- 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.
Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Renewed focus on "possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program, as Tehran denies inspectors access to suspected warhead-related test site
Outlets and journalists over the weekend and into Monday continued to unpack what the Washington Post bluntly described as the "failure" of Secretary of State John Kerry's recent Israeli-Palestinian peace push, which had formally expired on April 29 but had functionally been suspended since the declaration of a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki had repeatedly emphasized that among other things Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist." The Washington Post, for its part, on Sunday reminded readers that "the numerous 'unity' plans announced in the past have foundered because of Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel or renounce terrorism," and declared that the aftermath of the talks' collapse had left "plenty of bad options" that U.S. diplomats would have to head off. The Post specifically worried that Kerry may make good on past hints of "embracing one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas, the issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood... [which] would satisfy some partisans but lead nowhere." Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg called on U.S. diplomats to draw lessons from what he described as a series of Israeli gambits aimed at creating space for a Palestinian state stretching back "even before there was an Israel." Goldberg noted that Palestinian leaders and their regional backers had "rejected each previous attempt to bring about [a two-state] solution." Political and even legislative fallout from the end of the talks has been steadily building. A tense exchange between Psaki and veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee in late April had already seen Lee declare "I remember you saying... they made progress on all the issues... I don't understand how you can even make that claim, frankly, with a straight face, because...the situation on both sides is demonstrably worse today than it was back last July when this process began." There had before and have since been a range of proposals on the Hill to slash U.S. assistance to the Palestinians.
Tehran is reportedly continuing to deny international nuclear inspectors access to the country’s Parchin military base, a site that Western diplomats and U.N. inspectors have long emphasized - per a 2011 report by the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - shows "strong indicators" of having been used for explosives tests related to "possible nuclear weapon development." Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) on Saturday asserted that the inspectors, who are in the country for a two-day visit, were not legally entitled to visit the Parchin base because it is not directly linked to Iran's nuclear program. The assertion has the potential to be taken as too clever by half. Demands for access to the military facility are grounded in among other things United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929, which calls on Tehran to clarify so-called "possible military dimensions [PMDs] of the Iranian nuclear programme." Non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. Western negotiators hammering out the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) had deliberately put off addressing PMDs, and U.S. officials had subsequently assured journalists and lawmakers that the issues would be addressed in the context of comprehensive talks. Iranian negotiators, for their part, have recently taken to suggesting that they prefer to put off such discussions until some time in the future, and to deal with other issues first. Observers have suggested that Tehran may be trying to maneuver the West into a position where Iranian negotiators will ultimately decline to address PMD-related issues, and instead functionally dare P5+1 diplomats to scuttle a final deal over the Iranian military's entanglement in the country's atomic program.
A top Hamas official declared over the weekend that the possibility of disarming the Iran-backed terror group never came up during unity discussions between it and the rival Fatah faction, a boast that seems set to widen concerns that the agreement - which among other things envisions a single Palestinian government eventually taking control of both the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and of Fatah-ruled parts of the West Bank - may be insufficiently robust to overcome fundamental obstacles to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Hamas Political Bureau Deputy Chief Moussa Abu Marzouk told reporters on Saturday that not only had disarming Hamas never been discussed, despite the almost definitional need for Ramallah to maintain a monopoly on the use of force, but that the organization would also refuse to recognize Israel. Renouncing violence and acknowledging Jerusalem's right to exist are two of three so-called Quartet conditions - abiding by past Palestinian Authority (PA) agreements is the third - that the international community has long demanded any Palestinian government fulfill. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted in recent days that the envisioned unity government will meet those conditions, claims that earned him an explicit rebuke for lying by former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar. The news came amid indicators that the deal was nonetheless providing a lifeline to the group, which until very recently had widely been seen as locked in a political and economic downward spiral. Traditional Hamas allies such as Turkey and Qatar immediately hailed the deal, and the Qataris reportedly pledged to deliver $5 million to the Gaza government in support of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in response to an explicit request made by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Meanwhile Palestinian media reported on Monday that Abbas had held a meeting with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Doha aimed at overcoming remaining obstacles.
South African security site DefenceWeb on Monday rounded up developments surrounding last week's announcement by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that he would block additional security assistance to the Egyptian army as a result of his "growing dismay" at Cairo's heavy-handed tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood, a move that came after the Obama administration had publicly committed to partially unfreezing its own halt in aid, which had in turn been widely blasted for risking bilateral relations while having little chance of affecting Egyptian calculations. Close military ties between Washington and Cairo had for decades granted American forces a range of preferential arrangements seen as crucial to enhancing American air and naval operations in the region. Analysts from across political and ideological lines had criticized the administration for creating a vacuum that could be filled in by other powers or, more worryingly, by geopolitical rivals. Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who by their own descriptions agree on almost nothing, described the freeze as undermining "nearly seven decades" of bipartisan American efforts aimed at "limiting Moscow’s influence" in the Middle East. Yiftah Shapir, Zvi Magen, and Gal Perel - researchers from Israel's Institute for National Security Studies - last week described a recently announced a deal under which Egypt would purchase Russian Mig-29s as "an alarm for decision makers in Washington" regarding a potential Egyptian pivot toward Moscow. Gulf countries meanwhile seen intent on taking the sting out of any aid cuts, and Reuters on Monday revealed that Gulf oil producers have in less than a year provided Egypt with roughly $6 billion worth of free fuel.
Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Daily Beast: Western analysts suspect Assad has secret chemical and biological weapons program, know-how to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade" arsenal
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday conveyed angry remarks from Iranian officials in reaction to this week's publication of the State Department's annual country-by-country terrorism roundup - which veteran Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee had characterized as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful" - with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham complaining that the U.S. was "turning of a blind eye to Zionist [Israeli] crimes." English-language Iranian media translated the same passage as "atrocious acts of the Zionists." The report had also indicated that Iran was facilitating the transfer of both Shiite and radical Sunni fighters into Syria, essentially funding both sides of that country's more than three-year-long conflict in targeting moderate Sunni rebel groups. Other passages revealed that Iran "trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups," which - it was pointedly noted - had been done "despite [Iran's] pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization." Tehran's activities in arming Hezbollah in Lebanon were described as being as blackletter "violation[s]" of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and were linked to Tehran's efforts to provide critical support to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. More broadly, the report catalogued Iran-backed terror activity in more than a dozen countries. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf had already addressed some of the Iranian pushback in a Thursday press briefing, telling journalists that if the Iranians didn't want to be accused of supporting terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism." Meanwhile Iranian Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a former commander of the country's Revolutionary Guards Corps, was reported by Iranian media outlets as bragging that the Islamic Republic has managed to expand its sphere of influence to the Mediterranean Sea. Rahim-Safavi reportedly emphasized that 'Iran's defense perimeter has been extended... above the borders of Israel.'
The Daily Beast on Thursday cited a range of Western intelligence analysts converging on the assessment that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime not only has a secret cache of undeclared chemical weapons - which the outlet said included "crude chlorine-filled bombs, secret stockpiles of sophisticated nerve gasses or their components" - but also the stored institutional knowledge to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade chemical weapons effort" once the international community has turned its attention away from Syria. The outlet noted that widely broadcast reports regarding the eradication of Assad's chemical arsenal only take into account "the chemical arsenal Assad admitted he had" as part of a deal under which Damascus agreed to turn over its chemical weapons in exchange for the West suspending what appeared to be imminent airstrikes. The Daily Beast however conveyed that there there is "mounting concern that the Syrian regime may have a second unconventional weapons program—one Assad never told the international community about." That program is thought by Western intelligence analysts to include biological weapons, undeclared chemical materials, and chemical weapons such as chlorine that are not outright banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The news comes amid deepening worries among Western diplomats that Syrian forces have embarked on a campaign of using chlorine bombs to target civilians and fighters in rebel-heavy areas, a development that Foreign Policy had flatly stated if confirmed would "cast a dark cloud" over last September's deal. Meanwhile questions are also mounting about the regime's willingness to turn over even its declared CWC-proscribed arsenal. Reports have been piling up that Assad is dragging his feet on the obligation - the question came up on Friday at a Department of Defense press briefing - and Reuters reported the same day that rebel forces have in the meantime closed in on the last known stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons.
Emerging worries that a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions would provide the latter with a badly needed lifeline seemed set to deepen on Friday, with multiple reports being published indicating that the Iran-backed terror group was surging in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Hamas was reported as making inroads into Ramallah - from which Fatah governs its West Bank territories - as measured by "the amount of Hamas flags that are being waved in PA controlled areas." The Times of Israel also reported on the use of Hamas flags at Palestinian events, conveying Hebrew-language reports of a Palestinian wedding procession in Jerusalem in which participants "displayed the flags of Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda." The news comes a few days after reports emerged that Hamas had held a large-scale demonstration in the West Bank, which Israeli outlets described as a "massive show of force." That rally had already reinforced suspicions - outlined at length on Monday by veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff - that Hamas was maneuvering to use the unity agreement to boost its status. Hamas's command and control infrastructure, as well as huge swaths of its advanced arsenal, had been severely degraded during an eight-day Israeli air campaign in November 2012 that came in response to a sharp escalation in the amount and sophistication of projectiles that the group was using to target Israeli civilians and soldiers. Less than a year later, in the aftermath of the ouster of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian army undertook a systematic campaign to destroy the smuggling tunnels that linked the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the Sinai Peninsula and which served as Hamas's economic channel to the outside world. By October of last year, Hamas officials were publicly bemoaning that they had been "sentenced to death," and by February 2014 analysts were predicting that Hamas was facing "a very bad year." Subsequent months seemed in line with those assessments, with Hamas diplomatically isolated and seemingly caught in a downward economic spiral.
Lebanon's NOW media outlet on Friday published a series of interviews and updates from the besieged Lebanese town of Tfail, which has been targeted by what NOW described as a "campaign of aerial bombardment against... civilians" by Hezbollah-backed forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The attacks have recently escalated to include barrel bombs, air-deployed shrapnel-packed IEDs that can level entire buildings with a single detonation. Tfail is technically in Lebanese territory but is accessible only via roads that run through Syria, and regime forces months ago set up roadblocks and began to choke off the town in an effort to prevent the transit of opposition elements across the Syria-Lebanon border. News of the attacks had been trickling out of Tfail for weeks, with reports emerging in late April that the Syrian army had launched a series of artillery strikes that had sent thousands of civilians - both Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees - scrambling to seek shelter in the surrounding hills. Beirut subsequently managed to send a relief caravan to the town, which by then had according to reports been "without supplies of food, electricity, shelter, or aid for four months." Friday's report by NOW indicated that attacks have resumed and that at least two Lebanese civilians have been killed, and one resident was quoted by the news outlet accusing Beirut of having only come "one day and then left us all alone to deal with the Syrian regime attacks." NOW also confirmed that Syrian forces targeted the center of Tfail with sustained tank fire for at least three hours, in addition to the air strikes. The Syrian campaign has come alongside several other cross-border attacks. The dynamic, under which Hezbollah-backed forces have been shelling Lebanese civilians and territory, has been devastating to the Iran-backed terror group's long insistence that it is an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty from outside interference. It is not clear, however, that the collapse of Hezbollah's decades-long pretense - which had occassionally been echoed in corners of the Western foreign policy community - will materially affect its ability to dominate Lebanon militarily and therefore politically. The group has publicly declared, for instance, that it will not accept a president who is not a "friend" to Hezbollah. An effort by the Lebanese parliament to pick a new president this week failed.
