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.
Top former Obama advisors: White House, Congress must signal consequences to Iran if negotiations fail
- Top former Obama advisors: White House, Congress must signal consequences to Iran if negotiations fail
- Palestinian president rejects Kerry request to reverse negotiations-wrecking diplomatic gambit, boasts that Israel diplomatic moves "scare no one"
- Diplomatic meeting put off as diplomats, analysts, journalists worry that Erdogan driving permanent wedge between Ankara and Brussels
- Lebanese leaders scramble to convince Hezbollah to stand down destabilizing Resistance Brigades militia
The Wall Street Journal on Friday morning conveyed comments by former Obama administration advisers Robert Einhorn and Dennis Ross calling on the Obama administration and Congress - per the outlet - "to increase the threat of using military force against Tehran if talks aimed at curbing its nuclear program fail – or the country’s Islamist government is caught cheating on the terms of an agreement." The Journal noted that while the two are "both strong proponents of President Barack Obama‘s diplomacy with Iran," existing and persistent gaps between the P5+1 global powers and Iran have reinforced diplomatic unease over whether negotiations can convince Tehran to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Their remarks came during the launch of a new paper authored by Einhorn and released by the Brookings Institute - where Einhorn is a senior fellow - calling for [PDF] a range of Congressional actions, including a prior authorization for the President to use military force should Iran attempt to sneak across the nuclear finish line. Ross elaborated during the study's launch that "the Iranians must see the consequences, not just of cheating if there is an agreement, but the failure of diplomacy," and that "the more we demonstrate resolve, including by talking about consequences of violations... the more we signal to the Iranians that we mean what we say... that will be key if we are to produce an agreement in the first place." Top Iranian officials have repeatedly emphasized that Tehran will refuse to dismantle nuclear centrifuges, downgrade its plutonium-producing Arak reactor, or make concessions regarding ballistic missile development. Western analysts - including Einhorn in his new report as well as U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security head David Albright - have assessed that any robust agreement on Iran would have to include the dismantlement of tens of thousands of centrifuges, the modification of the Arak reactor, and at a minimum confidence-building measures on ballistic missiles.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday rejected a request from Secretary of State John Kerry to reverse his position - announced earlier this week at what the Associated Press described as a "hastily convened" press conference - to turn to the United Nations and join 15 international treaties as the "State of Palestine," telling the U.S.'s top diplomat that he was unafraid of diplomatic retaliation from Jerusalem because "Israel's threats scare no one." The expression of bravado comes two days after Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki bragged to reporters that he didn't "expect any consequences coming from the U.S. Congress... at all" in response to the Palestinians' diplomatic gambit, which among other things violated commitments made by Ramallah in the context of a nine-month U.S. peace push and, more broadly, under the Oslo Accords. Analysts and journalists have in recent days expressed increasingly public worries regarding Palestinian recklessness. Veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff assessed on Wednesday that "what appears to be an attempt to pressure Israel and the US could easily inflame the Palestinian street," triggering a spiral of responses and reactions that "could push Abbas and the Palestinian leadership once again up a tree from which it would be hard to climb down." Issacharoff emphasized that heightening unrealistic expectations for territorial and diplomatic gains risked triggering an eruption of public anger "on the Palestinian street [that] could be directed at Ramallah and Abbas first, even before Israel." Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party supports renewed and ongoing negotiations, worried that a list of new Palestinian demands presented yesterday - widely and immediately seen as nonstarters - was evidence that Abbas was working against his interests. State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Friday that the United States remained committed to pursuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, though the Washington Post had previously reported that Kerry was likely to "lower the volume and see how things unfold."
Hurriyet Daily News reported on Friday that a planned meeting between European Union (EU) and Turkish officials is set to be postponed because diplomatic interactions between the parties are currently more likely to worsen relations rather than improve them, amid EU unease over recent moves by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to ban social media, turn water cannons on protesters, threaten to make political rivals "pay" for their opposition, impose conditions regarding when the EU is permitted to criticize Ankara, and so on. The outlet quoted an EU diplomat predicting that 'the relationship would go from bad to worse' if a meeting of the Turkey-EU Association Committee was held next week as originally planned. The news comes just a day after veteran New York Times correspondent Alan Cowell assessed that Turkey under Erdogan had "turned its back on the EU," and that upcoming elections "may deepen its estrangement." Cowell quoted Andreas Scheuer, a prominent German politician, tersely suggesting that "it is becoming clear that Erdogan's Turkey does not belong to Europe." He also quoted Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall worrying that Erdogan's moves to retain power may serve to undermine political freedoms and deepen internal Turkish divisions. Meanwhile Sohrab Ahmari, an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, called on European conservatives to shun the AKP, citing among other things the Islamist party's "contempt for such core conservative principles as individual liberty and separation of powers."
Lebanon's Daily Star on Friday reported that religious and political figures from the Lebanese city of Sidon have been traveling to Hezbollah's offices in Beirut to try to convince Hezbollah leaders to reverse their recent decision to reactivate and boost the activities of the organization's Resistance Brigades inside Sidon. The Daily Star cited local political sources worrying that 'the move could disrupt the relative calm of the last few months.' The militia, created by Hezbollah in 2009, has been a source of tension inside Lebanon in general, and specifically in Sidon. Hezbollah let it be known through Lebanese media that - in response to local concerns over the thuggishness of Resistance Brigades members - it was disbanding the militias in Sidon. Those reports turned out to be false, and in December Hezbollah reportedly ordered a "general mobilization" of Resistance Brigades fighters in response to a possible "snowball" of Sunni-Shiite conflict. The gangs were deployed a few weeks ago against several Sunni towns in Lebanon, after Hezbollah seized the strategically critical Syrian border city of Yabroud. Hanin Ghaddar - the managing editor of the Lebanese-focused NOW outlet - described the sudden upsurge in violence as Hezbollah spiking the football, writing that the group "needed to prove that its conquest of Yabroud would bear fruit on the ground in Lebanon... [after] the Lebanese people, mainly the Shiite community, had stopped buying into theatrical propaganda."
