WSJ: After fiery comments, renewed concerns that Iran president lacks "ability to deliver" nuke deal
- WSJ: After fiery comments, renewed concerns that Iran president lacks "ability to deliver" nuke deal
- Egyptian military promotes army chief Sisi, sets stage for presidential ascension
- Focus on Israeli red lines, Russian arms shipments after mysterious Syria explosion
- Jihadists release tape showing successful missile strike on Egyptian helicopter
- Reuters today conveyed statements from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf confirming that the first round of comprehensive nuclear negotiations with Iran will begin in New York in mid-February, amid both news and analysis reflecting unease over the willingness and ability of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to offer meaningful concessions. The Wall Street Journal this morning evaluated interviews recently given to CNN by Rouhani and by Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, dryly noting that their intransigent tone and positions had "rekindled concerns in Washington and Europe about [Rouhani's] ability to deliver" a robust agreement. Zarif had explicitly accused the Obama administration of lying about Iranian commitments to dismantle nuclear centrifuges in the context of the current interim agreement, while Rouhani had ruled out dismantling centrifuges during any future agreement. The stance was quickly echoed, as Iranian media pointed out last Friday, by a senior Iranian cleric who cited statements from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A report published last week by the U.S.-based Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) had calculated [PDF] that Iran would minimally need to dismantle 15,000 centrifuges to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Obama administration efforts to contain the fallout from the Iranian statements, which saw White House officials describing the CNN interviews as geared for domestic consumption, were literally, openly mocked by members of the White House press corps. The Associated Press had already assessed last week that the Rouhani and Zarif's statements were set to "renew criticism that Iran is stalling and energize the push in Congress for tougher sanctions," while Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg noted that if Rouhani's statement is sincere then "there is no possibility of a nuclear deal between Iran and the six powers."
- Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was today cleared to run for president by the country's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), setting the stage for what is widely expected to be an easy glide into the presidency by the broadly popular and seemingly teflon military figure. SCAF also promoted Sisi to the rank of Field Marshal, part of what is being read as an all-but-explicit endorsement of his ascension by Egypt's military hierarchy. Sisi emerged as Egypt's most popular figure after the army's July 2013 ouster of then-president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-linked government, which came amid mass protest calling for Morsi's resignation and early elections. Egypt's English-language Ahram Online this weekend described Sisi as "the Brotherhood's arch-foe" and assessed that the Islamist organization is "more outcast than ever." The description is in line with an Agence France-Presse report from last week describing the Brotherhood as "in complete disarray." It follows arguments stretching back months by Washington Institute fellow Eric Trager evaluating that the Brotherhood's rigid, hierarchical structure made it vulnerable to disruption and decapitation. A presidential win by Sisi, especially if it is read as a firm popular rebuke of the Islamist organization, may complicate bilateral relations between Washington and Cairo. Last August the then-general expressed open anger at the Obama administration for what he described as America "[turning its] back on the Egyptians" as they battled Islamists. A diplomatic snub this week by the State Department risked further diplomatic deterioration.
- An overnight explosion reported in Syria's Mediterranean port city of Latakia, which Syrian opposition sources linked to action by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), has refocused attention not just on Jerusalem's oft-reiterated commitment to stem the flow of advanced weapons through Syria but on Russia's increasingly open efforts to arm the Bashar al-Assad regime. Reuters had reported on Friday that in recent weeks Moscow has "stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria," part of a campaign by the Russians to "raise [their] diplomatic and economic influence in the Middle East." The opposition sources that described this week's incident in Latakia suggested that the target was a shipment of Russian S-300 missile launchers, anti-aircraft assets that the Israelis have emphasized for years they would seek to interdict should Syria move to acquire them. Lebanese sources had earlier in the day reported unusually intensive IAF overflights in Lebanese airspace, potentially en route to Syria. The Israelis are thought to have taken action more than half a dozen times to enforce Jerusalem's "red line" against Syrian acquisition or transfer of advanced weapons. That said, details of this incident are murky - and as usual the Israelis have refused to confirm or deny an attack - and veteran Israeli defense correspondent Alon Ben-David this morning flatly ruled out [Hebrew] reports linking the IAF to the explosion.
- Islamists over the weekend released a tape showing fighters from the Al Qaeda-aligned Ansar Jerusalem jihadist group using a surface-to-air missile (SAM) to down an Egyptian helicopter operating in the northern Sinai Peninsula, the first time the group has demonstrated the capability to successfully deploy SAMs. David Barnett, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, described the video and read the attack alongside a late 2013 declaration by Ansar Jerusalem to wage a protracted war against Egyptian forces. For its part, TIME’s Karl Vick contextualized the strike as one of several recent incidents in which sophisticated weapons have been deployed by jihadists near Israel's borders. Vick outlined how "[t]he flight approach to [Israel's] Eilat airport comes uncomfortably close to Sinai foothills on the Egyptian side of the border," the upshot being that terrorists could use SAMs to down Israeli commercial aircraft. Vick outlined a number of scenarios that would mitigate such risk, the most straightforward being Egyptian move to secure the territory. Egyptian security officials have for months sought to do exactly that, albeit with uneven success. Moves by the Obama administration to freeze military aid to Cairo due to the army's ouster of the country's former president Mohammed Morsi were criticized for potentially interfering with Egypt's efforts to uproot the jihadist infrastructure in the Sinai.
Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei lashes out, deepening fears that Tehran may pocket concessions and walk away from talks
- Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei lashes out, deepening fears that Tehran may pocket concessions and walk away from talks
- AP: U.S. posture on Iran generating "strange alliance" between Israel and Gulf states
- Sinai Peninsula attack kills 11 Egyptian soldiers and wounds dozens, renewing debate over Obama administration aid cut-off
- Senior Palestinian official: U.S. gave green light for Israel to assassinate Arafat
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today lashed out at a range of actors and elements long described by Tehran as antagonists - including Israel and global powers seeking to negotiate a settlement over Iran's nuclear program - leading Agence France Press to report that talks scheduled to begin shortly in Geneva "may be fraught." The New York Times reported and then deleted quotes by Khamenei describing Israelis as "untouchable rabid dogs, and the Jerusalem Post had more extensive passages where Khamenei declared that "Zionist officials cannot be called humans, they are like animals" and that Israel "is doomed to failure and annihilation." Regarding the substance of the upcoming Geneva talks, the Supreme Leader set out "red lines" beyond which he would not permit Iranian negotiators to compromise, remarks likely to deepen analyst concerns that Khamenei is preparing to pocket Western interim concessions and ban Iranian diplomats from striking an agreement under which Tehran would meet its obligations under half a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding it cease its uranium- and plutonium-related programs. The Associated Press described Khamenei's remarks as "Iran's leader backs nuke talks, with conditions."
- The Associated Press describes a burgeoning "strange alliance" between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the latest development in what has become a cascade of regional adjustments by traditional U.S. allies concerned that Washington is ceding its traditional role as a regional power. Jerusalem and Gulf nations have reportedly been shaken by the Obama administration's decision-making in Egypt, where the White House vacillated and then eventually punished Cairo over the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Mohammed Morsi government; in Syria, where the White House vacillated and then failed to attack after its "red line" against chemical weapons use was crossed; and Iran, where the White House is widely seen as vacillating on its pledge to only strike an interim deal with Iran that prevents Tehran from making progress in pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. The AP tersely noted that "the stepped-up anxieties on Iran could bring new space for the Gulf-Israel overlap." CNN yesterday carried analysis by Barak Seener, Associate Middle East Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, describing how "GCC States and Israel have increased their intelligence sharing to counter an Iranian threat."
- A massive car bomb detonated today in the Sinai Peninsula killed at least eleven Egyptian military personnel and injured dozens more, amid a months-long effort by the Egyptian army to uproot jihadist infrastructure and fighters from the increasingly anarchic territory. Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi committed to responding to the attacks, and the BBC reported that communications were shut down around the area near el-Arish, the city near where the roadside bomb attack took place, and that military helicopters were seen circling the area searching for attackers. Cairo has sought to heavily leverage its air assets, including and particularly its U.S.-built Apache fleet, as part of its campaign in the Sinai Peninsula. The critical role that U.S. security assistance plays in Egypt's anti-terror campaigns was a key reason why analysts widely blasted an October decision by the Obama administration to partially freeze aid to Cairo. The risk to U.S. interests - American troops have long relied on the preferential access to the Suez Canal and to Egyptian airspace that bilateral military ties enabled - was another critical consideration. Cairo has in recent weeks made open moves to pivot toward Russia as a substitute for the U.S., and a Kuwaiti paper today described a $4 billion Russian arms deal that Egyptian officials are said to be pursuing. In what was widely seen as an effort at damage control, Secretary of State John Kerry today declared that Egypt's 2011 Arab Spring revolution was "stolen" by the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt's military in July deposed the Muslim Brotherhood-linked government that took over after the revolution, eventually prompting the Obama administration's aid cut-off.
- Reports emerged late this evening that Jibril Rajoub - a senior Palestinian official and for decades a top figure in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process - had earlier this month accused the United States of permitting Israel to assassinate former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Conspiracy theories regarding the 2004 death of the Palestinian leader received new life earlier this month when a Swiss lab published a 108-page report that some media outlets characterized as concluding that Arafat was "probably poisoned with polonium." Analysts and scientists rolled their eyes at the suggestion that tests conducted in 2012 could detect polonium poisoning committed in 2004 - there are exactly zero plausible scenarios under which that could be the case - but the controversy has shed light both on internal Palestinian divisions and now on the posture of long-time Palestinian diplomats toward the United States.
AP diplomatic correspondent: Obama administration outreach to Senate might have been "coup de grace for Iran talks"
- AP diplomatic correspondent: Obama administration outreach to Senate might have been "coup de grace for Iran talks"
- Analysts: Israel "right to be wary," has "good reason to worry" over Iran deal terms
- Israeli soldier stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorist amid Hamas terror rebuilding, Fatah incitement spike
- Palestinian peace process team resigns amid growing questions of political readiness
What we’re watching today:
- Obama administration officials dispatched to the Hill today to explain the White House's approach to Iran negotiations largely failed to reassure senators, with the Associated Press's Matthew Lee summing up a Banking Committee meeting that included Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman as perhaps a "coup de grace for Iran talks." Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) walked out of the meeting and blasted administration officials in general and Sherman in particular, accusing the White House of taking a "Chamberlain"-style approach to negotiations and of promoting "anti-Israel" statements in response to Israeli assessments that the deal recently offered to Iran would only "set back the [Iranian nuclear] program about 24 days." Meanwhile the administration is facing the possibility that it is courting political controversy by accusing lawmakers who are pushing for sanctions of placing the U.S. on a "march to war" with Iran. Former Democratic Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley went public with her concerns over the deal today and called for new pressure until a final settlement is achieved. Berkley, who is a member of the Board of Directors of The Israel Project, took to the pages of the Las Vegas Review Journal and bluntly stated that "now is the time to increase the pressure, not withdraw it."
