UN demand for detonator information shifts focus to Iranian foot-dragging on transparency obligations
- UN demand for detonator information shifts focus to Iranian foot-dragging on transparency obligations
Officials from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear watchdog disclosed on Friday that they had demanded more information from Iranian officials regarding tests on detonators - specifically, on Exploding Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators - suspected of having been conducted with the aim of creating nuclear warheads, the latest development in an emerging controversy over Tehran's willingness to disclose a range of widely suspected "possible military dimensions" (PMD). The Islamic republic is obligated to provide transparency into PMD-related activities by United Nations Security Council resolution 1929, and non-compliance with those obligations has been cited by U.S. lawmakers as a central justification for maintaining pressure on Tehran. President Barack Obama had as early as 2009 declared that Iran would have to "come clean" in disclosing all past nuclear activities, language that was explicitly echoed by Secretary of State John Kerry on the eve of announcing the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA), under which Iran received sanctions relief in exchange for slowing down its nuclear progress. The JPA however did not include any requirement that Iran meet its PMD obligations, and was criticized on precisely that account by among others Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff and by Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittrie, respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a senior fellow at the foundation.. Top administration officials pushed back by insisting that the JPA had only been meant to facilitate negotiations, and that Iran would be forced to meet its PMD obligations in the context of a final agreement. Observers have become increasingly concerned in recent weeks that a range of Iranian moves appear aimed at delaying discussion of PMD activities until after most other issues have been resolved, at which point Iranian negotiators would refuse to meet their transparency obligations and functionally dare the West to scuttle an emerging deal over what they would characterize as past work. There are now suggestions floating in corners of the foreign policy community "that in the enthusiasm for a comprehensive agreement, the P5+1 could ignore the PMD aspect if all other conditions are met... if Iran’s break-out capability is indefinitely delayed and the technology available to it is severely limited, in addition to greater transparency and IAEA access to its facilities, the PMD question may not have to be directly dealt with at all." Analysts nonetheless have been emphatic that the success of any deal, and especially any agreement that would lean heavily on verification mechanisms, would require extensive disclosure in the context of untangling the Iranian military from the country's atomic program. Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh explained months ago that "[w]ithout insight into the full extent of Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities, no amount of monitoring and inspection can provide true confidence that Iran lacks a parallel program beyond inspectors' view."
Reuters on Friday published a wide-ranging analysis - headlined "Egypt's [Abdel-Fattah El-]Sisi turns Islam on the Islamists" - documenting a range of moves and statements being made by the country's presumptive next president suggesting that while Sisi "may turn out to be the most outwardly pious of any of the military men to have governed Egypt since the republic" he does not seem likely to "inject more Islam into the government" and is instead positioning himself as "a religious reformer." The wire assessed that the former defense minister's near-certain victory in upcoming presidential elections "could bring a sustained effort to reinforce state-backed, apolitical Islam, providing clerical cover for destroying his Islamist foes." Reuters pointedly noted consistent statements from Sisi flat-out rejecting the concept of a "religious state" and blasting "religious discourse" for preventing Egyptian growth. His first televised interview as a candidate saw him bemoaning the degree to which "hardline religious rhetoric" had undercut Egypt's critical tourism sector. Commenting on that interview - and evaluating other statements that Sisi made about the Brotherhood - the insidery security bulletin KGS Nightwatch had tersely evaluated that "outside interests that advocate on behalf of the Brotherhood are out of step with the political turn Egypt has taken." The Associated Press (AP) reported Thursday that the Obama administration had formally picked Ambassador Stephen Beecroft to take the helm at the U.S.'s Cairo embassy, which has had a vacancy at the ambassador level for nine months. The AP described the declaration as "a routine but necessary step [by the White House] toward smoothing its stormy relationship with Cairo." The Obama administration had steadily degraded bilateral ties after the Egyptian army - led at the time by Sisi - last summer overthrew Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi.
Turkish officials throughout the week and into Friday scrambled to respond to last week's "Freedom of the Press" report - published annually by the Washington-based Freedom House watchdog group - which had downgraded Turkey from "Partly Free" to "Not Free" and had explained that "constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and expression are only partially upheld in practice, undermined by restrictive provisions in the criminal code and the Anti-Terrorism Act." The report also noted that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of Dec. 1." Responding to the ensuing controversy, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared on Friday that the report was "an insult" and that the real problem was that journalists remain uninformed about Turkey. Davutoglu had previously declared that Turkey was in fact more free than even "Partly Free" countries, part of a statement in which he emphasized that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) expected Turkish journalists "to reject" the Freedom House report. Ankara has had trouble settling on talking points describing its jailing of journalists in general, and more specifically on the number of journalists that the Turks are willing to admit are behind bars. Davutoglu's Friday statements insisted that "there are only five imprisoned journalists with press cards," opposite a list of 44. Responding to the same list, a statement released by Turkey's Justice Ministry earlier this week had held that only 29 journalists were in jail. Government officials had in April cited a statement from the the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) - one that CPJ insists Ankara invented out of thin air - pegging the number at 15.
Firefights between Yemeni army forces and Al Qaeda fighters killed at least seven people on Friday in the country's capital of Sana'a, as violence spread to Yemen's presidential palace on the same day as an assassination attempt almost claimed the life of its defense minister, Major General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad. Reuters described Sana'a as being "in lockdown" in the aftermath of the violence - checkpoints were erected across all of the city's main entrances - and assessed that the attack on Ahmad was done "in apparent reprisal for the army's biggest push against militants in nearly two years." Recent days had seen Yemeni troops storm a major compound operated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a key goal in the ongoing military campaign. Fears of reprisals to the offensive had led the United States to suspend operations at its Sana'a embassy, and the missions of other Western countries at least limited their operations. Yemeni officials have struggled to put down at least two insurgencies, one in the country's south driven by AQAP and another involving Shiite secessionists stationed largely out of the north. The central government and Western officials have linked Iran to both. Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in late March blasted Tehran for providing assistance to Shiite separatists, after security officials captured a weapons-filled boat bound for the Sunni country loaded with Katyusha rockets, anti-aircraft missiles, RPG launchers and Iranian-made night-vision goggles. Links between Iran and AQAP, meanwhile, have been publicly known for years. Suspicions grounded in a now-notorious cable from bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, thanking Iran for its "vision" in infiltrating Yemen, were subsequently deepened in 2009 when reports emerged that Zawahiri had a channel to Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Gulf leaders have since at least 2012 been open in condemning a range of Iranian efforts they insist are aimed at destabilizing Arab states. Wikileaks cables published years ago had already disclosed that the Saudis urged the U.S. in 2008 to launch attacks against Iranian nuclear infrastructure, and in July 2010 the UAE's ambassador to Washington publicly made the case that "a cost-benefit analysis" argued in favor of military action against Iran.
