel responsible for the breakdown in talks would be taken in many quarters as strained. Conveying Kerry's Congressional statements, for instance, the Los Angeles Times tersely noted that "the announcement on the housing units came as the Palestinians were refusing to agree to continue the peace talks." The permits themselves were not new tenders, but were part of a reissued call for the construction of homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Construction in that part of Jerusalem has often vexed analysts, journalists, and diplomats trying to grasp the dynamics of the peace process. Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, who at the time was advocating that the Obama administration "talk to Israel" about settlements in the West Bank, attempted to shed light on the issue back in 2009, explaining that "[t]he building of apartments in Gilo is irrelevant to eventual disposition of Jerusalem because everyone - the Americans, the Palestinians and the Israelis - knows that Gilo... will undoubtedly end up in Israel as part of a negotiated solution... [i]t doesn't matter, then, if the Israelis build 900 housing units in Gilo or 900 skyscrapers: Gilo will be kept by Israel in exchange for a one-to-one land swap with Palestine."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday declared that his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) recent electoral victory in nationwide local elections had, per Reuters, "given him a mandate to 'liquidate' the enemies" who he accuses of being behind a still-spiraling graft scandal that has ensnared top AKP elites and plunged the country into open political warfare. Erdogan had used his victory speech following those elections to announce that he would make his rivals "pay" for having opposed him. The threat, along with efforts to shut down access to Twitter and YouTube on the eve of the polling, was subsequently cited as the source of potentially irreparable tensions between Turkey and the European Union. Turkish courts subsequently ordered those restrictions lifted, but those decisions have either been reversed or are being fought by the government. Ankara for instance fought a court order to lift its ban on YouTube, and a later ruling by a different court granted the government's request. Google, which owns YouTube, is now fighting to appeal the blackout. The order to reinstate access to Twitter, meanwhile, has been blasted by top Turkish officials - including by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Monday and by Erdogan himself on Tuesday – who continue to call for its reversal. Washington's Ambassador to Turkey Francis J. Ricciardone denounced the restrictions in an interview published earlier this week by Turkey's Hurriyet daily, declaring that "Americans simply cannot understand how" Ankara could "flat-out ban on Twitter and YouTube," and that "the damage from the campaign is something that is still playing out in Turkey’s international standing."
Iranian officials continued through the weekend and on Tuesday to lash out against a recent European Parliament (EP) resolution that criticized Iran over its human rights record, with Tehran's top diplomat threatening to ban EP delegations and Iranian lawmakers crafting a range of responses and resolutions. The EP's April 3 resolution had among other things criticized Iran for limiting "freedom of information, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, academic freedom, freedom of education and freedom of movement." It also called for parliamentary delegations to Iran to "be committed to meeting members of the political opposition and civil society activists, and to having access to political prisoners." The language came after months of statements by top United Nations officials, including by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, declaring that the Islamic Republic's human rights abuses had not significantly abated under the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham responded to the EP resolution by blasting it as "discriminatory and racist." Iranian media conveyed a statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif banning EP delegations who would seek to implement the resolution's call for interactions with dissidents and political prisoners. A prominent Iranian parliamentarian lashed out at the European Union for "meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs," and a statement signed by 258 Iranian parliamentarians echoed the charge. Iranian media outlets for their part went so far as to host guests insisting that - actually – it is "the EU and the West" that contribute to undermining human rights.
Reports: Investors "have Iran in their sights," are making calculations that "the Iranian market is opening up"
Various outlets have focused in recent days on specific sectors being eyed by investors as Iranian markets are reopened to the world under the terms of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA), even as President Barack Obama on Wednesday extended some sanctions after informing Congress that the Islamic Republic "continue[d] to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States." Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that "global steelmakers have Iran in their sights," and described "a steel conference last month in Tehran to study export opportunities and investing" that had been attended by roughly 45 producers. Bloomberg conveyed a quote from Aditya Mittal, chief financial officer of Luxembourg-based Arcelor Mittal, telling investors last month that "we are hearing the Iranian market is opening up." The Wall Street Journal had noted on Tuesday that some investors viewed Iran as "Turkey with oil," and that there was a growing consensus that those who managed to "get in early" would profit substantially. The characterizations risk reinforcing the long-expressed concerns of analysts who worried that the JPA would trigger a gold rush that would all but collapse the post-JPA international sanctions regime. Congressional efforts to counter the potential for such a downward spiral have been stymied by heavy administration pressure.
At least two people died on Wednesday in Turkey as police forces moved to quell the worst civil unrest to grip the country since last summer's mass protests, with The Guardian assessing that the deaths had "set the mood in Turkey further on edge" and "highlighted the deepening polarisation of Turkish politics." The protests were sparked by the death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, who had been in a coma since being struck by a tear gas canister during the summer protests. The BBC reported that at least 32 towns and cities across Turkey were swept up in the latest turmoil. The outlet also reported more specifically on Elvan's funeral, which saw huge crowds blaming Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for murdering the boy. His father described him as being "killed by the state... when he went out to buy bread." For his part Erdogan on Thursday condemned the anti-government protesters as "charlatans" who aimed at destabilizing Turkey. Ankara's heavy-handed response to last summer's unrest had triggered immediate calls by the European Union for investigations, and was the subject of a later EU report blasting Turkish police for using excessive force. A European Parliament news source this week published an interview with Ria Oomen-Ruijten, a Dutch member who has been reporting on Turkey's domestic situation. Oomen-Ruijten declared that Turkey "used to be on a good path" as far as the EU was concerned, but that - between cyclical unrest and evidence of systemic fraud - "there is [now] something wrong."
Journalists and analysts continued on Thursday to unpack a report on Iran issued this week by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in which the U.N. diplomat broadly emphasized that there had been no fundamental improvement in Iranian human rights since the election and inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, "despite pledges made by the president during his campaign and after his swearing in." Deutsche Welle reported on aspects of Ban's report that dealt with the plight of Iranian women, extensively quoting the U.N. diplomat's assessment that "women's rights activists continue to face arrest and persecution" and that "[w]omen are subject to discrimination, entrenched both in law and in practice." The report cited multiple examples of institutionalized discrimination: Iran's penal code officially deems a woman's life and her testimony in court to be worth half of a man's, while the country's civil code among other things allows girls as young as 13 to be married off. DW quoted Faraz Sanei, an Iran researcher attached to Human Rights Watch, insisting that "Rouhani has talked a good talk on what he feels women's role in civil society should be... but he is not going to put himself out on a limb. He is merely nibbling at the periphery." Meanwhile the Huffington Post on Thursday ran an expose on anti-gay discrimination in Iran, quoting one refugee bluntly evaluating that "either you want to leave, or you want to die." The punishment for sodomy under Iran's criminal code is death.
