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.
Top former Obama advisors: White House, Congress must signal consequences to Iran if negotiations fail
- Top former Obama advisors: White House, Congress must signal consequences to Iran if negotiations fail
- Palestinian president rejects Kerry request to reverse negotiations-wrecking diplomatic gambit, boasts that Israel diplomatic moves "scare no one"
- Diplomatic meeting put off as diplomats, analysts, journalists worry that Erdogan driving permanent wedge between Ankara and Brussels
- Lebanese leaders scramble to convince Hezbollah to stand down destabilizing Resistance Brigades militia
The Wall Street Journal on Friday morning conveyed comments by former Obama administration advisers Robert Einhorn and Dennis Ross calling on the Obama administration and Congress - per the outlet - "to increase the threat of using military force against Tehran if talks aimed at curbing its nuclear program fail – or the country’s Islamist government is caught cheating on the terms of an agreement." The Journal noted that while the two are "both strong proponents of President Barack Obama‘s diplomacy with Iran," existing and persistent gaps between the P5+1 global powers and Iran have reinforced diplomatic unease over whether negotiations can convince Tehran to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. Their remarks came during the launch of a new paper authored by Einhorn and released by the Brookings Institute - where Einhorn is a senior fellow - calling for [PDF] a range of Congressional actions, including a prior authorization for the President to use military force should Iran attempt to sneak across the nuclear finish line. Ross elaborated during the study's launch that "the Iranians must see the consequences, not just of cheating if there is an agreement, but the failure of diplomacy," and that "the more we demonstrate resolve, including by talking about consequences of violations... the more we signal to the Iranians that we mean what we say... that will be key if we are to produce an agreement in the first place." Top Iranian officials have repeatedly emphasized that Tehran will refuse to dismantle nuclear centrifuges, downgrade its plutonium-producing Arak reactor, or make concessions regarding ballistic missile development. Western analysts - including Einhorn in his new report as well as U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security head David Albright - have assessed that any robust agreement on Iran would have to include the dismantlement of tens of thousands of centrifuges, the modification of the Arak reactor, and at a minimum confidence-building measures on ballistic missiles.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday rejected a request from Secretary of State John Kerry to reverse his position - announced earlier this week at what the Associated Press described as a "hastily convened" press conference - to turn to the United Nations and join 15 international treaties as the "State of Palestine," telling the U.S.'s top diplomat that he was unafraid of diplomatic retaliation from Jerusalem because "Israel's threats scare no one." The expression of bravado comes two days after Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki bragged to reporters that he didn't "expect any consequences coming from the U.S. Congress... at all" in response to the Palestinians' diplomatic gambit, which among other things violated commitments made by Ramallah in the context of a nine-month U.S. peace push and, more broadly, under the Oslo Accords. Analysts and journalists have in recent days expressed increasingly public worries regarding Palestinian recklessness. Veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff assessed on Wednesday that "what appears to be an attempt to pressure Israel and the US could easily inflame the Palestinian street," triggering a spiral of responses and reactions that "could push Abbas and the Palestinian leadership once again up a tree from which it would be hard to climb down." Issacharoff emphasized that heightening unrealistic expectations for territorial and diplomatic gains risked triggering an eruption of public anger "on the Palestinian street [that] could be directed at Ramallah and Abbas first, even before Israel." Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party supports renewed and ongoing negotiations, worried that a list of new Palestinian demands presented yesterday - widely and immediately seen as nonstarters - was evidence that Abbas was working against his interests. State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Friday that the United States remained committed to pursuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, though the Washington Post had previously reported that Kerry was likely to "lower the volume and see how things unfold."
Hurriyet Daily News reported on Friday that a planned meeting between European Union (EU) and Turkish officials is set to be postponed because diplomatic interactions between the parties are currently more likely to worsen relations rather than improve them, amid EU unease over recent moves by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to ban social media, turn water cannons on protesters, threaten to make political rivals "pay" for their opposition, impose conditions regarding when the EU is permitted to criticize Ankara, and so on. The outlet quoted an EU diplomat predicting that 'the relationship would go from bad to worse' if a meeting of the Turkey-EU Association Committee was held next week as originally planned. The news comes just a day after veteran New York Times correspondent Alan Cowell assessed that Turkey under Erdogan had "turned its back on the EU," and that upcoming elections "may deepen its estrangement." Cowell quoted Andreas Scheuer, a prominent German politician, tersely suggesting that "it is becoming clear that Erdogan's Turkey does not belong to Europe." He also quoted Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall worrying that Erdogan's moves to retain power may serve to undermine political freedoms and deepen internal Turkish divisions. Meanwhile Sohrab Ahmari, an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, called on European conservatives to shun the AKP, citing among other things the Islamist party's "contempt for such core conservative principles as individual liberty and separation of powers."
