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.."
Analysts: Hezbollah push for Lebanon off-shore drilling risks war with Israel "through miscalculation or intentional effort" at escalation
- Analysts: Hezbollah push for Lebanon off-shore drilling risks war with Israel "through miscalculation or intentional effort" at escalation
- Reports: Ongoing economic problems, human rights violations eroding Iran president's domestic support
- After Hamas unity deal, Palestinians announce intention to seek membership in 60 international groups, treaties
The Washington Examiner on Friday outlined a scenario under which the next war in the Middle East may break out as a result of what the outlet described as competing "Israeli and Lebanese claims over a potentially lucrative plot of [underwater] territory," with the recently formed Lebanese government set to "move ahead with decrees that signal the beginning of bidding for drilling rights" to energy resources underneath disputed waters along the Israel-Lebanon border. The outlet cited David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explaining that Jerusalem would have to react to any such Lebanese move, which would be an implicit claim of sovereignty that would in addition potentially cost the Israelis "billions of dollars of revenue." The Israeli daily financial newspaper Globes had already explained months ago that Israel would be "liable to lose territory if it does not object to the Lebanese acts in court, or even militarily," and Weinberg emphasized that "there's a very significant possibility that this could lead to increased tension on both sides, either as conflict through miscalculation, or an intentional effort by Hezbollah to escalate." The Examiner noted that the Israelis have deliberately "avoided issuing tenders" so as not to inflame the situation. Meanwhile Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah recently reemphasized that his Iran-backed terror group would seek a military confrontation with Israel and has claimed an April attack on Israeli soldiers. The group is widely thought to be seeking a way to rebuild its shattered brand as a Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty from Israel, and last October Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea slammed Hezbollah for trying to open "another front with Israel" by pressuring the Lebanese Energy Ministry - which it controlled by proxy - to issue drilling tenders to disputed waters. National Liberal Party leader Dori Chamoun piled on, accusing then-Energy Minister Gebran Bassil of being used by Hezbollah to among other things cause "another clash with Israel." Observers fear that Hezbollah has been specifically setting up a naval confrontation. The group has for years been accusing Israel of stealing Lebanon's energy resources - going so far as to describe Israel's Leviathan field as inside Lebanese waters - and has even warned that Lebanon's oil and gas sector was "becoming vulnerable to Israeli piracy" specifically by the "deliberate obstruction of issuing licenses." A February speech by Nasrallah saw him insisting at least three times that Israel is engaged in a plot to plunder Lebanese oil. Journal of Diplomacy’s Ziad Achkar noted in that context that a war over off-shore energy would be attractive for Nasrallah because it would allow him to "come off as Hero of Lebanon, defending resources where government can’t" and to justify holding on to advanced anti-ship weapons that Hezbollah uses to maintain its Lebanese state-within-a-state. Achkar situated the strategy as a "flashback to 2006, provoking Israeli war to regain public support that was dwindling."
Analysts through the weekend and into Monday continued to trace signs that - per a headline published at the top of one Agence France-Presse (AFP) story - Rouhani's "honeymoon" with the Iranian public was over amid evidence that he was either unable or unwilling to implement promised social reforms and economic improvements. AFP had last week reported on what the wire described as Rouhani's "first major political defeat," after 95 percent of Iranians chose to accept government hand-outs that his government had urged they forgo. The second AFP story, published on Sunday, assessed that "the public's goodwill towards [Rouhani] is showing the first signs of fading" due to stalled economic progress. Meanwhile the Jerusalem Post reported on the fallout from reports - which had recently been revealed by the Wall Street Journal - that there had recently been a mass beating of imprisoned Iranian dissidents incarcerated in the country's Evin prison. The Post described a growing movement to show solidarity with the political prisoners, dozens of whom had been sent to the hospital by the beatings, with "Iranian men and women posted pictures on social media of themselves with shaved head," a gesture developed after the publication of "a photograph of human rights lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani [who had been beaten in the raid] that showed him last week with a shaved head." The outlet also contextualized the developments against broader trends in the Islamic republic, suggesting that "with 25 percent of the Islamic Republic’s population unemployed or underemployed, the ingredients are present for mushrooming social unrest." Reports published on Saturday indicated that Iranian officials had officially banned the reformist newspaper Ebtekar, the third such move in recent months.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) on Sunday announced that the group's central committee had adopted a plan under which the Palestinians would seek to join 60 United Nations bodies and international treaties, per a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) subsequently cited in both Arabic and Israeli media. The moves came a day after Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech doubling down on a recent decision by his Fatah faction to reconcile with the rival Hamas group, and then offering to listen to Israel in the context of peace talks provided that Jerusalem would offer a raft of concessions beforehand. The speech fell flat. The Palestinian push to join international institutions - which reemerged in earnest at the beginning of April, with Abbas announcing that Ramallah would seek to ascend to over a dozen multilateral treaties - had quickly been criticized for fundamentally undermining the core gamble of the peace process. Several decades of Israeli-Arab peacemaking had been premised on the notion that Israel could reliably trade fundamentally irreversible tangible concessions, usually but not always land, for theoretically reversible intangible commitments, most often normalization. Palestinian moves to boost their diplomatic status outside of negotiations with Israel, which violate among other things Olso Accord obligations that Israel secured via territorial concessions spanning decades, were blasted for creating a situation in which those theoretically reversible intangible commitments were in fact pocketed. Independent of the peace process, the new move will deepen fears of what has been described as a kind of "scorched earth" campaign, under which Palestinian diplomats ascend to and then politicize international institutions, turning them against Israel and in the process endangering their neutrality and credibility. U.S. lawmakers had expressed exactly such fears when the Palestinians sought and eventually secured an upgrade via the United Nations General Assembly to become a nonmember state. Ramallah had previously gained a seat at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) over similar U.S. objections, triggering a congressional backlash that financially crippled UNESCO. By 2014 - after several sessions in which Israel was subject to lopsided criticism by the body - Palestinian media outlets were openly boasting about how the organization was now focused on pursuing anti-Israel resolutions and investigations.
