- Reports: Turkey opens gates to Iran banks "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions"
- Human rights activists accuse Syrian regime of deliberately targeting civilians as wave of barrel bomb attacks kills scores
A meeting of top Israeli political leaders on Thursday, called in order to chart Jerusalem's response to a Wednesday announcement by Palestinian leaders that the rival Fatah and Hamas factions had agreed to a deal that would see the formation of a unity government with members from both groups, concluded with a decision to suspend peace talks until the composition of that government was solidified. The Israeli move was not unexpected. Top figures from Hamas had already declared that the unity government would not see the group accepting the Palestinian Authority's obligations toward Israel, including the recognition of its right to exist and a renunciation of violence. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday emphasized to reporters no fewer than four times that Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist," and the Israelis for their part had declared that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would have to choose between ongoing peace talks and an embrace of Hamas. Al Monitor assessed Wednesday that the agreement had been "the last straw for Congress" regarding perceptions of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in general, and more specifically regarding the degree to which the United States should continue extending assistance to an Abbas-led PA. The piece quoted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) - who had authored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which conditioned aid to any Palestinian government on the absence of terrorists in leadership positions - declaring that "the Administration must halt aid to the Palestinian Authority and condition any future assistance as leverage to force Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to abandon this reconciliation with Hamas and to implement real reforms within the PA." It also quoted Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart on the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East, Ted Deutch (D-FL), emphasizing that observers should "[b]e certain that the Palestinian Authority will face significant consequences if a unity government is formed that includes terrorist members of Hamas." Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, tersely stated that Abbas's reconciliation move "jeopardizes US assistance." Al Monitor also conveyed details of a conference call held Wednesday by The Israel Project (TIP) in which Hillel Frisch, a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, had explained to reporters that a Palestinian unity government was in fact a vital prerequisite to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, but that it could not come at the expense of the Palestinians meeting their past obligations to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The alternative would be tantamount to Palestinian negotiators having spent decades extracting functionally irreversible concessions from Israel at the negotiating table, before pocketing those concessions and then abrogating the commitments.
Turkish outlet Today's Zaman on Tuesday described a rush by Iranian banks to open and expand branches in Turkey in the aftermath of "growth restrictions" being lifted, a decision that the outlet explained was made by the country's Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) "in light of the US and the UN Security Council loosening economic sanctions after headway was made in negotiations regarding the curbing of Iran's nuclear program." Bank Mellat - which had been contracting due to sanctions-linked restrictions starting in 2012 - was cleared for expansion, a development that was followed by applications from two other Iranian banks that intend to open up in Turkey. The applications were approved. A report published in February by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), identified Turkey as a key global hub of illicit and terrorist financing, and the country has long been criticized for providing Iran both direct resources and financial channels with which to circumvent Western sanctions placed on the Islamic republic. Top officials from the Treasury Department rushed to Ankara in the aftermath of the implementation of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which eroded sanctions against Iran - to warn the Turks that "Iran is not open for business" and that "[b]usinesses interested in engaging in Iran really should hold off." Turkish outlet The Daily Sabah reported this week that, according to Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Alireza Bigdeli, Tehran and Ankara are now set to establish a free trade zone.
CNN on Thursday reported that forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime had, as part of an ongoing attack on the country's largest city, Aleppo, dropped barrel bombs out of helicopters on a vegetable market, killing at least 24 people. Activists and human rights workers distributed video of what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble in what was clearly a market" including an image of "a man attending to a boy whose leg had been ripped off." The wire clarified that "it was unclear whether the child was alive or dead," and also conveyed the assessment of an Aleppo-based activist who explained that "the area that was struck today is a market area, that's why there were so many civilians killed... the regime is hitting back against the civilians who support the revolt." The news comes just days after reports of a similar Monday attack that killed at least 29 people in a single Aleppo neighborhood. The regime's use of the mass-casualty shrapnel-packed IEDs - which can quite literally level entire buildings with a single hit - has consistently been emphasized by analysts and lawmakers as a particularly compelling justification for more robust Western intervention on behalf of opposition elements. Syrian forces also launched airstrikes on Atareb, injuring dozens, and on the nearby village of Tal Rifaat. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that, alongside the violence, almost 3.5 million civilians have little to no access to humanitarian aid.
Palestinian fighters on Thursday detonated a bomb along the northern border of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and launched a mortar shell at an IDF unit operating along the southern border of the territory, developments that the Jerusalem Post contextualized alongside new figures that show that there has been a "major upsurge in projectile attacks" against Israeli soldiers and civilians during 2014. Palestinian media outlets noted that the device was "apparently targeting patrolling Israeli soldiers." Thursday also saw the discovery of two additional bombs that had been planted along the territory's southern border with Israel. The incidents came a day after the Israelis had targeted what Reuters - conveying Israeli military reports - described as "a militant riding on a motorcycle in northern Gaza, from where rockets are often shot at Israel." Missiles and rockets had also been directed at Israeli troops and population centers on Monday, drawing both retaliatory and suppression fire that reportedly wounded four Hamas members. Those barrages, in turn, had been preceded by an attack on Sunday in which Palestinians detonated a bomb near an Israeli patrol and launched at least seven rockets into Israel. The Washington Post read the escalation against the backdrop of a more general uptick in rocket and missile fire, noting that "Gaza militants fired the heaviest barrages" in March since Israel's November 2012 Pillar of Defense campaign, during which Israeli forces decimated much of Hamas's advanced arsenal and its command and control infrastructure.