- Egyptian presidential frontrunner commits to Camp David peace treaty, as allies urge Hamas to recognize Israel
The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday angrily denounced reports printed by Western outlets alleging that the Islamic republic had supplied Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime with chlorine-filled chemical weapons (CWs), accusing the Daily Telegraph in particular of being a "Zionist news outlet" that "spreads lies to deviate the world's public opinion from realities." Observers have become increasingly vocal in condemning what analysts describe as a coordinated campaign by Syrian to target rebel-heavy areas with the weapons. The campaign had - per the New York Times - "overshadowed" reports that progress was being made in eliminating other parts of Assad's nonconventional arsenal. Syria had agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and destroy its CW stockpile as part of a deal hammered out last September to avert what seemed to be impending U.S. strikes, after the regime had widely been accused of crossing a red line set by the Obama administration against the use of such weapons. The CWC does not ban possession of chlorine, which has industrial uses beyond the battlefield, but weaponizing the substance let alone deploying it is prohibited. The Chinese had been quick in announcing an investigation into whether the weapons had a link to Beijing, and had subsequently denied involvement. The controversy over chlorine weapons comes as progress has stalled in destroying even the CWC-proscribed portions of Syria's arsenal. The chief of the mission charged with destroying those weapons said this week that the last unsecured containers were currently inaccessible on account of nearby fighting. Washington has traditionally shown little patience for such arguments, accusing Damascus of dragging its feet and manipulating the situation on the ground to avoid handing over its weapons. The Americans believe that Syria has been looking to retain portions of its nonconventional arsenal to use "as leverage in a dispute with the international community over the future of facilities used to store the deadly agents."
Several outlets on Thursday reported on Congressional efforts to reassert a measure of control over the trajectory of nuclear negotiations with Iran, with members of the House of Representatives making a variety of moves over the last few days to monitor the status of ongoing talks and to establish acceptable parameters on any deal. Politico's influential Morning Defense bulletin took note of "an amendment from Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) calling for additional restrictions on a potential nuclear deal with Iran, including that Iran cease its support of terror groups and its ballistic missile program." An initial request for a roll call was withdrawn, and the language was approved by voice vote. Meanwhile the Washington Free Beacon reported on efforts by Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) to "legally force the White House into sharing information and provide oversight over the Iran deal, the text of which the Obama administration has kept locked in a secret location." The Obama administration and key members on the Hill have consistently clashed over the wisdom of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) signed between Iran and the P5+1 global powers, with divisions widening after it appeared that White House officials misled lawmakers and the public about the extent of Iranian concessions regarding uranium enrichment technology, plutonium infrastructure, and ballistic missile development. The situation is a delicate one for the administration, which has reportedly been seeking ways to circumvent Congress should Washington commit to undoing sanctions on Iran. Both supporters and skeptics of a potential deal agree that such efforts are unlikely to prove sufficiently robust to succeed.
Analysis published this week by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) conveyed a variety of indicators - ranging from public data about Israeli-Egyptian energy agreements to recent statements by Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi - converging on the conclusion that Cairo is making a concentrated effort to boost and insulate bilateral ties with the Jewish state. The write-up specifically focused on recent statements by Sisi, who is widely expected to breeze to the presidency in upcoming elections, committing to upholding the peace treaty with Jerusalem and suggesting that relations could warm further in the aftermath of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Meanwhile Amr Mussa - a top liberal politician and a notable Sisi ally - called on the Palestinian Hamas faction to recognize Israel in order to boost efforts to establish a viable Palestinian state. Mussa more specifically declared that "Hamas should declare its acceptance of the Arab initiative of 2002, which is the map of normalization and recognition of the state of Israel together with the establishing of the Palestinian state and the withdrawal of the occupied territory." Agence France-Presse (AFP) read the remarks against the backdrop of a recent unity agreement announced between Hamas and the rival Fatah faction. The announcement had been blasted by some analysts for providing Hamas with a lifeline, after almost a year of systematic Egyptian campaigns to economically and diplomatically isolate the terror group. AFP noted that "the deputy leader of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzuq, insisted earlier this week that despite the unity deal his group would never recognize Israel," a stance which puts the Palestinians in tension with almost a decade of international demands and with black-letter American law.
The Wall Street Journal on Thursday conveyed commitments from Iran's oil minister vowing to boost the country's crude exports despite what the outlet described as "a cap agreed upon with the international community." The interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which Iran and the P5+1 global powers had agreed upon last November - eased energy sanctions on the Islamic republic, permitting Tehran to export one million barrels per day (bpd). Iran has busted through that limit every month for six straight months, generating fears that the inflow in foreign currency and capital would erode the leverage of Western negotiators seeking to extract concessions regarding the country's atomic program. The dynamic had also seemed to align with the predictions of JPA critics, who had worried that the JPA's partial erosion of the international sanctions regime would spiral into broader economic gains for Iran. The Obama administration had pushed back against those critics by insisting that so-called core sanctions remained robust. Energy-driven economic stabilization has nonetheless long been identified as a particular vulnerability in the White House's gambit. Iran has sought to split Washington from its European allies, and in recent days Iranian Deputy Energy Minister Ali Majedi floated the possibility of supplying the Continent with gas and fuel. Against the backdrop of Russian energy maneuvering in the context of the Ukraine crisis, Majedi declared that "Iran can be a reliable partner for Europe: there are sufficient energy resources for cooperation with European countries and numerous projects exist in this connection." Writing in Forbes this week, Michael Lynch energy expert Michael Lynch took issue with those who dismissed "[t]he suggestion that Iran might become a natural gas supplier to Europe as a more secure source than Russian gas," outlining several plausible scenarios for delivery of the energy.
