- Egyptian presidential frontrunner commits to Camp David peace treaty, as allies urge Hamas to recognize Israel
The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday angrily denounced reports printed by Western outlets alleging that the Islamic republic had supplied Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime with chlorine-filled chemical weapons (CWs), accusing the Daily Telegraph in particular of being a "Zionist news outlet" that "spreads lies to deviate the world's public opinion from realities." Observers have become increasingly vocal in condemning what analysts describe as a coordinated campaign by Syrian to target rebel-heavy areas with the weapons. The campaign had - per the New York Times - "overshadowed" reports that progress was being made in eliminating other parts of Assad's nonconventional arsenal. Syria had agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and destroy its CW stockpile as part of a deal hammered out last September to avert what seemed to be impending U.S. strikes, after the regime had widely been accused of crossing a red line set by the Obama administration against the use of such weapons. The CWC does not ban possession of chlorine, which has industrial uses beyond the battlefield, but weaponizing the substance let alone deploying it is prohibited. The Chinese had been quick in announcing an investigation into whether the weapons had a link to Beijing, and had subsequently denied involvement. The controversy over chlorine weapons comes as progress has stalled in destroying even the CWC-proscribed portions of Syria's arsenal. The chief of the mission charged with destroying those weapons said this week that the last unsecured containers were currently inaccessible on account of nearby fighting. Washington has traditionally shown little patience for such arguments, accusing Damascus of dragging its feet and manipulating the situation on the ground to avoid handing over its weapons. The Americans believe that Syria has been looking to retain portions of its nonconventional arsenal to use "as leverage in a dispute with the international community over the future of facilities used to store the deadly agents."
Several outlets on Thursday reported on Congressional efforts to reassert a measure of control over the trajectory of nuclear negotiations with Iran, with members of the House of Representatives making a variety of moves over the last few days to monitor the status of ongoing talks and to establish acceptable parameters on any deal. Politico's influential Morning Defense bulletin took note of "an amendment from Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) calling for additional restrictions on a potential nuclear deal with Iran, including that Iran cease its support of terror groups and its ballistic missile program." An initial request for a roll call was withdrawn, and the language was approved by voice vote. Meanwhile the Washington Free Beacon reported on efforts by Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) to "legally force the White House into sharing information and provide oversight over the Iran deal, the text of which the Obama administration has kept locked in a secret location." The Obama administration and key members on the Hill have consistently clashed over the wisdom of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) signed between Iran and the P5+1 global powers, with divisions widening after it appeared that White House officials misled lawmakers and the public about the extent of Iranian concessions regarding uranium enrichment technology, plutonium infrastructure, and ballistic missile development. The situation is a delicate one for the administration, which has reportedly been seeking ways to circumvent Congress should Washington commit to undoing sanctions on Iran. Both supporters and skeptics of a potential deal agree that such efforts are unlikely to prove sufficiently robust to succeed.
Analysis published this week by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) conveyed a variety of indicators - ranging from public data about Israeli-Egyptian energy agreements to recent statements by Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi - converging on the conclusion that Cairo is making a concentrated effort to boost and insulate bilateral ties with the Jewish state. The write-up specifically focused on recent statements by Sisi, who is widely expected to breeze to the presidency in upcoming elections, committing to upholding the peace treaty with Jerusalem and suggesting that relations could warm further in the aftermath of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Meanwhile Amr Mussa - a top liberal politician and a notable Sisi ally - called on the Palestinian Hamas faction to recognize Israel in order to boost efforts to establish a viable Palestinian state. Mussa more specifically declared that "Hamas should declare its acceptance of the Arab initiative of 2002, which is the map of normalization and recognition of the state of Israel together with the establishing of the Palestinian state and the withdrawal of the occupied territory." Agence France-Presse (AFP) read the remarks against the backdrop of a recent unity agreement announced between Hamas and the rival Fatah faction. The announcement had been blasted by some analysts for providing Hamas with a lifeline, after almost a year of systematic Egyptian campaigns to economically and diplomatically isolate the terror group. AFP noted that "the deputy leader of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzuq, insisted earlier this week that despite the unity deal his group would never recognize Israel," a stance which puts the Palestinians in tension with almost a decade of international demands and with black-letter American law.
The Wall Street Journal on Thursday conveyed commitments from Iran's oil minister vowing to boost the country's crude exports despite what the outlet described as "a cap agreed upon with the international community." The interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which Iran and the P5+1 global powers had agreed upon last November - eased energy sanctions on the Islamic republic, permitting Tehran to export one million barrels per day (bpd). Iran has busted through that limit every month for six straight months, generating fears that the inflow in foreign currency and capital would erode the leverage of Western negotiators seeking to extract concessions regarding the country's atomic program. The dynamic had also seemed to align with the predictions of JPA critics, who had worried that the JPA's partial erosion of the international sanctions regime would spiral into broader economic gains for Iran. The Obama administration had pushed back against those critics by insisting that so-called core sanctions remained robust. Energy-driven economic stabilization has nonetheless long been identified as a particular vulnerability in the White House's gambit. Iran has sought to split Washington from its European allies, and in recent days Iranian Deputy Energy Minister Ali Majedi floated the possibility of supplying the Continent with gas and fuel. Against the backdrop of Russian energy maneuvering in the context of the Ukraine crisis, Majedi declared that "Iran can be a reliable partner for Europe: there are sufficient energy resources for cooperation with European countries and numerous projects exist in this connection." Writing in Forbes this week, Michael Lynch energy expert Michael Lynch took issue with those who dismissed "[t]he suggestion that Iran might become a natural gas supplier to Europe as a more secure source than Russian gas," outlining several plausible scenarios for delivery of the energy.
- Syrian opposition head arrives in Washington asking for aid, as strategic city falls to regime forces
- US and EU lawmakers weigh aid cuts to Palestinian Authority after unity deal, evidence of endemic corruption
National Security Adviser Susan Rice arrived in Israel on Wednesday for consultations with top Israeli security and political figures, a day after the White House clarified that the planned discussions would focus significantly on negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 global powers over the former's atomic program. The White House had also emphasized that those consultations - per language used by Reuters - would not actually yield "any new developments on that front." The Jerusalem Post suggested that Rice's trip comes as Washington is preparing for what the outlet described as an "Israeli backlash" to a range of concessions that the Obama administration is rumored to be contemplating. The Israelis have among other things dismissed an Iranian proposal - which top figures from Tehran's atomic program have been hyping as a promising development in the talks - that would see the Iranians rejecting a long-standing Western demand that they dismantle or at a minimum downgrade the heavy water reactor being constructed at the country's Arak facility. The current IR-40 reactor will be able to produce at least one bomb's worth of plutonium per year, and once activated is functionally impossible to destroy. The Iranians have rejected any possibility of meeting their international obligations - codified in United Nations Security Council Resolutions - to halt construction at Arak and keep the reactor offline. They have also drawn a red line against modifying it into a more proliferation-resistant light water model. Instead they are offering to run the reactor at less than full capacity, a compromise that Israeli Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz pointed out would leave Tehran steadily stockpiling plutonium that could eventually be used to construct a nuclear weapon, albeit at a slightly slower pace. Negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran are set to meet next week in Vienna. State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on Tuesday that Obama administration officials "feel like we can start drafting and... like we can get [a comprehensive deal] done by July 20."
