Iran announces top-level delegations to Russia, amid fears Moscow will undermine Western leverage


Iran's ambassador to Russia, Mehdi Sanaei, on Wednesday announced on Facebook that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will visit Russia next week to participate in a conference on Caspian energy and that the country's president, Hassan Rouhani, would follow in September for a similarly themed meeting with counterparts. The Times of Israel read the announcement against the backdrop of warming Iranian-Russian ties, noting that Tehran and Moscow are "close allies" and are supporting Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and cooperating on the development of Iran's atomic program. The developments are also likely to be read alongside deepening concerns that tensions between the Kremlin and the West are likely to undermine international talks between Iran and the P5+1 global powers, a group in which Russia is a member. Slate international affairs writer Joshua Keating wrote yesterday that a range of geostrategic and diplomatic dynamics - from European energy considerations to straightforward retaliation by the Russians - may see the Ukraine crisis boosting Iran's prospects. Top Russian diplomats have threatened to "raise the stakes" of the crisis by shifting their stance on Iran talks, and Moscow has very publicly declared that it is in any case forging ahead with a $20 billion sanctions-busting scheme that would see Iran barter oil for goods. The Obama administration has thus far brushed off concerns that Russian calculations may see their diplomats undermining the West's approach to Iran, insisting instead that the Kremlin would "compartmentalize" various processes. At stake is the degree to which Washington and its European allies have sufficient leverage to convince the Iranians to verifiably put their atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Quantitative economic indicators, summed up this week in a new IMF report, indicate that Iran's economy has stabilized and is primed for growth "even if sanctions relief under [the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA)] deal proves short-lived." Iranian officials on Wednesday seized on an anticipated U.N. report, which will document that Tehran is meeting its JPA obligations to dilute the most highly enriched portions of its uranium stockpile, to demand the next tranche of money promised by the JPA. Arms control expert Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's nuclear policy program, has estimated that it would take Iran roughly one to two weeks to reverse the dilution process. It is unlikely that, should Iranian lawmakers choose to do so, they would return the money.


The office of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday rushed to deny reports - given to media outlets by a delegation of opposition Israeli lawmakers who had just returned from Ramallah - that the Palestinian leader had condemned a deadly Monday terrorist attack on an Israeli family, a day after Abbas's silence on the matter had been blasted by Jerusalem as deeply complicating efforts to sustain flagging peace talks. Terrorists had riddled the family's car with bullets, killing the male driver and wounding his wife and child. Abbas and other figures from his Fatah faction had through the week remained conspicuously silent on the matter, amid celebrations of the murder by other groups, triggering a harsh condemnation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Multiple members of Israel's Knesset parliament visited Abbas today and came back telling journalists that "it didn't take much convincing" for him to specifically condemn the Passover eve attack, to offer assistance in "the investigation of the attack," to commit "to bring[ing] those accountable to justice," and to express "his disgust from bloodshed and terrorism." Members of the Israeli delegation criticized Netanyahu for among other things failing to acknowledge that "there is a Palestinian partner in Ramallah." Abbas's office remembered the conversation differently, with spokesman Nabil Abu Ruaineh insisting that Abbas condemned violence in general but did not speak out against the attack. Israeli and American lawmakers have long expressed concerns that Palestinian leaders, up to and including Abbas, stoke violence both by failing to dampen it and at times by explicitly glorifying it. Peace talks originally scheduled for Wednesday were pushed back at the request of the United States.


Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News disclosed on Wednesday that figures from European and U.S. defense firms have been heavily lobbying their counterparts in Turkey's defense industry for help in blocking a controversial move by Ankara - announced last September, only to be met with immediate pushback by the West - to purchase a missile defense system from a Chinese company blacklisted by Washington for violating anti-proliferation measures. The FD-2000 system, made by China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC), would have to be integrated with Turkey's existing defense assets. One top NATO official has described the dynamic as being equivalent to implanting a Chinese computer virus inside NATO's command and control infrastructure, and then-NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had been quite explicit that he expected the Turks to reverse their position. Last December Congress considered legislative responses to Turkey's moves, amid something of a lash-out by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Hurriyet reported that officials from Western defense firms are emphasizing to top Turkish officials that it will become impossible for them to establish or maintain partnerships "in certain fields" should Ankara go through with the purchase. The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced on Wednesday that it would this week host the third "Joint Working Group" between Turkish and Chinese officials, focusing on "bilateral relations... as well as the current developments in the region and internationally." Other Turkish media outlets assessed that while no details had been disclosed regarding the various meetings, "the Turkish acquisition of Chinese long-range air and missile defense system has remained one of the most important issues between the countries" and that "talks between Turkey and China on the missile tender are expected to be concluded by the end of April."


Palestinian media outlet Ma'an conveyed comments yesterday by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declaring that the kidnap of Israeli soldiers was a "top priority" for the Iran-backed terror group, statements that are bound to deepen already widespread concerns that Hamas is looking to halt a precipitous slide in its power and popularity via a spectacular operation against the Jewish state. The Ma'an report was covered by both Israeli and U.S. media outlets, which contextualized the statements in light of the 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas used an underground tunnel to infiltrate Israel and seize Shalit, triggering Israel's Operation Summer Rains and setting the stage for 2008's Operation Cast Lead. The beginning of Israel's 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense saw the Israeli Air Force eliminate Ahmed Jabari, Hamas's "chief of staff" and the mastermind behind the operation to seize and hold Shalit. Israeli security forces have in recent months uncovered multiple similar tunnels - including elaborate structures stretching miles into Israel and costing millions of dollars - designed to facilitate new kidnapping campaigns against Israel. Last October Hamas went so far as to both claim a particularly extensive tunnel, the third discovered that year by Israeli forces, and to boast that it had been intended for use in an attack on Israel. The Jerusalem Post editorialized that the discovery was "a reminder of Hamas’s intentions" and suggested that within "the warped internal logic of Palestinian politics, a successful terror attack or a kidnapping of an Israeli soldier or civilian would succeed in strengthening Hamas’s popularity."

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