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.
- 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.
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.
State Dept.: Palestinian threats to disband government would have "grave implications," force reevaluation of bilateral ties
- State Dept.: Palestinian threats to disband government would have "grave implications," force reevaluation of bilateral ties
- Credibility of Syria chemical weapons deal in jeopardy, as U.S. and French officials describe "indications" of new regime attacks
- "Possible military dimensions" of Iran atomic program under scrutiny, as confusion swirls over intentions
Top U.S. and Israeli officials on Monday reacted coldly to threats by Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders that they might disband the Palestinian government and transfer control of their territory to either Israel or the United Nations, with State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki emphasizing that the move would force Washington to reevaluate its relationship with Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring with resignation that "when [the Palestinians] want peace, they should let us know." Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee member Hanna Amerah reportedly told Palestinian media over the weekend that the failure of the peace process "could lead to the disbandment" of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the Palestinian body that controls Palestinian areas of the West Bank, which would impose new costs on either Jerusalem or the international community as they filled in. Agence France-Presse separately quoted an anonymous Palestinian official saying that similar threats had been conveyed to Martin Indyk, the Obama administration's special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself had apparently told Israeli lawmakers last week that a prolonged stalemate in the peace process would lead to the Palestinians handing over the "keys" to the West Bank. Speaking from the State Department podium on Monday, spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned Abbas against making any such moves, tersely assessing that "those kinds of extreme measures would have grave implications" on Washington's "relationship and our assistance." Palestinian officials emerged from their meetings with Indyk declaring that the U.S. was not presenting any new proposals to move forward a U.S.-backed peace initiative launched roughly nine months ago by Secretary of State John Kerry. Abbas has repeatedly rejected a range of U.S. bridging proposals designed to bring the two sides closer to an agreement.
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki revealed Monday that the U.S. had "indications" that a "toxic industrial chemical" had recently been used on the battlefield in Syria, and that Washington was examining the source of the attack, amid deepening suspicions that the Bashar al-Assad regime recently launched another chemical weapons attack against opposition elements seeking its overthrow. State's assessment tracks closely with remarks made on Sunday by French President Francois Hollande suggesting that Paris had "information" but not "proof" that the regime had launched another nonconventional attack, and it precisely echoes recent language about "indications" used by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. The deployment of weaponized chlorine by Syrian forces would present both diplomatic and political challenges for the Obama administration. The White House has battled for months against criticism that it was diplomatically outmaneuvered last September, when Washington dropped a threat of impending military action in exchange for a commitment by Assad to turn over his chemical weapons arsenal for destruction. The Syrians and their Russian backers took public victory laps as the agreement was hammered out by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the administration was subsequently criticized for among other things becoming de facto invested in keeping the regime stable enough to carry out its obligations. U.S. officials have in response circulated figures - including ones published this morning - suggesting that Assad may be steadily exporting portions of his arsenal. Chlorine, however, is not a substance that is outright prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Its use in battle is forbidden, but nations are allowed to possess it due to its industrial uses, and it was not listed among the key chemicals that Assad committed to exporting. Foreign Policy suggested today that evidence of chlorine use against Syrian rebels or civilians will "cast a dark cloud over" the UNSC agreement. The regime has sought to blame rebel groups for the attack, a claim that analysts have dismissed inasmuch as video evidence indicates that the chlorine-filled shells were dropped from helicopters, and rebel groups do not possess helicopters.
Reuters on Monday conveyed statements from Iranian officials describing efforts by the regime to prepare a document that would comprehensively lay out the development of the country's weapons program, a statement that the outlet read alongside long-standing and explicit demands from the West that Tehran must account for possible military dimensions (PMD) of its atomic program. The wire noted, however, that the statements - made to Iranian press by Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran's atomic energy agency - "made no mention" of "Western demands for greater transparency." Iranian diplomats had suggested in March that they might just wait until the very end of negotiations to address PMD-related issues, generating concerns that they intend to maneuver Western negotiators into a position where the Iranians would functionally dare the West to scuttle a mostly written deal over Iranian intransigence on those issues. The West wants Iran to account for activities ranging from what are widely believed to have been tests related to the development of nuclear warheads - in 2011 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accused Tehran of work at its Parchin military facility that provided "strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development" - to Iranian military participation in the development of the country's uranium stockpile. Iran is obligated under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1929 to address among other things "the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme," and non-compliance with the resolution has been cited in Congressional legislation as a central justification for imposing pressure on the Islamic regime. A minor controversy occurred in late February when reports emerged that the IAEA had withheld a report documenting further PMDs for which Iran would have had to account. At stake are not just past activities, but the degree to which the Iranian military is tangled in - and must be untangled from - the Islamic republic's ongoing nuclear work.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News over the weekend characterized the country's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as having broken new legal ground - the exact language, per a statement by the head of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB), was that a lawsuit filed by Erdogan was the "first of its kind" - after the Turkish leader applied for damages from the Turkish state as part of an ongoing controversy related to Twitter. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had banned access to both Twitter and YouTube on the eve of recent nationwide elections, a move that was widely seen as aimed at dampening discussions of a massive graft scandal that had ensnared top AKP elites including Erdogan and his family. The bans drew global ridicule and triggered a diplomatic crisis with Europe, and were promptly overturned by Turkish courts on free speech grounds (the government restored access to Twitter but YouTube has remained unreachable). Erdogan's lawsuit appears to claim that the Turkish state allowed Twitter to continue being accessible, and Twitter violated his privacy rights by linking to purported recordings of him discussing how to hide vast sums of money, and so the Turkish state violated his privacy rights and owes him damages. Legal scholars interviewed by various Turkish outlets expressed skepticism regarding the soundness of the legal theory. Nonetheless two anonymous Twitter accounts that posted links to the conversations were apparently suspended in the immediate aftermath of Erdogan's court application.