Syrian rebel groups on Wednesday began clearing out of the strategic city of Homs under a deal that the Washington Postdescribed as "loaded with poignancy for the opposition," with hundreds of fighters allowed to carry only a single weapon as they boarded buses conveying them to the countryside. The city is considered one of the "cradle[s]" of the now three year old uprising. Its central location in Syria - it lies along the country's main highway linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast - led Agence France-Presse (AFP) to characterize the rebel withdrawal as a "strategic prize" for Assad. Bloomberg News contextualized the events alongside renewed calls for Western military assistance to rebel elements, opening its write-up by noting that "[w]hile U.S.-backed Syrian opposition leaders in Washington are lobbying for better weapons, the Syrian government has forced rebels to abandon the city of Homs." Rebel chief Ahmad Jarba announced Tuesday night that he would specifically request anti-aircraft missiles to counter what seems to be a deliberate move by Syrian forces to heighten the use of barrel bombs against rebel-heavy areas. The use of the shrapnel-packed helicopter-deployed IEDs has been criticized as a war crime by Western leaders, but the rebels have not been able to field a battlefield answer to the Syrian Air Force. The New York Times noted that Jarba's call came as Assad "appears to have gained the upper hand in the civil war and President Obama has continued to express wariness about becoming more deeply involved." Al-Hayat Washington Bureau Chief Joyce Karam on Wednesday conveyed statements from Syrian opposition groups noting that "Assad is still receiving arms from Iran via Iraq[i] airspace." The Obama administration this week announced that it was recognizing the main opposition group's office as a diplomatic foreign mission and increasing its non-lethal assistance by $27 million.
Voice of America (VOA) on Wednesday conveyed statements from Edward Kallon, the U.N.'s resident humanitarian coordinator for Jordan, calling on the international community to boost its support for the Hashemite kingdom in order to forestall a potential domestic backlash against the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees that have flooded into the country over the last three years. Kallon assessed that those refugees will be in Jordan over at least the medium term, and that "we should try to enhance social cohesion rather than creating sensitivities that result in resentment, which is not going to help our total humanitarian effort." Only about one quarter of a U.N. appeal for $4.2 billion - all to be delivered in 2014 - has been fulfilled. The United States for its part earlier sealed an agreement this week to extend loan guarantees to Amman that the State Department insisted would "allow Jordan to access affordable financing from international capital markets, ensuring that Jordan can continue to provide critical services to its citizens." Observers had feared in early 2013 that the country was entering a cycle of instability - where a poor economy drove unrest, and unrest prevented economic fixes from taking hold - but angry demonstrations had eventually tapered off. Recent months have however seen a spike in tensions, and last week there was a wave of violence in southern Jordan that included the death of a civilian apparently at the hands of security forces.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) on Wednesday told the Jerusalem Post that existing U.S. law is sufficient to curtail assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) should a government emerge drawing ministers from both the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, as reportedly envisioned by a recently-announced unity agreement between the two groups. U.S. Legislation stretching back to 2006 is explicit that any government that includes Hamas is ineligible for U.S. funds, and news of the Fatah-Hamas agreement was quickly described by Al Monitor as potentially the "last straw for Congress on U.S. aid to [the] Palestinians." The House will hold hearings Thursday to examine the status of the deal and evaluate its likely consequences. The debate on the Hill comes as the European Union is moving forward on its own investigation into what seems to be endemic Palestinian corruption and mismanagement of E.U. funds. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) on Tuesday rounded up developments that have emerged since last December, when the European Court of Auditors found that some of the billions of Euros given to the Palestinians since the mid-1990s had been allocated in ways that violated restrictions and conditions on that assistance. The JTA indicated that "a lingering corruption problem that has plagued the [PA] since it was formed under Yasser Arafat" has now become the target of "an unprecedented degree of scrutiny" from E.U. officials. The piece quoted Arab politics expert Guy Bechor explaining that "until now, EU aid was unconditional... [but] for the first time, we are seeing serious moves for conditionality and transparency." The Palestinian economy would collapse in the absence of significant outside assistance.
Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Daily Beast: Western analysts suspect Assad has secret chemical and biological weapons program, know-how to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade" arsenal
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday conveyed angry remarks from Iranian officials in reaction to this week's publication of the State Department's annual country-by-country terrorism roundup - which veteran Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee had characterized as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful" - with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham complaining that the U.S. was "turning of a blind eye to Zionist [Israeli] crimes." English-language Iranian media translated the same passage as "atrocious acts of the Zionists." The report had also indicated that Iran was facilitating the transfer of both Shiite and radical Sunni fighters into Syria, essentially funding both sides of that country's more than three-year-long conflict in targeting moderate Sunni rebel groups. Other passages revealed that Iran "trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups," which - it was pointedly noted - had been done "despite [Iran's] pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization." Tehran's activities in arming Hezbollah in Lebanon were described as being as blackletter "violation[s]" of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and were linked to Tehran's efforts to provide critical support to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. More broadly, the report catalogued Iran-backed terror activity in more than a dozen countries. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf had already addressed some of the Iranian pushback in a Thursday press briefing, telling journalists that if the Iranians didn't want to be accused of supporting terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism." Meanwhile Iranian Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a former commander of the country's Revolutionary Guards Corps, was reported by Iranian media outlets as bragging that the Islamic Republic has managed to expand its sphere of influence to the Mediterranean Sea. Rahim-Safavi reportedly emphasized that 'Iran's defense perimeter has been extended... above the borders of Israel.'
The Daily Beast on Thursday cited a range of Western intelligence analysts converging on the assessment that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime not only has a secret cache of undeclared chemical weapons - which the outlet said included "crude chlorine-filled bombs, secret stockpiles of sophisticated nerve gasses or their components" - but also the stored institutional knowledge to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade chemical weapons effort" once the international community has turned its attention away from Syria. The outlet noted that widely broadcast reports regarding the eradication of Assad's chemical arsenal only take into account "the chemical arsenal Assad admitted he had" as part of a deal under which Damascus agreed to turn over its chemical weapons in exchange for the West suspending what appeared to be imminent airstrikes. The Daily Beast however conveyed that there there is "mounting concern that the Syrian regime may have a second unconventional weapons program—one Assad never told the international community about." That program is thought by Western intelligence analysts to include biological weapons, undeclared chemical materials, and chemical weapons such as chlorine that are not outright banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The news comes amid deepening worries among Western diplomats that Syrian forces have embarked on a campaign of using chlorine bombs to target civilians and fighters in rebel-heavy areas, a development that Foreign Policy had flatly stated if confirmed would "cast a dark cloud" over last September's deal. Meanwhile questions are also mounting about the regime's willingness to turn over even its declared CWC-proscribed arsenal. Reports have been piling up that Assad is dragging his feet on the obligation - the question came up on Friday at a Department of Defense press briefing - and Reuters reported the same day that rebel forces have in the meantime closed in on the last known stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons.
