- Analysts question Rouhani interview claims on nukes, empowerment
- Leaked video documents alleged unprecedented Iranian involvement in Syrian conflict
- Asked if the Holocaust happened, Iranian president says "I'm not a historian"
- Fears grow over potential Arab pivots to Russia, China
What we’re watching today:
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told NBC yesterday that Tehran has "never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb" and declared that that he has been given "complete authority" by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to negotiate a nuclear deal with the West. Some analysts expressed skepticism regarding these claims. The Washington Post's Max Fisher, who described a large swath of the interview as "great," noted that Rouhani's claims about Iran's nuclear aspirations "strains credulity a bit." The recent August 2013 report on Iran from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog documented sustained progress that Iran is making toward both uranium- and plutonium-based bombs, and emphasized that the regime is quite literally paving over evidence that it had conducted work relevant to weaponization. Evaluating the report, the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimated that [PDF] Iran is on track to achieve “critical capacity” – the ability to dash across the nuclear finish line before Western powers can detect and intervene – by mid-2014. As for the latter claim about Khamenei's buy-in, Reuters noted tersely that "questions remain about how much bargaining room Khamenei, a staunch promoter of Iran's nuclear program, will give his negotiators." Khamenei had, during the election, explicitly forbidden the eventual winner from making concessions to the West, though in recent days had spoken about "flexibility."
- Video footage appearing to show members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operating on the ground in Syria - training and coordinating with Syrian government troops - have renewed questions regarding the extent to which the Islamic republic is directly involved in fighting the Syrian conflict. Iran's newly inaugurated president Hassan Rouhani has vowed to support the Bashar al-Assad regime. The footage, released by Syrian opposition forces, was reportedly shot by an embedded documentary filmmaker who was killed when rebels stormed the base. Tehran has admitted to training Shiite militias in Syria but denied as recently as this week that it maintained a military presence in the country. The claims were taken as being at the very least in tension with the reported assassination earlier this year of a top IRGC general traveling between Syria and Lebanon. Reuters reported in 2012 that Iran was using Iraqi airspace to transport military personnel and large quantities of weapons to Syria.
- Newly inaugurated Iranian president Hassan Rouhani last night refused to answer a direct question from NBC journalist Ann Curry regarding his stance - agree or disagree - on statements made by his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad questioning the historical reality of the Holocaust. Rouhani answered "I'm not a historian, I’m a politician." The refusal to acknowledge that six million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany has become a kind of proxy for the degree to which various Iranian leaders are understood as relative pragmatists, and much has been made by Western analysts of statements made by Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to the effect that Iranian leaders have never in fact denied that the Holocaust occurred. The claim is difficult to square with, among other things, boasts by Ahmadinejad claiming that his greatest achievement was mainstreaming Holocaust denial. Zarif himself has come under fire for speaking about the Holocaust in a way that the Wall Street Journal describes as "a lot like now-former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust-denying firebrand that Tehran's apologists like to portray as an aberration in Iranian politics."
- Foreign policy watchers are increasingly fearful that U.S. policy in the Middle East is incentivizing long-time U.S. allies to pivot to American geopolitical rivals such as Russia and China. Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who agree on almost nothing, co-published an article this week in the National Interest worrying that seven decades of "American efforts in the Middle East... aimed at limiting Moscow's influence in the region" have collapsed. Meanwhile longtime U.S. allies are calling on China to play a more prominent role in Middle East affairs. During a state visit to China this week, Jordanian King Abdullah II appealed to Chinese President Xi Jinping to play "an active role in the... peace process as well as that of the Syrian conflict." The watchdog group MEMRI, which translates original Arabic-language content for Western audiences, conveyed this week a series of reports indicating heightened Arab agitation for "intensified cooperation with Russia, China.”
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