A weekend scoop by The Daily Beast documenting off-the-record comments made by Secretary of State John Kerry to influential world leaders - in which Washington's top diplomat was recorded saying that Israel may become an "apartheid state" should it fail to quickly secure a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - put the State Department on the defensive Monday, with journalists, lawmakers, and Israel-focused organizations from across the political spectrum questioning the wisdom of the remarks. The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) expressed "deep disappointment" and called on Kerry to apologize, while the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) described the statements as "deeply troubling" and suggested that "the true focus of those who support peace should be on urging President Abbas to revoke his destructive agreement with the terrorist organization Hamas." The AIPAC statement also cited 2008 statements by President Barack Obama that "injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn’t advance [the] goal" of securing peace between Israel and its neighbors, and that the term is "emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and... not what I believe." The Anti-Defamation League quickly declared it "startling and deeply disappointing that... [Kerry] chose to use such an inaccurate and incendiary term." The Emergency Committee for Israel - which has been historically critical of the administration for seeking to put distance between Washington and Jerusalem - called on Kerry to resign or be fired, a stance echoed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee - who has been clear that he thinks the controversy is overblown, and who has been harshly critical of some of the groups that have blasted Kerry - nonetheless on Monday pressed State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki on the wisdom of Kerry's remarks. Lee conveyed criticisms from both supporters and detractors of Israel, ultimately asking whether using 'apartheid' was "smart" given that the move was "going to cause him a lot of grief." Psaki declined to answer a question about whether Kerry appreciated that such rhetoric - even if suggesting a future scenario - was out of step with "American officials, who are supposed to be... neutral — you know, the arbiter, the honest broker." In response to a question about why Kerry was unwilling to cede to the demands of pro-Palestinian advocates who insist that Israel is already an apartheid state, Psaki bluntly stated that Kerry "believes that Israel is a vibrant democracy with equal rights for its citizens."
Iran atomic agency spokesman: Uranium enrichment concessions could be reversed "within two to three weeks"
- Iran atomic agency spokesman: Uranium enrichment concessions could be reversed "within two to three weeks"
- Beirut claims progress in relieving Lebanese town besieged by Hezbollah, bombed by Hezbollah-backed Syrian forces
A top official linked to Iran's atomic agency bragged this week that a critical uranium-related concession made by Tehran under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) could be reversed "within two to three weeks," part of a broader speech that included boasts about the quality of new Iranian centrifuges - a twentyfold increase in enrichment capacity - and the creation of new Russian-built energy plants. Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), declared that oxidizing portions of Iran's 5 percent stockpile - which Iran is obligated to do under the JPA - does not prevent Iran from "transform[ing] our 5% uranium to 20% within two to three weeks if needed." Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-born analyst and currently an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, bluntly assessed the speech as a statement that the Iranian regime views the JPA as a deal in which "all the advantages accrue to Tehran." The JPA requires Iran to turn portions of its 5 percent and 20 percent pure uranium stockpiles into uranium oxide, temporarily preventing that stock from being enriched further. Regarding its 20 percent stockpile, Iran is obligated to either dilute the material back down to 5 percent ("downblending") or to oxidize it at 20 percent. Regarding its 5 percent stockpile, Iran is obligated to ensure that - at the end of the JPA's six-month negotiation period - there is only as much of that stock on hand as there was at beginning of the deal's implementation. Iran is permitted unlimited enrichment to 5 percent, but the new material that's created has to be oxidized until the total amount of 5 percent pure stock is equal to what it was when the JPA period began. The deal was touted by the Obama administration as putting "time on the clock" by "freezing" the Iranian nuclear program, ensuring Tehran could not use the negotiation period to inch closer to creating 90 percent enriched weapons-grade uranium. Skepticism regarding the robustness of the JPA emerged in the days immediately following the announcement agreement, was sharpened by what appeared to be several places in which the administration had either misunderstood or misled the public about Iranian obligations, and will be fueled further by Kamalvandi's comments. His remarks about the enrichment capacity of next-generation centrifuges are likely to prove particularly problematic, inasmuch as Iran controversially maneuvered the West into allowing continued development of advanced centrifuges under the JPA. A report published last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) introduced an additional complication, revealing that the commissioning of a facility designed to convert 5 percent enriched gas into oxide - this is the facility that was supposed to ensure that Iran stayed under the JPA's cap for un-oxidized uranium, even as its scientists continued to enrich unlimited amounts of the material - had been put off. No reason was given for the delay. Kamalvandi's remarks will in any case be seen as underscoring that the JPA may well leave Iran with more enriched uranium and with more centrifuges, which will themselves be more advanced than previous technology. Should the conversion facility finally open, the difference will be that the additional enriched material will be in oxide form. Mark Hibbs, writing on the Arms Control Wonk blog partially sponsored by the left-leaning Ploughshares Fund, had already pointed out last April that Iran could use existing facilities to reverse the oxidization process, and that such reconversion would only take a few weeks.
The Associated Press on Tuesday described Syrian rebels as "making their last desperate stand in Homs," as forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime pressed what has been an unsteady march of advances across the war-torn country. The wire conveyed assessments by analysts predicting that the city could fall to the regime "[i]n the next few days." Homs, which is Syria's third largest city, has been a strategically critical hotspot for much of the country's roughly three-year-long conflict. It links Damascus with Aleppo, the country's largest population center, and a city that itself saw dozens killed this week by Syrian airstrikes. The attacks reportedly deployed mass casualty barrel bombs, helicopter-deployed shrapnel-packed IEDs that have been condemned as "barbaric" by Secretary of State John Kerry and as a "war crime" by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Meanwhile Mohammad al-Lahham, the president of the Syrian parliament, announced Monday that the country's presidential elections would be held on June 3, promising that the process would be "free and fair." Al Arabiya opened its coverage of the statement by noting that "[t]he United Nations harshly criticized" the decision, conveying comments from both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi to that effect. Opposition elements for their part denounced the election as a "farce." A range of observers, including Brahimi himself, expressed concerns that spectacles aimed at consolidating the legitimacy of the Assad regime would undermine negotiations aimed at ending the conflict. Talks held earlier this year, which took place alongside reports of new atrocities being committed by Syrian forces, ended in deadlock.
Top Palestinian figures spent much of Tuesday walking back statements - aired in recent days by a range of Palestinian Authority (PA) figures, including reportedly by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself - threatening to dissolve the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) if Israel refused to make sufficient concessions to entice Ramallah to rejoin peace talks. The comments had generated exasperated eye rolls from the Israeli political echelon, and led State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki to emphasize that Washington would be forced to reevaluate its relationship with the Palestinians should they make good on their threats. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Agence France Presse (AFP) that "[n]o Palestinian is speaking of an initiative to dismantle" the PNA, a move that would force either the Israeli government or the international community to fill in and take control. Abbas himself echoed the point in talks with reporters. Veteran Israeli analyst Avi Issacharoff noted that threats to dissolve the PNA are part of a "recurrent ritual" leveraged by Palestinian negotiators, and outlined both political and financial considerations that would likely constrain such a move. Issacharoff specifically suggested that "PA officials benefit financially from the existence of the PA and, in addition to their salary, enjoy many economic bonuses that come with their jobs — via connections with Israel, involvement in economic projects, and so on." The Israel HaYom newspaper editorialized that - more specifically - Palestinian leaders waiting in the wings to take over for Abbas, and thereby to gain access to "the royal honors and red carpets... [and] the donations from around the world," would not permit him to dissolve the PA.