- News leaks: Palestinian unity agreement will install Hamas within PLO, allow terror group to keep munitions
- Reports: Palestinian negotiators repeatedly rejected Israeli efforts to craft compromise peace process language
The State Department on Wednesday published [PDF] its annual country-by-country terrorism roundup, a 318-page document that veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matt Lee nonetheless described as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful." The report described Iran as funding both Sunni and Shiite fighters, both across the region and globally. Specific sections of the report took harsh tones not often found in diplomatic assessments, at one point emphasizing that "[d]espite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups." Another paragraph blasted Iran for facilitating the movement of Al Qaeda members across the Middle East, describing the operations of a "core facilitation pipeline through Iran" that "enabl[ed] AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and also to Syria." The final allegation has sometimes been controversial in the intelligence community. Iran has been unequivocal in its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a point of underlining Tehran's commitment to the Assad regime in the immediate aftermath of his election - and some analysts and diplomats doubted that the Iranians would also allow Sunni jihadists battling the regime to transit through Iranian territory. Other observers emphasized that Iran had every interest in using both Shiite and Sunni fighters to crowd out the moderate opposition facing Assad, which would allow Damascus to characterize the country's bloody war as an anti-terror struggle. The Treasury Department last February announced that it had evidence that - per Lebanon's Daily Star- "Iran is assisting key Al-Qaeda figures to transfer Sunni fighters into Syria." The State Department report's broad criticism of Iran came up during Thursday's daily State Department press briefing, with a journalist telling Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf that "Iran was not pleased about being kept on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism" and noting "[t]hey reacted quite angrily this morning to it." Harf responded that if the Iranians did not want to be listed as state sponsors of terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism."
Al-Monitor on Wednesday published a translated English-language version of an article by Gaza-based Palestinian journalist Hazem Balousha, in which Balousha revealed a range of previously unknown details regarding a recent unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, including news that Hamas had secured a commitment enabling its personnel to take up posts inside the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO is one of the parties with which Israel officially conducts peace negotiations, and is - in theory - bound to core obligations including the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel. Top Hamas figures have in recent days been unequivocal in emphasizing that any unity deal would see them maintaining their commitment to the eradication of the Jewish state. Balousha noted in Al-Monitor that Hamas's demand for a voice inside the body "had long been an obstacle to the implementation of all the previous agreements" but that "Abbas has seemingly made a concession" on the issue, with Hamas - in return - agreeing to yield any significant participation in the near-term Palestinian government that would guide the West Bank and Gaza Strip toward elections. Another aspect of the agreement would reportedly allow Hamas to "keep controlling the security forces in Gaza without any change or amendment," establishing a situation in which the terror group was allowed access to Palestinian institutions long backed by the West without having to yield - for instance - what are suspected to be tens of thousands of Iranian-supplied missiles and rockets. If confirmed, the description of the unity agreement is likely to reinforce growing analyst concerns that the unity deal amounts to a life-line thrown to the otherwise spiraling Hamas by the Western-backed Fatah faction.
The Times of Israel on Wednesday conveyed leaks from Israeli negotiators revealing that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had repeatedly rebuffed a series of Israeli proposals aimed at bridging the gaps regarding Jerusalem's long-standing condition that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state," describing the Palestinian leader and his negotiators as being "adamant in refusing to consider" a range of wordings that "would have described the Jewish people's and the Palestinian people's right to self-determination in precisely equivalent terms, and would have also included phrases to guarantee the rights of Israel’s Arab minority." The Times of Israel went on to describe the Israeli formula as one in which "both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people [would] mutually recognize each other's rights to sovereignty in the framework of an agreement that would end all remaining claims," noting that there would be a clause that "explicitly state[d] that a recognition of the Jewish state does not in any way impact on the status of non-Jewish Israelis, and does not coerce the Palestinians into accepting Israel’s historical narrative." The story, which is likely to deepen skepticism regarding Abbas's willingness to seal a comprehensive peace agreement, aligns with months of previous reporting. Abbas had been explicit in late March that he opposed "even holding a discussion" on Israel's demand, which was and is considered a proxy for the Palestinians' willingness to genuinely renounce claims against the Jewish state. The Palestinian leader had publicly underlined his stance as recently as April 26th, bluntly telling the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council that Palestinian negotiators would never acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. Agence France-Presse (AFP) secured a quote about Abbas's speech from Bassem Naim, an adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Naim told the wire that "[t]he speech had mostly positive points, and we cannot but support it on topics such as Jerusalem, reconciliation and not recognizing (Israel as) the Jewish state, in addition to the failure of (peace) negotiations."
Turkey has fallen into the "not free" category of countries ranked by Freedom House's annual "Freedom of the Press" survey, with the NGO watchdog citing a steady decline in how Ankara treats journalists - the "largest numerical change" in the region - while noting that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of December 1." The country has maintained its status as the world's top jailer of journalists for several years, and journalists who are not behind bars have been expelled from the country for criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party. A wave of expulsions last February took place amid a broader crackdown on free speech, triggering fears that a systematic sweep was underway. Multiple Turkish outlets covered the news revolving around Freedom House's ranking. Hurriyet Daily News wrote up its story under the headline "Turkey no longer even 'partly free,' according to press freedom report," and specifically cited portions of the NGO's report that discussed how "journalists were harassed while covering the Gezi Park protests and dozens were fired or forced to resign due to their coverage of sensitive issues." Zaman covered the same passages, and also described "several high-profile dismissals" of critics at top papers. Israel, meanwhile, was ranked by Freedom House as "free," marking the Jewish state as the only Mideast country with no significant media restrictions.