Reuters on Thursday conveyed estimates from human rights organizations calculating that the death toll in the Syrian conflict had passed 146,000, as the war was set to enter its fourth year this weekend. The figures come a few weeks after Syrian forces fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime intensified aerial bombardments across the country’s south. Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported in early February that a 24 hour barrel bomb attack, launched as peace talks in Geneva wound down, had killed at least 85 people. Further barrel bomb attacks over the next week would kill at least 246 people, including 73 children. The Syrian army's use of barrel bombs - shrapnel packed IEDs mostly dropped out of helicopters - had previously drawn censure from Secretary of State John Kerry and celebrations from Iran's IRGC, the latter hailing the tactic as "the easiest way to send infidels to hell." The regime's targeting of civilians extends beyond indiscriminate bombing. AFP reported at the end of January that the Syrian government had "razed thousands of homes as 'collective punishment' of communities" linked to opposition elements.
State Dept. report: “Little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran” under Iran President Hassan Rouhani
- State Dept. report: “Little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran” under Iran President Hassan Rouhani
- Reuters: U.N. nuclear watchdog shelved plans for report detailing Iran nuclear weapons progress
- State Dept. expresses outrage as Assad regime retaliates against families of opposition delegates
- Reports: After Palestinian President rejects U.S. peace proposals, Obama intends to up pressure on Israeli PM
- Descriptions of Iranian abuses in the State Department's annual human rights review - unveiled at a Thursday press conference alongside particularly grim evaluations from Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor - risk consolidating deepening concerns that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is either unable or unwilling to substantively improve democratic freedoms and civil rights in the Islamic Republic. Zeya described 2013 as having seen "some of the most egregious atrocities in recent memory,” and both the substance of the report and coverage of its findings revolved around outrages in Iran and Iranian client state Syria. McClatchy wrote up its coverage of the report under the straightforward headline "Iran still among world’s worst human rights abusers," picking out documentation of "Iran's record of floggings and court-ordered amputations, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, crackdown on press freedoms and 624 executions." Zeya had told reporters that the U.S. has "seen little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran under the new government" amid continuing "torture, political imprisonment, [and] harassment of religious and ethnic minorities." USA Today conveyed Zeya's comments as assessing that 'abuses have continued and even worsened under the new presidency of Hassan Rouhani.' The statements echo similar ones made by Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, who last fall reported that Rouhani's election had not introduced any fundamental changes in Iran's approach to human rights.
- Reuters reported on Thursday that had U.N.'s nuclear watchdog last year planned and then suspended efforts to compile a report revealing "more of [Iran's] suspected atomic bomb research," with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seemingly calculating that the evidence would complicate Western efforts to strike an agreement with Tehran over its nuclear program. The revelation, which came two days after the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) released documentation showing that Iran has resumed work at a military base where it is believed to have conducted experiments linked to the development of nuclear warheads, seems set to fuel suspicions that there are pockets of diplomats seeking to downplay the extent of Iran’s clandestine atomic work in the interests of striking a deal that can be publicly sold as having substantively addressed Tehran’s weaponization drive. Meanwhile Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated on Thursday that Iran will refuse to dismantle any of its atomic facilities or centrifuges. A previous report by ISIS had calculated that any deal which meaningfully set back Tehran's nuclear program would have to require the Islamic Republic to dismantle at least 15,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges and close some of its enrichment facilities, alongside other steps relating to plutonium production and weapons research. Zarif told reporters in New Delhi on Thursday that negotiations between the P5+1 global powers and Iran are "going well."
- Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime retaliated against family members of Syrian opposition leaders who came to Geneva for recent peace talks, detaining them after having designated the delegates themselves as terrorists, according to a State Department statement issued on Wednesday by spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The accusation, which was accompanied by a call on the regime to "immediately and unconditionally release all those unfairly arrested," is likely to deepen outrage toward the regime but also risks embarrassing the Obama administration on its diplomatic approach to the nearly four year old conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry had over the course of weeks last January been at the forefront of pressuring Syrian opposition leaders to attend the so-called Geneva II talks, despite something of a consensus in the foreign policy community that the negotiations were largely hopeless. Justifications given at the time, which revolved around calculations that there was little to be lost by bringing the two sides together, may now emerge as having been overly optimistic. The State Department on Wednesday also blasted Russia for continuing to aid Damascus, with Kerry declaring that "everybody knows" that what the regime is doing "is outrageous, unconscionable, unacceptable, disgraceful, craven, it's horrendous."
- Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly "exploded with rage" at Secretary of State John Kerry over what he termed "insane" proposals from Washington designed to facilitate a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, according to descriptions of a meeting between the two published in the leading Palestinian daily Al Quds and conveyed by The Times of Israel. Abbas is said to have been particularly incensed by terms relating to Jerusalem and to Israeli security needs along the border with Jordan, areas in which U.S. bridging proposal have been repeatedly rejected by top Palestinian figures, including by Abbas himself. Palestinian leaders on Thursday also rejected U.S. moves to extend peace talks beyond a previously-set April deadline, a proposal aimed at providing the parties with more time to hammer out a final peace deal. Meanwhile the New York Times reported that President Barack Obama intends "to plunge back into" Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, most immediately by exerting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an upcoming Oval Office meeting.