The Lebanese government on Tuesday reported progress in providing relief to residents of the besieged border town of Tfail, a remote Lebanese outpost functionally accessible only via Syrian roads, has been subject to isolation and bombardment by Hezbollah-backed forces fighting on behalf of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The Iran-directed terror group has sought to seal portions of the Lebanon-Syria border as part of an effort to contain sectarian blowback generated by its support of Assad. A Lebanese army official explained to the Associated Press that, as a result of Hezbollah's tactics, Tfail had at times been severed from the rest of Lebanon. The country's NOW outlet went further, describing how over 4,000 Lebanese citizens and thousands of Syrian refugees in the town had "lived without supplies of food, electricity, shelter, or aid for four months." The siege had in recent days escalated to active cross-border shelling, sending residents fleeing into the surrounding landscape. Beirut had committed to trying to alleviate the situation and on Tuesday a convoy of food and aid was able to enter the town. The Syrian attack on Tfail took place alongside several other recent cross-border attacks by Assad-linked forces. The dynamic is particularly problematic for Hezbollah, which for years had sought to brand itself - occasionally with help from elements of the Western foreign policy establishment - as an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese territory from military violations. There are open debates, however, about the degree to which damage to Hezbollah's image will affect its political position inside Lebanon generally, or more specifically its maneuvering in anticipation of upcoming presidential elections. The group has not been subtle in leveraging its superiority in arms and infrastructure to politically paralyze Lebanon in order to achieve its objectives. It is widely expected that Beirut faces at least a short-term deadlock in selecting a new president.
- Lebanon government scrambles to evacuate residents as Hezbollah-backed Syrian troops isolate, bombard town
- President Obama signs legislation forbidding Iranian diplomat linked to 1979 hostage-takers from entering U.S. for U.N. post
Iranian media on Friday boasted that sanctions relief provided under the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) has allowed the country's crude oil exports to "soar," carrying remarks by Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Mansour Moazzami revealing that "the volume of crude oil and gas condensate exports has doubled." The PressTV report gestured toward figures recently released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which calculated that Iran's February oil exports had hit a 20-month high and were far in excess of the levels set by the JPA's "sanctions cap." Meanwhile a separate PressTV article bragged that private Indian refiner Essar Oil - which it described as "Iran’s top Indian client" - had "imported six times more crude oil from the Islamic Republic in March 2014 compared to March 2013." The outlet noted that the amount was "the highest monthly shipment since at least January 2011." Reuters had already reported by the end of March that Iran was expected to exceed the sanctions cap for the fifth straight month. The White House has insisted that it would continue to enforce remaining sanctions on Iran in order to preserve Western leverage in the context of ongoing nuclear talks. Administration officials have brushed off Tehran's sanctions-busting energy exports by declaring that they expect the flow of Iranian oil to dramatically decrease in the coming months, such that by the end of the JPA's six-month period the average amount of exported oil will have fallen within permitted levels. It is not clear what the administration will do if Iran continues behaving exactly as it is behaving. February - the fourth month in a row that Iran had busted through the sanctions limits - had already seen analysts calling for the administration to take action on the issue. Nat Kern, head of the Washington-based energy consulting firm Foreign Reports, had told the Washington Post that the pattern of oil exports "should be a red flag for the administration." He went on to emphasize that U.S. options would be severely constrained - "the horse would be out of the barn" - if "at the end of May... Iran has punched such a deep hole through the core sanctions on oil."
Israeli and Arabic outlets on Friday published reports, first printed the day before by journalists in Thailand, revealing that authorities had disrupted a Hezbollah terror plot targeting Israeli tourists traveling through the country during the Passover holiday season. Bangkok Post carried descriptions of the suspects, Lebanese-French national Daoud Farhat and Lebanese-Filipino national Youssef Ayad. Both men were traveling on non-Lebanese passports, and records seem to indicate that the current trip to Thailand was Ayad's 17th visit to the country. The data points will likely reinforce analyst concerns that Hezbollah has invested heavily in the development of tradecraft, especially in the context of the Iran-backed terror group's multiple plots against Israeli tourists. A source told the Bangkok Post that Thai authorities believe there are at least nine other Hezbollah terrorists inside Thailand, and that efforts to track them down were ongoing. Lebanon's Daily Star specifically cited both elements - the evidence of extensive preparation and the nine still-uncaptured Hezbollah operatives - in a short write-up about the incident. TIME contextualized the plot alongside a previous Iranian-driven terror attack planned for Bangkok, and in turn contextualized that plot alongside others "against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and India... [and others that] were thwarted in Kenya, South Africa, Cyprus and Bulgaria – and Texas."
Lebanon's Daily Star reported early Friday morning that the Syrian army had launched what the outlet described as "a series of artillery strikes" on the Lebanese town of Tfail, sending Lebanese residents and Syrian refugees who have taken shelter in the town "flee[ing] into the surrounding hills." A Hezbollah-backed offensive on Syrian territory had driven refugees across the border and into the town, and reports indicate that the shelling caused many to flee back across the border and into the surrounding hills for shelter. An aid worker reported that "the village was bombarded throughout Tuesday." Tfail is technically a Lebanese territory with Lebanese citizens, but the only reliable roads connecting it to the outside world run through Syria. Those roads have been closed off by Hezbollah forces in an attempt to stem the transit of rebel elements back and forth across the Lebanon-Syria border. Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk was quoted Friday by the pan-Arab Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper declaring that Beirut was coordinating with Hezbollah to allow residents to flee the town. Syrian forces also attacked the Lebanese city of Arsal on Thursday, dispatching a helicopter to conduct at least two air raids. Hezbollah has been heavily criticized by a range of Lebanese figures for entangling the country in Syria's three-year-long conflict, but regime attacks on Lebanese territory are particularly problematic for the organization. The Iran-backed terror group justifies its existence - and more specifically, the massively armed state-within-a-state that it maintains inside Lebanon - as necessary to protect Lebanese sovereignty and prevent attacks on Lebanese territory. Attacks on Lebanese towns by the Assad regime, to which it has provided critical assistance, are in tension with those claims.
