Al-Monitor on Thursday reported that top House lawmakers are in the early stages of drafting terror-related sanctions - the outlet described any legislation as "a work in progress" - that would target Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors due to the group's global terror activities and its fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor that Iran could not be allowed to "blackmail" the United States via terrorist proxies, even and especially amid ongoing negotiations being conducted over Tehran's nuclear program. The outlet contextualized the effort as at least partially a response to the Obama administration, after the White House conducted a publicly controversial but nonetheless successful campaign to prevent lawmakers from moving forward on legislation that would have potentially imposed nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in the future should current negotiations fail. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, had assessed in late February that lawmakers would continue to investigate how to impose pressure on Iran, and that there would also be "strong momentum behind another push" should the six-month interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) expire without a comprehensive agreement for putting Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization. A report published earlier this month in Congressional Quarterly assessed that "groups on opposite sides of the Iran debate" were converging on the need for a strong congressional role in shaping Washington's diplomacy with Iran.
National Journal on Wednesday conveyed details of what the outlet described as an "explosive" hearing held that day by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which saw senators from both parties "eviscerate" Obama administration officials over what Sen. Bob Corker described as a "delusional" understanding of the Syrian conflict. Corker leveled the characterization at Tom Countryman, State's Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, after Countryman suggested that the Bashar al-Assad regime has sustained "actual losses" due to a deal in which the regime committed to giving up its chemical weapons arsenal. Statements made this week by Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, indicated that Syria will miss the deadline set by the deal for dismantling its arsenal. An exchange between Corker and Anne Patterson - the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs - also grew heated, after Patterson insisted that the Obama administration had a secret plan to deal with the Syrian crisis but that she wouldn't tell the committee about it during that session. Senators broadly criticized the administration for having objectively propped up the Assad regime by inking the chemical weapons deal, a concern that had been made early by skeptics of the White House's diplomacy but that had been brushed off. The hearing came amid the release of a U.N. report that assessed that "massive and indiscriminate use of violence" on the part of the Assad regime was the “single most important factor” impeding Syrian civilians from receiving access to humanitarian relief workers. Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters continued to make advances near the Lebanese border on Thursday, the latest in a series of campaigns that have seen the regime consolidating control along the Syria-Lebanon border and restrict the flow of materials to opposition forces.
Ars Technica on Thursday reported on an "administrative measure" implemented by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) shutting down access to YouTube, which the tech-oriented outlet noted was done in an attempt "to stem a flood of leaked audio recordings of government officials before elections this Sunday." The platform had been used by anonymous uploaders to post what seem to be leaked conversations between AKP elites, ranging from discussions of how to hide vast sums of money to ones outlining potential military measures against Syria. The restrictions on YouTube come roughly a week after a globally ridiculed, largely failed, and legally overturned decree banning access to Twitter, and Ars noted that it appears that Turkey's telecommunications authority had initially implemented both bans similarly, by changing the Domain Name Service listings for the targeted sites. Ankara had subsequently escalated how it prevented access to Twitter - specifically by instituting a block to the microblogging platform’s IP addresses - and Ars suggested that the Turkish government will eventually get around to similarly restricting YouTube. Hurriyet Daily News conveyed statements from U.S. and European Union officials condemning the new restrictions. The State Department called on Turkey to stop blocking both YouTube and Twitter, while Neelie Kroes - one of several vice-presidents of the European Commission, and bloc's European Commissioner for Digital Agenda - blasted what she described as "another desperate and depressing move" from Ankara.
"Killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq were responsible for a global rise in capital punishment in 2013, according to a new Amnesty International report described Thursday by a range of outlets. The Guardian prominently quoted Amnesty's secretary general declaring that "the killing sprees we saw in countries like Iran and Iraq were shameful," and noted that Tehran and Baghdad were responsible for at least 538 out of the 778 documented state-sanctioned executions last year. Tehran publicly admitted to executing at least 369 people in 2013 - roughly 15 percent more than in the previous year - but is widely suspected of having conducted another 250 or so executions in secret. The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran has repeatedly emphasized - most recently last week - that there has been no fundamental change in the Islamic Republic's human rights approach since the inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and he has more specifically declared that its capital punishment policies "contraven[e] universally accepted human rights principles and norms." The assessments are in line with statements made by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Zeya expanded on the point, noting that the U.S. has “seen little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran under the new government, including torture, political imprisonment, [and] harassment of religious and ethnic minorities.”
- Iran FM: Islamic Republic is "open for business"
- Calls grow for Turkey PM's resignation after bombshell audio tapes leaked
- Hezbollah recruited European radicals to fight in Syria
- Damage control efforts deepen after Reuters details Iraq-Iran arms deal contracts
- Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on Sunday declared that ongoing sanctions relief has created a "safe, stable business environment" in Iran and that the country is now "open for business," a direct response to statements maintaining that the Islamic republic is "not open for business" from among others Treasury Department Under Secretary David Cohen, State Department Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, and various anonymous administration officials. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama have both explicitly echoed those statements. At stake are a broad range of criticisms worrying that the administration mishandled interim negotiations with Iran, in this context by underestimating the degree to which an initial erosion in the sanctions regime would trigger a downward spiral, with Iran’s markets and as companies rushing not to be left. Skeptics had immediately predicted that the psychology of fear which kept sanctions in place would give way to a feeding frenzy, while analysts linked to the White House dismissed their concerns as "fanciful." Evidence has piled up on the side of the skeptics. On Tuesday Reuters reported that India is preparing to pay $1.5 billion for Iranian oil, while the Washington Free Beacon disclosed that Pentagon contractors are exploring over $100 billion in deals with Iran.
