Iran FM: White House misleading Americans over interim deal implementation, Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything"
- Iran FM: White House misleading Americans over interim deal implementation, Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything"
- U.S. condemns Syrian "inflammatory rhetoric" as Geneva 2 peace talks open
- West Bank terror growth risks peace process complications
- Sanctions reduction triggers Iran "gold rush" -- analysts, journalists, business leaders
- Controversy is likely to deepen in the coming days regarding the Obama administration's refusal to publicly release the text describing how the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) is to be implemented, after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN late on Wednesday that the White House's public description "both underplays [Western] concessions and overplays Iranian commitment." Zarif's statements mark at least the second time that a top Iranian official has explicitly claimed that the administration is misleading journalists and the public regarding the details of the implementation agreement, which among other things clarifies when Iran is required to take a range of actions and to forgo so-called non-actions. Chief Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi declared last week that Iran won more latitude regarding ongoing nuclear work than the White House was publicly conceding, and that "no facility will be closed; enrichment will continue, and qualitative and nuclear research will be expanded." Zarif today went arguably further, flat out declaring that Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything," in contrast to how "the White House tries to portray [the agreement] as a basically a 'dismantling' of Iran's nuclear program." Zarif's language is a gesture toward administration positions consistently maintained in fact sheets and briefings in which officials described Iran as committing to dismantling and disconnecting various parts of its enrichment infrastructure. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer described Zarif's remarks as "stunning and truly provocative," and noted that the foreign minister's comments will "give ammunition" to calls for Congress to advance Senate legislation that would increase pressure on the Islamic republic by signaling the imposition of future sanctions should Tehran refuse to put its nuclear program beyond use for the production of nuclear weapons.
- The BBC this afternoon provided an overview of today's Geneva 2 opening session - being held in Montreux, Switzerland, with the aim of dampening the violence in Syria's almost three-year war - describing "extraordinarily ill-tempered scenes and some very direct language." Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi emphasized to journalists at the conference that Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad would refuse to cede power, opposite calls by the U.S. for Assad to do exactly that. Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem lashed out at among others Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, rejecting Kerry's call for Assad to step down and openly dismissing Ban's entreaties to leave the podium once his 10-minute speaking time had elapsed. The United States almost immediately condemned Muallem for "inflammatory rhetoric." Meanwhile observers are expressing deepening concerns over the degree to which the U.S. has positioned itself to secure Assad's exit. Washington's interpretation of the previous Geneva I understanding has the deal calling for Assad's removal, but the interpretation is rejected by Damascus and Moscow. Meanwhile Marwan Kabalan, a former dean of the faculty of international relations at the University of Kalamoon in Damascus, told RFE/RL that the Assad regime believes it has "succeeded in changing the whole focus of the international community from democratic transition in the country into fighting terrorism." The assessment comes weeks after Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, outlined how the Obama administration has begun acting as if it viewed Assad as a partner in stemming extremists in the Syrian opposition.
- Israel's Shin Bet security service appears to have confirmed that Israeli officials captured three Al Qaeda-linked Palestinian terrorists plotting a mass-casualty terrorist attack against the American embassy in Israel. A gag order lifted late Wednesday allowed journalists to disclose details of the arrest. The Jerusalem Post carried extensive details of the plot, and described the goal as one of carrying out "massive bombings." Three Gaza-based operatives were allegedly recruited and directed via Internet platforms, including Skype and Facebook. The terrorists' targets appear to have included - in addition to the American embassy - a major bus line and the Jerusalem Convention Center. There also appear to have been plans to launch coordinated attacks, which would have included targeting first responders as they arrived on the scene. The news comes shortly after revelations that the Shin Bet arrested a separate terrorist cell in the West Bank directed by the Palestinian Hamas faction. Evidence of steadily increasing West Bank terror infrastructure is likely to have diplomatic consequences, and to strengthen Israeli arguments that a robust Israeli security presence is required in sensitive areas of the territory in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement.