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.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday boasted that the international sanctions regime against Iran was "already unraveling" and would be "shattering in the coming months," echoing a theme that he has been consistently emphasizing since the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - which provided Tehran with badly-needed financial relief - was signed in November. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had as recently as late February bragged that Iran was "open for business," a gesture toward explicit Obama administration statements - made by among others Treasury Department Under Secretary David Cohen, State Department Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, and various anonymous administration officials - insisting that the Islamic republic was "not open for business." Reuters noted at the bottom of its article on Rouhani's speech that "Iran exported oil at levels higher than allowed under the sanctions for a fourth straight month in February," noting that Washington lawmakers may decide a crackdown is in order if "economic pressure is being relaxed too quickly." Figures from recent days indicate that Iran successful extended its sanctions-busting streak into a fifth straight month in March. The degree to which Rouhani genuinely believes that sanctions are crumbling is unclear. International reintegration and economic improvement were critical campaign themes for the revolutionary-era cleric, and some theories hold that he has been touting the collapse of sanctions as the fulfillment of campaign pledges. Skeptics have pointed out that overpromising sanctions relief to Iranian audiences dramatically increases the leverage that Western diplomats have in facing down Iranian negotiators: a halt or reversal in the relief would subsequently take place within a domestic environment of heightened expectations. It is not certain that Rouhani would have the will or political ability to raise the stakes for the Iranians in ongoing nuclear talks.
Gaza-based Palestinian groups on Tuesday celebrated the West Bank terror attack that the day before had killed one Israeli and injured two more, while other Palestinian organizations - including the internationally-backed Fatah faction that controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) - generated controversy by pointedly declining to condemn the atrocity. A statement issued by Palestinian Islamic Jihad described the shooting - which saw the family's car riddled with bullets, killing a father of five and injuring his wife and child - as a "natural" reaction to Israeli actions. Meanwhile Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh hailed the murders as having "brought back life to the path of resistance," declaring that "the West Bank will be the future point of our struggle with the enemy." Israeli officials have expressed increasingly pitched concerns that Hamas - having been bottled up in the Gaza Strip by an Israeli naval blockade and a persistent Egyptian campaign to destroy underground smuggling tunnels - may launch a dramatic terror attack in the West Bank to bolster its sagging stature . The PA for its part choose not to denounce the attack, a move which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu linked to ongoing incitement by Palestinian officials that had already generated other acts of violence against Israelis. Palestinian media reported on Sunday that a PLO committee had been dispatched to the Gaza Strip to facilitate reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The two factions have been at odds at least as far back as 2006, when Hamas emerged ahead in Palestinian legislative elections.
An relatively unusual incident in Jordan - in which an angry protester on Monday hurled a pair of shoes at the country's Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur - has refocused analyst attention on potentially widening rifts inside the monarchy, which as recently as last year was thought to be on the brink of following Egypt down a path of Muslim Brotherhood-driven destabilization. Analysis since then has somewhat shifted, after the Brotherhood seemed to badly overreach in its criticism of King Abdullah II. One particular incident had an activist setting a picture of Abdullah on fire. The activist was arrested and shortly afterward issued a public apology that among other things declared his support for "his majesty's vision" and called on lawmakers “to be tough against whoever may ride roughshod over this country and its resources." The Brotherhood in March made formal and informal moves to bolster its relationship with Abdullah. Analysts will watch the aftermath of the Monday shoe throwing incident to see if it follows a similar pattern. Police detained the 65 year old protester, claiming that it was "for his own protection because some of the attendees threatened to take action against him." The incident occurred against the backdrop of wider protests and strikes, which erupted in the aftermath of fuel price hikes overseen by the Nsur government. The Obama administration has declared Jordanian stability to be a key American interest, and has in recent years actively funneled troops and financial assistance to Amman.