- Syrian opposition head arrives in Washington asking for aid, as strategic city falls to regime forces
- US and EU lawmakers weigh aid cuts to Palestinian Authority after unity deal, evidence of endemic corruption
National Security Adviser Susan Rice arrived in Israel on Wednesday for consultations with top Israeli security and political figures, a day after the White House clarified that the planned discussions would focus significantly on negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 global powers over the former's atomic program. The White House had also emphasized that those consultations - per language used by Reuters - would not actually yield "any new developments on that front." The Jerusalem Post suggested that Rice's trip comes as Washington is preparing for what the outlet described as an "Israeli backlash" to a range of concessions that the Obama administration is rumored to be contemplating. The Israelis have among other things dismissed an Iranian proposal - which top figures from Tehran's atomic program have been hyping as a promising development in the talks - that would see the Iranians rejecting a long-standing Western demand that they dismantle or at a minimum downgrade the heavy water reactor being constructed at the country's Arak facility. The current IR-40 reactor will be able to produce at least one bomb's worth of plutonium per year, and once activated is functionally impossible to destroy. The Iranians have rejected any possibility of meeting their international obligations - codified in United Nations Security Council Resolutions - to halt construction at Arak and keep the reactor offline. They have also drawn a red line against modifying it into a more proliferation-resistant light water model. Instead they are offering to run the reactor at less than full capacity, a compromise that Israeli Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz pointed out would leave Tehran steadily stockpiling plutonium that could eventually be used to construct a nuclear weapon, albeit at a slightly slower pace. Negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran are set to meet next week in Vienna. State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on Tuesday that Obama administration officials "feel like we can start drafting and... like we can get [a comprehensive deal] done by July 20."
Syrian rebel groups on Wednesday began clearing out of the strategic city of Homs under a deal that the Washington Postdescribed as "loaded with poignancy for the opposition," with hundreds of fighters allowed to carry only a single weapon as they boarded buses conveying them to the countryside. The city is considered one of the "cradle[s]" of the now three year old uprising. Its central location in Syria - it lies along the country's main highway linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast - led Agence France-Presse (AFP) to characterize the rebel withdrawal as a "strategic prize" for Assad. Bloomberg News contextualized the events alongside renewed calls for Western military assistance to rebel elements, opening its write-up by noting that "[w]hile U.S.-backed Syrian opposition leaders in Washington are lobbying for better weapons, the Syrian government has forced rebels to abandon the city of Homs." Rebel chief Ahmad Jarba announced Tuesday night that he would specifically request anti-aircraft missiles to counter what seems to be a deliberate move by Syrian forces to heighten the use of barrel bombs against rebel-heavy areas. The use of the shrapnel-packed helicopter-deployed IEDs has been criticized as a war crime by Western leaders, but the rebels have not been able to field a battlefield answer to the Syrian Air Force. The New York Times noted that Jarba's call came as Assad "appears to have gained the upper hand in the civil war and President Obama has continued to express wariness about becoming more deeply involved." Al-Hayat Washington Bureau Chief Joyce Karam on Wednesday conveyed statements from Syrian opposition groups noting that "Assad is still receiving arms from Iran via Iraq[i] airspace." The Obama administration this week announced that it was recognizing the main opposition group's office as a diplomatic foreign mission and increasing its non-lethal assistance by $27 million.
Voice of America (VOA) on Wednesday conveyed statements from Edward Kallon, the U.N.'s resident humanitarian coordinator for Jordan, calling on the international community to boost its support for the Hashemite kingdom in order to forestall a potential domestic backlash against the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees that have flooded into the country over the last three years. Kallon assessed that those refugees will be in Jordan over at least the medium term, and that "we should try to enhance social cohesion rather than creating sensitivities that result in resentment, which is not going to help our total humanitarian effort." Only about one quarter of a U.N. appeal for $4.2 billion - all to be delivered in 2014 - has been fulfilled. The United States for its part earlier sealed an agreement this week to extend loan guarantees to Amman that the State Department insisted would "allow Jordan to access affordable financing from international capital markets, ensuring that Jordan can continue to provide critical services to its citizens." Observers had feared in early 2013 that the country was entering a cycle of instability - where a poor economy drove unrest, and unrest prevented economic fixes from taking hold - but angry demonstrations had eventually tapered off. Recent months have however seen a spike in tensions, and last week there was a wave of violence in southern Jordan that included the death of a civilian apparently at the hands of security forces.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) on Wednesday told the Jerusalem Post that existing U.S. law is sufficient to curtail assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) should a government emerge drawing ministers from both the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, as reportedly envisioned by a recently-announced unity agreement between the two groups. U.S. Legislation stretching back to 2006 is explicit that any government that includes Hamas is ineligible for U.S. funds, and news of the Fatah-Hamas agreement was quickly described by Al Monitor as potentially the "last straw for Congress on U.S. aid to [the] Palestinians." The House will hold hearings Thursday to examine the status of the deal and evaluate its likely consequences. The debate on the Hill comes as the European Union is moving forward on its own investigation into what seems to be endemic Palestinian corruption and mismanagement of E.U. funds. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) on Tuesday rounded up developments that have emerged since last December, when the European Court of Auditors found that some of the billions of Euros given to the Palestinians since the mid-1990s had been allocated in ways that violated restrictions and conditions on that assistance. The JTA indicated that "a lingering corruption problem that has plagued the [PA] since it was formed under Yasser Arafat" has now become the target of "an unprecedented degree of scrutiny" from E.U. officials. The piece quoted Arab politics expert Guy Bechor explaining that "until now, EU aid was unconditional... [but] for the first time, we are seeing serious moves for conditionality and transparency." The Palestinian economy would collapse in the absence of significant outside assistance.