- Multiple outlets and analysts are assessing that the West's reduction of sanctions on Iran, implemented on Monday per the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreed to by the P5+1 global powers and Tehran, has triggered a "gold rush" into the Islamic republic as companies and nations scramble not to be left behind as the country's markets are reopened to the world. The phrase is an explicit echo of statements made by Vienna-based Iranian business consultant Bijan Khajehpour and conveyed by Reuters, in which Khajehpour described a "gold rush" mood in Tehran that has Russia and China rushing to lock in oil-based barter deals before Western companies penetrate the Iranian energy sector. The Wall Street Journal contrasted assurances from the Obama administration emphasizing that sanctions relief was limited with evidence that a "growing number of European governments and businesses [are] moving to cash in on the opening created by the interim agreement." Specifically, the Journal piled on examples indicating that "Tehran's trading partners have lifted sanctions, sent delegations, agreed to export deals and signaled their readiness to expand ties across nearly every major industry." Mark Dubowitz and Emanuele Ottolenghi - respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a senior fellow at the foundation - noted in Politico today that the "gold rush" is partly a function of a psychological change that has seen "greed... overcome fear," with the improved economic climate already generating "some illegitimate deals as companies test the waters." Reuters reported today that Iranian oil sales rose in January for the third consecutive month, and tomorrow Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is to address global business leaders and urge them to pursue further energy co-development deals. The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency meanwhile announced yesterday that it will resume trade with Iran, cracking open a market that had in the past seen robust trade in auto exports and energy. The degree to which Iran benefited economically from the JPA has both diplomatic and policy stakes. Diplomatically, the loss of U.S. leverage will make it difficult to pressure Iran into verifiably putting its nuclear program beyond use for nuclearization. Politically, evidence of such a loss is likely to deepen calls for Congress to pass legislation imposing new sanctions on Iran should negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program fail, a move that proponents insist would boost the bargaining position of U.S. negotiators.
Reports: Senators closing in on new sanctions legislation amid deepening bipartisan skepticism toward Iran
- Reports: Senators closing in on new sanctions legislation amid deepening bipartisan skepticism toward Iran
- Senior PLO official: Kerry proposal to address Israeli security concerns means "total failure" of peace talks
- Backed by Hezbollah, Syrian army on the verge of consolidating control over Lebanon border region
- Turkish FM survives opposition censure motion over mishandling foreign policy, aligning Turkey with Muslim Brotherhood
What we’re watching today:
- Reuters this afternoon reported on accelerating efforts in the Senate to pass legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if progress in dismantling the country's atomic program stalls over a coming six-month interim period, during which global powers are to negotiate with Tehran over what is widely believed to be Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons. Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the latter being the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are reportedly set to agree on measures that "would target Iran's remaining oil exports, foreign exchange reserves and strategic industries." The news comes amid widening skepticism on the Hill that the U.S. has sufficient leverage to coerce Iran to meaningfully limit its nuclear program, in the aftermath of language in the Geneva deal that has undermined the international sanctions regime while allowing Tehran to continue progressing on its uranium and plutonium programs. On the House side, Republican Rep. Mike McCaul and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff both expressed skepticism on Sunday that the interim deal will be successful, with Schiff criticizing the administration for already having made critical concessions regarding Iranian enrichment. The Iranians, for their part, have not gone out of their way to signal that Tehran is willing to adopt a less bellicose posture. In recent days Iranian officials have announced that they are pushing ahead with next-generation enrichment technology and that they have installed laser systems improving the accuracy of their ballistic missiles by fully two orders of magnitude, from 200 meters to 2 meters.
- Palestinian leaders today doubled down on weekend declarations in which they categorically rejected U.S. bridging proposals designed to balance Israeli security needs - including Jerusalem's concerns about a security vacuum that might emerge in the strategically important Jordan Valley in the context of a comprehensive peace deal - with Palestinian demands for autonomy over the West Bank. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) official, told Agence France-Presse that security arrangements suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry would lead to the "total failure" of the U.S.-backed peace talks. Jordanian officials, in contrast, have reportedly sided with the U.S. and Israel in endorsing Jerusalem's continued presence along the border. Veteran Israeli military correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai had last week outlined at length the basis for Israel's insistence that it be allowed to maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley. Ben-Yishai described how "Israeli control over the border crossings between the West Bank and Jordan has it been possible to prevent a massive spillover of al-Qaeda activists and explosive devices into the West Bank and Israel" and emphasized that "even more important is thwarting terror in the West Bank by collecting intelligence and conducting arrests" of terrorists who threaten both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
- Hezbollah and Syrian army forces battling on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime are close to seizing the town of Nabuk, one of the last areas in the Lebanon-adjacent Qalamoun region still controlled by opposition forces, amid renewed concerns from Lebanese officials that blowback generated by Hezbollah's participation in Syria's nearly three-year war will trigger violence inside their own country. Agence France-Presse (AFP) today assessed that taking control of Nabuk - where Al Qaeda-linked rebels have a large presence, and which the Syrian army and its Hezbollah allies have been attacking for two weeks - "would cement regime control of territory linking Damascus province with Homs province in central Syria." The gains would be the latest since the Syrian army, with critical backing from Hezbollah, launched a sustained offensive last summer with an eye toward eroding years of opposition gains. Several Hezbollah figures including Ali Bazzi, a senior commander, have reportedly been killed in recent days fighting in Syria. Meanwhile Lebanese media this weekend reported on comments made by the country's Interior Minister, Marwan Charbel, in which Charbel worried that Al Qaeda was seeking to consolidate its presence inside Lebanon after several attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian interests. Ya Libnon conveyed quotes from Sirajuddin Zureiqat, the head of the Lebanese branch of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades, committing his group to conducting continued "operations" inside Lebanon "until two things are achieved: withdrawing the members of Iran's Party [i.e. Hezbollah] from Syria, and releasing our prisoners from the prisons of oppression in Lebanon."
