UN demand for detonator information shifts focus to Iranian foot-dragging on transparency obligations
- UN demand for detonator information shifts focus to Iranian foot-dragging on transparency obligations
Officials from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear watchdog disclosed on Friday that they had demanded more information from Iranian officials regarding tests on detonators - specifically, on Exploding Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators - suspected of having been conducted with the aim of creating nuclear warheads, the latest development in an emerging controversy over Tehran's willingness to disclose a range of widely suspected "possible military dimensions" (PMD). The Islamic republic is obligated to provide transparency into PMD-related activities by United Nations Security Council resolution 1929, and non-compliance with those obligations has been cited by U.S. lawmakers as a central justification for maintaining pressure on Tehran. President Barack Obama had as early as 2009 declared that Iran would have to "come clean" in disclosing all past nuclear activities, language that was explicitly echoed by Secretary of State John Kerry on the eve of announcing the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA), under which Iran received sanctions relief in exchange for slowing down its nuclear progress. The JPA however did not include any requirement that Iran meet its PMD obligations, and was criticized on precisely that account by among others Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff and by Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittrie, respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a senior fellow at the foundation.. Top administration officials pushed back by insisting that the JPA had only been meant to facilitate negotiations, and that Iran would be forced to meet its PMD obligations in the context of a final agreement. Observers have become increasingly concerned in recent weeks that a range of Iranian moves appear aimed at delaying discussion of PMD activities until after most other issues have been resolved, at which point Iranian negotiators would refuse to meet their transparency obligations and functionally dare the West to scuttle an emerging deal over what they would characterize as past work. There are now suggestions floating in corners of the foreign policy community "that in the enthusiasm for a comprehensive agreement, the P5+1 could ignore the PMD aspect if all other conditions are met... if Iran’s break-out capability is indefinitely delayed and the technology available to it is severely limited, in addition to greater transparency and IAEA access to its facilities, the PMD question may not have to be directly dealt with at all." Analysts nonetheless have been emphatic that the success of any deal, and especially any agreement that would lean heavily on verification mechanisms, would require extensive disclosure in the context of untangling the Iranian military from the country's atomic program. Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh explained months ago that "[w]ithout insight into the full extent of Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities, no amount of monitoring and inspection can provide true confidence that Iran lacks a parallel program beyond inspectors' view."
Reuters on Friday published a wide-ranging analysis - headlined "Egypt's [Abdel-Fattah El-]Sisi turns Islam on the Islamists" - documenting a range of moves and statements being made by the country's presumptive next president suggesting that while Sisi "may turn out to be the most outwardly pious of any of the military men to have governed Egypt since the republic" he does not seem likely to "inject more Islam into the government" and is instead positioning himself as "a religious reformer." The wire assessed that the former defense minister's near-certain victory in upcoming presidential elections "could bring a sustained effort to reinforce state-backed, apolitical Islam, providing clerical cover for destroying his Islamist foes." Reuters pointedly noted consistent statements from Sisi flat-out rejecting the concept of a "religious state" and blasting "religious discourse" for preventing Egyptian growth. His first televised interview as a candidate saw him bemoaning the degree to which "hardline religious rhetoric" had undercut Egypt's critical tourism sector. Commenting on that interview - and evaluating other statements that Sisi made about the Brotherhood - the insidery security bulletin KGS Nightwatch had tersely evaluated that "outside interests that advocate on behalf of the Brotherhood are out of step with the political turn Egypt has taken." The Associated Press (AP) reported Thursday that the Obama administration had formally picked Ambassador Stephen Beecroft to take the helm at the U.S.'s Cairo embassy, which has had a vacancy at the ambassador level for nine months. The AP described the declaration as "a routine but necessary step [by the White House] toward smoothing its stormy relationship with Cairo." The Obama administration had steadily degraded bilateral ties after the Egyptian army - led at the time by Sisi - last summer overthrew Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi.
Turkish officials throughout the week and into Friday scrambled to respond to last week's "Freedom of the Press" report - published annually by the Washington-based Freedom House watchdog group - which had downgraded Turkey from "Partly Free" to "Not Free" and had explained that "constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and expression are only partially upheld in practice, undermined by restrictive provisions in the criminal code and the Anti-Terrorism Act." The report also noted that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of Dec. 1." Responding to the ensuing controversy, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared on Friday that the report was "an insult" and that the real problem was that journalists remain uninformed about Turkey. Davutoglu had previously declared that Turkey was in fact more free than even "Partly Free" countries, part of a statement in which he emphasized that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) expected Turkish journalists "to reject" the Freedom House report. Ankara has had trouble settling on talking points describing its jailing of journalists in general, and more specifically on the number of journalists that the Turks are willing to admit are behind bars. Davutoglu's Friday statements insisted that "there are only five imprisoned journalists with press cards," opposite a list of 44. Responding to the same list, a statement released by Turkey's Justice Ministry earlier this week had held that only 29 journalists were in jail. Government officials had in April cited a statement from the the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) - one that CPJ insists Ankara invented out of thin air - pegging the number at 15.
Firefights between Yemeni army forces and Al Qaeda fighters killed at least seven people on Friday in the country's capital of Sana'a, as violence spread to Yemen's presidential palace on the same day as an assassination attempt almost claimed the life of its defense minister, Major General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad. Reuters described Sana'a as being "in lockdown" in the aftermath of the violence - checkpoints were erected across all of the city's main entrances - and assessed that the attack on Ahmad was done "in apparent reprisal for the army's biggest push against militants in nearly two years." Recent days had seen Yemeni troops storm a major compound operated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a key goal in the ongoing military campaign. Fears of reprisals to the offensive had led the United States to suspend operations at its Sana'a embassy, and the missions of other Western countries at least limited their operations. Yemeni officials have struggled to put down at least two insurgencies, one in the country's south driven by AQAP and another involving Shiite secessionists stationed largely out of the north. The central government and Western officials have linked Iran to both. Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in late March blasted Tehran for providing assistance to Shiite separatists, after security officials captured a weapons-filled boat bound for the Sunni country loaded with Katyusha rockets, anti-aircraft missiles, RPG launchers and Iranian-made night-vision goggles. Links between Iran and AQAP, meanwhile, have been publicly known for years. Suspicions grounded in a now-notorious cable from bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, thanking Iran for its "vision" in infiltrating Yemen, were subsequently deepened in 2009 when reports emerged that Zawahiri had a channel to Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Gulf leaders have since at least 2012 been open in condemning a range of Iranian efforts they insist are aimed at destabilizing Arab states. Wikileaks cables published years ago had already disclosed that the Saudis urged the U.S. in 2008 to launch attacks against Iranian nuclear infrastructure, and in July 2010 the UAE's ambassador to Washington publicly made the case that "a cost-benefit analysis" argued in favor of military action against Iran.