President Barack Obama on Friday signed into law legislation - previously passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate - that would among other things prohibit Iran's pick for its next U.N. ambassador from entering the United States. Hamid Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line in 1979 when the group seized scores of Americans inside the U.S.'s Tehran embassy, and the revelation that he had been appointed by Tehran prompted quick action in Congress to bar him. Politico opened its article on today's developments by observing that "the president noted he still considers the law 'advisory'" but that the legislation "was a rare moment of consensus in D.C." The issue is politically and diplomatically complicated for the White House. Domestically, administration officials fighting against Congressionally imposed pressure on Iran have leaned heavily on the argument that it is critical for the U.S. to maintain a positive diplomatic atmosphere to avoid hampering ongoing nuclear talks. Appointing a figure linked to the embassy hostage crisis to a U.S.-based post has been taken as a sign that the Iranians do not perceive themselves as similarly constrained. Internationally - per Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh - accepting the perceived Iranian slight and allowing Aboutalebi to take up his post would "reinforce the impression among regional allies that Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in [the] pursuit of a nuclear accord." Iran has indicated that it will not consider any alternatives to Aboutalebi, and earlier this week it requested that the U.N.'s Committee on Relations with the Host Country meet to address the issue.
Iran DM rules out negotiations over ballistic missiles, declares they have "nothing to do" with nuclear program
- Iran DM rules out negotiations over ballistic missiles, declares they have "nothing to do" with nuclear program
- NGO funding organization under fire after Arab-Israeli activist arrested over visit to Lebanon, potential Hezbollah contacts
The Associated Press on Wednesday conveyed remarks from Iran's defense minister doubling down on a long-standing Iranian red line ruling out any discussions of the country's ballistic missile program in the context of ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 global powers and Tehran. Gen. Hossein Dehghan had told Fars News that the missile program had "nothing to do" with the talks over the Islamic republic's atomic program. The assertion - which has been consistently underlined by top Iranian diplomats for months - is, in a strict sense, false. Multiple binding United Nations Security Council resolutions link Iran's ballistic missile program to its nuclear activities, and UNSC Resolution 1929 has language deciding that "Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology." The Iranian posture may prove to be politically as well as substantively problematic for the Obama administration. The interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) with Iran - providing Tehran with billions in sanctions relief - did not place any restrictions on the country's ballistic missile program. Pushed on the controversy by senators last February, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman assured the lawmakers that the program would be addressed in any comprehensive deal signed between the parties.
The Associated Press late Thursday conveyed a statement from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announcing that an agreement had been reached between its members, a deal that the wire described as "a possible first step toward bridging deep rifts among its six energy-rich Arab states," while Arabic media outlets quoted Oman's Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf bin Alawi declaring that the relationship between the countries was "all clear." The talks had seen Kuwait and Oman seek to dampen tensions between Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other. The three Gulf countries recently withdrew their ambassadors from Doha to protest what they described as interference in their internal affairs, a not particularly veiled gesture toward Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar and the Brotherhood had in recent years aligned regionally with Turkey, opposite a de facto camp composed of huge swaths of the Arab world plus Israel. Those two blocs had in recent years competed not just with each other but also against a third camp anchored by Iran. Qatar's geopolitical gambles on Turkish and Brotherhood ascendency failed to pay off, and the country found its regional position slipping badly. This week's GCC conference was held to provide the Qataris with a way to come back into the Gulf fold. It is not clear how much was substantively achieved at the meeting, however, and in any case it is unlikely that broader regional realignments will occur in the short term. The insidery Intelbrief, published by The Soufan Group, assessed Thursday that "Saudi Arabia and Turkey are maneuvering to position themselves as the leader of the Sunni Islamic world," with both deploying resources to "oppose Iranian expansion in the region" but differing in their posture toward the Muslim Brotherhood. The write-up emphasized, by way of caveat, that "even when it comes to their common regional foe Iran, the two agree on some principles but not the details," with Saudi Arabia strongly opposing engagement with the Islamic republic in contrast to Turkey's "extensive ties with Iran." The Obama administration has been blasted by domestic analysts and foreign diplomats for what those critics insist is insufficient support for the bloc composed of Washington's Arab allies. Agence France-Presse (AFP) today published leaks blaming the recent replacement of Saudi Arabia's spy chief on U.S. pressure, after Prince Bandar bin Sultan angrily criticized Washington on the issue in front of Western diplomats.
The Turkish parliament on Thursday approved what both international and Turkish media described as a "controversial" new law widening the powers of the country's National Intelligence Agency (MIT), a move that was widely read against the backdrop of ongoing efforts by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to blunt public discussion of a graft scandal that has ensnared top AKP elites, including members of Erdogan's family. UPI carried criticism from opposition parties and rights groups, accusing the Turkish leader of seeking to transform Turkey into a surveillance state and seeking to deploy MIT for his personal use. Hurriyet Daily News explained that control over Ankara's sprawling security apparatus "is at the heart of a feud between Erdogan and Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen." Erdogan and his allies blame Gulen-linked figures in the judiciary and police for the graft scandal, and have purged literally thousands of judges and police officers in response to revelations of deep-seated corruption. The heavy-handed tactics have taken a toll on perceptions of Turkey as an Islamist democracy. Analysts and journalists had for months been describing the AKP's campaign - which, after the initial purges, escalated into shutting down social media platforms - as a threat to Turkish civil and human rights. In February over 80 top U.S. foreign policy figures called on President Barack Obama to check what they described as a downward spiral of "authoritarian impulses." Last week a meeting between Turkish and European officials aimed at integrated Turkey into the Continent had to be pushed off, with an E.U. diplomat explaining that "there would [have been] too much bashing of Turkey around."
The arrest of an Arab-Israeli human rights activist on suspicion of being recruited by Hezbollah threatened on Thursday to expand into a broader scandal over the role of a controversial U.S.-based non-profit that has been criticized for funneling money to anti-Israel organizations and activists, including to those that support waging economic warfare against Israel. Majd Kayyal was arrested as he returned to Israel from a trip to Lebanon, with Israel's Shin Bet security agency accusing him of illegally traveling to an enemy country and contacting Hezbollah. Details of his detainment were released and published on Thursday, including a statement from his lawyer acknowledging that Kayyal knew he was breaking the law by traveling to Lebanon. Kayyal is the editor of the website for Adalah, an organization that recently became prominent for spearheading eventually violent protests against a plan by the Israeli government to drive billions of dollars into underdeveloped areas of Israel's southern Negev region. As critics quickly pointed out Thursday afternoon, Adalah in turn receives funds from the New Israel Fund, a New York-based organization that has been widely criticized for acting as a clearinghouse for funds delivered to anti-Israel causes. The group's vice president of public affairs recently published an article supportive of partial boycotts against Israel, a version of economic warfare against the Jewish state that has been identified by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center as grounded in anti-Semitism stretching back decades.