- English-language Turkish media reported this afternoon that the country's parliament, which the Daily News described as "dominated by deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)," rejected an opposition-filed censure motion filed against AKP Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu over his role in generating the recent precipitous decline in Turkey's regional stature. The motion cited among other things souring relations between Ankara and Cairo, which collapsed after Egypt's army removed from power the country's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi in the wake of mass anti-government protests. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan subsequently and repeatedly lashed out against Cairo's army-backed government, accusing the army of acting against the Brotherhood as part of a Jewish plot - a statement defended by Davutoglu - and pledging to continue supporting Morsi. The posture was part of a broader policy that saw the AKP aligning Turkey with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, in opposition to a bloc of more moderate Sunni states and Israel, and with both opposing a Shiite camp anchored by Iran and including its Syrian client and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. The Republican People's Party (CHP) gestured toward the dynamic, declaring in its censure motion that "the international public almost identifies [Turkey's] Justice and Development Party government with the Muslim Brotherhood." The Asia Times theorized this morning that Davutoglu is looking to "partner up" with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in order to break Turkey out of its growing isolation.
- Analysis highlighting loss of U.S. leverage fuels calls for new Congressional sanctions
- Domestic, regional polls show deepening disapproval of Turkey foreign policy
- Human rights groups and dissidents call for focus on Iran arrest sweeps, execution spike
- Palestinian leadership rejects Kerry proposal as Jordan reportedly backs Israeli security concerns
What we’re watching today:
- Analysts, diplomats, and journalists are continuing to pile on concerns regarding structural asymmetries in a recently signed agreement between the P5+1 powers and Iran, with attention increasingly turning toward how the imbalances between what Iran got and what Iran gave up may disadvantage the United States and its allies heading into comprehensive negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Pointing to language in the Geneva deal that seems to envision Iran being allowed to continue enriching uranium indefinitely, coupled with language under which constraints on such enrichment would be time-bound, the Washington Post had already worried late last month that "the agreement leaves the United States and its partners at a disadvantage in negotiating the comprehensive settlement." The Post's broad concerns were subsequently echoed by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week that "the major American negotiating leverage - the threatened reimposition and strengthening of sanctions - risks losing its edge," even as Iran's continued permitted enrichment "add[s] to its leverage in the follow-up negotiations." Kissinger and Shultz gestured toward a scenario, sketched out early by critics but dismissed as "fanciful" by analysts with ties to the Obama administration, under which a reduction in sanctions triggers a feeding frenzy that would badly erode the entire sanctions regime, as companies and nations rushed to be first back into the Iranian market. Movements in currency and oil markets immediately after the deal was announced were in line with the concerns of critics, and yesterday the Associated Press noted that Iran was preparing both diplomatically and economically for a surge in oil production. Today the Washington Free Beacon published Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) similarly worrying that the Geneva deal deprived the U.S. of leverage, and describing new sanctions - which he called on Congress to pass - as "the single most significant thing we can do to help stop a nuclear weapons capable Iran."