- Egyptian presidential frontrunner commits to Camp David peace treaty, as allies urge Hamas to recognize Israel
The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday angrily denounced reports printed by Western outlets alleging that the Islamic republic had supplied Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime with chlorine-filled chemical weapons (CWs), accusing the Daily Telegraph in particular of being a "Zionist news outlet" that "spreads lies to deviate the world's public opinion from realities." Observers have become increasingly vocal in condemning what analysts describe as a coordinated campaign by Syrian to target rebel-heavy areas with the weapons. The campaign had - per the New York Times - "overshadowed" reports that progress was being made in eliminating other parts of Assad's nonconventional arsenal. Syria had agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and destroy its CW stockpile as part of a deal hammered out last September to avert what seemed to be impending U.S. strikes, after the regime had widely been accused of crossing a red line set by the Obama administration against the use of such weapons. The CWC does not ban possession of chlorine, which has industrial uses beyond the battlefield, but weaponizing the substance let alone deploying it is prohibited. The Chinese had been quick in announcing an investigation into whether the weapons had a link to Beijing, and had subsequently denied involvement. The controversy over chlorine weapons comes as progress has stalled in destroying even the CWC-proscribed portions of Syria's arsenal. The chief of the mission charged with destroying those weapons said this week that the last unsecured containers were currently inaccessible on account of nearby fighting. Washington has traditionally shown little patience for such arguments, accusing Damascus of dragging its feet and manipulating the situation on the ground to avoid handing over its weapons. The Americans believe that Syria has been looking to retain portions of its nonconventional arsenal to use "as leverage in a dispute with the international community over the future of facilities used to store the deadly agents."
Several outlets on Thursday reported on Congressional efforts to reassert a measure of control over the trajectory of nuclear negotiations with Iran, with members of the House of Representatives making a variety of moves over the last few days to monitor the status of ongoing talks and to establish acceptable parameters on any deal. Politico's influential Morning Defense bulletin took note of "an amendment from Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) calling for additional restrictions on a potential nuclear deal with Iran, including that Iran cease its support of terror groups and its ballistic missile program." An initial request for a roll call was withdrawn, and the language was approved by voice vote. Meanwhile the Washington Free Beacon reported on efforts by Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) to "legally force the White House into sharing information and provide oversight over the Iran deal, the text of which the Obama administration has kept locked in a secret location." The Obama administration and key members on the Hill have consistently clashed over the wisdom of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) signed between Iran and the P5+1 global powers, with divisions widening after it appeared that White House officials misled lawmakers and the public about the extent of Iranian concessions regarding uranium enrichment technology, plutonium infrastructure, and ballistic missile development. The situation is a delicate one for the administration, which has reportedly been seeking ways to circumvent Congress should Washington commit to undoing sanctions on Iran. Both supporters and skeptics of a potential deal agree that such efforts are unlikely to prove sufficiently robust to succeed.
Analysis published this week by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) conveyed a variety of indicators - ranging from public data about Israeli-Egyptian energy agreements to recent statements by Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi - converging on the conclusion that Cairo is making a concentrated effort to boost and insulate bilateral ties with the Jewish state. The write-up specifically focused on recent statements by Sisi, who is widely expected to breeze to the presidency in upcoming elections, committing to upholding the peace treaty with Jerusalem and suggesting that relations could warm further in the aftermath of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Meanwhile Amr Mussa - a top liberal politician and a notable Sisi ally - called on the Palestinian Hamas faction to recognize Israel in order to boost efforts to establish a viable Palestinian state. Mussa more specifically declared that "Hamas should declare its acceptance of the Arab initiative of 2002, which is the map of normalization and recognition of the state of Israel together with the establishing of the Palestinian state and the withdrawal of the occupied territory." Agence France-Presse (AFP) read the remarks against the backdrop of a recent unity agreement announced between Hamas and the rival Fatah faction. The announcement had been blasted by some analysts for providing Hamas with a lifeline, after almost a year of systematic Egyptian campaigns to economically and diplomatically isolate the terror group. AFP noted that "the deputy leader of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzuq, insisted earlier this week that despite the unity deal his group would never recognize Israel," a stance which puts the Palestinians in tension with almost a decade of international demands and with black-letter American law.
The Wall Street Journal on Thursday conveyed commitments from Iran's oil minister vowing to boost the country's crude exports despite what the outlet described as "a cap agreed upon with the international community." The interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which Iran and the P5+1 global powers had agreed upon last November - eased energy sanctions on the Islamic republic, permitting Tehran to export one million barrels per day (bpd). Iran has busted through that limit every month for six straight months, generating fears that the inflow in foreign currency and capital would erode the leverage of Western negotiators seeking to extract concessions regarding the country's atomic program. The dynamic had also seemed to align with the predictions of JPA critics, who had worried that the JPA's partial erosion of the international sanctions regime would spiral into broader economic gains for Iran. The Obama administration had pushed back against those critics by insisting that so-called core sanctions remained robust. Energy-driven economic stabilization has nonetheless long been identified as a particular vulnerability in the White House's gambit. Iran has sought to split Washington from its European allies, and in recent days Iranian Deputy Energy Minister Ali Majedi floated the possibility of supplying the Continent with gas and fuel. Against the backdrop of Russian energy maneuvering in the context of the Ukraine crisis, Majedi declared that "Iran can be a reliable partner for Europe: there are sufficient energy resources for cooperation with European countries and numerous projects exist in this connection." Writing in Forbes this week, Michael Lynch energy expert Michael Lynch took issue with those who dismissed "[t]he suggestion that Iran might become a natural gas supplier to Europe as a more secure source than Russian gas," outlining several plausible scenarios for delivery of the energy.
