Senate leader moves to speed vote on new sanctions legislation amid Iranian boasts of negotiations victory
- Senate leader moves to speed vote on new sanctions legislation amid Iranian boasts of negotiations victory
- Corruption scandal rocking Turkey engulfs bank known for Iran sanctions-busting
- Hezbollah chief threatens to attack Israel over assassination claimed by Sunni jihadist group
- Congressional bill to boost U.S.-Israel energy cooperation clears Senate hurdle
What we’re watching today:
- Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi bragged yesterday, in comments conveyed by Iranian media, that "Iran is the winner of [the] Geneva deal" because the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) framework had positioned the Islamic republic to appear conciliatory even though Tehran will refuse to close its plutonium facility at Arak and "will not lose anything" by temporarily suspending uranium enrichment up to 20 percent purity. The comments came a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif boasted that Iran could quickly restart enrichment to 20 percent - thereby reviving debate over asymmetries in the JPA that have Tehran merely "freezing" parts of its program while the West reduces sanctions - and amid a potential showdown between the Obama administration and Congress. A bipartisan group of 26 senators yesterday unveiled legislation that would impose sanctions on Iran if it cheated during the JPA's six-month negotiating period or if it failed to put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization at the end of that period. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today filed a procedure that would allow him to bypass bringing the bill to the floor through committees, and potentially allowing the full body to vote on the legislation as soon as next month. The move widely seen as a win for the bill amid opposition from the White House and ten senators who yesterday wrote a letter detailing their objections. The administration's position, which analysts and journalists have struggled with for the last month and a half, is that while past sanctions coerced Iran into coming to the table, future sanctions will compel the Iranians to walk away. The empirical evidence is in tension with the administration's position. In what Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, describes as a "poorly played bluff," Iranian diplomats in recent days suspended talks over U.S. sanctions enforcement - and then returned.
- A corruption probe involving some of Turkey's top figures has engulfed officials at a Turkish bank long linked to Iranian sanctions-busting schemes, adding a potential international dimension to a scandal that was already threatening to destabilize the country's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. The probe has pitted rival Islamist camps against each other, with the AKP squaring off against followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. The cleric's followers are influential across Turkey's state and non-state institutions, and Erdogan has accused the camp of waging a "dirty operation" over recent days as police and prosecutors intensified anti-corruption investigations targeting AKP-linked political and economic elites. Erdogan and his allies have for their part responded by sacking a number of top judicial and police officials. Fehim Tastekin, a columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Istanbul-based newspaper Radikal, outlined today how moves against two of the sweep's targets - Suleyman Aslan and Riza Sarraf, respectively the CEO of Halkbank and an Iranian businessman who deals with gold - may add international stakes to the firestorm. Halkbank had reportedly been set up by Ankara to facilitate the sale of oil and natural gas from Iran, and leveraged trade in previous metals in order to work at the margins of the international sanctions regime against Iran. Oktay Ozdabakoglu, the finance and capital market expert at Radikal, was quoted noting that because of the bank "Iran, supposedly under embargo, was continuing its trading, and meeting its hot money needs." He more pointedly emphasized that "it appears impossible that this operation could have been conducted with the permission or information of the government or quarters close to the government."
- Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah today declared that the Iran-backed terror group would attack Israel in response to the December 4th killing of Haj Hassan Hilu Laqis, deepening concerns that the organization - which has seen its brand as an anti-Israel vanguard shattered by its role in the Syrian conflict - is seeking to provoke a conflict with the Jewish state in order to burnish its image. Laqis, a top Hezbollah figure who for decades had been critical in among other things weapons acquisitions, was gunned down in an attack claimed by a Sunni jihadist group. Top Hezbollah figures had nonetheless almost immediately blamed Israel for the killing and vowed revenge. Earlier this week Israeli soldier Sgt. Shlomi Cohen was killed in a cross-border attack by a Lebanese sniper, focusing attention on the long-suspected infiltration of the Lebanese Armed Forces by Hezbollah. Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, yesterday conveyed analysis from "observers in Beirut, including pro-Hezbollah journalists who suspected a link between the Laqis assassination and the murder of Cohen. Badran went further, outlining how "as Hezbollah’s options narrow and its enemies multiply, the party has used its control of the state and its penetration of its institutions, including the [Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)], to fight its wars by proxy." The United States channels millions of dollars in security assistance to the LAF - literally three-fourths of all international security assistance to the country - and analysts have begun to increasingly question the wisdom of such allocations given evidence of active collaboration between the LAF and Hezbollah.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee yesterday voted to advance bipartisan legislation designed to boost U.S.-Israeli energy cooperation on topics ranging across - per the Jerusalem Post - "regulatory best practices, cyber energy infrastructure, energy efficiency of water technologies, environmental management of deepwater exploration and coastal protection and restoration." Parallel legislation to the United States-Israel Energy Cooperation Enhancement Bill had been passed earlier this month by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) described the Senate vote as "a huge step forward in our work to enhance the partnership between Israel and the US on energy production." Analysts and journalists have increasingly taken it as a given that massive off-shore and on-shore energy reserves in Israel have the potential to reconfigure not just global energy markets but geopolitics.
