UN demand for detonator information shifts focus to Iranian foot-dragging on transparency obligations
- UN demand for detonator information shifts focus to Iranian foot-dragging on transparency obligations
Officials from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear watchdog disclosed on Friday that they had demanded more information from Iranian officials regarding tests on detonators - specifically, on Exploding Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators - suspected of having been conducted with the aim of creating nuclear warheads, the latest development in an emerging controversy over Tehran's willingness to disclose a range of widely suspected "possible military dimensions" (PMD). The Islamic republic is obligated to provide transparency into PMD-related activities by United Nations Security Council resolution 1929, and non-compliance with those obligations has been cited by U.S. lawmakers as a central justification for maintaining pressure on Tehran. President Barack Obama had as early as 2009 declared that Iran would have to "come clean" in disclosing all past nuclear activities, language that was explicitly echoed by Secretary of State John Kerry on the eve of announcing the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA), under which Iran received sanctions relief in exchange for slowing down its nuclear progress. The JPA however did not include any requirement that Iran meet its PMD obligations, and was criticized on precisely that account by among others Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff and by Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittrie, respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a senior fellow at the foundation.. Top administration officials pushed back by insisting that the JPA had only been meant to facilitate negotiations, and that Iran would be forced to meet its PMD obligations in the context of a final agreement. Observers have become increasingly concerned in recent weeks that a range of Iranian moves appear aimed at delaying discussion of PMD activities until after most other issues have been resolved, at which point Iranian negotiators would refuse to meet their transparency obligations and functionally dare the West to scuttle an emerging deal over what they would characterize as past work. There are now suggestions floating in corners of the foreign policy community "that in the enthusiasm for a comprehensive agreement, the P5+1 could ignore the PMD aspect if all other conditions are met... if Iran’s break-out capability is indefinitely delayed and the technology available to it is severely limited, in addition to greater transparency and IAEA access to its facilities, the PMD question may not have to be directly dealt with at all." Analysts nonetheless have been emphatic that the success of any deal, and especially any agreement that would lean heavily on verification mechanisms, would require extensive disclosure in the context of untangling the Iranian military from the country's atomic program. Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh explained months ago that "[w]ithout insight into the full extent of Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities, no amount of monitoring and inspection can provide true confidence that Iran lacks a parallel program beyond inspectors' view."
Reuters on Friday published a wide-ranging analysis - headlined "Egypt's [Abdel-Fattah El-]Sisi turns Islam on the Islamists" - documenting a range of moves and statements being made by the country's presumptive next president suggesting that while Sisi "may turn out to be the most outwardly pious of any of the military men to have governed Egypt since the republic" he does not seem likely to "inject more Islam into the government" and is instead positioning himself as "a religious reformer." The wire assessed that the former defense minister's near-certain victory in upcoming presidential elections "could bring a sustained effort to reinforce state-backed, apolitical Islam, providing clerical cover for destroying his Islamist foes." Reuters pointedly noted consistent statements from Sisi flat-out rejecting the concept of a "religious state" and blasting "religious discourse" for preventing Egyptian growth. His first televised interview as a candidate saw him bemoaning the degree to which "hardline religious rhetoric" had undercut Egypt's critical tourism sector. Commenting on that interview - and evaluating other statements that Sisi made about the Brotherhood - the insidery security bulletin KGS Nightwatch had tersely evaluated that "outside interests that advocate on behalf of the Brotherhood are out of step with the political turn Egypt has taken." The Associated Press (AP) reported Thursday that the Obama administration had formally picked Ambassador Stephen Beecroft to take the helm at the U.S.'s Cairo embassy, which has had a vacancy at the ambassador level for nine months. The AP described the declaration as "a routine but necessary step [by the White House] toward smoothing its stormy relationship with Cairo." The Obama administration had steadily degraded bilateral ties after the Egyptian army - led at the time by Sisi - last summer overthrew Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi.
Turkish officials throughout the week and into Friday scrambled to respond to last week's "Freedom of the Press" report - published annually by the Washington-based Freedom House watchdog group - which had downgraded Turkey from "Partly Free" to "Not Free" and had explained that "constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and expression are only partially upheld in practice, undermined by restrictive provisions in the criminal code and the Anti-Terrorism Act." The report also noted that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of Dec. 1." Responding to the ensuing controversy, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared on Friday that the report was "an insult" and that the real problem was that journalists remain uninformed about Turkey. Davutoglu had previously declared that Turkey was in fact more free than even "Partly Free" countries, part of a statement in which he emphasized that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) expected Turkish journalists "to reject" the Freedom House report. Ankara has had trouble settling on talking points describing its jailing of journalists in general, and more specifically on the number of journalists that the Turks are willing to admit are behind bars. Davutoglu's Friday statements insisted that "there are only five imprisoned journalists with press cards," opposite a list of 44. Responding to the same list, a statement released by Turkey's Justice Ministry earlier this week had held that only 29 journalists were in jail. Government officials had in April cited a statement from the the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) - one that CPJ insists Ankara invented out of thin air - pegging the number at 15.
Firefights between Yemeni army forces and Al Qaeda fighters killed at least seven people on Friday in the country's capital of Sana'a, as violence spread to Yemen's presidential palace on the same day as an assassination attempt almost claimed the life of its defense minister, Major General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad. Reuters described Sana'a as being "in lockdown" in the aftermath of the violence - checkpoints were erected across all of the city's main entrances - and assessed that the attack on Ahmad was done "in apparent reprisal for the army's biggest push against militants in nearly two years." Recent days had seen Yemeni troops storm a major compound operated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a key goal in the ongoing military campaign. Fears of reprisals to the offensive had led the United States to suspend operations at its Sana'a embassy, and the missions of other Western countries at least limited their operations. Yemeni officials have struggled to put down at least two insurgencies, one in the country's south driven by AQAP and another involving Shiite secessionists stationed largely out of the north. The central government and Western officials have linked Iran to both. Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in late March blasted Tehran for providing assistance to Shiite separatists, after security officials captured a weapons-filled boat bound for the Sunni country loaded with Katyusha rockets, anti-aircraft missiles, RPG launchers and Iranian-made night-vision goggles. Links between Iran and AQAP, meanwhile, have been publicly known for years. Suspicions grounded in a now-notorious cable from bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, thanking Iran for its "vision" in infiltrating Yemen, were subsequently deepened in 2009 when reports emerged that Zawahiri had a channel to Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Gulf leaders have since at least 2012 been open in condemning a range of Iranian efforts they insist are aimed at destabilizing Arab states. Wikileaks cables published years ago had already disclosed that the Saudis urged the U.S. in 2008 to launch attacks against Iranian nuclear infrastructure, and in July 2010 the UAE's ambassador to Washington publicly made the case that "a cost-benefit analysis" argued in favor of military action against Iran.