Reports: "Surprise move" by Palestinians to renew UN diplomatic warfare endangers peace process, U.S. interests
- Reports: "Surprise move" by Palestinians to renew UN diplomatic warfare endangers peace process, U.S. interests
- New figures estimate over 150,000 dead in Syria, as analysts warn Hezbollah involvement "could fan flames into a wider regional conflict"
The Associated Press reported late Tuesday on what the outlet described as a "surprise move" by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to go to a range of United Nations bodies requesting membership for the "State of Palestine." The AP noted that the declaration came "despite a promise to suspend such efforts during nine months of negotiations with Israel," and that it risked collapsing the delicate U.S.-backed effort to push forward a framework peace agreement. Israel had in recent days made an offer to extend talks, and had even reportedly teed up another prisoner release aimed at securing further negotiations. The Israelis had undertaken three previous rounds of releases to bring the Palestinians to the table and keep them there. The Israeli offer to extend talks was rejected, and the Palestinian announcement that they were turning to the UN came within days. Abbas said that he would like to continue pursuing negotiations with the Israelis despite the Palestinian gambit. The position is likely to come off as too clever by half. The entire basis of the nine month-long U.S.-backed peace initiative was that the Palestinians would abstain from seeking membership in UN institutions. Kerry almost immediately canceled a planned trip to Ramallah, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, in light of Abbas's decision. Any Palestinian success would immediately trigger black-letter U.S. laws that cut off funds to UN bodies that give the Palestinians membership. U.S. diplomats, hoping to avoid such confrontations, have long opposed unilateral moves by the Palestinians to gain membership in UN institutions. A Heritage Foundation report co-authored by Brett D. Schaefer and James Phillips a few years ago went even further, bluntly identifying past unilateral moves as "threaten[ing] United States and Israeli interests" and "undermin[ing] all internationally accepted frameworks for peace." Palestinian gambits at the UN have more pointedly been seen as corroding the basic framework of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The land-for-peace formula requires the Israelis to give up tangible, functionally irreversible concessions in exchange for Palestinian commitments. The fear has always been that the Palestinians will negotiate only as long as they can extract territory or prisoners, and that they will then pocket what they've gained and walk away. Abbas’s moves seem set to confirm those fears.
Iran's Fars News outlet reported on Tuesday that Tehran is aggressively courting foreign investors, conveying among other things statements made by Valiollah Afkhamirad, the head of Iran’s Trade Development Organization, declaring that the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) inked last November in Geneva had created "a suitable atmosphere... [for] investors in Iran and they have become highly interested in business" with the Islamic Republic. The article more specifically discussed a call made on Monday by Mahmoud Vaezi, Iran's Minister of Communications and Information Technology, emphasizing that "Iran has invited world countries to invest and collaborate in projects to establish partnerships for ultra broadband corridors" across the country. The calls echo a February boast by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif announcing that the sanctions relief outlined by the JPA had transformed Iran into a place that was "open for business." They came alongside other reports describing a "steady flow of Western executives" into Iran. Meanwhile British financial reporter Matt Lynn assessed on MarketWatch that Iran seems primed to become "one of the hottest investment opportunities of the next two decades." The Iranian strategy seems primed to deepen a very particular worry regarding the possibility that the JPA's partial erosion of the international sanctions regime will prevent financial pressure from being reimposed on Iran: Foreign entities that become invested in Iranian markets are likely to mobilize political pressure to prevent any moves to close those markets back off. Brookings fellow Michael Doran had already in January speculated that the JPA "has created an influential economic lobby in the West dedicated to ensuring" that sanctions are not tightened again. Such concerns have become more pitched in recent months, as Iran has moved in to encourage foreign investment across a range of industries.
Turkish security officials on Tuesday turned water cannons on protestors marching in reaction to widespread allegations that this weekend's local elections - which saw the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan secure a plurality of the votes - were marked by fraud, intimidation, and mysterious power outages in opposition-heavy districts. Residents of the Turkey’s Duzici district, where the AKP candidate beat his nearest opponent by 440 votes, reported finding discarded ballots marked for an opposition party in at least six area polling stations. Reports of power outages were brushed off by municipal authorities as mostly the result of bad weather or - in one case - a rogue feline. Ankara, where the AKP candidate defeated the next opponent by less than a percentage point, was one of several cities in which protestors demanded recounts. The election had already been marked by irregularities, most prominently a government ban against Twitter and YouTube that had generated global ridicule and international condemnation. The new controversies, to say nothing of the government's response to those controversies, are unlikely to dampen growing criticism that Turkey has more or less ceased to be a functioning liberal democracy. In late February over 80 top U.S. foreign policy figures called on President Barack Obama to take action to halt "Turkey’s current path," and declared that "silence will only encourage Prime Minister Erdogan to diminish the rule of law in the country even further."