Top intel bulletin highlights "consistency in policy statements" across Iran governments, assesses Rouhani "no more tolerant of Israel and the U.S." than Al Qaeda
- Top intel bulletin highlights "consistency in policy statements" across Iran governments, assesses Rouhani "no more tolerant of Israel and the U.S." than Al Qaeda
- Iranian officials underline "red lines" against dismantling nuclear infrastructure, halting ballistic missile development
- Reports: Israel doubles down on Jordan border security requirements
- AP: Renewed Syrian peace talks stumble immediately
- The highly influential NightWatch intelligence bulletin on Monday underlined its assessment that despite rhetorical differences between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, their government's respective stances "about Israel, peace in the Middle East, and the [United States]... do not differ." The bulletin was evaluating the significance of a Friday incident in which Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran's parliament, used the podium at a Tunisian celebration marking the country's new constitution to slam the U.S. and brand the Jewish state a "cancerous tumor." NightWatch highlighted what it described as "the consistency in policy statements by [Ahmadinejad] and Rouhani" and emphasized more broadly that "Muslim zealots remain in control in Tehran... [and] their political theology relative to the destruction of Israel matches that of the Sunni jihadists," concluding that "Rouhani is no more tolerant of Israel and the U.S. than is [Al Qaeda leader Ayman] Zawahiri" and calling on Western leaders to "confront the fact that Islamic extremists, both Sunni and Shia, [want] the destruction of Israel." Iranian TV over the weekend broadcast simulated footage of the Islamic republic saturation bombing Israeli military and civilian centers, including - per one Israeli outlet's roundup - "Kikar Hamedina square in Tel Aviv... Ben Gurion Airport and military bases such as The Kirya (the IDF headquarters)... the Azrieli towers, Panorama Towers in Haifa, and the oil refineries in Haifa bay." The film includes footage of "Tel Aviv going up in flames." The clip, which runs more than 11 minutes and includes footage of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei speaking to cadets, was posted by the Iranians to YouTube and can be viewed here.
- Agence France-Presse (AFP) today conveyed statements from various Iranian officials laying out "red lines" in the context of upcoming nuclear negotiations, with top political and military figures ruling out a range of concessions on issues related to ballistic missile development, the status of atomic sites, and uranium enrichment capabilities. Regarding ballistic missiles - which State Department Undersecretary Wendy Sherman had assured the Senate would be addressed in final talks - Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi declared that "defence-related issues are a red line for Iran" that would not "discussed in future talks." Iranian TV meanwhile carried statements from Defense Minister Hussein Dehgan boasting that Iran had successfully tested new advanced projectiles, including ballistic missiles. AFP noted in its coverage that, in contrast to Sherman's statements regarding Iran's plutonium production and uranium enrichment sites, Iranian nuclear negotiator Majid Takhte Ravanchi reemphasized today that Iran had ruled out closure of "any of its nuclear sites." Iranian state media coverage of Ravanchi's statement is here. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had already boasted last week at a Tehran news conference that "America has wishes" involving Iran giving up substantial parts of its nuclear program, but that "those wishes are unlikely to come true." Meanwhile Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi reportedly told Iran's state broadcaster that Iranian scientists had developed a new generation of centrifuges 15 times more efficient than its previous technology, boasting that the achievement had been enabled by Iranian negotiators out-maneuvering Western negotiators in sealing an interim nuclear agreement. U.S. analysts and diplomats have repeatedly insisted that any deal that substantively diminishes Iran's nuclear weapons capability must include the dismantling of tens of thousands of centrifuges, the shuttering of at least some uranium enrichment facilities, and downgrades at Iran's plutonium-production facility at Arak. Obama administration officials have for the last few months assured lawmakers that they're confident they have the leverage to pressure Iran into making substantive concessions.
- Israeli officials this weekend reemphasized Jerusalem's insistence that Israeli security forces remain along the border with Jordan in the context of any final status arrangement with the Palestinians, a counter-terrorism stance that has reportedly been endorsed by among others Jordan, but that has been repeatedly rejected by Palestinian negotiators. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in recent weeks had floated the suggestion that international forces - his specific scenario considered NATO forces - would guard the border and prevent terrorist infiltration as a substitute for Israeli troops. Israeli officials pointed out both publicly and privately that almost every international force deployed over the last several decades to guard Israel's borders in the aftermath of Israeli withdrawals has either fled under pressure (UNEF I in the 1967 Sinai Peninsula and the EU monitors once stationed in the Gaza Strip are the usual examples), or has allowed terrorist groups to gain footholds and even create full-blown statelets (UNIFIL in Lebanon is the most obvious example but jihadists have also made recent gains in the MOF-monitored Sinai), or some combination of both (the near collapse of UNDOF on the Golan Heights is usually cited in this context). Recent polling shows that while a majority of Israelis consistently favor a peace deal with the Palestinians that would have the Jewish state making substantial territorial concessions, nearly three-fourths of Israelis reject withdrawing from the Jordan Valley. The issues of political resistance and political capital aside, it is in any case difficult to imagine any Israeli leader being able to cede control over a potentially unstable border given the precipitous decline in regional security and Arab state cohesion since 2011.
- The Associated Press reported this morning that renewed peace talks between Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and opposition groups stumbled almost as soon as they began on Monday, with each side blaming the other for a spate of violence that has seen hundreds killed in just the last few days. Both Damascus and extremist rebel elements have been linked to recent massacres. The latest attacks by forces loyal to Assad - which reportedly included shelling Homs even as it was in the midst of a three-day U.N.-brokered ceasefire - came after the U.S. condemned mass casualty regime attacks conducted in and around Aleppo last week. Meanwhile, Sunni jihadists over the weekend overran an Alawite village and reportedly killed at least 40 people, about a week after Secretary of State John Kerry gave journalists statements suggesting that Washington was failing to sufficiently bolster moderate rebels against extremists. France on Monday revealed that it will push the United Nations Security Council to demand that humanitarian corridors are created between Syrian cities, though the move may be viewed in some quarters as a token gesture given recent violence.