- Syrian opposition head arrives in Washington asking for aid, as strategic city falls to regime forces
- US and EU lawmakers weigh aid cuts to Palestinian Authority after unity deal, evidence of endemic corruption
National Security Adviser Susan Rice arrived in Israel on Wednesday for consultations with top Israeli security and political figures, a day after the White House clarified that the planned discussions would focus significantly on negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 global powers over the former's atomic program. The White House had also emphasized that those consultations - per language used by Reuters - would not actually yield "any new developments on that front." The Jerusalem Post suggested that Rice's trip comes as Washington is preparing for what the outlet described as an "Israeli backlash" to a range of concessions that the Obama administration is rumored to be contemplating. The Israelis have among other things dismissed an Iranian proposal - which top figures from Tehran's atomic program have been hyping as a promising development in the talks - that would see the Iranians rejecting a long-standing Western demand that they dismantle or at a minimum downgrade the heavy water reactor being constructed at the country's Arak facility. The current IR-40 reactor will be able to produce at least one bomb's worth of plutonium per year, and once activated is functionally impossible to destroy. The Iranians have rejected any possibility of meeting their international obligations - codified in United Nations Security Council Resolutions - to halt construction at Arak and keep the reactor offline. They have also drawn a red line against modifying it into a more proliferation-resistant light water model. Instead they are offering to run the reactor at less than full capacity, a compromise that Israeli Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz pointed out would leave Tehran steadily stockpiling plutonium that could eventually be used to construct a nuclear weapon, albeit at a slightly slower pace. Negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran are set to meet next week in Vienna. State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on Tuesday that Obama administration officials "feel like we can start drafting and... like we can get [a comprehensive deal] done by July 20."
Syrian rebel groups on Wednesday began clearing out of the strategic city of Homs under a deal that the Washington Postdescribed as "loaded with poignancy for the opposition," with hundreds of fighters allowed to carry only a single weapon as they boarded buses conveying them to the countryside. The city is considered one of the "cradle[s]" of the now three year old uprising. Its central location in Syria - it lies along the country's main highway linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast - led Agence France-Presse (AFP) to characterize the rebel withdrawal as a "strategic prize" for Assad. Bloomberg News contextualized the events alongside renewed calls for Western military assistance to rebel elements, opening its write-up by noting that "[w]hile U.S.-backed Syrian opposition leaders in Washington are lobbying for better weapons, the Syrian government has forced rebels to abandon the city of Homs." Rebel chief Ahmad Jarba announced Tuesday night that he would specifically request anti-aircraft missiles to counter what seems to be a deliberate move by Syrian forces to heighten the use of barrel bombs against rebel-heavy areas. The use of the shrapnel-packed helicopter-deployed IEDs has been criticized as a war crime by Western leaders, but the rebels have not been able to field a battlefield answer to the Syrian Air Force. The New York Times noted that Jarba's call came as Assad "appears to have gained the upper hand in the civil war and President Obama has continued to express wariness about becoming more deeply involved." Al-Hayat Washington Bureau Chief Joyce Karam on Wednesday conveyed statements from Syrian opposition groups noting that "Assad is still receiving arms from Iran via Iraq[i] airspace." The Obama administration this week announced that it was recognizing the main opposition group's office as a diplomatic foreign mission and increasing its non-lethal assistance by $27 million.
Voice of America (VOA) on Wednesday conveyed statements from Edward Kallon, the U.N.'s resident humanitarian coordinator for Jordan, calling on the international community to boost its support for the Hashemite kingdom in order to forestall a potential domestic backlash against the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees that have flooded into the country over the last three years. Kallon assessed that those refugees will be in Jordan over at least the medium term, and that "we should try to enhance social cohesion rather than creating sensitivities that result in resentment, which is not going to help our total humanitarian effort." Only about one quarter of a U.N. appeal for $4.2 billion - all to be delivered in 2014 - has been fulfilled. The United States for its part earlier sealed an agreement this week to extend loan guarantees to Amman that the State Department insisted would "allow Jordan to access affordable financing from international capital markets, ensuring that Jordan can continue to provide critical services to its citizens." Observers had feared in early 2013 that the country was entering a cycle of instability - where a poor economy drove unrest, and unrest prevented economic fixes from taking hold - but angry demonstrations had eventually tapered off. Recent months have however seen a spike in tensions, and last week there was a wave of violence in southern Jordan that included the death of a civilian apparently at the hands of security forces.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) on Wednesday told the Jerusalem Post that existing U.S. law is sufficient to curtail assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) should a government emerge drawing ministers from both the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, as reportedly envisioned by a recently-announced unity agreement between the two groups. U.S. Legislation stretching back to 2006 is explicit that any government that includes Hamas is ineligible for U.S. funds, and news of the Fatah-Hamas agreement was quickly described by Al Monitor as potentially the "last straw for Congress on U.S. aid to [the] Palestinians." The House will hold hearings Thursday to examine the status of the deal and evaluate its likely consequences. The debate on the Hill comes as the European Union is moving forward on its own investigation into what seems to be endemic Palestinian corruption and mismanagement of E.U. funds. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) on Tuesday rounded up developments that have emerged since last December, when the European Court of Auditors found that some of the billions of Euros given to the Palestinians since the mid-1990s had been allocated in ways that violated restrictions and conditions on that assistance. The JTA indicated that "a lingering corruption problem that has plagued the [PA] since it was formed under Yasser Arafat" has now become the target of "an unprecedented degree of scrutiny" from E.U. officials. The piece quoted Arab politics expert Guy Bechor explaining that "until now, EU aid was unconditional... [but] for the first time, we are seeing serious moves for conditionality and transparency." The Palestinian economy would collapse in the absence of significant outside assistance.
