- Senate leader moves to speed vote on new sanctions legislation amid Iranian boasts of negotiations victory
- Corruption scandal rocking Turkey engulfs bank known for Iran sanctions-busting
- Hezbollah chief threatens to attack Israel over assassination claimed by Sunni jihadist group
- Congressional bill to boost U.S.-Israel energy cooperation clears Senate hurdle
What we’re watching today:
- Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi bragged yesterday, in comments conveyed by Iranian media, that "Iran is the winner of [the] Geneva deal" because the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) framework had positioned the Islamic republic to appear conciliatory even though Tehran will refuse to close its plutonium facility at Arak and "will not lose anything" by temporarily suspending uranium enrichment up to 20 percent purity. The comments came a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif boasted that Iran could quickly restart enrichment to 20 percent - thereby reviving debate over asymmetries in the JPA that have Tehran merely "freezing" parts of its program while the West reduces sanctions - and amid a potential showdown between the Obama administration and Congress. A bipartisan group of 26 senators yesterday unveiled legislation that would impose sanctions on Iran if it cheated during the JPA's six-month negotiating period or if it failed to put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization at the end of that period. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today filed a procedure that would allow him to bypass bringing the bill to the floor through committees, and potentially allowing the full body to vote on the legislation as soon as next month. The move widely seen as a win for the bill amid opposition from the White House and ten senators who yesterday wrote a letter detailing their objections. The administration's position, which analysts and journalists have struggled with for the last month and a half, is that while past sanctions coerced Iran into coming to the table, future sanctions will compel the Iranians to walk away. The empirical evidence is in tension with the administration's position. In what Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, describes as a "poorly played bluff," Iranian diplomats in recent days suspended talks over U.S. sanctions enforcement - and then returned.
- A corruption probe involving some of Turkey's top figures has engulfed officials at a Turkish bank long linked to Iranian sanctions-busting schemes, adding a potential international dimension to a scandal that was already threatening to destabilize the country's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. The probe has pitted rival Islamist camps against each other, with the AKP squaring off against followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. The cleric's followers are influential across Turkey's state and non-state institutions, and Erdogan has accused the camp of waging a "dirty operation" over recent days as police and prosecutors intensified anti-corruption investigations targeting AKP-linked political and economic elites. Erdogan and his allies have for their part responded by sacking a number of top judicial and police officials. Fehim Tastekin, a columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Istanbul-based newspaper Radikal, outlined today how moves against two of the sweep's targets - Suleyman Aslan and Riza Sarraf, respectively the CEO of Halkbank and an Iranian businessman who deals with gold - may add international stakes to the firestorm. Halkbank had reportedly been set up by Ankara to facilitate the sale of oil and natural gas from Iran, and leveraged trade in previous metals in order to work at the margins of the international sanctions regime against Iran. Oktay Ozdabakoglu, the finance and capital market expert at Radikal, was quoted noting that because of the bank "Iran, supposedly under embargo, was continuing its trading, and meeting its hot money needs." He more pointedly emphasized that "it appears impossible that this operation could have been conducted with the permission or information of the government or quarters close to the government."
- Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah today declared that the Iran-backed terror group would attack Israel in response to the December 4th killing of Haj Hassan Hilu Laqis, deepening concerns that the organization - which has seen its brand as an anti-Israel vanguard shattered by its role in the Syrian conflict - is seeking to provoke a conflict with the Jewish state in order to burnish its image. Laqis, a top Hezbollah figure who for decades had been critical in among other things weapons acquisitions, was gunned down in an attack claimed by a Sunni jihadist group. Top Hezbollah figures had nonetheless almost immediately blamed Israel for the killing and vowed revenge. Earlier this week Israeli soldier Sgt. Shlomi Cohen was killed in a cross-border attack by a Lebanese sniper, focusing attention on the long-suspected infiltration of the Lebanese Armed Forces by Hezbollah. Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, yesterday conveyed analysis from "observers in Beirut, including pro-Hezbollah journalists who suspected a link between the Laqis assassination and the murder of Cohen. Badran went further, outlining how "as Hezbollah’s options narrow and its enemies multiply, the party has used its control of the state and its penetration of its institutions, including the [Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)], to fight its wars by proxy." The United States channels millions of dollars in security assistance to the LAF - literally three-fourths of all international security assistance to the country - and analysts have begun to increasingly question the wisdom of such allocations given evidence of active collaboration between the LAF and Hezbollah.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee yesterday voted to advance bipartisan legislation designed to boost U.S.-Israeli energy cooperation on topics ranging across - per the Jerusalem Post - "regulatory best practices, cyber energy infrastructure, energy efficiency of water technologies, environmental management of deepwater exploration and coastal protection and restoration." Parallel legislation to the United States-Israel Energy Cooperation Enhancement Bill had been passed earlier this month by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) described the Senate vote as "a huge step forward in our work to enhance the partnership between Israel and the US on energy production." Analysts and journalists have increasingly taken it as a given that massive off-shore and on-shore energy reserves in Israel have the potential to reconfigure not just global energy markets but geopolitics.
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