Emerging worries that a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions would provide the latter with a badly needed lifeline seemed set to deepen on Friday, with multiple reports being published indicating that the Iran-backed terror group was surging in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Hamas was reported as making inroads into Ramallah - from which Fatah governs its West Bank territories - as measured by "the amount of Hamas flags that are being waved in PA controlled areas." The Times of Israel also reported on the use of Hamas flags at Palestinian events, conveying Hebrew-language reports of a Palestinian wedding procession in Jerusalem in which participants "displayed the flags of Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda." The news comes a few days after reports emerged that Hamas had held a large-scale demonstration in the West Bank, which Israeli outlets described as a "massive show of force." That rally had already reinforced suspicions - outlined at length on Monday by veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff - that Hamas was maneuvering to use the unity agreement to boost its status. Hamas's command and control infrastructure, as well as huge swaths of its advanced arsenal, had been severely degraded during an eight-day Israeli air campaign in November 2012 that came in response to a sharp escalation in the amount and sophistication of projectiles that the group was using to target Israeli civilians and soldiers. Less than a year later, in the aftermath of the ouster of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian army undertook a systematic campaign to destroy the smuggling tunnels that linked the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the Sinai Peninsula and which served as Hamas's economic channel to the outside world. By October of last year, Hamas officials were publicly bemoaning that they had been "sentenced to death," and by February 2014 analysts were predicting that Hamas was facing "a very bad year." Subsequent months seemed in line with those assessments, with Hamas diplomatically isolated and seemingly caught in a downward economic spiral.
Lebanon's NOW media outlet on Friday published a series of interviews and updates from the besieged Lebanese town of Tfail, which has been targeted by what NOW described as a "campaign of aerial bombardment against... civilians" by Hezbollah-backed forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The attacks have recently escalated to include barrel bombs, air-deployed shrapnel-packed IEDs that can level entire buildings with a single detonation. Tfail is technically in Lebanese territory but is accessible only via roads that run through Syria, and regime forces months ago set up roadblocks and began to choke off the town in an effort to prevent the transit of opposition elements across the Syria-Lebanon border. News of the attacks had been trickling out of Tfail for weeks, with reports emerging in late April that the Syrian army had launched a series of artillery strikes that had sent thousands of civilians - both Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees - scrambling to seek shelter in the surrounding hills. Beirut subsequently managed to send a relief caravan to the town, which by then had according to reports been "without supplies of food, electricity, shelter, or aid for four months." Friday's report by NOW indicated that attacks have resumed and that at least two Lebanese civilians have been killed, and one resident was quoted by the news outlet accusing Beirut of having only come "one day and then left us all alone to deal with the Syrian regime attacks." NOW also confirmed that Syrian forces targeted the center of Tfail with sustained tank fire for at least three hours, in addition to the air strikes. The Syrian campaign has come alongside several other cross-border attacks. The dynamic, under which Hezbollah-backed forces have been shelling Lebanese civilians and territory, has been devastating to the Iran-backed terror group's long insistence that it is an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty from outside interference. It is not clear, however, that the collapse of Hezbollah's decades-long pretense - which had occassionally been echoed in corners of the Western foreign policy community - will materially affect its ability to dominate Lebanon militarily and therefore politically. The group has publicly declared, for instance, that it will not accept a president who is not a "friend" to Hezbollah. An effort by the Lebanese parliament to pick a new president this week failed.
- Reports: Turkey opens gates to Iran banks "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions"
- Human rights activists accuse Syrian regime of deliberately targeting civilians as wave of barrel bomb attacks kills scores
A meeting of top Israeli political leaders on Thursday, called in order to chart Jerusalem's response to a Wednesday announcement by Palestinian leaders that the rival Fatah and Hamas factions had agreed to a deal that would see the formation of a unity government with members from both groups, concluded with a decision to suspend peace talks until the composition of that government was solidified. The Israeli move was not unexpected. Top figures from Hamas had already declared that the unity government would not see the group accepting the Palestinian Authority's obligations toward Israel, including the recognition of its right to exist and a renunciation of violence. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday emphasized to reporters no fewer than four times that Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist," and the Israelis for their part had declared that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would have to choose between ongoing peace talks and an embrace of Hamas. Al Monitor assessed Wednesday that the agreement had been "the last straw for Congress" regarding perceptions of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in general, and more specifically regarding the degree to which the United States should continue extending assistance to an Abbas-led PA. The piece quoted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) - who had authored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which conditioned aid to any Palestinian government on the absence of terrorists in leadership positions - declaring that "the Administration must halt aid to the Palestinian Authority and condition any future assistance as leverage to force Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to abandon this reconciliation with Hamas and to implement real reforms within the PA." It also quoted Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart on the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East, Ted Deutch (D-FL), emphasizing that observers should "[b]e certain that the Palestinian Authority will face significant consequences if a unity government is formed that includes terrorist members of Hamas." Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, tersely stated that Abbas's reconciliation move "jeopardizes US assistance." Al Monitor also conveyed details of a conference call held Wednesday by The Israel Project (TIP) in which Hillel Frisch, a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, had explained to reporters that a Palestinian unity government was in fact a vital prerequisite to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, but that it could not come at the expense of the Palestinians meeting their past obligations to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The alternative would be tantamount to Palestinian negotiators having spent decades extracting functionally irreversible concessions from Israel at the negotiating table, before pocketing those concessions and then abrogating the commitments.
Turkish outlet Today's Zaman on Tuesday described a rush by Iranian banks to open and expand branches in Turkey in the aftermath of "growth restrictions" being lifted, a decision that the outlet explained was made by the country's Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions after headway was made in negotiations regarding the curbing of Iran's nuclear program." Bank Mellat - which had been contracting due to sanctions-linked restrictions starting in 2012 - was cleared for expansion, a development that was followed by applications from two other Iranian banks that intend to open up in Turkey. The applications were approved. A report published in February by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), identified Turkey as a key global hub of illicit and terrorist financing, and the country has long been criticized for providing Iran both direct resources and financial channels with which to circumvent Western sanctions placed on the Islamic republic. Top officials from the Treasury Department rushed to Ankara in the aftermath of the implementation of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which eroded sanctions against Iran - to warn the Turks that "Iran is not open for business" and that "[b]usinesses interested in engaging in Iran really should hold off." Turkish outlet The Daily Sabah reported this week that, according to Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Alireza Bigdeli, Tehran and Ankara are now set to establish a free trade zone.