Iranian nuclear officials seek to push plutonium deal that would permit steady accumulation of nuclear bomb material
- Iranian nuclear officials seek to push plutonium deal that would permit steady accumulation of nuclear bomb material
- Turkey ruling party appoints committee, dominated by Turkey ruling party, to investigate corruption charges against Turkey ruling party
Reuters reported on Monday that a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - the U.N.'s atomic watchdog - would be holding talks until Tuesday on among other things "how the U.N. agency would monitor a planned heavy-water reactor near the town of Arak," which the West has long demanded Tehran either fully dismantle or at a minimum downgrade to a light water version. The discovery in early 2013 that Iran had resumed progress on the Arak facility, which contains a heavy water production facility and the reactor, was described at the time as the Islamic republic's "Plan B" for acquiring a nuclear weapon. The current IR-40 reactor would allow Iran to produce at least one bomb's worth of plutonium per year. Top Western diplomats and analysts, including those [PDF] linked to the U.S. government and the IAEA, have for years rejected Iranian pretexts for operating any heavy water reactor, and have emphasized instead that Tehran could replace the IR-40 with "a significantly more proliferation-resistant light water research reactor" with no losses. Inadequate interim concessions regarding Arak were reportedly what prevented the P5+1 global powers and Iran from coming to a interim agreement in mid-November, in a session before the current interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreement was agreed upon. Iranian officials have been publicly unequivocal in repeatedly drawing red lines against downgrading the Arak reactor, and Behrouz Kamalvandi - a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) - reiterated the stance last Friday. Kamalvandi went on to declare that Iran would refuse to "shut down or change any facility." Some Western analysts and journalists have nonetheless found grounds for optimism in Iranian declarations that the P5+1 was coming around to a counter-offer, under which Tehran would keep the Arak reactor unmodified but would reduce the amount of power it produced by half or even three-fourths. AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi in recent days doubled down on that position, declaring that the Islamic republic would not fundamentally alter the reactor, but would arrange for it to produce less plutonium. Israeli security officials have rejected the proposal, with Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz suggesting that there's little to be gained by enabling the Iranians to "create one [bomb] every two years" rather than "a bomb every year." More pointedly, once the reactor is activated there would be no functional way for it to be destroyed militarily, and nothing to stop the Iranians from simply reverting to processes that produce higher yields of plutonium.
A Hezbollah-linked member of Lebanon's parliament took to Voice of Lebanon radio to declare that lawmakers from his Loyalty to the Resistance bloc would exercise what he described as their "constitutional right not to enter parliament," setting up a deadlock in what will be that body's third attempt to elect a president on Wednesday. The March 8 alliance, which Hezbollah anchors, had previously been blasted by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman for boycotting such sessions, thereby "obstructing the election process through not providing a quorum." MP Kamel Rifai nonetheless told the radio station that he and allied MPs would again decline to participate in the parliamentary procedures, emphasizing that they had no obligation to do so because they do not have a candidate. The trick has not gone unnoticed by Hezbollah's opponents. The Future bloc on Tuesday issued a statement calling on March 8 to select "a candidate for the upcoming parliamentary session in order to prevent void in the president’s seat." The statement was blunt in linking Hezbollah's refusal to do so to Iranian machinations, blasting a recent statement by a top aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as "reveal[ing] the true purposes behind Iran’s relation with Hezbollah, and the missions that Iran gives to [this] party." Yahya Rahim Safavi had described southern Lebanon as Iran's "frontmost line of defense" and boasted that Iran's "strategic depth has now stretched to the Mediterranean coasts and just to the north of Israel." Hezbollah's moves to keep Beirut politically paralyzed, the Future bloc statement insisted, called into question whether "Hezbollah [is] a party specialized in defending Lebanon against Israel and its aggressions, or is it a party specialized in defending Iran and its regime." The organization had long leveraged its now-shattered brand as an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese territory against outside interference, using the pretext to amass a massive arsenal and insulate a state-within-a-state across swaths of Lebanon. It's position had for many years been echoed by segments of the Western foreign policy establishment.
Hurriyet Daily News on Tuesday reported that Turkey's parliament, which is controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), had established what the outlet described as a "single inquiry commission... dominated by the [AKP] itself," to investigate graft charges against four former AKP ministers from the government of AKP Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The session that established the inquiry, which will be chaired by an AKP deputy, was described as "tense." At stake are allegations that stem from an extended bout of open political warfare, stretching back to late 2013, in which judiciary and police figures linked to the Islamist movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen launched a series of corruption investigations that eventually ensnared a range of AKP elites, including Erdogan and members of his family. Erdogan and his allies responded by purging literally thousands of judges and police officers. Late last week the head of Turkey's Financial Crime Investigation Board was dismissed in what Hurriyet described "as part of the whirlwind of purges in the Finance Ministry," part of a broader "war with bureaucrats suspected of having ties [to Gulen]" and being linked to the "graft investigation that charged four ministers, their sons and dozens of pro-government businessmen and bureaucrats." At least two other top figures from the Finance Ministry were also removed. Meanwhile Ankara's chief prosecutor's office announced that it was launching a probe of Gulen himself for attempting to overthrow the government. News subsequently emerged that Erdogan had reached the decision, after a five-hour session of top AKP figures, that he would run in Turkey's direct presidential election, currently scheduled for August.
An interview with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi aired Monday - the first televised sit-down that the presumptive future president has done during the current campaign - saw Sisi declaring that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be allowed to operate as a national movement under his administration, accusing the Islamist movement of having fomented national instability both directly and by proxy. Reuters characterized the key exchange as Sisi being asked whether the Brotherhood would no longer exist if he was elected, and him responding "Yes. Just like that." Egyptian security forces have systematically moved to decapitate the Brotherhood's leadership structure since a government led by the movement's then-president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by the military in mid-2013 amid mass protests calling for Morsi's resignation. Morsi's government had brought the country to the brink of outright state failure, and observers at the time feared that Egypt was caught in a downward spiral in which a lack of foreign currency drove instability, and instability prevented foreign currency from flowing in. Last weekend Sisi went so far as to blame "hardline religious rhetoric" for having undermined Egypt's critical tourism sector, publishing a video to YouTube in which he promised to restore tourism and "allow people to earn." The highly influential NightWatch intelligence bulletin on Monday assessed that "outside interests that advocate on behalf of the Brotherhood are out of step with the political turn Egypt has taken.."
Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Washington Post: Kerry must abandon "one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas... issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood"
- Renewed focus on "possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program, as Tehran denies inspectors access to suspected warhead-related test site
Outlets and journalists over the weekend and into Monday continued to unpack what the Washington Post bluntly described as the "failure" of Secretary of State John Kerry's recent Israeli-Palestinian peace push, which had formally expired on April 29 but had functionally been suspended since the declaration of a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki had repeatedly emphasized that among other things Israel could not "be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist." The Washington Post, for its part, on Sunday reminded readers that "the numerous 'unity' plans announced in the past have foundered because of Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel or renounce terrorism," and declared that the aftermath of the talks' collapse had left "plenty of bad options" that U.S. diplomats would have to head off. The Post specifically worried that Kerry may make good on past hints of "embracing one of Washington's hoariest bad ideas, the issuance of a detailed U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood... [which] would satisfy some partisans but lead nowhere." Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg called on U.S. diplomats to draw lessons from what he described as a series of Israeli gambits aimed at creating space for a Palestinian state stretching back "even before there was an Israel." Goldberg noted that Palestinian leaders and their regional backers had "rejected each previous attempt to bring about [a two-state] solution." Political and even legislative fallout from the end of the talks has been steadily building. A tense exchange between Psaki and veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee in late April had already seen Lee declare "I remember you saying... they made progress on all the issues... I don't understand how you can even make that claim, frankly, with a straight face, because...the situation on both sides is demonstrably worse today than it was back last July when this process began." There had before and have since been a range of proposals on the Hill to slash U.S. assistance to the Palestinians.
Tehran is reportedly continuing to deny international nuclear inspectors access to the country’s Parchin military base, a site that Western diplomats and U.N. inspectors have long emphasized - per a 2011 report by the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - shows "strong indicators" of having been used for explosives tests related to "possible nuclear weapon development." Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) on Saturday asserted that the inspectors, who are in the country for a two-day visit, were not legally entitled to visit the Parchin base because it is not directly linked to Iran's nuclear program. The assertion has the potential to be taken as too clever by half. Demands for access to the military facility are grounded in among other things United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929, which calls on Tehran to clarify so-called "possible military dimensions [PMDs] of the Iranian nuclear programme." Non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. Western negotiators hammering out the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) had deliberately put off addressing PMDs, and U.S. officials had subsequently assured journalists and lawmakers that the issues would be addressed in the context of comprehensive talks. Iranian negotiators, for their part, have recently taken to suggesting that they prefer to put off such discussions until some time in the future, and to deal with other issues first. Observers have suggested that Tehran may be trying to maneuver the West into a position where Iranian negotiators will ultimately decline to address PMD-related issues, and instead functionally dare P5+1 diplomats to scuttle a final deal over the Iranian military's entanglement in the country's atomic program.
A top Hamas official declared over the weekend that the possibility of disarming the Iran-backed terror group never came up during unity discussions between it and the rival Fatah faction, a boast that seems set to widen concerns that the agreement - which among other things envisions a single Palestinian government eventually taking control of both the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and of Fatah-ruled parts of the West Bank - may be insufficiently robust to overcome fundamental obstacles to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Hamas Political Bureau Deputy Chief Moussa Abu Marzouk told reporters on Saturday that not only had disarming Hamas never been discussed, despite the almost definitional need for Ramallah to maintain a monopoly on the use of force, but that the organization would also refuse to recognize Israel. Renouncing violence and acknowledging Jerusalem's right to exist are two of three so-called Quartet conditions - abiding by past Palestinian Authority (PA) agreements is the third - that the international community has long demanded any Palestinian government fulfill. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted in recent days that the envisioned unity government will meet those conditions, claims that earned him an explicit rebuke for lying by former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar. The news came amid indicators that the deal was nonetheless providing a lifeline to the group, which until very recently had widely been seen as locked in a political and economic downward spiral. Traditional Hamas allies such as Turkey and Qatar immediately hailed the deal, and the Qataris reportedly pledged to deliver $5 million to the Gaza government in support of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in response to an explicit request made by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Meanwhile Palestinian media reported on Monday that Abbas had held a meeting with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Doha aimed at overcoming remaining obstacles.
South African security site DefenceWeb on Monday rounded up developments surrounding last week's announcement by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that he would block additional security assistance to the Egyptian army as a result of his "growing dismay" at Cairo's heavy-handed tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood, a move that came after the Obama administration had publicly committed to partially unfreezing its own halt in aid, which had in turn been widely blasted for risking bilateral relations while having little chance of affecting Egyptian calculations. Close military ties between Washington and Cairo had for decades granted American forces a range of preferential arrangements seen as crucial to enhancing American air and naval operations in the region. Analysts from across political and ideological lines had criticized the administration for creating a vacuum that could be filled in by other powers or, more worryingly, by geopolitical rivals. Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler, foreign policy scholars who by their own descriptions agree on almost nothing, described the freeze as undermining "nearly seven decades" of bipartisan American efforts aimed at "limiting Moscow’s influence" in the Middle East. Yiftah Shapir, Zvi Magen, and Gal Perel - researchers from Israel's Institute for National Security Studies - last week described a recently announced a deal under which Egypt would purchase Russian Mig-29s as "an alarm for decision makers in Washington" regarding a potential Egyptian pivot toward Moscow. Gulf countries meanwhile seen intent on taking the sting out of any aid cuts, and Reuters on Monday revealed that Gulf oil producers have in less than a year provided Egypt with roughly $6 billion worth of free fuel.
Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Iran angrily rejects U.S. report singling it out for global terror campaigns, complains about Washington ignoring "Zionist crimes"
- Daily Beast: Western analysts suspect Assad has secret chemical and biological weapons program, know-how to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade" arsenal
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday conveyed angry remarks from Iranian officials in reaction to this week's publication of the State Department's annual country-by-country terrorism roundup - which veteran Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee had characterized as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful" - with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham complaining that the U.S. was "turning of a blind eye to Zionist [Israeli] crimes." English-language Iranian media translated the same passage as "atrocious acts of the Zionists." The report had also indicated that Iran was facilitating the transfer of both Shiite and radical Sunni fighters into Syria, essentially funding both sides of that country's more than three-year-long conflict in targeting moderate Sunni rebel groups. Other passages revealed that Iran "trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups," which - it was pointedly noted - had been done "despite [Iran's] pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization." Tehran's activities in arming Hezbollah in Lebanon were described as being as blackletter "violation[s]" of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and were linked to Tehran's efforts to provide critical support to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. More broadly, the report catalogued Iran-backed terror activity in more than a dozen countries. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf had already addressed some of the Iranian pushback in a Thursday press briefing, telling journalists that if the Iranians didn't want to be accused of supporting terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism." Meanwhile Iranian Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a former commander of the country's Revolutionary Guards Corps, was reported by Iranian media outlets as bragging that the Islamic Republic has managed to expand its sphere of influence to the Mediterranean Sea. Rahim-Safavi reportedly emphasized that 'Iran's defense perimeter has been extended... above the borders of Israel.'