Senate push for delayed Iran sanctions racks up majority support, reportedly with dozens of Democratic Senators in support
- Senate push for delayed Iran sanctions racks up majority support, reportedly with dozens of Democratic Senators in support
- Khamenei: nuclear talks expose "enmity" of U.S. "Satan"
- Syrian rebel alliance targets Al Qaeda, expels group from key city
- Hamas brags about reinvigorated alliance with Iran
What we’re watching today:
- Senate legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if Tehran refused to dismantle its atomic program at the end of negotiations inched today toward a "near-filibuster-proof majority," with Foreign Policy outlining that 58 Senators now support the proposed bill. Meanwhile William Daroff, the Senior Vice President for Public Policy at The Jewish Federations of North America, revealed information from a "very reliable source" counting 34 Democratic Senators in support of the push. Provided that Iran does not cheat on its obligations while negotiations are ongoing, the legislation would put off any new measures until the end of talks and give the President the flexibility to delay those measures as talks are extended. The White House has nonetheless threatened to veto the bill, and has heavily pressured Senators to oppose it. Foreign Policy unpacked the White House's current legislative strategy, which now involves heavily pressuring Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not to permit a vote on the potential law. A Senate staffer who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon estimated that Reid would be forced to buck White House pressure if the bill gets "60 cosponsors and more than 67 votes on the whip count." The Obama administration insists that the legislation would derail talks with Iran, but supporters counter that it merely codifies the White House's own repeated promise to ratchet sanctions up if negotiations fail. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, for instance, insisted to 60 Minutes last month that "we will ensure that the pressure is reimposed" if Tehran is caught violating agreements to first freeze its program and then put it beyond use for weaponization.
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lashed out against the United States on Thursday, declaring that "we would negotiate with the Satan (the United States) to deter its evil... [but] the nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam and Muslims." The statements came amid growing concerns - including from largely sympathetic outlets corners - that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani lacks the will or ability to substantially change Iranian domestic and foreign policy. By law and assisted by raw political power, the Supreme Leader controls among other things Iran's foreign policy. For his part Rouhani used to be openly acknowledged as close to Khamenei - a Reuters article from 2008 is to the point, and the characterization seems straightforwardly accurate - but since his election he has been framed by Western media outlets as a moderate opponent of the regime. It is not yet clear to what extent the White House will condemn Khamenei's remarks. The administration was markedly slow in condemning past inflamatory statements by Khamenei.
- An alliance of Syrian opposition fighters has seized parts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo that had been controlled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Al Qaeda-linked group operating across the region, dealing what McClatchy assess as "an enormous setback" to the international terrorist organization. The forces that targeted Al Qaeda in Aleppo drew from a wide range of groups, ranging from secularists to unaffiliated hard-line Islamists. ISIS forces executed dozens of imprisoned opponents as they retreated, and The Times conveyed opposition estimates that "as many as 50 prisoners... had been slaughtered in cold blood at the group's hospital headquarters before the militants fled for the northeastern province of Raqqa." The episode is the latest in what has become regular fighting between Al Qaeda and more moderate, or at least not Al Qaeda-linked, rebels. ISIS leaders have called on their followers to target and kill fighters from those more moderate groups, including from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). The internecine fighting has direct diplomatic stakes beyond Syria's borders. Analysts are becoming increasingly vocal in criticizing the United States and its Western allies for de facto siding with Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, and with the regime's Iranian sponsors, due to fears that Al Qaeda might otherwise consolidate territorial gains. The administration's current policy has it giving weapons to Iraq - which the Washington Post's David Ignatius describes as a "virtual client of Tehran - so that Baghdad can fight Al Qaeda in Iran. Meanwhile Washington has partially frozen assistance to rebel groups who are battling Al Qaeda in Syria. The tension between the two positions may prove increasingly difficult to justify.
- The Guardian today conveyed statements from multiple Hamas figures indicating that the Palestinian terror group has rebuilt warm relations with its long-time sponsor Iran, overcoming a temporary break in relations that had some analysts declaring that there was an opening for Western engagement. The outlet quoted Taher al-Nounou, an aide to Hamas's Gaza-based prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, assessing that bilateral relations were "almost back to how they were before" divisions over the Syrian war caused a strain in ties, and that Hamas "believe[s] we will soon be back" to pre-Syrian war levels. Much had been made by analysts and journalists of the distance between Hamas and Iran TIME took it as evidence against what it described as "Israeli p.r." that "likes to portray Hamas as a satellite of Tehran," speculating that Hamas had put itself in a position it to prosper in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The National Interest suggested that the shift should cause the United States to engage Hamas and integrate it into peace efforts. Hamas's time outside the Iranian orbit was short-lived. Reports emerged as early as July 2012 that representatives from the group were secretly meeting with Iranian figures to rebuild ties. By August there were multiple signals that reconciliation was being pursued and by September Hamas was again publicly positioning itself as part of an "Axis of Resistance" anchored by Iran. In early December Hamas senior member Mahmud al-Zahar was ready to declare that "relations between Hamas and Iran have resumed," and by the end of that month Hamas sources were confirming that "warm relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran have been restored." The rapid restoration of ties suggests that Hamas's relationship with Iran may be more robust than some analysts had been willing to grant.