CNN on Thursday reported that forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime had, as part of an ongoing attack on the country's largest city, Aleppo, dropped barrel bombs out of helicopters on a vegetable market, killing at least 24 people. Activists and human rights workers distributed video of what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble in what was clearly a market" including an image of "a man attending to a boy whose leg had been ripped off." The wire clarified that "it was unclear whether the child was alive or dead," and also conveyed the assessment of an Aleppo-based activist who explained that "the area that was struck today is a market area, that's why there were so many civilians killed... the regime is hitting back against the civilians who support the revolt." The news comes just days after reports of a similar Monday attack that killed at least 29 people in a single Aleppo neighborhood. The regime's use of the mass-casualty shrapnel-packed IEDs - which can quite literally level entire buildings with a single hit - has consistently been emphasized by analysts and lawmakers as a particularly compelling justification for more robust Western intervention on behalf of opposition elements. Syrian forces also launched airstrikes on Atareb, injuring dozens, and on the nearby village of Tal Rifaat. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that, alongside the violence, almost 3.5 million civilians have little to no access to humanitarian aid.
Palestinian fighters on Thursday detonated a bomb along the northern border of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and launched a mortar shell at an IDF unit operating along the southern border of the territory, developments that the Jerusalem Post contextualized alongside new figures that show that there has been a "major upsurge in projectile attacks" against Israeli soldiers and civilians during 2014. Palestinian media outlets noted that the device was "apparently targeting patrolling Israeli soldiers." Thursday also saw the discovery of two additional bombs that had been planted along the territory's southern border with Israel. The incidents came a day after the Israelis had targeted what Reuters - conveying Israeli military reports - described as "a militant riding on a motorcycle in northern Gaza, from where rockets are often shot at Israel." Missiles and rockets had also been directed at Israeli troops and population centers on Monday, drawing both retaliatory and suppression fire that reportedly wounded four Hamas members. Those barrages, in turn, had been preceded by an attack on Sunday in which Palestinians detonated a bomb near an Israeli patrol and launched at least seven rockets into Israel. The Washington Post read the escalation against the backdrop of a more general uptick in rocket and missile fire, noting that "Gaza militants fired the heaviest barrages" in March since Israel's November 2012 Pillar of Defense campaign, during which Israeli forces decimated much of Hamas's advanced arsenal and its command and control infrastructure.
Iran atomic agency spokesman: Uranium enrichment concessions could be reversed "within two to three weeks"
- Iran atomic agency spokesman: Uranium enrichment concessions could be reversed "within two to three weeks"
- Beirut claims progress in relieving Lebanese town besieged by Hezbollah, bombed by Hezbollah-backed Syrian forces
A top official linked to Iran's atomic agency bragged this week that a critical uranium-related concession made by Tehran under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) could be reversed "within two to three weeks," part of a broader speech that included boasts about the quality of new Iranian centrifuges - a twentyfold increase in enrichment capacity - and the creation of new Russian-built energy plants. Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), declared that oxidizing portions of Iran's 5 percent stockpile - which Iran is obligated to do under the JPA - does not prevent Iran from "transform[ing] our 5% uranium to 20% within two to three weeks if needed." Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-born analyst and currently an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, bluntly assessed the speech as a statement that the Iranian regime views the JPA as a deal in which "all the advantages accrue to Tehran." The JPA requires Iran to turn portions of its 5 percent and 20 percent pure uranium stockpiles into uranium oxide, temporarily preventing that stock from being enriched further. Regarding its 20 percent stockpile, Iran is obligated to either dilute the material back down to 5 percent ("downblending") or to oxidize it at 20 percent. Regarding its 5 percent stockpile, Iran is obligated to ensure that - at the end of the JPA's six-month negotiation period - there is only as much of that stock on hand as there was at beginning of the deal's implementation. Iran is permitted unlimited enrichment to 5 percent, but the new material that's created has to be oxidized until the total amount of 5 percent pure stock is equal to what it was when the JPA period began. The deal was touted by the Obama administration as putting "time on the clock" by "freezing" the Iranian nuclear program, ensuring Tehran could not use the negotiation period to inch closer to creating 90 percent enriched weapons-grade uranium. Skepticism regarding the robustness of the JPA emerged in the days immediately following the announcement agreement, was sharpened by what appeared to be several places in which the administration had either misunderstood or misled the public about Iranian obligations, and will be fueled further by Kamalvandi's comments. His remarks about the enrichment capacity of next-generation centrifuges are likely to prove particularly problematic, inasmuch as Iran controversially maneuvered the West into allowing continued development of advanced centrifuges under the JPA. A report published last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) introduced an additional complication, revealing that the commissioning of a facility designed to convert 5 percent enriched gas into oxide - this is the facility that was supposed to ensure that Iran stayed under the JPA's cap for un-oxidized uranium, even as its scientists continued to enrich unlimited amounts of the material - had been put off. No reason was given for the delay. Kamalvandi's remarks will in any case be seen as underscoring that the JPA may well leave Iran with more enriched uranium and with more centrifuges, which will themselves be more advanced than previous technology. Should the conversion facility finally open, the difference will be that the additional enriched material will be in oxide form. Mark Hibbs, writing on the Arms Control Wonk blog partially sponsored by the left-leaning Ploughshares Fund, had already pointed out last April that Iran could use existing facilities to reverse the oxidization process, and that such reconversion would only take a few weeks.
The Associated Press on Tuesday described Syrian rebels as "making their last desperate stand in Homs," as forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime pressed what has been an unsteady march of advances across the war-torn country. The wire conveyed assessments by analysts predicting that the city could fall to the regime "[i]n the next few days." Homs, which is Syria's third largest city, has been a strategically critical hotspot for much of the country's roughly three-year-long conflict. It links Damascus with Aleppo, the country's largest population center, and a city that itself saw dozens killed this week by Syrian airstrikes. The attacks reportedly deployed mass casualty barrel bombs, helicopter-deployed shrapnel-packed IEDs that have been condemned as "barbaric" by Secretary of State John Kerry and as a "war crime" by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Meanwhile Mohammad al-Lahham, the president of the Syrian parliament, announced Monday that the country's presidential elections would be held on June 3, promising that the process would be "free and fair." Al Arabiya opened its coverage of the statement by noting that "[t]he United Nations harshly criticized" the decision, conveying comments from both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi to that effect. Opposition elements for their part denounced the election as a "farce." A range of observers, including Brahimi himself, expressed concerns that spectacles aimed at consolidating the legitimacy of the Assad regime would undermine negotiations aimed at ending the conflict. Talks held earlier this year, which took place alongside reports of new atrocities being committed by Syrian forces, ended in deadlock.
Top Palestinian figures spent much of Tuesday walking back statements - aired in recent days by a range of Palestinian Authority (PA) figures, including reportedly by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself - threatening to dissolve the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) if Israel refused to make sufficient concessions to entice Ramallah to rejoin peace talks. The comments had generated exasperated eye rolls from the Israeli political echelon, and led State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki to emphasize that Washington would be forced to reevaluate its relationship with the Palestinians should they make good on their threats. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Agence France Presse (AFP) that "[n]o Palestinian is speaking of an initiative to dismantle" the PNA, a move that would force either the Israeli government or the international community to fill in and take control. Abbas himself echoed the point in talks with reporters. Veteran Israeli analyst Avi Issacharoff noted that threats to dissolve the PNA are part of a "recurrent ritual" leveraged by Palestinian negotiators, and outlined both political and financial considerations that would likely constrain such a move. Issacharoff specifically suggested that "PA officials benefit financially from the existence of the PA and, in addition to their salary, enjoy many economic bonuses that come with their jobs — via connections with Israel, involvement in economic projects, and so on." The Israel HaYom newspaper editorialized that - more specifically - Palestinian leaders waiting in the wings to take over for Abbas, and thereby to gain access to "the royal honors and red carpets... [and] the donations from around the world," would not permit him to dissolve the PA.