- Ongoing political warfare in Turkey - which has pitted the country's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against rival Islamists linked to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen - has generated renewed calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after the publication of audio recordings that seemed to document Erodgan and his son Bilal discussing how to hide immense sums of money. The conversations were allegedly held the eve of a corruption scandal that would eventually engulf several AKP elites, and Bilal himself was at one point brought in for questioning in relation to the sweeping graft probe. AKP leaders for their part have purged thousands of judges, prosecutors, and police figures, and - as evidence of corruption piled up – have sought to scapegoat Jews and foreign lobbies. The latest iteration of the scandal saw the release of five recordings - seemingly wiretapped phone conversations - in which Erdogan and his son discussed how to shield vast amounts of cash from police scrutiny. Erdogan on Tuesday forcefully denounced the recordings as forgeries, and meanwhile reportedly blamed the "robot lobby" for seeking to undermine AKP rule via Twitter. The Turkish leader has repeatedly lashed out against the microblogging platform.
- Hezbollah has recruited Shiite radicals from inside Europe to travel to Syria and fight on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, according to reports published in Lebanese media earlier this week and conveyed Monday by the Jerusalem Post. Lebanon's Daily Star had quoted a source describing an Eastern European intelligence assessment detailing how “most of these fighters have professional military experience and have fought in Chechnya." If confirmed the development has the potential to affect a range of policy debates and calculations. Inside the European Union, there is a long-standing and ongoing reluctance to designating Hezbollah as a terrorist entity. The Iran-backed organization was definitively linked to a terrorist attack in Bulgaria, on E.U. soil, that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian, the latter being an E.U. citizen. Even under those conditions - and after months of contentious diplomacy - the E.U. limited itself to labeling Hezbollah's military wing a terrorist entity and sparing the group’s political wing, despite explicit statements from top Hezbollah leaders deriding the notion that there is a distinction between the two wings. Regarding Syria, Western capitals have expressed pitched concerns over the possibility that Sunni fighters from Europe are traveling to participate in the country's nearly four year war, and that they may eventually return further radicalized and battle-hardened. The controversy has been mobilized to highlight the dangers posed by jihadists, and even to suggest that the West and the regime’s backers have a shared interest in battling terror groups. Evidence that the Assad regime is availing itself of European fighters risks complicating that position.
- Both Washington and Baghdad continued to scramble on Tuesday in the wake of a Reuters expose documenting a $195 million security deal, spread across eight different contracts, which would see Iraq purchasing weapons from Iran. The move would be violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting trading arms with the Islamic Republic. The Obama administration, which has been criticized for allowing Iraq to slip into Iran's orbit even as the U.S. continued supplying Baghdad with Hellfire missiles and small arms, assured journalists that American officials were pressing for answers at the highest levels. The Iraqis for their part admitted that Iranian companies bid on ammunition contracts, but denied that any such deals had been signed with Iran. A full list of the contracts - detailing dollar amounts and the types of weapons to be delivered - is here. The documents seen by Reuters reportedly described the agreements as having been inked last November.
Former Mossad chief on reports Turkey deliberately burned Israeli spies in Iran: "Who is going now to trust them?"
- Former Mossad chief on reports Turkey deliberately burned Israeli spies in Iran: "Who is going now to trust them?"
- Intel analysts respond to leaked Iran offer: snap inspections "deceptively easy concession," reflect strategy of "small compromises"
- At least 59 killed in "spate of attacks" in Iraq, as government struggles to deal with Syria spillover
- Extended IAF exercises underscore "apparent message to Iran"
What we’re watching today:
- Turkish officials, including the country's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, deliberately burned "up to 10 Iranians who had been meeting inside Turkey with their [Israeli] Mossad case officers" by alerting Iran of their existence, according to an expose published late last night by the Washington Post's David Ignatius.The Washington Post cited "knowledgeable sources" as describing "significant" damage to Israeli intelligence. Former Mossad head Maj. Gen. (res) Danny Yatom, speaking on an afternoon conference call organized by The Israel Project, predicted that friendly intelligence agencies would limit their cooperation with Turkey's National Intelligence Organization in the future, saying that the betrayal of trust was "unheard of" in the intelligence community. "Who is going now to trust them? Who is going now to cooperate with them? Who is going now to share sensitive information with them?" Yatom asked. The incident is at least the second reported time that Ankara leaked sensitive Western intelligence to Iran within three years. The Wall Street Journal last week disclosed that Fidan had "pass[ed] to Iran sensitive intelligence collected by the US and Israel." The revelations come at a time of heightened concern regarding Turkish plans - which Ankara doubled down on earlier this month - to pursue a $3.4 billion deal that would see Turkey purchase missile systems from a Chinese firm currently under U.S. sanctions. The Chinese system would require integration with existing NATO systems stationed in Turkey, and according to NATO sources would functionally implant a "virus" in NATO's command and control infrastructure.