Iran FM signals intent to restart negotiations, after analysis predicts Tehran bluffing over talks suspension
- Iran FM signals intent to restart negotiations, after analysis predicts Tehran bluffing over talks suspension
- WSJ: Washington's Gulf allies 'stunned' by Iran diplomacy
- Hamas officials blame catastrophic Gaza Strip flooding on fuel shortage, after months of blaming Egypt and Palestinian Authority for fuel shortage
- Focus turns to growing Hezbollah control over Lebanese army, after deadly cross-border killing of Israeli solider
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CBS News this weekend that Iran is willing to restart implementation talks revolving around the recently announced Geneva interim agreement, a posture accordant with analysis assessing that the Iranians are bluffing when they threaten to forgo the financial relief offered by the so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Iranian negotiators had abruptly halted talks after the Treasury Department last week announced new enforcement measures against entitled in violation of still-existing sanctions against Iran, asserting that the move violated the "spirit" of the JPA.. It is not clear why the Iranians believed that gestures toward the spirit of the JPA would have diplomatic of public purchase, inasmuch as Tehran has in recent weeks committed to enriching uranium, bolstering its plutonium production complex, and testing ballistic missiles - all actions which it insists are permitted under the letter of the JPA. There have been suggestions that the Iranians may be attempting to brush back future Congressional legislation which would impose sanctions after the JPA's six-month interim window should no deal materialize. Such language does not seem to violate the JPA's prohibition on new sanctions taking effect during the interim period, and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said over the weekend that the Senate is "very likely" to approve new financial pressure on Iran that Politico describes as taking effect "in about six months if there are no more breakthroughs in negotiations.'
- Statements from a top Saudi Arabian official published over the weekend have the potential to deepen concerns that the US's traditional Arab allies are preparing to pivot away from Washington - and potentially towards American rivals - as actors throughout the region continue sorting themselves into three solidifying and opposing camps. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was at the time attending a security conference in Monaco, and described him as 'assailing the Obama administration for working behind Riyadh's back' on a deal with Iran and as 'panning other recent US steps in the Middle East.' The Journal characterized Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors as being 'stunned by the secret American-Iranian diplomacy' that preceded the recently signed Geneva interim agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 global powers, and as 'echo[ing] concerns raised by Israel and members of the US Congress that the... accord with Iran didn't go far enough to ensure Tehran won't develop atomic bombs.' Political and diplomatic developments in the Middle East - most prominently in Egypt, Syria, and Iran - have in recent years generated and hardened three opposing blocs in the region, with an Iran-dominated Shiite camp aligned against the US's traditional Israeli and Arab allies aligned against a Sunni camp composed of Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Israeli radio reported on Sunday that a "historic" meeting had been held at the Monaco security conference between Faisal, former Israeli ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich, and Israeli Knesset member Meir Sheetrit.
- Hamas officials today linked much of the devastation from this weekend's historic storm to a lack of fuel in the Gaza Strip, a scarcity that the Palestinian outlet Ma'an pointedly noted Hamas has for months been blaming on Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The storm generated flooding that reportedly displaced at least 5,000 residents just in the Hamas-controlled territory. Ma'an quoted Muhammad al-Midna, a spokesman for Gaza's civil defense force, explaining that a lack of electricity had 'limited the ability of civil defense forces to pump water from flooded areas' and that a lack of fuel had more generally 'effectively crippled the ability of civil defense forces to respond for large periods of time.' Hamas has repeatedly blasted both Egypt and the PA, the latter controlled by Hamas's Palestinian rival Fatah, for creating a fuel shortage in Gaza. The terror group blames Egypt for systematically destroying the tunnels linking the Gaza Strip to the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula, a campaign that has sharply curtailed the once-thriving smuggling industry between the two territories. It also blames Fatah for levying what it insists are unreasonable taxes on fuel deliveries to Gaza, a charge that Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has flatly described as "insane." Meanwhile Palestinian media reported that Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), blamed Israel for the flooding.
- The Associated Press this afternoon reported on efforts to prevent escalation in the aftermath of what it described as "a deadly border skirmish" between Israel and Lebanon, with "the enemy countries holding a face-to-face meeting with U.N. peacekeepers." The Sunday incident - which was similarly described as a "skirmish" by among others the Guardian - involved the unprovoked murder of 31 year old IDF Master Sgt. Shlomi Cohen, who was shot in the neck and chest by a Lebanese sniper as Cohen was driving a civilian vehicle near an Israeli naval base. Roughly four and a half hours after the 8:30pm Sunday shooting, Israeli forces opened fire into a forested area across the Israeli-Lebanese border after spotting "suspicious movement." The Guardian quoted Daniel Nisman, a Tel Aviv-based security analyst, drawing attention to "rogue elements" which have established a presence in the Lebanese army (LAF). American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin had already noted as early as 2010 that it is "an open secret among Lebanese of all political stripes that Hezbollah has infiltrated the Lebanese Armed Forces," an assessment that came in the wake of years in which Israeli military officials had warned over exactly such Hezbollah efforts. Analysts increasingly fear that the Iran-backed terror group is now seeking to provoke Israel into a conflict. Hezbollah's brand as an anti-Israel group has been shattered by its participation in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and it may be looking to ignite a confrontation in order to begin rebuilding that image.