The Lebanese government on Tuesday reported progress in providing relief to residents of the besieged border town of Tfail, a remote Lebanese outpost functionally accessible only via Syrian roads, has been subject to isolation and bombardment by Hezbollah-backed forces fighting on behalf of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The Iran-directed terror group has sought to seal portions of the Lebanon-Syria border as part of an effort to contain sectarian blowback generated by its support of Assad. A Lebanese army official explained to the Associated Press that, as a result of Hezbollah's tactics, Tfail had at times been severed from the rest of Lebanon. The country's NOW outlet went further, describing how over 4,000 Lebanese citizens and thousands of Syrian refugees in the town had "lived without supplies of food, electricity, shelter, or aid for four months." The siege had in recent days escalated to active cross-border shelling, sending residents fleeing into the surrounding landscape. Beirut had committed to trying to alleviate the situation and on Tuesday a convoy of food and aid was able to enter the town. The Syrian attack on Tfail took place alongside several other recent cross-border attacks by Assad-linked forces. The dynamic is particularly problematic for Hezbollah, which for years had sought to brand itself - occasionally with help from elements of the Western foreign policy establishment - as an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese territory from military violations. There are open debates, however, about the degree to which damage to Hezbollah's image will affect its political position inside Lebanon generally, or more specifically its maneuvering in anticipation of upcoming presidential elections. The group has not been subtle in leveraging its superiority in arms and infrastructure to politically paralyze Lebanon in order to achieve its objectives. It is widely expected that Beirut faces at least a short-term deadlock in selecting a new president.
State Dept.: Palestinian threats to disband government would have "grave implications," force reevaluation of bilateral ties
- State Dept.: Palestinian threats to disband government would have "grave implications," force reevaluation of bilateral ties
- Credibility of Syria chemical weapons deal in jeopardy, as U.S. and French officials describe "indications" of new regime attacks
- "Possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program under scrutiny, as confusion swirls over intentions
Top U.S. and Israeli officials on Monday reacted coldly to threats by Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders that they might disband the Palestinian government and transfer control of their territory to either Israel or the United Nations, with State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki emphasizing that the move would force Washington to reevaluate its relationship with Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring with resignation that "when [the Palestinians] want peace, they should let us know." Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee member Hanna Amerah reportedly told Palestinian media over the weekend that the failure of the peace process "could lead to the disbandment" of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the Palestinian body that controls Palestinian areas of the West Bank, which would impose new costs on either Jerusalem or the international community as they filled in. Agence France-Presse separately quoted an anonymous Palestinian official saying that similar threats had been conveyed to Martin Indyk, the Obama administration's special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself had apparently told Israeli lawmakers last week that a prolonged stalemate in the peace process would lead to the Palestinians handing over the "keys" to the West Bank. Speaking from the State Department podium on Monday, spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned Abbas against making any such moves, tersely assessing that "those kinds of extreme measures would have grave implications" on Washington's "relationship and our assistance." Palestinian officials emerged from their meetings with Indyk declaring that the U.S. was not presenting any new proposals to move forward a U.S.-backed peace initiative launched roughly nine months ago by Secretary of State John Kerry. Abbas has repeatedly rejected a range of U.S. bridging proposals designed to bring the two sides closer to an agreement.
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki revealed Monday that the U.S. had "indications" that a "toxic industrial chemical" had recently been used on the battlefield in Syria, and that Washington was examining the source of the attack, amid deepening suspicions that the Bashar al-Assad regime recently launched another chemical weapons attack against opposition elements seeking its overthrow. State's assessment tracks closely with remarks made on Sunday by French President Francois Hollande suggesting that Paris had "information" but not "proof" that the regime had launched another nonconventional attack, and it precisely echoes recent language about "indications" used by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. The deployment of weaponized chlorine by Syrian forces would present both diplomatic and political challenges for the Obama administration. The White House has battled for months against criticism that it was diplomatically outmaneuvered last September, when Washington dropped a threat of impending military action in exchange for a commitment by Assad to turn over his chemical weapons arsenal for destruction. The Syrians and their Russian backers took public victory laps as the agreement was hammered out by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the administration was subsequently criticized for among other things becoming de facto invested in keeping the regime stable enough to carry out its obligations. U.S. officials have in response circulated figures - including ones published this morning - suggesting that Assad may be steadily exporting portions of his arsenal. Chlorine, however, is not a substance that is outright prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Its use in battle is forbidden, but nations are allowed to possess it due to its industrial uses, and it was not listed among the key chemicals that Assad committed to exporting. Foreign Policy suggested today that evidence of chlorine use against Syrian rebels or civilians will "cast a dark cloud over" the UNSC agreement. The regime has sought to blame rebel groups for the attack, a claim that analysts have dismissed inasmuch as video evidence indicates that the chlorine-filled shells were dropped from helicopters, and rebel groups do not possess helicopters.
Reuters on Monday conveyed statements from Iranian officials describing efforts by the regime to prepare a document that would comprehensively lay out the development of the country's weapons program, a statement that the outlet read alongside long-standing and explicit demands from the West that Tehran must account for possible military dimensions (PMD) of its atomic program. The wire noted, however, that the statements - made to Iranian press by Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran's atomic energy agency - "made no mention" of "Western demands for greater transparency." Iranian diplomats had suggested in March that they might just wait until the very end of negotiations to address PMD-related issues, generating concerns that they intend to maneuver Western negotiators into a position where the Iranians would functionally dare the West to scuttle a mostly written deal over Iranian intransigence on those issues. The West wants Iran to account for activities ranging from what are widely believed to have been tests related to the development of nuclear warheads - in 2011 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accused Tehran of work at its Parchin military facility that provided "strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development" - to Iranian military participation in the development of the country's uranium stockpile. Iran is obligated under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929 to address among other things "the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme," and non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in Congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. A minor controversy occurred in late February when reports emerged that the IAEA had withheld a report documenting further PMDs for which Iran would have had to account. At stake are not just past activities, but the degree to which the Iranian military is tangled in - and must be untangled from - the Islamic republic's ongoing nuclear work.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News over the weekend characterized the country's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as having broken new legal ground - the exact language, per a statement by the head of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB), was that a lawsuit filed by Erdogan was the "first of its kind" - after the Turkish leader applied for damages from the Turkish state as part of an ongoing controversy related to Twitter. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had banned access to both Twitter and YouTube on the eve of recent nationwide elections, a move that was widely seen as aimed at dampening discussions of a massive graft scandal that had ensnared top AKP elites including Erdogan and his family. The bans drew global ridicule and triggered a diplomatic crisis with Europe, and were promptly overturned by Turkish courts on free speech grounds (the government restored access to Twitter but YouTube has remained unreachable). Erdogan's lawsuit appears to claim that the Turkish state allowed Twitter to continue being accessible, and Twitter violated his privacy rights by linking to purported recordings of him discussing how to hide vast sums of money, and so the Turkish state violated his privacy rights and owes him damages. Legal scholars interviewed by various Turkish outlets expressed skepticism regarding the soundness of the legal theory. Nonetheless two anonymous Twitter accounts that posted links to the conversations were apparently suspended in the immediate aftermath of Erdogan's court application.