- Analysts continue to debate the details of the failed deal proposed last weekend between the international community and Iran, discussing both the substantive concerns of skeptics and the political consequences of what was very early on described by critics as over-eagerness by the Obama administration to cut a deal at any cost. An extensive analysis published on Monday by TIME World had already assessed that "experts say Israel is right to be wary" of the contours of the deal, which would have allowed Iran to continue bolstering the elements that it needs for constructing both uranium and plutonium-based nuclear bombs. TIME describes a series of conference calls hosted by The Israel Project (TIP) in which experts outlined the mechanics of Iran's nuclear program and what would constitute an Iranian drive for a nuclear weapon. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency, had explained on a TIP call how Iran's stockpile of 3 percent enriched uranium was "something like 60 percent" of the way toward weapons-grade levels, while David Albright, the head of the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security, had assessed on another TIP call how Iran could go nuclear in "as little as a month." Yesterday Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji, respectively the director of research and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, published an opinion piece in the Washington Post outlining fears that "Khamenei has been laying the groundwork to walk away from any deal by warning that the West is untrustworthy and will not deliver on its promises," and that "Israel has good reason to worry" that Tehran will pocket whatever concessions the West offers and then violate signed agreements.
- A 19-year-old Israeli soldier was stabbed to death this morning on an Israeli bus by a 16-year-old Palestinian terrorist, sustaining several wounds to his neck and chest and eventually succumbing to his injuries after being admitted to to a hospital. In what one Twitter commenter described as "affirmation," the Twitter channel of Hamas's al-Qassam Brigades posted a childhood picture of the murdered Israeli teenager. The attack comes amid both concentrated efforts by Hamas to rebuild its terror infrastructure in the West Bank - the Palestinian terror group has been largely stymied in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, and so may be shifting its focus to the territory - and a wave of incitement by Hamas's rival, the Palestinian Fatah faction. The Jerusalem Post today published assessments from Israeli intelligence officials describing "an elevated risk of armed terror attacks" in the West Bank town of Hebron. Israeli soldiers last week seized a large cache of ammunition and arrested two Palestinians on security charges in the area. An unnamed intelligence officer told the Post that the cache represented only "a small drop in the bucket" of arms flowing through the Hebron region.
- Reuters late Wednesday conveyed reports that the Palestinian delegation charged with negotiating opposite Israel had resigned and cited for its resignation Israeli construction within communities beyond the Jewish state's 1948 armistice lines. The move comes despite both the cancellation of previously announced massive building plans by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the brute fact that until a few years ago Palestinian negotiators had for decades conducted talks while Israel bolstered such communities. For their part the Israelis have recently released two batches of Palestinian prisoners convicted of murder as goodwill gestures designed to jump-start and maintain negotiations. The most recent was done despite a wave of Palestinian incitement and in the absence of reciprocal Palestinian gestures, and was particularly politically controversial. The Israel Project yesterday hosted a conference call with Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in which he described systemic problems - with endemic Palestinian Authority (PA) corruption being among the most trenchant - that have undercut efforts to create robust and sustainable institutions in the West Bank. The audio for the call is here.
- TIME: Iran's heavy-water reactor "invulnerable to military attack" once it goes online
- Bipartisan Congressional frustration over WH aid cutoff grows, as Egypt army escalates campaigns against Islamic radicals
- Abu Dhabi media: Iran uses "regular clandestine flights" to supply Syria with troops, weapons
- Hamas official declares terror group "sentenced to death" as Egypt moves deepen isolation
What we’re watching today:
- A heavy-water plutonium reactor that Iran has committed to bringing online would become "invulnerable to military attack" once Iranian scientists activated it, according to analysis conveyed today by TIME, inasmuch as any such attack would release radioactivity that might be "catastrophic." Work toward activating the reactor, which is part of the Arak facility that also includes a heavy water production plant, has been described as part of Iran's "Plan B" for developing a nuclear weapon. Material produced by the reactor could be used to make a plutonium-based bomb, alongside the uranium-based bomb that the international community fears Iran is seeking to construct with material produced via enrichment facilities. Former IAEA Deputy Director Dr. Olli Heinonen, speaking Monday on a conference call organized by The Israel Project, noted that Iran's construction at Arak "appears to be an alternative, at least for a rainy day, to have fissionable material, which could be, for example used for nuclear weapons." There are also fears, according to TIME, that Iran will attempt to surreptitiously activate the reactor under the ruse of conducting a test run, avoiding Western intervention. In May, Iranian officials filed paperwork with the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog to conduct a test run . U.S. lawmakers have demanded that Iran halt work on the reactor as a condition for lifting sanctions, but Iran has thus far shown no willingness to do so. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in fact recently boasted that a diplomatic charm offensive conducted by his government had left Tehran "consolidating its nuclear rights step by step, and removing hurdles from the path of the nation's progress."
- The Hill reported today on heightening bipartisan Congressional criticism of the Obama administration's decision to temporarily freeze some military assistance to Egypt, a move made in response to - albeit months after - mass anti-government protests that led the Egyptian army to depose the country's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, slammed the White House’s decision, echoing analyst concerns that the cutoff was degrading U.S.-Egyptian ties at the expense of "our security interests." Both Engel and Committee Chairman Ed Royce declared that the army-backed interim government was preferable to what had become increasingly autocratic Brotherhood rule, with Engel emphasizing that he'd "take the military every time" over the Brotherhood and Royce declaring that the Brotherhood's "hostil[ity] to American interests binds" the U.S. to Cairo. In addition to launching a decapitation campaign against the Brotherhood, the military has also been engaged in a concentrated campaign to uproot jihadist infrastructure in the Sinai Peninsula. Those campaigns have relied heavily on American military assistance - including and especially American-supplied air assets such as Apache helicopters, which were used as recently as last month to target arms depots in the northern Sinai. The White House has insisted that its partial freeze explicitly exempts counterterrorism assistance bound for the Sinai, but critics have questioned the feasibility of distinguishing between Sinai-bound aid versus other kinds of weaponry, and pointed out that the administration is in fact blocking the delivery of Apache helicopters.