Iranian nuclear officials seek to push plutonium deal that would permit steady accumulation of nuclear bomb material
- Iranian nuclear officials seek to push plutonium deal that would permit steady accumulation of nuclear bomb material
- Turkey ruling party appoints committee, dominated by Turkey ruling party, to investigate corruption charges against Turkey ruling party
Reuters reported on Monday that a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - the U.N.'s atomic watchdog - would be holding talks until Tuesday on among other things "how the U.N. agency would monitor a planned heavy-water reactor near the town of Arak," which the West has long demanded Tehran either fully dismantle or at a minimum downgrade to a light water version. The discovery in early 2013 that Iran had resumed progress on the Arak facility, which contains a heavy water production facility and the reactor, was described at the time as the Islamic republic's "Plan B" for acquiring a nuclear weapon. The current IR-40 reactor would allow Iran to produce at least one bomb's worth of plutonium per year. Top Western diplomats and analysts, including those [PDF] linked to the U.S. government and the IAEA, have for years rejected Iranian pretexts for operating any heavy water reactor, and have emphasized instead that Tehran could replace the IR-40 with "a significantly more proliferation-resistant light water research reactor" with no losses. Inadequate interim concessions regarding Arak were reportedly what prevented the P5+1 global powers and Iran from coming to a interim agreement in mid-November, in a session before the current interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreement was agreed upon. Iranian officials have been publicly unequivocal in repeatedly drawing red lines against downgrading the Arak reactor, and Behrouz Kamalvandi - a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) - reiterated the stance last Friday. Kamalvandi went on to declare that Iran would refuse to "shut down or change any facility." Some Western analysts and journalists have nonetheless found grounds for optimism in Iranian declarations that the P5+1 was coming around to a counter-offer, under which Tehran would keep the Arak reactor unmodified but would reduce the amount of power it produced by half or even three-fourths. AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi in recent days doubled down on that position, declaring that the Islamic republic would not fundamentally alter the reactor, but would arrange for it to produce less plutonium. Israeli security officials have rejected the proposal, with Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz suggesting that there's little to be gained by enabling the Iranians to "create one [bomb] every two years" rather than "a bomb every year." More pointedly, once the reactor is activated there would be no functional way for it to be destroyed militarily, and nothing to stop the Iranians from simply reverting to processes that produce higher yields of plutonium.
A Hezbollah-linked member of Lebanon's parliament took to Voice of Lebanon radio to declare that lawmakers from his Loyalty to the Resistance bloc would exercise what he described as their "constitutional right not to enter parliament," setting up a deadlock in what will be that body's third attempt to elect a president on Wednesday. The March 8 alliance, which Hezbollah anchors, had previously been blasted by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman for boycotting such sessions, thereby "obstructing the election process through not providing a quorum." MP Kamel Rifai nonetheless told the radio station that he and allied MPs would again decline to participate in the parliamentary procedures, emphasizing that they had no obligation to do so because they do not have a candidate. The trick has not gone unnoticed by Hezbollah's opponents. The Future bloc on Tuesday issued a statement calling on March 8 to select "a candidate for the upcoming parliamentary session in order to prevent void in the president’s seat." The statement was blunt in linking Hezbollah's refusal to do so to Iranian machinations, blasting a recent statement by a top aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as "reveal[ing] the true purposes behind Iran’s relation with Hezbollah, and the missions that Iran gives to [this] party." Yahya Rahim Safavi had described southern Lebanon as Iran's "frontmost line of defense" and boasted that Iran's "strategic depth has now stretched to the Mediterranean coasts and just to the north of Israel." Hezbollah's moves to keep Beirut politically paralyzed, the Future bloc statement insisted, called into question whether "Hezbollah [is] a party specialized in defending Lebanon against Israel and its aggressions, or is it a party specialized in defending Iran and its regime." The organization had long leveraged its now-shattered brand as an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese territory against outside interference, using the pretext to amass a massive arsenal and insulate a state-within-a-state across swaths of Lebanon. It's position had for many years been echoed by segments of the Western foreign policy establishment.
Hurriyet Daily News on Tuesday reported that Turkey's parliament, which is controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), had established what the outlet described as a "single inquiry commission... dominated by the [AKP] itself," to investigate graft charges against four former AKP ministers from the government of AKP Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The session that established the inquiry, which will be chaired by an AKP deputy, was described as "tense." At stake are allegations that stem from an extended bout of open political warfare, stretching back to late 2013, in which judiciary and police figures linked to the Islamist movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen launched a series of corruption investigations that eventually ensnared a range of AKP elites, including Erdogan and members of his family. Erdogan and his allies responded by purging literally thousands of judges and police officers. Late last week the head of Turkey's Financial Crime Investigation Board was dismissed in what Hurriyet described "as part of the whirlwind of purges in the Finance Ministry," part of a broader "war with bureaucrats suspected of having ties [to Gulen]" and being linked to the "graft investigation that charged four ministers, their sons and dozens of pro-government businessmen and bureaucrats." At least two other top figures from the Finance Ministry were also removed. Meanwhile Ankara's chief prosecutor's office announced that it was launching a probe of Gulen himself for attempting to overthrow the government. News subsequently emerged that Erdogan had reached the decision, after a five-hour session of top AKP figures, that he would run in Turkey's direct presidential election, currently scheduled for August.
An interview with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi aired Monday - the first televised sit-down that the presumptive future president has done during the current campaign - saw Sisi declaring that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be allowed to operate as a national movement under his administration, accusing the Islamist movement of having fomented national instability both directly and by proxy. Reuters characterized the key exchange as Sisi being asked whether the Brotherhood would no longer exist if he was elected, and him responding "Yes. Just like that." Egyptian security forces have systematically moved to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership structure since a government led by the movement's then-president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by the military in mid-2013 amid mass protests calling for Morsi's resignation. Morsi's government had brought the country to the brink of outright state failure, and observers at the time feared that Egypt was caught in a downward spiral in which a lack of foreign currency drove instability, and instability prevented foreign currency from flowing in. Last weekend Sisi went so far as to blame "hardline religious rhetoric" for having undermined Egypt's critical tourism sector, publishing a video to YouTube in which he promised to restore tourism and "allow people to earn." The highly influential NightWatch intelligence bulletin on Monday assessed that "outside interests that advocate on behalf of the Brotherhood are out of step with the political turn Egypt has taken.."
Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Renewed focus on "possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program, as Tehran denies inspectors access to suspected warhead-related test site
Outlets and journalists over the weekend and into Monday continued to unpack what the Washington Post bluntly described as the "failure" of Secretary of State John Kerry's recent Israeli-Palestinian peace push, which had formally expired on April 29 but had functionally been suspended since the declaration of a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki had repeatedly emphasized that among other things Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist." The Washington Post, for its part, on Sunday reminded readers that "the numerous 'unity' plans announced in the past have foundered because of Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel or renounce terrorism," and declared that the aftermath of the talks' collapse had left "plenty of bad options" that U.S. diplomats would have to head off. The Post specifically worried that Kerry may make good on past hints of "embracing one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas, the issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood... [which] would satisfy some partisans but lead nowhere." Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg called on U.S. diplomats to draw lessons from what he described as a series of Israeli gambits aimed at creating space for a Palestinian state stretching back "even before there was an Israel." Goldberg noted that Palestinian leaders and their regional backers had "rejected each previous attempt to bring about [a two-state] solution." Political and even legislative fallout from the end of the talks has been steadily building. A tense exchange between Psaki and veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee in late April had already seen Lee declare "I remember you saying... they made progress on all the issues... I don't understand how you can even make that claim, frankly, with a straight face, because...the situation on both sides is demonstrably worse today than it was back last July when this process began." There had before and have since been a range of proposals on the Hill to slash U.S. assistance to the Palestinians.
Tehran is reportedly continuing to deny international nuclear inspectors access to the country’s Parchin military base, a site that Western diplomats and U.N. inspectors have long emphasized - per a 2011 report by the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - shows "strong indicators" of having been used for explosives tests related to "possible nuclear weapon development." Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) on Saturday asserted that the inspectors, who are in the country for a two-day visit, were not legally entitled to visit the Parchin base because it is not directly linked to Iran's nuclear program. The assertion has the potential to be taken as too clever by half. Demands for access to the military facility are grounded in among other things United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929, which calls on Tehran to clarify so-called "possible military dimensions [PMDs] of the Iranian nuclear programme." Non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. Western negotiators hammering out the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) had deliberately put off addressing PMDs, and U.S. officials had subsequently assured journalists and lawmakers that the issues would be addressed in the context of comprehensive talks. Iranian negotiators, for their part, have recently taken to suggesting that they prefer to put off such discussions until some time in the future, and to deal with other issues first. Observers have suggested that Tehran may be trying to maneuver the West into a position where Iranian negotiators will ultimately decline to address PMD-related issues, and instead functionally dare P5+1 diplomats to scuttle a final deal over the Iranian military's entanglement in the country's atomic program.
A top Hamas official declared over the weekend that the possibility of disarming the Iran-backed terror group never came up during unity discussions between it and the rival Fatah faction, a boast that seems set to widen concerns that the agreement - which among other things envisions a single Palestinian government eventually taking control of both the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and of Fatah-ruled parts of the West Bank - may be insufficiently robust to overcome fundamental obstacles to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Hamas Political Bureau Deputy Chief Moussa Abu Marzouk told reporters on Saturday that not only had disarming Hamas never been discussed, despite the almost definitional need for Ramallah to maintain a monopoly on the use of force, but that the organization would also refuse to recognize Israel. Renouncing violence and acknowledging Jerusalem's right to exist are two of three so-called Quartet conditions - abiding by past Palestinian Authority (PA) agreements is the third - that the international community has long demanded any Palestinian government fulfill. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted in recent days that the envisioned unity government will meet those conditions, claims that earned him an explicit rebuke for lying by former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar. The news came amid indicators that the deal was nonetheless providing a lifeline to the group, which until very recently had widely been seen as locked in a political and economic downward spiral. Traditional Hamas allies such as Turkey and Qatar immediately hailed the deal, and the Qataris reportedly pledged to deliver $5 million to the Gaza government in support of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in response to an explicit request made by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Meanwhile Palestinian media reported on Monday that Abbas had held a meeting with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Doha aimed at overcoming remaining obstacles.
South African security site DefenceWeb on Monday rounded up developments surrounding last week's announcement by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that he would block additional security assistance to the Egyptian army as a result of his "growing dismay" at Cairo's heavy-handed tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood, a move that came after the Obama administration had publicly committed to partially unfreezing its own halt in aid, which had in turn been widely blasted for risking bilateral relations while having little chance of affecting Egyptian calculations. Close military ties between Washington and Cairo had for decades granted American forces a range of preferential arrangements seen as crucial to enhancing American air and naval operations in the region. Analysts from across political and ideological lines had criticized the administration for creating a vacuum that could be filled in by other powers or, more worryingly, by geopolitical rivals. Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who by their own descriptions agree on almost nothing, described the freeze as undermining "nearly seven decades" of bipartisan American efforts aimed at "limiting Moscow’s influence" in the Middle East. Yiftah Shapir, Zvi Magen, and Gal Perel - researchers from Israel's Institute for National Security Studies - last week described a recently announced a deal under which Egypt would purchase Russian Mig-29s as "an alarm for decision makers in Washington" regarding a potential Egyptian pivot toward Moscow. Gulf countries meanwhile seen intent on taking the sting out of any aid cuts, and Reuters on Monday revealed that Gulf oil producers have in less than a year provided Egypt with roughly $6 billion worth of free fuel.
- Hamas stages "massive show of force" in West Bank as worries deepen that unity deal will revive group
A diplomatic spat between Turkey and Germany over the human rights policies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government escalated on Wednesday, as Turkish outlets conveyed critical remarks directed at Erdogan by German President Joachim Gauck regarding the behavior of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Gauck had had described himself as "horrified" at a range of recent crackdowns conducted by Ankara, from a massive purge of political opponents from the police and judiciary to ongoing calls and efforts aimed at blocking access to Twitter and YouTube to violent anti-demonstrator crackdowns. Erdogan had responded by mocking Gauck's former role as a former East German Lutheran pastor and doubling down on Ankara's policies, which had already generated suggestions from Berlin that Turkey was not yet ready to ascend to the European Union. Gauck responded Wednesday by declaring that he had actually "restrained himself" in offering his true views. Meanwhile U.S. officials piled on at Wednesday's State Department daily press briefing, with Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf describing conspiracy theories aired by Erdogan - in which the Islamist leader linked the U.S. to unrest in Egypt, Ukraine, and Turkey - as "ridiculous." Independent of controversies regarding human rights and civil liberties, Turkey's defense acquisition policies have also in recent months generated significant tension between Ankara and its traditional allies in Europe. The Turks have since the fall progressively inched forward on a deal that would see them purchase and integrate missile defense assets from China. One top NATO official described putting those systems online as the equivalent of introducing a virus into the alliance's command and control infrastructure. Separately, a speech given last week by Science, Industry and Technology Minister Fikri Isik - in which Isik said that Turkey was bolstering its indigenous production capabilities in order to avoid complications from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) - triggered concerns in the West that Ankara was seeking to circumvent binding non-proliferation treats.