- Lebanon government scrambles to evacuate residents as Hezbollah-backed Syrian troops isolate, bombard town
- President Obama signs legislation forbidding Iranian diplomat linked to 1979 hostage-takers from entering U.S. for U.N. post
Iranian media on Friday boasted that sanctions relief provided under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) has allowed the country's crude oil exports to "soar," carrying remarks by Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Mansour Moazzami revealing that "the volume of crude oil and gas condensate exports has doubled." The PressTV report gestured toward figures recently released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which calculated that Iran's February oil exports had hit a 20-month high and were far in excess of the levels set by the JPA's "sanctions cap." Meanwhile a separate PressTV article bragged that private Indian refiner Essar Oil - which it described as "Iran’s top Indian client" - had "imported six times more crude oil from the Islamic Republic in March 2014 compared to March 2013." The outlet noted that the amount was "the highest monthly shipment since at least January 2011." Reuters had already reported by the end of March that Iran was expected to exceed the sanctions cap for the fifth straight month. The White House has insisted that it would continue to enforce remaining sanctions on Iran in order to preserve Western leverage in the context of ongoing nuclear talks. Administration officials have brushed off Tehran's sanctions-busting energy exports by declaring that they expect the flow of Iranian oil to dramatically decrease in the coming months, such that by the end of the JPA's six-month period the average amount of exported oil will have fallen within permitted levels. It is not clear what the administration will do if Iran continues behaving exactly as it is behaving. February - the fourth month in a row that Iran had busted through the sanctions limits - had already seen analysts calling for the administration to take action on the issue. Nat Kern, head of the Washington-based energy consulting firm Foreign Reports, had told the Washington Post that the pattern of oil exports "should be a red flag for the administration." He went on to emphasize that U.S. options would be severely constrained - "the horse would be out of the barn" - if "at the end of May... Iran has punched such a deep hole through the core sanctions on oil."
Israeli and Arabic outlets on Friday published reports, first printed the day before by journalists in Thailand, revealing that authorities had disrupted a Hezbollah terror plot targeting Israeli tourists traveling through the country during the Passover holiday season. Bangkok Post carried descriptions of the suspects, Lebanese-French national Daoud Farhat and Lebanese-Filipino national Youssef Ayad. Both men were traveling on non-Lebanese passports, and records seem to indicate that the current trip to Thailand was Ayad's 17th visit to the country. The data points will likely reinforce analyst concerns that Hezbollah has invested heavily in the development of tradecraft, especially in the context of the Iran-backed terror group's multiple plots against Israeli tourists. A source told the Bangkok Post that Thai authorities believe there are at least nine other Hezbollah terrorists inside Thailand, and that efforts to track them down were ongoing. Lebanon's Daily Star specifically cited both elements - the evidence of extensive preparation and the nine still-uncaptured Hezbollah operatives - in a short write-up about the incident. TIME contextualized the plot alongside a previous Iranian-driven terror attack planned for Bangkok, and in turn contextualized that plot alongside others "against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and India... [and others that] were thwarted in Kenya, South Africa, Cyprus and Bulgaria – and Texas."
Lebanon's Daily Star reported early Friday morning that the Syrian army had launched what the outlet described as "a series of artillery strikes" on the Lebanese town of Tfail, sending Lebanese residents and Syrian refugees who have taken shelter in the town "flee[ing] into the surrounding hills." A Hezbollah-backed offensive on Syrian territory had driven refugees across the border and into the town, and reports indicate that the shelling caused many to flee back across the border and into the surrounding hills for shelter. An aid worker reported that "the village was bombarded throughout Tuesday." Tfail is technically a Lebanese territory with Lebanese citizens, but the only reliable roads connecting it to the outside world run through Syria. Those roads have been closed off by Hezbollah forces in an attempt to stem the transit of rebel elements back and forth across the Lebanon-Syria border. Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk was quoted Friday by the pan-Arab Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper declaring that Beirut was coordinating with Hezbollah to allow residents to flee the town. Syrian forces also attacked the Lebanese city of Arsal on Thursday, dispatching a helicopter to conduct at least two air raids. Hezbollah has been heavily criticized by a range of Lebanese figures for entangling the country in Syria's three-year-long conflict, but regime attacks on Lebanese territory are particularly problematic for the organization. The Iran-backed terror group justifies its existence - and more specifically, the massively armed state-within-a-state that it maintains inside Lebanon - as necessary to protect Lebanese sovereignty and prevent attacks on Lebanese territory. Attacks on Lebanese towns by the Assad regime, to which it has provided critical assistance, are in tension with those claims.
President Barack Obama on Friday signed into law legislation - previously passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate - that would among other things prohibit Iran's pick for its next U.N. ambassador from entering the United States. Hamid Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line in 1979 when the group seized scores of Americans inside the U.S.'s Tehran embassy, and the revelation that he had been appointed by Tehran prompted quick action in Congress to bar him. Politico opened its article on today's developments by observing that "the president noted he still considers the law 'advisory'" but that the legislation "was a rare moment of consensus in D.C." The issue is politically and diplomatically complicated for the White House. Domestically, administration officials fighting against Congressionally imposed pressure on Iran have leaned heavily on the argument that it is critical for the U.S. to maintain a positive diplomatic atmosphere to avoid hampering ongoing nuclear talks. Appointing a figure linked to the embassy hostage crisis to a U.S.-based post has been taken as a sign that the Iranians do not perceive themselves as similarly constrained. Internationally - per Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh - accepting the perceived Iranian slight and allowing Aboutalebi to take up his post would "reinforce the impression among regional allies that Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in [the] pursuit of a nuclear accord." Iran has indicated that it will not consider any alternatives to Aboutalebi, and earlier this week it requested that the U.N.'s Committee on Relations with the Host Country meet to address the issue.