- Abu Dhabi media yesterday described "regular clandestine flights between Tehran and Damascus" allegedly being conducted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which transport among other things "fighters to help regime forces battle rebels." The National described as many as three flights a week that have been taking place for months. Syrian opposition leaders have claimed that Iran has 60,000 fighters stationed in Syria, while Iran has flatly denied having any boots on the ground in the country. Though the opposition number is considered high, the revelation of clandestine flights will deepen skepticism regarding the categorical Iranian denials. The report will also fuel growing doubts that newly inaugurated Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is willing or able to broadly moderate Iranian policies. Rouhani had already explicitly vowed to support the Bashar al-Assad regime - a commitment that aligns well with reports of continuing shipments from Iran to the regime - and had floated grand conspiracy theories regarding Western intentions toward Syria. Rouhani has recently aligned his rhetoric with that of the Assad regime and with Russia, arguing that the Syrian opposition is composed of "terrorists" who must be expelled from the country.
- The left-leaning Israeli paper Haaretz quotes a Hamas official declaring that the Palestinian terror organization has been functionally "sentenced to death" by Egypt, as Israeli and Egyptian measures to degrade Hamas's capabilities - coupled with a series of disastrous geopolitical gambles - keep the group bottled up and isolated in the Gaza Strip. Hamas spent weeks in fall 2012 deliberately escalating the amount and sophistication of rockets and missiles it launched against Israelis, triggering an eight-day bombing campaign against Israel that severely degraded the group's command and control infrastructure. Meanwhile Hamas aligned itself with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which was then in control of Egypt, putting itself on the wrong side of the Egyptian military, which was already at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked government of President Mohammed Morsi. Egyptian military officials waged a media war to erode Hamas's standing inside the country, and - after Morsi fell - moved to close both Gaza's smuggling tunnels and border crossings, cutting off Hamas's access to the outside world. By mid-2013 regional blocs were forming in the Middle East, pitting the the U.S.'s traditional Israeli and Arab allies opposite a Shiite extremist Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah axis, and both of them opposite a Sunni extremist bloc that included the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, and Qatar. Hamas tried to triangulate between the Shiite and Sunni extremist blocs and ended up alienating both. Evaluating Hamas's precipitous decline weeks ago, Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued that Western policymakers have a narrow window of opportunity to strike a death blow to the group.
New estimates: Iran transparency gestures "have inherent limits and cannot address fully the risk" of nuclear breakout
- New estimates: Iran transparency gestures "have inherent limits and cannot address fully the risk" of nuclear breakout
- "Mystifying" lack of U.S. coordination with Arab allies blasted
- Egypt intel officials: Turkey supplying Sinai Peninsula jihadists with weapons
- U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran reports no fundamental change, calls attention to post-election executions
What we’re watching today:
- Updated analysis published today [PDF] by the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that Iran could achieve critical capability - the ability to create sufficient weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for a nuclear weapon quickly enough to evade international detection - by mid-2014. The report calls attention to Iran's "dramatically increased centrifuge capability" - which Tehran has locked in over the last year by increasing the amount and sophistication of its installed centrifuges - and the size of Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) stocks, which "exceeds any realistic assessment of Iran’s need for reactor fuel in the short and near-term." The analysis comes in the aftermath of leaks describing an Iranian offer that would accept more intrusive inspections in exchange for Western acceptance of ongoing Iranian enrichment activity. The ISIS report models several scenarios under which Iran could conduct "a rapid dash to one significant quantity of WGU," and outlines several steps to lengthen Iran's breakout window that are "achievable and reasonable if Iran is committed to convincing the world that its nuclear program is indeed peaceful." Several of the modeled scenarios, based on known Iranian nuclear facilities with roughly known capabilities, indicate that accepting the Iranian offer - which would maintain Iran's access to its enriched material and allow it to continue enriching - would allow the regime to sprint across the nuclear finish line within weeks. Moreover, the transparency provided by inspections "by themselves have inherent limits and cannot address fully the risk posed by short breakout times." Instead the ISIS authors emphasize that limits must be placed both on Iran's centrifuge infrastructure and its access to enriched material. Meanwhile the White House today held a briefing for senior Congressional committee staff on Iran, reportedly to press them to delay new measures that might pressure Iran. Buzzfeed yesterday already published quotes from skeptics in Congress that were simply brutal. For his part Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking at a recent Cabinet session, boasted that, due to his charm offensive and focus on negotiations, Tehran was "consolidating its nuclear rights step by step, and removing hurdles from the path of the nation's progress."
- Washington Post associate editor David Ignatius expressed surprise yesterday at what he described as "the White House’s inability to convey [to Saudi Arabia]... desired reassurances" regarding U.S. policy in the Middle East, declaring that the Obama administration's "lack of communication with the Saudis and other Arab allies is mystifying." He conveys mostly private concerns - aired by diplomats from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel - worrying that the U.S. influence in the region has been "shredded" by administration policies too indulgent of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, too indecisive on Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, and insufficiently skeptical of Iranian intentions. Ignatius's assessment comes shortly after a Wall Street Journal scoop describing Saudi moves to scale back cooperation between Riyadh and Washington. On Tuesday, former Saudi spy chief Prince Turki al-Faisal specifically criticized the Russian plan for disposing of Syrian chemical weapons, accepted by U.S. diplomats, as a "charade" that the U.S. was using as a pretext to back down. In a move that received broad praise from its regional Arab allies, Riyadh last week rejected a seat on the 15-member United Nations Security Council, with Saudi officials declaring that they were frustrated with the body's inaction in the Middle East and Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud reportedly telling diplomats that the decision "was a message for the U.S., not the U.N."