Associated Press: "United" Senate passes legislation barring Iran UN ambassador over terror ties, links to hostage-taking group
- Associated Press: "United" Senate passes legislation barring Iran UN ambassador over terror ties, links to hostage-taking group
The Senate Monday night voted to deny entry to the United States to persons who had engaged in espionage or terrorism against the U.S., a move aimed at barring of Hamid Aboutalebi - Iran's pick for United Nations ambassador - from acquiring a visa to take up his post. Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line in 1979, when the group seized Washington's Tehran embassy and held scores of Americans hostage for 444 days. His appointment had quickly generated pushback from U.S. lawmakers, amid assessments that allowing Aboutalebi to serve in New York on Iran’s behalf would be seen by U.S. allies as evidence that the Obama administration was "willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in our pursuit of a nuclear accord." The Associated Press noted that Monday night's voice vote saw "Republicans and Democrats united behind the legislation," which had been sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) issued a statement emphasizing bipartisan backing for the law and declaring that "it may be a case of strange bedfellows, but I'm glad Sen. Cruz and I were able to work out a bill that would prevent this terrorist from stepping foot on American soil." Parallel legislation in the House, which must be approved before the bill goes to President Barack Obama for his signature, has already been introduced. The controversy over Aboutalebi has emerged as a proxy for criticism over the administration's approach to Iran in general. Officials and analysts linked to the White House have leaned heavily on the argument that Congress cannot impose new pressure on Iran lest it spoil a "spirit of Geneva" necessary for continued nuclear talks, Geneva being where the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) was inked. Tehran's move to nominate Aboutalebi has been read as a signal that the Iranians are not inclined to be as circumspect in maintaining a positive atmosphere.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah boasted in an interview published Monday that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime was no longer in danger of being overthrown by opposition elements - and that the country itself has even "passed the danger of fragmentation" - as U.S. lawmakers moved to target the Iran-backed terror group over its critical support for Damascus. The point was echoed by Assad himself, who reportedly bragged in a meeting with former Russian prime minister Sergei Stepashin that he was different from recently deposed Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych and that he "[would] not go." Assad had more explicitly told Stepashin that "[w]ithin this year the active phase of military action in Syria will be over." Steady gains by Hezbollah-backed regime forces have in recent weeks and days triggered responses from Western capitals in general, and from Washington in particular. Multiple outlets issued reports on Monday that lawmakers in Congress were advancing the Hezbollah International Financial Prevention Act, which a statement issued by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs described as the beginning of a "comprehensive approach to addressing the threat posed by Hezbollah by imposing severe new sanctions on Hezbollah’s fundraising channels and restricting its ability to use its funds to support global terrorist activities." Reuters had reported on Friday that Washington was also finalizing a plan that to provide "modest" supplies to anti-Assad elements. The outlet noted, however, that the limited scope of the plan was "raising questions over the impact in a civil war that has killed an estimated 136,000 people, produced nine million refugees and threatens to destabilize the region."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday revealed that extensive efforts to extend Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were in progress when Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced - in what the Associated Press described as a "hastily convened" press conference - that he would be turning to the United Nations and seeking to ascend to 15 international treaties as the "State of Palestine." Observers have since speculated that the gambit was a rushed effort to ward off rivals seeking to exploit popular discontent against Abbas, who is currently serving the tenth year of an original four year elected term and had years ago maneuvered out the top Palestinian technocrat charged with bolstering the West Bank economy. Abbas has subsequently brushed off U.S. calls to reverse his decision to turn to international institutions, which - by pocketing three rounds of Israeli prisoner releases and then reneging on promises to avoid diplomatic warfare - was seen as confirming fundamental fears that the Palestinians could consistently exploit asymmetries built into the peace process, under which Jerusalem is expected to offer tangible concessions such as prisoners or territory in exchange for intangible diplomatic commitments. Veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross on Monday gestured toward the dynamic in a talk held at the Washington Institute, noting that the U.S.-backed framework had "reflected a pattern often seen in past negotiations: Israel is asked to take steps it sees as very difficult, and what the Palestinians will do in turn it sees as insufficient, and so Washington steps in to offer compensation that the Palestinians cannot." Top Israeli officials are nonetheless continuing to call for renewed talks. Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni on Monday declared that negotiations should continue, and suggested alternative formats and structures that might keep them afloat. For his part, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reportedly declared over the weekend that, that as far as Abbas his Fatah faction are concerned, "Hamas is a Palestinian movement and is not and never was a terrorist group."
The terrorist who in July 2012 blew up an Israeli tourist bus in the Black Sea resort town of Burgas was an Algerian who trained in southern Lebanese camps, according to security sources quoted by the Bulgarian daily Presa and conveyed on Monday by Lebanon's Daily Star. Reports began to emerge last week that investigators had discovered new information about the July 2012 attack - which had killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian, and which Sofia had long ago linked to Hezbollah - when Bulgarian chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov formally transferred investigation of the attack to local authorities in Burgas. Tsatsarov noted at the time that officials had among other things clinched the identity of the bomber, though he declined to provide details. The two other suspects involved in the bombing had already been identified as Lebanese, and the new Presa report alleges that the third suspect - the bomber - had studied with them at a Beirut university. Presa had previously reported in early March that Bulgarian authorities had recovered DNA from Hassan El Hajj Hassan, one of the other two suspects and the one thought to have managed logistics for the attack. Lebanese outlet Ya Libnan suggested that the evidence - which was recovered from a towel used by Hassan - had been left behind in Hassan's "haste to leave the hotel as soon as possible." If so, the slip would constitute one of just a few oversights in an operation that Washington Institute fellow Matthew Levitt has assessed was marked by "improved tradecraft" when compared to previous Hezbollah operations. The increased tempo and sophistication of the terror group's activities in Europe - another summer 2012 plot, this one in Cyprus, was disrupted - eventually led the European Union (E.U.) to designate what the E.U. described as Hezbollah's “armed wing” as a terrorist organization, leaving its “political wing” undesignated. Hezbollah officials and U.S. counterterrorism specialists have rejected suggestions that there is any organizational distinction between those two.