Experts: Turkey corruption earthquake sheds light on Obama administration commitment to Iran sanctions enforcement
- Experts: Turkey corruption earthquake sheds light on Obama administration commitment to Iran sanctions enforcement
- Iran announces development of next-generation centrifuges, deepening concerns over 'freeze' agreement details
- Critics slam EU response after top Lebanese Hezbollah foe murdered in Beirut massive car bombing
- Egypt pressing allies for counter-terror support after designation of Muslim Brotherhood as terror group
What we’re watching today:
- The domestic upheaval rocking Turkey - which has now slipped into open political warfare between the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the powerful Islamist movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, and which is threatening to bring down Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - seems set to directly impact policy discussions over the robustness of international sanctions against Iran and the degree to which the Obama administration has balanced sanctions enforcement with diplomatic outreach. At the broadest levels, a Turkish corruption probe led largely by Gulen-linked police and judiciary officials has ensnared AKP elites, and AKP leaders up to and including Erdogan have responded by purging hundreds of police officers and prosecutors. More specifically, according to Mark Dubowitz and Jonathan Schanzer - respectively the executive director and vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) - a so-called "gas-for-gold" scheme in which a bank linked to the Turkish government helped Iran circumvent international sanctions is figuring prominently in the corruption scandal. Dubowitz and Schanzer describe police moves against Suleyman Aslan, the CEO of state-owned Halkbank, and Reza Zarrab, an Iranian businessman heavily involved in the gold trade. Officers have reportedly found shoe-boxes containing $4.5 million in Aslan's home, and Zarrab has been arrested on corruption-related charges. Halkbank is being accused of among other things having permitted Iran to access billions of dollars in escrow accounts to purchase and move gold into Iran, allowing the Islamic republic to bolster its increasingly inaccessible foreign reserves. The mechanism Halkbank used, per Dubowitz and Schanzer, was a "golden loophole" that allowed "the transfer of billions of dollars of gold to so-called "private" entities in Iran," during a period of time when the Obama administration didn't blacklist all gold transfers to Iran and delayed congressional efforts to do so by six months. Dubowitz and Schanzer suggest that the White House's calculations were driven in part by a desire to "coax Iran into signing a nuclear deal." The dynamic has the potential to directly impact policy debates over how to approach negotiations with Iran. The administration is locked in a pitched battle with a bipartisan group of dozens of Senators who are seeking to move forward legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran in the future under certain conditions. New restrictions would be placed should Tehran either violate its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) during an upcoming six month negotiation period or, at the end of that period, refuse to verifiably put its nuclear program beyond use for weaponization. The administration has argued that such legislation is unnecessary because so-called core sanctions on Iran remain in place even after the financial relief provided by the JPA, and the administration is committed to enforcing those. Evidence that the White House declined in the past to enforce sanctions as an olive branch to Tehran may undermine Congressional confidence in those assurances.
- Iran is constructing what the Associated Press describes as 'a new generation of centrifuges' able to enrich uranium at a faster pace, potentially shortening the amount of time it would take Tehran to convert its enriched nuclear stockpile to weapons-grade purity, per statements made by Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi and conveyed by the wire. The AP assessed that 'Salehi's comments appeared aimed at showing the country is moving ahead with its nuclear program [in] order to fend off criticism by Iranian hard-liners' over the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) announced weeks ago in Geneva. Skeptics have countered that Iran is moving ahead with its nuclear program because the country's leaders want to move ahead with its nuclear program. The latter interpretation would be in line with statements from both Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani committing to pushing ahead with Iran's atomic activities in the context of international negotiations designed to curb that work, which is widely suspected of including clandestine weaponization dimensions. The AP also noted that the JPA 'does not stop [Iran] from developing centrifuges.' The agreement additionally permits Tehran unlimited enrichment of uranium to 3.5% purity - arguably the most difficult hurdle to clear on the path to creating weapons-grade material - as long as that material is stored in an oxide form unsuitable for further enrichment. It would take Iran only weeks, however, to convert that oxide into material that can be enriched further. Salehi's announcement, if confirmed, would position the Irnians to use the deal's six month negotiation period to increase their stockpile of enriched uranium and to increase the technology they have on hand to quickly enrich that stockpile further.
- A top Lebanese leader prominent for his opposition to Iranian interference in Lebanon - and more specifically to attempts by Hezbollah and Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime to dominate the country - was murdered this morning by a massive car bomb that ripped through central Beirut, killing him and at least five other people. Mohamad Chatah was a former ambassador to the United States and a close adviser to top figures in the anti-Syrian March 14 movement. His final tweet blasted Hezbollah for an ongoing political crisis that has paralyzed Lebanon, describing the Iran-backed terror group as "pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security [and] foreign policy matters that Syria exercised" during a 15 year period when Beirut legitimized Damascus's military occupation of Lebanon and gave the Syrians broad control over the country's defense policies. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri quickly identified Hezbollah as behind the assassination. The murder will likely be read against deepening sectarian violence spilling into the region from inside Syria, where the Iran-backed Assad regime has been fighting a nearly three year war against largely Sunni rebel groups. An upcoming conference in Geneva designed to dampen the violence has been severely criticized for potentially maneuvering Syrian Sunnis into accommodating the regime, and the international reaction to Chatah's assassination has fueled similar criticism. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reacted to the attack by calling on "Lebanon's political leaders and the Lebanese people to put aside all differences and join forces... to restore security in the country." Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), characterized Ashton's statement as one that urged "Lebanese leaders being killed by Hezbollah to join Hezbollah to restore security," also declaring that it "mirrors the premise" behind the Geneva talks where he implies the Syrian opposition will be asked to "join with their killers." Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael Doran was similarly acerbic, describing Ashton's call as one that urged "Lebanese murdered by Assad and Hezbollah to let bygones be bygones."
- Egyptian authorities are intensifying their most recent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood - this morning's Reuters headline tersely noted "Egypt arrests more Brotherhood supporters, more protests anticipated" - days after the country's army-backed interim government designated the Islamist group as a terrorist organization. At least 32 figures linked to the Brotherhood have been arrested in the aftermath of the Wednesday designation, which came amid an escalation in terror attacks that saw Islamist violence, which had largely been limited to the Sinai Peninsula, spread across Egypt. The move will enable Cairo to shutter Brotherhood-linked institutions and freeze the group's assets. It also has the potential to affect regional and global diplomacy, with various actors being called upon to position themselves in response to the designation. The Egyptians have already announced [Arabic] that they will press Arab countries to make good on signed counter-terror obligations and cooperate against the Brotherhood. The Palestinian Fatah faction called on the Brotherhood-linked Hamas faction to untangle itself from the organization for the sake of advancing Palestinian interests. Egyptian media reported yesterday on statements supporting the designation from liberal political groups that had last summer demanded the resignation of the country's then-Brotherhood linked government. The United States for its part has expressed reservations over Egypt's moves against the Brotherhood - State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki conveyed to reporters the details of a call between Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy in which Kerry expressed as much - and is reportedly not considering following Cairo's lead in designating the group.