- Turkish figures are scrambling to halt a slide in Ankara's regional stature and in the domestic position of its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, amid new polls showing declines in how people inside and outside Turkey view the country and the AKP. Hurriyet Daily News reported today that the percentage of Turks who feel that AKP's foreign policy is "successful" has dropped 11 points since 2011, to 26.7 when measured last month. Asked more specifically about the AKP's policy toward Egypt - Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan and his administration have fiercely lashed out against the army-backed government that replaced the Muslim Brotherhood-linked government of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi - 48 percent of Turks rated Ankara's approach unsuccessful vs. 29.8 percent who rated it successful. The Daily Star yesterday conveyed polling results showing a similar trend regionally, describing how "Turkey's popularity in the Middle East has dropped sharply over the past two years" in light of what the outlet described as "Ankara's sometimes controversial foreign policy strategy." Erdogan's support for the Brotherhood is widely viewed as a function of a more basic regional gamble made by the AKP, under which the Islamist party allied Turkey with the Brotherhood and Qatar to anchor one of three emerging regional camps. That bloc aligned itself against a second camp - compromised of the U.S.'s traditional Sunni allies and Israel - as well as against a Shiite camp dominated by Iran and its Lebanese and Syrian proxies. Turkey and Qatar this week signed a pact designed to boost energy cooperation between the two countries.
- The Associated Press yesterday conveyed reports from Iranian state media describing an arrest sweep conducted by the country's Revolutionary Guard, in which at least 16 anti-government activists were arrested. The IRNA news agency quoted a prosecutor explaining that the arrested had confessed to their crimes - cooperating with the West - under 'interrogation.' The announcements come as human rights activists are leveling increasingly pointed criticism against the U.S. and its allies for focusing on Iran's nuclear program to the exclusion of its institutionalized human rights atrocities, its global terrorist activities, and its critical support for regimes such as that of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Earlier this week David Keyes and Ahmad Batebi - respectively the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and a former Iranian political prisoner - took to the Daily Beast to declare that "human rights are the biggest victim of the Iranian nuclear deal" announced recently in Geneva and that "the West has abandoned the issue of human rights inside Iran." The two called on global powers to "refocus their attention to human rights in Iran." Evaluating recent events in Iran, Ilan Berman and Mollie Adatto - respectively the vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and a researcher at the organization - noted today that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's election-time pledge "to defend ordinary citizens was campaign propaganda." Rouhani had already come in for sustained criticism over his appointment of Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi to be Justice Minister. Pour-Mohammadi is notorious in the country as one of three revolutionary-era figures who sat on a panel that condemned literally tens of thousands of political prisoners to death. A wave of executions has taken place since Rouhani's election, causing the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran to assess that there has been no fundamental domestic reform since the transition from the administration of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Rouhani's administration.
- The Palestinian leadership today rejected a proposal presented by Secretary of State John Kerry designed to boost peace talks between them and their Israeli counterparts, asserting that the plan - which among other things would divide Jerusalem and cede some of the city to the Palestinians - would only end up "maintaining the occupation." An anonymous official told Reuters that the Palestinians in particular rejected security arrangements aimed at assuring Jerusalem that stability would be maintained in the aftermath of an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and the subsequent creation of a Palestinian state. Israel has insisted that it be allowed to maintain a medium-term presence in the geo-strategically critical Jordan Valley along the Israeli-Jordanian border, while Palestinians have demanded the opposite. The Times of Israel reported today that Jordan is siding with the Israelis. Both Amman and Jerusalem are known to be worried that a future Palestinian state would be unable to prevent extremists from moving materials and personnel back and forth across the Jordanian border. There is a growing Salafist presence in the West Bank, and it is not at all clear that Palestinian security forces would on their own be able to contain violent extremism in the territory.
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.
- Kerry to brief Senate on Iran talks amid widespread criticism of Iran diplomacy
- Four Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria as analysts worry group expanding to "entire Middle East"
- Hamas blames rival Palestinian Fatah faction for Gaza Strip fuel shortages, power outages
- Egypt to let curfew expire, permit Muslim Brotherhood-linked group to participate politically
What we’re watching today:
- Efforts by the international community to secure an interim agreement with Iran regarding Tehran's nuclear program floundered this weekend after Iran reportedly refused to yield on demands that global powers recognize its "right" to enrich uranium, a claim consistently rejected by analysts, U.S. lawmakers, and journalists. The collapse of the talks triggered worries that Iran was not ready to realistically address international concerns regarding its program, as well as calls for further financial pressure to change the regime's calculus. Reports late in the day indicated that the Senate will wait for a Wednesday briefing by Secretary of State John Kerry before advancing sanctions legislation. The State Department's approach to the talks has come under withering criticism in the last 48 hours, with analysts and lawmakers insisting that U.S. diplomats gave away too much too easily. Calculations conducted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) estimated that the offer being given to Iran would have restored roughly $20 billion to Tehran. Iran would have been allowed to continue enriching uranium and building centrifuges - which could have been activated at the end of the interim period, swamping whatever concessions Iran made in the meantime - and bolstering its plutonium complex at Arak. The Daily Beast had revealed earlier in the week that the Obama administration had been quietly easing financial pressure since the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. The result, according to Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was that the administration ended up getting badly outmaneuvered. Critics particularly focused on overeager signals sent by Washington. The Telegraph had already described a White House meeting that "ended with officials admitting that a 'bad deal is better than no deal.'" Michael Doran, a senior fellow at Brookings, over the weekend blasted Kerry for "rush[ing] to Geneva when a deal wasn't ready" and making the U.S. "consistently look too eager." The Iranians may have been able to leverage U.S. eagerness. The Jerusalem Post reported on Saturday that the U.S. actually got pushed off the plan with which it came into the talks.