Top former Obama advisors: White House, Congress must signal consequences to Iran if negotiations fail
- Top former Obama advisors: White House, Congress must signal consequences to Iran if negotiations fail
- Palestinian president rejects Kerry request to reverse negotiations-wrecking diplomatic gambit, boasts that Israel diplomatic moves "scare no one"
- Diplomatic meeting put off as diplomats, analysts, journalists worry that Erdogan driving permanent wedge between Ankara and Brussels
- Lebanese leaders scramble to convince Hezbollah to stand down destabilizing Resistance Brigades militia
The Wall Street Journal on Friday morning conveyed comments by former Obama administration advisers Robert Einhorn and Dennis Ross calling on the Obama administration and Congress - per the outlet - "to increase the threat of using military force against Tehran if talks aimed at curbing its nuclear program fail – or the country’s Islamist government is caught cheating on the terms of an agreement." The Journal noted that while the two are "both strong proponents of President Barack Obama‘s diplomacy with Iran," existing and persistent gaps between the P5+1 global powers and Iran have reinforced diplomatic unease over whether negotiations can convince Tehran to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Their remarks came during the launch of a new paper authored by Einhorn and released by the Brookings Institute - where Einhorn is a senior fellow - calling for [PDF] a range of Congressional actions, including a prior authorization for the President to use military force should Iran attempt to sneak across the nuclear finish line. Ross elaborated during the study's launch that "the Iranians must see the consequences, not just of cheating if there is an agreement, but the failure of diplomacy," and that "the more we demonstrate resolve, including by talking about consequences of violations... the more we signal to the Iranians that we mean what we say... that will be key if we are to produce an agreement in the first place." Top Iranian officials have repeatedly emphasized that Tehran will refuse to dismantle nuclear centrifuges, downgrade its plutonium-producing Arak reactor, or make concessions regarding ballistic missile development. Western analysts - including Einhorn in his new report as well as U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security head David Albright - have assessed that any robust agreement on Iran would have to include the dismantlement of tens of thousands of centrifuges, the modification of the Arak reactor, and at a minimum confidence-building measures on ballistic missiles.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday rejected a request from Secretary of State John Kerry to reverse his position - announced earlier this week at what the Associated Press described as a "hastily convened" press conference - to turn to the United Nations and join 15 international treaties as the "State of Palestine," telling the U.S.'s top diplomat that he was unafraid of diplomatic retaliation from Jerusalem because "Israel's threats scare no one." The expression of bravado comes two days after Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki bragged to reporters that he didn't "expect any consequences coming from the U.S. Congress... at all" in response to the Palestinians' diplomatic gambit, which among other things violated commitments made by Ramallah in the context of a nine-month U.S. peace push and, more broadly, under the Oslo Accords. Analysts and journalists have in recent days expressed increasingly public worries regarding Palestinian recklessness. Veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff assessed on Wednesday that "what appears to be an attempt to pressure Israel and the US could easily inflame the Palestinian street," triggering a spiral of responses and reactions that "could push Abbas and the Palestinian leadership once again up a tree from which it would be hard to climb down." Issacharoff emphasized that heightening unrealistic expectations for territorial and diplomatic gains risked triggering an eruption of public anger "on the Palestinian street [that] could be directed at Ramallah and Abbas first, even before Israel." Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party supports renewed and ongoing negotiations, worried that a list of new Palestinian demands presented yesterday - widely and immediately seen as nonstarters - was evidence that Abbas was working against his interests. State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Friday that the United States remained committed to pursuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, though the Washington Post had previously reported that Kerry was likely to "lower the volume and see how things unfold."
Hurriyet Daily News reported on Friday that a planned meeting between European Union (EU) and Turkish officials is set to be postponed because diplomatic interactions between the parties are currently more likely to worsen relations rather than improve them, amid EU unease over recent moves by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to ban social media, turn water cannons on protesters, threaten to make political rivals "pay" for their opposition, impose conditions regarding when the EU is permitted to criticize Ankara, and so on. The outlet quoted an EU diplomat predicting that 'the relationship would go from bad to worse' if a meeting of the Turkey-EU Association Committee was held next week as originally planned. The news comes just a day after veteran New York Times correspondent Alan Cowell assessed that Turkey under Erdogan had "turned its back on the EU," and that upcoming elections "may deepen its estrangement." Cowell quoted Andreas Scheuer, a prominent German politician, tersely suggesting that "it is becoming clear that Erdogan's Turkey does not belong to Europe." He also quoted Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall worrying that Erdogan's moves to retain power may serve to undermine political freedoms and deepen internal Turkish divisions. Meanwhile Sohrab Ahmari, an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, called on European conservatives to shun the AKP, citing among other things the Islamist party's "contempt for such core conservative principles as individual liberty and separation of powers."
Lebanon's Daily Star on Friday reported that religious and political figures from the Lebanese city of Sidon have been traveling to Hezbollah's offices in Beirut to try to convince Hezbollah leaders to reverse their recent decision to reactivate and boost the activities of the organization's Resistance Brigades inside Sidon. The Daily Star cited local political sources worrying that 'the move could disrupt the relative calm of the last few months.' The militia, created by Hezbollah in 2009, has been a source of tension inside Lebanon in general, and specifically in Sidon. Hezbollah let it be known through Lebanese media that - in response to local concerns over the thuggishness of Resistance Brigades members - it was disbanding the militias in Sidon. Those reports turned out to be false, and in December Hezbollah reportedly ordered a "general mobilization" of Resistance Brigades fighters in response to a possible "snowball" of Sunni-Shiite conflict. The gangs were deployed a few weeks ago against several Sunni towns in Lebanon, after Hezbollah seized the strategically critical Syrian border city of Yabroud. Hanin Ghaddar - the managing editor of the Lebanese-focused NOW outlet - described the sudden upsurge in violence as Hezbollah spiking the football, writing that the group "needed to prove that its conquest of Yabroud would bear fruit on the ground in Lebanon... [after] the Lebanese people, mainly the Shiite community, had stopped buying into theatrical propaganda."
Reports: "Surprise move" by Palestinians to renew UN diplomatic warfare endangers peace process, U.S. interests
- Reports: "Surprise move" by Palestinians to renew UN diplomatic warfare endangers peace process, U.S. interests
- New figures estimate over 150,000 dead in Syria, as analysts warn Hezbollah involvement "could fan flames into a wider regional conflict"
The Associated Press reported late Tuesday on what the outlet described as a "surprise move" by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to go to a range of United Nations bodies requesting membership for the "State of Palestine." The AP noted that the declaration came "despite a promise to suspend such efforts during nine months of negotiations with Israel," and that it risked collapsing the delicate U.S.-backed effort to push forward a framework peace agreement. Israel had in recent days made an offer to extend talks, and had even reportedly teed up another prisoner release aimed at securing further negotiations. The Israelis had undertaken three previous rounds of releases to bring the Palestinians to the table and keep them there. The Israeli offer to extend talks was rejected, and the Palestinian announcement that they were turning to the UN came within days. Abbas said that he would like to continue pursuing negotiations with the Israelis despite the Palestinian gambit. The position is likely to come off as too clever by half. The entire basis of the nine month-long U.S.-backed peace initiative was that the Palestinians would abstain from seeking membership in UN institutions. Kerry almost immediately canceled a planned trip to Ramallah, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, in light of Abbas's decision. Any Palestinian success would immediately trigger black-letter U.S. laws that cut off funds to UN bodies that give the Palestinians membership. U.S. diplomats, hoping to avoid such confrontations, have long opposed unilateral moves by the Palestinians to gain membership in UN institutions. A Heritage Foundation report co-authored by Brett D. Schaefer and James Phillips a few years ago went even further, bluntly identifying past unilateral moves as "threaten[ing] United States and Israeli interests" and "undermin[ing] all internationally accepted frameworks for peace." Palestinian gambits at the UN have more pointedly been seen as corroding the basic framework of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The land-for-peace formula requires the Israelis to give up tangible, functionally irreversible concessions in exchange for Palestinian commitments. The fear has always been that the Palestinians will negotiate only as long as they can extract territory or prisoners, and that they will then pocket what they've gained and walk away. Abbas’s moves seem set to confirm those fears.