The Daily Beast on Thursday cited a range of Western intelligence analysts converging on the assessment that Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime not only has a secret cache of undeclared chemical weapons - which the outlet said included "crude chlorine-filled bombs, secret stockpiles of sophisticated nerve gasses or their components" - but also the stored institutional knowledge to "rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade chemical weapons effort" once the international community has turned its attention away from Syria. The outlet noted that widely broadcast reports regarding the eradication of Assad's chemical arsenal only take into account "the chemical arsenal Assad admitted he had" as part of a deal under which Damascus agreed to turn over its chemical weapons in exchange for the West suspending what appeared to be imminent airstrikes. The Daily Beast however conveyed that there there is "mounting concern that the Syrian regime may have a second unconventional weapons program—one Assad never told the international community about." That program is thought by Western intelligence analysts to include biological weapons, undeclared chemical materials, and chemical weapons such as chlorine that are not outright banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The news comes amid deepening worries among Western diplomats that Syrian forces have embarked on a campaign of using chlorine bombs to target civilians and fighters in rebel-heavy areas, a development that Foreign Policy had flatly stated if confirmed would "cast a dark cloud" over last September's deal. Meanwhile questions are also mounting about the regime's willingness to turn over even its declared CWC-proscribed arsenal. Reports have been piling up that Assad is dragging his feet on the obligation - the question came up on Friday at a Department of Defense press briefing - and Reuters reported the same day that rebel forces have in the meantime closed in on the last known stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons.
Emerging worries that a unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions would provide the latter with a badly needed lifeline seemed set to deepen on Friday, with multiple reports being published indicating that the Iran-backed terror group was surging in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Hamas was reported as making inroads into Ramallah - from which Fatah governs its West Bank territories - as measured by "the amount of Hamas flags that are being waved in PA controlled areas." The Times of Israel also reported on the use of Hamas flags at Palestinian events, conveying Hebrew-language reports of a Palestinian wedding procession in Jerusalem in which participants "displayed the flags of Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda." The news comes a few days after reports emerged that Hamas had held a large-scale demonstration in the West Bank, which Israeli outlets described as a "massive show of force." That rally had already reinforced suspicions - outlined at length on Monday by veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff - that Hamas was maneuvering to use the unity agreement to boost its status. Hamas's command and control infrastructure, as well as huge swaths of its advanced arsenal, had been severely degraded during an eight-day Israeli air campaign in November 2012 that came in response to a sharp escalation in the amount and sophistication of projectiles that the group was using to target Israeli civilians and soldiers. Less than a year later, in the aftermath of the ouster of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian army undertook a systematic campaign to destroy the smuggling tunnels that linked the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the Sinai Peninsula and which served as Hamas's economic channel to the outside world. By October of last year, Hamas officials were publicly bemoaning that they had been "sentenced to death," and by February 2014 analysts were predicting that Hamas was facing "a very bad year." Subsequent months seemed in line with those assessments, with Hamas diplomatically isolated and seemingly caught in a downward economic spiral.
Lebanon's NOW media outlet on Friday published a series of interviews and updates from the besieged Lebanese town of Tfail, which has been targeted by what NOW described as a "campaign of aerial bombardment against... civilians" by Hezbollah-backed forces loyal to Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime. The attacks have recently escalated to include barrel bombs, air-deployed shrapnel-packed IEDs that can level entire buildings with a single detonation. Tfail is technically in Lebanese territory but is accessible only via roads that run through Syria, and regime forces months ago set up roadblocks and began to choke off the town in an effort to prevent the transit of opposition elements across the Syria-Lebanon border. News of the attacks had been trickling out of Tfail for weeks, with reports emerging in late April that the Syrian army had launched a series of artillery strikes that had sent thousands of civilians - both Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees - scrambling to seek shelter in the surrounding hills. Beirut subsequently managed to send a relief caravan to the town, which by then had according to reports been "without supplies of food, electricity, shelter, or aid for four months." Friday's report by NOW indicated that attacks have resumed and that at least two Lebanese civilians have been killed, and one resident was quoted by the news outlet accusing Beirut of having only come "one day and then left us all alone to deal with the Syrian regime attacks." NOW also confirmed that Syrian forces targeted the center of Tfail with sustained tank fire for at least three hours, in addition to the air strikes. The Syrian campaign has come alongside several other cross-border attacks. The dynamic, under which Hezbollah-backed forces have been shelling Lebanese civilians and territory, has been devastating to the Iran-backed terror group's long insistence that it is an indigenous Lebanese organization protecting Lebanese sovereignty from outside interference. It is not clear, however, that the collapse of Hezbollah's decades-long pretense - which had occassionally been echoed in corners of the Western foreign policy community - will materially affect its ability to dominate Lebanon militarily and therefore politically. The group has publicly declared, for instance, that it will not accept a president who is not a "friend" to Hezbollah. An effort by the Lebanese parliament to pick a new president this week failed.
- News leaks: Palestinian unity agreement will install Hamas within PLO, allow terror group to keep munitions
- Reports: Palestinian negotiators repeatedly rejected Israeli efforts to craft compromise peace process language
The State Department on Wednesday published [PDF] its annual country-by-country terrorism roundup, a 318-page document that veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matt Lee nonetheless described as "singl[ing] out Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism that continues to defy demands it prove its atomic ambitions are peaceful." The report described Iran as funding both Sunni and Shiite fighters, both across the region and globally. Specific sections of the report took harsh tones not often found in diplomatic assessments, at one point emphasizing that "[d]espite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups." Another paragraph blasted Iran for facilitating the movement of Al Qaeda members across the Middle East, describing the operations of a "core facilitation pipeline through Iran" that "enabl[ed] AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and also to Syria." The final allegation has sometimes been controversial in the intelligence community. Iran has been unequivocal in its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a point of underlining Tehran's commitment to the Assad regime in the immediate aftermath of his election - and some analysts and diplomats doubted that the Iranians would also allow Sunni jihadists battling the regime to transit through Iranian territory. Other observers emphasized that Iran had every interest in using both Shiite and Sunni fighters to crowd out the moderate opposition facing Assad, which would allow Damascus to characterize the country's bloody war as an anti-terror struggle. The Treasury Department last February announced that it had evidence that - per Lebanon's Daily Star- "Iran is assisting key Al-Qaeda figures to transfer Sunni fighters into Syria." The State Department report's broad criticism of Iran came up during Thursday's daily State Department press briefing, with a journalist telling Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf that "Iran was not pleased about being kept on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism" and noting "[t]hey reacted quite angrily this morning to it." Harf responded that if the Iranians did not want to be listed as state sponsors of terrorism "they should stop supporting terrorism."