Lebanon's Daily Star on Friday reported that religious and political figures from the Lebanese city of Sidon have been traveling to Hezbollah's offices in Beirut to try to convince Hezbollah leaders to reverse their recent decision to reactivate and boost the activities of the organization's Resistance Brigades inside Sidon. The Daily Star cited local political sources worrying that 'the move could disrupt the relative calm of the last few months.' The militia, created by Hezbollah in 2009, has been a source of tension inside Lebanon in general, and specifically in Sidon. Hezbollah let it be known through Lebanese media that - in response to local concerns over the thuggishness of Resistance Brigades members - it was disbanding the militias in Sidon. Those reports turned out to be false, and in December Hezbollah reportedly ordered a "general mobilization" of Resistance Brigades fighters in response to a possible "snowball" of Sunni-Shiite conflict. The gangs were deployed a few weeks ago against several Sunni towns in Lebanon, after Hezbollah seized the strategically critical Syrian border city of Yabroud. Hanin Ghaddar - the managing editor of the Lebanese-focused NOW outlet - described the sudden upsurge in violence as Hezbollah spiking the football, writing that the group "needed to prove that its conquest of Yabroud would bear fruit on the ground in Lebanon... [after] the Lebanese people, mainly the Shiite community, had stopped buying into theatrical propaganda."
15 new treaties signed by Abbas - including multiple treaties Palestinians are currently violating - blasted for endangering negotiations
- 15 new treaties signed by Abbas - including multiple treaties Palestinians are currently violating - blasted for endangering negotiations
- Congress launches pushback against Iran's appointment of UN ambassador linked to 1979 hostage takers
- Turkish opposition shows photographs of vote count irregularities, amid swirling charges of election tampering
Palestinian officials on Wednesday issued a release listing 15 international treaties to which they will now seek to join as the "State of Palestine," adding detail to a Tuesday gambit by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas under which Ramallah renewed its campaign to upgrade the Palestinians' status in international institutions. The move was widely seen as violating the terms of U.S.-backed peace initiative pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry, which had among other things been explicitly premised on Palestinian commitments to abstain from such maneuvers. Abbas gave a speech declaring that abrogating those commitments should not be interpreted as a repudiation of the U.S. initiative, but interpretation may have fallen short of being persuasive. A meeting between the Palestinian leader and Kerry, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was promptly canceled. The Palestinians subsequently revealed the list of treaties to which they intend to ascend, with Abbas signing and Palestinian diplomats on Wednesday submitting papers codifying those intentions. The list appears to be a hodge-podge of international agreements, with some having to do with minority rights, others having to do with the trappings of statehood, and still others seemingly chosen as PR bludgeons against Israel. Analysts quickly raised concerns regarding the Palestinians' willingness or abilities to enforce those various treaties. Bar Ilan University Professor Gerald Steinberg, who also heads the watchdog group NGO Monitor, openly ridiculed the suggestion that Abbas - who sits atop of a Palestinian political infrastructure marked by endemic corruption, and who himself is serving a ninth year in his originally four year President term - would enforce the United Nations Convention against Corruption. It is unclear whether the Fatah-controlled PA will be able to enforce treaties such as The Convention on the Rights of the Child in the Gaza Strip, which Palestinian officials consider part of the "State of Palestine" but in which Hamas routinely trains thousands of child soldiers. There were several treaties signed by Abbas on Wednesday which the Palestinians appear to be in straightforward violation of. Northwestern University School of Law professor Eugene Kontorovich had early on Wednesday gestured toward a deep tension between the Palestinians joining The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid while working towards a state from which Jewish settlers would be expelled. He might have added that Palestinian law currently bars West Bank Arabs selling their homes or properties to Jews on pain of execution.
Reuters reported Wednesday afternoon that Russia and Iran were advancing on a scheme that would see the Iranians bartering roughly 500,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for Russian goods, a plan that the outlet said would "enable Tehran to boost vital energy exports in defiance of Western sanctions" and which the White house had previously gone so far as to identify as the source of "serious concerns." Iranian officials reportedly estimate that the oil-for-goods deal would be worth $20 billion to the Islamic Republic, gifting Tehran with revenue far beyond what was envisioned by the partial sanctions relief provided by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Diplomatically, the move would be read as in tension with State Department talking points - shared with lawmakers and journalists - insisting that Russia would "compartmentalize" tensions over Crimea and continue to back Western efforts to secure Iranian nuclear concessions. Substantively, the deal would deepen increasingly trenchant concerns that Washington had lost control of the partial sanctions relief provided by JPA, and that the patchwork of restrictions is in danger of coming undone. Both issues directly implicate renewed moves on the Hill to reassert a Congressional voice in negotiations with Iran. Bipartisan majorities of lawmakers in both parties have long sought to pass legislation that would impose financial pressure on Iran in the future should negotiations fail to convince Tehran to verifiably put its atomic program beyond use for weaponization. The White House fought something of a political war against those efforts, arguing that new legislation would cause divisions between the West and Russia, and that in any case no new pressure was needed because the sanctions regime was holding. A scenario under which Russia split from the West to bust the sanctions regime would likely complicate the administration's arguments.
Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are moving to enact legislation that would prevent Iran from securing a visa for its newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, just a day after Businessweek had already described the choice of Hamid Aboutalebi as creating a "dilemma" for President Barack Obama's diplomacy toward the Islamic Republic. Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line when the group in 1979 seized scores of Americans inside the U.S.'s Iran embassy and subsequently held them for 444 days. Analysts had quickly assessed that allowing Aboutalebi to serve in New York on Iran's behalf would be seen by U.S. allies as evidence that "Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in our pursuit of a nuclear accord." The Hill reported Tuesday that Senators were urging President Obama to act against the Aboutalebi appointed, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced legislation that would empower the president to deny a visa to any U.N. representative considered a terrorist. The legislation was reported as having bipartisan support - it garnered positive quotes from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) - and on Wednesday parallel legislation was introduced in the House by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO). The administration has sought to remain largely circumspect on the issue, with State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf describing visa procurement procedures as "obviously confidential." It is unclear how long such a stance can be maintained. Skeptics of the White House's engagement with Iran - which administration officials have sought to insulate from interference by insisting that a positive "spirit of Geneva" must be maintained - have portrayed the pick as a deliberate provocation.
An official from Turkey's main opposition party on Tuesday showed journalists a photograph of a top figure from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) standing next to a police chief and an election official as votes were counted in Antalya during the country's March 30 local elections, the latest in a series of alleged irregularities that have generated protests throughout the country. Devrim Kok, the head of the Republican People’s Party (CJP)'s Antalya office, expressed outrage over "a minister who comes to the courthouse and stands over the votes during counting." The controversy comes amid several others related to last weekend's polling, with AKP opponents calling attention to everything from discarded ballots marked for opposition candidates to mysterious blackouts in opposition-heavy areas. Turkey’s blackouts had initially been blamed on a cat said to have wandered into local electrical infrastructure, but subsequent investigation suggested that the NATO country’s electricity infrastructure has probably been hardened beyond the reach of stray felines, and that the blackouts seemed to correlate with areas supplied by pro-government electricity firms. Turkey has recently made a series of moves aimed at dampening criticism of the AKP government, with the most controversial being a series of internationally criticized bans on access to Twitter and Facebook instituted on the eve of the recent elections. The country's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday lashed out at the European Union over such criticism, declaring that EU diplomats should consult with Ankara before criticizing Ankara.
State Dept. report: “Little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran” under Iran President Hassan Rouhani
- State Dept. report: “Little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran” under Iran President Hassan Rouhani
- Reuters: U.N. nuclear watchdog shelved plans for report detailing Iran nuclear weapons progress
- State Dept. expresses outrage as Assad regime retaliates against families of opposition delegates
- Reports: After Palestinian President rejects U.S. peace proposals, Obama intends to up pressure on Israeli PM
- Descriptions of Iranian abuses in the State Department's annual human rights review - unveiled at a Thursday press conference alongside particularly grim evaluations from Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor - risk consolidating deepening concerns that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is either unable or unwilling to substantively improve democratic freedoms and civil rights in the Islamic Republic. Zeya described 2013 as having seen "some of the most egregious atrocities in recent memory,” and both the substance of the report and coverage of its findings revolved around outrages in Iran and Iranian client state Syria. McClatchy wrote up its coverage of the report under the straightforward headline "Iran still among world’s worst human rights abusers," picking out documentation of "Iran's record of floggings and court-ordered amputations, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, crackdown on press freedoms and 624 executions." Zeya had told reporters that the U.S. has "seen little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran under the new government" amid continuing "torture, political imprisonment, [and] harassment of religious and ethnic minorities." USA Today conveyed Zeya's comments as assessing that 'abuses have continued and even worsened under the new presidency of Hassan Rouhani.' The statements echo similar ones made by Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, who last fall reported that Rouhani's election had not introduced any fundamental changes in Iran's approach to human rights.
- Reuters reported on Thursday that had U.N.'s nuclear watchdog last year planned and then suspended efforts to compile a report revealing "more of [Iran's] suspected atomic bomb research," with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seemingly calculating that the evidence would complicate Western efforts to strike an agreement with Tehran over its nuclear program. The revelation, which came two days after the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) released documentation showing that Iran has resumed work at a military base where it is believed to have conducted experiments linked to the development of nuclear warheads, seems set to fuel suspicions that there are pockets of diplomats seeking to downplay the extent of Iran’s clandestine atomic work in the interests of striking a deal that can be publicly sold as having substantively addressed Tehran’s weaponization drive. Meanwhile Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated on Thursday that Iran will refuse to dismantle any of its atomic facilities or centrifuges. A previous report by ISIS had calculated that any deal which meaningfully set back Tehran's nuclear program would have to require the Islamic Republic to dismantle at least 15,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges and close some of its enrichment facilities, alongside other steps relating to plutonium production and weapons research. Zarif told reporters in New Delhi on Thursday that negotiations between the P5+1 global powers and Iran are "going well."
- Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime retaliated against family members of Syrian opposition leaders who came to Geneva for recent peace talks, detaining them after having designated the delegates themselves as terrorists, according to a State Department statement issued on Wednesday by spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The accusation, which was accompanied by a call on the regime to "immediately and unconditionally release all those unfairly arrested," is likely to deepen outrage toward the regime but also risks embarrassing the Obama administration on its diplomatic approach to the nearly four year old conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry had over the course of weeks last January been at the forefront of pressuring Syrian opposition leaders to attend the so-called Geneva II talks, despite something of a consensus in the foreign policy community that the negotiations were largely hopeless. Justifications given at the time, which revolved around calculations that there was little to be lost by bringing the two sides together, may now emerge as having been overly optimistic. The State Department on Wednesday also blasted Russia for continuing to aid Damascus, with Kerry declaring that "everybody knows" that what the regime is doing "is outrageous, unconscionable, unacceptable, disgraceful, craven, it's horrendous."
- Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly "exploded with rage" at Secretary of State John Kerry over what he termed "insane" proposals from Washington designed to facilitate a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, according to descriptions of a meeting between the two published in the leading Palestinian daily Al Quds and conveyed by The Times of Israel. Abbas is said to have been particularly incensed by terms relating to Jerusalem and to Israeli security needs along the border with Jordan, areas in which U.S. bridging proposal have been repeatedly rejected by top Palestinian figures, including by Abbas himself. Palestinian leaders on Thursday also rejected U.S. moves to extend peace talks beyond a previously-set April deadline, a proposal aimed at providing the parties with more time to hammer out a final peace deal. Meanwhile the New York Times reported that President Barack Obama intends "to plunge back into" Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, most immediately by exerting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an upcoming Oval Office meeting.
Top intel bulletin highlights "consistency in policy statements" across Iran governments, assesses Rouhani "no more tolerant of Israel and the U.S." than Al Qaeda
- Top intel bulletin highlights "consistency in policy statements" across Iran governments, assesses Rouhani "no more tolerant of Israel and the U.S." than Al Qaeda
- Iranian officials underline "red lines" against dismantling nuclear infrastructure, halting ballistic missile development
- Reports: Israel doubles down on Jordan border security requirements
- AP: Renewed Syrian peace talks stumble immediately
- The highly influential NightWatch intelligence bulletin on Monday underlined its assessment that despite rhetorical differences between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, their government's respective stances "about Israel, peace in the Middle East, and the [United States]... do not differ." The bulletin was evaluating the significance of a Friday incident in which Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran's parliament, used the podium at a Tunisian celebration marking the country's new constitution to slam the U.S. and brand the Jewish state a "cancerous tumor." NightWatch highlighted what it described as "the consistency in policy statements by [Ahmadinejad] and Rouhani" and emphasized more broadly that "Muslim zealots remain in control in Tehran... [and] their political theology relative to the destruction of Israel matches that of the Sunni jihadists," concluding that "Rouhani is no more tolerant of Israel and the U.S. than is [Al Qaeda leader Ayman] Zawahiri" and calling on Western leaders to "confront the fact that Islamic extremists, both Sunni and Shia, [want] the destruction of Israel." Iranian TV over the weekend broadcast simulated footage of the Islamic republic saturation bombing Israeli military and civilian centers, including - per one Israeli outlet's roundup - "Kikar Hamedina square in Tel Aviv... Ben Gurion Airport and military bases such as The Kirya (the IDF headquarters)... the Azrieli towers, Panorama Towers in Haifa, and the oil refineries in Haifa bay." The film includes footage of "Tel Aviv going up in flames." The clip, which runs more than 11 minutes and includes footage of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei speaking to cadets, was posted by the Iranians to YouTube and can be viewed here.
- Agence France-Presse (AFP) today conveyed statements from various Iranian officials laying out "red lines" in the context of upcoming nuclear negotiations, with top political and military figures ruling out a range of concessions on issues related to ballistic missile development, the status of atomic sites, and uranium enrichment capabilities. Regarding ballistic missiles - which State Department Undersecretary Wendy Sherman had assured the Senate would be addressed in final talks - Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi declared that "defence-related issues are a red line for Iran" that would not "discussed in future talks." Iranian TV meanwhile carried statements from Defense Minister Hussein Dehgan boasting that Iran had successfully tested new advanced projectiles, including ballistic missiles. AFP noted in its coverage that, in contrast to Sherman's statements regarding Iran's plutonium production and uranium enrichment sites, Iranian nuclear negotiator Majid Takhte Ravanchi reemphasized today that Iran had ruled out closure of "any of its nuclear sites." Iranian state media coverage of Ravanchi's statement is here. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had already boasted last week at a Tehran news conference that "America has wishes" involving Iran giving up substantial parts of its nuclear program, but that "those wishes are unlikely to come true." Meanwhile Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi reportedly told Iran's state broadcaster that Iranian scientists had developed a new generation of centrifuges 15 times more efficient than its previous technology, boasting that the achievement had been enabled by Iranian negotiators out-maneuvering Western negotiators in sealing an interim nuclear agreement. U.S. analysts and diplomats have repeatedly insisted that any deal that substantively diminishes Iran's nuclear weapons capability must include the dismantling of tens of thousands of centrifuges, the shuttering of at least some uranium enrichment facilities, and downgrades at Iran's plutonium-production facility at Arak. Obama administration officials have for the last few months assured lawmakers that they're confident they have the leverage to pressure Iran into making substantive concessions.