A top United Nations human rights investigator on Monday demanded that Iran call off what is thought to be the impending execution of 26 year old Reyhaneh Jabbari, who had been convicted of killing an employee of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security under circumstances that international watchdog groups insist constituted self-defense. Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, noted that "reliable sources" had established that the stabbing of Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi happened after he sexually assaulted the then-19 year old Jabbari. The controversy comes against the backdrop of a spike in Iranian executions since the summer election and inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani. Shaheed has repeatedly called attention to that surge, and has more broadly sought to emphasize that Iran's human rights situation has not improved under Rouhani's government. Last October heassessed that there had been no fundamental improvements in Iran’s human rights between administrations, and then last January theNew York Times quoted him reiterating that "the more moderate tone adopted on human rights since... Rouhani's election last year has yet to yield any moderation in the country’s punitive practices." Last March he went further, insisting that despite "rhetoric and modest steps" I ran had yet to institute the reforms necessary to address "the human rights concerns raised by the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, the UN Secretary-General, Treaty Bodies, all Special Procedures, human rights defenders and international organizations." Some analysts have suggested that Rouhani is actually trying really hard to reform Iran, but that hardliners are ordering executions to smear him. The theory has fallen short of winning broad assent. Skeptics have pointed out that Rouhani himself appointed Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi - a hardliner hated by reformers for having overseen the executions of literally tens of thousands of jailed dissidents in the years immediately following Iran's 1979 revolution - to oversee the country's Justice Ministry. Rouhani's own history as a revolutionary-era cleric who subsequently called for the mass roundup of political dissidents has also, in this context, not gone unnoticed.
IMF confirms Iran's economy has stabilized after months of sanctions-busting oil exports, as concerns deepen over spiraling Western leverage
- IMF confirms Iran's economy has stabilized after months of sanctions-busting oil exports, as concerns deepen over spiraling Western leverage
- WSJ: "no signs" that Iranian leaders preparing public for concessions, as top atomic official makes case for weapons-grade uranium and thousands of new centrifuges
- Passover terror attack on Israeli family leaves at least one dead, after negotiators seek new ways to push forward peace hopes
Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday outlined the details of a new International Monetary Fund report concluding - pre the outlet – that "Iran's economy is stabilizing" and will grow in 2014 "even if sanctions relief under [the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA)] deal proves short-lived." The assessment details a wide range of already-known macroeconomic indicators converging on the conclusion that Tehran is managing to mitigate the economic pressure that Western negotiators have said is critical to securing nuclear concessions. Xinhua's coverage the report, published under the headline "UAE seeks more trade ties with Iran after IMF's positive outlook," linked the economic improvements to long-standing fears that the JPA's partial sanctions relief would trigger a kind of gold rush in which no entity wanted to be the last to access Iran's newly reopened markets. Bloomberg had already reported over the weekend that Tehran is engaged in extensive discussions with European and Asian businesses over future economic initiatives. The New York Times today published an article that, at the bottom of the piece, gestured toward the IMF report and conveyed assessments from a range of experts evaluating the significance of Iran's ongoing, five month streak of surging past its permitted levels of oil exports. The Times quoted Mark D. Wallace, chief executive of United Against Nuclear Iran, declaring that the Obama administration’s insistence on the robustness of the sanctions regime was being "wholly contradicted by reality." It also quoted Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noting that the dynamic "enhances Iranian nuclear negotiating leverage and makes it more difficult to conclude a diplomatic deal" that would see the Islamic republic meeting its international obligations. The top of the Times article, meanwhile, was devoted to evidence suggesting that ''the Iranians have seen little in the way of a boost from the sanctions relief they had been expecting." This is the second such article published in as many weeks by a top U.S.-based media outlet. It is not clear how to reconcile such assertions - which presume that Tehran has yet to see relief from a sanctions regime so crippling that it coerced hardline mullahs into conducting negotiations - with the broad range of quantative economic indicators indicating that Iran's economy has stabilized. Suggestions that the Iranians just got really lucky seem unlikely to rise to the level of social scientific rigor that analysts would find persuasive. Some observers have also made the point that Iranian economic improvement erodes Western leverage regardless of its cause, a risk that diplomats and lawmakers have urged Congress to offset by passing legislation locking in future pressure should negotiations fail.