- News leaks: Palestinian unity agreement will install Hamas within PLO, allow terror group to keep munitions
- Reports: Palestinian negotiators repeatedly rejected Israeli efforts to craft compromise peace process language
The State Department on Wednesday published [PDF] its annual country-by-country terrorism roundup, a 318-page document that veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matt Lee nonetheless described as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful." The report described Iran as funding both Sunni and Shiite fighters, both across the region and globally. Specific sections of the report took harsh tones not often found in diplomatic assessments, at one point emphasizing that "[d]espite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups." Another paragraph blasted Iran for facilitating the movement of Al Qaeda members across the Middle East, describing the operations of a "core facilitation pipeline through Iran" that "enabl[ed] AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and also to Syria." The final allegation has sometimes been controversial in the intelligence community. Iran has been unequivocal in its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a point of underlining Tehran's commitment to the Assad regime in the immediate aftermath of his election - and some analysts and diplomats doubted that the Iranians would also allow Sunni jihadists battling the regime to transit through Iranian territory. Other observers emphasized that Iran had every interest in using both Shiite and Sunni fighters to crowd out the moderate opposition facing Assad, which would allow Damascus to characterize the country's bloody war as an anti-terror struggle. The Treasury Department last February announced that it had evidence that - per Lebanon's Daily Star- "Iran is assisting key Al-Qaeda figures to transfer Sunni fighters into Syria." The State Department report's broad criticism of Iran came up during Thursday's daily State Department press briefing, with a journalist telling Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf that "Iran was not pleased about being kept on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism" and noting "[t]hey reacted quite angrily this morning to it." Harf responded that if the Iranians did not want to be listed as state sponsors of terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism."
Al-Monitor on Wednesday published a translated English-language version of an article by Gaza-based Palestinian journalist Hazem Balousha, in which Balousha revealed a range of previously unknown details regarding a recent unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, including news that Hamas had secured a commitment enabling its personnel to take up posts inside the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO is one of the parties with which Israel officially conducts peace negotiations, and is - in theory - bound to core obligations including the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel. Top Hamas figures have in recent days been unequivocal in emphasizing that any unity deal would see them maintaining their commitment to the eradication of the Jewish state. Balousha noted in Al-Monitor that Hamas's demand for a voice inside the body "had long been an obstacle to the implementation of all the previous agreements" but that "Abbas has seemingly made a concession" on the issue, with Hamas - in return - agreeing to yield any significant participation in the near-term Palestinian government that would guide the West Bank and Gaza Strip toward elections. Another aspect of the agreement would reportedly allow Hamas to "keep controlling the security forces in Gaza without any change or amendment," establishing a situation in which the terror group was allowed access to Palestinian institutions long backed by the West without having to yield - for instance - what are suspected to be tens of thousands of Iranian-supplied missiles and rockets. If confirmed, the description of the unity agreement is likely to reinforce growing analyst concerns that the unity deal amounts to a life-line thrown to the otherwise spiraling Hamas by the Western-backed Fatah faction.
The Times of Israel on Wednesday conveyed leaks from Israeli negotiators revealing that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had repeatedly rebuffed a series of Israeli proposals aimed at bridging the gaps regarding Jerusalem's long-standing condition that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state," describing the Palestinian leader and his negotiators as being "adamant in refusing to consider" a range of wordings that "would have described the Jewish people's and the Palestinian people's right to self-determination in precisely equivalent terms, and would have also included phrases to guarantee the rights of Israel’s Arab minority." The Times of Israel went on to describe the Israeli formula as one in which "both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people [would] mutually recognize each other's rights to sovereignty in the framework of an agreement that would end all remaining claims," noting that there would be a clause that "explicitly state[d] that a recognition of the Jewish state does not in any way impact on the status of non-Jewish Israelis, and does not coerce the Palestinians into accepting Israel’s historical narrative." The story, which is likely to deepen skepticism regarding Abbas's willingness to seal a comprehensive peace agreement, aligns with months of previous reporting. Abbas had been explicit in late March that he opposed "even holding a discussion" on Israel's demand, which was and is considered a proxy for the Palestinians' willingness to genuinely renounce claims against the Jewish state. The Palestinian leader had publicly underlined his stance as recently as April 26th, bluntly telling the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council that Palestinian negotiators would never acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. Agence France-Presse (AFP) secured a quote about Abbas's speech from Bassem Naim, an adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Naim told the wire that "[t]he speech had mostly positive points, and we cannot but support it on topics such as Jerusalem, reconciliation and not recognizing (Israel as) the Jewish state, in addition to the failure of (peace) negotiations."
Turkey has fallen into the "not free" category of countries ranked by Freedom House's annual "Freedom of the Press" survey, with the NGO watchdog citing a steady decline in how Ankara treats journalists - the "largest numerical change" in the region - while noting that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of December 1." The country has maintained its status as the world's top jailer of journalists for several years, and journalists who are not behind bars have been expelled from the country for criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party. A wave of expulsions last February took place amid a broader crackdown on free speech, triggering fears that a systematic sweep was underway. Multiple Turkish outlets covered the news revolving around Freedom House's ranking. Hurriyet Daily News wrote up its story under the headline "Turkey no longer even 'partly free,' according to press freedom report," and specifically cited portions of the NGO's report that discussed how "journalists were harassed while covering the Gezi Park protests and dozens were fired or forced to resign due to their coverage of sensitive issues." Zaman covered the same passages, and also described "several high-profile dismissals" of critics at top papers. Israel, meanwhile, was ranked by Freedom House as "free," marking the Jewish state as the only Mideast country with no significant media restrictions.