- Turkey leaders blame Jews, foreign conspiracies as political warfare rocks country
- Washington Post: Egypt designation of Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist group "a stunning blow"
- "20 Threats Iranian Leaders Made Against Israel" list generates commentary on Iranian diplomatic, nuclear hypocrisy
- New forensic report confirms Arafat died of natural causes, after media feeding frenzy heightened anti-Israel conspiracy theories
What we’re watching today:
- Open political warfare between two powerful Turkish Islamist camps is shaking the country's political institutions and will likely erode Ankara's international posture, as the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) scrambles to uproot followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen who are in turn scattered throughout the country's state and non-state institutions. Over 500 Turkish police and security officers have been purged, and many have been replaced by AKP-sympathetic figures. Officials linked to Gulen have for their part widened a corruption probe that had already ensnared top AKP figures, and investigations have been initiated against the sons of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's, Burak and Bilal. Turkey expert Michael Koplow outlined today how the resulting dynamic - with the newly appointed police officials refusing to carry out the orders of prosecutors, many of them Gulenists - is harming Turkish institutions "in ways that will take years to overcome." The upshot according to Koplow is that "Turkish democracy is as hollow as it has been since the military was openly running things." It is unclear whether Erdogan will be able to politically survive the crisis. The Council on Foreign Relations quoted former Turkish minister Erdogan Bayraktar declaring that "to soothe the nation, I believe that the prime minister should resign," and the Christian Science Monitor today assessed that Erdogan's allies are deserting him. Erdogan's spiraling domestic position has seen the Islamist prime minister revert to what Koplow describes as "full-blown populism mode," with potential impacts for Turkey's foreign standing. Erdogan and his AKP allies have during previous crises sought to link domestic unrest to foreign conspiracies. Their scapegoating has at times been explicitly anti-Semitic, at other times has targeted the United States, and occasionally has implied that Jews are driving anti-Turkish American policies. Earlier this week Truman National Security Project fellow Joshua Walker noted that the AKP has already blamed Jews, gays, and others for the chaos around the corruption probe, and in recent days Erdogan ally and then-EU Minister Egemen Bagis reportedly declared that "the people won't give up on Erdogan because Zionism is past its expiration date." AKP figures have also already also blasted the US in the context of the corruption probe.
- Egypt's army-backed interim government yesterday designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, a day after a massive bomb destroyed an Egyptian police station and killed at least 15 people. Another bomb this morning exploded in a busy Cairo intersection this morning, wounding five, with the attack being described by Century Foundation senior fellow Michael Hanna as a "worrying signal that Egypt's militants [are] no longer content" with launching terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula but were expanding their operations throughout the rest of Egypt. The Washington Post characterized the designation as "a stunning blow" to the Brotherhood. Until recently the Islamist organization was described by many Western analysts and diplomats as being not only on the ascendancy, but as a group that the US and its allies would have to learn to "deal with" at least partly on its own terms. Describing a mid-2011 decision by the Obama administration to resume contact with the Brotherhood, Politico described the US position as assessing that 'the Brotherhood's rise in political prominence... [made] the American contact necessary.'
- The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs took to Buzzfeed on Tuesday to outline what the article's headline described as "20 Threats Iranian Leaders Made Against Israel in 2013," with the subsequent story conveying an array of statements documenting that "Iranian leaders are consistent in their anti-Israel rhetoric, clear about their hostile intentions, and certain of their apocalyptic beliefs." Topping the list were remarks from Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who threatened to "raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground," and President Hassan Rouhani, who declared that the Iranian government must prepare for "the day the occupying Zionist regime is no longer in the region." Statements from commander of the Basij Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who said that Iran will fight "until the annihilation of Israel," and Gen. Mohammad Hejazi Deputy Chief of Staff, who said that "if Israel acts foolishly, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be annihilated," respectively took the fifth and fourth slots. The article concluded with animated video from Iranian state television envisioning missile strikes on Israeli civilians and soldiers. Orde Kittrie – a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a tenured professor of law at Arizona State - commented that the documented statements were in tension with "the spirit of Geneva." The phrase is a gesture toward declarations made by Iranian leaders, and backed by some U.S. analysts, complaining that while Congressional legislation imposing sanctions on Iran six months from now does not technically violate the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) announced in Geneva, such legislation should be put off anyway because it violates the "spirit" of the agreement. Skeptics have suggested that it seems churlish for Iran to stake out such a position. Not only do the Islamic republic's top leaders celebrate actual and threatened conventional warfighting - the Iranian Revolutionary Guard this week tweeted that "the easiest way to send infidels to hell is through 'barrel of death'," a reference to shrapnel-packed Syrian barrel bombs that have killed and maimed thousands - but Iranian scientists have continued to enrich uranium and advance their plutonium program while final details of the JPA are being worked out.
- Another forensic investigation regarding the death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - this time conducted by a Russian lab with access to the deceased terrorist's remains - has concluded that he died of natural causes and not, as some conspiracy theorists have suggested, of polonium poisoning. Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia's Federal Medical and Biological Agency, was quoted evaluating that Arafat's 2004 death was "natural and not caused by radiation." The findings are in line with those published by a French lab, but in tension with how a third investigation - this one Swiss - was reported by domestic and international media outlets. There are mathematically exactly zero plausible scenarios under which a deadly dose of polonium administered to Arafat in 2004 could have been detected by recent tests, but nonetheless the explicitly inconclusive Swiss results were credulously reported as evidence that Arafat may have been poisoned by the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, the BBC, the Telegraph, Salon, and others. The reports provided fodder for conspiracy theories blaming Israel for Arafat's death, and the Guardian declared that "suspicion points strongly" at the Jewish state for poisoning Arafat.
Israeli team to travel to U.S. after Obama call "to begin consultations immediately" over final Iran deal
- Israeli team to travel to U.S. after Obama call "to begin consultations immediately" over final Iran deal
- After revelations that interim Iran deal not finalized, worries deepen Tehran may pocket concessions and abandon further talks
- Israeli leaders echo Netanyahu doubts over interim Iran deal
- U.S.-Iran dispute over enrichment concessions threatens comprehensive talks
What we’re watching today:
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that an Israeli team would be traveling to the United States to - per the Jerusalem Post - 'work on a final status nuclear deal with Iran,' amid growing criticism of moves by the Obama administration to lock Israel out of months of previous negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Netanyahu made the statements at a meeting of his Likud party today, also emphasizing that Israel's position would be oriented toward promoting and securing a comprehensive agreement that "must bring about one outcome: the dismantling of Iran's military nuclear capability." The Israeli prime minister had earlier spoken with President Barack Obama on Sundayregarding the details of this weekend's interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. A White House readout of the call indicated that Obama told Netanyahu "that he wants the United States and Israel to begin consultations immediately regarding [U.S.] efforts to negotiate a comprehensive solution."