- Hamas stages "massive show of force" in West Bank as worries deepen that unity deal will revive group
A diplomatic spat between Turkey and Germany over the human rights policies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government escalated on Wednesday, as Turkish outlets conveyed critical remarks directed at Erdogan by German President Joachim Gauck regarding the behavior of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Gauck had had described himself as "horrified" at a range of recent crackdowns conducted by Ankara, from a massive purge of political opponents from the police and judiciary to ongoing calls and efforts aimed at blocking access to Twitter and YouTube to violent anti-demonstrator crackdowns. Erdogan had responded by mocking Gauck's former role as a former East German Lutheran pastor and doubling down on Ankara's policies, which had already generated suggestions from Berlin that Turkey was not yet ready to ascend to the European Union. Gauck responded Wednesday by declaring that he had actually "restrained himself" in offering his true views. Meanwhile U.S. officials piled on at Wednesday's State Department daily press briefing, with Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf describing conspiracy theories aired by Erdogan - in which the Islamist leader linked the U.S. to unrest in Egypt, Ukraine, and Turkey - as "ridiculous." Independent of controversies regarding human rights and civil liberties, Turkey's defense acquisition policies have also in recent months generated significant tension between Ankara and its traditional allies in Europe. The Turks have since the fall progressively inched forward on a deal that would see them purchase and integrate missile defense assets from China. One top NATO official described putting those systems online as the equivalent of introducing a virus into the alliance's command and control infrastructure. Separately, a speech given last week by Science, Industry and Technology Minister Fikri Isik - in which Isik said that Turkey was bolstering its indigenous production capabilities in order to avoid complications from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) - triggered concerns in the West that Ankara was seeking to circumvent binding non-proliferation treats.
Top Hamas figure: Palestinian president "is not telling them the truth" in assuring West over Palestinian unity government
- Top Hamas figure: Palestinian president "is not telling them the truth" in assuring West over Palestinian unity government
Reuters on Tuesday conveyed remarks made by Mahmoud Al-Zahar - a former Hamas foreign minister who the outlet described as one of the terror group's "most influential voices" - emphasizing that Hamas would maintain its commitment to the eradication of Israel in the aftermath of a recently revealed unity agreement with the rival Palestinian Fatah faction, and that the Palestinian government envisioned by the agreement would follow that rejectionist stance. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had earlier in the week declared that the unity cabinet would remain under his political and ideological control, and that he would ensure that it recognized Israel, fulfilled binding Palestinian treaty obligations, and renounced violence. The announcements - aimed at meeting international demands stretching back almost a decade that any such government accept those three Quartet conditions - were widely carried by international, Arab, and Israeli media outlets. The remarks prompted some diplomats to criticize the Israelis for having misread the situation, amid moves by Jerusalem to suspend talks pending the actual formation of the new Palestinian cabinet. Zahar belittled Abbas's assertions, telling Reuters that "Abbas is not telling them the truth [when he] says 'this is my government'... it is not his government" and that the Fatah leader's statements about the new cabinet accepting Israel were hollow. Zahar suggested that the promises were efforts "to minimize the pressure" that Abbas is feeling from the West and to "guarantee that U.S. financial support will continue." Meanwhile lawmakers on Tuesday advanced legislation that would cut off aid to the PA in the aftermath of the unity announcement, absent assurances that the PA had met a host of conditions including the Quartet conditions. The new bills advanced language that has existed in one form or another in U.S. law since at least 2006.
Iran is reportedly set to bust through oil sale caps set by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) for the sixth straight month, according to a report published late Tuesday by Reuters assessing that the Islamic republic will have managed to send abroad an average of 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude exports in April. The JPA permits Iran only 1 million bpd's, a level that Tehran has thus far exceeded every single month since the announcement of the deal. Reuters wrote up the April numbers under the headline "Iran's oil exports fall in April, closer to Western limits," a gesture toward administration assurances that Iranian energy exports will very shortly crash to such a degree that - by the end of the JPA's six-month negotiating period - the average figure for exports will indeed converge on Iran's permitted limits. Observers have expressed skepticism that the White House will have robust diplomatic options should those predictions prove over-optimistic, and have worried that in the meantime Western negotiating leverage is steadily eroding as Iran's economy improves and it reestablishes trade channels to outside markets. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Russia was seeking to create and then shore up exactly such channels, and that Moscow and Tehran had that weekend held talks aimed at making progress on "over $10 billion worth in electricity deals." The New York Times described the development as the "second significant economic collaboration under negotiation between the two countries that could undercut the efficacy of the sanctions on Iran," the first being a sanctions-busting $20 billion oil-for-goods deal. The news came on the heels of revelations that Iran and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq had just locked in an agreement under which they would trade natural gas for crude oil, and which would see the construction of at least two pipelines.
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to impose "an arms embargo on Syria’s government, as well as on any groups implicated in widespread or systematic human rights abuses," generally citing a surge in the deployment of so-called "barrel bombs" by the Bashar al-Assad regime and specifically describing two such attacks "on clearly marked official hospitals." The use of the helicopter-deployed IEDs - which are packed with explosives and shrapnel, and can level entire buildings with a single hit - had long ago been condemned as "barbaric" by Secretary of State John Kerry and as a "war crime" by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. The Syrian regime's Iranian backers, for their part, have celebrated the effectiveness of the weapons, and last December a Twitter account associated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards reportedly posted that "the easiest way to send infidels to hell is through [the] 'barrel of death'." Activists had in recent days sought to call attention to an increase in the tempo of barrel bomb attacks. Syrian forces had killed hundreds in the country's third largest city of Homs - where rebels were said to be making a "last desperate stand" - and in its largest population center, Aleppo. Reports that emerged regarding the Aleppo attacks, which included a strike on what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "clearly a market" filled with civilians, conveyed "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble." Tuesday separately saw at least 60 people killed in attacks across Homs and Damascus.