Top Iranian cleric Ayatollah Imami Kashani declared in a nationally televised sermon on Friday that Tehran would continue pushing forward with its nuclear program despite the intentions of the country's "enemies," prompting the Wall Street Journal - which read the boast against the backdrop of similar remarks recently aired by other senior figures - to assess that Iranian leaders "show no signs of preparing [the] public for concessions to [the] West." Top officials from the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, up to and including Rouahni himself, have repeatedly and explicitly ruled out concessions on uranium enrichment, plutonium production, and ballistic missile development which U.S. analysts consider to be absolute minimums for putting a nuclear bomb beyond Tehran's reach. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week barred Iranian negotiators from trading away what he described as the country’s "nuclear achievements." This weekend Iran's atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi went further, insisting, first, that Tehran has a right to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels of purity and, second, that Iran will need 30,000 additional centrifuges to meet its energy needs. U.S. experts - including prominent supporters of the Obama administration's diplomacy with the Islamic republic - have calculated that any deal putting Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization would have to include prohibitions on the creation of highly enriched uranium and require Iranian scientists to dismantle thousands of already-existing centrifuges. Evaluating red lines set by Iranian officials, CNN host Fareed Zakaria had already last January worried that the P5+1 global powers and the Islamic Republic were headed towards a "diplomatic trainwreck" and that he was not "even quite sure what they’re going to talk about if these are the opening positions." Zakaria noted at the time that "it’s very hard to walk back” the absolutist positions taken by Iranian leaders. Obama administration officials have sought to answer skeptics by suggesting that hardline Iranian declarations are just bargaining positions, while skeptics have countered by pointing out that - even as bargaining positions - the widely broadcast statements may raise Iranian public expectations and close off necessary compromises.
A suspected terrorist attack on an Israeli family driving in the West Bank - assailants riddled the family's car with bullets as it was en route to Passover dinner on Monday - has reportedly claimed the life of one man, left his wife and child injured, and thrown into doubt efforts to put Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track. Israeli officials late last week had already provided grim predictions regarding the possibility that the two sides might ink a final status agreement before the April 29th deadline of a nine-month U.S. peace push spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry. A subsequent three hour Sunday night meeting ended without reports of progress. Nonetheless officials on both sides - and analysts in the West - had in recent days taken to emphasizing that the parties might substantively advance the prospects for peace outside of the Kerry framework, either in concert with each other or via uncoordinated unilateral steps. The bilateral Sunday night meeting between the parties had already been held without the presence of Washington's mediator Martin Indyk, who in any case had seen his position complicated in recent days by reports that he was driving a media campaign to scapegoat Israel for the collapse of the Kerry initiative. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl on Sunday made the case that "[a]lmost every positive development in Israeli-Palestinian relations has happened outside the 'peace process,'" and that the U.S. has played a positive role when it backed up and bolstered pragmatic leaders from the two sides. Diehl blasted the Obama administration for instead "chos[ing] to embrace the ever-failing peace process," a move that he insisted "not only has foundered, but it also has partly reversed the more organic change that was underway." Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had in recent weeks abandoned the high-stakes negotiations and instead resumed a campaign of diplomatic warfare against Israel, submitting applications to 15 international treaties. The gambit put the Palestinians on the wrong side of core Oslo Accord commitments, stretching back decades, under which they committed to abstaining from diplomatic moves that would upgrade the status of disputed territories. It risked confirming fundamental worries that Ramallah will eventually exploit a structural asymmetry in peace talks - Jerusalem is expected make irreversible territorial and security concessions, while the Palestinians are asked to reciprocate with reversible agreements - by pocketing Israeli concessions and then abandon talks anyway. It remains unclear whether Palestinian diplomats will be able to walk back Abbas's turn to international legal instruments, after Switzerland confirmed late last week that it had accepted the Palestinian request to accede to the Geneva Conventions.
Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News on Saturday summarized a weekend speech given by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as one in which the Turkish leader "lashe[d] out at all his 'foes'," outlining that Erdogan "maintained his angry criticism of the Constitutional Court, the Gezi Park protesters, Twitter and the Gulen movement." Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have sought to ban Twitter since the eve of recent nationwide local elections, in a move widely seen as aimed at limiting discussions of a graft scandal that had ensnared top AKP elites including Erdogan and his family. That corruption investigation had in turn been driven by elements in the police and judiciary linked to the Islamist movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. For its part the Constitutional Court had ordered the government to remove the Twitter blackout, prompting ongoing and angry denunciations by Erdogan and other government officials. Agence France-Presse (AFP) documented comments from Erdogan's Saturday speech branding Twitter a "tax evader" and promising to "go after" the popular microblogging platform. Reuters read the controversy as one of many in which Twitter's nature "as a public, broadcast medium and its viral network model" had led to it being "viewed as a particularly destabilizing force by some governments," including by Iran. Meanwhile Hurriyet reported that skirmishes between Erdogan and the Constitutional Court are widening, after the Court partially overturned a judicial bill that would have shifted power to the justice minister. The outlet noted that the legislation had been "drafted by the government amid the graft allegations."
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."