Al-Monitor on Wednesday published a translated English-language version of an article by Gaza-based Palestinian journalist Hazem Balousha, in which Balousha revealed a range of previously unknown details regarding a recent unity agreement between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, including news that Hamas had secured a commitment enabling its personnel to take up posts inside the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO is one of the parties with which Israel officially conducts peace negotiations, and is - in theory - bound to core obligations including the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel. Top Hamas figures have in recent days been unequivocal in emphasizing that any unity deal would see them maintaining their commitment to the eradication of the Jewish state. Balousha noted in Al-Monitor that Hamas's demand for a voice inside the body "had long been an obstacle to the implementation of all the previous agreements" but that "Abbas has seemingly made a concession" on the issue, with Hamas - in return - agreeing to yield any significant participation in the near-term Palestinian government that would guide the West Bank and Gaza Strip toward elections. Another aspect of the agreement would reportedly allow Hamas to "keep controlling the security forces in Gaza without any change or amendment," establishing a situation in which the terror group was allowed access to Palestinian institutions long backed by the West without having to yield - for instance - what are suspected to be tens of thousands of Iranian-supplied missiles and rockets. If confirmed, the description of the unity agreement is likely to reinforce growing analyst concerns that the unity deal amounts to a life-line thrown to the otherwise spiraling Hamas by the Western-backed Fatah faction.
The Times of Israel on Wednesday conveyed leaks from Israeli negotiators revealing that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had repeatedly rebuffed a series of Israeli proposals aimed at bridging the gaps regarding Jerusalem's long-standing condition that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state," describing the Palestinian leader and his negotiators as being "adamant in refusing to consider" a range of wordings that "would have described the Jewish people's and the Palestinian people's right to self-determination in precisely equivalent terms, and would have also included phrases to guarantee the rights of Israel’s Arab minority." The Times of Israel went on to describe the Israeli formula as one in which "both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people [would] mutually recognize each other's rights to sovereignty in the framework of an agreement that would end all remaining claims," noting that there would be a clause that "explicitly state[d] that a recognition of the Jewish state does not in any way impact on the status of non-Jewish Israelis, and does not coerce the Palestinians into accepting Israel’s historical narrative." The story, which is likely to deepen skepticism regarding Abbas's willingness to seal a comprehensive peace agreement, aligns with months of previous reporting. Abbas had been explicit in late March that he opposed "even holding a discussion" on Israel's demand, which was and is considered a proxy for the Palestinians' willingness to genuinely renounce claims against the Jewish state. The Palestinian leader had publicly underlined his stance as recently as April 26th, bluntly telling the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council that Palestinian negotiators would never acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. Agence France-Presse (AFP) secured a quote about Abbas's speech from Bassem Naim, an adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Naim told the wire that "[t]he speech had mostly positive points, and we cannot but support it on topics such as Jerusalem, reconciliation and not recognizing (Israel as) the Jewish state, in addition to the failure of (peace) negotiations."
Turkey has fallen into the "not free" category of countries ranked by Freedom House's annual "Freedom of the Press" survey, with the NGO watchdog citing a steady decline in how Ankara treats journalists - the "largest numerical change" in the region - while noting that "Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of December 1." The country has maintained its status as the world's top jailer of journalists for several years, and journalists who are not behind bars have been expelled from the country for criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party. A wave of expulsions last February took place amid a broader crackdown on free speech, triggering fears that a systematic sweep was underway. Multiple Turkish outlets covered the news revolving around Freedom House's ranking. Hurriyet Daily News wrote up its story under the headline "Turkey no longer even 'partly free,' according to press freedom report," and specifically cited portions of the NGO's report that discussed how "journalists were harassed while covering the Gezi Park protests and dozens were fired or forced to resign due to their coverage of sensitive issues." Zaman covered the same passages, and also described "several high-profile dismissals" of critics at top papers. Israel, meanwhile, was ranked by Freedom House as "free," marking the Jewish state as the only Mideast country with no significant media restrictions.
- Hamas stages "massive show of force" in West Bank as worries deepen that unity deal will revive group
A diplomatic spat between Turkey and Germany over the human rights policies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government escalated on Wednesday, as Turkish outlets conveyed critical remarks directed at Erdogan by German President Joachim Gauck regarding the behavior of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Gauck had had described himself as "horrified" at a range of recent crackdowns conducted by Ankara, from a massive purge of political opponents from the police and judiciary to ongoing calls and efforts aimed at blocking access to Twitter and YouTube to violent anti-demonstrator crackdowns. Erdogan had responded by mocking Gauck's former role as a former East German Lutheran pastor and doubling down on Ankara's policies, which had already generated suggestions from Berlin that Turkey was not yet ready to ascend to the European Union. Gauck responded Wednesday by declaring that he had actually "restrained himself" in offering his true views. Meanwhile U.S. officials piled on at Wednesday's State Department daily press briefing, with Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf describing conspiracy theories aired by Erdogan - in which the Islamist leader linked the U.S. to unrest in Egypt, Ukraine, and Turkey - as "ridiculous." Independent of controversies regarding human rights and civil liberties, Turkey's defense acquisition policies have also in recent months generated significant tension between Ankara and its traditional allies in Europe. The Turks have since the fall progressively inched forward on a deal that would see them purchase and integrate missile defense assets from China. One top NATO official described putting those systems online as the equivalent of introducing a virus into the alliance's command and control infrastructure. Separately, a speech given last week by Science, Industry and Technology Minister Fikri Isik - in which Isik said that Turkey was bolstering its indigenous production capabilities in order to avoid complications from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) - triggered concerns in the West that Ankara was seeking to circumvent binding non-proliferation treats.