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Tuesday conveyed recent figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) assessing that more than 150,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, amid another string of prominently reported gains by forces fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Exact figures have been notoriously difficult to come by - the United Nations has quite literally stopped trying to tally the deaths - but SOHR calculated that the numbers include over 7,900 children. On Monday Al Arabiya reported that pro-regime forces had "recaptured on Monday a key position in the coastal province of Latakia," a victory that came shortly after "government forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters... triumphed against the opposition along the border area with Lebanon." The victories were seen as critical to Hezbollah's effort to stop the transit of Sunni jihadists across the Lebanon-Syria border, and triggered what local media described as "an atmosphere of contentment" in areas of Lebanon controlled by the Iran-backed terror group. Washington Institute Senior Fellow Andrew Tabler on Tuesday nonetheless emphasized that Hezbollah's activities in Syria were hardening sectarian divisions in Lebanon, with the result being "increased suicide car bombings, Sunni-Shiite tension, and armed clashes." The resulting political instability, according to Tabler, "could fan the flames into a wider regional conflict that Hezbollah and Iran cannot put out and cannot afford."
New York, Sept 20 – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not nailed down the nine votes he needs in the United Nations Security Council to even get the world body to vote on his unilateral bid for full U.N. membership, western diplomats said this week.
One western ambassador said that according to his count, the Palestinians were at least one and possibly two votes short, with several members of the Security Council yet to announce their positions. Abbas has said he would formally submit the membership bid after delivering a speech to the United Nations on Friday.
“After all this time, the Palestinians have still not secured nine votes,” the senior diplomat said in a conversation with representatives from The Israel Project. Other sources said an actual vote might be put on hold for several weeks to allow the parties to avoid a showdown.
The Palestinian bid for membership is certain to fail in any case because the United States has promised to veto the resolution if necessary. Like Israel, President Barack Obama has made it clear that the U.N. move is a distraction and that peace can only be achieved through negotiations.
Under Security Council rules, a resolution requires nine positive votes and no vetoes from any of the permanent five members in order to win approval. The United States, Germany and Colombia are expected to oppose. Britain, France, Portugal, Bosnia, Nigeria and Gabon have not announced their positions.
"We decided to take this step and all hell has broke out against us,"Abbas said on Monday. "From now until I give the speech, we have only one choice: going to the Security Council. Afterwards, we will sit and decide."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address the United Nations shortly after Abbas on Friday. “I think we should go there and present our truth… of a people attacked over and over by those opposed to their very existence. That is the most basic truth," he said before leaving Israel.
Also on Tuesday, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, said in an interview that Israel “is ready to negotiate tomorrow,” with the Palestinians.
Prosor discussed attempts to arrange a meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu while they were both in New York.
“We repeat that we are ready for negotiations with no conditions even early tomorrow morning,” the Israel envoy said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said diplomats were still hoping to avert a crisis. A vote would be unlikely to take place on Friday, giving time for diplomacy aimed at restarting peace talks, he told Europe 1 radio.
"There's a procedure for dealing with such requests and it can take a few days or weeks more, which means there is room for other initiatives," Juppe said. "We hope to find a way of convincing all involved to get back around the negotiating table, and in a serious fashion."
If Abbas fails to muster nine votes in the Security Council, that would be seen as a stinging defeat. He could then go to the General Assembly and win a symbolic majority with the backing of non-aligned states, many of which are also non-democratic – but GA decisions are not binding on the world body and have no significance under international law.
Abbas also has to deal with the possible economic fallout of his move for the people of the West Bank. The U.S. Congress may cut the roughly $500 million in U.S. aid per year to the Palestinians if they go ahead with their U.N. bid.
"Really, the risk of PA collapse is very real under the financial strain," said Jihad al-Wazir, the Palestinian Authority's central bank chief.
Saudi Arabia said on Monday it would pay the Palestinian Authority $200 million, which could help in the short term but would not fully replace lost U.S. funding.
New evidence of sanctions-busting Iran-Turkey cooperation complicates White House sanctions position
- New evidence of sanctions-busting Iran-Turkey cooperation complicates White House sanctions position
- Analysts pile on concerns that Iran nuke deal will collapse sanctions regime without further action
- Journalists press State Dept. over silence in response to anti-Israel incitement by chief Palestinian negotiator
- Explosion at Palestinian embassy prompts accusations of gun running, violating international norms
What we’re watching today:
- The Commerce Department scrambled today to issue what Reuters described as "a rare emergency order" designed to block a Turkish-based company from illegally passing along two U.S.-build commercial jet engines to Iran's Pouya airline. The broad order - which names multiple companies and would impose crippling consequences for any violations - comes amid deepening concern that extensive cooperation between Ankara and Tehran has allowed the Islamic republic to skirt international sanctions designed to force Iran to change its stance on its nuclear program. The Daily Beast assessed in late December that the open political warfare shaking Turkey - which has pitted elites in the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party against followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen - "could destabilize [President Barack] Obama's nuclear deal and threaten the government of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan." Judiciary figures linked to Gulen are pursuing a corruption probe that has already ensnared AKP elites, and that unearthed an oil-for-cash scheme between Tehran and Ankara that - per the Daily Beast - "may only be start of more uncomfortable disclosures about Iranian dealings in Turkey." Fully one-sixth of companies that began investing in Turkey in 2013 were backed by Iranian money, and Turkish outlet Zaman outlined over the weekend how Turkey and Iran building mechanisms to further boost their cooperation in the coming weeks and months. The domestic political stakes in the United States are fairly straightforward. A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced legislation that would boost U.S. leverage in negotiations with Iran by codifying future sanctions should Iran either cheat during an upcoming six-month negotiation period or, after negotiations conclude, refuse to put its nuclear program verifiably beyond use for weaponization. The Obama administration has fiercely fought the legislation, insisting that the remaining sanctions against Iran are sufficient and holding. Evidence that Iran is able to successfully maneuver around international sanctions is likely to deepen skepticism toward the White House's position.