Top pollster: American voters across all lines "united" in distrusting Iran, demanding lawmakers impose sanctions
- Top pollster: American voters across all lines "united" in distrusting Iran, demanding lawmakers impose sanctions
- Iranian FM boasts that "collapse" of international sanctions regime impossible to stop
- White House reveals interim agreement on Iran nuke program allows Tehran to test ballistic missiles
- Reports: Top commander of U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forced to flee the country as Islamists overrun headquarters, seize warehouses
What we’re watching today:
- A new poll – conducted on behalf of the news websites Al-Masdar.net and TheTower.org, and released this afternoon after it was presented to reporters by pollster Frank Luntz – concludes that lopsided majorities of Americans from both political parties overwhelmingly favor deepening sanctions against the Iranian government, regardless of current negotiations, and documents overwhelming distrust of the Islamic republic across demographic and political identities. Luntz emphasized, per the Times of Israel, that 'over two decades of experience, he had never before encountered such unanimity of opinion among voters across disparate demographic breakdowns,' specifically quoting him as saying that "the fear of Iranian nuclear weapons unites just about everyone." The poll comes amid evidence that voter sentiment toward Iran is hardening, after a several-week period - beginning immediately after the announcement of the Geneva interim agreement between the P5+1 global powers and Iran - where broad swaths of the American electorate were undecided on a range of issues related to the Iranian nuclear program. In late November a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that one-third of Americans described themselves unsure on questions ranging from their support for the interim agreement to whether Iran's nuclear program was being developed for peaceful purposes. By early December a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center poll found that those who had heard about the deal distrusted Iranian leaders to negotiate seriously over Tehran’s nuclear program by a 2-1 margin, with approval of the Geneva deal running 32% in favor vs. 43% against. The USA TODAY/Pew poll was conducted between Dec 3-8, and the Al-Masdar.net/TheTower.org poll began a day earlier and ended a day later. Luntz untangled four overarching themes that emerged from the data: Americans fear Iran more than they fear all the other Middle Eastern antagonists combined, they are universally skeptical about Iranian intentions, they want Iran's ability to produce a nuclear weapon severely constrained both by interim and final agreements, and they prefer lawmakers who deepen sanctions over those that would reduce them. Fully 77% of Democrats and a near unanimous 96% of Republicans would rather vote for a senator who favors sanctions, including "increased pressure on Iran until Iran accepts a final agreement that removes their ability to build nuclear weapons." Only 14% of voters would prefer a senator who wants to reduce pressure on Iran during negotiations. The Hill quoted a Democratic staffer describing the poll as evidence that the White House faces "an uphill battle" in trying to convince lawmakers to put off passing new sanctions legislation. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to brief senators on the administration's policy tomorrow.
- Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham earlier this week brushed aside statements from U.S. officials insisting that Washington can easily reverse the erosion in sanctions entailed by the recent Geneva interim agreement, declaring instead that "the structure of sanctions has cracked and its collapse has started." The White House has insisted that its sanctions relief is reversible since literally the evening when the deal was announced, and the claim was reiterated this week by President Barack Obama. Skeptics have in contrast emphasized the possibility that any weakening of the sanctions regime would trigger a feeding frenzy of companies and nations racing into Iran's economy in order to avoid being left behind, a scenario ridiculed as "fanciful" by administration-linked analysts. In addition to the worry that the administration misjudged the robustness of the sanctions regime, this week saw mounting evidence that the White House had also underestimated the magnitude of the sanctions relief it was committed to providing. Israel's left-leaning Haaretz recently revealed that American officials have admitted to their Israeli counterparts that Iran is set to receive a windfall more than double what administration figures had publicly estimated. CNN today described how Iran oil exports spiked by 10% in November.
- The White House today admitted to the Washington Free Beacon that an Iranian ballistic missile test would not put Tehran in violation of the recently signed Geneva agreement, reversing assurances given last week to the Pulitzer Prize winning site PolitiFact by a National Security Council (NSC) source. Those characterizations had the interim deal "ceas[ing] to exist" if Iran conducted a missile test. The controversy over the administration's interpretation took on added urgency this week, with Mehdi Farahi, Iran's Deputy Defense Minister and Head of Iran's Aerospace Organization General, announcing that Iranian scientists will test a ballistic rocket within a week. The NSA misstatements risk being read against a similar incident, in which the administration announced via a fact-sheet that "Iran has committed to no further advances of its activities at Arak and to halt progress on its plutonium track," only to back off that characterization after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif declared that that Iran would continue work on its Arak plutonium facility. The new admission comes amid statements from Iranian military officials boasting that Israel is within the reach of Tehran's missile arsenal and claiming that new laser technology had been installed to improve the accuracy of Iranian missiles to within 2 meters. It is now known that the administration's interpretation of the Geneva Joint Plan of Action allows Iran as to conduct unlimited uranium enrichment up to 3.5% purity, to bolster its plutonium production facility at Arak, and to test of ballistic missile technology that could be used to delivery nuclear weapons.
- Islamist forces this weekend overran key facilities which until then had been controlled by the more moderate Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), seizing warehouses containing U.S. military gear sent to the FSA and forcing the group's commander Gen. Salim Idris to flee the country. Buzzfeed had reported on Tuesday that Washington had abruptly suspended direct U.S. assistance to opposition-controlled areas northern Syria, due to what the outlet described as 'concerns over gains by Islamist rebels there.' The Wall Street Journal today reported out portions of the story, detailing some of the FSA's losses and revealing that Idris's headquarters were among the facilities seized by the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists. Idris is said to have fled to Doha via Turkey. The Journal bluntly described the incident as 'the strongest sign yet that the US-allied FSA is collapsing under the pressure of Islamist domination of the rebel side of the war.' Earlier this week the Daily Beast's Josh Rogin assessed that facts on the ground had already forced the Obama administration to "to reach out to the very Islamist groups it once hoped to marginalize."
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."
