- White House pushback on intransigent Iran statements met by journalists with sarcasm, pushback
- Obama administration snubs Egypt on summit invites, risking further bilateral deterioration
- Cairo bombings underscore risk of deepening Egyptian instability, as regional allies move to bolster army-backed government
New polling indicates surge in support for Israeli prime minister's diplomatic positions
Obama administration officials continued to scramble yesterday and today to contain the fallout from recent statements by Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, in which the officials respectively denied that Iran had made key nuclear concessions under a recent interim agreement and foreclosed what are widely believed to be minimal rollbacks necessary to secure a comprehensive nuclear accord. CNN on Wednesday aired an interview with Zarif in which he explicitly accused the White House of misleading Americans into believing that Iran had committed to dismantling some of its centrifuges under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), and on Thursday the cable news network aired parts of a separate interview with Rouhani in which he flatly ruled out ever dismantling any centrifuges. Fareed Zakaria, who was CNN's host for the Rouhani interview, described the Iranian president's stance as a diplomatic "train wreck" and worried that it will be "very hard [for Iran] to walk back from as absolutist a position." White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Thursday brushed off the Iranian comments as spin aimed at a "domestic audience," prompting Fox News correspondent Ed Henry to push back by asking whether Carney could confirm that "CNN is broadcast outside of Iran." Henry's gesture was designed as a straightforward response to Carney's characterization - the Fox News reporter clarified that he was implying that Iranian leaders on CNN were "also sending a message to... the president" - but Zakaria's concerns over bargaining maneuverability may end up being the more pointed of the two implicit responses. It seems straightforward that, inasmuch as Iranian leaders are declaring to domestic audiences that they will refuse to make critical concessions as a matter of national pride, it will be more difficult for them to make critical concessions. The Associated Press yesterday quoted Gary Samore, a former top arms control advisor for the Obama administration, predicting that "we're in for a rolling series of extensions" rather than a successful negotiated accord. The scenario may see Iran repeatedly pocketing financial concessions during the interim period without committing to the steps necessary to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization.
- The U.S.-Egypt relationship is in danger of further deterioration, with a diplomatic snub this week having revived Egyptian frustrations that first crystalized when the Obama administration last fall took the widely criticized and now functionally reversed decision to partially halt military aid to Cairo. Washington's broadside was made in response to the army's July removal of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked President Mohammed Morsi, a move that came after Morsi publicly defied mass anti-government protests calling for his resignation. In a rare interview that came even before the White House announced it was freezing some assistance, Egyptian General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi - the head of the country's army and by most reckonings its next president - was already responding to threats of U.S. action by declaring "you turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that" and asking "now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians" (the Washington Post, which was conducting the interview, dryly assessed that Sisi's comments were "a measure of just how thoroughly the Obama administration has alienated both sides in... Egypt"). This week the White House issued an invitation to 47 African leaders to attend an American-African economic summit to be held in Washington later this year. Egypt was excluded from the invitation list. Pressed for details, State Department Deputy Press Secretary Marie Harf told reporters that the decision was a function of Egypt having been suspended from the African Union (AU). Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdelbati expressed himself surprised at State's rationale, if for no other reason than the AU is unconnected to the summit. Others have pointed out that Morocco, which is invited, is not an AU member. The Egyptians described the snub as "erroneous and shortsighted." Analysts worry that the erosion of U.S.-Egyptian ties will damage America's ability to project power across northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. military has long relied on traditionally close ties to Cairo to secure favorable overflight rights and preferential treatment in transiting through the Suez Canal.
- At least six people were killed and 70 more were injured Friday morning when Islamists launched three attacks against Cairo police stations, including against the city's main headquarters, and by the end of the day, outside a Giza city movie theater. The attacks were claimed by Ansar Jerusalem, a Sinai-based Al Qaeda-linked jihadist group, and the Long War Journal noted in its analysis of that the group had only hours earlier issued an audio statement calling on 'Egyptian security personnel to repent and save themselves.' The attacks come as a series of anniversaries and dynamics are converging. Egypt is on the eve of the third anniversary of the protests that forced the country's former president Hosni Mubarak out of power, and both protests and celebrations are expected for this weekend. An ongoing campaign by the Egyptian army to uproot terrorist infrastructure in the Sinai Peninsula earlier this week succeeded in cornering a key Islamist leader, who was killed in the subsequent gun fight. A referendum setting the contours of a democratic transition for the country passed overwhelmingly in recent weeks, and Egyptian military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi - the key figure in the overthrow of the country's most recent president, Mohammed Morsi, who was pushed aside by the army amid mass anti-government protests - is positioning himself for what is likely to be a glide into the presidency. The instability seems set to deepen ongoing dynamics reconfiguring the region and hardening three regional blocs: an Iranian-anchored Shiite camp, a camp of traditional U.S. allies drawn from the Arab world plus Israel, and an extremist Sunni camp that includes Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah earlier this month emphasized to Secretary of State John Kerry that Egypt is too important to be allowed to collapse into chaos.
- New polling out of Israel indicates that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu party has dramatically strengthened its electoral position, and would gain 15 more seats than it currently has - 12.5 percent of Israel's 120-seat Knesset parliament - were elections held today. Israeli politics are notoriously byzantine and the dynamics driving the boost are not straightforward to untangle, and the new numbers are being read alongside other polls that show Israelis siding with Netanyahu on diplomatic controversies in which the Israeli prime minister has parted ways with Western counterparts over specific initiatives. Regarding Iran, a recent poll shows that Israelis align with Netanyahu in distrusting the current round of Western engagement and talks with Iran, figures that are in line with a November poll finding broad skepticism regarding the then-ongoing Geneva talks. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a recent poll found overwhelming support for maintaining a security presence along the border with Jordan in the context of a final comprehensive agreement. A report published this morning by the Daily Beast disclosed that the Obama administration has established something of a lobbying presence inside Israel to "prepare the Israeli public" to make compromises to the Palestinians. The article specifically outlined efforts by the administration to mobilize support for an agreement that would exclude an Israeli security presence from around the Jordanian border.