A recent announcement from a top Turkish official - in which Science, Industry, and Technology Minister Fikri Isik declared that Ankara will begin indigenously producing weapons in order to circumvent potential import restrictions from supplier countries - has left "Western diplomats and military officials... puzzled" over Turkey's intentions, according to a report on the speech by Hurriyet Daily News. Isik had given a speech in which he outlined a plan by Turkey to create a "national" factory that will produce "warheads, airplane bombs[,] and [600 tons of] plastic explosives," with the initiative supposed to be completed within the year. The impetus for the new facility, Isik explained, came from Turkish concerns that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) - which imposes import and export conditions on certain materials, and to which Ankara has been a party since 1997 - makes it more difficult for the Turks to build the weapons that they want. A NATO defense attache based in Ankara told Hurriyet that "the minister's statement is not clear for many reasons" and emphasized that "if Turkey is planning to bypass the MTCR... that would be worrying.” A Brussels-based NATO ambassador worried that "we are not sure what kind of ammunition Turkey intends to produce at this new factory, and why it hopes to bypass the MTCR." Hurriyet also spoke with a Turkey specialist who noted that Isik's remarks "can be interpreted in a way that Turkey may be targeting to exceed the limits specified in the treaty." Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have increasingly found themselves at odds with counterparts in fellow NATO countries. Plans to purchase missile defense assets from a Chinese company - the integration of which has been described as the equivalent of introducing a hostile virus into NATO's command and control infrastructure - have progressed despite vociferous criticism from top NATO officials. AKP officials have been unreceptive to Western calls to put off the deal, and last October Erdogan lashed out at critics of the sale. Top executives from European and U.S. defense firms this month traveled to lobby Turkish firms against the move, explaining that it would severely constrain future security cooperation.
Analysts: Hezbollah push for Lebanon off-shore drilling risks war with Israel "through miscalculation or intentional effort" at escalation
- Analysts: Hezbollah push for Lebanon off-shore drilling risks war with Israel "through miscalculation or intentional effort" at escalation
- Reports: Ongoing economic problems, human rights violations eroding Iran president's domestic support
- After Hamas unity deal, Palestinians announce intention to seek membership in 60 international groups, treaties
The Washington Examiner on Friday outlined a scenario under which the next war in the Middle East may break out as a result of what the outlet described as competing "Israeli and Lebanese claims over a potentially lucrative plot of [underwater] territory," with the recently formed Lebanese government set to "move ahead with decrees that signal the beginning of bidding for drilling rights" to energy resources underneath disputed waters along the Israel-Lebanon border. The outlet cited David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explaining that Jerusalem would have to react to any such Lebanese move, which would be an implicit claim of sovereignty that would in addition potentially cost the Israelis "billions of dollars of revenue." The Israeli daily financial newspaper Globes had already explained months ago that Israel would be "liable to lose territory if it does not object to the Lebanese acts in court, or even militarily," and Weinberg emphasized that "there's a very significant possibility that this could lead to increased tension on both sides, either as conflict through miscalculation, or an intentional effort by Hezbollah to escalate." The Examiner noted that the Israelis have deliberately "avoided issuing tenders" so as not to inflame the situation. Meanwhile Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah recently reemphasized that his Iran-backed terror group would seek a military confrontation with Israel and has claimed an April attack on Israeli soldiers. The group is widely thought to be seeking a way to rebuild its shattered brand as a Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty from Israel, and last October Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea slammed Hezbollah for trying to open "another front with Israel" by pressuring the Lebanese Energy Ministry - which it controlled by proxy - to issue drilling tenders to disputed waters. National Liberal Party leader Dori Chamoun piled on, accusing then-Energy Minister Gebran Bassil of being used by Hezbollah to among other things cause "another clash with Israel." Observers fear that Hezbollah has been specifically setting up a naval confrontation. The group has for years been accusing Israel of stealing Lebanon's energy resources - going so far as to describe Israel's Leviathan field as inside Lebanese waters - and has even warned that Lebanon's oil and gas sector was "becoming vulnerable to Israeli piracy" specifically by the "deliberate obstruction of issuing licenses." A February speech by Nasrallah saw him insisting at least three times that Israel is engaged in a plot to plunder Lebanese oil. Journal of Diplomacy’s Ziad Achkar noted in that context that a war over off-shore energy would be attractive for Nasrallah because it would allow him to "come off as Hero of Lebanon, defending resources where government can’t" and to justify holding on to advanced anti-ship weapons that Hezbollah uses to maintain its Lebanese state-within-a-state. Achkar situated the strategy as a "flashback to 2006, provoking Israeli war to regain public support that was dwindling."