Brushing off White House pressure, bipartisan calls for new Iran sanctions emerge in both House and Senate
- Brushing off White House pressure, bipartisan calls for new Iran sanctions emerge in both House and Senate
- Hezbollah chief threatens Middle East war if no Iran nuke deal reached, while boasting that deal will embolden terror group
- Turkey asks for extension of NATO Patriot missiles, recommits to Chinese missile deal blasted by NATO
- U.S. Jewish groups shifting resources to new Israeli market index fund
What we’re watching today:
- Journalists today continued to report on the aftermath of Senate briefings conducted yesterday by top Obama administration officials including Secretary of State John Kerry, in which the White House pressured senators to hold off imposing new sanctions on Iran in the lead-up to talks scheduled for next week. The stance has generated consternation among analysts - inasmuch as the administration had in the past placed great emphasis on the argument that the Iranians were being forced to come to the table by financial pressure - and Foreign Policy Magazine's Executive Editor Noah Shachtman today described the Hill briefing as "a shitshow." Foreign Policy's longer write-up on the meeting noted that it succeeded "in solidifying [the] GOP" against the administration's stance. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) had already last night blasted a deal reportedly offered to Iran last weekend by the international community as a "Chamberlain"-style agreement, and revealed Israeli assessments that Iran's nuclear program would be set back "about 24 days." Today Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) piled on, rejecting the White House's stance that sanctions should not be increased. Meanwhile a bipartisan group of House representatives today called on Senate leaders to pass new sanctions. The letter, signed by 63 members, was authored by Representatives Peter Roskam (R-IL), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Michael McCaul (R-TX), and Grace Meng (D-NY). Roskam commented that "pressure brought Iran to the negotiating table, and continued strong pressure is critical to convince Iran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons."
- Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah yesterday threatened that there would be a Middle East war if there is no deal between "Iran and the countries of the world," while at the same time boasting that such a deal would embolden the Iran-backed terror group and that Hezbollah "will become stronger and with a better presence locally and regionally." Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted sardonically that Nasrallah sounded like he was reading from White House talking points, gesturing toward controversial remarks made by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney implying that U.S. lawmakers calling for new sanctions were maneuvering America into a "march to war." Nasrallah followed up those comments with new ones issued today in which he committed to staying in Syria until Hezbollah has secured victory for the Bashar al-Assad regime. The declaration is difficult to reconcile with recent complaints from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif regarding the presence of foreign fighters in Syria.
- Turkey is looking to finalize its purchase of Chinese anti-missile systems within six months, according to statements made today by Murad Bayar, the head of Ankara's under secretariat for defense industries. The deal would require Turkey to integrate the Chinese assets into its existing defense infrastructure, the result being - per Western defense officials - the equivalent of inserting a "virus" into NATO's command and control system. The controversy over the purchase comes as some nations are already said to be decreasing their intelligence cooperation with Ankara, after it was reported that the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had deliberately burned ten Iranians working with Israel's Mossad to uncover Iran's nuclear program. Last week Washington Institute fellow Soner Cagaptay described how Ankara is more broadly pivoting away and "has started to seek other allies, including Beijing." Nonetheless Turkey today asked NATO to extend the deployment of Patriot missiles along its border with Syria for another year. NATO is likely to accede to the request to maintain the batteries, which were deployed to contain spillover from the crisis in Syria. Egyptian outlet Al-Ahram today, echoing the consensus of analysts stretching back years, noted that Ankara "has been partly responsible for the crisis in Syria," having been one of the Bashar al-Assad regime's most significant international backers during the 2000s and then - after falling out with the regime - backing the relatively more extremist elements of the Syrian opposition.
- Major Jewish organizations are investing heavily in a recently launched index fund that tracks companies with a significant Israeli presence, prompting speculation that literally billions of dollars may - according to Steven Schoenfeld, the founder and CEO of the BlueStar Israel Global Index fund - "be brought into productive investment in Israel." BlueStar launched over the summer with the intention of leveraging the Israeli investment environment, which Schoenfeld described at the time as the "best of both worlds: the superior economic management of a developed market, but with emerging market growth characteristics." Four Jewish federations or affiliated foundations have now committed to the fund, together pledging $15 million. Total endowments held by Jewish federations, affiliated organizations, and Jewish family foundations however total roughly $65 billion, and Schoenfeld described ongoing discussions with "twice that many federations." Meanwhile the Jerusalem Post today published extensive analysis describing how underwater energy reserves off Israel's coast are positioning the Jewish state to "become a player in the big energy league" and significantly alter "the Middle East political kaleidoscope."
Senate source tells Reuters Iran deal will "neither freeze nor set back" Iran nuke program, predicts new Congressional sanctions
- Senate source tells Reuters Iran deal will "neither freeze nor set back" Iran nuke program, predicts new Congressional sanctions
- Analysts: Iranian nuclearization risks Saudi Arabia purchasing nuclear weapons from Pakistan
- Hezbollah lashes out at Kerry over calls for independent Lebanese government
- Arafat polonium conspiracy theories draw eye-rolls
What we’re watching today:
- Details continued to emerge throughout the day regarding the likely terms of an interim agreement between the international community and Iran over the latter's nuclear program, amid increasing skepticism from U.S. policymakers that the deal being worked out would substantially check the Islamic republic's ability to sneak across the nuclear finish line. Reports were published late in the day outlining a potential Geneva meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, which if it took place would almost certainly be in the context of an agreement. The Guardian today reported on statements from Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi indicating that such an agreement would, per the P5+1, be done based on "the framework of Iran's proposal." Meanwhile NBC News described Zarif as having 'reiterated... that Iran would never agree to completely suspend its nuclear program,' a gesture toward the Islamic republic's oft-repeated claim that the Non-Proliferation Treaty guarantees Tehran the right to enrich uranium. That claim is, as a legal matter, straightforwardly false, and several countries have built nuclear programs using imported uranium not enriched domestically. Analysts have more over emphasized that permitting Tehran to continue spinning centrifuges would provide the regime with the necessary ambiguity to go nuclear once a political decision to do so has been made. Last night Reuters quoted a senior U.S. Senate aid describing the Obama administration's likely offer to Iran, and explaining that the concessions being requested of Iran 'would "neither freeze nor set back" Iran's nuclear program.' The aid further predicted, per Reuters, that 'Senate would have to act immediately to impose further sanctions on Iran.'