- For a second day in a row, coverage of nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran emphasized expressions of optimism while noting that Iranian negotiators have not in fact offered anything substantively concrete or new. Officials quoted by Reuters yesterday described "no apparent narrowing of differences" and worried that what was known about Iran's offer would "allow them to keep their whole program." The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum evaluated "the sudden good cheer" and contrasted it with the lack of any "radical new strand of Iranian thinking about nuclear power" represented by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or any "profound break from those who have run the Islamic Republic since its inception." She specifically cited concerns over Rouhani's Justice Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, who has for years been subject to intense criticism by human rights groups for his participation in the mass murder of anti-regime dissidents. Leaked details of Iran's offer to the P5+1 indicated that Iran had offered a three-stage plan that would allow Tehran to keep enriching uranium in exchange for snap inspections of known nuclear facilities. The insidery KGS NightWatch security bulletin unpacked the offer and noted that "snap inspections of declared facilities is a deceptively easy concession to make" because "Iran already has been found to have built at least one facility that was not declared." NightWatch compared the offer to ones made by Rouhani when he led Iran's nuclear negotiations in the mid-2000s, during which Iran would "offer small compromises by Iran in return for major concessions by the West and others."
- At least 59 people were killed in what Reuters describes as a "spate of attacks" on mainly Shiite communities across Iraq on Thursday, the latest in a spike in violence driven both directly and indirectly by fighting in neighboring Syria. The more than two-year conflict has deepened sectarian tensions and inflamed national divisions, and has also seen fighters participate in attacks on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border. Today's blasts, which included a bombing that killed five people on a playground, came in the middle of the Eid al-Adha holiday and also targeted members of the country’s Shabak minority. The bombings are the latest attacks in tit-for-tat violence that has pitted Sunni jihadists against both the Shiite-led government and Shiite militias. Analysts have been worried for months that Iraq is slipping back into the all-out sectarian warfare of 2005-2006, with some concluding that Iraqi violence is "no longer containable" and will itself escalate regionally. The United Nations reported that 979 people were killed Iraqi violence in September, and that more than 4,000 people have been killed since April.
- A major Israeli Air Force exercise continued into its second week today, refocusing attention on what the Washington Post last week called "an apparent message to Iran" that the Jewish state - which has committed to preventing the Islamic republic from succeeding in what is widely seen as a drive to acquire nuclear weapons - was capable of militarily degrading Iranian nuclear assets. The Jerusalem Post described the drills as "aimed at giving the air force the ability to carry out both broad and pinpoint long-range missions." Recent polling indicates that large majorities of Israelis would support unilateral military action against Iran if it became necessary to prevent the country from going nuclear. In line with the assessments of U.S.-based analysts and senators, the Israelis have emphasized that any deal with Iran must put nuclear weapons beyond the regime's reach by forcing Tehran to export its enriched nuclear material and to cease uranium enrichment and plutonium-related activity.
Western policymakers: "No apparent narrowing of differences" in Iran negotiations, Iranian offer "allows them to keep their whole program"
- Western policymakers: "No apparent narrowing of differences" in Iran negotiations, Iranian offer "allows them to keep their whole program"
- Lebanese Shiite cleric urges government to disarm domestic militia groups, as Hezbollah continues fighting in Syria
- Second Hamas tunnel uncovered, deepening fears of terror escalation
- EU officials slam Turkey for "excessive use of force" and "overall absence of dialogue" with opposition
What we’re watching today:
- Talks which concluded today between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva are being described with optimism in some quarters and pessimism in others, as analysts and policymakers struggled to figure out what exactly the Iranians offered and if the offer would be sufficient to put nuclear weapons beyond the reach of the Iranian regime. Reuters noted that while talks were "serious and candid," senior officials who spoke to the outlet warned that "no breakthroughs had been achieved and many disagreements remained" and that "there had been no apparent narrowing of differences between Tehran and the six nations." The descriptions seem to confirm assessments made a day earlier by Gary Samore, the U.S.'s "WMD Czar" during President Barack Obama's first term, on a conference call hosted by The Israel Project. Samore told the journalists and diplomats on the call that what Iran was publicly offering was "really no different than what we’ve heard from the previous government... from Ahmadinejad’s government" and that "it may be necessary for the U.S. and its allies to proceed with additional sanctions before he recognizes the need to make any really significant concessions." U.S. policymakers who spoke to the Washington Post today echoed Samore's suggestion that further pressure might be called for, with one former official worrying that "what the Iranians appear to have offered allows them to keep their whole program and all their enriched uranium." The Guardian described the Iranian plan as having multiple stages, with confidence-building deals involving "unspecified limits" on Iranian enrichment during early months, followed by acts in the second stage which would "further consolidate" the trust that had been built, ultimately creating a "new equilibrium" for the third stage that would involve intrusive inspections by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi subsequently clarified that limits on enrichment would not actually not be part of the first stage. Members of Congress, top analysts, and the editorial board of the Washington Post have all in recent days noted that such a deal - which would leave Iran with enriched material and the capacity to enrich more - would be unacceptable and would leave the regime with the ability to follow North Korea's example and dash across the nuclear finish line. Citing American weakness, General Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, bluntly advised President Obama to take the deal Iran is offering. The next round of negotiations in Geneva is scheduled for November 7-8.