- Israeli officials this weekend reemphasized Jerusalem's insistence that Israeli security forces remain along the border with Jordan in the context of any final status arrangement with the Palestinians, a counter-terrorism stance that has reportedly been endorsed by among others Jordan, but that has been repeatedly rejected by Palestinian negotiators. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in recent weeks had floated the suggestion that international forces - his specific scenario considered NATO forces - would guard the border and prevent terrorist infiltration as a substitute for Israeli troops. Israeli officials pointed out both publicly and privately that almost every international force deployed over the last several decades to guard Israel's borders in the aftermath of Israeli withdrawals has either fled under pressure (UNEF I in the 1967 Sinai Peninsula and the EU monitors once stationed in the Gaza Strip are the usual examples), or has allowed terrorist groups to gain footholds and even create full-blown statelets (UNIFIL in Lebanon is the most obvious example but jihadists have also made recent gains in the MOF-monitored Sinai), or some combination of both (the near collapse of UNDOF on the Golan Heights is usually cited in this context). Recent polling shows that while a majority of Israelis consistently favor a peace deal with the Palestinians that would have the Jewish state making substantial territorial concessions, nearly three-fourths of Israelis reject withdrawing from the Jordan Valley. The issues of political resistance and political capital aside, it is in any case difficult to imagine any Israeli leader being able to cede control over a potentially unstable border given the precipitous decline in regional security and Arab state cohesion since 2011.
- The Associated Press reported this morning that renewed peace talks between Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and opposition groups stumbled almost as soon as they began on Monday, with each side blaming the other for a spate of violence that has seen hundreds killed in just the last few days. Both Damascus and extremist rebel elements have been linked to recent massacres. The latest attacks by forces loyal to Assad - which reportedly included shelling Homs even as it was in the midst of a three-day U.N.-brokered ceasefire - came after the U.S. condemned mass casualty regime attacks conducted in and around Aleppo last week. Meanwhile, Sunni jihadists over the weekend overran an Alawite village and reportedly killed at least 40 people, about a week after Secretary of State John Kerry gave journalists statements suggesting that Washington was failing to sufficiently bolster moderate rebels against extremists. France on Monday revealed that it will push the United Nations Security Council to demand that humanitarian corridors are created between Syrian cities, though the move may be viewed in some quarters as a token gesture given recent violence.
Still-unimplemented Iran interim agreement faces new snag over Tehran demand for advanced centrifuge development
- Still-unimplemented Iran interim agreement faces new snag over Tehran demand for advanced centrifuge development
- New figures show Iran oil export spike, promise to complicate sanctions debate in Washington
- Reports: Kerry to widen push for Palestinians to recognize Israel as nation-state of Jewish people
- Academics urging Israel boycott face "unprecedented" backlash, ridicule
What we’re watching today:
- Reuters reported late on Wednesday that efforts to implement the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) - the deal announced months ago in Geneva between the P5+1 global powers and Iran, which would set up a framework designed to facilitate still more negotiations between the parties over Tehran's atomic program - have hit a snag. The JPA envisions a six-month period of talks, during which some sanctions on Iran will be lifted even as the Islamic republic is allowed to continue unlimited uranium enrichment to low levels of purity and continued work on the country's plutonium production complex at Arak. Reuters reports that Iranian officials are also pressing to be allowed to pursue advanced uranium enrichment technology during the interim period, the upshot being that six months from now Tehran would have more enriched nuclear material and an enhanced capacity to quickly enrich that material further to weapons-grade purity. The scenario would be difficult to reconcile with characterizations of the JPA as even a temporary 'freeze' on Iran's atomic ambitions - the key emphasis made by JPA defenders in Washington - and Western negotiators have pushed back. The controversy risks further extending the time before the JPA takes hold. The so-called interim before the interim has effectively functioned as a window of immunity during which Iran has been allowed to continue its nuclear work unfettered by the agreement's limitations, even as Western powers have held off on new pressure so as not to endanger future negotiations. The White House has already faced months of criticism for allowing itself to be maneuvered into such a situation, and denied today that implementation talks had broken down. Iranian media today reported that Mohammad Hassan Asafari, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission in Iran's parliament, declared that in addition to refusing to ever give up enrichment, Iran would also refuse to give up "one iota" of its support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
- The Washington Free Beacon this morning published figures, provided to the outlet by the non-partisan advocacy organization United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), showing that Iranian oil exports not only spiked in December but approached an annual high, amid expectations from investors and trading partners that sanctions against the Islamic republic will soon be reduced. The Beacon read the export numbers, which had Iran sending over a billion barrels of oil per day overseas, against the backdrop of analyst worries that "the interim nuclear deal reached between Iran and the West has reinvigorated the global markets" that will result in a steady erosion of the international sanctions regime. Figures for October saw Iranian oil sales cratering but by November - amid talk of an interim nuclear agreement - Iranian media was already bragging about double-digit export growth to among other countries South Korea. In early December Iran signaled that it was preparing to reassert its leadership inside OPEC. In early January details emerged of a Chinese-Iranian deal that would see exports boosted to pre-2012 levels. Iran's oil resurgence will likely deepen concerns in Washington that the Islamic republic is shaking off years of international sanctions designed first to pressure Iranian leaders into negotiating over the country's nuclear program and, more pointedly, to achieve a change in Iran's posture toward that program. A bipartisan Senate bill introduced before the holiday recess, which would signal to Iran that more sanctions will be imposed in the future should Tehran refuse to dismantle its nuclear program, this week reportedly secured majority support in the legislative body. The White House has committed to vetoing the bill should it pass Congress.
