- Reports: Iran sanctions legislation clears Senate hurdle, now has majority support
- United Nations literally gives up trying to count Syrian war casualties
- Midnight purge of Ankara police officers deepens worries over long-term political warfare damage
- Palestinian unity progress renews focus on Palestinian treaty commitments
What we’re watching today:
- Journalists late on Tuesday conveyed counts showing that a majority of the Senate now supports bipartisan legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran should Tehran cheat during an upcoming negotiation period or, at the conclusion of that period, refuse to put its nuclear program verifiably beyond use for weaponization. Reuters had already reported on Monday that the "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013" had secured 48 Senate co-sponsors, up from the original mix of 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans who had put their names to the bill when it was announced on December 19. Reporters Tuesday evening counted Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and John Hoeven (R-ND) as supporters 50 and 51. The White House has threatened to veto the legislation if it passes, with Obama administration officials insisting that it will derail ongoing negotiations with Tehran over the latter's atomic activities. Supporters of the bill have countered that the U.S. lacks sufficient leverage to coerce Iran into meeting its international obligations to suspend uranium enrichment - an assessment explicitly granted by Secretary of State John Kerry - and that in any case the White House's position is incoherent inasmuch as sanctions pressure is widely acknowledged to have brought Iran to the table in the first place. It also appears that the value of financial relief provided to Iran under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) vastly exceeds the Obama administration's public estimates, the upshot being that Washington's bargaining position is substantially weaker than it might otherwise have been. Mark Dubowitz, executive director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), has further calculated that Iran desperately needs the JPA's sanctions relief and quite literally can't afford to abandon at least the initial round of negotiations.
- The United Nations announced Tuesday that it was ceasing to update the death toll in Syria's nearly three-year war because it can no longer reliably keep track of those killed by the conflict. The Associated Press noted that the last official figures, which were current as of July 2013, estimated that at least 100,000 people had perished. Since then an offensive by the Bashar al-Assad regime has eroded years of rebel gains, at times deploying chemical weapons against civilian areas in which opposition forces were entrenched. Support from Iran and its Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah have been critical in the regime's efforts, to the point where by late November United Press International was quoting experts assessing that 'the Iranians now control the [Syrian] regime's military campaign.' Secretary of State John Kerry declared this weekend that the Obama administration hopes that Iran will contribute to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and that Washington would be "happy to have Iran be helpful."
- A midnight purge of 350 Ankara police officers has deepened worries that the political warfare shaking the country - which has pitted the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against judiciary and police figures linked to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen - will significantly erode the robustness and legitimacy of Turkey's political institutions. A corruption probe driven largely by Gulenist police and judiciary figures has in recent weeks ensnared several AKP elites, and AKP figures have been responding by systemically removing hundreds of Gulen-linked figures from their posts. Yesterday's midnight sweep in Ankara seems to have ousted all of the officers who had taken part in a critical December 17 anti-corruption operation, weakening units dedicated to combating terrorism, organized crime, financial irregularities, cybercrimes, and smuggling. CNN reported that the Ankara action was matched by similar moves in at least nine other Turkish cities. Observers are describing the AKP's retaliation in stark terms. The Washington Post had already assessed that the political crisis risked severely damaging the legitimacy of Turkish political institutions, and CNN on Tuesday quoted former AKP parliament member Suat Kiniklioglu worrying that the "the future of law enforcement, the separation of powers, the constitution is in danger." The point was echoed by Michael Clemens, a senior fellow and research manager at the Center for Global Development, who tersely described the resulting dynamic as one in which "corruption cannot be prosecuted" any longer in Turkey.
- Reconciliation talks between the two largest Palestinian factions have reportedly accelerated in recent days, with Hamas officials on Monday announcing a range of goodwill gestures toward Fatah, and Fatah officials on Tuesday revealing that top officials will soon travel to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to discuss ending the two groups' long-running feud. Fatah-controlled portions of the West Bank have been governed separately from Gaza since 2007, when Hamas fighters violently ended Fatah rule over the latter territory via a bloody week-long battle that saw at least 118 people killed and over 550 injured. News that the factions were making progress in unity negotiations - which would see Gaza and the Fatah-controlled areas of the West Bank brought under a single government - began to leak earlier this week, when Palestinian officials disclosed that reconciliation negotiations had been ongoing. On Monday Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh announced that some Fatah members imprisoned by Hamas would be released, and a day later Fatah declared that Azam al-Ahmed, a senior official from the group, would soon travel to Gaza. Analysts quickly linked Hamas's new-found willingness to compromise to the precipitous decline in domestic and international stature that the terrorist organization has recently suffered as a recent of several failed geopolitical gambles. McClatchy yesterday became the latest outlet to describe the downward spiral, assessing that Hamas "has sunk to a new low." A joint Fatah-Hamas Palestinian government risks complicating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Hamas remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, and would likely impose severe restrictions on the degree to which any unity government could interact with - let alone recognize - Israel. The Israelis, however, have over the course of several decades made functionally irreversible territorial concessions in exchange for among other things recognition and a Palestinian renunciation of violence. Should the Palestinians pocket those concessions and establish a government that violates previous agreement, it is unclear whether to what extent Israeli negotiators would be positions to offer further concessions in exchange for Palestinian assurances.
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