- The Jerusalem Post described over the weekend how the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) announced in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 global powers has "opened the investment floodgates for Western companies seeking to capitalize on a new business environment in Iran," the latest in what has become a stream of analysis suggesting that the financial relief provided to Iran under the JPA has triggered a feeding frenzy of entities seeking to be the first - or at the very least, not the last - to re-enter Iran's markets. Analysis published last week in Der Spiegel noted that "although none of the sanctions have been lifted, droves of Western business people are already flocking to Tehran." A week before that the Washington Post reported that the U.A.E. was scrambling to co-develop energy resources with Iran. Earlier in December Patrick Blain, president of the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, predicted that "international investors are expected to re-enter Iran’s market soon." For its part the Jerusalem Post quoted Bar-Ilan University professor Gerald M. Steinberg assessing that "the gold rush is on to resume business as usual" and Brookings Institute senior Michael Doran explaining that the Western position "has sent a clear message that doing business with Iran is now legitimate... creat[ing] an influential economic lobby in the West dedicated to ensuring that the Americans and Iranians remain on that path." The Post also quoted Tommy Steiner, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, emphasizing that the dynamic "undercuts the negotiating posture of the US and the EU in the next round of negotiations." Concerns over the extent to which the U.S. will have leverage in upcoming negotiations have direct political stakes in Washington, with the House and a bipartisan group of senators insisting that new legislation must be passed to bolster the sanctions regime should Iran refuse to meet its international obligations to dismantle its nuclear program.
- Comments made last Friday by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat - in which Erekat accused Israel of poisoning former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and expressed concerns that Jerusalem would similarly kill sitting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - became fodder for a tense exchange at today's State Department briefing, with journalists pressing Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf on Washington's stance regarding Palestinian incitement. A spike in Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians has deepened Jerusalem's concerns regarding statements and actions made by top Palestinian figures that demonize Israel and celebrate violence. Abbas, for instance, has embraced Palestinian terrorists freed in both December and October as "heroes." Israel's cabinet this weekend blasted what Israeli officials described as the Palestinian "culture of hate," and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had declared the previous week that "true peace cannot exist without stopping the incitement against Israel and educating for peace." At today's briefing, journalists questioned Harf over the State Department's refusal to publicly condemn Erekat's Friday comments, asking among other things why Foggy Bottom refused to be forthright in declaring that the obviously false conspiracy theory regarding Arafat's death was not just false but also "certainly not the kind of thing that prepares or helps prepare the Palestinian people for... an eventual peace deal." Harf responded by delineating between public and private conversations, prompting journalists to ask whether Washington, as a declared "honest broker," had "an obligation to speak out when someone says something that is not honest, when something is dishonest." Harf eventually said that she had not yet seen Erekat's comments and would examine them further. By the end of the afternoon Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee noted that that State Department was continuing to resist taking a public position on the incident specifically or more broadly on Israeli complaints regarding Palestinian incitement.
- Last week's strange episode in the Palestinian embassy in the Prague, in which the Palestinian ambassador to the Czech Republic was killed by an explosion inside the building, escalated over the weekend into a potential scandal as reports emerged that Palestinians may be using the country as a transit point for European weapons smuggling. Jamal al-Jamal was killed last week when materials that were being kept in an embassy safe exploded, fatally injuring the Palestinian official. Conflicting details about the incident almost instantly emerged, with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki saying the safe had not been used for decades and Palestinian Embassy spokesman Nabil El-Fahel insisting on Czech radio that it "was used on a daily basis... and was opened and closed almost every day." On Saturday a Czech media outlet published statements by the country's former chief-of-staff Jiri Sedivy describing the weapons storage as a "blatant violation of diplomatic norms and habits" and speculating that "maybe the affair in question involves a well organised weapons and explosives distribution network." The statements came amid reports that Czech officials had found roughly 70 unregistered weapons in the embassy. Suspicions that the Palestinians severely breached international norms are likely to deepen concerns that the Palestinian Authority lacks sufficiently robust political institutions to declare and sustain an independent Palestinian state.
Controversy swirls in Congress as House moves to reframe Iran agreement, Senate delays sanctions legislation
- Controversy swirls in Congress as House moves to reframe Iran agreement, Senate delays sanctions legislation
- European Union audit blasts Palestinian funding, demands overhaul of program elements
- Amid controversy over negotiations, investigators confirm chemical weapons use in Syria
- NYT: Suez attack latest in "string of car bombs and suicide attacks" in Egypt, as government moves toward vote on new constitution
What we’re watching today:
- The Washington Free Beacon late on Wednesday published details of measures emerging from the House of Representatives seeking to - per the outlet - "reset the terms of a controversial nuclear accord reached between Iran and Western nations several weeks ago in Geneva." Language that emerged Thursday evening from the office of Rep. Peter Roskan (R-IL) sought to circumscribe a future deal between global powers and the Islamic republic, and received bipartisan backing from Reps. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Gene Green (D-TX), and Dan Lipinski (D-IL). It insisted that any comprehensive agreement between Iran and the international community should demand that the Islamic republic "completely dismantle all enrichment facilities and cease all centrifuge production" and "completely dismantle its heavy-water plutonium reactor at Arak." The language is in line with half a dozen United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions calling on Tehran to suspend its nuclear program. It comes amid developments in both the House and Senate which conceded to demands from the Obama administration to take no action to increase pressure on the Islamic republic for at a minimum months. In the Senate Bob Corker (R-TN) explained that the White House had prevailed upon lawmakers, via what The Hill described as a "full-scale effect," to put off new sanctions against Iran. In the House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer withdrew previously announced support for motions that would impose conditions on negotiations.