- A top Shiite cleric in Lebanon on Tuesday called for groups within the country to completely disarm, piling on mounting pressure facing Hezbollah to dismantle the militarized state-within-a-state that it has maintained inside Lebanon for decades. Higher Shiite Council deputy head Sheikh Abdel Amir Qabalan demanded that the government "strip all the people of arms," a call that in the context of Lebanese politics functionally means disarming Hezbollah. The Iran-backed Shiite terror group has for decades justified its military and political domination of Lebanon by insisting that it had to maintain its arsenal in order to defend Lebanese territory from Israel. That brand has been shattered, however, by the organization's critical fighting in Syria on behalf of the Iran-allied Bashar al-Assad regime. Blowback from that involvement - including jihadist attacks on Hezbollah strongholds and cross-border attacks on Lebanese territory - has also contributed to criticism of the group. Hezbollah has nonetheless refused to untangle itself from the conflict. Hezbollah-backed Syrian forces today reportedly seized the town of Bweida, after nearly a week of fighting, while the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed today that it killed 50 foreign fighters in Syria, among them members of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite groups.
- The IDF has announced the discovery and destruction of a second tunnel dug underneath Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, following one disclosed earlier this week that had been built to open up near a kindergarten which authorities believe Palestinian terrorists intended to target. The new tunnel stretched dozens of yards into Israel, and Hamas terrorists may have intended to pack it with explosives in the process of launching a spectacular attack. Veteran Israeli war correspondent Ron Ben Yishai suggested that the tunnel indicates ongoing efforts by Hamas to conduct terrorism against Israelis, an evaluation that aligns with the worries of analysts who worry that the Iran-backed terror group may be trying to halt a slide in its stature by conducting a spectacular terror attack.
An annual European Union report dedicated to assessing Turkey's progress in ascending to the bloc has slammed Ankara for an array of human rights and civil rights violations, though the European Commission which released the report Wednesday did back a long delayed plan to open a new policy area for talks. The Commission described "serious concerns" over "the excessive use of force by police and the overall absence of dialogue" that marked mass anti-government protests in May and June. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has violently cracked down on demonstrators, suppressed coverage of the events, restricted even social media coverage, lashed out at critics as conspiracists, instigated
counter-protests at the risk of violence, conducted mass arrest sweeps, and in general embraced what critics blasted as a majoritarianism that bordered on authoritarianism. The international community had already months ago reached the point where German Chancellor Angela Merkel was openly suggesting that Ankara’s domestic repression would damage Turkey’s efforts to join the E.U.
- Syrian opposition attacks Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite forces in Damascus
- Iran disappears seventeen after raid on "network of homosexuals and Satanists"
- Murder of Israeli retired colonel is third murder, fourth terror attack by Palestinians in recent days
- Israeli military conducts long-range flight exercises as Iran brushes off U.S. "no enrichment" condition
What we’re watching today:
- Opposition forces battling to overthrow Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime launched an attack Thursday on regime-allied forces - drawn from Iraq and Syria, and fortified near a Shiite shrine in Damascus - underscoring the regional and sectarian dimensions of what Reuters described as "an increasingly internationalized conflict." Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite forces stationed in the Saida Zainab suburb of Damascus were attacked with mortar and gunfire, as rebel leaders struggled to launch a counter-attack in response to the loss of several Damascus suburbs over recent days. Hezbollah's role in the Syrian conflict has also come under heightened scrutiny in recent days. A video posted online appeared to show Hezbollah soldiers pulling severely wounded Syrian rebels out of vans and executing them, possibly during the Iran-backed terror group's fighting in Qusayr, where Hezbollah support was critical in the regime's successful efforts to seize control. Blowback from Hezbollah's entanglement - which has included both opposition strikes on Hezbollah positions and jihadist attacks on Hezbollah-dominated Shiite neighborhoods - has shattered Hezbollah's image as an indigenous Lebanese party promoting Lebanese interests. The group is rumored to be partially withdrawing from Lebanon, though sources who spoke to Lebanon's Daily Star yesterday were explicit and adamant that the group is remaining inside Syria.
- A Tuesday night raid at a birthday celebration in Iran resulted in the arrest of what regime officials described as "a network of homosexuals and Satanists," according to an announcement issued Thursday by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The arrested Iranians - among whom were people "who had tattoos, make-up, or were wearing rainbow bracelets," - were blindfolded and taken to an unknown location. LGBT outlet Queerty covered the story and noted that "in Iran, anyone suspected or confirmed of being gay, or being associated with homosexuality in any way, can be punished," including by death, and that the "arrests have prompted more alarm over the treatment of LGBT people in the Islamic republic." The arrests underscore systematic human rights abuses routinely conducted by the regime. Anti-regime activists have blasted Iranian president Hassan Rouhani for a wave of executions that have occurred since his election, and Green movement figures have called attention to the ongoing imprisonment of political prisoners. Observers are unsure whether Rouhani is able or willing to moderate Iran's human rights abuses. The revolutionary-era cleric has in the past called for the mass incarceration and execution of political dissidents.
