- Top pollster: American voters across all lines "united" in distrusting Iran, demanding lawmakers impose sanctions
- Iranian FM boasts that "collapse" of international sanctions regime impossible to stop
- White House reveals interim agreement on Iran nuke program allows Tehran to test ballistic missiles
- Reports: Top commander of U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forced to flee the country as Islamists overrun headquarters, seize warehouses
What we’re watching today:
- A new poll – conducted on behalf of the news websites Al-Masdar.net and TheTower.org, and released this afternoon after it was presented to reporters by pollster Frank Luntz – concludes that lopsided majorities of Americans from both political parties overwhelmingly favor deepening sanctions against the Iranian government, regardless of current negotiations, and documents overwhelming distrust of the Islamic republic across demographic and political identities. Luntz emphasized, per the Times of Israel, that 'over two decades of experience, he had never before encountered such unanimity of opinion among voters across disparate demographic breakdowns,' specifically quoting him as saying that "the fear of Iranian nuclear weapons unites just about everyone." The poll comes amid evidence that voter sentiment toward Iran is hardening, after a several-week period - beginning immediately after the announcement of the Geneva interim agreement between the P5+1 global powers and Iran - where broad swaths of the American electorate were undecided on a range of issues related to the Iranian nuclear program. In late November a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that one-third of Americans described themselves unsure on questions ranging from their support for the interim agreement to whether Iran's nuclear program was being developed for peaceful purposes. By early December a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center poll found that those who had heard about the deal distrusted Iranian leaders to negotiate seriously over Tehran’s nuclear program by a 2-1 margin, with approval of the Geneva deal running 32% in favor vs. 43% against. The USA TODAY/Pew poll was conducted between Dec 3-8, and the Al-Masdar.net/TheTower.org poll began a day earlier and ended a day later. Luntz untangled four overarching themes that emerged from the data: Americans fear Iran more than they fear all the other Middle Eastern antagonists combined, they are universally skeptical about Iranian intentions, they want Iran's ability to produce a nuclear weapon severely constrained both by interim and final agreements, and they prefer lawmakers who deepen sanctions over those that would reduce them. Fully 77% of Democrats and a near unanimous 96% of Republicans would rather vote for a senator who favors sanctions, including "increased pressure on Iran until Iran accepts a final agreement that removes their ability to build nuclear weapons." Only 14% of voters would prefer a senator who wants to reduce pressure on Iran during negotiations. The Hill quoted a Democratic staffer describing the poll as evidence that the White House faces "an uphill battle" in trying to convince lawmakers to put off passing new sanctions legislation. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to brief senators on the administration's policy tomorrow.
- Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham earlier this week brushed aside statements from U.S. officials insisting that Washington can easily reverse the erosion in sanctions entailed by the recent Geneva interim agreement, declaring instead that "the structure of sanctions has cracked and its collapse has started." The White House has insisted that its sanctions relief is reversible since literally the evening when the deal was announced, and the claim was reiterated this week by President Barack Obama. Skeptics have in contrast emphasized the possibility that any weakening of the sanctions regime would trigger a feeding frenzy of companies and nations racing into Iran's economy in order to avoid being left behind, a scenario ridiculed as "fanciful" by administration-linked analysts. In addition to the worry that the administration misjudged the robustness of the sanctions regime, this week saw mounting evidence that the White House had also underestimated the magnitude of the sanctions relief it was committed to providing. Israel's left-leaning Haaretz recently revealed that American officials have admitted to their Israeli counterparts that Iran is set to receive a windfall more than double what administration figures had publicly estimated. CNN today described how Iran oil exports spiked by 10% in November.
- The White House today admitted to the Washington Free Beacon that an Iranian ballistic missile test would not put Tehran in violation of the recently signed Geneva agreement, reversing assurances given last week to the Pulitzer Prize winning site PolitiFact by a National Security Council (NSC) source. Those characterizations had the interim deal "ceas[ing] to exist" if Iran conducted a missile test. The controversy over the administration's interpretation took on added urgency this week, with Mehdi Farahi, Iran's Deputy Defense Minister and Head of Iran's Aerospace Organization General, announcing that Iranian scientists will test a ballistic rocket within a week. The NSA misstatements risk being read against a similar incident, in which the administration announced via a fact-sheet that "Iran has committed to no further advances of its activities at Arak and to halt progress on its plutonium track," only to back off that characterization after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif declared that that Iran would continue work on its Arak plutonium facility. The new admission comes amid statements from Iranian military officials boasting that Israel is within the reach of Tehran's missile arsenal and claiming that new laser technology had been installed to improve the accuracy of Iranian missiles to within 2 meters. It is now known that the administration's interpretation of the Geneva Joint Plan of Action allows Iran as to conduct unlimited uranium enrichment up to 3.5% purity, to bolster its plutonium production facility at Arak, and to test of ballistic missile technology that could be used to delivery nuclear weapons.
- Islamist forces this weekend overran key facilities which until then had been controlled by the more moderate Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), seizing warehouses containing U.S. military gear sent to the FSA and forcing the group's commander Gen. Salim Idris to flee the country. Buzzfeed had reported on Tuesday that Washington had abruptly suspended direct U.S. assistance to opposition-controlled areas northern Syria, due to what the outlet described as 'concerns over gains by Islamist rebels there.' The Wall Street Journal today reported out portions of the story, detailing some of the FSA's losses and revealing that Idris's headquarters were among the facilities seized by the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists. Idris is said to have fled to Doha via Turkey. The Journal bluntly described the incident as 'the strongest sign yet that the US-allied FSA is collapsing under the pressure of Islamist domination of the rebel side of the war.' Earlier this week the Daily Beast's Josh Rogin assessed that facts on the ground had already forced the Obama administration to "to reach out to the very Islamist groups it once hoped to marginalize."
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