- Egyptian media outlets are conveying leaks from Egyptian intelligence officials accusing Turkey of arming jihadists in the Egypt-controlled Sinai Peninsula, a charge that - confirmed or not - will be taken as further evidence of crashing Egyptian-Turkish ties amid deepening Turkish regional isolation. Turkish shipments to Al Qaeda-linked anti-government elements are not unheard of, and Yemen has reportedly intercepted at least five arms shipments this year. Turkey has aligned itself with Sunni extremists throughout the region, anchoring one of three emerging Middle East camps, opposite a Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah bloc and a bloc made up of the U.S.'s traditional Arab allies and Israel. The Turkish foreign ministry on Wednesday announced that it had sent $850,000 to provide energy to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, providing the weakened terror group with desperately needed breathing room amid calls by U.S. analysts to deal it a death blow. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top officials also took a meeting with top figures from Hamas in recent weeks. Alternatively, Egyptian intelligence may be trying to damage Turkish popularity and credibility by asserting that Ankara is assisting fighters inside the country, amid a spike in violence that included a Tuesday bus attack in the northern Sinai Peninsula. Recent reports that Erdogan is blocking reconciliation between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions were also traced to Egyptian officials. It's not impossible that Egyptian officials, angry over Ankara's increasingly shrill support for the Muslim Brotherhood, are partially leveraging Egyptian media outlets to signal that anger.
- The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran has told the U.N. General Assembly that there have been no fundamental improvements in Iran's human rights situation despite token but welcome gestures undertaken since the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Ahmed Shaheed's non-exhaustive 20-page "overview of the prevailing human rights situation" in Iran describes an array [PDF] of "cruel and inhuman punishment[s]" including "limb amputation for the crime of theft... [and flogging] for such crimes as 'sedition', 'acts incompatible with chastity', drinking alcohol, 'illicit' relationships and non-penetrative homosexual acts." It found "no sign of improvement" from previous reports and drew particular attention to "the spate of executions observed in the weeks following the 2013 elections, during which 38 officially announced and at least 44 unofficially announced executions reportedly took place." Hopes that Rouhani would be willing or able to improve Iran's human rights conditions were dampened early when he nominated Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, a revolutionary-era figure directly involved in the murder of an estimated 30,000 dissidents, to be his justice minister. Rouhani, himself a revolutionary-era cleric, has called for mass roundups of anti-regime protesters.
Discovery of advanced Hamas tunnel, suspected kindergarten terror plot deepens fears of spectacular terror attack
- Discovery of advanced Hamas tunnel, suspected kindergarten terror plot deepens fears of spectacular terror attack
- Hezbollah accused of pushing oil drilling to start conflict with Israel, scrambles to mobilize allies
- Senator, Washington Post, top analysts pile on criticism of plan to let Iran keep enriching uranium
- Dozens injured as family throws hand grenade into Iranian prison to try to halt execution
What we’re watching today:
- Israeli soldiers this weekend uncovered a mile-and-a-half-long tunnel running between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and ending near an Israeli kindergarten, underscoring concerns that the Iran-backed terror group is seeking to rebuild its fractured credibility with a spectacular terror attack. The left-leaning Israeli paper Ha'aretz reported that the tunnel was "part of a broader tunnel-building project that is estimated to have cost millions of dollars." Hamas has used more primitive tunnels in the past to conduct operations on Israeli soil, most notably the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, which was followed by Israel's 2006 Operation Summer Rains. Security officials estimate that this tunnel – which IDF Spokesman Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai described as "one of the most advanced terror tunnels to be uncovered in recent years" – was intended to facilitate an attack on the nearby kindergarten. Hamas's regional and domestic positions have been in free fall for almost a year. Israel's November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense has by all appearances deterred the Palestinian group from launching rockets and missiles and Israel, cutting off a traditional source of credibility. Meanwhile Cairo's post-Muslim Brotherhood government has put Hamas on notice that activity in the Sinai Peninsula will not be tolerated. Analysts fear that, having been stymied in the Sinai and unable to bear the costs of another rocket war, Hamas will shift to a strategy of targeted terror attacks. A spokesman for Hamas's Al-Qassam Brigades posted on Twitter that "thousands" of tunnels would be dug in response to the discovery.
- The Washington Post's editorial this morning emphasizes that Iran's "advanced centrifuges and the Arak [plutonium] reactor must now be part of any deal" that would provide Tehran with sanctions relief, since the "new facts" established by Iran's recent installation of advanced uranium and plutonium technology have "torn some big holes" in what might have been a more reliable deal even a year ago. Iran has signaled that it is prepared to offer limited concessions in exchange for Western concessions on sanctions, including limiting uranium enrichment to 3.5%. The Post notes that Iran's advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges "can process uranium far more quickly [than before, and] these new machines create a threat of an Iranian nuclear breakout beyond that posed by the 20 percent stockpile." This evaluation is in line with analyst estimates that Iran could go from 3.5% purity to weapons-grade purity quickly enough to evade Western detection. Meanwhile Iran's Arak complex, which involves both a heavy water production facility and a reactor that would use that heavy water for plutonium production, would give Iran the material for two nuclear bombs every year. U.S. lawmakers have called on Iran to, among other things, completely dismantle its nuclear program and - critically - to ship out all enriched uranium. Iran has brushed aside the expectations, with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi noting on Sunday that Tehran would not agree to export its stockpile of enriched uranium. The posture has been dubbed by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Mark Dubowitz and Reuel Marc Gerecht as Iran's strategy of simultaneously pursuing both nuclear weapons and sanctions relief. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) took to The Telegraph this weekend to similarly blast suggestions that the West should accept "superficial concessions" such as limiting enrichment to 3.5%, describing such a potential agreement as "appeasement."