- The Wall Street Journal yesterday noted that few programs funded by the European Union are marked by as much controversy as "EU assistance to the Palestinian Authority," with the bloc having provided more than five and a half billion Euros to the Palestinians since the peace process began in the mid 1990s. The Journal described funding as having "long been the target of a string of claims and counter-claims," and described criticism as having pinpointed not just graft - which has long been a target of internal and external Palestinian Authority (PA) critics - but more specifically the diversion of funds to the pockets of Palestinian terrorists and their families. Evaluation of EU's Pegase plan, according to an audit released this week, indicated that "a number of aspects of the current approach are increasingly in need of overhaul." The Times of Israel late on Thursday conveyed frustration from EU officials and quoted Hans Gustaf Wessberg, the Swedish head of the auditors’ team, saying that "when people who do not work are being paid, this goes against the agreement with Pegase." The robustness of Palestinian economic institutions has been a central pivot point in debates over whether a sustainable Palestinian state is achievable in the short or medium terms. Analysts have expressed doubts over whether an independent state could sustain itself in the absence of international funding, and regarding whether international donors would be willing to continue funding such an entity in the absence of checks on among other things corruption.
- The United Nations late on Thursday confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in the almost three year Syrian conflict, with experts investigating more than half a dozen alleged uses of proscribed weapons and - in what CNN described as "the case that was most clear" - documenting an August incident near Damascus. CNN also described "graphic video footage showed rows of bodies without apparent injury, as well as people suffering convulsions or apparently struggling to breathe." The report comes amid deepening controversy over the context and scope of upcoming Geneva II talks designed to facilitate a resolution to the conflict, with news emerging that over 30 countries, among them Iran and Saudi Arabia, invited to attend. The two states are respectively the key backers of the Bashar al-Assad regime and of elements of the opposition seeking the regime's overthrow. Riyadh has been accused, less so than Turkey and Qatar but more so than the West, of providing support to extremist elements at the expense of more moderate Western-backed forced. The consistent erosion of U.S.-backed fighters became particular pointed this week, with a top commander of the Free Syrian Army being forced out of the country as Islamists overran the positions of the Free Syrian army (FSA). Reuters reported today that the relative power dynamics inside Syria had forced the opposition to seek the protection of Al Qaeda-linked groups.
- The New York Times reported late on Thursday that a bomb had exploded near Egypt's Suez Canal, with one person being killed and dozens being wounded. The NYT contextualized the bombing as one of a "string of car bombs and suicide attacks" that have occurred since the Egyptian military on July 3 deposed the country's Muslim Brotherhood then-president Mohammed Morsi. The violence came shortly after an announcement by the country's military-backed government that a draft constitution designed to facilitate a democratic transition would be put to a national vote in a matter of weeks. English-language Egyptian media outlets wrote that an article in the new constitution dealing with civil liberties "could be seen as an improvement on the equivalent articles from the 1971 and 2012 constitutions as it limits the types of cases for which a civilian could stand trial before a military court," though a different article in the same outlet documented criticism by activists regarding "the potential for future labour action under the provisions of the draft charter." The Israel-oriented Algemeiner outlet noted on Thursday that the draft constitution deemphasized Islamic law, though the outlet acknowledged that the new version had not completely removed mentions to Sharia.
Senate source tells Reuters Iran deal will "neither freeze nor set back" Iran nuke program, predicts new Congressional sanctions
- Senate source tells Reuters Iran deal will "neither freeze nor set back" Iran nuke program, predicts new Congressional sanctions
- Analysts: Iranian nuclearization risks Saudi Arabia purchasing nuclear weapons from Pakistan
- Hezbollah lashes out at Kerry over calls for independent Lebanese government
- Arafat polonium conspiracy theories draw eye-rolls
What we’re watching today:
- Details continued to emerge throughout the day regarding the likely terms of an interim agreement between the international community and Iran over the latter's nuclear program, amid increasing skepticism from U.S. policymakers that the deal being worked out would substantially check the Islamic republic's ability to sneak across the nuclear finish line. Reports were published late in the day outlining a potential Geneva meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, which if it took place would almost certainly be in the context of an agreement. The Guardian today reported on statements from Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi indicating that such an agreement would, per the P5+1, be done based on "the framework of Iran's proposal." Meanwhile NBC News described Zarif as having 'reiterated... that Iran would never agree to completely suspend its nuclear program,' a gesture toward the Islamic republic's oft-repeated claim that the Non-Proliferation Treaty guarantees Tehran the right to enrich uranium. That claim is, as a legal matter, straightforwardly false, and several countries have built nuclear programs using imported uranium not enriched domestically. Analysts have more over emphasized that permitting Tehran to continue spinning centrifuges would provide the regime with the necessary ambiguity to go nuclear once a political decision to do so has been made. Last night Reuters quoted a senior U.S. Senate aid describing the Obama administration's likely offer to Iran, and explaining that the concessions being requested of Iran 'would "neither freeze nor set back" Iran's nuclear program.' The aid further predicted, per Reuters, that 'Senate would have to act immediately to impose further sanctions on Iran.'