- Sisi formally announces presidential run, commits to battling terrorism "not only [in] Egypt but the whole region"
- Before Kerry visit, Abbas rejects "even holding a discussion" over Israeli mutual recognition conditions
Reuters reported on Wednesday that Iran will exceed the amount of oil it is permitted to export under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) for the fifth month in a row, a development set to deepen concerns that the West is losing control of the sanctions relief granted to the Islamic republic under the JPA and to fuel calls for measures designed to reassert such control. The JPA permits Iran to export limited amounts of oil without violating energy sanctions that had until recently sharply limited the country's energy exports. The limit is set for the entire duration of the interim agreement, however, and the Obama administration - per Reuters - "believes that exports will fall in coming months and on average will fall to the 1 million bpd level stipulated" by the JPA. Observers have expressed concerns that excess Iranian exports in the meantime will nonetheless undercut the leverage of Western negotiators, and perhaps even incentivize the Iranians to pocket what concessions they've gained and walk away from negotiations. It is not clear by when the White House anticipates oil exports to have fully averaged out, and it is similarly uncertain whether the administration would - by then - be willing take punitive measures after what will have been months of negotiations. The news comes amid renewed Congressional moves to secure a substantive role in determining the direction of negotiations with Iran, with bipartisan groups from both the House and the Senate recently sending letters to President Barack Obama outlining what Congress considers to be the minimum requirements for a comprehensive deal.
Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Wednesday declared that he will run in the country's next presidential election, formally launching what is widely expected to be an easy glide into the presidency for the politically Teflon figure but potentially complicating Cairo's future relationship with the Obama administration. A transcript of the resignation speech was provided by the Egyptian army, and saw Sisi opening by announcing his resignation before pivoting to issues related to security and stability. Observers have drawn particular attention to portions of the speech that dealt with terrorism, which Sisi described as being conducted by those who "seek the destruction of our life, safety and security," in which he committed to "fight every day for Egypt free of fear and terror... not only [in] Egypt but the whole region." The Egyptian army is in the midst of a wide-ranging campaign in the Sinai Peninsula targeting terrorist infrastructure that has taken root in the territory. Top Egyptian figures have blasted the White House for blocking the transfer of Apache helicopters that Egyptian officials consider crucial to staging anti-terror campaigns, and Sisi himself has described Egyptian frustration with what he characterized as Americans having "turned [their] backs on the Egyptians." Sisi subsequently traveled to Moscow to among other things pursue weapons deals. The incident was broadly read as bolstering the concerns of analysts who have criticized the administration for repeatedly snubbing the Egyptians and risking a rupture between in bilateral relations between Cairo and Washington.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas told the Arab League on Tuesday that he rejects "even holding a discussion" over Israel's long-standing requirement that any comprehensive peace deal must see the Palestinians acknowledging Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, according to a transcript of his speech conveyed in a longer analysis published today by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The stance has the potential to deeply complicate the peace process. The Obama administration in general, and the State Department in particular, has repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. framework designed to move the talks forward would include such "mutual recognition," which the Israelis have emphasized is necessary as a signal that the Palestinians are genuinely prepared to cease pursuing territorial claims against Jerusalem. Secretary of State John Kerry has been working for months to overcome Abbas's intransigence on the condition. Kerry met with Abbas on Wednesday in what Bloomberg described as "a bid to avert a breakdown in his peacemaking efforts as an April 29 deadline nears." A February meeting between the two had reportedly seen Abbas "explode with rage" at what he termed Kerry's "insane" proposals.
A Turkish court on Wednesday overturned a government ban on Twitter, the latest blow to a globally ridiculed and largely ineffective campaign launched last week by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to block access to the popular microblogging platform. The decision came in response to formal complaints by Turkish lawyers and journalists decrying the move as a violation of basic freedoms, and amid a determined pushback by media outlets. The restrictions had quickly generated international condemnation - the British ambassador to Turkey piled on yesterday, and the U.S. announced it was demanding formal multilateral discussions over the decision - and efforts by Erdogan and his allies to defend them had become increasingly strained. The Turkish leader on Tuesday declared that "Twitter is "a company [and] actually YouTube is behind it." Erdogan's accusation - which is difficult, in a technical sense, to defend as accurate - appears to be the result of lawyer Gonenc Gurkaynak, who is representing Twitter, having previously represented Google's YouTube platform from a government ban. The New York Times noted that that "it was not immediately clear whether the ruling would be appealed or overtaken by a new court order."
A top Iranian official reiterated on Wednesday that Tehran will refuse to discuss its ballistic missile program in the context of comprehensive negotiations over its nuclear program with the international community, the latest in a long line of statements underlining that the Islamic republic views the issue as a red line. The dispute has the potential to impact the domestic policy debate in the United States both substantively and politically. Substantively, the issue is tangled up in a broader debate over the degree to which Iran will be forced to account for or roll back suspected military dimensions of its atomic program. Iranian negotiators had this week sought already to delay discussions wholesale of all such dimensions, which range from warhead development to the involvement of the Iranian military in uranium production. Politically an outright Iranian refusal is likely to erode confidence in the Obama administration's diplomatic nimbleness. Iranian negotiators had managed to exclude mention of Iran's missile program from the interim Joint Action Plan (JPA), an omission that White House figures justified to lawmakers and journalists as justified for the sake of building momentum. Lead U.S. diplomacy, including lead negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, instead insisted that Iran's ballistic missile program would be addressed in comprehensive negotiations.