- Analysts and diplomats are increasingly concerned that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, responding to what they perceive as Western willingness to leave Iran's nuclear program largely intact, may turn to Pakistan in order to purchase nuclear weapons off the shelf. Top global figures including President Barack Obama have been unequivocal that Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition would trigger a cascade of regional proliferation that would among other things shred global nonproliferation norms. The BBC reported yesterday that Saudi Arabia may be moving to counter Iran's progress toward building nuclear weapons by building its own arsenal with Pakistani help and assets. The piece cited a NATO official describing how "nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia [were] now sitting ready for delivery" and quoted Dr. Gary Samore, who until January 2013 was President Barack Obama's point man on counter-proliferation, to the effect that "the Saudis believe that they have some understanding with Pakistan that, in extremis, they would have claim to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan." On a conference call hosted today by The Israel Project, David Albright, president of the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), described the possibility that Pakistan may transfer nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia as a "legitimate concern."
- Hezbollah today lashed out against Secretary of State John Kerry, days after Kerry used a speech in Saudi Arabia to call for the formation of a Lebanese government that would be free to work "without Hezbollah intimidation." The Iran-backed terror group - which has drawn increasing domestic criticism for maintaining a state-within-a-state in Lebanon and for importing Syria's nearly three-year-old conflict into the country - rejected Kerry's comments as "blatant" foreign interference, which the group "rejected and condemned." Hezbollah's ideology, charter, and leadership are grounded in an absolute fidelity to Iran's supreme leader.
- Several media outlets today gave prominent coverage to the release of a 108-page report by the University Centre of Legal Medicine evaluating claims that former Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat had been poisoned by polonium. The report was described by some Western outlets as concluding that Arafat was "probably poisoned with polonium." Many observers expressed skepticism, inasmuch as there are scientifically zero plausible scenarios under which forensic specialists analyzing Arafat's remains last year could have detected polonium poisoning from 2004, when the Palestinian leader died. Dan Kaszeta - a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) veteran analyst - described the report as having "many caveats" and leaving "much room for doubt." Responding to critics who didn't seem to understand why the half-life of radioactive polonium made it impossible to detect abnormal levels which may have existed in 2004, Kaszeta reminded Twitter readers that the laws of physics applied just the same in the compound where Arafat was then holed up. Nature.com, which publishes the renowned international journal of science that goes by the same name, headlined its coverage of the report with the line "no firm proof Arafat was poisoned." The outlet noted that "the evidence offers no firm conclusions" and cited University of Surrey nuclear physicist Patrick Regan assessing that 'there is certainly no smoking gun in the report.' The Swiss medical report been pursued and published by Al Jazeera, which on Twitter punctuated its posts on the topic with the hashtag "#KillingArafat."
- White House decision to reduce Egypt assistance blasted by Middle East allies, Congress
- Top Lebanon leader: Hezbollah trying to spark "another front with Israel" by generating maritime drilling crisis
- Iran dissident group: Iran moving nuke infrastructure to secure locations
Iran telecom chief doubles down on social media ban, after Foreign Minister laughs off hypocrisy charges
What we’re watching today:
- White House officials announced Wednesday night that the Obama administration will substantially curtail assistance to Egypt - among other things by withholding delivery on high-priority military items such as F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, M1 tanks, and Harpoon missiles - but that they aspired, according to the Washington Post, "to maintain a robust military and diplomatic partnership with Egypt." Analysts and diplomats are divided on the degree to which Washington would be able to limit be able to contain the political and diplomatic fallout from the decision, which CNN described as "a dramatic shift toward a major Arab ally." The Wall Street Journal described frustration and anger across the Arab world, both within Egypt - where officials noted that the U.S.'s critical, preferential access to the Suez Canal may have to be "adjusted" - and more broadly among the U.S.'s Arab allies. A diplomat "from an Arab country closely allied with Washington" was described a new regional reality in which "more and more voices which say America is no longer someone you can rely on, or someone who really counts in the Middle East." Arab concerns that the U.S. was endangering its relationship with a critical ally, and that Washington was more generally withdrawing from the Middle East, were echoed by Israeli officials. The New York Times quoted one official as worrying that the move will be seen "as the United States dropping a friend." The National Journal chronicled a range of broad, bipartisan anger in the United States under the headline "Congress slams Obama team on Egypt aid decision." Washington Institute fellow and Egypt expert Eric Trager described the decision, which came after months of White House discomfort at the Egyptian army's move to remove the country's former Muslim Brotherhood-linked president Mohammed Morsi from power, as based on "a fundamental misunderstanding of what transpired in Egypt this past summer."
- A top Lebanese leader today slammed Hezbollah for trying to create "another front with Israel" by escalating tensions revolving around underwater energy resources near the country's coast. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea blasted the Iran-backed terror group for using the "oil portfolio... to give a legal justification to the existence of [its] illegal weapons." Caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, a politician from the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement, has pushed to allow energy companies to bid on exploring contested maritime 'blocks' near the Israeli-Lebanese border. The move is a de facto claim of sovereignty over the contested territory, and - per the Israeli daily financial newspaper Globes - "international law experts say that Israeli is liable to lose territory if it does not object to the Lebanese acts in court, or even militarily." Observers in Lebanon fear that Hezbollah is seeking to provoke a violent confrontation with Israel so as to restore its brand as a "resistance" organization battling the Jewish state. That image of Hezbollah - which was echoed for decades by Tehran and in certain corners of the Western foreign policy community - has been shattered by the group's fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Hezbollah seems to be setting up a narrative, in the context of off-shore drilling, that would allow it to claim it is defending Lebanese territory against the Jewish state's intrusions. Today it warned that Lebanon's oil and gas sector was "becoming vulnerable to Israeli piracy" by the "deliberate obstruction of issuing licenses."