Analysts: Iran talks "going nowhere fast," as worries deepen that West lacks sufficient leverage to extract concessions
- Analysts: Iran talks "going nowhere fast," as worries deepen that West lacks sufficient leverage to extract concessions
- Treasury Dept. expresses "serious concerns" as Russia brushes off U.S. objections to $20 billion sanctions-busting Iran deal
- Confusion swirls around peace talks, as Palestinian treaty clock risks locking in damage to negotiations
- Fewer than three weeks left for Syria to hand over chemical weapons, amid declarations of victory by Assad and allies
The New York Times reported late Tuesday that Iran and the global P5+1 powers had concluded two days of talks with - per a statement issued by the parties - "a lot of intensive work" left to be done, a characterization the Times assessed as evidence that 'both sides were still struggling with extensive disagreements.' Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Michael Doran was more blunt, describing the wording as "diplo speak for, 'the talks are going nowhere fast.'" The negotiations have wound down amid a statement from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - broadcast, for emphasis, across multiple digital platforms - forbidding Iranian negotiators from making concessions on any of Iran's "nuclear achievements." The stance echoed a red line against minimal uranium and plutonium concessions repeatedly underlined by top Iranian officials. Meanwhile Iranian media conveyed statements from the country's foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, also ruling out any concessions on Iran's "defense program," a euphemism used by Iranian diplomats to describe Tehran's ballistic missile program. Iran is obligated by binding United Nations Security Council resolutions to roll back - and in the case of its atomic program, to dismantle - infrastructure across all of those programs. Continued Iranian intransigence is likely to fuel concerns that Western negotiators lack sufficient leverage to extract meaningful and robust concessions. Mark Dubowitz and Rachel Ziemba - respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the director of emerging markets at Roubini Global Economics - on Thursday published analysis concluding that "a variety of key macroeconomic indicators" all converged on the conclusion that Iran is experiencing an economic recovery, in part due to American and Iranian officials having undervalued the sanctions relief provided by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). In light of the analysis, Dubowitz suggested that the White House should stop agreeing with Iran's lowball estimations of the relief.
Reuters on Thursday conveyed details of a conversation between Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, in which Lew expressed what a Treasury Department statement characterized as "serious concerns" over a Russian-Iranian oil-for-goods deal that - after having been first revealed last January and then stalling - has recently reemerged as a potential agreement. Lew reportedly told his Russian counterpart that the $20 billion sanctions-busting scheme "could trigger sanctions against any entity or individual involved in any related transactions." Past concerns conveyed to the Russians have been very publicly, and somewhat heatedly, dismissed. Western analysts have in recent days outlined how the deal would enable Iran to create channels for the importation of nuclear technology and next-generation weapons. Reuters also described Lew as having told Siluanov that such a deal would 'run counter' to the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) between the P5+1 global powers, which include Russia, and Iran. The ongoing Ukraine crisis had already weeks ago generated concerns among observers that Moscow would respond to Russian-Western tensions by downgrading its cooperation in talks with Iran, or potentially even by undermining those talks. The worries had been brushed off by Obama administration officials, who instead insisted that the Russians would "compartmentalize" various geopolitical crises.
The status of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks remained unclear through much of Thursday, amid the publication of conflicting reports describing not just ongoing meetings but also regarding proposals to extend negotiations beyond the original April 29 deadline of a U.S.-backed peace push. Substantive final status negotiations have been offline since last Tuesday, when Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced at a rushed press conference that the Palestinians would seek to join 15 international treaties. The move violated the specific terms of an agreement secured by Secretary of State John Kerry, under which the Palestinians would refrain from turning to the United Nations for the duration of a nine-month negotiation window, and very likely abrogated a core Oslo Accord commitment to avoid unilateral moves that would upgrade the status of disputed territories. Israel subsequently responded by cutting off high-level discussions, except those related to security issues and the peace process. Jerusalem also raised the possibility of cutting off aid to the Abbas-led Palestinian government, a possibility that sent the Palestinian leader scrambling for Arab League assistance. Some reports today had the Palestinians closer to agreeing to renewing talks, while others had them as far away as ever. One widely broadcast report - under which the Israelis had agreed to free 26 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for concessions from the U.S. and further talks with the Palestinians - was flatly denied as "premature" by the State Department. The Palestinian decision to accede to the various treaties, however, has established a timeline that may irreversibly - and perhaps terminally - undermine talks. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon confirmed today that Palestinian requests to join 10 U.N.-specific treaties will be granted on May 2nd, one month after they were officially submitted. It is not clear how such a move could be reversed once it's locked in, and it is difficult to see how Jerusalem could accept a Palestinian gambit that, first, pocketed decades of Israeli territorial and security concessions and, second, reversed central Palestinian commitments.
Syria now has only 17 days left to hand over the remainder of its chemical weapons stockpile or it will be in violation of a United Nations deadline that had originally been set as an alternative to a U.S.-led attack on Syrian military infrastructure - and it has since the very beginning of that deal only delivered 54 percent of its 1,200 tons of material - per comments made today by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and reported by the BBC. The outlet did the math on the arsenal, concluding that "552 tons of chemical stocks are still on the ground in Syria, waiting to be transported by armed convoy to the port of Latakia." From there the weapons and materials are to be loaded aboard the M/V Cape Ray, a former container vessel that Reuters reported Thursday has been "fitted out with at least $10 million of gear" to enable it to transport Syrian chemical agents into the Mediterranean. Reuters also reported on the process that the crew intends to use for neutralizing the agents, which mainly seems to involve "hot water." Assuming calm seas, the crew will need "about 60 days of round-the-clock processing to neutralise the chemical agents." It is unclear what consequences Damascus will face, if any, for breaching the deadline. Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, chief of the Hezbollah terror group widely credited with having swung the momentum of the Syrian war back in the regime's direction, have in recent days bragged that the three-year-old conflict has been contained and that rebel elements will be functionally defeated by the end of the year.
- Abbas to plead for Arab League assistance as Israel begins responding to Palestinian diplomatic gambits
The United Nation's High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Tuesday flatly declared that war crimes and atrocities committed by Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime "far outweigh" what have been sometimes been treated as parallel actions by opposition elements, emphasizing that while both sides have engaged in abuses that should be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC), the "killings, cruelty, persons in detention, disappearances [by the government] far outweigh" human rights violations by rebel groups. Pillay's testimony had been heavily anticipated - the German Mission to the United Nations tweeted that it hoped she would use her briefing to "clearly denounce Assad's starvation tactics" - though Reuters contextualized her statements against the backdrop of persistent Russian opposition to any move by the United Nations Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC. Syria's ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja'afari, responded to Pillay by blasting her as a "lunatic" and by insisting that she was "manipulating, bluffing the truth and she is biased." Al Arabiya reported on Wednesday that forces loyal to Assad had seized the rebel-held town of Rankus - part of a broader campaign to secure the Qalamun region along the Lebanon-Syria border - and conveyed statements from Syrian state media boasting that the Syrian army had now "restored security and stability after eliminating a large number of terrorists."