Concern heightens that unbalanced Iran deal will weaken U.S. negotiators, as downward spiral threatens to take hold of sanctions regime
- Concern heightens that unbalanced Iran deal will weaken U.S. negotiators, as downward spiral threatens to take hold of sanctions regime
- U.N. nuclear watchdog reemphasizes concerns on Iran nuclear weaponization
- Israeli officials insist violence won't derail development efforts in country's south
- AP: Hamas cancels anniversary celebration over Egypt-driven 'deep economic woes
What we’re watching today:
- The Washington Post on Thursday described the interim agreement signed between the global P5+1 powers and Iran as "notable for its omissions," and expressed concern that the combination of Western concessions and Iranian victories has left "the United States and its partners at a disadvantage in negotiating the comprehensive settlement." Analysts have been expressing increasingly pointed worries that the reduction of sanctions has triggered a downward spiral that will substantially erode the entire regime, even as Iran in recent days has doubled down on advancing both its uranium and plutonium facilities. The Associated Press reported over the weekend that weakened sanctions on automobile components "could see Iran’s stalled car production again take off," providing not just a "boon" to Iranian automakers but also "potentially draw[ing] in more foreign investment from other manufacturers hoping to break into the market." The AP quoted Patrick Blain, president of the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, as predicting that "international investors are expected to re-enter Iran’s market soon," an evaluation in tension with Obama administration assurances, provided to allies and lawmakers, insisting that investors would be irrational to re-enter Iran's market in the near term. Blain was further quoted by Agence France-Presse asserting that "there is no reason not to come back." Meanwhile Reuters this morning reported on Iranian moves to "reassert Tehran's authority in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries" on basis of expectations that it will soon "return as the cartel's second biggest producer." Iranian state media today conveyed statements from Abbas Araqchi, the country's deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, boasting that Tehran expects to receive $15 billion in oil revenues from the implementation of the Geneva deal. The Obama administration in contrast has assessed that the total relief granted by the agreement is roughly $7 billion, with only $4.2 billion in frozen oil assets being released.
- A statement issued last week by the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, emphasizes that the organization continues to be concerned about possible clandestine elements in Iran's nuclear program oriented toward the production of a nuclear weapon. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told the organization's board of governors that the agency was not "in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities." The statement was followed by declarations from top Iranian officials committing the Islamic republic to making continued progress on both Tehran's uranium and plutonium infrastructure, and insisting that the country would never suspend uranium enrichment or its plutonium ambitions, as has been called for by half a dozen United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s nuclear chief, declared over the weekend that Iran would never cease work on its Arak facility, which top analysts - including those sympathetic to engagement with the Islamic republic - have described as a plutonium bomb factory. For their part - per a weekend report by the Wall Street Journal - U.S. officials "have said they no longer believe it is feasible or practical to reach an agreement with Iran that completely dismantles its nuclear program," and more specifically Iran's uranium enrichment efforts.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres this weekend declared that Israel would continue pursuing a multi-year plan to economically develop the country's southern Negev region and politically integrate the Bedouin populations that live in the area, after activists late last week staged violent rallies opposing the so-called Prawer-Begin plan. Israel's Negev region constitutes almost half of the country's pre-1967 territory. It is home to roughly 200,000 Bedouin, as many as 90,000 of whom live in conditions of chronic underdevelopment. Close to half of all Bedouin citizens in the Negev live in 40 encampments with little to no access to basic municipal services such as water and sanitation, and some villages are illegally located on lands reserved for public use, including near Israel’s main toxic waste depository. The unemployment rate for Israeli Bedouins is 70 percent, compared with a national average of 7 percent, and only 4 percent of Bedouins graduate from higher education institutions. The Prawer-Begin plan would require Jerusalem to invest almost $2 billion in developing the Negev and moving some Bedouin communities to areas with education, health care, water, and electricity, where were they could legally live and in many cases claim ownership over their land. Organizations and activists critical of Israel, however, last week urged a so-called "day of rage" to oppose the plan, which they insisted was an instance of Israel dispossessing Palestinians. Media outlets pointedly described the Israeli cities being constructed in the Negev as "Jewish settlements" and the Israeli Bedouins were called "Palestinian Bedouins." Critics blasted such rhetoric as part of an effort to conflate the Bedouin cause with the Palestinian issue, noting that it was being done in the context of efforts to mainstream notions that Israel was targeting Palestinians. Analysts fear that the conflation will harm both the Bedouin cause and efforts to establish a Palestinian state. Regarding the Bedouins, the violence has threatened passage of the Prawer-Begin bill, potentially leaving the Negev underdeveloped. Regarding efforts to achieve a Palestinian state, the conflation is likely to deepen worries that the claims of Palestinians and their allies extend between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and into territories that have been Israeli since the country's birth and are internationally recognized as such.
- The Associated Press reported this weekend that Hamas had cancelled the terror group's previously scheduled 26th anniversary rally, with the terror group citing what the outlet described as 'deep economic woes' in the Gaza Strip territory that it rules. The AP linked Hamas's financial troubles to moves made by the Egyptian military to destroy the smuggling tunnels running between Gaza to the Egypt-controlled Sinai Peninsula, which the Egyptians blame for facilitating the movement of personnel and materials used by jihadists to conduct attacks in the Sinai. Egyptian security officials had began seeking to undermine both the tunnels and the Hamas officials who they blame for maintaining and profiting from them even before the July ouster of then-president Mohammed Morsi, who along with his Muslim Brotherhood-linked government was widely seen as a regional ally of Hamas. After Morsi was removed from power in the wake of massive anti-government rallies, the army stepped up its efforts to destroy the tunnels. Palestinian and Egyptian media outlets over the weekend conveyed reports of what the Jerusalem Post described as 'intensifying tensions between Egypt and Hamas,' specifically citing efforts by Egyptian authorities to revoke the citizenship and passports of of Hamas leaders.