- Analysts and diplomats are increasingly concerned that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, responding to what they perceive as Western willingness to leave Iran's nuclear program largely intact, may turn to Pakistan in order to purchase nuclear weapons off the shelf. Top global figures including President Barack Obama have been unequivocal that Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition would trigger a cascade of regional proliferation that would among other things shred global nonproliferation norms. The BBC reported yesterday that Saudi Arabia may be moving to counter Iran's progress toward building nuclear weapons by building its own arsenal with Pakistani help and assets. The piece cited a NATO official describing how "nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia [were] now sitting ready for delivery" and quoted Dr. Gary Samore, who until January 2013 was President Barack Obama's point man on counter-proliferation, to the effect that "the Saudis believe that they have some understanding with Pakistan that, in extremis, they would have claim to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan." On a conference call hosted today by The Israel Project, David Albright, president of the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), described the possibility that Pakistan may transfer nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia as a "legitimate concern."
- Hezbollah today lashed out against Secretary of State John Kerry, days after Kerry used a speech in Saudi Arabia to call for the formation of a Lebanese government that would be free to work "without Hezbollah intimidation." The Iran-backed terror group - which has drawn increasing domestic criticism for maintaining a state-within-a-state in Lebanon and for importing Syria's nearly three-year-old conflict into the country - rejected Kerry's comments as "blatant" foreign interference, which the group "rejected and condemned." Hezbollah's ideology, charter, and leadership are grounded in an absolute fidelity to Iran's supreme leader.
- Several media outlets today gave prominent coverage to the release of a 108-page report by the University Centre of Legal Medicine evaluating claims that former Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat had been poisoned by polonium. The report was described by some Western outlets as concluding that Arafat was "probably poisoned with polonium." Many observers expressed skepticism, inasmuch as there are scientifically zero plausible scenarios under which forensic specialists analyzing Arafat's remains last year could have detected polonium poisoning from 2004, when the Palestinian leader died. Dan Kaszeta - a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) veteran analyst - described the report as having "many caveats" and leaving "much room for doubt." Responding to critics who didn't seem to understand why the half-life of radioactive polonium made it impossible to detect abnormal levels which may have existed in 2004, Kaszeta reminded Twitter readers that the laws of physics applied just the same in the compound where Arafat was then holed up. Nature.com, which publishes the renowned international journal of science that goes by the same name, headlined its coverage of the report with the line "no firm proof Arafat was poisoned." The outlet noted that "the evidence offers no firm conclusions" and cited University of Surrey nuclear physicist Patrick Regan assessing that 'there is certainly no smoking gun in the report.' The Swiss medical report been pursued and published by Al Jazeera, which on Twitter punctuated its posts on the topic with the hashtag "#KillingArafat."
- U.S.-based think tank outlines bare minimum for robust interim deal on Iran nuclear program
- No progress in negotiations over Syria peace talks, as reports emerge of secret undisclosed Syrian chemical weapons cache
- Israel expresses worries to Kerry over peace talks as Palestinian leaders reject Jewish state recognition, celebrate murderer release
- Iranian prisoners go on hunger strike over health conditions as Iran deepens execution wave
What we’re watching today:
- The New York Times late Wednesday published as assessment from an Obama administration official describing the West as close to a temporary deal with Iran regarding the country's nuclear program, amid increasingly assertive Congressional moves to circumscribe the White House's ability to ease sanctions in the absence of meaningful concessions from the Iranians.The administration is said to be close to accepting a deal that would trade what the Times described as "limited relief from economic sanctions" in exchange for undisclosed concessions from Iran on nuclear enrichment and its stockpile of enriched material. Congressional lawmakers had already criticized any deal that would permit Iran to continue enrichment activities or would leave parts of Tehran's enriched stockpile intact, and today Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) floated legislation that would prevent the loosening of sanctions in the absence of Iran meeting United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for a full halt in the country's enrichment activities. For their part analysts had already outlined how a deal that left enrichment intact would, given Iran's current enrichment technology, allow the Islamic republic to dash across the nuclear finish line at will. The resulting uncertainty, according to Washington Institute managing director Michael Singh, would risk a full-blown a regional nuclear arms race. Yesterday the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) published an assessment [PDF] describing the minimum details of any interim agreement that would meaningfully extend Iran's breakout time. The ISIS report described five prerequisites which Iran would have to undertake: (1) halting all centrifuge installation and production, and disabling all but 9,000 existing centrifuges (2) halting all production of 20% uranium and putting beyond use all 20% enriched uranium (3) disabling all centrifuges at the country's underground military enrichment bunker at Fordow (4) halting progress at its Arak complex, which includes a plutonium reactor and a heavy-water production facility (5) accepting new inspection and monitoring requirements, up to and including cameras at all centrifuge plant locations or daily inspections.