- Reports: Turkey opens gates to Iran banks "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions"
- Human rights activists accuse Syrian regime of deliberately targeting civilians as wave of barrel bomb attacks kills scores
A meeting of top Israeli political leaders on Thursday, called in order to chart Jerusalem's response to a Wednesday announcement by Palestinian leaders that the rival Fatah and Hamas factions had agreed to a deal that would see the formation of a unity government with members from both groups, concluded with a decision to suspend peace talks until the composition of that government was solidified. The Israeli move was not unexpected. Top figures from Hamas had already declared that the unity government would not see the group accepting the Palestinian Authority's obligations toward Israel, including the recognition of its right to exist and a renunciation of violence. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday emphasized to reporters no fewer than four times that Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist," and the Israelis for their part had declared that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would have to choose between ongoing peace talks and an embrace of Hamas. Al Monitor assessed Wednesday that the agreement had been "the last straw for Congress" regarding perceptions of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in general, and more specifically regarding the degree to which the United States should continue extending assistance to an Abbas-led PA. The piece quoted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) - who had authored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which conditioned aid to any Palestinian government on the absence of terrorists in leadership positions - declaring that "the Administration must halt aid to the Palestinian Authority and condition any future assistance as leverage to force Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to abandon this reconciliation with Hamas and to implement real reforms within the PA." It also quoted Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart on the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East, Ted Deutch (D-FL), emphasizing that observers should "[b]e certain that the Palestinian Authority will face significant consequences if a unity government is formed that includes terrorist members of Hamas." Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, tersely stated that Abbas's reconciliation move "jeopardizes US assistance." Al Monitor also conveyed details of a conference call held Wednesday by The Israel Project (TIP) in which Hillel Frisch, a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, had explained to reporters that a Palestinian unity government was in fact a vital prerequisite to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, but that it could not come at the expense of the Palestinians meeting their past obligations to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The alternative would be tantamount to Palestinian negotiators having spent decades extracting functionally irreversible concessions from Israel at the negotiating table, before pocketing those concessions and then abrogating the commitments.
Turkish outlet Today's Zaman on Tuesday described a rush by Iranian banks to open and expand branches in Turkey in the aftermath of "growth restrictions" being lifted, a decision that the outlet explained was made by the country's Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions after headway was made in negotiations regarding the curbing of Iran's nuclear program." Bank Mellat - which had been contracting due to sanctions-linked restrictions starting in 2012 - was cleared for expansion, a development that was followed by applications from two other Iranian banks that intend to open up in Turkey. The applications were approved. A report published in February by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), identified Turkey as a key global hub of illicit and terrorist financing, and the country has long been criticized for providing Iran both direct resources and financial channels with which to circumvent Western sanctions placed on the Islamic republic. Top officials from the Treasury Department rushed to Ankara in the aftermath of the implementation of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which eroded sanctions against Iran - to warn the Turks that "Iran is not open for business" and that "[b]usinesses interested in engaging in Iran really should hold off." Turkish outlet The Daily Sabah reported this week that, according to Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Alireza Bigdeli, Tehran and Ankara are now set to establish a free trade zone.
CNN on Thursday reported that forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime had, as part of an ongoing attack on the country's largest city, Aleppo, dropped barrel bombs out of helicopters on a vegetable market, killing at least 24 people. Activists and human rights workers distributed video of what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble in what was clearly a market" including an image of "a man attending to a boy whose leg had been ripped off." The wire clarified that "it was unclear whether the child was alive or dead," and also conveyed the assessment of an Aleppo-based activist who explained that "the area that was struck today is a market area, that's why there were so many civilians killed... the regime is hitting back against the civilians who support the revolt." The news comes just days after reports of a similar Monday attack that killed at least 29 people in a single Aleppo neighborhood. The regime's use of the mass-casualty shrapnel-packed IEDs - which can quite literally level entire buildings with a single hit - has consistently been emphasized by analysts and lawmakers as a particularly compelling justification for more robust Western intervention on behalf of opposition elements. Syrian forces also launched airstrikes on Atareb, injuring dozens, and on the nearby village of Tal Rifaat. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that, alongside the violence, almost 3.5 million civilians have little to no access to humanitarian aid.
Palestinian fighters on Thursday detonated a bomb along the northern border of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and launched a mortar shell at an IDF unit operating along the southern border of the territory, developments that the Jerusalem Post contextualized alongside new figures that show that there has been a "major upsurge in projectile attacks" against Israeli soldiers and civilians during 2014. Palestinian media outlets noted that the device was "apparently targeting patrolling Israeli soldiers." Thursday also saw the discovery of two additional bombs that had been planted along the territory's southern border with Israel. The incidents came a day after the Israelis had targeted what Reuters - conveying Israeli military reports - described as "a militant riding on a motorcycle in northern Gaza, from where rockets are often shot at Israel." Missiles and rockets had also been directed at Israeli troops and population centers on Monday, drawing both retaliatory and suppression fire that reportedly wounded four Hamas members. Those barrages, in turn, had been preceded by an attack on Sunday in which Palestinians detonated a bomb near an Israeli patrol and launched at least seven rockets into Israel. The Washington Post read the escalation against the backdrop of a more general uptick in rocket and missile fire, noting that "Gaza militants fired the heaviest barrages" in March since Israel's November 2012 Pillar of Defense campaign, during which Israeli forces decimated much of Hamas's advanced arsenal and its command and control infrastructure.
State Dept.: Palestinian threats to disband government would have "grave implications," force reevaluation of bilateral ties
- State Dept.: Palestinian threats to disband government would have "grave implications," force reevaluation of bilateral ties
- Credibility of Syria chemical weapons deal in jeopardy, as U.S. and French officials describe "indications" of new regime attacks
- "Possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program under scrutiny, as confusion swirls over intentions
Top U.S. and Israeli officials on Monday reacted coldly to threats by Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders that they might disband the Palestinian government and transfer control of their territory to either Israel or the United Nations, with State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki emphasizing that the move would force Washington to reevaluate its relationship with Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring with resignation that "when [the Palestinians] want peace, they should let us know." Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee member Hanna Amerah reportedly told Palestinian media over the weekend that the failure of the peace process "could lead to the disbandment" of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the Palestinian body that controls Palestinian areas of the West Bank, which would impose new costs on either Jerusalem or the international community as they filled in. Agence France-Presse separately quoted an anonymous Palestinian official saying that similar threats had been conveyed to Martin Indyk, the Obama administration's special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself had apparently told Israeli lawmakers last week that a prolonged stalemate in the peace process would lead to the Palestinians handing over the "keys" to the West Bank. Speaking from the State Department podium on Monday, spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned Abbas against making any such moves, tersely assessing that "those kinds of extreme measures would have grave implications" on Washington's "relationship and our assistance." Palestinian officials emerged from their meetings with Indyk declaring that the U.S. was not presenting any new proposals to move forward a U.S.-backed peace initiative launched roughly nine months ago by Secretary of State John Kerry. Abbas has repeatedly rejected a range of U.S. bridging proposals designed to bring the two sides closer to an agreement.