AP diplomatic correspondent: Obama administration outreach to Senate might have been "coup de grace for Iran talks"
- AP diplomatic correspondent: Obama administration outreach to Senate might have been "coup de grace for Iran talks"
- Analysts: Israel "right to be wary," has "good reason to worry" over Iran deal terms
- Israeli soldier stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorist amid Hamas terror rebuilding, Fatah incitement spike
- Palestinian peace process team resigns amid growing questions of political readiness
What we’re watching today:
- Obama administration officials dispatched to the Hill today to explain the White House's approach to Iran negotiations largely failed to reassure senators, with the Associated Press's Matthew Lee summing up a Banking Committee meeting that included Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman as perhaps a "coup de grace for Iran talks." Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) walked out of the meeting and blasted administration officials in general and Sherman in particular, accusing the White House of taking a "Chamberlain"-style approach to negotiations and of promoting "anti-Israel" statements in response to Israeli assessments that the deal recently offered to Iran would only "set back the [Iranian nuclear] program about 24 days." Meanwhile the administration is facing the possibility that it is courting political controversy by accusing lawmakers who are pushing for sanctions of placing the U.S. on a "march to war" with Iran. Former Democratic Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley went public with her concerns over the deal today and called for new pressure until a final settlement is achieved. Berkley, who is a member of the Board of Directors of The Israel Project, took to the pages of the Las Vegas Review Journal and bluntly stated that "now is the time to increase the pressure, not withdraw it."
- Analysts continue to debate the details of the failed deal proposed last weekend between the international community and Iran, discussing both the substantive concerns of skeptics and the political consequences of what was very early on described by critics as over-eagerness by the Obama administration to cut a deal at any cost. An extensive analysis published on Monday by TIME World had already assessed that "experts say Israel is right to be wary" of the contours of the deal, which would have allowed Iran to continue bolstering the elements that it needs for constructing both uranium and plutonium-based nuclear bombs. TIME describes a series of conference calls hosted by The Israel Project (TIP) in which experts outlined the mechanics of Iran's nuclear program and what would constitute an Iranian drive for a nuclear weapon. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency, had explained on a TIP call how Iran's stockpile of 3 percent enriched uranium was "something like 60 percent" of the way toward weapons-grade levels, while David Albright, the head of the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security, had assessed on another TIP call how Iran could go nuclear in "as little as a month." Yesterday Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji, respectively the director of research and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, published an opinion piece in the Washington Post outlining fears that "Khamenei has been laying the groundwork to walk away from any deal by warning that the West is untrustworthy and will not deliver on its promises," and that "Israel has good reason to worry" that Tehran will pocket whatever concessions the West offers and then violate signed agreements.
- A 19-year-old Israeli soldier was stabbed to death this morning on an Israeli bus by a 16-year-old Palestinian terrorist, sustaining several wounds to his neck and chest and eventually succumbing to his injuries after being admitted to to a hospital. In what one Twitter commenter described as "affirmation," the Twitter channel of Hamas's al-Qassam Brigades posted a childhood picture of the murdered Israeli teenager. The attack comes amid both concentrated efforts by Hamas to rebuild its terror infrastructure in the West Bank - the Palestinian terror group has been largely stymied in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, and so may be shifting its focus to the territory - and a wave of incitement by Hamas's rival, the Palestinian Fatah faction. The Jerusalem Post today published assessments from Israeli intelligence officials describing "an elevated risk of armed terror attacks" in the West Bank town of Hebron. Israeli soldiers last week seized a large cache of ammunition and arrested two Palestinians on security charges in the area. An unnamed intelligence officer told the Post that the cache represented only "a small drop in the bucket" of arms flowing through the Hebron region.
- Reuters late Wednesday conveyed reports that the Palestinian delegation charged with negotiating opposite Israel had resigned and cited for its resignation Israeli construction within communities beyond the Jewish state's 1948 armistice lines. The move comes despite both the cancellation of previously announced massive building plans by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the brute fact that until a few years ago Palestinian negotiators had for decades conducted talks while Israel bolstered such communities. For their part the Israelis have recently released two batches of Palestinian prisoners convicted of murder as goodwill gestures designed to jump-start and maintain negotiations. The most recent was done despite a wave of Palestinian incitement and in the absence of reciprocal Palestinian gestures, and was particularly politically controversial. The Israel Project yesterday hosted a conference call with Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in which he described systemic problems - with endemic Palestinian Authority (PA) corruption being among the most trenchant - that have undercut efforts to create robust and sustainable institutions in the West Bank. The audio for the call is here.
- Reports: Top Senators brush off Obama administration calls to delay Iran sanctions push
- Secretary of State to visit Egypt this weekend, amid reports of Cairo pivot to Russia
- Five Israeli soldiers injured in Hamas attack on anti-tunnel operation
- Experts: Hamas claims around shut down power plant "insane"
What we’re watching today:
- Meetings held yesterday between Obama administration officials and a range of Senators failed to persuade top Senate figures to delay a push for new sanctions against Iran, according to statements and analysis published this morning by Bloomberg. New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez bluntly stated that he'd "have to hear something far more substantive" to back off a push for legislation aimed at pressuring the Islamic republic, while Illinois Republican Mark Kirk described upcoming talks with Iran over its nuclear program - which the White House argues would be endangered by heightened economic pressure - as "a long rope-a-dope." Kirk also declared that "sanctions are the only way to prevent a war," echoing an pushback increasingly made in recent days by lawmakers, analysts, and journalists: inasmuch as the administration believes that Iran has been coerced into entering negotiations because of economic pressure, it is unclear how more economic pressure will cause Tehran to walk away from the table. Kirk and others have also pointed out that Iran is continuing to strengthen its hand by installing new nuclear technology and enriching more material, and that it would be difficult for the Iranians to claim that the U.S. doing the same constitutes a deal-breaker.
- Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Egypt this weekend amid new reports that the Obama administration's posture toward the army-backed interim government is risking a pivot by Cairo toward the U.S.'s geopolitical rivals. Washington has among other things frozen the delivery of military assistance, including Apache helicopters of the type used by Egypt's military in ongoing anti-terror campaigns. Last Thursday an Egyptian good will delegation went to Moscow to "show [Egypt's] gratitude for the cautious and objective positioning of Russia," and there have been subsequent trips by both Egyptian and Russian intelligence figures surrounding what media reports describe as a $15 billion deal to purchase Russian-made MiG-29 planes and other equipment. Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who emphasize that they rarely agree on policy prescriptions, had already in September co-published an article criticizing the administration for undermining "nearly seven decades" of bipartisan American efforts aimed at "limiting Moscow's influence" in the Middle East. Voice of America reported today that Kerry's trip to Cairo "would only last several hours."
- Five Israeli soldiers were wounded when Hamas fighters bombed an operation to destroy a tunnel likely built by the terror group to facilitate a spectacular upcoming attack. The soldiers, one of whom was seriously injured, were evacuated to Israel's Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba. Israeli military forces responded to the attack, killing one gunman, and Israeli pilots subsequently struck another Hamas tunnel, killing three more Palestinian fighters. All four were claimed by Hamas, which declared through spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri that the Israelis had been taught a "painful lesson." Analysts have been issuing increasingly pointed warning that Hamas is seeking to stage large-scale attacks in an effort to restore the terror group's crumbling domestic and regional position, the result of a series of failed diplomatic gambles that saw the Palestinian faction align itself with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey. Cairo's post-Brotherhood government has in recent months actively moved to isolate Hamas, and a senior official from the organization recently complained that the group had been "sentenced to death" by Egypt.
- Hamas is lashing out against Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA) - the latter controlled by the rival Palestinian Fatah faction - in the aftermath of power outages that gripped the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Friday. Energy authority deputy chairman Fathi el-Sheikh Khalil told journalists that Gaza's power plant had been shut off due to lack of fuel, the result of what he insisted where prohibitive taxes levied by the PA and anti-smuggling actions taken by Egypt. Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called the Hamas accusations "insane," noting that "the PA pays for [fuel] with donor funds, Hamas bills Gazans for it, and then pockets the cash." This is not the first time that Hamas has been criticized for manufacturing a humanitarian crisis by shutting down Gaza's power plant. In 2008 the terror group made a similar move, plunging Gaza into darkness and claiming that Israel was preventing sufficient fuel from reaching the territory. Israeli officials pointed out that electricity was still getting into the territory from Israeli plants and that Hamas deliberately causing the blackout. The organization has in the past also been criticized for deliberately risking humanitarian crises by refusing fuel shipments and stealing fuel for its terror operations, including from hospitals.
- TIME: Iran's heavy-water reactor "invulnerable to military attack" once it goes online
- Bipartisan Congressional frustration over WH aid cutoff grows, as Egypt army escalates campaigns against Islamic radicals
- Abu Dhabi media: Iran uses "regular clandestine flights" to supply Syria with troops, weapons
- Hamas official declares terror group "sentenced to death" as Egypt moves deepen isolation
What we’re watching today:
- A heavy-water plutonium reactor that Iran has committed to bringing online would become "invulnerable to military attack" once Iranian scientists activated it, according to analysis conveyed today by TIME, inasmuch as any such attack would release radioactivity that might be "catastrophic." Work toward activating the reactor, which is part of the Arak facility that also includes a heavy water production plant, has been described as part of Iran's "Plan B" for developing a nuclear weapon. Material produced by the reactor could be used to make a plutonium-based bomb, alongside the uranium-based bomb that the international community fears Iran is seeking to construct with material produced via enrichment facilities. Former IAEA Deputy Director Dr. Olli Heinonen, speaking Monday on a conference call organized by The Israel Project, noted that Iran's construction at Arak "appears to be an alternative, at least for a rainy day, to have fissionable material, which could be, for example used for nuclear weapons." There are also fears, according to TIME, that Iran will attempt to surreptitiously activate the reactor under the ruse of conducting a test run, avoiding Western intervention. In May, Iranian officials filed paperwork with the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog to conduct a test run . U.S. lawmakers have demanded that Iran halt work on the reactor as a condition for lifting sanctions, but Iran has thus far shown no willingness to do so. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in fact recently boasted that a diplomatic charm offensive conducted by his government had left Tehran "consolidating its nuclear rights step by step, and removing hurdles from the path of the nation's progress."
- The Hill reported today on heightening bipartisan Congressional criticism of the Obama administration's decision to temporarily freeze some military assistance to Egypt, a move made in response to - albeit months after - mass anti-government protests that led the Egyptian army to depose the country's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, slammed the White House’s decision, echoing analyst concerns that the cutoff was degrading U.S.-Egyptian ties at the expense of "our security interests." Both Engel and Committee Chairman Ed Royce declared that the army-backed interim government was preferable to what had become increasingly autocratic Brotherhood rule, with Engel emphasizing that he'd "take the military every time" over the Brotherhood and Royce declaring that the Brotherhood's "hostil[ity] to American interests binds" the U.S. to Cairo. In addition to launching a decapitation campaign against the Brotherhood, the military has also been engaged in a concentrated campaign to uproot jihadist infrastructure in the Sinai Peninsula. Those campaigns have relied heavily on American military assistance - including and especially American-supplied air assets such as Apache helicopters, which were used as recently as last month to target arms depots in the northern Sinai. The White House has insisted that its partial freeze explicitly exempts counterterrorism assistance bound for the Sinai, but critics have questioned the feasibility of distinguishing between Sinai-bound aid versus other kinds of weaponry, and pointed out that the administration is in fact blocking the delivery of Apache helicopters.