- Four Hezbollah members were recently killed in Syria "while carrying out their sacred Jihadist duty," according to claims posted Saturday to a website aligned with the Iran-backed terror group. The declarations come amid reports that Hezbollah is taking the lead in organizing what is expected to be a massive campaign on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime to secure Qalamoun, a strategic corridor between Damascus and Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters have in recent months been critical in allowing the regime to steadily erode nearly two years of rebel gains, and more specifically in enabling the regime to wrest control of what had been the rebel stronghold of Qusayr. USA Today late last week published analysis outlining how Hezbollah is "expanding networks and deployment of fighters from Lebanon to the entire Middle East as part of its deepening alliance with Iran," and how that expansion is being done for sectarian reasons and justified in sectarian terms. The BBC over the weekend quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif warning that sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites "probably the most serious threat to world security."
- The Associated Press reported over the weekend that widespread power outages throughout the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip were the result of "political infighting" between rival Palestinian groups, which had in turn led to a fuel shortage, which had in turn negatively impacted the territory's only power plant. A Hamas spokesman specifically blamed the Palestinian Fatah faction that controls the West Bank for imposing new taxes on fuel it provides, echoing claims that Hamas made weeks ago at the beginning of the crisis. Analysts at the time had rolled their eyes at the accusations, calling them "insane" and noting that the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority "pays for [the fuel] with donor funds, Hamas bills Gazans for it, and then pockets the cash." Instead Hamas is being accused of repeating a tactic the group used in 2008 and deliberately attempting to manufacture a humanitarian crisis by blacking out the Gaza Strip. There have been intermittent media attempts to frame whatever fuel shortage might exist as the fault of Israeli policies, though those have proven difficult to sustain inasmuch as Israel continues to supply electricity to the Gaza Strip.
- Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim announced today that Cairo will allow a three-month curfew to expire as scheduled this Thursday, the latest in a series of gestures from the country's army-backed interim government that observers hope mark a trend toward expanding civil liberties. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy revealed last Friday that the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, would be allowed to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections. The curfew had been one of several security measures imposed as security officials tried to contain the spike in violence that followed the army's moves against Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi. The government had meanwhile in parallel sought to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership hierarchy and uproot the group from Egyptian institutions.
- 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."
"Execution-style" killings of Egyptian police officers raise stakes as U.S. Middle East allies throw support behind army
- "Execution-style" killings of Egyptian police officers raise stakes as U.S. Middle East allies throw support behind army
- Amid sectarian bombings, Hezbollah chief renews commitment to battling for Syrian regime
- Reports: Reconciliation meeting between Hamas and Fatah "failed to make progress"
- U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.: Pro-Hezbollah Swiss official "unfit for continued service" at U.N.
What we’re watching today:
- At least 25 Egyptian police officers were murdered this morning in what the Associated Press describes as "execution-style" killings, with suspected Islamists ambushing two police minibuses traveling near border between Sinai Peninsula and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.The attackers forced the officers to kneel on the ground before shooting them in the backs of their heads, raising to more than 70 the number of security officials killed in recent clashes across Egypt. The Telegraph notes that the killings occurred "after 36 Islamist prisoners were killed in an attempted jailbreak," and comments that the two incidents are likely to "deepen the turmoil roiling the country, where nearly 1,000 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi since last Wednesday." Meanwhile regional actors are aligning themselves for and against the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur today urged the Egyptian army to "remain firm and strong" in seeking to quell Egyptian unrest, echoing the stance of Saudi King Abdullah, who according to the Wall Street Journal pledged support over the weekend "for what he called Egypt's fight against 'terrorism and extremism.'"
- Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last Friday literally doubled down on his organization's commitment to battle on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, declaring that "if we have a thousand fighters in Syria, they will become 2,000, and if we have 5,000 fighters in Syria, they will become 10,000." The boasts and threats came a day after a car bomb ripped through Hezbollah's stronghold in the southern Beirut district of Dahiyeh. The attack was claimed by a previously unknown jihadist group, which described the car bombing as retaliation for Hezbollah's critical role in helping the Assad regime erode nearly two years of gains by the largely Sunni rebels. Hezbollah has been under increasingly vocal criticism by Lebanese officials for entangling the country in the Syrian war, and the leader of one of the country’s largest Christian political parties declared that the Iran-backed terror group was "plung[ing] Lebanon into fire." A top Hezbollah commander was reportedly killed last week during a battle in Syria outside of Damascus.
- Palestinian media sources describe a meeting held late Sunday between Hamas and Fatah as having "failed to make progress" in achieving reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions, with Hamas rejecting calls to hold general elections in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and in Fatah-controlled West Bank territories. Efforts to bring the territories under a single Palestinian government have repeatedly failed despite pledges from both sides to make progress. A reconciliation deal inked in 2011 had the two sides agreeing to cease politically motivated arrests, but Fatah officials accused Hamas of targeting the group's members as recently as this weekend. Hamas accused Fatah of arresting six Hamas members in the West Bank, while Fatah slammed Hamas for detaining Fatah affiliates in the Gaza Strip. Establishing a single government capable of overseeing currently divided Palestinian territories is often considered a prerequisite to establishing a viable Palestinian state. A single state whose territories are ruled by competing governments is almost by definition a failed state.
- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power slammed the Swiss government last week for nominating Jean Ziegler - who has defended Hezbollah, Holocaust deniers, and the Gaddafi regime - for a position on the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Power tweeted that Ziegler was “unfit for continued service” at the UNHRC, a body that has come under repeated and consistent criticism as one that allows illiberal regimes and their supporters to target the Jewish state. Ziegler generated controversy in 2006 by telling an interviewer that he "refuse[d] to describe Hezbollah as a terrorist group." The European Union later unanimously blacklisted Hezbollah's "military wing" as a terrorist group.
- Western diplomats: Iran progress on creating plutonium-based nuclear bomb "really crept up on us"
- Iran experts slam "journalistic henpeckers" for minimizing Rouhani statements describing Israel's existence as "wound"
- Top military figure sentenced to life in prison as Turkey Islamists tighten grip on military
- Palestinian peace commitments questioned amid soccer controversy
What we’re watching today:
- The Wall Street Journal reports on "significant advances" that Iran has made in recent months on its Arak plutonium facility, putting the Islamic republic in a position to start producing two bombs' worth of weapons-grade plutonium by next summer. U.S. and European officials cited by the WSJ described progress that Iranian scientists have made on the complex, which includes a heavy water plant and a plutonium-based reactor. Iran has officially notified the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, that it intends to bring the reactor online by the second half of 2014. The revelations come as the country's new president Hassan Rouhani was sworn in, and continued development of the facility may be read by diplomats as a thread of continuity between his administration and that of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The past Iranian president was on hand in mid-June to tour the Arak facility amid declarations by Iranian officials that they would soon activate the reactor. Nonetheless an official based at the IAEA's Vienna headquarters told the Journal that Iran's progress "really crept up on us."
- Hassan Rouhani was sworn in on Sunday as Iran's new president, amid sharp debates in the U.S. foreign policy community over his ability or willingness to alter Iran's confrontational diplomatic posture toward the West. Journalists from the Wall Street Journal today noted the contrast between Western journalists who "were quick to emphasize [Rouhani's] pledges to be more moderate... than his predecessors" with statements actually made by Rouhani a few days ago describing Israel's existence as an "old wound." Rouhani had specifically referred to "the shadow of the occupation." The phrase was, according to WSJ Assistant Books Editor Sohrab Ahmari, "seized" by "journalistic henpeckers" to insist that Rouhani was referring only to Israel's presence in the West Bank, and not to the Jewish state's existence. Ahmari, a Farsi speaker and Iran expert, blasted such interpretations as displaying a "literal-mindedness that borders on stupidity" and emphasized that "when Iranian leaders say 'the occupation'" they mean the entire state of Israel. Iran's foreign policy is in any case set by the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In response to the media controversy over Rouhani's statements, Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted a reminder "Iran's actual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, still very much wants Israel to disappear."