- An Iranian dissident group is accusing Tehran of moving nuclear infrastructure to new facilities in order to avoid detection, just days before Tehran is scheduled to meet with Western powers in a bid to resolve a decades-long crisis over the opacity of its nuclear program. The Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which Reuters describes as having "exposed Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water [plutonium] facility at Arak," said that infrastructure from a nuclear weaponization research and planning center that it dubs SPND are being moved to nearby defense ministry complex. The accusation will refocus attention on what both the American intelligence community and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog believe to be perhaps more than a dozen undisclosed nuclear facilities scattered around Iran. The amount and sophistication of centrifuges at Tehran's disposal are critical variables in debates over what concessions Iran must make in order to meet the half-dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions calling on the country to verifiably halt its nuclear weapons program. U.S. lawmakers and analysts have called on Iran to among other things halt all uranium enrichment and plutonium-related activity, and to export all enriched material oversees. Iran is expected to arrive at the upcoming October 15 talks in Geneva with a basket of concessions that would allow the regime to continue enriching material up to 3.5%, and to remove known material already enriched to 20% from the country. Analysts have consistently outlined, however, that permitting Iran to retain 3.5% enriched material would still allow it to dash across the nuclear finish line. These scenarios would require Iran to use only existing, known facilities. That Iran is broadly suspected of possessing additional unknown facilities further complicates any deal that would allow Tehran to retain any enriched material or enrichment capacity. Top State Department officials have repeatedly said in the context of Iran negotiations that "no deal is better than a bad deal."
- AFP reports that Iran's Telecommunications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi rejected this week "any official plans to legalise Facebook and Twitter," and - when asked why some Iranian officials maintain accounts on the social media networks - tersely responded that "you should ask them." Vaezi's statement came just weeks after what Iranian authorities described as a technical "glitch" briefly gave Iranian citizens access to banned sites, and which was hailed by Western journalists as potentially "the start of a more tolerant attitude towards social media by the government" and "Iran’s Berlin Wall of internet censorship crumbling down." The ban was reimposed within a day. Last month Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif – who maintains a verified Twitter account as well as a Facebook page – laughed off David Keyes, executive director of Advancing Human Rights, when Keyes pushed him on whether he thought it was ironic that he enjoys posting on Facebook while his government bans the website in Iran. Writing in the Daily Beast, Keyes describes Zarif as responding "Ha! Ha!... That’s life."
- WSJ reveals Iran negotiation offer that falls well short of clear U.S. demands
- Amid broad criticism of Egypt aid cut-off, White House scrambles to deny report it is zeroing out assistance
- Turkey PM and FM meet for three hours with top Hamas figures, including West Bank terror chief
- Iran FM claims fabricated quotes from hardliners put him in the hospital
What we’re watching today:
- The Wall Street Journal reports that Iran is preparing a package of proposals that it will offer the West at upcoming talks that falls short of demands explicitly laid out by the White House and the State Department in recent weeks. The Iranian offer will reportedly offer, among other concessions, to remove 20% enriched uranium from the country's borders while continuing to enrich to 3.5% purity. Regarding ongoing enrichment, National Security Adviser Susan Rice had been explicit that the administration would not accept any deal under which Iran would be allowed to "enrich its own uranium." Moreover, Iran's demand that it continue to possess 3.5% enriched uranium would leave the regime with the option of dashing across the nuclear finish line before the West could intervene; because of advanced enrichment technology that Iran has installed in recent years, Iranian scientists can enrich to weapons-grade levels starting from 3.5% in the same time it once would have taken to enrich from 20%. Instead, U.S. lawmakers have consistently insisted that Iran must fulfill its obligations to the international community to fully dismantle its nuclear program - requirements codified in half a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions - before sanctions are diluted. Meeting those obligations would require Iran to export all enriched material out the country, cease uranium enrichment and plutonium-related activity, and boost transparency around suspected weaponization work. Top State Department figures, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will opt for no deal rather than a bad deal with Iran.
- The White House last night scrambled to deny reports aired on CNN asserting that the administration was moving toward zeroing out military aid toward Egypt. As they did last month when the same policy suggestion was floated, analysts questioned the logic behind such a decision. An August New York Times article had already outlined critical ways in which the U.S. leverages U.S.-Egyptian ties, including by gaining "near-automatic approval for military overflights" and being allowed "to cut to the front of the line through the Suez Canal in times of crisis." Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Steven Cook noted last night that cutting aid would not "make Egypt more democratic and less violent," while Robert Satloff - the executive director of the Washington Institute - described a cut-off as a "terrible mistake" that would confirm perceptions that the U.S. was pro-Muslim Brotherhood. Satloff's worry echoed increasing fears in the region that the U.S. is distancing itself from a solidifying Israeli/Arab bloc made up of the U.S.'s Mediterranean and Gulf allies, which aligned opposite to two other emerging Middle East camps: a Shiite one led by Iran and a Sunni extremist one that includes the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy recently worried that relations between Cairo and Washington had grown "troubled." Saudi Arabia this week reaffirmed its support for Cairo's army-backed interim government.
- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met yesterday with top officials drawn from what Hamas describes as its political and military operations, with a Hamas statement confirming the attendance of among others Khaled Mashaal and Ankara-based Saleh al-Arouri. The Doha-based Mashaal and Ankara-based Arouri are respectively the terror group's political bureau head and the founder of Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, its armed wing, in the West Bank. The three-hour session included other top Turkish figures, including Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. U.S.-based analysts and counterterror specialists read the meeting against a percipitous decline in Mashaal's standing within Hamas, and more specifically against rumors that he might be seeking to relocate to Ankara. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, suggested that giving Mashaal shelter would be "particularly risky" for Turkey, given that it is already under scrutiny for allowing Arouri to operate on Turkish soil even as the Hamas figure is suspected of orchestrating a Hamas terror resurgence in the West Bank. The freedom that Turkey permits Arouri may, according to Schanzer, qualify Ankara as a state sponsor of terrorism.
- Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif briefly checked himself into a hospital yesterday, citing physical pain caused by what he insists were fabricated statements - attributed to him by a hardline Iranian newspaper - in which Zarif was quoted walking back diplomatic overtures to the U.S. made by himself and by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Specifically, Zarif was quoted by the Kayhan daily describing two moves - a phone call between Rouhani and President Barack Obama as well as a meeting between Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry - as "missteps." Untangling what exactly happened is difficult. Rouhani's phone call was criticized by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as "not appropriate," and Zarif may have been forced into a humiliating apology, which he subsequently denied. It would not be the first time since Rouhani's election that Iranian officials have engaged in a two-step regarding Western engagement, reaping the global publicity benefits of seeming moderate while acting and talking differently inside Iran. Western media outlets have in recent weeks optimistically conveyed: a post from a Twitter account linked to Rouhani wishing Jews a happy New Year, the temporary lifting of Internet restrictions on Iranian citizens, and an offer by Iran to close its underground enrichment military bunker at Fordow. Each of those was quickly walked back. Rouhani's office denied he was linked to the tweet, Internet restrictions were quickly reimposed, and the offer regarding Fordow was officially quashed. Zarif's outreach and denial may belong on this list. Alternatively, the quotes attributed to Zarif may indeed have been completely fabricated by the hardline Iranian newspaper. In that case, it's difficult to see how Zarif is going to stand up to the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) when antics by newspapers give him the vapors. The head of the IRGC said Monday that Rouhani should have refused to take the September phone call from Obama.
Iranian FM doubles down on "absolute right" to enrich uranium, walks back diplomatic outreach to U.S. because of Khamenei criticism
- Iranian FM doubles down on "absolute right" to enrich uranium, walks back diplomatic outreach to U.S. because of Khamenei criticism
- Hamas in political disarray as pro-Iran figure seeks to oust political bureau head
- Israeli Home Front Defense Minister: Hezbollah has "over 200,000 missiles capable of hitting any house in Israel"
- North Korea saber-rattling underscores concerns over Iran diplomatic strategy
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday doubled down on what Tehran is calling its "absolute right" to enrich uranium, potentially putting Iran on a collision course with U.S. diplomats as the two sides prepare for next week's multilateral P5+1 nuclear talks in Geneva. National Security Adviser Susan Rice had already said last week that the administration would not accept any deal that permitted Iran to continue enriching uranium, and the State Department subsequently stated multiple times that it considers no deal better than a deal that falls short of U.S. demands. Zarif this week also walked back diplomatic steps that had been taken in New York between Iranian figures and their U.S. counterparts. More specifically, Zarif had met with Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had spoken on the phone with President Barack Obama. The overtures were criticized by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and Zarif declared - explicitly on the basis of those criticisms - that he and Rouhani had exceeded their mandate for diplomacy. The admission is likely to deepen fears that Rouhani may have overstated the case when he told NBC News in a September interview that he had "complete authority" from Khamenei to conduct diplomacy with the West. The Supreme Leader controls Iran's nuclear policy, and has clarified that whatever authority he has given Rouhani to negotiate, it does not include anything that would impede the "advancement and realization of the Islamic Revolution and System."
- Top Hamas officials are expressing deep dissatisfaction with Khaled Meshaal, the head of the terror group's political bureau, for bungling the group's relationship with Iran and for thereby contributing to the worst crisis the organization has faced in decades. Veteran Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar yesterday night published remarkable quotes from Hamas figures blasting Meshaal for living in Qatar rather than in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, a proxy for overall dissatisfaction with his leadership. Recent years had seen the solidification of three regional camps: a Sunni extremist bloc made up of the Muslim Brotherhood/Turkey/Qatar, an Israel-Arab bloc aligned with the United States, and an Iran-led Shiite bloc that included Syria and Hezbollah. Meshaal had sought to align Hamas with the Sunni extremist camp, a gamble that failed to pay off as the Muslim Brotherhood collpased in Egypt and Qatar's regional position weakened. Inside Gaza a rival camp has emerged led by Mahmoud al-Zahar, who is pro-Iran to such a degree that he had already become persona non grata in Egypt before the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power. It is unclear whether even reconciliation with Iran - which is already underway - can quickly restore Hamas's stature. Analysis published today by Orit Perlov, a research fellow at the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies, puts the group on the brink of all-out collapse. Perlov's analysis echoes that of Washington Institute Fellow Ehud Yaari, who in July argued that diplomatic missteps and economic dislocation had triggered "one of its most testing crises ever" for Hamas. Officials from the group have themselves been forced to acknowledge that "the situation is not good and of course we are under pressure." Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has called on U.S. policymakers to deliver a deathblow to the now-weakened terror group.