British media late on Wednesday conveyed statements by Prime Minister David Cameron condemning a Palestinian rocket barrage against Israeli civilians as "barbaric," after Palestinian fighters launched at least 60 rockets and missiles from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip at Israeli population centers. The Telegraph contextualized the statement against the backdrop of statements made by Cameron earlier in the day, in which the British leader committed to providing "rock solid" support to the Jewish state in defending itself, especially and specifically against "despicable" moves by Iran to provide anti-Israel terror groups with advanced weapons. The State Department issued its own statement condemning the attack "in the strongest terms" and particularly emphasizing that "Israel, like any nation, has a right to defend itself." The Israeli Air Force (IAF) subsequently launched what Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Spokesman Peter Lerner described as "precise [and] prompt" targeting of terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, reporting that the IAF struck "29 targets that serve those that attack Israel and its civilians."
The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday conveyed assessments from top financial experts describing Iran as "Turkey with oil" and outlining "a growing consensus that the withdrawal of sanctions on [Iran]... would be a huge boon for the country, the region and for investors who get in early." Brushing aside objections from U.S. officials that Iran is not open for business - a talking point that has been prominent in White House defenses of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA), and that the Journal cited U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker as having recently reemphasized - the outlet noted that investors see "the scale of Iran’s potential is hard to ignore." At stake is the degree to which the initial erosion in sanctions under the JPA may lead to an international gold rush that would substantially erode the rest of the sanctions regime, enabling Iranian leaders to walk away from talks aimed at putting the Islamic republic's atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Skeptics had predicted a gold rush-style downward spiral, in which nations and companies scrambled not to get left behind as Iranian markets were reopened to the world. The Obama administration and analysts linked to the administration had derided those scenarios are among other things "fanciful." Recent months have seen empirical evidence pile up on the side of the critics. Evidence that the Obama administration misjudged the dynamics surrounding Iranian diplomacy are likely to fuel calls, already supported by lopsided majorities of Americans, for a stronger Congressional voice in determining the path of negotiations.
Veteran Jordan-based journalist Osama Al Sharif assessed on Tuesday that Jordan was unlikely to follow the lead of Egypt and some Gulf states in branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, not because the Islamist group is supported by Amman - Sharif noted that Jordan's current ruler King Abdullah II is even "less sympathetic to [the Brotherhood's cause] than his father" - but because top Brotherhood figures have recently gone out of their way to emphasize that they support the current regime. Sharif specifically quoted Abdel Latif Arabiyyat, a top figure of the Jordanian Brotherhood's political arm, empathizing that there is "a historic relationship between the regime and the Brotherhood in Jordan... and differences between them are marginal, which could be resolved through dialogue." As recently as a year ago the Jordanian Brotherhood seemed to be on the same upward trajectory as allied organizations in countries such as Egypt, and there had been active speculation that the group was setting itself up to severely test the legitimacy of the monarchy. Brotherhood protests were seen as having crossed a kind of Rubicon in openly criticizing the King, and one activist infamously lit a picture of Abdullah on fire. The developments have in retrospect been seen as a bad miscalculation. The activist issued an abject public apology, insisting that his actions were driven by "very bad living conditions which affected [him] negatively," calling on lawmakers "to be tough against whoever may ride roughshod over this country and its resources," and supporting "his majesty’s vision in [that] regard because Jordan is the priority." Protests by the Brotherhood subsequently became muted as well. Other Brotherhood offshoots have declined even more precipitously, most pointedly in Egypt.
Crimea crisis seen eroding confidence in Obama foreign policy wisdom, amid renewed calls for congressional voice in negotiations
- Crimea crisis seen eroding confidence in Obama foreign policy wisdom, amid renewed calls for congressional voice in negotiations
- Egypt court outlaws Hamas activities, in latest blow to reeling Palestinian terror group
- Netanyahu AIPAC speech calls on Palestinians to "stand with Israel and the United States" in forging peace, regional benefits of Israeli-Palestinian deal
- WSJ: Initiatives to boost Palestinian economy "slow to show" benefits
- · Analysts, journalists, and lawmakers on Tuesday continued to unpack the geopolitical consequences of Russia's invasion of Ukraine - both in general and specifically in the context of Middle East crises the White House is scrambling to contain - with evaluations building on assessments that the impending U.S.-Russia chill will badly complicate the Obama administration's strategy of relying on Russia to help resolve diplomatic deadlocks with Syria and Iran. The New York Times reported that President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Ukraine in their Monday Oval Office meeting, while David Rieff - a foreign policy voice not known for sympathy toward robust U.S. interventionism - tersely evaluated public debate over the Crimean conflagration as one in which "those who believe that Iran will never relinquish its nuclear weapons program... look at American impotence in Ukraine and worry it’s a harbinger of the future." Walter Russell Mead went further, declaring that "Putin’s Crimean adventure... shakes the foundations of the President’s world strategy," and specifically asking "if [Obama] could be this blind and misguided about [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, how smart is he about the Ayatollah Khamenei, a much more difficult figure to read?" Mead suggested that the White House's near-total failure to predict Russia's behavior - U.S. intelligence got its prediction of the Crimean invasion exactly backwards - will undermine Obama's efforts to convince Middle East allies, most especially Israel, that Washington can be trusted in evaluating those allies' security needs. The erosion in the president's foreign policy credibility seems set to fuel renewed calls, supported by lopsided majorities of Americans, for stricter Congressional oversight over negotiations with Iran.