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki revealed Monday that the U.S. had "indications" that a "toxic industrial chemical" had recently been used on the battlefield in Syria, and that Washington was examining the source of the attack, amid deepening suspicions that the Bashar al-Assad regime recently launched another chemical weapons attack against opposition elements seeking its overthrow. State's assessment tracks closely with remarks made on Sunday by French President Francois Hollande suggesting that Paris had "information" but not "proof" that the regime had launched another nonconventional attack, and it precisely echoes recent language about "indications" used by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. The deployment of weaponized chlorine by Syrian forces would present both diplomatic and political challenges for the Obama administration. The White House has battled for months against criticism that it was diplomatically outmaneuvered last September, when Washington dropped a threat of impending military action in exchange for a commitment by Assad to turn over his chemical weapons arsenal for destruction. The Syrians and their Russian backers took public victory laps as the agreement was hammered out by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the administration was subsequently criticized for among other things becoming de facto invested in keeping the regime stable enough to carry out its obligations. U.S. officials have in response circulated figures - including ones published this morning - suggesting that Assad may be steadily exporting portions of his arsenal. Chlorine, however, is not a substance that is outright prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Its use in battle is forbidden, but nations are allowed to possess it due to its industrial uses, and it was not listed among the key chemicals that Assad committed to exporting. Foreign Policy suggested today that evidence of chlorine use against Syrian rebels or civilians will "cast a dark cloud over" the UNSC agreement. The regime has sought to blame rebel groups for the attack, a claim that analysts have dismissed inasmuch as video evidence indicates that the chlorine-filled shells were dropped from helicopters, and rebel groups do not possess helicopters.
Reuters on Monday conveyed statements from Iranian officials describing efforts by the regime to prepare a document that would comprehensively lay out the development of the country's weapons program, a statement that the outlet read alongside long-standing and explicit demands from the West that Tehran must account for possible military dimensions (PMD) of its atomic program. The wire noted, however, that the statements - made to Iranian press by Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran's atomic energy agency - "made no mention" of "Western demands for greater transparency." Iranian diplomats had suggested in March that they might just wait until the very end of negotiations to address PMD-related issues, generating concerns that they intend to maneuver Western negotiators into a position where the Iranians would functionally dare the West to scuttle a mostly written deal over Iranian intransigence on those issues. The West wants Iran to account for activities ranging from what are widely believed to have been tests related to the development of nuclear warheads - in 2011 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accused Tehran of work at its Parchin military facility that provided "strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development" - to Iranian military participation in the development of the country's uranium stockpile. Iran is obligated under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929 to address among other things "the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme," and non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in Congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. A minor controversy occurred in late February when reports emerged that the IAEA had withheld a report documenting further PMDs for which Iran would have had to account. At stake are not just past activities, but the degree to which the Iranian military is tangled in - and must be untangled from - the Islamic republic's ongoing nuclear work.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News over the weekend characterized the country's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as having broken new legal ground - the exact language, per a statement by the head of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB), was that a lawsuit filed by Erdogan was the "first of its kind" - after the Turkish leader applied for damages from the Turkish state as part of an ongoing controversy related to Twitter. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had banned access to both Twitter and YouTube on the eve of recent nationwide elections, a move that was widely seen as aimed at dampening discussions of a massive graft scandal that had ensnared top AKP elites including Erdogan and his family. The bans drew global ridicule and triggered a diplomatic crisis with Europe, and were promptly overturned by Turkish courts on free speech grounds (the government restored access to Twitter but YouTube has remained unreachable). Erdogan's lawsuit appears to claim that the Turkish state allowed Twitter to continue being accessible, and Twitter violated his privacy rights by linking to purported recordings of him discussing how to hide vast sums of money, and so the Turkish state violated his privacy rights and owes him damages. Legal scholars interviewed by various Turkish outlets expressed skepticism regarding the soundness of the legal theory. Nonetheless two anonymous Twitter accounts that posted links to the conversations were apparently suspended in the immediate aftermath of Erdogan's court application.
IMF confirms Iran's economy has stabilized after months of sanctions-busting oil exports, as concerns deepen over spiraling Western leverage
- IMF confirms Iran's economy has stabilized after months of sanctions-busting oil exports, as concerns deepen over spiraling Western leverage
- WSJ: "no signs" that Iranian leaders preparing public for concessions, as top atomic official makes case for weapons-grade uranium and thousands of new centrifuges
- Passover terror attack on Israeli family leaves at least one dead, after negotiators seek new ways to push forward peace hopes
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday outlined the details of a new International Monetary Fund report concluding - pre the outlet – that "Iran's economy is stabilizing" and will grow in 2014 "even if sanctions relief under [the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA)] deal proves short-lived." The assessment details a wide range of already-known macroeconomic indicators converging on the conclusion that Tehran is managing to mitigate the economic pressure that Western negotiators have said is critical to securing nuclear concessions. Xinhua's coverage the report, published under the headline "UAE seeks more trade ties with Iran after IMF's positive outlook," linked the economic improvements to long-standing fears that the JPA's partial sanctions relief would trigger a kind of gold rush in which no entity wanted to be the last to access Iran's newly reopened markets. Bloomberg had already reported over the weekend that Tehran is engaged in extensive discussions with European and Asian businesses over future economic initiatives. The New York Times today published an article that, at the bottom of the piece, gestured toward the IMF report and conveyed assessments from a range of experts evaluating the significance of Iran's ongoing, five month streak of surging past its permitted levels of oil exports. The Times quoted Mark D. Wallace, chief executive of United Against Nuclear Iran, declaring that the Obama administration’s insistence on the robustness of the sanctions regime was being "wholly contradicted by reality." It also quoted Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noting that the dynamic "enhances Iranian nuclear negotiating leverage and makes it more difficult to conclude a diplomatic deal" that would see the Islamic republic meeting its international obligations. The top of the Times article, meanwhile, was devoted to evidence suggesting that ''the Iranians have seen little in the way of a boost from the sanctions relief they had been expecting." This is the second such article published in as many weeks by a top U.S.-based media outlet. It is not clear how to reconcile such assertions - which presume that Tehran has yet to see relief from a sanctions regime so crippling that it coerced hardline mullahs into conducting negotiations - with the broad range of quantative economic indicators indicating that Iran's economy has stabilized. Suggestions that the Iranians just got really lucky seem unlikely to rise to the level of social scientific rigor that analysts would find persuasive. Some observers have also made the point that Iranian economic improvement erodes Western leverage regardless of its cause, a risk that diplomats and lawmakers have urged Congress to offset by passing legislation locking in future pressure should negotiations fail.