- Hezbollah reportedly has more than "200,000 missiles capable of hitting any house in Israel," according to statements made on Tuesday by the country's Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan. Speaking at a conference at Bar-Ilan University, Erdan sketched out a "worst-case scenario" under which Hezbollah would saturation bomb Israel's densely packed population centers with "thousands of rockets that could last three weeks." Matthew Levitt, the director of the Washington Institute's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, noted that Erdan's 200,000 figure - if confirmed - would constitute "a sharp increase" over assets Hezbollah had previously been thought to possess. Erdan's statements came just days after a Lebanese report suggested that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime had successfully transferred to Hezbollah long-range weapons capable of carrying chemical warheads. Khaled Zaher, of the anti-Hezbollah movement Future, told a Saudi newspaper that a significant number of such missiles been transferred from Syria to Lebanon with the assistance of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
- North Korea announced today that it was placing its military on high alert, warning the United States of "disastrous consequences" and an "unexpected horrible disaster" after the U.S. moved naval assets, including an aircraft carrier, into a South Korean port. The vessels are in the area for a trilateral search and rescue drill with the South Korea and Japanese navies. Pyongyang's regional posture and its nuclear program have received renewed attention in recent weeks, with analysts highlighting similarities between Iran's current diplomatic strategy and the playbook that North Korea used to stall for time while it dashed across the nuclear finish line. Yesterday Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, extensively documented the parallels, noting that "[n]ot only does North Korea offer terror-sponsoring Iran a model of how to get away with going nuclear, but the two have plenty of direct dealings." Iran has extensively funded North Korea's military program, to the point where the Washington Post suggested last March that Pyongyang may have used Iranian materials for a nuclear bomb it detonated in February. Ties between the two rogue regimes go beyond military cooperation, and a recent meeting of labor ministers from the two countries sought to deepen their alliance across the board.
- Reuters: "antagonistic" Rouhani speech does little to reassure wary U.S. lawmakers
- WSJ: declined handshake, "diplomatic humiliation" by Rouhani signal Iranian contempt
- Egypt deepens efforts to "decapitate" Muslim Brotherhood leadership structure, shutters Brotherhood newspaper
- Bahrain blasts Hezbollah leader as "criminal whose hands are stained by the blood"
What we’re watching today:
- Reuters reports that U.S. lawmakers who evaluated last night's speech by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani - a speech panned by analysts and journalists as "defiant" and "angry" - are what the outlet describes as "skeptical" about the prospects for Iranian moderation. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez is specifically quoted as being "disappointed by the overwhelmingly antagonistic rhetoric that characterized [Rouhani's] remarks." On the House side, Reps. Ed Royce and Eliot Engel, respectively the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times noting that "neither [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif nor Rouhani has shown a willingness to commit to a freeze in Iran's nuclear program," and urging that the U.S. "make clear that, absent a concrete, comprehensive deal, Iran's economy will continue to suffer" from sanctions. The points echo consistent calls from both sides of the aisle, and in both the House and Senate, for meaningful and verifiable concessions from Iran. Lawmakers have stressed that Iran will be expected to - per previous statements by Engel - "give up its nuclear program, give up its enrichment, give up its weapons-making capability." Meeting those obligations will require Tehran to stop all existing uranium enrichment and plutonium-related heavy water activity, halt the installation of new uranium and plutonium-related technology, remove its stockpile of enriched uranium from Iran, and open up the country's Parchin military facility – where it is widely believed Iran carried out work related to developing nuclear warheads – to inspectors.
- An anticipated handshake between President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani - which the White House had been open to and which had generated high expectations among some foreign policy observers - failed to take place Tuesday after a meeting between the two leaders was reportedly quashed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. TIME suggested that a handshake between Obama and Rouhani could "shake the world," while Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, commented dryly about the excitement being expressed on CNN. Rouhani's snub was one of three described this morning by the New York Post, alongside failing to attend Obama's Tuesday morning speech and forgoing a luncheon hosted by the U.S. president. The Wall Street Journal was even more blunt, describing the declined handshake as "among the most telling" of "diplomatic humiliations," and more to the point as "an expression of lordly contempt for what Iranian leaders consider to be an overeager suitor from an unworthy nation."
- Egypt on Wednesday shut down the Cairo offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's main newspaper, deepening what analysts are describing as a decapitation campaign to uproot the Islamist organization's infrastructure and influence in the country. Recent days have also seen the group's activities banned and asset freezes against its top leaders extended. The Brotherhood, which is rigidly hierarchical and led by a vanguard at the top, is particularly vulnerable to moves targeting its leadership. Washington Institute fellow Eric Trager this week outlined three different scenarios that might unfold in Egypt in the wake of the government's campaign. Trager suggests that Brotherhood members could look to exiled leaders for guidance, or they could participate electorally as independents, or they could turn to other Islamist movements. Under all three scenarios the Brotherhood as a coherent organization operating inside Egypt's borders would have collapsed.
- Bahrain’s top diplomat on Tuesday slammed Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah, with foreign minister Khalid al-Khalifa describing the leader of the Iran-backed Lebanese terror group as a "criminal whose hands are stained by the blood of innocents in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq." Hezbollah has been critical in assisting Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime extend that country's war, which has seen over 100,000 people killed and hundreds of people gassed to death, and the group has been blasted by Lebanese officials for dragging Lebanon into the conflict. Gulf nations have long blamed Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons for interfering in their internal affairs and for fomenting instability across the region. Hezbollah has responded, criticizing Bahrain's government for its treatment of opposition Shiites and - more recently - very pointedly warning Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom should reconsider its backing for rebels fighting the Assad regime.