Al Arabiya on Wednesday conveyed statements from Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Hamad al-Sabah suggesting that the bulk of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was close to healing a rift with GCC member Qatar, which had been deepening in recent months and even years as Qatar allied itself with actors that the Gulf countries consider to be regional antagonists. The Kuwaitis hinted that their ongoing mediation efforts were close to securing a breakthrough in disputes between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on one side, and Qatar on the other. Riyadh and its allies had long ago coalesced, along with Israel, into a de facto bloc of traditional U.S. allies, aligned opposite both a radical Sunni bloc anchored by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Shiite camp of Iran and its allies. Qatar had broadly acted to support radical Sunni elements, and - despite substantial criticism from its Arab neighbors - had prominently assisted the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The geopolitical gambles failed to pay off, and Qatar's foreign influence crashed as Turkey suffered its own decline and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown by the country's Saudi-backed army. Egypt functionally broke off diplomatic ties with Qatar, and in March, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain followed suit by recalling their ambassadors. The Arab states insist that Doha has violated a GCC pact not to support "anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals - via direct security work or through political influence, and not to support hostile media," a gesture to Qatar's general support for the pro-Brotherhood coverage broadcast by the Qatari-based Al Jazeera station. Bringing Qatar back into the GCC fold would be treated as a boost to the Arab bloc, and as a blow to Turkish foreign policy and to the Brotherhood's regional prospects. The moves may have domestic implications, as the Obama administration has faced pointed criticism for inadequately supporting traditional U.S. allies against geopolitical and internal adversaries.
Palestinians issue then disavow new list of conditions on Israel, deepening concerns over leadership indecision
- Palestinians issue then disavow new list of conditions on Israel, deepening concerns over leadership indecision
- Iran moves to bolster private industries, as analysts express concerns over Obama administration assurances on sanctions
- Iranian Palestinian foreign minister: Don't expect "any consequences... at all" from Congress after undermining peace talks
Palestinian officials on Thursday reportedly presented a new list of demands that the Israelis would have to meet lest the Palestinians abandon peace talks, as Jerusalem reacted to Tuesday's diplomatic gambit by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas - in which Abbas committed to joining 15 international treaties in violation of commitments designed to promote a nine-month peace push by Secretary of State John Kerry - by canceling a planned fourth prisoner release. Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, who has pushed heavily for the Jewish state to make concessions and was a key figure in laying the groundwork for Kerry's initiative, emphasized that prisoner releases had always been linked to progress in negotiations, and that "new conditions were established" by Abbas's move. Reports of the Palestinians' new demands, moreover, were assessed by Israeli outlet Yediot Aharonot as indicating an even further "hardening of positions." The list included requirements that the Jewish state cede East Jerusalem, lift restrictions on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, end anti-terror operations in parts of the West Bank, and release 1,200 prisoners. The conditions - some of which could most generously be described as non-starters, and which contributed to perceptions of Palestinian intransigence - were quickly disavowed by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who publicly insisted that the demands were not coming from him or his staff. The incident, which was widely reported by Palestinian media outlets, came alongside other signals of potential indecision among the Palestinian leadership. The Associated Press had noted that Abbas's initial press conference on Tuesday appeared to have been "hastily convened." The Palestinian leader's speech at that press conference insisted that the Palestinians were seeking to cooperate with the United States, even as he announced steps that risked crippling Kerry's initiative, and that they were still interested in negotiating with Israel, despite actions that violated core commitments to avoid unilateralism stretching back to the Oslo Accords.
The daily Iran news bulletin published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) yesterday conveyed Persian-language remarks from a top Iranian official declaring that the Hassan Rouhani government was committed to leveraging the private sector in order to stabilize and then boost Iran's economy, a day after Rouhani himself gestured toward the same theme in comments about the country's Free Trade Zone. First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri was quoted as saying that Rouhani and his cabinet had accepted that they would have to "rely on the private sector" in order to address its economic problems. The statements come amid news reports indicating that Western companies are seeking to enter Iran's reopened markets in the aftermath of sanctions relief provided by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Last week Forbes published analysis from Emanuele Ottolenghi and Benjamin Weinthal - respectively a senior fellow and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies - outlining extensive and growing business ties between Iran and Swiss companies. The Wall Street Journal had for its part described Western firms, including Michelin and Schlumberger, as "walk[ing] a fine line" in their eagerness to respond to aggressive courtship by the Islamic republic. The Financial Times had already in February described French, German, and Dutch delegations scrambling to "seize opportunities" in Iran. At stake are assurances made by the Obama administration to lawmakers and the public insisting that the international sanctions regime was holding despite the JPA's erosion of some sanctions, and that new congressional legislation to provide Western negotiators with more leverage was unnecessary. Speaking yesterday at a Senate hearing, Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen declared that he was unaware of any firms "anywhere" – not in "Europe, the Gulf, [or] Asia" - that were "trying to take advantage... [of] the quite limited suspension of the sanctions to get into the Iranian market." Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, described the claim as "bulls**t" [sic].
Reuters on Thursday published details from a Wednesday press conference held by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki, in which Malki declared that he didn't "expect any consequences coming from the U.S. Congress... at all" after Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas signed papers requesting membership for the "State of Palestine" in 15 international treaties. Malki also told reporters that the moves were designed to strengthen the Palestinians' "legal arsenal" in waging diplomatic warfare against Israel. Abbas's gambit was broadly seen as specifically violating Palestinian commitments not to turn to the UN during a nine-month negotiation period held under the auspices of Secretary of State John Kerry, and more broadly may have run afoul of the Palestinians' Oslo Accord commitments not to unilaterally change the legal status of the West Bank. It also threatened to trigger language in this year's congressional omnibus spending bill that made U.S. assistance to the PA contingent on the Palestinians maintaining the status quo at the UN. Al-Monitor reported late on Wednesday that there were bipartisan moves being made in the House to "withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid" in response to the Palestinian maneuver. The outlet quoted House Appropriations Chairwoman Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) assessing that U.S. assistance was designed to help the Palestinians "try to negotiate at the peace table in good faith," and that turning back to the UN flew in the face of those efforts. It also quoted Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) suggesting that Congress would have to revisit whether investing in the PA could still be considered "the most productive step we could take to encourage peace."
The United Nations on Thursday announced that more than one million refugees have flooded into Lebanon from Syria, creating what The New York Times described as "the highest concentration of refugees as a percentage of population in the world, with about one Syrian for every three Lebanese." The outlet quoted Rachid Derbas, Lebanon's minister of social affairs, calling for the international community to respond to the grim milestone with a "humanitarian and political" campaign aimed at dampening the strain on Beirut. The new assessments grabbed the attention of both media and policy analysts. Foreign Policy magazine's Middle East Editor David Kenner tweeted what he described as a "staggering graphic" documenting the flow of refugees into Lebanon, noting that the number only included the "registered ones." The specific post was retweed hundreds of times, and was also used as fodder for dozens of other tweets, including one shared by Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff. Analysts have only recently begun to seriously unpack the potential long-term consequences of the crisis for Lebanon. It is not straightforward to trace, for instance, how the presence of roughly one million new Sunnis will affect Lebanon's notoriously delicate confessional balance, nor how it will undermine the control of the Shiite Hezbollah militia that dominates the country militarily and has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to paralyze it politically.
* Yesterday's edition of the DailyTIP described Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas as currently “serving a ninth year in his originally four year” presidential term. Abbas is actually in his tenth year at the post. The DailyTIP regrets the error.