- News broke mid-Monday that the final details of this weekend's interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran had not yet been agreed upon, and that the six month period during which Iran is expected to negotiate over a comprehensive deal - and during which U.S. negotiators had committed to preventing the imposition of new nuclear-related sanctions - had not yet started. Evaluating the development, The Hill pointedly noted that the interim deal's announcement had nonetheless already boosted Iran's economic position, "with the Iran's currency, the rial, jumping three percent on Sunday and oil markets sagging in expectation of increased supply." News also emerged today that the European Union may remove certain sanctions on Tehran within weeks. The sum of the developments may deepen worries that asymmetries built into the interim deal - the terms of which only require Iran to 'freeze' its nuclear program as-is, but provide irreversible concessions to Tehran - may allow the Islamic republic to pocket interim concessions and eventually walk away from further negotiations. Most straightforwardly, Iran will get to pocket the billions in financial relief its gets, which Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), estimated this weekend would ultimately amount to roughly $20 billion. Dubowitz and FDD senior fellow Orde Kittrie today outlined how "the agreement greatly weakens Western economic sanctions" inasmuch as "Iranian sanctions-busters will be in position to exploit the changing market psychology and newly created pathways to reap billions of additional dollars in economic relief beyond those projected by the Obama administration." The New York Times echoed the point, conveying the concerns of critics in "Congress, the Arab world and Israel" to the effect that "the roughly $100 billion in remaining sanctions will gradually be whittled away [by wily] middlemen, Chinese eager for energy sources and Europeans looking for a way back to the old days." Iran may calculate that the direct injection of capital, coupled with the economic benefits of currency gains, are sufficient to wait for the disintegration of the international community's sanctions regime.
- Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum are echoing deep skepticism expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding this weekend's interim deal between the P5+1 and Iran, after Netanyahu blasted the agreement as a "historic mistake" and committed Jerusalem to acting in the "diplomatic arena" and "in other areas" to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who as head of Israel's center-left Hatnuah party ran against Netanyahu and his Likud party in the last elections, described the agreement as a "terrible deal that will threaten not only us, but the entire world." Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who as head of Israel's center-right Jewish Home party also ran against Netanyahu, not only described the agreement as a "bad deal" but emphasized that it would "increase the need for Israeli [military] action." Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz, from Netanyahu's own Likud party, declared that "the present agreement could actually bring Iran closer to building the bomb."
- A dispute over the degree to which Iran won enrichment concessions in this weekend's interim deal has pitted Iran and Russia on one hand against the U.S. and Britain on the other, and is threatening to severely complicate talks aimed at achieving a comprehensive agreement over Tehran's nuclear program. Iranian leader - including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif - boasted over the weekend that the U.S. had caved on its long-standing position that Iran would not be permitted to enrich uranium under a final accord. The U.S. and Britain both flatly denied Iran's interpretation. The interim language, however, describes a future comprehensive solution as involving "a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program." Observers including the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl, the Post's David Ignatius, and the Daily Beast's Eli Lake all noted that a plain reading of the language favors the Iranian interpretation. The diverging interpretations will present a challenge for U.S. diplomats pursuing a comprehensive deal. The U.S. will either have to compel Iran to change its position, which will be difficult inasmuch Iranian leaders are trumpeting the language as a core victory, or the U.S. will have to concede Iran’s position, abrogating assurances made by the administration to U.S. lawmakers and allies, and giving up on half a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend enrichment. In 2009 the New York Times reported that "administration officials... said that any new American policy would ultimately require Iran to cease enrichment, as demanded by several United Nations Security Council resolutions." In 2010 then-White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs ruled out allowing Iran to enrich because "if the Iranians are sincere in a peaceful program, their needs can be met without undertaking its own enrichment program, which call into question its motives." The same year Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley emphasized that Iran "continues to enrich uranium and has failed to suspend its enrichment program as has been called for in UN Security Council resolutions; that’s our core concern." The administration's lead negotiator Wendy Sherman told Congress as recently as last month that "the President has circumscribed what he means by the Iranian people having access… access, not right, but access to peaceful nuclear energy in the context of meeting its obligations."
- Hagel: Israeli pressure was key to bringing Iran to the table, Netanyahu not trying to derail talks
- EU legislation, U.S. sting operations call attention to Iranian regime exploitation of civilian infrastructure
- Palestinian president doubles down on refusal to recognize Jewish state, threatening peace talks
- WSJ: Iranian-American businessman met with Iranian president to map out anti-sanctions push
What we’re watching today:
- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel this week brushed off suggestions that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to derail talks between the international community and Iran, emphasizing instead that Netanyahu is "legitimately concerned" over the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions and that - in any case - Iran had come to the table partly due to "the constant pressure from Israel." Hagel noted that U.S. sanctions had also "done tremendous economic damage." The point, made in a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, echoes years of analysis suggesting that a credible threat of force should be leveraged to minimize what benefits Iran could expect from continued nuclearization. President Barack Obama has also consistently reiterated that diplomatic initiatives must be coupled with a credible threat of force in order to compel Iran to negotiate over its program. Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff took particular note of how Hagel had implied that "Israel's credible threat, not America's, helped bring Iran [to] the table." Golberg's questions, and Hagel's responses, came against the backdrop of comments by Secretary of State John Kerry - widely perceived to be aimed at Netanyahu - criticizing "fear tactics" used by skeptics of Iranian intentions. Kerry's comments were made at an event sponsored by the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that Goldberg described as one "which sometimes seems overly relaxed about the danger of a nuclear Iran."