- Several developments in Turkey over the weekend and stretching into today - including the first convictions in a years-old legal campaign against former top military officials, coupled with new appointments to the country's military echelon - have observers fearing that the country’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party is tightening its grip on the country’s armed forces. On Monday former military Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug was sentenced to life in prison for his alleged role in a covert, conspiratorial, ultranationalist group that sought the government’s overthrow. The AKP has been blasted by human rights groups for using the so-called Ergenekon trials - of which the Basbug conviction is a part - as a mechanism for rounding up and imprisoning hundreds of political dissidents. Freedom House accused the AKP of "using problematic articles in the penal code to attack critics and dissidents... transform[ing] a legitimate attempt to dismantle an antidemocratic, criminal organization into a series of show trials, during which innocent and guilty alike languish in jail." Ankara this weekend also appointed new top-ranking military officials perceived to be favored by the regime. Turkey’s Supreme Military Council, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had blocked the promotion of Gendarmerie Commander Gen. Bekir Kalyoncu and forced him into retirement.
- Palestinian pushback to cultural normalization with Israel is being criticized for undermining renewed U.S.-sponsored peace talks, after Palestinian officials refused to invite Israelis to a good-will soccer exhibition held by a top Spanish soccer team traveling through Israel and Palestinian-controlled territories in the West Bank. FC Barcelona, which includes Argentinean soccer divinity Lionel Messi, is in the region to play in front of both Israeli and Palestinian audiences. Palestinian officials refused to allow Israelis access to the team's exhibitions in the West Bank, though Israeli officials subsequently invited between 400-500 Palestinians to watch gameplay in Israel's Jaffa. The dispute over the matches comes just days after Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas triggered controversy by declaring that a future Palestinian would be cleansed of Jews. Another session of peace talks has been set for the second week of August.
Reports: Gulf nations to take action against Hezbollah, “more comprehensive than the European Union decision”
- Reports: Gulf nations to take action against Hezbollah, “more comprehensive than the European Union decision”
- Bipartisan Iran sanctions bill set to overwhelmingly pass House of Representatives this week
- After Israeli concessions, focus shifts toward Palestinian intentions during peace talks
- More than 50 killed as sectarian violence rocks Iraq
What we’re watching today:
- Gulf nations will impose harsh sanctions on Hezbollah, with diplomats making a point of telling journalists that their approach will be “more comprehensive than the European Union decision” made earlier this month to blacklist the so-called military wing of the Iran-backed terror group. The E.U.’s distinction between the group’s political and military wings has been rejected by, among others, Hezbollah officials. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council had already taken steps against Hezbollah, with Saudi Arabia deporting the group’s supporters and Bahrain in April blacklisting the organization in its entirety. Meanwhile Bulgarian media reported that the operatives behind the July 2012 bombing of an Israeli tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria – which Bulgarian investigators had linked to Hezbollah, a declaration that was in large part responsible for the E.U.’s blacklisting decision – had been smuggled into Bulgaria from Poland.
- The House of Representatives is set to overwhelmingly pass legislation this week that would significantly ratchet up sanctions against Iran, specifically with an eye on impacting the Islamic republic’s oil industry.The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act is co-sponsored by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and will broaden economic sanctions against Tehran and enhance the enforcement of existing ones. An expanded blacklist would apply to foreign individuals or firms conducting trade with Iran’s Central Bank, and would impose measures to restrict Iran’s options for leveraging its hard currency, most of which is kept in Euros. Other key sections target Iranian regime figures suspected of gross human rights violations. It also adds Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to the official list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Roughly parallel legislation is being prepared in the Senate, where it will likely be voted on after the August recess.
- Israel is set to release more than 104 jailed Palestinian terrorists ahead of the resumption of peace talks in Washington this week, as part of a goodwill gesture toward Palestinian diplomats who have been demanding the concession as a condition for returning to talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also sought to fast-track legislation for a referendum on any agreement, and reports indicate he has also expressed a willingness to cede huge portions of the West Bank. Israeli cabinet officils moved to dampen blowback over the release, which is drawn largely from those convicted for murdering Israelis. Meanwhile, the Facebook profile of one of two key Palestinian diplomats sent to Washington for negotiations was noted by a journalist from The Tower for having a cover photo showing a map that erases all of Israel and replaces it – according to the Arabic emblazoned on the picture – with “Filastin” (Palestine). The news is likely to deepen skepticism of Palestinian intentions regarding a final status agreement with Israel.