Iran's Fars News outlet reported on Tuesday that Tehran is aggressively courting foreign investors, conveying among other things statements made by Valiollah Afkhamirad, the head of Iran’s Trade Development Organization, declaring that the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) inked last November in Geneva had created "a suitable atmosphere... [for] investors in Iran and they have become highly interested in business" with the Islamic Republic. The article more specifically discussed a call made on Monday by Mahmoud Vaezi, Iran's Minister of Communications and Information Technology, emphasizing that "Iran has invited world countries to invest and collaborate in projects to establish partnerships for ultra broadband corridors" across the country. The calls echo a February boast by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif announcing that the sanctions relief outlined by the JPA had transformed Iran into a place that was "open for business." They came alongside other reports describing a "steady flow of Western executives" into Iran. Meanwhile British financial reporter Matt Lynn assessed on MarketWatch that Iran seems primed to become "one of the hottest investment opportunities of the next two decades." The Iranian strategy seems primed to deepen a very particular worry regarding the possibility that the JPA's partial erosion of the international sanctions regime will prevent financial pressure from being reimposed on Iran: Foreign entities that become invested in Iranian markets are likely to mobilize political pressure to prevent any moves to close those markets back off. Brookings fellow Michael Doran had already in January speculated that the JPA "has created an influential economic lobby in the West dedicated to ensuring" that sanctions are not tightened again. Such concerns have become more pitched in recent months, as Iran has moved in to encourage foreign investment across a range of industries.
Turkish security officials on Tuesday turned water cannons on protestors marching in reaction to widespread allegations that this weekend's local elections - which saw the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan secure a plurality of the votes - were marked by fraud, intimidation, and mysterious power outages in opposition-heavy districts. Residents of the Turkey’s Duzici district, where the AKP candidate beat his nearest opponent by 440 votes, reported finding discarded ballots marked for an opposition party in at least six area polling stations. Reports of power outages were brushed off by municipal authorities as mostly the result of bad weather or - in one case - a rogue feline. Ankara, where the AKP candidate defeated the next opponent by less than a percentage point, was one of several cities in which protestors demanded recounts. The election had already been marked by irregularities, most prominently a government ban against Twitter and YouTube that had generated global ridicule and international condemnation. The new controversies, to say nothing of the government's response to those controversies, are unlikely to dampen growing criticism that Turkey has more or less ceased to be a functioning liberal democracy. In late February over 80 top U.S. foreign policy figures called on President Barack Obama to take action to halt "Turkey’s current path," and declared that "silence will only encourage Prime Minister Erdogan to diminish the rule of law in the country even further."
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Tuesday conveyed recent figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) assessing that more than 150,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, amid another string of prominently reported gains by forces fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Exact figures have been notoriously difficult to come by - the United Nations has quite literally stopped trying to tally the deaths - but SOHR calculated that the numbers include over 7,900 children. On Monday Al Arabiya reported that pro-regime forces had "recaptured on Monday a key position in the coastal province of Latakia," a victory that came shortly after "government forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters... triumphed against the opposition along the border area with Lebanon." The victories were seen as critical to Hezbollah's effort to stop the transit of Sunni jihadists across the Lebanon-Syria border, and triggered what local media described as "an atmosphere of contentment" in areas of Lebanon controlled by the Iran-backed terror group. Washington Institute Senior Fellow Andrew Tabler on Tuesday nonetheless emphasized that Hezbollah's activities in Syria were hardening sectarian divisions in Lebanon, with the result being "increased suicide car bombings, Sunni-Shiite tension, and armed clashes." The resulting political instability, according to Tabler, "could fan the flames into a wider regional conflict that Hezbollah and Iran cannot put out and cannot afford."
Al-Monitor on Thursday reported that top House lawmakers are in the early stages of drafting terror-related sanctions - the outlet described any legislation as "a work in progress" - that would target Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors due to the group's global terror activities and its fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor that Iran could not be allowed to "blackmail" the United States via terrorist proxies, even and especially amid ongoing negotiations being conducted over Tehran's nuclear program. The outlet contextualized the effort as at least partially a response to the Obama administration, after the White House conducted a publicly controversial but nonetheless successful campaign to prevent lawmakers from moving forward on legislation that would have potentially imposed nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in the future should current negotiations fail. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, had assessed in late February that lawmakers would continue to investigate how to impose pressure on Iran, and that there would also be "strong momentum behind another push" should the six-month interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) expire without a comprehensive agreement for putting Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization. A report published earlier this month in Congressional Quarterly assessed that "groups on opposite sides of the Iran debate" were converging on the need for a strong congressional role in shaping Washington's diplomacy with Iran.
National Journal on Wednesday conveyed details of what the outlet described as an "explosive" hearing held that day by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which saw senators from both parties "eviscerate" Obama administration officials over what Sen. Bob Corker described as a "delusional" understanding of the Syrian conflict. Corker leveled the characterization at Tom Countryman, State's Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, after Countryman suggested that the Bashar al-Assad regime has sustained "actual losses" due to a deal in which the regime committed to giving up its chemical weapons arsenal. Statements made this week by Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, indicated that Syria will miss the deadline set by the deal for dismantling its arsenal. An exchange between Corker and Anne Patterson - the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs - also grew heated, after Patterson insisted that the Obama administration had a secret plan to deal with the Syrian crisis but that she wouldn't tell the committee about it during that session. Senators broadly criticized the administration for having objectively propped up the Assad regime by inking the chemical weapons deal, a concern that had been made early by skeptics of the White House's diplomacy but that had been brushed off. The hearing came amid the release of a U.N. report that assessed that "massive and indiscriminate use of violence" on the part of the Assad regime was the “single most important factor” impeding Syrian civilians from receiving access to humanitarian relief workers. Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters continued to make advances near the Lebanese border on Thursday, the latest in a series of campaigns that have seen the regime consolidating control along the Syria-Lebanon border and restrict the flow of materials to opposition forces.