Analysts through the weekend and into Monday continued to trace signs that - per a headline published at the top of one Agence France-Presse (AFP) story - Rouhani's "honeymoon" with the Iranian public was over amid evidence that he was either unable or unwilling to implement promised social reforms and economic improvements. AFP had last week reported on what the wire described as Rouhani's "first major political defeat," after 95 percent of Iranians chose to accept government hand-outs that his government had urged they forgo. The second AFP story, published on Sunday, assessed that "the public's goodwill towards [Rouhani] is showing the first signs of fading" due to stalled economic progress. Meanwhile the Jerusalem Post reported on the fallout from reports - which had recently been revealed by the Wall Street Journal - that there had recently been a mass beating of imprisoned Iranian dissidents incarcerated in the country's Evin prison. The Post described a growing movement to show solidarity with the political prisoners, dozens of whom had been sent to the hospital by the beatings, with "Iranian men and women posted pictures on social media of themselves with shaved head," a gesture developed after the publication of "a photograph of human rights lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani [who had been beaten in the raid] that showed him last week with a shaved head." The outlet also contextualized the developments against broader trends in the Islamic republic, suggesting that "with 25 percent of the Islamic Republic’s population unemployed or underemployed, the ingredients are present for mushrooming social unrest." Reports published on Saturday indicated that Iranian officials had officially banned the reformist newspaper Ebtekar, the third such move in recent months.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) on Sunday announced that the group's central committee had adopted a plan under which the Palestinians would seek to join 60 United Nations bodies and international treaties, per a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) subsequently cited in both Arabic and Israeli media. The moves came a day after Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech doubling down on a recent decision by his Fatah faction to reconcile with the rival Hamas group, and then offering to listen to Israel in the context of peace talks provided that Jerusalem would offer a raft of concessions beforehand. The speech fell flat. The Palestinian push to join international institutions - which reemerged in earnest at the beginning of April, with Abbas announcing that Ramallah would seek to ascend to over a dozen multilateral treaties - had quickly been criticized for fundamentally undermining the core gamble of the peace process. Several decades of Israeli-Arab peacemaking had been premised on the notion that Israel could reliably trade fundamentally irreversible tangible concessions, usually but not always land, for theoretically reversible intangible commitments, most often normalization. Palestinian moves to boost their diplomatic status outside of negotiations with Israel, which violate among other things Olso Accord obligations that Israel secured via territorial concessions spanning decades, were blasted for creating a situation in which those theoretically reversible intangible commitments were in fact pocketed. Independent of the peace process, the new move will deepen fears of what has been described as a kind of "scorched earth" campaign, under which Palestinian diplomats ascend to and then politicize international institutions, turning them against Israel and in the process endangering their neutrality and credibility. U.S. lawmakers had expressed exactly such fears when the Palestinians sought and eventually secured an upgrade via the United Nations General Assembly to become a nonmember state. Ramallah had previously gained a seat at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) over similar U.S. objections, triggering a congressional backlash that financially crippled UNESCO. By 2014 - after several sessions in which Israel was subject to lopsided criticism by the body - Palestinian media outlets were openly boasting about how the organization was now focused on pursuing anti-Israel resolutions and investigations.
A weekend scoop by The Daily Beast documenting off-the-record comments made by Secretary of State John Kerry to influential world leaders - in which Washington's top diplomat was recorded saying that Israel may become an "apartheid state" should it fail to quickly secure a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - put the State Department on the defensive Monday, with journalists, lawmakers, and Israel-focused organizations from across the political spectrum questioning the wisdom of the remarks. The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) expressed "deep disappointment" and called on Kerry to apologize, while the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) described the statements as "deeply troubling" and suggested that "the true focus of those who support peace should be on urging President Abbas to revoke his destructive agreement with the terrorist organization Hamas." The AIPAC statement also cited 2008 statements by President Barack Obama that "injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn’t advance [the] goal" of securing peace between Israel and its neighbors, and that the term is "emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and... not what I believe." The Anti-Defamation League quickly declared it "startling and deeply disappointing that... [Kerry] chose to use such an inaccurate and incendiary term." The Emergency Committee for Israel - which has been historically critical of the administration for seeking to put distance between Washington and Jerusalem - called on Kerry to resign or be fired, a stance echoed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee - who has been clear that he thinks the controversy is overblown, and who has been harshly critical of some of the groups that have blasted Kerry - nonetheless on Monday pressed State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki on the wisdom of Kerry's remarks. Lee conveyed criticisms from both supporters and detractors of Israel, ultimately asking whether using 'apartheid' was "smart" given that the move was "going to cause him a lot of grief." Psaki declined to answer a question about whether Kerry appreciated that such rhetoric - even if suggesting a future scenario - was out of step with "American officials, who are supposed to be... neutral — you know, the arbiter, the honest broker." In response to a question about why Kerry was unwilling to cede to the demands of pro-Palestinian advocates who insist that Israel is already an apartheid state, Psaki bluntly stated that Kerry "believes that Israel is a vibrant democracy with equal rights for its citizens."
- Reports: Turkey opens gates to Iran banks "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions"
- Human rights activists accuse Syrian regime of deliberately targeting civilians as wave of barrel bomb attacks kills scores
A meeting of top Israeli political leaders on Thursday, called in order to chart Jerusalem's response to a Wednesday announcement by Palestinian leaders that the rival Fatah and Hamas factions had agreed to a deal that would see the formation of a unity government with members from both groups, concluded with a decision to suspend peace talks until the composition of that government was solidified. The Israeli move was not unexpected. Top figures from Hamas had already declared that the unity government would not see the group accepting the Palestinian Authority's obligations toward Israel, including the recognition of its right to exist and a renunciation of violence. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday emphasized to reporters no fewer than four times that Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist," and the Israelis for their part had declared that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would have to choose between ongoing peace talks and an embrace of Hamas. Al Monitor assessed Wednesday that the agreement had been "the last straw for Congress" regarding perceptions of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in general, and more specifically regarding the degree to which the United States should continue extending assistance to an Abbas-led PA. The piece quoted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) - who had authored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which conditioned aid to any Palestinian government on the absence of terrorists in leadership positions - declaring that "the Administration must halt aid to the Palestinian Authority and condition any future assistance as leverage to force Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to abandon this reconciliation with Hamas and to implement real reforms within the PA." It also quoted Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart on the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East, Ted Deutch (D-FL), emphasizing that observers should "[b]e certain that the Palestinian Authority will face significant consequences if a unity government is formed that includes terrorist members of Hamas." Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, tersely stated that Abbas's reconciliation move "jeopardizes US assistance." Al Monitor also conveyed details of a conference call held Wednesday by The Israel Project (TIP) in which Hillel Frisch, a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, had explained to reporters that a Palestinian unity government was in fact a vital prerequisite to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, but that it could not come at the expense of the Palestinians meeting their past obligations to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The alternative would be tantamount to Palestinian negotiators having spent decades extracting functionally irreversible concessions from Israel at the negotiating table, before pocketing those concessions and then abrogating the commitments.