- The Wall Street Journal yesterday described efforts being made by European Union (EU) officials to maintain pressure against Iran's national cargo fleet, and more specifically against the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), after the EU General Court overturned sanctions on the fleet last September. The U.S. Treasury Department in 2008 imposed sanctions on IRISL and on 123 of its ships for the company's and vessels' roles in "providing logistical services to Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics." IRISL officials subsequently moved to evade U.S. sanctions via a campaign of what Adam Szubin, the director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, described as "deception, fraud and dangerous activities on behalf" of Iran. The Journal also notes - in addition to cataloging an array of other ways that IRISL has allegedly collaborated with the Iranian regime - that sanctions have nonetheless "had a visible effect on the group's usefulness to the Iranian regime," underscoring the degree to which pressure has limited the utility of ostensibly private and civilian infrastructure to Tehran. The story came on the same day as the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security published a report outlining how U.S. sting operations have netted Iranian operatives seeking to evade missile export restrictions. Reza Olangian is alleged to have been a so-called "'core' Iranian procurement agent," which is to say one who "who works with relative immunity from inside Iran placing orders directly for the Iranian military or for companies procuring for it." He had been lured outside the safety of Iranian territory by a U.S. operation revolving around the ostensible sale of surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles.
- Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated on Monday his refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state even in the context of a final peace agreement, complicating the efforts of negotiators engaged in U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to reach a formula acceptable to both sides. The fundamental Israeli demand stretches back years, and in 2011 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the condition as a "basic demand," imploring Abbas to "accept a Jewish state" after Netanyahu had "stood before [his] people and said [he] would accept a Palestinian state." Israeli officials have gone so far as to foreground the issue as one covering "90% of the conflict." Abbas has consistently refused to meet those requests - to the point where meetings have been adjourned due to his stance - raising fears that Palestinian leaders view the conflict as one of Israel's existence rather than as a limited territorial dispute. Specifically the Israelis fear that Abbas's instransigence is borne of a desire to maintain territorial claims on Israeli territory even after a peace deal is hammered out. Rumors floated yesterday by Israeli politicians hinted that the U.S. is preparing its own bridging proposals in case the Israelis and Palestinians are unable to forge such an agreement.
- A Wall Street Journal opinion piece reveals that top Iranian officials - including Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and his chief of staff Mohammad Nahavandian - met in September in New York with Iranian-American businessman Ekram Manafzadeh and that, according to the Journal, they 'hatched' an idea described by Manafzadeh as having him "register... an organization" in his U.S. office to "advance trading with Iran." Manafzadeh indicated to the Journal that he will use the recently founded Iran America Chamber of Commerce Inc to "lobby the people who are considering relaxing the sanctions," a move that the Journal suggested indicates Tehran "is already positioning itself to profit from" concessions that it expects American lawmakers to offer during upcoming talks. Meanwhile, The Hill today described the Obama administration as having "played down" a recent anti-America rally in Iran - the largest in years - in which U.S. flags were burned and the crowds chanted "Death to America." Observers had suggested that the evidence of Iranian hostility might give pause to advocates of engagement
Reports: Iran stages "largest anti-U.S. rally in years," amid new reports of military activity in Syria
- Reports: Iran stages "largest anti-U.S. rally in years," amid new reports of military activity in Syria
- Observers: Hamas stockpiling advanced missiles, seeking to renew violence
- On Middle East fence-mending tour, Kerry praises Saudi Arabia and military-backed Egyptian government
- Top pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC, recommit to seeking new sanctions on Iran
What we’re watching today:
- Tens of thousands of anti-American Iranian protesters marched today on the former U.S. embassy in Iran, part of what the Associated Press described as "Tehran’s largest anti-U.S. rally in years." Reports noted pervasive chants of "death to America," and called attention to a speech by Saeed Jalili, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which Jalili described fighting the "hostile policies of America" as "the symbol of [Iran's] national solidarity." The protests threaten to deepen skepticism regarding the degree to which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is willing or able to substantially reform Iran's foreign and domestic policies. They come on the same day as reports emerged that a commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was killed in Syria, where Iran has provided critical logistical and military support to the Bashar al-Assad regime. Last week the BBC aired a video documenting what the outlet described as "the extent of Iran's involvement," in Syria, including active participation by top IRGC figures. Rouhani himself has repeatedly and explicitly pledged to stand by the Assad regime, opposite U.S. calls for the strongman to step aside in order to facilitate a peaceful resolution to Syria's almost three-year-old conflict.
- Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon warned over the weekend that Hamas was arming itself and seeking to conduct what the Israeli official called "a renewal of violence," echoing increasingly pitched analyst concerns that the Palestinian terror group - which has recently suffered a precipitous decline in domestic popularity and regional influence - may be seeking to restore its stature via a spectacular terror attack. The warning came a week after Elior Levy, the Palestinian affairs correspondent for Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth, published analysis describing how Hamas would seek, in its next war against Israel, to saturation-bomb Israeli population centers. The group will likely use indigenously produced M-75 rockets, which can reach Israel's densely packed Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Levy also outlined how Hamas "has hundreds of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles" that it will have the option of deploying.
- Secretary of State John Kerry sought this weekend and today to downplay spiking tensions between Washington and its traditional Arab allies, traveling to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to address sharp and increasingly public differences with those countries on a range of issues including the political situation in Egypt, the U.S's stance on the Syrian conflict, and the West's posture toward Iranian negotiations. Cairo and Riyadh have watched Washington's recent Middle East moves with confusion and increasing frustration, as the Obama administration staked out positions that they argued were in tension with both their and America's interests. Recent months have seen the solidification of three opposing regional blocs: a traditional pro-U.S. camp composed of Israel and the U.S.'s Arab allies, an extremist Shiite bloc anchored by Iran and including its proxies in Lebanon and Syria, and an extremist Sunni bloc involving Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington's criticism of the Egyptian army's moves against the Brotherhood, its reluctance to support rebels in Syria, and its approach to Iran have, according to critics, shown insufficient sensitivity to fundamental regional dynamics. Over the weekend the Washington Post published an overview of Arab moves designed to circumvent American policies by more aggressively boosting rebel groups in Syria fighting the Iran-aligned Bashar al-Assad regime. In Egypt Kerry sought to mend ties with the military regime - The New York Times evaluated that his rhetoric "reflected the Obama administration’s determination to work with a military leadership" - while in Saudi Arabia he praised Riyadh's diplomacy.