- A retired Israeli colonel was bludgeoned to death overnight by two Palestinians wielding iron bars and axes, the latest in a string of deadly terror attacks that have generated fears that a spike in violence against Israelis is being deliberately driven both by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its rival Hamas. Recent weeks have also seen two other Israelis killed by Palestinians, and a nine-year-old girl was shot last week by attackers who approached her family's home. Top-ranking PA officials, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have among other things paid tribute to convicted terrorists, praised them on social media, and called on terrorists to launch attacks on Israelis. Meanwhile, in a statement on Wednesday, senior Hamas leader Husam Badran also called for renewed violence against Israelis. Analysts have linked what Jerusalem Post National Security reporter Yaakov Lappin describes as an "unmistakable increase" in attacks to Hamas's efforts to rebuild its terror infrastructure in the West Bank. Those efforts, according to U.S.-based counterterrorism specialists and Hamas's own material, are being orchestrated out of Turkey.
- The Israeli military on Thursday made a point of highlighting a "special long-range flight exercise," posting footage of the drill online and allowing journalists to draw their own conclusions as Iran prepares to offer a basket of concessions that fall far short of what analysts have said would be required to put nuclear weapons out of the regime's reach. Jerusalem has consistently said that it will act alone if necessary to prevent nuclear weapons acquisition by Iran, a country whose top leaders have repeatedly called for the Jewish state's annihilation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave interviews yesterday and today to a series of European outlets, warning of the dangers of offering a "bad deal," which the prime minister described as "a partial agreement which lifts sanctions off Iran and leaves them with the ability to enrich uranium or to continue work on their heavy water plutonium." Meeting with Netanyahu last month, President Barack Obama reaffirmed that that the U.S. was keeping all options on the table in order to force Iran to meet its international obligations, while National Security Advisor Susan Rice clarified that the U.S. would not accept any deal that allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium. Iranian officials have repeatedly brushed off the U.S. condition, emphasizing what they describe as an "absolute right" to enrich uranium.
- Reuters: "antagonistic" Rouhani speech does little to reassure wary U.S. lawmakers
- WSJ: declined handshake, "diplomatic humiliation" by Rouhani signal Iranian contempt
- Egypt deepens efforts to "decapitate" Muslim Brotherhood leadership structure, shutters Brotherhood newspaper
- Bahrain blasts Hezbollah leader as "criminal whose hands are stained by the blood"
What we’re watching today:
- Reuters reports that U.S. lawmakers who evaluated last night's speech by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani - a speech panned by analysts and journalists as "defiant" and "angry" - are what the outlet describes as "skeptical" about the prospects for Iranian moderation. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez is specifically quoted as being "disappointed by the overwhelmingly antagonistic rhetoric that characterized [Rouhani's] remarks." On the House side, Reps. Ed Royce and Eliot Engel, respectively the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times noting that "neither [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif nor Rouhani has shown a willingness to commit to a freeze in Iran's nuclear program," and urging that the U.S. "make clear that, absent a concrete, comprehensive deal, Iran's economy will continue to suffer" from sanctions. The points echo consistent calls from both sides of the aisle, and in both the House and Senate, for meaningful and verifiable concessions from Iran. Lawmakers have stressed that Iran will be expected to - per previous statements by Engel - "give up its nuclear program, give up its enrichment, give up its weapons-making capability." Meeting those obligations will require Tehran to stop all existing uranium enrichment and plutonium-related heavy water activity, halt the installation of new uranium and plutonium-related technology, remove its stockpile of enriched uranium from Iran, and open up the country's Parchin military facility – where it is widely believed Iran carried out work related to developing nuclear warheads – to inspectors.
- An anticipated handshake between President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani - which the White House had been open to and which had generated high expectations among some foreign policy observers - failed to take place Tuesday after a meeting between the two leaders was reportedly quashed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. TIME suggested that a handshake between Obama and Rouhani could "shake the world," while Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, commented dryly about the excitement being expressed on CNN. Rouhani's snub was one of three described this morning by the New York Post, alongside failing to attend Obama's Tuesday morning speech and forgoing a luncheon hosted by the U.S. president. The Wall Street Journal was even more blunt, describing the declined handshake as "among the most telling" of "diplomatic humiliations," and more to the point as "an expression of lordly contempt for what Iranian leaders consider to be an overeager suitor from an unworthy nation."
- Egypt on Wednesday shut down the Cairo offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's main newspaper, deepening what analysts are describing as a decapitation campaign to uproot the Islamist organization's infrastructure and influence in the country. Recent days have also seen the group's activities banned and asset freezes against its top leaders extended. The Brotherhood, which is rigidly hierarchical and led by a vanguard at the top, is particularly vulnerable to moves targeting its leadership. Washington Institute fellow Eric Trager this week outlined three different scenarios that might unfold in Egypt in the wake of the government's campaign. Trager suggests that Brotherhood members could look to exiled leaders for guidance, or they could participate electorally as independents, or they could turn to other Islamist movements. Under all three scenarios the Brotherhood as a coherent organization operating inside Egypt's borders would have collapsed.
- Bahrain’s top diplomat on Tuesday slammed Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah, with foreign minister Khalid al-Khalifa describing the leader of the Iran-backed Lebanese terror group as a "criminal whose hands are stained by the blood of innocents in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq." Hezbollah has been critical in assisting Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime extend that country's war, which has seen over 100,000 people killed and hundreds of people gassed to death, and the group has been blasted by Lebanese officials for dragging Lebanon into the conflict. Gulf nations have long blamed Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons for interfering in their internal affairs and for fomenting instability across the region. Hezbollah has responded, criticizing Bahrain's government for its treatment of opposition Shiites and - more recently - very pointedly warning Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom should reconsider its backing for rebels fighting the Assad regime.