Turkish outlet Today's Zaman on Tuesday described a rush by Iranian banks to open and expand branches in Turkey in the aftermath of "growth restrictions" being lifted, a decision that the outlet explained was made by the country's Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions after headway was made in negotiations regarding the curbing of Iran's nuclear program." Bank Mellat - which had been contracting due to sanctions-linked restrictions starting in 2012 - was cleared for expansion, a development that was followed by applications from two other Iranian banks that intend to open up in Turkey. The applications were approved. A report published in February by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), identified Turkey as a key global hub of illicit and terrorist financing, and the country has long been criticized for providing Iran both direct resources and financial channels with which to circumvent Western sanctions placed on the Islamic republic. Top officials from the Treasury Department rushed to Ankara in the aftermath of the implementation of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which eroded sanctions against Iran - to warn the Turks that "Iran is not open for business" and that "[b]usinesses interested in engaging in Iran really should hold off." Turkish outlet The Daily Sabah reported this week that, according to Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Alireza Bigdeli, Tehran and Ankara are now set to establish a free trade zone.
CNN on Thursday reported that forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime had, as part of an ongoing attack on the country's largest city, Aleppo, dropped barrel bombs out of helicopters on a vegetable market, killing at least 24 people. Activists and human rights workers distributed video of what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble in what was clearly a market" including an image of "a man attending to a boy whose leg had been ripped off." The wire clarified that "it was unclear whether the child was alive or dead," and also conveyed the assessment of an Aleppo-based activist who explained that "the area that was struck today is a market area, that's why there were so many civilians killed... the regime is hitting back against the civilians who support the revolt." The news comes just days after reports of a similar Monday attack that killed at least 29 people in a single Aleppo neighborhood. The regime's use of the mass-casualty shrapnel-packed IEDs - which can quite literally level entire buildings with a single hit - has consistently been emphasized by analysts and lawmakers as a particularly compelling justification for more robust Western intervention on behalf of opposition elements. Syrian forces also launched airstrikes on Atareb, injuring dozens, and on the nearby village of Tal Rifaat. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that, alongside the violence, almost 3.5 million civilians have little to no access to humanitarian aid.
Palestinian fighters on Thursday detonated a bomb along the northern border of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and launched a mortar shell at an IDF unit operating along the southern border of the territory, developments that the Jerusalem Post contextualized alongside new figures that show that there has been a "major upsurge in projectile attacks" against Israeli soldiers and civilians during 2014. Palestinian media outlets noted that the device was "apparently targeting patrolling Israeli soldiers." Thursday also saw the discovery of two additional bombs that had been planted along the territory's southern border with Israel. The incidents came a day after the Israelis had targeted what Reuters - conveying Israeli military reports - described as "a militant riding on a motorcycle in northern Gaza, from where rockets are often shot at Israel." Missiles and rockets had also been directed at Israeli troops and population centers on Monday, drawing both retaliatory and suppression fire that reportedly wounded four Hamas members. Those barrages, in turn, had been preceded by an attack on Sunday in which Palestinians detonated a bomb near an Israeli patrol and launched at least seven rockets into Israel. The Washington Post read the escalation against the backdrop of a more general uptick in rocket and missile fire, noting that "Gaza militants fired the heaviest barrages" in March since Israel's November 2012 Pillar of Defense campaign, during which Israeli forces decimated much of Hamas's advanced arsenal and its command and control infrastructure.
