- Experts: Turkey corruption earthquake sheds light on Obama administration commitment to Iran sanctions enforcement
- Iran announces development of next-generation centrifuges, deepening concerns over 'freeze' agreement details
- Critics slam EU response after top Lebanese Hezbollah foe murdered in Beirut massive car bombing
- Egypt pressing allies for counter-terror support after designation of Muslim Brotherhood as terror group
What we’re watching today:
- The domestic upheaval rocking Turkey - which has now slipped into open political warfare between the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the powerful Islamist movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, and which is threatening to bring down Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - seems set to directly impact policy discussions over the robustness of international sanctions against Iran and the degree to which the Obama administration has balanced sanctions enforcement with diplomatic outreach. At the broadest levels, a Turkish corruption probe led largely by Gulen-linked police and judiciary officials has ensnared AKP elites, and AKP leaders up to and including Erdogan have responded by purging hundreds of police officers and prosecutors. More specifically, according to Mark Dubowitz and Jonathan Schanzer - respectively the executive director and vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) - a so-called "gas-for-gold" scheme in which a bank linked to the Turkish government helped Iran circumvent international sanctions is figuring prominently in the corruption scandal. Dubowitz and Schanzer describe police moves against Suleyman Aslan, the CEO of state-owned Halkbank, and Reza Zarrab, an Iranian businessman heavily involved in the gold trade. Officers have reportedly found shoe-boxes containing $4.5 million in Aslan's home, and Zarrab has been arrested on corruption-related charges. Halkbank is being accused of among other things having permitted Iran to access billions of dollars in escrow accounts to purchase and move gold into Iran, allowing the Islamic republic to bolster its increasingly inaccessible foreign reserves. The mechanism Halkbank used, per Dubowitz and Schanzer, was a "golden loophole" that allowed "the transfer of billions of dollars of gold to so-called "private" entities in Iran," during a period of time when the Obama administration didn't blacklist all gold transfers to Iran and delayed congressional efforts to do so by six months. Dubowitz and Schanzer suggest that the White House's calculations were driven in part by a desire to "coax Iran into signing a nuclear deal." The dynamic has the potential to directly impact policy debates over how to approach negotiations with Iran. The administration is locked in a pitched battle with a bipartisan group of dozens of Senators who are seeking to move forward legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran in the future under certain conditions. New restrictions would be placed should Tehran either violate its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) during an upcoming six month negotiation period or, at the end of that period, refuse to verifiably put its nuclear program beyond use for weaponization. The administration has argued that such legislation is unnecessary because so-called core sanctions on Iran remain in place even after the financial relief provided by the JPA, and the administration is committed to enforcing those. Evidence that the White House declined in the past to enforce sanctions as an olive branch to Tehran may undermine Congressional confidence in those assurances.
- Iran is constructing what the Associated Press describes as 'a new generation of centrifuges' able to enrich uranium at a faster pace, potentially shortening the amount of time it would take Tehran to convert its enriched nuclear stockpile to weapons-grade purity, per statements made by Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi and conveyed by the wire. The AP assessed that 'Salehi's comments appeared aimed at showing the country is moving ahead with its nuclear program [in] order to fend off criticism by Iranian hard-liners' over the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) announced weeks ago in Geneva. Skeptics have countered that Iran is moving ahead with its nuclear program because the country's leaders want to move ahead with its nuclear program. The latter interpretation would be in line with statements from both Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani committing to pushing ahead with Iran's atomic activities in the context of international negotiations designed to curb that work, which is widely suspected of including clandestine weaponization dimensions. The AP also noted that the JPA 'does not stop [Iran] from developing centrifuges.' The agreement additionally permits Tehran unlimited enrichment of uranium to 3.5% purity - arguably the most difficult hurdle to clear on the path to creating weapons-grade material - as long as that material is stored in an oxide form unsuitable for further enrichment. It would take Iran only weeks, however, to convert that oxide into material that can be enriched further. Salehi's announcement, if confirmed, would position the Irnians to use the deal's six month negotiation period to increase their stockpile of enriched uranium and to increase the technology they have on hand to quickly enrich that stockpile further.
- A top Lebanese leader prominent for his opposition to Iranian interference in Lebanon - and more specifically to attempts by Hezbollah and Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime to dominate the country - was murdered this morning by a massive car bomb that ripped through central Beirut, killing him and at least five other people. Mohamad Chatah was a former ambassador to the United States and a close adviser to top figures in the anti-Syrian March 14 movement. His final tweet blasted Hezbollah for an ongoing political crisis that has paralyzed Lebanon, describing the Iran-backed terror group as "pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security [and] foreign policy matters that Syria exercised" during a 15 year period when Beirut legitimized Damascus's military occupation of Lebanon and gave the Syrians broad control over the country's defense policies. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri quickly identified Hezbollah as behind the assassination. The murder will likely be read against deepening sectarian violence spilling into the region from inside Syria, where the Iran-backed Assad regime has been fighting a nearly three year war against largely Sunni rebel groups. An upcoming conference in Geneva designed to dampen the violence has been severely criticized for potentially maneuvering Syrian Sunnis into accommodating the regime, and the international reaction to Chatah's assassination has fueled similar criticism. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reacted to the attack by calling on "Lebanon's political leaders and the Lebanese people to put aside all differences and join forces... to restore security in the country." Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), characterized Ashton's statement as one that urged "Lebanese leaders being killed by Hezbollah to join Hezbollah to restore security," also declaring that it "mirrors the premise" behind the Geneva talks where he implies the Syrian opposition will be asked to "join with their killers." Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael Doran was similarly acerbic, describing Ashton's call as one that urged "Lebanese murdered by Assad and Hezbollah to let bygones be bygones."
- Egyptian authorities are intensifying their most recent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood - this morning's Reuters headline tersely noted "Egypt arrests more Brotherhood supporters, more protests anticipated" - days after the country's army-backed interim government designated the Islamist group as a terrorist organization. At least 32 figures linked to the Brotherhood have been arrested in the aftermath of the Wednesday designation, which came amid an escalation in terror attacks that saw Islamist violence, which had largely been limited to the Sinai Peninsula, spread across Egypt. The move will enable Cairo to shutter Brotherhood-linked institutions and freeze the group's assets. It also has the potential to affect regional and global diplomacy, with various actors being called upon to position themselves in response to the designation. The Egyptians have already announced [Arabic] that they will press Arab countries to make good on signed counter-terror obligations and cooperate against the Brotherhood. The Palestinian Fatah faction called on the Brotherhood-linked Hamas faction to untangle itself from the organization for the sake of advancing Palestinian interests. Egyptian media reported yesterday on statements supporting the designation from liberal political groups that had last summer demanded the resignation of the country's then-Brotherhood linked government. The United States for its part has expressed reservations over Egypt's moves against the Brotherhood - State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki conveyed to reporters the details of a call between Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy in which Kerry expressed as much - and is reportedly not considering following Cairo's lead in designating the group.
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