- Abu Dhabi media yesterday described "regular clandestine flights between Tehran and Damascus" allegedly being conducted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which transport among other things "fighters to help regime forces battle rebels." The National described as many as three flights a week that have been taking place for months. Syrian opposition leaders have claimed that Iran has 60,000 fighters stationed in Syria, while Iran has flatly denied having any boots on the ground in the country. Though the opposition number is considered high, the revelation of clandestine flights will deepen skepticism regarding the categorical Iranian denials. The report will also fuel growing doubts that newly inaugurated Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is willing or able to broadly moderate Iranian policies. Rouhani had already explicitly vowed to support the Bashar al-Assad regime - a commitment that aligns well with reports of continuing shipments from Iran to the regime - and had floated grand conspiracy theories regarding Western intentions toward Syria. Rouhani has recently aligned his rhetoric with that of the Assad regime and with Russia, arguing that the Syrian opposition is composed of "terrorists" who must be expelled from the country.
- The left-leaning Israeli paper Haaretz quotes a Hamas official declaring that the Palestinian terror organization has been functionally "sentenced to death" by Egypt, as Israeli and Egyptian measures to degrade Hamas's capabilities - coupled with a series of disastrous geopolitical gambles - keep the group bottled up and isolated in the Gaza Strip. Hamas spent weeks in fall 2012 deliberately escalating the amount and sophistication of rockets and missiles it launched against Israelis, triggering an eight-day bombing campaign against Israel that severely degraded the group's command and control infrastructure. Meanwhile Hamas aligned itself with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which was then in control of Egypt, putting itself on the wrong side of the Egyptian military, which was already at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked government of President Mohammed Morsi. Egyptian military officials waged a media war to erode Hamas's standing inside the country, and - after Morsi fell - moved to close both Gaza's smuggling tunnels and border crossings, cutting off Hamas's access to the outside world. By mid-2013 regional blocs were forming in the Middle East, pitting the the U.S.'s traditional Israeli and Arab allies opposite a Shiite extremist Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah axis, and both of them opposite a Sunni extremist bloc that included the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, and Qatar. Hamas tried to triangulate between the Shiite and Sunni extremist blocs and ended up alienating both. Evaluating Hamas's precipitous decline weeks ago, Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued that Western policymakers have a narrow window of opportunity to strike a death blow to the group.
- Syria and Iran threaten to attack Israel as Kerry describes chemical weapons use as "undeniable"
- Reuters: U.N. report will describe Iranian advances toward uranium and plutonium nuclear weapons
- State Dept. denies that Palestinians have suspended peace talks, after three Palestinians killed in clashes with IDF
- Egypt security source: Army battling jihadists from dozens of countries in Sinai Peninsula
What we’re watching today:
- Secretary of State John Kerry this afternoon labeled Syria's use of chemical weapons "undeniable," declaring that U.S. officials will soon release "additional information" about what is widely believed to be a nerve gas attack conducted by the Bashar al-Assad regime against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus last week. Kerry also described the regime's decision to allow a U.N. inspection team to visit the site of the attack - which came after the regime had continued to heavily shell the area - as "too late to be credible." Reuters evaluated the significance of the speech as a signal that "the United States was edging closer to a possible military response." Kerry's statement came on a day in which both Syria and Iran explicitly threatened to attack Israel if the West attempts to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Halef al-Muftah, a member of the Syrian Ba'ath national council, and until recently the Syrian propaganda minister's aide, said Monday that Israel would "come under fire" if Syria was attacked by the United States. The threats from Damascus explicitly echoed ones made by Iran. Hossein Sheikholeslam, the director of the Iranian parliament’s international affairs committee, said on Monday that Israel would be "the first victim of an attack on Syria," and that Damascus would attack Israel "with severity."
- Reuters reports that a soon-to-be-released report from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog will show that Iran is pushing ahead with the development of nuclear infrastructure capable of providing Tehran with the option of building uranium- and plutonium-based nuclear weapons. Regarding the plutonium track, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is expected to report that Iran is making progress on activating its reactor at Arak, and Reuters conveys the assessment of Western experts indicating that the reactor "could yield plutonium for bombs once operational." Regarding the uranium track, this week's IAEA report will describe the ongoing installation of advanced IR-2m centrifuges, which are capable of enriching nuclear material at a pace orders of magnitude faster than previous technology. At stake is when Iran will be capable of conducting an undetected breakout, rushing across the nuclear finish line after a political decision is made to do so, but without the West having sufficient time to detect, assess, and intervene to stop the decision. Reuters quotes a report released last month by the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security evaluating that Iran will have the capability by mid-2014.
- The State Department this morning rushed to emphasize that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were ongoing - "sustained and serious" was Foggy Bottom's exact language - after Palestinian negotiators reportedly called off a meeting between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the aftermath of an incident this morning in which three Palestinians were shot and killed in clashes with Israeli troops in the Qalandiya refugee camp. Videos of the incident posted to the Internet showed Palestinian youths stationed on rooftops hurling rocks at an Israeli military jeep that had become trapped in an alley. The soldiers were in the camp seeking to arrest a terror suspect who had been recently released from prison. Posters of the three Palestinians killed in the clashes described them as martyrs, and members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades terror group attended the funerals for the three. An Israeli border police spokesman described the scene as marked by "large violent crowds" totaling some 1,500 people, as well as the use of firebombs against the Israeli forces.