Top Iranian cleric Ayatollah Imami Kashani declared in a nationally televised sermon on Friday that Tehran would continue pushing forward with its nuclear program despite the intentions of the country's "enemies," prompting the Wall Street Journal - which read the boast against the backdrop of similar remarks recently aired by other senior figures - to assess that Iranian leaders "show no signs of preparing [the] public for concessions to [the] West." Top officials from the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, up to and including Rouahni himself, have repeatedly and explicitly ruled out concessions on uranium enrichment, plutonium production, and ballistic missile development which U.S. analysts consider to be absolute minimums for putting a nuclear bomb beyond Tehran's reach. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week barred Iranian negotiators from trading away what he described as the country’s "nuclear achievements." This weekend Iran's atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi went further, insisting, first, that Tehran has a right to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels of purity and, second, that Iran will need 30,000 additional centrifuges to meet its energy needs. U.S. experts - including prominent supporters of the Obama administration's diplomacy with the Islamic republic - have calculated that any deal putting Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization would have to include prohibitions on the creation of highly enriched uranium and require Iranian scientists to dismantle thousands of already-existing centrifuges. Evaluating red lines set by Iranian officials, CNN host Fareed Zakaria had already last January worried that the P5+1 global powers and the Islamic Republic were headed towards a "diplomatic trainwreck" and that he was not "even quite sure what they’re going to talk about if these are the opening positions." Zakaria noted at the time that "it’s very hard to walk back” the absolutist positions taken by Iranian leaders. Obama administration officials have sought to answer skeptics by suggesting that hardline Iranian declarations are just bargaining positions, while skeptics have countered by pointing out that - even as bargaining positions - the widely broadcast statements may raise Iranian public expectations and close off necessary compromises.
A suspected terrorist attack on an Israeli family driving in the West Bank - assailants riddled the family's car with bullets as it was en route to Passover dinner on Monday - has reportedly claimed the life of one man, left his wife and child injured, and thrown into doubt efforts to put Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track. Israeli officials late last week had already provided grim predictions regarding the possibility that the two sides might ink a final status agreement before the April 29th deadline of a nine-month U.S. peace push spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry. A subsequent three hour Sunday night meeting ended without reports of progress. Nonetheless officials on both sides - and analysts in the West - had in recent days taken to emphasizing that the parties might substantively advance the prospects for peace outside of the Kerry framework, either in concert with each other or via uncoordinated unilateral steps. The bilateral Sunday night meeting between the parties had already been held without the presence of Washington's mediator Martin Indyk, who in any case had seen his position complicated in recent days by reports that he was driving a media campaign to scapegoat Israel for the collapse of the Kerry initiative. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl on Sunday made the case that "[a]lmost every positive development in Israeli-Palestinian relations has happened outside the 'peace process,'" and that the U.S. has played a positive role when it backed up and bolstered pragmatic leaders from the two sides. Diehl blasted the Obama administration for instead "chos[ing] to embrace the ever-failing peace process," a move that he insisted "not only has foundered, but it also has partly reversed the more organic change that was underway." Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had in recent weeks abandoned the high-stakes negotiations and instead resumed a campaign of diplomatic warfare against Israel, submitting applications to 15 international treaties. The gambit put the Palestinians on the wrong side of core Oslo Accord commitments, stretching back decades, under which they committed to abstaining from diplomatic moves that would upgrade the status of disputed territories. It risked confirming fundamental worries that Ramallah will eventually exploit a structural asymmetry in peace talks - Jerusalem is expected make irreversible territorial and security concessions, while the Palestinians are asked to reciprocate with reversible agreements - by pocketing Israeli concessions and then abandon talks anyway. It remains unclear whether Palestinian diplomats will be able to walk back Abbas's turn to international legal instruments, after Switzerland confirmed late last week that it had accepted the Palestinian request to accede to the Geneva Conventions.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News on Saturday summarized a weekend speech given by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as one in which the Turkish leader "lashe[d] out at all his 'foes'," outlining that Erdogan "maintained his angry criticism of the Constitutional Court, the Gezi Park protesters, Twitter and the Gulen movement." Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have sought to ban Twitter since the eve of recent nationwide local elections, in a move widely seen as aimed at limiting discussions of a graft scandal that had ensnared top AKP elites including Erdogan and his family. That corruption investigation had in turn been driven by elements in the police and judiciary linked to the Islamist movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. For its part the Constitutional Court had ordered the government to remove the Twitter blackout, prompting ongoing and angry denunciations by Erdogan and other government officials. Agence France-Presse (AFP) documented comments from Erdogan's Saturday speech branding Twitter a "tax evader" and promising to "go after" the popular microblogging platform. Reuters read the controversy as one of many in which Twitter's nature "as a public, broadcast medium and its viral network model" had led to it being "viewed as a particularly destabilizing force by some governments," including by Iran. Meanwhile Hurriyet reported that skirmishes between Erdogan and the Constitutional Court are widening, after the Court partially overturned a judicial bill that would have shifted power to the justice minister. The outlet noted that the legislation had been "drafted by the government amid the graft allegations."
- Abbas to plead for Arab League assistance as Israel begins responding to Palestinian diplomatic gambits
The United Nation's High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Tuesday flatly declared that war crimes and atrocities committed by Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime "far outweigh" what have been sometimes been treated as parallel actions by opposition elements, emphasizing that while both sides have engaged in abuses that should be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC), the "killings, cruelty, persons in detention, disappearances [by the government] far outweigh" human rights violations by rebel groups. Pillay's testimony had been heavily anticipated - the German Mission to the United Nations tweeted that it hoped she would use her briefing to "clearly denounce Assad's starvation tactics" - though Reuters contextualized her statements against the backdrop of persistent Russian opposition to any move by the United Nations Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC. Syria's ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja'afari, responded to Pillay by blasting her as a "lunatic" and by insisting that she was "manipulating, bluffing the truth and she is biased." Al Arabiya reported on Wednesday that forces loyal to Assad had seized the rebel-held town of Rankus - part of a broader campaign to secure the Qalamun region along the Lebanon-Syria border - and conveyed statements from Syrian state media boasting that the Syrian army had now "restored security and stability after eliminating a large number of terrorists."