- Hezbollah allies are scrambling to fend off charges that the Iran-backed terror group is pushing underwater drilling in order to manufacture a conflict with Israel, with Michel Aoun saying late last week that Lebanon's caretaker government was not moving fast enough to open up disputed underwater areas to exploration. Aoun is head of the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). At stake are three 'blocks' along the contested Israeli-Lebanese maritime border. Both Hezbollah and Lebanon's caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil - who, like Aoun, is a member of the Hezbollah-allied FPM - have been pushing Beirut to issue tenders to energy companies that would explore and eventually drill in those areas. The move would be a de facto claim of sovereignty over the contested territory, and as a matter of black letter international law, Israel would be forced to act either legally or militarily or both. Energy companies had last week expressed trepidation over drilling in the disputed areas, after which Hezollah and Hezbollah-allied politicians doubled down. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea last week blasted the group for trying to create "another front with Israel" by forcing the issue of drilling in contested waters, and National Liberal Party leader Dori Chamoun the same day criticized Hezbollah for trying to cause "another clash with Israel" using oil rights. Hezbollah's brand as a Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese territory from Israel has been shattered by its involvement in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and observers fear that the group may be trying to drag Lebanon into war with Israel so as to restore its image.
- Twenty-eight people were injured when relatives of an Iranian prisoner set to be executed threw a hand grenade into the prison where he was being kept in a failed attempt to prevent the execution. The attack will be read against the backdrop of ongoing executions and human rights violations being committed by the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The regime is on pace to match last year's mark of 500 executions, and reform leaders in Iran have in recent weeks called attention to the plights of still-imprisoned political dissidents. Rouhani had already triggered alarm bells among human rights activists when he nominated Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi - long a target of human rights criticism for his role in the mass murders of political prisoners - to be his Justice Minister. Rouhani himself has a history of calling for the execution of anti-regime activists.
- West Bank attack on Israeli nine year old shifts focus to Palestinian incitement
- "Brazen attacks" on Egyptian security forces follow weekend of violence between Morsi supporters, opponents
- Fears of Palestinian scorched earth campaign deepen after UNESCO targets Israel
- Israeli analysts: new Iran diplomacy gambit may be "the last opportunity" before force required
What we’re watching today:
- A nine year old Israeli girl was shot and wounded this weekend by attackers she described as masked gunmen who approached her family's house in the Israeli community of Psagot. The incident comes a week after Palestinians killed two Israelis in two separate incidents, deepening fears - already aired in the aftermath of those murders - that incitement by official Palestinian organs was driving a spike of violence in the West Bank. Jerusalem Post national security reporter Yaakov Lappin described the environment as marked by "an unmistakable increase in violent attacks" by Palestinians against Israelis. Following the Saturday evening attack in Psagot, the Facebook page of the Palestinian Fatah faction praised the shooter, declaring that "the sniper of Palestine was here... he left a signature of [real] men." The incitement echoed other recent statements from the organization and its top officials, including statements glorifying convicted terrorists, calls for further attacks against Israelis, and claims that Jews are endangering Muslim holy sites.
- At least eight Egyptian security officials were killed today in what the New York Times described as "three brazen attacks," a day after at least 53 people killed in clashes between supporters of opponents of Egypt's former Muslim Brotherhood-linked president Mohammed Morsi. Six soldiers were killed in a drive-by shooting near Cairo just hours after car bomb exploded Monday at a Southern Sinai security headquarter, and multiple grenades also hit a compound on the outskirts of Cairo that houses Egypt’s telecommunications center. Cairo's army-backed government is struggling to curtail a wave of attacks against civilian and military institutions conducted both by Brotherhood members and by Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups which have taken root in the Sinai Peninsula. U.S. military assistance has proven critical in those efforts.
- Fears that Palestinian officials have politicized a once-credible United Nations organization deepened last Friday, after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed no less than six anti-Israel resolutions. Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s envoy to the body, called the resolutions part of UNESCO's recent "obsession" with Israel. The Palestinians ascended to UNESCO in 2011 over U.S. objections, triggering U.S. sanctions that financially crippled the organization. Palestinian diplomats almost immediately moved to orient UNESCO in an anti-Israel direction, launching an initiative revolving around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that also drew broad condemnation. The combination is part of what observers increasingly worry is a diplomatic scorched-earth style campaign being conducted by Palestinians diplomats: hijacking international forums to promote anti-Israel diplomacy at the expense of those forums' viability and credibility. A largely symbolic Palestinian push last year to gain non-member statehood status via the United Nations General Assembly (UNHRC) was criticized by U.S. lawmakers for politicizing the body. The campaign was also conducted in defiance of the United States and endangered critical U.S. funding.Even more pointedly, anti-Israel diplomacy conducted by rogue regimes inside the United Nations Human Rights Council has made that body a diplomatic punchline. Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, has already outlined how the Palestinians have tried to mirror their moves in the UNGA and the UNHRC inside the International Criminal Court (ICC).
- Israeli analysts are warning that a series of expected upcoming nuclear talks between Iran and the West may be "the last opportunity" for the parties to reach a nuclear deal "before Israel concludes that time has run out, that Iran has gotten too close to creating its first atomic bombs, and that the time for a military strike has arrived." The next round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 are schedule for next week in Geneva. An ongoing charm offensive by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has been praised for changing Iran's tone toward the West, but criticized for offering zero new concessions that might move negotiations forward. Questions continue to swirl regarding whether Rouhani is willing or able to fundamentally change Tehran's stance on its nuclear program. Recent days have seen renewed focus on an interview with Rouhani, filmed earlier this year, in which the revolutionary-era cleric bragged that Iran was able to leverage negotiations he conducted in the 2000's to develop Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Tehran's stance on its nuclear program is in any case set by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has clarified that whatever room for negotiations he has given Rouhani, it stops short of anything that would prevent Iran from "advancement and realization of the Islamic Revolution and System."