- An Egyptian court on Tuesday outlawed all activities by the Palestinian Hamas faction inside the country, the latest move in a campaign to isolate the terror group, which has been waged by Egypt's army - and later by the country's army-backed government - since well before the July 2013 overthrow of the country's then-President Mohammed Morsi. The ruling comes months after senior Hamas officials had already begun publicly bemoaning how Egypt's army-backed government had left them politically and economically "sentenced to death." The inauguration of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Morsi had been seen as a boon for Hamas, which describes itself as the Brotherhood's Palestinian wing. The Egyptian army, which blames Hamas for facilitating the movement of jihadist equipment and personnel into the Egypt-controlled Sinai Peninsula, soon launched a media campaign to consolidate public sentiment against Hamas and began acting against the group while sidelining Morsi. The army's campaign to target Hamas's smuggling tunnels, which link the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the Sinai, quickly picked up pace after Morsi's ouster, alongside efforts by Egypt's subsequent army-backed government to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership hierarchy. By last January senior Egyptian security officials were telling Reuters that they were ready to focus more of their resources on targeting the Gaza Strip. The reemergence of an Egyptian government sympathetic to Hamas currently seems unlikely. Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi signaled on Tuesday that he will compete in upcoming presidential elections, in which he is widely expected to glide to victory.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Tuesday to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, calling on Palestinian leaders to "stand with Israel and the United States on the right side of the moral divide, the side of peace, reconciliation and hope." Israel's left-leaning Ha'aretz headlined its coverage of the speech "Netanyahu: Israel prepared to make peace, but Abbas must recognize Jewish state," sub-headlined the story with "millions in the Arab world could benefit from Israeli technology and innovation, prime minister tells AIPAC conference," and quoted the prime minister declaring he was "prepared to make historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors." The outlet's evaluation was echoed by the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who noted that Netanyahu "dwelled at length on the peace process" and "gave a new rationale for Israel’s desire for a peace deal – the promise of improved and robust relations with Arab states." For their part top Palestinian officials declared that Netanyahu's speech was unacceptable to the point that it amounted to "an official announcement of a unilateral end to negotiations."
- The Wall Street Journal assessed on Monday that a series of initiatives designed to bolster the Palestinian economy had - per the outlet's archly written headline - been "slow to show" any benefits, with half a year having passed since "Secretary of State John Kerry announced an ambitious economic plan to channel $4 billion into Palestinian business sectors." The Journal described "promised investments" as having remained "as hazy as the sandstorm that enveloped... Jericho’s Intercontinental Hotel" during a recent investment conference. February had seen a wave of analysis linking halting economic progress to endemic Palestinian corruption stretching back literally decades, and Palestinian journalist and activist Daoud Kuttab wrote on Monday that efforts have recently renewed in the Palestinian Legislative Council to pass transparency laws. Palestinian economic dysfunction has traditionally been identified as one of at least four structural barriers hampering the emergence of anything that might pass for a viable Palestinian state. Analysts and scholars have also focused on Ramallah's lack of political legitimacy - Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is in the ninth year of a four-year term - as well as on the persistence of rival Palestinian governments and the existence of multiple armed Palestinian factions. A territorial split between rival governments, with Fatah ruling the West Bank and Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip, or the absence of a monopoly on violence would by definition render a Palestinian state a failed one.
Renewed focus on Hezbollah war preparations, advanced weapons, after reports of Israeli Air Force strike
- Renewed focus on Hezbollah war preparations, advanced weapons, after reports of Israeli Air Force strike
- Documents: Iran red line against ballistic missile negotiations ignores more than half-decade of IAEA concerns
- State Dept. scrambles to address evidence that Iraq violating Iran arms trade ban
Observers: Egyptian cabinet resignation lays groundwork for Sisi run
- The Israeli Air Force (IAF) reportedly struck a Hezbollah arms cache along the Syrian-Lebanese border late on Monday, with coverage disagreeing as to which side of the border the Israelis had targeted but converging on suggestions that the IAF was after advanced weapons. A security source told Lebanon's Daily Star that the raid targeted "qualitative" weapons near the Lebanese border area of Janta - a Hezbollah stronghold that also serves as a transit point for arms smuggling - but Lebanese outlet MTV reported that the raid fell outside Lebanese territory. Israel has for years maintained that it will act to enforce its “red line” against the transfer of advanced weapons to the Hezbollah, and reports indicate that Jerusalem has acted repeatedly to interdict such arms. Nonetheless the Iran-backed terror group is thought to have successfully smuggled a range of advanced missiles and rockets in Lebanon, alongside a total of roughly 100,000 additional projectiles. Huge swaths of its arsenal are hidden inside civilian installations, and Israeli officials have emphasized that they will move to degrade Hezbollah's weapons rather than allow them to be used against the Israeli home front. Hezbollah officials have threatened to saturation bomb Israeli cities during any future conflict. Monday's incident came after a Sunday statement by IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz warning that Iran was "provid[ing] torches to pyromaniacs." The statement was considered significant: IDF officials routinely refrain from commenting on Iran.
- Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi over the weekend catalogued the topics that Iran expects to negotiate over when comprehensive nuclear negotiations renew, pointedly excluding any mention of Iran's ballistic missile program while including uranium enrichment and plutonium production. The position has become a familiar one, with Iranian officials repeatedly emphasizing in recent weeks that issues related to ballistic missiles would be off-limits to negotiators. White House officials, in contrast, have explicitly assured U.S. lawmakers that Iran will be expected to address its ballistic missile program, after those lawmakers expressed concerns that American negotiators had been outmaneuvered in setting the terms for the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). The agreement increasingly appears to have provided sweeping economic improvements to Tehran - far beyond what the administration publicly predicted - even as Iran was allowed to continue enriching unlimited amounts of uranium to 5% purity, continue bolstering its plutonium producing Arak complex, and continue developing advanced centrifuges and ballistic missiles. Limits on ballistic missiles were entirely absent from the JPA, an omission that the Iranians subsequently tried to leverage to limit the scope of final negotiations. Previous documents outlining Iran's nuclear program, for which the Islamic republic is expected to present a full accounting and to limit, are on the side of the administration. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2008 explicitly called attention [PDF] to Farsi-language documents detailing "various aspects of an unidentified entity’s effort to develop and construct a Shahab-3 re-entry vehicle capable of housing a new payload for the Shahab-3 missile system." In 2011 the IAEA went further [PDF], describing documents on various Iranian programs that established "a link between nuclear material and a new payload development programme."
- State Department officials found themselves on the defensive Monday, after an expose published by Reuters revealed that Iraq has signed a $195 million arms deal with Iran for the delivery of weapons to Iraq. Baghdad sources told the outlet that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had been moved to seek arms from the Islamic Republic - in violation of a broad range of international measures up to and including an explicit United Nations ban on arms sales by Iran - after he became 'fed up with delays in U.S. arms deliveries.' State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki defended the administration, insisting both that Washington was keeping Iraq adequately armed and that it "would raise serious concerns" if the Reuters report turned out to be correct. The Reuters report cited multiple officials and included an account of documents seen by the outlet's journalists describing the deal. If confirmed the development is likely to deepen criticism, heard both domestically and from Washington's Gulf allies, that the Obama administration is withdrawing from the Middle East and allowing Iran to fill in. A recent Politico article, headlined "Who Lost Iraq?" and authored by former Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) fellow Ned Parker, opened with an Iraqi official blaming the U.S. for creating a security vacuum in the country. A New York Times article published around the same time by Michael Doran and Max Boot - respectively a Brookings Institute fellow and a CFR fellow blasted the administration for not sufficiently "countering Iranian machinations" in among other countries Iraq.