- Controversy swirled this weekend and into Monday regarding the positions of major pro-Israel groups toward efforts by the Obama administration to delay the imposition of new sanctions against Iran, with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) issuing a rare on-the-record statement Saturday night emphasizing that there would be "no pause, delay or moratorium" in its support of new legislation designed to increase pressure against the Islamic republic. The statement was a response to reports, sourced to Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman, describing an October 29th meeting between White House officials and representatives of four top pro-Israel groups. Foxman stated that groups had committed to taking a "time out" in their lobbying efforts. Representatives from other groups who were in the room, notably AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), categorically denied making such commitments. Pro-Israel groups not directly involved in the controversy also issued statements calling for new sanctions. The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a letter stating that "the only hope of stopping the program in the eleventh hour, is the threat of an even more powerful sanctions program," while Christians United for Israel executive director David Brog stated that "there will be a political price to be paid by every leader in Congress that stood by, delayed, or dithered while Iran became a nuclear power." Fallout from the dispute also included a pro-Israel official described as "close to the debate" characterizing the ADL as "collaborating with a far left Israeli newspaper [Haaretz], one that in recent days compared Zionist films to Nazi propaganda, to minimize the deep concern that almost everyone in the Jewish community has" over the administration's Iran policy.
- Experts, diplomats: Impose more sanctions on Iran to strengthen the West's hand
- In latest regime walk-back, Iran nuke chief denies rumored concession on enrichment
- Egypt arrest sweep nets last top Muslim Brotherhood figure
- Israeli Air Force preps first hosted trilateral air exercise, shrugging off Turkish attempts at military isolation
What we’re watching today:
- Members of Congress and a range of analysts are emphasizing the importance of existing and new sanctions on Iran, as the U.S. and the international community prepare to negotiate with the Islamic republic over its nuclear program, which is widely considered to have clandestine weaponization components. This morning's Los Angeles Times saw an article - co-written by former White House Middle East Advisor Dennis Ross, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman, and former Defense Department official Michael Makovsky - calling on the U.S. to "negotiate from a position of strength" by among other things "intensify[ing] sanctions and incentiviz[ing] other countries to do the same." Meanwhile the Washington Post published a recent speech by Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (NJ) declaring that sanctions "have been the single most powerful tool in bringing Iran to the table and bringing us to this pivotal point." Menendez's assessment echoes a broad consensus to the effect that sanctions have been critical in eroding Iran's economy and coercing Iranian leaders to at least engage in negotiations. Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg noted this morning that, given the expert consensus that heightened sanctions brought Iran to the table, it's difficult to credit claims that further sanctions will cause Iran to walk away from the table. The same point was suggested by Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee in last Friday's State Department press briefing, with Lee noting that "one of the main reasons, or maybe the only reason, that Iran agreed to come to the table this time was the sanctions" and asking "so wouldn't it be logical that once you’ve got them to the table, adding more pressure would help and would make them more willing to compromise than saying – than holding off." A Senate bill still in committee would aim to cut Iranian oil sales in half. Administration figures are pushing to hold off on the new sanctions. Asked about a push, Menendez questioned the logic of unilaterally suspending pressure while Iran "continues to move forward" by installing new nuclear-related technology.
- Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi clarified today that Iran is continuing to enrich uranium up to 20%, denying widely conveyed reports that the Islamic republic has ceased adding to its stockpile of 20% purity uranium, with which top experts believe it can sprint across the nuclear finish line in as little time as two weeks. Conservative MP Hossein Naqavi Hosseini had been cited as the source of the original rumor, and now claims he was misquoted. The chair of the Iranian parliament's foreign affairs committee, Allaeddine Boroujerdi, had previously denied suggestions of a halt. The original suggestion had raised hopes - per The New York Times - that Iran was "edging closer to accepting one of the main demands of world powers." The dynamic - in which optimistic coverage produced in Western outlets was quickly followed by an explicit Iranian walkback - repeats a pattern that has become almost routine since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. A Twitter account reportedly linked to Rouhani generated what the Washington Post described as a "frenzied response" when it was used to wish Jews a happy Jewish New Year. Rouhani's office subsequently denied any connection to the post. A little later Iranian citizens were for the first time in years able to directly access social media networks, generating speculation from Western journalists that "Iran’s Berlin Wall of internet censorship crumbling." The ban was reimposed a day later. In September a German paper published rumors that Rouhani was prepared to shut down Iran's underground enrichment bunker at Fordow, a suggestion that regime outlets swatted down. Even walkbacks on Iranian willingness to negotiate over its 20% enriched stock are not new. In early April the Associated Press quoted Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani suggesting that Iran may make concessions on uranium enriched to that level, only to see itself called out by name and condemned by regime figures for misquoting Larijani.
- Egyptian security forces today arrested one of the few prominent Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figures who have thus far escaped the wide-ranging decapitation campaign being waged against the Islamist group by Egypt's army-backed interim government, a move likely to fuel ongoing analyst discussions outlining scenarios under which Cairo may succeed in largely collapsing the Islamist group's influence inside Egypt. Essam el-Erian, arguably the last senior Brotherhood official who had escaped being seized, had been a top adviser to Egypt's former Brotherhood-linked president Mohammed Morsi. While in that position he blamed Jews for the Boston terror attack, the war in Mali, the war in Syria, and the war in Iraq. Though top officials in the interim government continue to press for reconciliation between competing Egyptian factions - Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa El-Din on Tuesday pressed the case in the context of the Brotherhood - rapprochement remains unlikely. Brotherhood members have repeatedly rejected national reconciliation, and for their part military officials likely believe that the reassertion of Brotherhood power would lead to retaliation against the army.
- Israel will host its first multilateral air drill next month, assembling nearly 1,000 personnel from three nations for two weeks of air-to-air and air-to-ground exercises modeled on the U.S. Air Force's annual Red Flag military training exercise. Dubbed Blue Flag, the drill will take place at the Ovda training range in the Jewish state's south. The identity of the participants is being withheld on security grounds, but Defense News notes that the Israel Air Force has recently conducted bilateral training with the U.S., Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland. Each of those countries has been suggested as a possible participant. The IAF had for years trained with Turkey's air force, until Turkey cut off relations with Israel and began making concentrated efforts to prevent the Jewish state from participating in security forums and multilateral military exercises. Ankara was criticized for seeking to isolate Israel at the expense of Israeli-European interoperability. Jerusalem subsequently began to explore a series of bilateral and multilateral exercises outside frameworks Turkey could affect. Israel's navy for instance recently participated in trilateral search-and-rescue exercises with Cyprus and Greece, and in August the Israeli Defense Forces and U.S. European Command ran two weeks of military exercises.