- Analysts, diplomats raise doubts over Moscow-facilitated Syria chemical weapons bargain
- Rouhani: Iran "will not give up one iota" of nuclear rights
- Day of sectarian violence rocks Iraq amid government efforts to stem Sunni insurgent violence
- WSJ: Movement to draft Egypt general as president highlights popular backing for military
What we’re watching today:
- Confusion swirled throughout the day as to the nature and scope of a series of Russian-facilitated deals designed to defuse the international crisis triggered by what is widely suspected to be the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime. NBC News reported that by day's end Damascus "appeared poised to accept the Russian proposal for Syria to hand over chemical weapons" and to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. In what Washington Post foreign affairs writer Jackson Diehl called a flat-out trap, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that any Syrian proposal be accompanied by a U.S. commitment not to use force against the Assad regime, with which Moscow is allied. It is unclear whether Washington would be willing to issue such a guarantee. Foreign Policy noted that Assad has dozens of movable facilities, and that "the U.S. intelligence community would have a hard time knowing where more than a fraction of the sites were at any one time. Reuters emphasized that in addition to the normal problems that inspectors face when confronting dictatorial regimes - the Iraqis, for instance, "lied through their teeth" according to non-proliferation expert Amy Smithson - it "would be difficult" to protect arms inspectors. Moreover fears that negotiations could be used by the regime to stall for time have been broadly aired, including by officials from the Syrian opposition, Gulf states, and Israel. Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled Al-Khalifa instead called on the United Nations to take what he referred to as "necessary deterrent measures" against the regime, echoing calls made on Monday by Saudi officials urging the international community to "assume its humanitarian responsibility to rescue the Syrian people."
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared Tuesday that Tehran "will not give up one iota" of its nuclear rights, deploying rhetoric that AFP described as "echoing his hardline predecessor" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The statements come a day after the chief of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog (IAEA) emphasized that it was "essential and urgent" for Tehran to address international concerns surrounding its atomic program. A recent IAEA report called specific attention to Iran's efforts to lock in advanced uranium enrichment technology, to bring online its plutonium reactor, and to destroy evidence of work possibly related to the development of nuclear weapons. Rouhani's response to the IAEA's call for greater transparency is in line with a similar statements made by an advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, to the effect that the revolutionary-era cleric's government will follow "the same trend strategically as the former government" of Ahmadinejad. It comes alongside Rouhanis's vocal support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, and may heighten skepticism regarding the new president's self-described moderation.
- A series of bombings and shootings in Iraq killed at least 24 people today, deepening fears that ongoing government efforts to stymie Sunni terror groups had failed - per the Associated Press - "to have dented the insurgents' ability to stage attacks at a high place." At least seven police officers were among today's victims. The deadliest attack took place south of Baghdad when gunmen shot and killed six people preparing the body of a Sunni man ahead of his funeral. Coordinated car bombs targeted multiple Shiite-majority areas, prompting suspicions that Al Qaeda forces were behind the bombings. More than 4,000 people have been killed in Iraq since summer began and approximately 800 Iraqis were killed in August alone. Analysts have expressed explicit concerns that Iraq may slide into "the scale sectarian slaughter" of 2006-07.
- A grenade attack on a military checkpoint in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula Monday left one soldier dead and two others injured, as insurgents sought to push back against an ongoing, widespread campaign by the army to uproot jihadist infrastructure in the increasingly anarchic territory. Scores of security officials have been killed in recent clashes across Egypt, with jihadists targeting both the army and institutions of the interim army-backed government. Leaders of the mass movement that called for the removal of Egypt's former president Mohammed Morsi have been targeted for assassination, as have government officials. The military's efforts to dampen the violence have long enjoyed widespread popular backing, and a Wall Street Journal article published this morning outlined that "a movement to nominate Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as Egypt's next president is gaining pace" as a signal of "Egyptians' yearning for stability and order."
- Rice: Congress must authorize AUMF, president needs "recourse to all elements of American power"
- U.N. nuclear watchdog: "essential and urgent" for Iran to address nuke program
- After Suez terror attempt, Egypt expands anti-jihadist campaign with Apache helicopters
- After Liberal victory, analysts expect boost in Australian-Israeli relations
What we’re watching today:
- National Security Adviser Susan Rice addressed the New America Foundation today and forcefully argued that Congress should approve President Barack Obama's request for an authorization for the use of military force against Syria. Rice emphasized that denying the President's request would not just negatively impact the U.S.'s ability to affect the Syrian conflict, but would be taken as an indication that "the United States is not prepared to use the full range of tools necessary to keep our country safe." She called attention to the need for presidential flexibility, arguing that "any president, Republican or Democrat, must have recourse to all elements of American power to design and implement our national security policy — diplomatic, economic or militaristic President's flexibility on foreign affairs." The administration is launching what the Washington Post describes as “an intensive public and private lobbying push,” which will include a prime-time address to the American public on Tuesday. Syrian media, meanwhile, is gloating that the request for authorization is "the start of the historic American retreat" from the global stage. Congress is expected to begin voting on the request as early as Wednesday.