- An Arabic-language Egyptian outlet reports on ongoing efforts by the country's military to quell unrest in the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula, as the army battles in territory that has been become - according to German intelligence - the world's main jihadist training ground. A security source described the achievements of security forces, describing an array of actions against terrorist infrastructure and terrorists themselves. The source claims that the army has managed to destroy 85 percent of the smuggling tunnels that link the Sinai Peninsula to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and which Cairo blames for facilitating the movement of materials and personnel used to attack Egyptian soldiers and police officers. More pointedly, reports describe jihadists from dozens foreign nationalities as being engaged in battles against Egyptian forces.
"Execution-style" killings of Egyptian police officers raise stakes as U.S. Middle East allies throw support behind army
- "Execution-style" killings of Egyptian police officers raise stakes as U.S. Middle East allies throw support behind army
- Amid sectarian bombings, Hezbollah chief renews commitment to battling for Syrian regime
- Reports: Reconciliation meeting between Hamas and Fatah "failed to make progress"
- U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.: Pro-Hezbollah Swiss official "unfit for continued service" at U.N.
What we’re watching today:
- At least 25 Egyptian police officers were murdered this morning in what the Associated Press describes as "execution-style" killings, with suspected Islamists ambushing two police minibuses traveling near border between Sinai Peninsula and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.The attackers forced the officers to kneel on the ground before shooting them in the backs of their heads, raising to more than 70 the number of security officials killed in recent clashes across Egypt. The Telegraph notes that the killings occurred "after 36 Islamist prisoners were killed in an attempted jailbreak," and comments that the two incidents are likely to "deepen the turmoil roiling the country, where nearly 1,000 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi since last Wednesday." Meanwhile regional actors are aligning themselves for and against the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur today urged the Egyptian army to "remain firm and strong" in seeking to quell Egyptian unrest, echoing the stance of Saudi King Abdullah, who according to the Wall Street Journal pledged support over the weekend "for what he called Egypt's fight against 'terrorism and extremism.'"
- Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last Friday literally doubled down on his organization's commitment to battle on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, declaring that "if we have a thousand fighters in Syria, they will become 2,000, and if we have 5,000 fighters in Syria, they will become 10,000." The boasts and threats came a day after a car bomb ripped through Hezbollah's stronghold in the southern Beirut district of Dahiyeh. The attack was claimed by a previously unknown jihadist group, which described the car bombing as retaliation for Hezbollah's critical role in helping the Assad regime erode nearly two years of gains by the largely Sunni rebels. Hezbollah has been under increasingly vocal criticism by Lebanese officials for entangling the country in the Syrian war, and the leader of one of the country’s largest Christian political parties declared that the Iran-backed terror group was "plung[ing] Lebanon into fire." A top Hezbollah commander was reportedly killed last week during a battle in Syria outside of Damascus.
- Palestinian media sources describe a meeting held late Sunday between Hamas and Fatah as having "failed to make progress" in achieving reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions, with Hamas rejecting calls to hold general elections in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and in Fatah-controlled West Bank territories. Efforts to bring the territories under a single Palestinian government have repeatedly failed despite pledges from both sides to make progress. A reconciliation deal inked in 2011 had the two sides agreeing to cease politically motivated arrests, but Fatah officials accused Hamas of targeting the group's members as recently as this weekend. Hamas accused Fatah of arresting six Hamas members in the West Bank, while Fatah slammed Hamas for detaining Fatah affiliates in the Gaza Strip. Establishing a single government capable of overseeing currently divided Palestinian territories is often considered a prerequisite to establishing a viable Palestinian state. A single state whose territories are ruled by competing governments is almost by definition a failed state.
- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power slammed the Swiss government last week for nominating Jean Ziegler - who has defended Hezbollah, Holocaust deniers, and the Gaddafi regime - for a position on the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Power tweeted that Ziegler was “unfit for continued service” at the UNHRC, a body that has come under repeated and consistent criticism as one that allows illiberal regimes and their supporters to target the Jewish state. Ziegler generated controversy in 2006 by telling an interviewer that he "refuse[d] to describe Hezbollah as a terrorist group." The European Union later unanimously blacklisted Hezbollah's "military wing" as a terrorist group.
Egypt struggles to restore order as Morsi supporters clash with army, launch widespread attacks against Christians
Egypt struggles to restore order as Morsi supporters clash with army, launch widespread attacks against Christians
Kerry: Israel "completely upfront" with U.S. and Palestinians about new West Bank construction. Says activity should not derail talks.
Iranian diplomats: Hamas seeking reconciliation with Tehran, "showed much interest in healing wounds"
Gaza-based Palestinians launch rockets overnight into Israel
What we are watching:
- The Egyptian government has imposed a curfew in major cities, after clashes today between the army and supporters of Egypt's former Muslim Brotherhood-linked president Mohammed Morsi reportedly killed over 230 protesters and 43 police officers. In retaliation to the crackdown, Morsi supporters launched widespread attacks against Christians and Christian buildings across Egypt. Pro-Morsi elements have been steadily escalating violence against Copts for weeks. Today attackers reportedly destroyed a 4th century church, one of the oldest in Egypt, and set fire to a Christian youth center in Fayoum. Multiple other churches and homes were also attacked. Coptic officials responded by calling for national unity in the face of the violence. The Egyptian army seems to have regained control over areas of Cairo where Muslim Brotherhood members been protesting, and Cairo is urging Morsi supporters to "listen to the voice of reason" and cease engaging in violence.