- Thailand convicts Hezbollah-linked operative on bomb materials charges
- Iranian media boasts over naval power projection, Sudanese port docking
- Reuters: Turkey PM's pro-Islamist diplomacy has left Ankara isolated, "sidelined," "increasingly lonely"
- Washington Post: "No significant dent in the pace" of Iraq attacks despite government counter-insurgency campaign
What we’re watching today:
- A Thai court today convicted a Lebanese national allegedly linked to Hezbollah for possessing bomb-making materials, a month after a different Thai court sentenced two Iranians to lengthy jail sentences for their roles in the attempted February 2012 attack on Israeli diplomats. Atris Hussein was sentenced to less than three years in jail for possessing a substance banned under the country’s Weapons Act. Iran and Hezbollah have been linked to terror plots staged in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Thailand, Georgia, India, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Singapore, and Turkey. A report published this year by the Washington Institute’s Matthew Levitt concluded that Iran’s global terror operations have “climbed back up the list of immediate threats facing the United States and its allies," and a State Department report published this spring noted that "Iran and Hezbollah’s terrorist activity has reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s."
- English-language Iranian media reports on the docking of what the country is calling its 27th fleet - the helicopter carrier Khark (also spelled Kharg) and frigate Sabalan - at Port Sudan along the Red Sea. PressTV used the event to boast that "in recent years, Iran’s Navy has been increasing its presence in international waters." The Khark has been in the theater before, and in 2011 continued through the Suez Canal to Syria. Iranian military officials earlier this year announced that Tehran would deepen cooperation with the Sudanese navy, part of a broad effort by Tehran to project power beyond the Persian Gulf. Those efforts have generated calls by U.S. Gulf allies for Washington to deepen its commitment to the region amid budget-driven cuts in the U.S. naval presence. Gulf countries have become increasingly vocal in criticizing Iran for seeking to foment instability across region and for pressing territorial claims against its Arab neighbors.
- Reuters describes converging analysis from a range of foreign policy analysts to the effect that Turkish diplomats in general, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in particular, have been left "sidelined" and "increasingly lonely" in the Middle East. The piece heavily emphasizes Erdogan's support for Islamist actors throughout the region, and echoes points recently made by Georgetown Turkey expert Michael Koplow to the effect that Erdogan has "been raging on a daily basis against the Egyptian army" to the detriment of Egyptian-Turkey relations. Reuters notes that Erdogan's support for the Muslim Brotherhood has also generated friction with the U.S.'s Gulf allies, endangering "investment [which] has helped Turkey to prosper over the past decade." Ankara's isolation, according to Standard Bank economist Timothy Ash, now risks "the erosion of benefits from the enormous strides made over the past decade in terms of the development of trade and investment flows."
- A series of car bombs Tuesday in Iraq killed over 30 people and injured more than 100, followed by more car bombs today that took the lives of at least six more. The attacks are the latest in a five-month wave of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence that has swept through the nation and left more than 4,000 dead. On Sunday nearly 60 people were killed by a dozen attacks conducted in mostly Shiite-majority cities. The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently launched a counter-insurgency operation, dubbed "Revenge for the Martyrs," that has thus far mainly targeted Sunni areas and groups. The Washington Post this morning bluntly stated that despite the campaign, "there has been no significant dent in the pace of attacks." Analysts have expressed concerns that the country may be sliding into “the scale [of] sectarian slaughter” of 2006 and 2007.
- Analysts, diplomats raise doubts over Moscow-facilitated Syria chemical weapons bargain
- Rouhani: Iran "will not give up one iota" of nuclear rights
- Day of sectarian violence rocks Iraq amid government efforts to stem Sunni insurgent violence
- WSJ: Movement to draft Egypt general as president highlights popular backing for military
What we’re watching today:
- Confusion swirled throughout the day as to the nature and scope of a series of Russian-facilitated deals designed to defuse the international crisis triggered by what is widely suspected to be the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime. NBC News reported that by day's end Damascus "appeared poised to accept the Russian proposal for Syria to hand over chemical weapons" and to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. In what Washington Post foreign affairs writer Jackson Diehl called a flat-out trap, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that any Syrian proposal be accompanied by a U.S. commitment not to use force against the Assad regime, with which Moscow is allied. It is unclear whether Washington would be willing to issue such a guarantee. Foreign Policy noted that Assad has dozens of movable facilities, and that "the U.S. intelligence community would have a hard time knowing where more than a fraction of the sites were at any one time. Reuters emphasized that in addition to the normal problems that inspectors face when confronting dictatorial regimes - the Iraqis, for instance, "lied through their teeth" according to non-proliferation expert Amy Smithson - it "would be difficult" to protect arms inspectors. Moreover fears that negotiations could be used by the regime to stall for time have been broadly aired, including by officials from the Syrian opposition, Gulf states, and Israel. Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled Al-Khalifa instead called on the United Nations to take what he referred to as "necessary deterrent measures" against the regime, echoing calls made on Monday by Saudi officials urging the international community to "assume its humanitarian responsibility to rescue the Syrian people."