Ars Technica on Thursday reported on an "administrative measure" implemented by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) shutting down access to YouTube, which the tech-oriented outlet noted was done in an attempt "to stem a flood of leaked audio recordings of government officials before elections this Sunday." The platform had been used by anonymous uploaders to post what seem to be leaked conversations between AKP elites, ranging from discussions of how to hide vast sums of money to ones outlining potential military measures against Syria. The restrictions on YouTube come roughly a week after a globally ridiculed, largely failed, and legally overturned decree banning access to Twitter, and Ars noted that it appears that Turkey's telecommunications authority had initially implemented both bans similarly, by changing the Domain Name Service listings for the targeted sites. Ankara had subsequently escalated how it prevented access to Twitter - specifically by instituting a block to the microblogging platform’s IP addresses - and Ars suggested that the Turkish government will eventually get around to similarly restricting YouTube. Hurriyet Daily News conveyed statements from U.S. and European Union officials condemning the new restrictions. The State Department called on Turkey to stop blocking both YouTube and Twitter, while Neelie Kroes - one of several vice-presidents of the European Commission, and bloc's European Commissioner for Digital Agenda - blasted what she described as "another desperate and depressing move" from Ankara.
"Killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq were responsible for a global rise in capital punishment in 2013, according to a new Amnesty International report described Thursday by a range of outlets. The Guardian prominently quoted Amnesty's secretary general declaring that "the killing sprees we saw in countries like Iran and Iraq were shameful," and noted that Tehran and Baghdad were responsible for at least 538 out of the 778 documented state-sanctioned executions last year. Tehran publicly admitted to executing at least 369 people in 2013 - roughly 15 percent more than in the previous year - but is widely suspected of having conducted another 250 or so executions in secret. The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran has repeatedly emphasized - most recently last week - that there has been no fundamental change in the Islamic Republic's human rights approach since the inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and he has more specifically declared that its capital punishment policies "contraven[e] universally accepted human rights principles and norms." The assessments are in line with statements made by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Zeya expanded on the point, noting that the U.S. has “seen little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran under the new government, including torture, political imprisonment, [and] harassment of religious and ethnic minorities.”
Reports: Iran oil recovery should be "red flag" for White House, February will be fourth consecutive month in Iran energy export growth
- Reports: Iran oil recovery should be "red flag" for White House, February will be fourth consecutive month in Iran energy export growth
- Calls grow for PM's resignation as Turkey rocked by second round of leaked wiretaps
- As Syrian regime counter-offensives widen, Hezbollah "tipping the scales in Assad's favor"
- Iraqi officials extend damage control campaign as U.S. lawmakers react to leaked Iraq-Iran arms deal news
- Reuters reported on Wednesday that February figures will show Iranian oil exports having risen for the fourth consecutive month, with "extra cargoes... headed to Syria and South Korea" and the overall spike accelerating a recovery in Iran's energy sector. The Washington Post had earlier in the week noted that Iran has also "sharply increased its oil exports to China and India over the past few months," spurring Nat Kern - the head of Foreign Reports, a Washington-based energy consulting firm - to describe the dynamic as "a red flag for the [Obama] administration." The Post more pointedly quoted Kern asking "what is the U.S. going to do at the end of May if Iran has punched such a deep hole through the core sanctions on oil?" Critics of the administration's diplomatic approach to Iran have long insisted that the White House squandered away the leverage it needs to secure substantive concessions regarding Iran's nuclear program, assessing that the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) gave away billions more in relief than the administration acknowledged and set into motion a feeding frenzy that will further erode the sanctions regime. Congress had sought to boost negotiators’ leverage by pursuing legislation that would impose a range of sanctions should Iran eventually refuse to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization, and the White House responded by insisting that it had sufficient leverage and by expending massive political capital to block the efforts. Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, on Monday reemphasized Tehran's broadly expressed position that it will not dismantle any centrifuges or shut down any uranium enrichment facilities.
- A second set of audio recordings purporting to be wiretaps of phone conversations between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son Bilal - this time with Erdogan instructing Bilal to hold out for more money in a business deal - was anonymously uploaded to YouTube on Wednesday, days after a first set of recordings, seemingly exposing efforts by the two to hide vast amounts of money from authorities, set off national calls for Erdogan's resignation. Reuters described the new recordings, in which Erdogan scoffs at the sum that a particular businessman is willing to bring to a transaction, as "the latest and potentially most damaging allegations in a graft scandal that Erdogan has cast as concocted to unseat him." Erdogan had on Tuesday declared that the first round of tapes were a "treacherous attack," and had lashed out at among other elements a "robot lobby" that he maintained was attempting to undermine Turkish institutions in general and him personally. The Turkish leader had also insisted that the tapes were a composite created by stitching together various quotes. McClatchy noted on Wednesday that forensic analysis of the recordings indicated the opposite. The wire conveyed statements by Joshua Marpet, a U.S.-based cyber analyst who has served as an expert witness on the validity of computer evidence, indicating that there was no sign the conversations had been faked.
- Veteran French-Lebanese journalist Mona Alami on Wednesday published an assessment in USA Today detailing recent military campaigns by Hezbollah on behalf of Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, broadly concluding both that the Iran-backed terror group has taken the lead in counter-offensives against rebel elements and that those counter-offensives "now appear to be tipping the scales in Assad's favor." A CNN report published on the same day described an ambush conducted by forces loyal to Assad that day in which 175 rebels were said to be killed. Alami's piece quoted Abou Ali, a Hezbollah commander, confirming that the group has taken the lead in many Syrian battles and that it has "recaptured about 70% of the Qalamoun territories," describing a region that stretches about 50 miles into Syria from the Lebanese border. Alami also contrasted quotes from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry declaring that there is "no military solution" to the Syrian conflict with analysis from Washington Institute Fellow James Jeffrey, who noted that Assad and his sponsors seem to have a very definitive idea of what a military solution might look like: "a de facto military victory in the very center of the Middle East by an Assad rump state, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, on top of the humanitarian tragedy and attrition of U.S. global prestige."
- Top Iraqi officials on Wednesday deepened their efforts to stem the damage from a recently published Reuters report revealing that Baghdad had inked a weapons deal with Iran worth $195 million, breaking a U.N.-imposed arms embargo on the Islamic republic and fueling concerns that the Obama administration had allowed Iraq to slip into the Iranian orbit. Baghdad - facing what the Daily Star described as "heavy pressure from the United States" - had quickly denied that a deal had ever been signed. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Wednesday doubled down on the denial, flatly stating that "no agreement has been made for purchasing weapons from Iran." The protestations come amid legislative moves in Washington in response to news of the arms deals. On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) insisted that the U.S. must reconsider a coalescing agreement to sell 24 Apache helicopters to Baghdad. Reuters conveyed statements from multiple lawmakers and Congressional aides noting that Congress had not been informed by the Obama administration of the Iraq-Iran agreement.