- Reports suggesting that Secretary of State John Kerry is frustrated by the refusal of Palestinian negotiators to acknowledge Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in the context of a final status agreement - which coalesced over the weekend with a Telegraph report saying as much in as many words - continued to trickle out yesterday and today, with articles in both Israeli and Palestinian media indicating that Kerry will try to rally Arab support behind him. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted since 2009, when he was elected, that any comprehensive treaty between Israelis and their Palestinian counterparts must include such a provision, which would robustly acknowledge that the Palestinians were giving up any future claims to Israeli territory. A May 2009 press conference with Netanyahu and President Barack Obama saw both leaders gesture toward the condition, with the President declaring that "[i]t is in U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel’s security as an independent Jewish state is maintained" and the Prime Minister explicitly outlining that a peace deal would require the Palestinians to "to recognize Israel as a Jewish state." Reporting on this issue has been tangled, with some outlets treating the long-emphasized Israeli condition as relatively new.
- Anti-Israel academics advocating boycotts of the Jewish state are increasingly at risk of becoming punchlines, with prominent commentators and scholars from across the ideological spectrum accusing backers of the so-called boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement not just of hypocrisy but also of incoherence and absurdity. The American Studies Association (ASA) recently voted to disassociate itself from Israeli academia, triggering a backlash described by academic trade publications as "unprecedented." Over 150 institutions of higher learning have rejected the vote, more often than not in withering terms rarely seen in institutional academia. Peter Schmidt, a senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, on Sunday evaluated that the reaction has made the ASA into "a pariah of the United States higher-education establishment, its experience serving as a cautionary tale for other scholarly groups that might consider taking a similar stand on the Middle East." Schmidt cited formal condemnations from a range of colleges and universities, denunciations from "three of the United States' most prominent higher-education organizations," and decisions by ASA institutional members to withdraw from the organization. Judea Pearl - president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son, the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl - assessed that the ASA's gambit has generated "unprecedented galvanization of Jewish students and faculty to confront the dangers of the BDS assault." The ASA has scrambled to backtrack regarding the scope and significance of its call to isolate Israel - the specific defense is that only Israeli institutions, and not individual Israelis, are being targeted - generating eye-rolls that "they intend to catch fish but vow not to go near the water." Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg today ridiculed an upcoming conference at American University of Beirut's Center for American Studies and Research, which will see presentations from some of the top ASA figures associated with the boycott, for hosting academics "opposed to the existence of Lebanon’s southern neighbor: Israel." Goldberg particularly cited one presentation, which had already been highlighted by Washington Post blogger Max Fisher for implicitly equating Palestinians with Antarctic penguins, as his "favorite offering." Meanwhile the Modern Language Association (MLA) is gearing up this week to host a conference in Chicago that will feature a panel on BDS and vote on an anti-Israel resolution that - though it does embroil the literature-oriented academic association in the intricacies of the Middle East conflict - falls short of calling for a boycott. The group has dealt with the easily foreseen controversy - coming from journalists, academics, and the public - with something less than cutting-edge public relations acumen. It denied media credentials to the Daily Caller, with predictable results, and it denied a request by the Israel on Campus Coalition and Hillel International to hold a counter pro-Israel panel, a news story that went international.