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared Tuesday that Tehran "will not give up one iota" of its nuclear rights, deploying rhetoric that AFP described as "echoing his hardline predecessor" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The statements come a day after the chief of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog (IAEA) emphasized that it was "essential and urgent" for Tehran to address international concerns surrounding its atomic program. A recent IAEA report called specific attention to Iran's efforts to lock in advanced uranium enrichment technology, to bring online its plutonium reactor, and to destroy evidence of work possibly related to the development of nuclear weapons. Rouhani's response to the IAEA's call for greater transparency is in line with a similar statements made by an advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, to the effect that the revolutionary-era cleric's government will follow "the same trend strategically as the former government" of Ahmadinejad. It comes alongside Rouhanis's vocal support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime, and may heighten skepticism regarding the new president's self-described moderation.
- A series of bombings and shootings in Iraq killed at least 24 people today, deepening fears that ongoing government efforts to stymie Sunni terror groups had failed - per the Associated Press - "to have dented the insurgents' ability to stage attacks at a high place." At least seven police officers were among today's victims. The deadliest attack took place south of Baghdad when gunmen shot and killed six people preparing the body of a Sunni man ahead of his funeral. Coordinated car bombs targeted multiple Shiite-majority areas, prompting suspicions that Al Qaeda forces were behind the bombings. More than 4,000 people have been killed in Iraq since summer began and approximately 800 Iraqis were killed in August alone. Analysts have expressed explicit concerns that Iraq may slide into "the scale sectarian slaughter" of 2006-07.
- A grenade attack on a military checkpoint in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula Monday left one soldier dead and two others injured, as insurgents sought to push back against an ongoing, widespread campaign by the army to uproot jihadist infrastructure in the increasingly anarchic territory. Scores of security officials have been killed in recent clashes across Egypt, with jihadists targeting both the army and institutions of the interim army-backed government. Leaders of the mass movement that called for the removal of Egypt's former president Mohammed Morsi have been targeted for assassination, as have government officials. The military's efforts to dampen the violence have long enjoyed widespread popular backing, and a Wall Street Journal article published this morning outlined that "a movement to nominate Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as Egypt's next president is gaining pace" as a signal of "Egyptians' yearning for stability and order."
- Twin car bombings target Sunni mosques in Lebanon, triggering fears of Sunni-Shiite terror cycle
- After rocket attack, IAF conducts overnight pinpoint strike in Lebanon against terror group that boasted of erecting "missile batteries to directly attack Israeli targets"
- WaPo: "Dramatic shift in [Egyptian] public opinion" toward army action against Muslim Brotherhood
- Treasury blacklists four top Hezbollah officials, declares group is "significant global terrorist threat" not "resistance" organization
What we’re watching today:
- Twin car bombings targeted Sunni mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday, killing at least 42 people and generating fears that Lebanon is slipping into cyclical sectarian violence of the kind that has recently gripped Iraq. The attacks came eight days after a car bomb detonated in Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold of Dahiyeh killed at least 22 people and injured hundreds. That bombing itself was the second such attack in Dahiyeh in as many months, and came after Sunni groups threatened to target Hezbollah in Lebanon in retaliation for Lebanon's activities on behalf of the Shiite-backed Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah subsequently vowed to double the group's deployment in Syria, and Hezbollah this week sought to contain future blowback by transforming its southern Beirut areas into what Agence France Presse described as a "fortress."
- Israeli Air Force jets conducted a pin-point strike on a target in southern Lebanon Friday morning, less than a full day after four rockets were fired at Israel out of the Hezbollah-dominated region. A statement by the Israeli Defense Forces described the target as “located between Beirut and Sidon” and reiterated that the Israeli government holds the Lebanese government responsible for attacks emanating from within Beirut’s sovereign borders. Debate in the hours after the strike revolved around the likely target, which social media accounts and news outlets narrowed to the Na'ameh area. The region contains military infrastructure controlled by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization aligned with Iran that earlier this year was activated by Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and bragged about setting up "missile batteries to directly attack Israeli targets." PFLP-GC officials nonetheless expressed surprise at the overnight IAF action. Very early speculation regarding the raid had also suggested that the IAF may have been targeting Hezbollah or the Al Qaeda-linked group Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB). The rocket attack on Israel that preceded the IAF action took place out of Hezbollah territory, and were claimed by the AAB. The sheer range of different groups linked to these incidents will be read against a general deterioration of security in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) had begun withdrawing from the region last spring, creating a power vacuum that analysts predicted at the time would be filled in by terror groups. Alongside the LAF’s withdrawal, Hezbollah began pointedly threatening the U.N.’s peacekeeping force along the Israeli-Lebanese border, and E.U. contributors have threatened to withdraw their troops due to the environment.
- Supporters of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed government demonstrated Friday in "Friday of Martyrs" marches, a week after the Brotherhood held "Day of Rage" protests during which over 60 people were killed in violence the Washington Post described as being between "the security forces, protesters and armed civilians on both sides of the nation’s widening political divide." Late reports Friday afternoon had one person dying and over 50 injured in today's marches. Meanwhile Egyptian security forces arrested some 40 people for involvement in what the Daily Beast describes as "the Muslim Brotherhood's war on Coptic Christians." The army, which backs the current interim government, also moved to arrest some Brotherhood officials in anticipation of today's marches. A Washington Post article published this morning described a "dramatic shift in [Egyptian] public opinion" over the last two years, with sentiment turning in favor of direct action against the Muslim Brotherhood by the military. The army's recent arrest of the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie was broadly hailed by Egyptian media, with several television network presenters congratulating Egyptians on the development, and one journalist calling the arrest "joyful news."