Al Arabiya on Wednesday conveyed statements from Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Hamad al-Sabah suggesting that the bulk of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was close to healing a rift with GCC member Qatar, which had been deepening in recent months and even years as Qatar allied itself with actors that the Gulf countries consider to be regional antagonists. The Kuwaitis hinted that their ongoing mediation efforts were close to securing a breakthrough in disputes between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on one side, and Qatar on the other. Riyadh and its allies had long ago coalesced, along with Israel, into a de facto bloc of traditional U.S. allies, aligned opposite both a radical Sunni bloc anchored by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Shiite camp of Iran and its allies. Qatar had broadly acted to support radical Sunni elements, and - despite substantial criticism from its Arab neighbors - had prominently assisted the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The geopolitical gambles failed to pay off, and Qatar's foreign influence crashed as Turkey suffered its own decline and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown by the country's Saudi-backed army. Egypt functionally broke off diplomatic ties with Qatar, and in March, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain followed suit by recalling their ambassadors. The Arab states insist that Doha has violated a GCC pact not to support "anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals - via direct security work or through political influence, and not to support hostile media," a gesture to Qatar's general support for the pro-Brotherhood coverage broadcast by the Qatari-based Al Jazeera station. Bringing Qatar back into the GCC fold would be treated as a boost to the Arab bloc, and as a blow to Turkish foreign policy and to the Brotherhood's regional prospects. The moves may have domestic implications, as the Obama administration has faced pointed criticism for inadequately supporting traditional U.S. allies against geopolitical and internal adversaries.
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.
Palestinians issue then disavow new list of conditions on Israel, deepening concerns over leadership indecision
- Palestinians issue then disavow new list of conditions on Israel, deepening concerns over leadership indecision
- Iran moves to bolster private industries, as analysts express concerns over Obama administration assurances on sanctions
- Iranian Palestinian foreign minister: Don't expect "any consequences... at all" from Congress after undermining peace talks
Palestinian officials on Thursday reportedly presented a new list of demands that the Israelis would have to meet lest the Palestinians abandon peace talks, as Jerusalem reacted to Tuesday's diplomatic gambit by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas - in which Abbas committed to joining 15 international treaties in violation of commitments designed to promote a nine-month peace push by Secretary of State John Kerry - by canceling a planned fourth prisoner release. Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, who has pushed heavily for the Jewish state to make concessions and was a key figure in laying the groundwork for Kerry's initiative, emphasized that prisoner releases had always been linked to progress in negotiations, and that "new conditions were established" by Abbas's move. Reports of the Palestinians' new demands, moreover, were assessed by Israeli outlet Yediot Aharonot as indicating an even further "hardening of positions." The list included requirements that the Jewish state cede East Jerusalem, lift restrictions on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, end anti-terror operations in parts of the West Bank, and release 1,200 prisoners. The conditions - some of which could most generously be described as non-starters, and which contributed to perceptions of Palestinian intransigence - were quickly disavowed by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who publicly insisted that the demands were not coming from him or his staff. The incident, which was widely reported by Palestinian media outlets, came alongside other signals of potential indecision among the Palestinian leadership. The Associated Press had noted that Abbas's initial press conference on Tuesday appeared to have been "hastily convened." The Palestinian leader's speech at that press conference insisted that the Palestinians were seeking to cooperate with the United States, even as he announced steps that risked crippling Kerry's initiative, and that they were still interested in negotiating with Israel, despite actions that violated core commitments to avoid unilateralism stretching back to the Oslo Accords.
The daily Iran news bulletin published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) yesterday conveyed Persian-language remarks from a top Iranian official declaring that the Hassan Rouhani government was committed to leveraging the private sector in order to stabilize and then boost Iran's economy, a day after Rouhani himself gestured toward the same theme in comments about the country's Free Trade Zone. First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri was quoted as saying that Rouhani and his cabinet had accepted that they would have to "rely on the private sector" in order to address its economic problems. The statements come amid news reports indicating that Western companies are seeking to enter Iran's reopened markets in the aftermath of sanctions relief provided by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Last week Forbes published analysis from Emanuele Ottolenghi and Benjamin Weinthal - respectively a senior fellow and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies - outlining extensive and growing business ties between Iran and Swiss companies. The Wall Street Journal had for its part described Western firms, including Michelin and Schlumberger, as "walk[ing] a fine line" in their eagerness to respond to aggressive courtship by the Islamic republic. The Financial Times had already in February described French, German, and Dutch delegations scrambling to "seize opportunities" in Iran. At stake are assurances made by the Obama administration to lawmakers and the public insisting that the international sanctions regime was holding despite the JPA's erosion of some sanctions, and that new congressional legislation to provide Western negotiators with more leverage was unnecessary. Speaking yesterday at a Senate hearing, Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen declared that he was unaware of any firms "anywhere" – not in "Europe, the Gulf, [or] Asia" - that were "trying to take advantage... [of] the quite limited suspension of the sanctions to get into the Iranian market." Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, described the claim as "bulls**t" [sic].
Reuters on Thursday published details from a Wednesday press conference held by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki, in which Malki declared that he didn't "expect any consequences coming from the U.S. Congress... at all" after Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas signed papers requesting membership for the "State of Palestine" in 15 international treaties. Malki also told reporters that the moves were designed to strengthen the Palestinians' "legal arsenal" in waging diplomatic warfare against Israel. Abbas's gambit was broadly seen as specifically violating Palestinian commitments not to turn to the UN during a nine-month negotiation period held under the auspices of Secretary of State John Kerry, and more broadly may have run afoul of the Palestinians' Oslo Accord commitments not to unilaterally change the legal status of the West Bank. It also threatened to trigger language in this year's congressional omnibus spending bill that made U.S. assistance to the PA contingent on the Palestinians maintaining the status quo at the UN. Al-Monitor reported late on Wednesday that there were bipartisan moves being made in the House to "withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid" in response to the Palestinian maneuver. The outlet quoted House Appropriations Chairwoman Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) assessing that U.S. assistance was designed to help the Palestinians "try to negotiate at the peace table in good faith," and that turning back to the UN flew in the face of those efforts. It also quoted Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) suggesting that Congress would have to revisit whether investing in the PA could still be considered "the most productive step we could take to encourage peace."