Senators double down on new sanctions legislation as questions mount over inconsistencies in White House posture
- Senators double down on new sanctions legislation as questions mount over inconsistencies in White House posture
- Turkish corruption probe spills over into U.S.-Turkey relationship, as government-linked campaign targets U.S. ambassador
- Reports: Kerry to present Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement, after Palestinians rejected bridging proposals
- Massive bomb targets Egyptian police station amid sweeping anti-terror campaign
What we’re watching today:
- The Hill reported mid-Sunday that leading Senate Democrats are doubling down on a bipartisan push to impose sanctions on Iran should the Islamic republic either cheat on the terms of the Joint Plan of Action during an upcoming six-month negotiating period or, at the end of that period, refuse to verifiably put its nuclear program beyond use for weaponization. A bipartisan group of 26 senators last week unveiled the legislation, which provides the president the flexibility to put off the sanctions for a year as negotiations progress. Responding to explicit accusations that the sitting U.S. senators were trying to drag America into war, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) explained that "there are many of us, Democrats and Republicans in this Senate, who believe the best way to avoid war and get Iran to give up nuclear weapons is by ratcheting up sanctions, not by reducing them." Schumer went on to gesture toward a long-simmering controversy regarding tensions in the Obama administration's position on Iran sanctions: The White House insists that while past sanctions successfully coerced the Iranians into negotiating against their will, future sanctions will derail negotiations by draining good will. The Wall Street Journal this weekend also commented on the tension, noting that "Mr. Obama keeps saying that previous sanctions... are what brought Iran to the bargaining table... this [legislation] sharpens the incentive for Iran to dismantle its illegal nuclear facilities." The Journal noted that "the bill would do nothing to undermine the talks unless Iran isn't serious" and flatly evaluated that, by threatening to veto the legislation as a threat to negotiations, "the President is siding with Iran against a bipartisan majority in the US Congress."
- An escalating political struggle between two dominant Islamist camps inside Turkey - which in recent days has rocked the country and now threatens to destabilize the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) government - has spilled over into the U.S.-Turkey relationship and generated a sharp rebuke from Washington regarding "continued false and slanderous attacks" targeting U.S. officials. A corruption probe conducted largely by figures linked to the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers have broad sway inside Turkey's state and non-state institutions, has in recent days ensnared top figures in the AKP hierarchy on a range of charges. AKP figures, up to and including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have spoken darkly of a "dirty operation" and moved to purge Gulen-linked figures from police and security services. Another 25 police chiefs were dismissed this weekend. Erdogan has also declared that "some foreign envoys" were helping to coordinate the moves against the AKP. Ilhan Tanir, the Washington correspondent for Turkey's Vatan outlet, today blogged that the lines are thinly veiled references to U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, and that Ricciardone has also been the target of attacks from multiple pro-AKP newspapers. Tanir conveyed State Department statements pushing back against the attacks, with a U.S. official condemning "the continued false and slanderous attacks by some elements of the Turkish media against our Ambassador, other senior U.S. officials, international media representatives, and private American citizens and groups." Critically, U..S officials are calling on Ankara to "disavow and condemn such attacks."
- Reports emerged on Sunday that Secretary of State John Kerry is set to present a framework agreement to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators designed to balance Palestinian demands for sovereignty with Israeli security requirements, amid revelations that direct peace talks were suspended after Palestinians rejected previous U.S. proposals for security arrangements along the Jordanian border. Jerusalem has emphasized for years that it must be permitted to maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley to prevent destabilization and terrorist infiltration, a view reportedly endorsed by Jordan and codified in a recent bridging proposal presented by Kerry to Israeli and Palestinian diplomats. The Palestinians publicly rejected Kerry's proposal - describing it as marking the "total failure" of peace talks - and on Sunday chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat revealed that direct negotiations with Israel have been frozen. Erekat also told journalists that a framework agreement, rather than a final deal, is the best that can be hoped for by the end of the current nine-month period set for the talks.
- Suspected jihadists detonated a massive bomb early Tuesday morning local time outside a police headquarters in Egypt's increasingly restive Nile Delta region, collapsing the five-story building, killing at least 11 people, and deepening concerns that Islamist fighters are mobilizing to disrupt a January 14th constitutional referendum designed to transition the country to a democratically elected government. The car bombing of the Daqahliya security headquarters came a day after an Al Qaeda-linked group demanded that Egyptian security forces desert their posts lest they be targeted as infidels for supporting the current military-backed, relatively secular interim government. The army is locked in a pitched battle with jihadists. Islamist fighters have in recent months steadily escalated a terror campaign that coalesced after the army this summer deposed the country's Muslim Brotherhood-linked then-president Mohammed Morsi. Earlier today military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali described Cairo's progress in uprooting the jihadist infrastructure in the northern Sinai Peninsula, outlining that 184 terrorists had been killed and over 800 arrested. The Obama administration controversially froze parts of Egypt's security assistance basket earlier this year in response to Cairo's moves against the Muslim Brotherhood. The White House at the time explicitly attempted to insulate Egypt's anti-terror operations from the freeze, but analysts expressed skepticism that such efforts were "actually feasible."