- The U.S. Treasury department on Thursday designated four top members of Hezbollah as terrorists, describing the Iran-backed group as "a significant global terrorist threat" and noting that the designations are in tension with claims - made both by Hezbollah and by some foreign policy analysts - that the group is an indigenous Lebanese "resistance" organization. The four men conducted activities on behalf of Hezbollah in Iraq, Syria, and throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The U.S. and its allies have increasingly sought financial means to pressure the organization. In June Treasury designated four Lebanese nationals for conducting Hezbollah-linked operations in western Africa. Around the same time, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council unanimously decided to impose sweeping sanctions against Hezbollah and Lebanon, a situation that experts evaluated "could suffocate the country." Hezbollah’s willingness to promote Iranian interests via global terror campaigns, but at the expense of Lebanon's economic and financial stability, has been used by analysts to ridicule the suggestion that Hezbollah is not an Iranian proxy.
Egyptian army moves against top Muslim Brotherhood figures, gets backing from U.S. Gulf allies, domestic media, investors
- Egyptian army moves against top Muslim Brotherhood figures, gets backing from U.S. Gulf allies, domestic media, investors
- Top Iranian adviser: Supreme Leader sets nuclear policy, will ensure that new president follows "same trend strategically as former government"
- Gulf states slam Hezbollah chief after he commits to doubling troops in Syria
- Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees flood into Iraq, reigniting fears of sectarian violence
What we’re watching today:
- The Washington Post describes moves being made by traditional American allies in the Gulf designed to bolster the Egyptian military as it moves to quell unrest in the country. Over 1,000 Egyptians have in recent days been killed in clashes between the army and supporters of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, as well as in attacks by Islamists on Christians and security officials. Riyadh yesterday pledged to replace any aid that Egypt might lose if Western governments restrict assistance to Cairo in the wake of the army's actions against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. The Daily Beast yesterday passed on statements from the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy to the effect that the Obama administration had already secretly suspended military aid to Egypt, a characterization that the administration today denied. Today Egyptian forces arrested Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Leader Mohamed Badie on charges of inciting murder, after violence on July 8 resulted in the deaths of at least 55 people outside Cairo’s Republican Guard headquarters. Egyptian media hailed the arrest, with several television network presenters congratulating Egyptians on the development, and one calling the arrest “joyful news.” Cairo’s main stock index responded to the arrest by jumping 1.1 percent. Morsi's one-year tenure was marked by systematic economic mismanagement, which brought the country's economy to the brink of collapse and which was so severe that Morsi may face criminal charges over his policies.
- A top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared this week that Iran would never suspend its nuclear activities, but explained to the Associated Press - per Voice Of America - that Tehran would at least 'tone down its rhetoric.' Ali Akbar Velayati, who advises Khamenei on nuclear issues, also emphasized in his interview that Iran's posture on nuclear issues was set by the supreme leader, and that guiding "principles" set by Khamenei would ensure that the administration of newly inaugurated President Hassan Rouhani would follow "the same trend strategically as the former government." Velayati’s comments about Iranian nuclear activity come alongside recent revelations that Iran is making sustained advances in developing ballistic missiles. A recently published Pentagon report assessed that Tehran may develop missiles capable of striking the United States by 2015. Satellite imagery published earlier this month by Jane’s Defense Weekly indicated that Iran has built a new rocket launch site “most likely used for testing ballistic missiles.” The Iranian regime is widely suspected – including by the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog group – of having used its Parchin facility to conduct research into developing nuclear warheads.
- The Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on Tuesday slammed Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah for making "irresponsible" and "contradictory" statements, after Nasrallah gave a fiery speech last week promising to double the number of troops that the Iran-backed terror group has fighting in Syria. The GCC earlier this summer committed to imposing financial sanctions against Hezbollah over its regional and global activities. Gulf countries blame Hezbollah for fomenting unrest within their borders, and for playing a critical role in recent advances by the Syrian army against largely Sunni opposition groups. GCC officials have made a point of emphasizing that their targeting of Hezbollah is "more comprehensive" than a recent E.U. decision to designate the group, inasmuch as the Europeans only blacklisted Hezbollah's so-called "military wing" while the Gulf nations' actions apply to all of Hezbollah. Hezbollah officials have repeatedly denied that the E.U.'s distinction is a tenable or accurate description of the organization's structure.
- Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have poured into northern Iraq this week, after the Kurdish Regional Government that controls the area opened up a temporary bridge. A U.N. agency charged with helping to care for the refugees described the flood of refugees as "among the largest we have so far seen during the conflict." In Jordan, where over half a million Syrian refugees are estimated to have fled, the economic and demographic effects of the crisis have strained the government's ability to cope. In Iraq, the risks of instability are compounded by sectarian dynamics. Sunni extremists in Iraq and Syria are known to cooperate with each other. On the Shiite side concerns have been raised that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is turning a blind eye to Iranian weapons shipments, and Iran-backed militias have for several years been described by U.S. military officials as the single gravest threat to Iraqi stability.