- The head of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog declared today that it was "essential and urgent" for Iran to address international concerns regarding its nuclear program, emphasizing that Tehran must cease stonewalling inspections of its enrichment activities and what is widely suspected to be weaponization work. Yukiya Amano was explicit that the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) could not substantiate, due to a lack of cooperation from Tehran, Iranian claims that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Amano’s statements echoed comments made by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, who last week said that the U.S. is troubled by recent developments. Power specifically cited work at Iran's Arak facility, which if developed further will position the Islamic republic to produce materials sufficient for the production of two plutonium-based nuclear bombs every year. Alongside its plutonium work, Iran has - per the most recent IAEA report [PDF] - continued to lock in nuclear infrastructure that will enable Tehran to produce a uranium-based nuclear bomb. The U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that [PDF] Iran will have that capability - which would see the Islamic republic dashing across the nuclear finish line before Western powers could detect and intervene - by mid-2014.
- Egypt has expanded an ongoing anti-terrorism campaign in the Sinai Peninsula targeting jihadist networks that have in recent months deepened and consolidated efforts to foment instability and violence in the territory and beyond.The Egyptian army deployed helicopters to back troops that have been operating near the border between the Sinai and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The campaign comes in the wake of an assassination attempt on the interior minister of Cairo's army-backed interim government, and after Egyptian security officials foiled a terror plot targeting the Suez Canal. Suez Canal Authority sources said a rocket-propelled grenade was used in an attack, which targeted a container ship and sent shock waves through insurance and shipping markets. Keeping the Suez Canal open and stable is broadly considered to be a key U.S. geopolitical interest. Analysts have also pointedly noted that U.S. arms are proving critical to Egyptian army's campaign to stabilize the Sinai and prevent further attacks.
- The results of Australia's election Saturday night, which saw Tony Abbott's Liberal Party sweep into power, are expected to result in stronger relations between Canberra and Jerusalem. Abbott had been enthusiastic about describing himself as "a friend of Israel – always have been, always will be," and he criticized Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government for allowing bilateral relations to slip. Further down on the ballot list, the Green Party found itself scrambling to address accusations that some of its members supported efforts to boycott Israel, a position that became a political liability in local elections. Australian media reported last month that a future government "would also take a harder line against the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions’ campaign against Israel."
- Senate committee votes 10-7-1 to authorize strikes on Syria
- Israel prepares contingency plans as Egypt deepens efforts to uproot Sinai Peninsula jihadists
- Syria threatens to lash out against Israel, Jordan, and Turkey should U.S. take action after chemical weapons attack
- As reconciliation talks deadlock, Turkey analysts worry Ankara's anti-Jewish bias has "overwhelmed pragmatism"
What we’re watching today:
- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee today approved a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to use military force against Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, in response to what is widely considered to have been mass chemical weapons use by the Syrian army against opposition-controlled Damascus suburbs. The approved wording limits military action to 60 days with a potential 30-day extension, and includes language describing the policy of the United States as one of "chang[ing] the momentum on the battlefield in Syria." The committee vote was 10-7-1 and the resolution will now require a vote in the full Senate. Meanwhile the House Foreign Affairs Committee heard testimony today from Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as the administration's team pressed the case for strikes. The White House has been signaling confidence that Congress will authorize the President's request for the use of force, and Reuters had already noted this morning that the administration has won "backing for Syria strike from key figures in Congress." Republican House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor both pledged their support for military action.
- Israel has prepared contingency plans for a security collapse in the Sinai Peninsula, amid deepening fears that the Egyptian army is straining in its ongoing campaign to root out jihadists in the increasingly restive territory. Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, who oversees Israel's Southern Command, explained to Israel Hayom that both Gaza-based terrorists and global jihadists were active in the Sinai. The groups are seeking to undermine Cairo's ability to control the territory, to directly attack Egyptian infrastructure and personnel, and to launch terror attacks against Israel. IDF data reflects that some 300 terror attacks have been launched against Egyptian security forces in recent weeks. A single attack saw 25 Egyptian police officers reportedly slain in "execution-style" killings. Cairo has recently expanded its campaign to dampen and contain violence in the Sinai, and has implemented what Israeli media outlet Ha'aretz describes as “zero tolerance toward any political or military activity of radical organizations” in Egypt.
- Iranian and Syrian officials have threatened to lash out against the West - both the U.S. and France were explicitly named - should Western powers take military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Gen. Hossein Salami, acting commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, said on Tuesday that an attack against Damascus would spread the "spirit of jihad." Assad himself - speaking to Le Figaro - threatened “repercussions” against Paris and its interests. His comments were echoed by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad Tuesday, who reportedly told the Wall Street Journal that Syria would lash out not only against Israel and the U.S. but also - should they participate - against Jordan, and Turkey.
- Turkish analysts and academics are increasingly concerned that deep-seated conspiracy theories dominating the Turkish public sphere are subverting efforts to stabilize Turkey's domestic and foreign policies. Two weeks ago Georgetown University Turkey expert Michael Koplow described the "paranoia" of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as being at "an all-time high." Koplow worried that anti-Jewish theories floated by Erdogan blaming Israel for the Egyptian army's moves against the country's deposed Muslim Brotherhood-linked government were signs of a "continuing crackup." He also gestured toward a precipitous decline in Turkey's regional position: Ankara has seen its relations plummet with Egypt, Israel, the Sunni bloc centered in the Gulf, and the Shiite bloc dominated by Iran. Last week Turkish political scientist Doğu Ergil echoed Koplow's concerns, fretting that the Turkish establishment's anti-Jewish bias "has often overwhelmed pragmatism." The latest analysis follows reports that reconciliation talks between Jerusalem and Ankara have become deadlocked amid what Israel considers to be unprecedented Turkish demands for compensation related to the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in which nine people died fighting Israeli commandos while trying to breach Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Talks have been ongoing for month, following a political gambit by President Barack Obama that saw Erdogan outmaneuvered on several key long-standing demands related to rapprochement.