- Secretary of State John Kerry today clarified that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been "completely upfront with me and with [Palestinian Authority] President Abbas" regarding a recent announcement that Israel plans to build new homes beyond the Jewish state's 1948 borders. Kerry conveyed Netanyahu's clarification that the building would be happening "within the so-called blocs" that are widely expected to end up controlled by Israel under any realistic final status agreement, and that they would "not have any impact on the capacity to have a peace agreement." Palestinian diplomats had publicly expressed surprise at the announcement and explicitly suggested that it could derail peace talks. Kerry brushed aside suggestions that the new construction should derail negotiations, and emphasized that "if you resolve the borders of Israel – and you can only do that also resolving the security issues for Israel – you have resolved any questions about settlements, because then you know what is in Israel and what is not."
- Analysts have begun to unpack the implication of reports -published in Arabic and Israeli news outlets last week - to the effect that Hamas has rebuilt ties with Iran and with Tehran's Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah. The reports detailed meetings which took place at Iran's Beirut embassy and which included top Hamas officials. Ali Hashem, the Al-Mayadeen news network's chief correspondent, yesterday published additional context around the rapprochement. Hashem described how "on the day of Hassan Rouhani's inauguration, the president welcomed the old resistance triad, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad." He quoted a Tehran source explaining that "after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt... Hamas showed much interest in healing the wounds, so meetings became very fruitful, and they were mainly in Beirut." As long as Hamas remains on the same page as Tehran regarding the eradication of Israel, another Iranian source emphasized, "we don't mind them having different views on any issue."
- Palestinian fighters in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip fired rockets at Israel on Tuesday night. At least one rocket fell on the Gaza side of the Israeli-Gaza border, while another struck Israel. The Times of Israel notes that while rocket fire was "once a daily occurrence," the Palestinian willingness and capacity to launch barrages at Israel was "has mostly tailed off" since Israel severely eroded Hamas's terror infrastructure during last November's Operation Pillar of Defense. Israel responded to the overnight rocket fire with pin-point attacks against hidden rocket-launching assets in the northern Gaza Strip. The IDF reported accurate hits.
U.S. lawmakers call for "immediate steps" to prevent Iran from going nuclear, urge Senate to pass new sanctions
- U.S. lawmakers call for "immediate steps" to prevent Iran from going nuclear, urge Senate to pass new sanctions
- Analysts: Turkey army reshuffle "underlines full government control" over military procurement
- Gaza-based Salafists claim responsibility for Sinai Peninsula rocket attack on Israel
- BBC: Morsi supporters targeting Egyptian Christians as part of "further backlash"
What we’re watching today:
- Top U.S. lawmakers are calling for "immediate steps" to increase pressure on Iran, urging the Senate to enact new sanctions as "the only way to persuade the Iranian leadership to change course." Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) published the call in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Engel has been a leading figure on Iran in the House, and was a co-sponsor of the recently passed Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, which overwhelmingly passed the House by a vote of 400-20. Parallel legislation sponsored by Kirk is making its way through the Senate. The article penned by the two emphasizes that "Iran did not hold a free and fair [presidential] election earlier this summer" but rather one in which "the Iranian people were forced to choose between a select group of regime insiders who had been carefully vetted and hand-picked by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei." Hassan Rouhani - who won the election and who has been criticized this week for assembling a foreign policy cabinet stacked with figures from Iran's security establishment - is according to Kirk and Engel "no reformer" but instead a Khamenei loyalist. The piece is bluntly titled "Without Stronger Sanctions, Iran Will Go Nuclear."
- Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system yesterday intercepted a rocket fired from the Egypt-controlled Sinai Peninsula and aimed at the southern resort city of Eilat. The incident comes as analysts are expressing pointed concerns that attacks from the increasingly anarchic Sinai may eventually force Israel to take direct action on Egyptian soil against jihadists firing into the Jewish state. The Egyptian army is currently engaged in a wide-ranging campaign to uproot terrorist infrastructure in the territory, and Egyptian military officials claim that as part of the campaign they recently attacked a jihadist missile team. The Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, a Salafist group based out of the Gaza Strip, blamed Israel for the raid on the missile team. The group took responsibility for firing the rocket on Eilat, which the organization declared was part of making "the Jews... pay dearly."
- Turkey's Hurriyet discusses recent promotions and demotions in the country's military, concluding that they highlight the extent to which Ankara's ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party is succeeding in eroding the influence of army figures. The article specifically deals with defense procurement issues. An annual reshuffling, the article states, "underlines full government control over defense procurement decisions in the future." More broadly, the personnel shifts - which involved interventions by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - have been described as "the latest blow to Turkey’s beleaguered officer corps." Meanwhile Erdogan announced this week that the government will clamp down on future anti-government protests.
- The BBC reports on "a further backlash" against Egypt's Christians, who have found themselves increasingly subject to physical attacks - up to and including several murders - at the hands of Islamists who support former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The outlet notes that while "the Coptic Orthodox Church is one of Christianity's oldest," Islamist extremists have since July launched attacks against Copts, "holding them partly responsible" for the army moves that removed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood-linked government from power. Scores of Christian homes and buildings have been defaced and burned. Last week a 10-year-old girl walking home from Bible class was shot in the chest and killed, making her, according to Amnesty International, the seventh Christian murdered in recent sectarian violence across Egypt. The systematic religiously driven violence is in tension with claims made last year by Brotherhood figures - and by some Western foreign policy analysts -to the effect that Egyptian Islamists were ideologically prepared to form a pluralistic government guaranteeing equal rights and protections to Egypt's religious minorities.