- Iran FM: White House misleading Americans over interim deal implementation, Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything"
- U.S. condemns Syrian "inflammatory rhetoric" as Geneva 2 peace talks open
- West Bank terror growth risks peace process complications
- Sanctions reduction triggers Iran "gold rush" -- analysts, journalists, business leaders
- Controversy is likely to deepen in the coming days regarding the Obama administration's refusal to publicly release the text describing how the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) is to be implemented, after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN late on Wednesday that the White House's public description "both underplays [Western] concessions and overplays Iranian commitment." Zarif's statements mark at least the second time that a top Iranian official has explicitly claimed that the administration is misleading journalists and the public regarding the details of the implementation agreement, which among other things clarifies when Iran is required to take a range of actions and to forgo so-called non-actions. Chief Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi declared last week that Iran won more latitude regarding ongoing nuclear work than the White House was publicly conceding, and that "no facility will be closed; enrichment will continue, and qualitative and nuclear research will be expanded." Zarif today went arguably further, flat out declaring that Iran "did not agree to dismantle anything," in contrast to how "the White House tries to portray [the agreement] as a basically a 'dismantling' of Iran's nuclear program." Zarif's language is a gesture toward administration positions consistently maintained in fact sheets and briefings in which officials described Iran as committing to dismantling and disconnecting various parts of its enrichment infrastructure. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer described Zarif's remarks as "stunning and truly provocative," and noted that the foreign minister's comments will "give ammunition" to calls for Congress to advance Senate legislation that would increase pressure on the Islamic republic by signaling the imposition of future sanctions should Tehran refuse to put its nuclear program beyond use for the production of nuclear weapons.
- The BBC this afternoon provided an overview of today's Geneva 2 opening session - being held in Montreux, Switzerland, with the aim of dampening the violence in Syria's almost three-year war - describing "extraordinarily ill-tempered scenes and some very direct language." Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi emphasized to journalists at the conference that Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad would refuse to cede power, opposite calls by the U.S. for Assad to do exactly that. Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem lashed out at among others Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, rejecting Kerry's call for Assad to step down and openly dismissing Ban's entreaties to leave the podium once his 10-minute speaking time had elapsed. The United States almost immediately condemned Muallem for "inflammatory rhetoric." Meanwhile observers are expressing deepening concerns over the degree to which the U.S. has positioned itself to secure Assad's exit. Washington's interpretation of the previous Geneva I understanding has the deal calling for Assad's removal, but the interpretation is rejected by Damascus and Moscow. Meanwhile Marwan Kabalan, a former dean of the faculty of international relations at the University of Kalamoon in Damascus, told RFE/RL that the Assad regime believes it has "succeeded in changing the whole focus of the international community from democratic transition in the country into fighting terrorism." The assessment comes weeks after Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, outlined how the Obama administration has begun acting as if it viewed Assad as a partner in stemming extremists in the Syrian opposition.
- Israel's Shin Bet security service appears to have confirmed that Israeli officials captured three Al Qaeda-linked Palestinian terrorists plotting a mass-casualty terrorist attack against the American embassy in Israel. A gag order lifted late Wednesday allowed journalists to disclose details of the arrest. The Jerusalem Post carried extensive details of the plot, and described the goal as one of carrying out "massive bombings." Three Gaza-based operatives were allegedly recruited and directed via Internet platforms, including Skype and Facebook. The terrorists' targets appear to have included - in addition to the American embassy - a major bus line and the Jerusalem Convention Center. There also appear to have been plans to launch coordinated attacks, which would have included targeting first responders as they arrived on the scene. The news comes shortly after revelations that the Shin Bet arrested a separate terrorist cell in the West Bank directed by the Palestinian Hamas faction. Evidence of steadily increasing West Bank terror infrastructure is likely to have diplomatic consequences, and to strengthen Israeli arguments that a robust Israeli security presence is required in sensitive areas of the territory in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement.
- Multiple outlets and analysts are assessing that the West's reduction of sanctions on Iran, implemented on Monday per the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreed to by the P5+1 global powers and Tehran, has triggered a "gold rush" into the Islamic republic as companies and nations scramble not to be left behind as the country's markets are reopened to the world. The phrase is an explicit echo of statements made by Vienna-based Iranian business consultant Bijan Khajehpour and conveyed by Reuters, in which Khajehpour described a "gold rush" mood in Tehran that has Russia and China rushing to lock in oil-based barter deals before Western companies penetrate the Iranian energy sector. The Wall Street Journal contrasted assurances from the Obama administration emphasizing that sanctions relief was limited with evidence that a "growing number of European governments and businesses [are] moving to cash in on the opening created by the interim agreement." Specifically, the Journal piled on examples indicating that "Tehran's trading partners have lifted sanctions, sent delegations, agreed to export deals and signaled their readiness to expand ties across nearly every major industry." Mark Dubowitz and Emanuele Ottolenghi - respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a senior fellow at the foundation - noted in Politico today that the "gold rush" is partly a function of a psychological change that has seen "greed... overcome fear," with the improved economic climate already generating "some illegitimate deals as companies test the waters." Reuters reported today that Iranian oil sales rose in January for the third consecutive month, and tomorrow Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is to address global business leaders and urge them to pursue further energy co-development deals. The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency meanwhile announced yesterday that it will resume trade with Iran, cracking open a market that had in the past seen robust trade in auto exports and energy. The degree to which Iran benefited economically from the JPA has both diplomatic and policy stakes. Diplomatically, the loss of U.S. leverage will make it difficult to pressure Iran into verifiably putting its nuclear program beyond use for nuclearization. Politically, evidence of such a loss is likely to deepen calls for Congress to pass legislation imposing new sanctions on Iran should negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program fail, a move that proponents insist would boost the bargaining position of U.S. negotiators.
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