- Iranian and Russian media outlets, French officials highlight erosion of international sanctions regime against Iran
- Hezbollah Dep. Sec. declares group will battle, defeat Sunni ‘takfiri’ in Lebanon
- Reports: Hamas at ease with moves by Fatah rivals to boost ties with Iran
State Dept. blasts Turkey over new internet regulations locking in censorship and surveillance
- Russian and Iranian media boasted this week about impending trade deals that may see Iran shrug off international sanctions, amid predictions from French figures that a trade deal between Paris and Tehran may be sealed within weeks. The Tehran Times today conveyed details from a Swiss-Iranian trade meeting, and quoted Gholam Hossein Shafe'ee - the head of Iran's Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture - describing Iran as particularly eager to leverage the stability of Switzerland's economy. Bern's scramble to suspend trade bans and relax reporting regulations relating to Iranian trade had weeks ago already been cited as evidence of an emerging "gold rush" mentality taking hold internationally as Iranian markets were reopened to the global community. Meanwhile Voice of Russia published analysis, datelined Saturday, assessing that "Russia and Iran are getting ready for a new stage in their economic cooperation" as "Western sanctions relief opens doors for an array of huge opportunities in a range of sectors, primarily energy and oil industries." Earlier this week Francois Nicoullaud, who served as France's ambassador to Iran from 2001 to 2005, predicted to Bloomberg that "initial agreements" between Paris and Tehran would be reached "if not in coming days then maybe within the next few weeks." Obama administration officials have rushed to triage what increasingly appears to be a feeding frenzy of countries and companies rushing back into Iran, warning off both France and Turkey in recent days and yesterday targeting a range of businesses across Europe and the Middle East for violating U.S. sanctions.
- Statements recently made a top Hezbollah figure and published today by Hezbollah's Al-Manar media outlet risk accelerating a wave of sectarian strife that, having been largely imported from the nearly three-year conflict in neighboring Syria, has increasingly generated open fighting between various factions and a wave of car bombs targeting Hezbollah in retaliation for its critical role in ensuring the survival of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. Al-Manar conveyed statements from Naim Qassem, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General, declaring that the Iran-backed terror group will 'continue its war against the takfiri plot and will defeat it,' and 'noting that the achievements in this context are to appear soon.' Al-Manar also described Qassem as asserting that 'the suicide bombings [against Hezbollah] are planned and executed by multinational takfiri criminals.' The gesture toward 'takfiri' is an accusation of apostasy, and is used by Hezbollah and its Shiite allies to describe not just Sunni jihadists but also moderate Sunnis battling the Assad regime and Sunni Muslims in general. It has been repeatedly used by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to justify warfighting inside Syria. Its increasing prevalence in Hezbollah’s rhetoric regarding Lebanese violence will deepen fears that hardened sectarianism, which has complicated efforts to dampen Syrian violence, will take hold in Lebanon.
- The Palestinian Hamas faction is content to let its rivals in the Fatah faction reach out to Iran - despite a decades-old proxy relationship between Hamas and its Iranian sponsors - according to a report published yesterday by Al Monitor. Hamas officials who spoke to the outlet emphasized that any rapprochement between the two sides should be seen as Fatah altering its long-held stance opposing Iranian influence, and that in any case "the road to a true rapprochement between Ramallah and Tehran is still long." Evidence began to emerge last month of active moves by Fatah officials to deepen their ties with Iran, after years in which conventional wisdom held that relations between the Palestinian group and the Islamic republic were somewhere between chilly and functionally nonexistent. The assessments were not without their problems - in early 2013 Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas thanked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Iran's stance on Palestinian issues - but the ongoing rivalry between Fatah and Hamas placed limits on the degree to which Fatah and Iran could or would cooperate. Fatah officials regularly blasted Iran for interfering in Palestinian affairs via its sponsorship of Hamas. Hamas's domestic and regional position has all but crashed in recent months, and efforts by Hamas to bolster its stature via spectacular terror attacks have repeatedly been disrupted. The new geopolitical configuration may have created an incentive for Iran to diversify its investment in Palestinian groups, but it may even be pushing Hamas to countenance closer coordination between Fatah and Iran as a way of bringing Fatah around to Iranian positions.
- The State Department on Thursday condemned new Turkish legislation passed this week that places sharp limits on internet use and freedom, with State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki describing the new measures as "not compatible with international standards on freedom of expression" and worrying that they would "significantly impact free expression, investigative journalism, the protection of journalist sources, political discourse, and access to information over the internet." Turkey's move to crack down on the internet comes as the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) - which has controlled the country for over a decade - faces arguably the most significant challenge to the rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he took power in 2003. Followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who are scattered throughout Turkey's state and non-state institutions, have been locked in open political warfare with the AKP. Gulenist figures have launched sweeping anti-corruption and anti-terror campaigns that have ensnared top AKP elites, and the AKP has responded with a wave of purges ejecting Gulenists from their positions and jobs. The AKP has also pursued further legislation limiting free expression. Erdogan had already last summer begun mobilizing populist opposition to the use of internet technologies - including and especially social media - when mass anti-government riots broke out over perceptions of government overreach. The new internet regulations, which still have to be approved by Turkey's president, provide broad mechanisms for blocking websites and dramatically expand the ability of government officials to monitor internet activity. The Australian Times reported Friday that the legislation is being viewed as an attempt by the AKP "to suppress corruption allegations and silence dissent. The New York Times described how websites with details of AKP corruption - including the popular sound-sharing website SoundCloud, where audio was posted of Erdogan seemingly trading zoning favors in exchange for two villas - have been blocked. Turkey's top business group, the Turkish Industry and Business Association, had already blasted the new internet regulations as a violation of "the individual’s fundamental rights and freedoms,” and the European Union had similarly expressed concerns.
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