- Reports emerged overnight and throughout Tuesday of new challenges to Western efforts meant to dampen Syria's almost three year conflict and to dismantle the Bashar al-Assad regime's chemical weapons arsenal. CNN reported last night that U.S. officials were examining classified documents showing that Damascus had hidden some of its chemical weapons, potentially leaving the Assad regime with "a secret cache" that would slip through the international agreement - hammered out as the U.S. signaled it was preparing to attack Syria - to destroy the country's stockpile. Top U.S. policymakers have not yet openly commented on the substance of the allegation, which would have involved a rogue regime lying about its rogue activities. Meanwhile Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nation's top envoy to Syria, briefed reporters regarding ongoing talks between the United States and Russia designed to create the framework for the so-called Geneva II talks between Syria's warring camps. Brahimi emphasized that though the global powers "still striving" to hold a conference before the end of the year, Washington and Moscow had failed to reach an agreement on the participation of Assad's ally Iran. Tehran is widely seen as having provided crucial military and logistical support enabling the regime to survive. Meanwhile Gulf states, which have supported rebels seeking the Assad regime's overthrow, took aim at the run-up to Geneva II and emphasized that talks could not be "unconditional" and "shouldn't just go on indefinitely." The reports came amid new violence that included the bombing of a railway company in Damascus that killed eight and wounded roughly 50 people
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed worries to Secretary of State John Kerry over the willingness of Palestinian leaders to make peace with the Jewish state, days after Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated long-standing statements that he would never consent to recognizing the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Kerry's visit was preceded by a stumble in talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with Palestinians negotiators threatening to walk out of talks due to Israeli construction of Jewish communities beyond its 1948 armistice lines and the Israelis accusing their counterparts of manufacturing pretexts to break off talks. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had for years gone on in the absence of a construction freeze by the Israelis. The Palestinian signal that they may walk away from the table comes after Israel conducted the second of four planned releases of Palestinian prisoners convicted of murdering Israelis. TIME noted that there were "joyful Palestinian celebrations welcoming the prisoners home as heroes," which the outlet said "added to the Israeli public’s anger." More precisely, among other things, Fatah leader Abbas Zaki told Israeli victims' families to "go to your cemeteries and recite over your dead whatever you recite" and described the released murderers as "fighters, knights, free men!"
- More than eighty Iranian prisoners have gone on a hunger strike to protest a lack of medical care, according to a statement released yesterday by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Defenders of Human Rights Center (DRRC), and League for the Defense of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI). The statement also described "torture during pre-trial detention and harsh sentences after extremely unfair trials" and stated that "the Iranian authorities are silently preparing the death of prisoners of conscience." It came on the same day as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that another 12 Iranian prisoners had been executed amid what the outlet described as "a surge in the use of the death penalty there." The United Nation's special rapporteur on human rights in Iran had reported weeks ago that there have been no fundamental improvements in Iran's human rights situation since the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Instead a wave of executions had already caused Iranian dissidents to declare the "end of reform." Rouhani had appointed as his justice minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, a figure despised by human rights advocates and anti-regime dissidents for helping to oversee the 1988 executions of thousands of political prisoners. Rouhani, himself a revolutionary-era cleric, has a history of advocating the mass roundup and imprisonment of dissidents.
- Hagel: Israeli pressure was key to bringing Iran to the table, Netanyahu not trying to derail talks
- EU legislation, U.S. sting operations call attention to Iranian regime exploitation of civilian infrastructure
- Palestinian president doubles down on refusal to recognize Jewish state, threatening peace talks
- WSJ: Iranian-American businessman met with Iranian president to map out anti-sanctions push
What we’re watching today:
- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel this week brushed off suggestions that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to derail talks between the international community and Iran, emphasizing instead that Netanyahu is "legitimately concerned" over the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions and that - in any case - Iran had come to the table partly due to "the constant pressure from Israel." Hagel noted that U.S. sanctions had also "done tremendous economic damage." The point, made in a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, echoes years of analysis suggesting that a credible threat of force should be leveraged to minimize what benefits Iran could expect from continued nuclearization. President Barack Obama has also consistently reiterated that diplomatic initiatives must be coupled with a credible threat of force in order to compel Iran to negotiate over its program. Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff took particular note of how Hagel had implied that "Israel's credible threat, not America's, helped bring Iran [to] the table." Golberg's questions, and Hagel's responses, came against the backdrop of comments by Secretary of State John Kerry - widely perceived to be aimed at Netanyahu - criticizing "fear tactics" used by skeptics of Iranian intentions. Kerry's comments were made at an event sponsored by the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that Goldberg described as one "which sometimes seems overly relaxed about the danger of a nuclear Iran."
- The Wall Street Journal yesterday described efforts being made by European Union (EU) officials to maintain pressure against Iran's national cargo fleet, and more specifically against the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), after the EU General Court overturned sanctions on the fleet last September. The U.S. Treasury Department in 2008 imposed sanctions on IRISL and on 123 of its ships for the company's and vessels' roles in "providing logistical services to Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics." IRISL officials subsequently moved to evade U.S. sanctions via a campaign of what Adam Szubin, the director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, described as "deception, fraud and dangerous activities on behalf" of Iran. The Journal also notes - in addition to cataloging an array of other ways that IRISL has allegedly collaborated with the Iranian regime - that sanctions have nonetheless "had a visible effect on the group's usefulness to the Iranian regime," underscoring the degree to which pressure has limited the utility of ostensibly private and civilian infrastructure to Tehran. The story came on the same day as the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security published a report outlining how U.S. sting operations have netted Iranian operatives seeking to evade missile export restrictions. Reza Olangian is alleged to have been a so-called "'core' Iranian procurement agent," which is to say one who "who works with relative immunity from inside Iran placing orders directly for the Iranian military or for companies procuring for it." He had been lured outside the safety of Iranian territory by a U.S. operation revolving around the ostensible sale of surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles.
- Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated on Monday his refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state even in the context of a final peace agreement, complicating the efforts of negotiators engaged in U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to reach a formula acceptable to both sides. The fundamental Israeli demand stretches back years, and in 2011 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the condition as a "basic demand," imploring Abbas to "accept a Jewish state" after Netanyahu had "stood before [his] people and said [he] would accept a Palestinian state." Israeli officials have gone so far as to foreground the issue as one covering "90% of the conflict." Abbas has consistently refused to meet those requests - to the point where meetings have been adjourned due to his stance - raising fears that Palestinian leaders view the conflict as one of Israel's existence rather than as a limited territorial dispute. Specifically the Israelis fear that Abbas's instransigence is borne of a desire to maintain territorial claims on Israeli territory even after a peace deal is hammered out. Rumors floated yesterday by Israeli politicians hinted that the U.S. is preparing its own bridging proposals in case the Israelis and Palestinians are unable to forge such an agreement.
- A Wall Street Journal opinion piece reveals that top Iranian officials - including Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and his chief of staff Mohammad Nahavandian - met in September in New York with Iranian-American businessman Ekram Manafzadeh and that, according to the Journal, they 'hatched' an idea described by Manafzadeh as having him "register... an organization" in his U.S. office to "advance trading with Iran." Manafzadeh indicated to the Journal that he will use the recently founded Iran America Chamber of Commerce Inc to "lobby the people who are considering relaxing the sanctions," a move that the Journal suggested indicates Tehran "is already positioning itself to profit from" concessions that it expects American lawmakers to offer during upcoming talks. Meanwhile, The Hill today described the Obama administration as having "played down" a recent anti-America rally in Iran - the largest in years - in which U.S. flags were burned and the crowds chanted "Death to America." Observers had suggested that the evidence of Iranian hostility might give pause to advocates of engagement
- Reports: Top Senators brush off Obama administration calls to delay Iran sanctions push
- Secretary of State to visit Egypt this weekend, amid reports of Cairo pivot to Russia
- Five Israeli soldiers injured in Hamas attack on anti-tunnel operation
- Experts: Hamas claims around shut down power plant "insane"
What we’re watching today:
- Meetings held yesterday between Obama administration officials and a range of Senators failed to persuade top Senate figures to delay a push for new sanctions against Iran, according to statements and analysis published this morning by Bloomberg. New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez bluntly stated that he'd "have to hear something far more substantive" to back off a push for legislation aimed at pressuring the Islamic republic, while Illinois Republican Mark Kirk described upcoming talks with Iran over its nuclear program - which the White House argues would be endangered by heightened economic pressure - as "a long rope-a-dope." Kirk also declared that "sanctions are the only way to prevent a war," echoing an pushback increasingly made in recent days by lawmakers, analysts, and journalists: inasmuch as the administration believes that Iran has been coerced into entering negotiations because of economic pressure, it is unclear how more economic pressure will cause Tehran to walk away from the table. Kirk and others have also pointed out that Iran is continuing to strengthen its hand by installing new nuclear technology and enriching more material, and that it would be difficult for the Iranians to claim that the U.S. doing the same constitutes a deal-breaker.
- Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Egypt this weekend amid new reports that the Obama administration's posture toward the army-backed interim government is risking a pivot by Cairo toward the U.S.'s geopolitical rivals. Washington has among other things frozen the delivery of military assistance, including Apache helicopters of the type used by Egypt's military in ongoing anti-terror campaigns. Last Thursday an Egyptian good will delegation went to Moscow to "show [Egypt's] gratitude for the cautious and objective positioning of Russia," and there have been subsequent trips by both Egyptian and Russian intelligence figures surrounding what media reports describe as a $15 billion deal to purchase Russian-made MiG-29 planes and other equipment. Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who emphasize that they rarely agree on policy prescriptions, had already in September co-published an article criticizing the administration for undermining "nearly seven decades" of bipartisan American efforts aimed at "limiting Moscow's influence" in the Middle East. Voice of America reported today that Kerry's trip to Cairo "would only last several hours."
- Five Israeli soldiers were wounded when Hamas fighters bombed an operation to destroy a tunnel likely built by the terror group to facilitate a spectacular upcoming attack. The soldiers, one of whom was seriously injured, were evacuated to Israel's Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba. Israeli military forces responded to the attack, killing one gunman, and Israeli pilots subsequently struck another Hamas tunnel, killing three more Palestinian fighters. All four were claimed by Hamas, which declared through spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri that the Israelis had been taught a "painful lesson." Analysts have been issuing increasingly pointed warning that Hamas is seeking to stage large-scale attacks in an effort to restore the terror group's crumbling domestic and regional position, the result of a series of failed diplomatic gambles that saw the Palestinian faction align itself with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey. Cairo's post-Brotherhood government has in recent months actively moved to isolate Hamas, and a senior official from the organization recently complained that the group had been "sentenced to death" by Egypt.
- Hamas is lashing out against Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA) - the latter controlled by the rival Palestinian Fatah faction - in the aftermath of power outages that gripped the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Friday. Energy authority deputy chairman Fathi el-Sheikh Khalil told journalists that Gaza's power plant had been shut off due to lack of fuel, the result of what he insisted where prohibitive taxes levied by the PA and anti-smuggling actions taken by Egypt. Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called the Hamas accusations "insane," noting that "the PA pays for [fuel] with donor funds, Hamas bills Gazans for it, and then pockets the cash." This is not the first time that Hamas has been criticized for manufacturing a humanitarian crisis by shutting down Gaza's power plant. In 2008 the terror group made a similar move, plunging Gaza into darkness and claiming that Israel was preventing sufficient fuel from reaching the territory. Israeli officials pointed out that electricity was still getting into the territory from Israeli plants and that Hamas deliberately causing the blackout. The organization has in the past also been criticized for deliberately risking humanitarian crises by refusing fuel shipments and stealing fuel for its terror operations, including from hospitals.