- A surge of violence in Iraq, including as many as 15 car bombings, has left more than 50 people dead. Iraqi police officers said that many of the bombs went off in largely Shiite neighborhoods, heightening concerns that the sectarian conflict in Syria may spill over into a full-blown sectarian war across the region. Sunni jihadists based in Iraq have escalated their campaigns against Shiites, targeting both civilians and government institutions, and Al Qaeda-linked groups are believed to be behind the Monday attacks. Al Qaeda is also taking credit for two prison breaks that freed approximately 500 prisoners. The Daily Beast described the spectacular assaults as a “counterterrorism nightmare,” with one intelligence analyst bluntly stating that “we just lost track of everyone we didn’t kill who was in al Qaeda during the surge.” Analysts have speculated that, in addition to exacting retribution against domestic opponents, many of the escaped jihadists would travel to Syria to join the increasingly Islamist-dominated opposition in seeking to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime.
- Doubts emerge regarding future Iran diplomacy as conservatives rally for Rouhani, Tehran snubs U.S.
- Egyptian campaign against Hamas smuggling tunnels may open vital diplomatic opportunity for Kerry peace push
- Analysts: After E.U. blacklisting, time for the U.N. to take steps against Hezbollah
- Egypt army chief calls for pro-peace demonstrations amid violence linked to pro-Morsi demonstrations
What we’re watching today:
- The Associated Press is reporting that Iran will snub the U.S. and decline to invite representatives from Washington to the August 4 inauguration of President-elect Hassan Rouhani, two days after the outlet reported that "all the world’s leaders" including "American and European leaders" would be invited to the event as a sign of good will. The AP emphasized at the time that Rouhani had pledged to pursue "greater openness" toward the West. Meanwhile Iranian media reported on a pro-Rouhani rally held by Iranian conservatives, which came after weeks of declarations and explanations by Iranian officials to the effect that the president-elect -- a clerical revolutionary and regime insider -- would seek to reinforce the regime's ideology.
- Egyptian army Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called for peaceful protests against a wave of violence that has swept across the country, after weeks in which unrest surrounding pro-Morsi demonstrations left scores dead and injured. Recent clashes have brought just this week's death toll to at least twelve. Al-Sisi's call was almost immediately echoed by the Egyptian youth movement Tamarod, which weeks ago led a petition followed by mass protests calling for the removal of Egypt's then-president Mohammed Morsi. The protests swelled into the largest national anti-government protests in human history, and the army eventually intervened in response and stripped Morsi of authority. For their part, Islamists supporting Morsi vowed more protests today, as the security environment across the country continues to deteriorate. A bomb thrown at a police station in Egypt's Nile Delta killed one person and injured at least 19. An attack on military officers in the Sinai left a soldier dead.
- A report in The Guardian outlines at length a series of economic cascades rippling across the Gaza Strip, as the Egyptian army moves to destroy the smuggling tunnels that link the Hamas-controlled territory to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptian military blames Hamas for violence in the country stretching back to the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, both directly and as a result of the labyrinth of subterranean smuggling tunnels maintained by the Palestinian terror group, which are used by jihadists to facilitate attacks against Egyptian soldiers and civilians. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, suggested this week that Hamas's precarious position presents a diplomatic "window of opportunity that should not be ignored" to boost the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative being promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry. Schanzer suggests that another round of economic setbacks may see Gazans "grow frustrated with their Islamist rulers" and seek to overthrow them. Such a political development has been taken in some corners of the foreign policy community as a vital prerequisite to Palestinian statehood. Hamas's rivalry with the Palestinian Fatah faction has consistently prevented Palestinian officials from bringing the Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled portions of the West Bank under a single Palestinian government. Palestinian diplomats reserve two areas for a single Palestinian state. A single state governed by opposing governments would almost by definition constitute a failed state.
- Analysts are calling on the United Nations to mobilize sanctions against Hezbollah, in the aftermath of a European Union decision to blacklist the Iran-backed terror group and to disrupt its activities. The E.U. on Monday formally and unanimously acknowledged that the so-called military wing of the Iran-backed group was a terror organization. The move enables European officials to among other things monitor Hezbollah operatives and freeze known assets of some Hezbollah figures. The Wall Street Journal early today also commented on the E.U.'s decision, noting that it was at best a "half-victory" against the terror group inasmuch as it established a false distinction between the group's military wing and its so-called political wing. The Journal cited a statement from Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Mussawi in which he commented that "we have no wings that are separate from one another." He added that "what's being said in Brussels doesn't exist for us." Mussawi's stance echoes statements stretching back years from other Hezbollah figures, as well as analysis by the U.S. intelligence community.