Iran atomic agency spokesman: Uranium enrichment concessions could be reversed "within two to three weeks"
- Iran atomic agency spokesman: Uranium enrichment concessions could be reversed "within two to three weeks"
- Beirut claims progress in relieving Lebanese town besieged by Hezbollah, bombed by Hezbollah-backed Syrian forces
A top official linked to Iran's atomic agency bragged this week that a critical uranium-related concession made by Tehran under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) could be reversed "within two to three weeks," part of a broader speech that included boasts about the quality of new Iranian centrifuges - a twentyfold increase in enrichment capacity - and the creation of new Russian-built energy plants. Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), declared that oxidizing portions of Iran's 5 percent stockpile - which Iran is obligated to do under the JPA - does not prevent Iran from "transform[ing] our 5% uranium to 20% within two to three weeks if needed." Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-born analyst and currently an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, bluntly assessed the speech as a statement that the Iranian regime views the JPA as a deal in which "all the advantages accrue to Tehran." The JPA requires Iran to turn portions of its 5 percent and 20 percent pure uranium stockpiles into uranium oxide, temporarily preventing that stock from being enriched further. Regarding its 20 percent stockpile, Iran is obligated to either dilute the material back down to 5 percent ("downblending") or to oxidize it at 20 percent. Regarding its 5 percent stockpile, Iran is obligated to ensure that - at the end of the JPA's six-month negotiation period - there is only as much of that stock on hand as there was at beginning of the deal's implementation. Iran is permitted unlimited enrichment to 5 percent, but the new material that's created has to be oxidized until the total amount of 5 percent pure stock is equal to what it was when the JPA period began. The deal was touted by the Obama administration as putting "time on the clock" by "freezing" the Iranian nuclear program, ensuring Tehran could not use the negotiation period to inch closer to creating 90 percent enriched weapons-grade uranium. Skepticism regarding the robustness of the JPA emerged in the days immediately following the announcement agreement, was sharpened by what appeared to be several places in which the administration had either misunderstood or misled the public about Iranian obligations, and will be fueled further by Kamalvandi's comments. His remarks about the enrichment capacity of next-generation centrifuges are likely to prove particularly problematic, inasmuch as Iran controversially maneuvered the West into allowing continued development of advanced centrifuges under the JPA. A report published last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) introduced an additional complication, revealing that the commissioning of a facility designed to convert 5 percent enriched gas into oxide - this is the facility that was supposed to ensure that Iran stayed under the JPA's cap for un-oxidized uranium, even as its scientists continued to enrich unlimited amounts of the material - had been put off. No reason was given for the delay. Kamalvandi's remarks will in any case be seen as underscoring that the JPA may well leave Iran with more enriched uranium and with more centrifuges, which will themselves be more advanced than previous technology. Should the conversion facility finally open, the difference will be that the additional enriched material will be in oxide form. Mark Hibbs, writing on the Arms Control Wonk blog partially sponsored by the left-leaning Ploughshares Fund, had already pointed out last April that Iran could use existing facilities to reverse the oxidization process, and that such reconversion would only take a few weeks.
The Associated Press on Tuesday described Syrian rebels as "making their last desperate stand in Homs," as forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime pressed what has been an unsteady march of advances across the war-torn country. The wire conveyed assessments by analysts predicting that the city could fall to the regime "[i]n the next few days." Homs, which is Syria's third largest city, has been a strategically critical hotspot for much of the country's roughly three-year-long conflict. It links Damascus with Aleppo, the country's largest population center, and a city that itself saw dozens killed this week by Syrian airstrikes. The attacks reportedly deployed mass casualty barrel bombs, helicopter-deployed shrapnel-packed IEDs that have been condemned as "barbaric" by Secretary of State John Kerry and as a "war crime" by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Meanwhile Mohammad al-Lahham, the president of the Syrian parliament, announced Monday that the country's presidential elections would be held on June 3, promising that the process would be "free and fair." Al Arabiya opened its coverage of the statement by noting that "[t]he United Nations harshly criticized" the decision, conveying comments from both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi to that effect. Opposition elements for their part denounced the election as a "farce." A range of observers, including Brahimi himself, expressed concerns that spectacles aimed at consolidating the legitimacy of the Assad regime would undermine negotiations aimed at ending the conflict. Talks held earlier this year, which took place alongside reports of new atrocities being committed by Syrian forces, ended in deadlock.
Top Palestinian figures spent much of Tuesday walking back statements - aired in recent days by a range of Palestinian Authority (PA) figures, including reportedly by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself - threatening to dissolve the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) if Israel refused to make sufficient concessions to entice Ramallah to rejoin peace talks. The comments had generated exasperated eye rolls from the Israeli political echelon, and led State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki to emphasize that Washington would be forced to reevaluate its relationship with the Palestinians should they make good on their threats. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Agence France Presse (AFP) that "[n]o Palestinian is speaking of an initiative to dismantle" the PNA, a move that would force either the Israeli government or the international community to fill in and take control. Abbas himself echoed the point in talks with reporters. Veteran Israeli analyst Avi Issacharoff noted that threats to dissolve the PNA are part of a "recurrent ritual" leveraged by Palestinian negotiators, and outlined both political and financial considerations that would likely constrain such a move. Issacharoff specifically suggested that "PA officials benefit financially from the existence of the PA and, in addition to their salary, enjoy many economic bonuses that come with their jobs — via connections with Israel, involvement in economic projects, and so on." The Israel HaYom newspaper editorialized that - more specifically - Palestinian leaders waiting in the wings to take over for Abbas, and thereby to gain access to "the royal honors and red carpets... [and] the donations from around the world," would not permit him to dissolve the PA.
The Lebanese government on Tuesday reported progress in providing relief to residents of the besieged border town of Tfail, a remote Lebanese outpost functionally accessible only via Syrian roads, has been subject to isolation and bombardment by Hezbollah-backed forces fighting on behalf of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The Iran-directed terror group has sought to seal portions of the Lebanon-Syria border as part of an effort to contain sectarian blowback generated by its support of Assad. A Lebanese army official explained to the Associated Press that, as a result of Hezbollah's tactics, Tfail had at times been severed from the rest of Lebanon. The country's NOW outlet went further, describing how over 4,000 Lebanese citizens and thousands of Syrian refugees in the town had "lived without supplies of food, electricity, shelter, or aid for four months." The siege had in recent days escalated to active cross-border shelling, sending residents fleeing into the surrounding landscape. Beirut had committed to trying to alleviate the situation and on Tuesday a convoy of food and aid was able to enter the town. The Syrian attack on Tfail took place alongside several other recent cross-border attacks by Assad-linked forces. The dynamic is particularly problematic for Hezbollah, which for years had sought to brand itself - occasionally with help from elements of the Western foreign policy establishment - as an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese territory from military violations. There are open debates, however, about the degree to which damage to Hezbollah's image will affect its political position inside Lebanon generally, or more specifically its maneuvering in anticipation of upcoming presidential elections. The group has not been subtle in leveraging its superiority in arms and infrastructure to politically paralyze Lebanon in order to achieve its objectives. It is widely expected that Beirut faces at least a short-term deadlock in selecting a new president.
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.