The United Nations on Thursday announced that more than one million refugees have flooded into Lebanon from Syria, creating what The New York Times described as "the highest concentration of refugees as a percentage of population in the world, with about one Syrian for every three Lebanese." The outlet quoted Rachid Derbas, Lebanon's minister of social affairs, calling for the international community to respond to the grim milestone with a "humanitarian and political" campaign aimed at dampening the strain on Beirut. The new assessments grabbed the attention of both media and policy analysts. Foreign Policy magazine's Middle East Editor David Kenner tweeted what he described as a "staggering graphic" documenting the flow of refugees into Lebanon, noting that the number only included the "registered ones." The specific post was retweed hundreds of times, and was also used as fodder for dozens of other tweets, including one shared by Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff. Analysts have only recently begun to seriously unpack the potential long-term consequences of the crisis for Lebanon. It is not straightforward to trace, for instance, how the presence of roughly one million new Sunnis will affect Lebanon's notoriously delicate confessional balance, nor how it will undermine the control of the Shiite Hezbollah militia that dominates the country militarily and has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to paralyze it politically.
* Yesterday's edition of the DailyTIP described Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas as currently “serving a ninth year in his originally four year” presidential term. Abbas is actually in his tenth year at the post. The DailyTIP regrets the error.
Bloomberg: "dilemma" for President Obama as Iran appoints diplomat linked to 1979 hostage crisis to top UN post
- Bloomberg: "dilemma" for President Obama as Iran appoints diplomat linked to 1979 hostage crisis to top UN post
Businessweek on Monday assessed that Iran's appointment of Hamid Aboutalebi to be Tehran's new ambassador to the United Nations may become "a dilemma" for President Barack Obama, just days after the outlet originally revealed that the Iranian diplomat - who had belonged to the group that captured and held 52 Americans hostage in 1979 - was having trouble acquiring a visa to enter the United States. Aboutalebi has reportedly been waiting to enter the U.S., and there are fears that the situation could escalate diplomatically. Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh told Bloomberg that granting Aboutalebi a visa now would "reinforce the impression among regional allies that Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in our pursuit of a nuclear accord." The President had already last week reportedly received a chilly reception in Saudi Arabia due to Washington's diplomacy toward Iran. The incident itself may damage the White House’s credibility in reading Iranian intentions. The administration has for months leaned heavily on the Iranian claim that any Congressional move against Iran would shatter the delicate "spirit of Geneva" needed for negotiations to succeed, Geneva being the site where the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) had been hammered out. The theme may be difficult to reconcile with what critics of the President were quick to characterize as a poke in his eye. Bipartisan lawmakers from both chambers of Congress have lately again begun calling for a broader Congressional role in negotiations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Israel late Monday as reports emerged that Jerusalem had presented Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas with a draft proposal designed to extend U.S.-brokered negotiations beyond their originally scheduled April 29 deadline. Palestinian diplomats threatened last week to abandon talks should the Israelis refuse to release a fourth batch of prisoners, after Jerusalem had previously released three other groups to entice the Palestinians to join and then stay at the negotiating table. Israeli leaders - including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has consistently pushed for talks from within the government - emphasized that Israel would not release dozens of murderers after the Palestinians had spent the last several months flatly rejecting a U.S.-backed peace framework. Palestinian leaders, up to and including Abbas, had also repeatedly threatened to renew diplomatic warfare against the Jewish state, and Reuters had reported last January that Ramallah had a list of "international bodies from which they could harass Israel - including the International Criminal Court." Palestinian boasts aired last week, which cited potential long-term campaigns in international bodies, deepened concerns that they will pocket functionally irreversible Israeli concessions and walk away anyway. Abbas and other top PA figures had also soured the Israeli public on additional releases by ostentatiously celebrating previously freed terrorists and murderers as heroes.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Sunday that he will "enter the lair" of his rivals and force them to "pay for" having leveled accusations of corruption against him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), after local elections held across Turkey saw the AKP securing a plurality of the national vote. At least six people were killed in clashes during the polling. A range of graft scandals, which eventually ensnared AKP elites including Erdogan and his family, last year plunged Turkey into open political warfare. The AKP initially moved to purge thousands of judiciary and police officials, and in recent days had also sought to dampen the tempo of public criticism by banning Twitter and YouTube, generating by turns international condemnation and widespread ridicule. Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News on Monday published an interview with Sabanci University professor Ahmet Evin, in which Evin linked what he described as a "deliberate effort" to stifle free speech inside Turkey to a broader collapse in Ankara's regional stature. Erdogan had nonetheless long been expected by analysts to ride a superior political infrastructure and his enthusiastic political base to continued electoral success. The post-election dynamics seem set to reignite long-standing criticisms of Erdogan as a majoritarian ruler who - per a June 2013 write-up in The Economist on his ideology - "holds that electoral might always makes you right."
Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi on Monday blasted Iran for seeking to destabilize the country “through its support” for a range of separatists and rebels, a repeat of accusations that he has consistently and explicitly been leveling against Tehran for quite literally years. In February 2013 Sana'a announced that it had intercepted an Iranian vessel trying to smuggle explosives and surface-to-air missiles into Yemen, prompting Hadi to accuse the Iranians of trying to directly assist Shiite rebels fighting in the country's north. The charges have been widely echoed by other Gulf countries. In March of that year Saudi Arabia announced that it had arrested 18 people on charges of spying on behalf of Iran. In May Bahrain blasted the Islamic Republic for "flagrant interference" in its affairs. The renewed expressions of concern come amid increasing analyst recognition that the region has fractured and hardened into three regional blocs, with an Iranian-led camp aligned opposite a group comprised of the U.S.'s traditional regional allies, and both aligned opposite a radical Sunni alliance anchored at various times by Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Turks, for their part, have also within the last week accused Iran of having infiltrated the Turkish government. One English-language Turkish outlet bluntly opened its coverage of the incident by conveying comments from Ali Fuat Yilmazer, a former chief of the Istanbul Police Department's intelligence unit, claiming that the 'Iran-linked notorious terrorist organization Tawhid-Salam has penetrated deep into the Turkish government in what amounts to international espionage.'