- Egypt's interim cabinet resigned on Monday amid widespread popular dissatisfaction over the country's ongoing economic woes, with analysts widely reading the development as preparation for Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to formally announce a Presidential run. The broadly popular military official is expected to declare his candidacy shortly, and the optics of doing so against the backdrop of public unrest would - per the Washington Post - "not have looked good." Sisi is expected to overwhelmingly win the upcoming election. The Post noted that he has been "increasingly acting in a presidential fashion," specifically citing a recent trip to Moscow to boost defense ties between Cairo and the Kremlin. The visit was read as evidence of an Egyptian pivot toward Russia, in the aftermath of repeated diplomatic and financial snubs by the Obama administration toward Egypt's army-led government. Sisi himself had warned, in a Washington Post interview published last August, that Washington's moves to distance itself from Cairo risked doing lasting harm to bilateral ties, and telling Americans "you turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that" and worrying "now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians."
- Pessimism marks Iran talks launch, as Khamenei declares they will "not lead anywhere"
- Hezbollah chief's speech reignites concerns Iran-backed group manufacturing conflict with Israel over underwater energy resources
- WH pressed over evidence that Iran economy stabilizing amid oil export spike
- Egypt terror attacks comes as White House faces renewed questions over wisdom of security aid cut
- The first day of coverage regarding comprehensive talks between Iran and the P5+1 global powers revolved around pessimism from all sides regarding the prospect that talks would succeed, amid declarations by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that negotiations would "not lead anywhere" and statements by U.S. officials that the initial six-month negotiation period - during which Iran is thought to enjoy immunity from additional moves against its nuclear program - would extend at least a year. The concession by Obama administration officials drew criticism from skeptics who have repeatedly pressed the White House on the asymmetric structure of the interim Joint Plan of Action, which provides irreversible concessions to Iran in the form of cash injections while leaving open the possibility that Tehran will pocket the concessions and walk away from further talks. Khamenei's speech, meanwhile, is likely to deepen concerns - long voiced by analysts - that expressions of distrust by the Iranian ruler have precisely been leveraged as pretexts to abandon negotiations. For their part, Reuters described his statements as "his strongest sign of support for moderate President Hassan Rouhani's push to resolve the conflict peacefully," in a story headlined "Iran's Khamenei backs nuclear talks but not optimistic." The developments are already fueling increasingly emphatic calls for Congressional input into the administration's diplomacy. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) was quoted by USA Today demanding that any negotiation process preclude Khamenei's ability "to wake up one day, kick out inspectors and race to the bomb." Kirk called for any final agreement to ensure that Iran halts all uranium enrichment activity.
- A Sunday speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is fueling concerns that the Iran-backed terror group intends to use Lebanon's off-shore energy resources to provoke a conflict with Israel, with the terror group chief reportedly insisting at least three times that Israel is engaged in a plot to plunder Lebanese oil. Lebanese media noted that Nasrallah began his extended speech by invoking Israel as a threat to Lebanon, quoting him as boasting that Hezbollah was ready "to confront the Israeli enemy." Foreign Policy Magazine Middle East Editor David Kenner described parts of the speech as "hitting on energy, sovereignty, and the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." There are long-standing concerns that Hezbollah is attempting to manufacture a conflict with Israel by pushing Lebanese officials to create a crisis over disputed underwater energy resources. The Journal of Diplomacy's Ziad Achkar noted, in the context of Nasrallah's speech, that the energy issue is attractive for Hezbollah because it allows the Iran-backed terror group to "comeoff as Hero of Lebanon, defending resources where government can't," in the process creating a pretext for holding on to advanced weapons that the militia uses to maintain a state-within-a-state in Lebanon. Achkar read the strategy as a "flashback to 2006, provoking Israeli war to regain public support that was dwindling." Hezbollah's brand as a Lebanese organization defending Lebanese interests has been shattered by its involvement, at the behest of Iran, in Syria's nearly three-year conflict.
- The Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday morning conveyed statements from White House officials brushing off concerns regarding a January spike in Iran's oil exports, which was widely read against the backdrop of a stabilization in Iran's economy, prompting Foreign Policy to say that it had "raised concerns" over the veracity of White House statements describing sanctions relief to Iran under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) as relatively limited. The Obama administration has long faced criticism that it had both vastly undercounted the value of direct relief due to a range of fairly basic and easily identifiable errors, and that it had underestimated the likelihood that an international feeding frenzy would take hold that would further weaken the sanctions regime. Critics accused the White House not just of bungling the substance of the talks but of misleading the public over its assessments. The Free Beacon conveyed statements from White House officials insisting that while it appears as if Iran is gaining relief far ahead of the pace estimated by the White House, things would balance out over the coming months. The outlet specifically quoted National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Caitlin Hayden declaring that "month-to-month variability is normal in oil markets, but we expect Iran’s total exports will average out over the six-month period."
- The Al Qaeda-linked jihadist group Ansar Jerusalem has claimed responsibility for the Sunday bombing of a tourist bus in the Sinai Peninsula, boasting - per the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal blog - that "one of its heroes" carried out the attack, as part of the "economic war" against Egypt's army-backed interim government. The Wall Street Journal reported that at least four people were killed and fourteen were wounded. Ansar Jerusalem has reportedly been behind a string of recent attacks, and recently downed an Egyptian military helicopter with an anti-aircraft missile. Its Sunday assault on the South Korean tourist bus claimed the lives of at least three travelers and their Egyptian bus driver. The attack comes amid renewed scrutiny of several White House moves that have chilled Washington's relationship with Cairo, most prominently a decision made last October to partially freeze aid to Egypt's army-backed government. The administration insisted at the time that assets used by Egypt for its Sinai counter-terror operations would be exempt from new restrictions, a claim described as untenable by analysts and one that seemed difficult to sustain given the types of weapons - most prominently Apache helicopters - that were withheld. The White House's move has largely been reversed by recent Congressional allocations.