Top Hamas figure: Palestinian president "is not telling them the truth" in assuring West over Palestinian unity government
- Top Hamas figure: Palestinian president "is not telling them the truth" in assuring West over Palestinian unity government
Reuters on Tuesday conveyed remarks made by Mahmoud Al-Zahar - a former Hamas foreign minister who the outlet described as one of the terror group's "most influential voices" - emphasizing that Hamas would maintain its commitment to the eradication of Israel in the aftermath of a recently revealed unity agreement with the rival Palestinian Fatah faction, and that the Palestinian government envisioned by the agreement would follow that rejectionist stance. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had earlier in the week declared that the unity cabinet would remain under his political and ideological control, and that he would ensure that it recognized Israel, fulfilled binding Palestinian treaty obligations, and renounced violence. The announcements - aimed at meeting international demands stretching back almost a decade that any such government accept those three Quartet conditions - were widely carried by international, Arab, and Israeli media outlets. The remarks prompted some diplomats to criticize the Israelis for having misread the situation, amid moves by Jerusalem to suspend talks pending the actual formation of the new Palestinian cabinet. Zahar belittled Abbas's assertions, telling Reuters that "Abbas is not telling them the truth [when he] says 'this is my government'... it is not his government" and that the Fatah leader's statements about the new cabinet accepting Israel were hollow. Zahar suggested that the promises were efforts "to minimize the pressure" that Abbas is feeling from the West and to "guarantee that U.S. financial support will continue." Meanwhile lawmakers on Tuesday advanced legislation that would cut off aid to the PA in the aftermath of the unity announcement, absent assurances that the PA had met a host of conditions including the Quartet conditions. The new bills advanced language that has existed in one form or another in U.S. law since at least 2006.
Iran is reportedly set to bust through oil sale caps set by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) for the sixth straight month, according to a report published late Tuesday by Reuters assessing that the Islamic republic will have managed to send abroad an average of 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude exports in April. The JPA permits Iran only 1 million bpd's, a level that Tehran has thus far exceeded every single month since the announcement of the deal. Reuters wrote up the April numbers under the headline "Iran's oil exports fall in April, closer to Western limits," a gesture toward administration assurances that Iranian energy exports will very shortly crash to such a degree that - by the end of the JPA's six-month negotiating period - the average figure for exports will indeed converge on Iran's permitted limits. Observers have expressed skepticism that the White House will have robust diplomatic options should those predictions prove over-optimistic, and have worried that in the meantime Western negotiating leverage is steadily eroding as Iran's economy improves and it reestablishes trade channels to outside markets. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Russia was seeking to create and then shore up exactly such channels, and that Moscow and Tehran had that weekend held talks aimed at making progress on "over $10 billion worth in electricity deals." The New York Times described the development as the "second significant economic collaboration under negotiation between the two countries that could undercut the efficacy of the sanctions on Iran," the first being a sanctions-busting $20 billion oil-for-goods deal. The news came on the heels of revelations that Iran and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq had just locked in an agreement under which they would trade natural gas for crude oil, and which would see the construction of at least two pipelines.
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to impose "an arms embargo on Syria’s government, as well as on any groups implicated in widespread or systematic human rights abuses," generally citing a surge in the deployment of so-called "barrel bombs" by the Bashar al-Assad regime and specifically describing two such attacks "on clearly marked official hospitals." The use of the helicopter-deployed IEDs - which are packed with explosives and shrapnel, and can level entire buildings with a single hit - had long ago been condemned as "barbaric" by Secretary of State John Kerry and as a "war crime" by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. The Syrian regime's Iranian backers, for their part, have celebrated the effectiveness of the weapons, and last December a Twitter account associated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards reportedly posted that "the easiest way to send infidels to hell is through [the] 'barrel of death'." Activists had in recent days sought to call attention to an increase in the tempo of barrel bomb attacks. Syrian forces had killed hundreds in the country's third largest city of Homs - where rebels were said to be making a "last desperate stand" - and in its largest population center, Aleppo. Reports that emerged regarding the Aleppo attacks, which included a strike on what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "clearly a market" filled with civilians, conveyed "scenes of chaos, with bodies lying amid mounds of grey rubble." Tuesday separately saw at least 60 people killed in attacks across Homs and Damascus.
A recent announcement from a top Turkish official - in which Science, Industry, and Technology Minister Fikri Isik declared that Ankara will begin indigenously producing weapons in order to circumvent potential import restrictions from supplier countries - has left "Western diplomats and military officials... puzzled" over Turkey's intentions, according to a report on the speech by Hurriyet Daily News. Isik had given a speech in which he outlined a plan by Turkey to create a "national" factory that will produce "warheads, airplane bombs[,] and [600 tons of] plastic explosives," with the initiative supposed to be completed within the year. The impetus for the new facility, Isik explained, came from Turkish concerns that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) - which imposes import and export conditions on certain materials, and to which Ankara has been a party since 1997 - makes it more difficult for the Turks to build the weapons that they want. A NATO defense attache based in Ankara told Hurriyet that "the minister's statement is not clear for many reasons" and emphasized that "if Turkey is planning to bypass the MTCR... that would be worrying.” A Brussels-based NATO ambassador worried that "we are not sure what kind of ammunition Turkey intends to produce at this new factory, and why it hopes to bypass the MTCR." Hurriyet also spoke with a Turkey specialist who noted that Isik's remarks "can be interpreted in a way that Turkey may be targeting to exceed the limits specified in the treaty." Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have increasingly found themselves at odds with counterparts in fellow NATO countries. Plans to purchase missile defense assets from a Chinese company - the integration of which has been described as the equivalent of introducing a hostile virus into NATO's command and control infrastructure - have progressed despite vociferous criticism from top NATO officials. AKP officials have been unreceptive to Western calls to put off the deal, and last October Erdogan lashed out at critics of the sale. Top executives from European and U.S. defense firms this month traveled to lobby Turkish firms against the move, explaining that it would severely constrain future security cooperation.
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."