- Analysis highlighting loss of U.S. leverage fuels calls for new Congressional sanctions
- Domestic, regional polls show deepening disapproval of Turkey foreign policy
- Human rights groups and dissidents call for focus on Iran arrest sweeps, execution spike
- Palestinian leadership rejects Kerry proposal as Jordan reportedly backs Israeli security concerns
What we’re watching today:
- Analysts, diplomats, and journalists are continuing to pile on concerns regarding structural asymmetries in a recently signed agreement between the P5+1 powers and Iran, with attention increasingly turning toward how the imbalances between what Iran got and what Iran gave up may disadvantage the United States and its allies heading into comprehensive negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Pointing to language in the Geneva deal that seems to envision Iran being allowed to continue enriching uranium indefinitely, coupled with language under which constraints on such enrichment would be time-bound, the Washington Post had already worried late last month that "the agreement leaves the United States and its partners at a disadvantage in negotiating the comprehensive settlement." The Post's broad concerns were subsequently echoed by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week that "the major American negotiating leverage - the threatened reimposition and strengthening of sanctions - risks losing its edge," even as Iran's continued permitted enrichment "add[s] to its leverage in the follow-up negotiations." Kissinger and Shultz gestured toward a scenario, sketched out early by critics but dismissed as "fanciful" by analysts with ties to the Obama administration, under which a reduction in sanctions triggers a feeding frenzy that would badly erode the entire sanctions regime, as companies and nations rushed to be first back into the Iranian market. Movements in currency and oil markets immediately after the deal was announced were in line with the concerns of critics, and yesterday the Associated Press noted that Iran was preparing both diplomatically and economically for a surge in oil production. Today the Washington Free Beacon published Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) similarly worrying that the Geneva deal deprived the U.S. of leverage, and describing new sanctions - which he called on Congress to pass - as "the single most significant thing we can do to help stop a nuclear weapons capable Iran."
- Turkish figures are scrambling to halt a slide in Ankara's regional stature and in the domestic position of its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, amid new polls showing declines in how people inside and outside Turkey view the country and the AKP. Hurriyet Daily News reported today that the percentage of Turks who feel that AKP's foreign policy is "successful" has dropped 11 points since 2011, to 26.7 when measured last month. Asked more specifically about the AKP's policy toward Egypt - Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan and his administration have fiercely lashed out against the army-backed government that replaced the Muslim Brotherhood-linked government of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi - 48 percent of Turks rated Ankara's approach unsuccessful vs. 29.8 percent who rated it successful. The Daily Star yesterday conveyed polling results showing a similar trend regionally, describing how "Turkey's popularity in the Middle East has dropped sharply over the past two years" in light of what the outlet described as "Ankara's sometimes controversial foreign policy strategy." Erdogan's support for the Brotherhood is widely viewed as a function of a more basic regional gamble made by the AKP, under which the Islamist party allied Turkey with the Brotherhood and Qatar to anchor one of three emerging regional camps. That bloc aligned itself against a second camp - compromised of the U.S.'s traditional Sunni allies and Israel - as well as against a Shiite camp dominated by Iran and its Lebanese and Syrian proxies. Turkey and Qatar this week signed a pact designed to boost energy cooperation between the two countries.
- The Associated Press yesterday conveyed reports from Iranian state media describing an arrest sweep conducted by the country's Revolutionary Guard, in which at least 16 anti-government activists were arrested. The IRNA news agency quoted a prosecutor explaining that the arrested had confessed to their crimes - cooperating with the West - under 'interrogation.' The announcements come as human rights activists are leveling increasingly pointed criticism against the U.S. and its allies for focusing on Iran's nuclear program to the exclusion of its institutionalized human rights atrocities, its global terrorist activities, and its critical support for regimes such as that of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Earlier this week David Keyes and Ahmad Batebi - respectively the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and a former Iranian political prisoner - took to the Daily Beast to declare that "human rights are the biggest victim of the Iranian nuclear deal" announced recently in Geneva and that "the West has abandoned the issue of human rights inside Iran." The two called on global powers to "refocus their attention to human rights in Iran." Evaluating recent events in Iran, Ilan Berman and Mollie Adatto - respectively the vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and a researcher at the organization - noted today that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's election-time pledge "to defend ordinary citizens was campaign propaganda." Rouhani had already come in for sustained criticism over his appointment of Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi to be Justice Minister. Pour-Mohammadi is notorious in the country as one of three revolutionary-era figures who sat on a panel that condemned literally tens of thousands of political prisoners to death. A wave of executions has taken place since Rouhani's election, causing the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran to assess that there has been no fundamental domestic reform since the transition from the administration of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Rouhani's administration.
- The Palestinian leadership today rejected a proposal presented by Secretary of State John Kerry designed to boost peace talks between them and their Israeli counterparts, asserting that the plan - which among other things would divide Jerusalem and cede some of the city to the Palestinians - would only end up "maintaining the occupation." An anonymous official told Reuters that the Palestinians in particular rejected security arrangements aimed at assuring Jerusalem that stability would be maintained in the aftermath of an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and the subsequent creation of a Palestinian state. Israel has insisted that it be allowed to maintain a medium-term presence in the geo-strategically critical Jordan Valley along the Israeli-Jordanian border, while Palestinians have demanded the opposite. The Times of Israel reported today that Jordan is siding with the Israelis. Both Amman and Jerusalem are known to be worried that a future Palestinian state would be unable to prevent extremists from moving materials and personnel back and forth across the Jordanian border. There is a growing Salafist presence in the West Bank, and it is not at all clear that Palestinian security forces would on their own be able to contain violent extremism in the territory.
Reports: White House efforts to block Iran pressure generating broad, bipartisan House and Senate skepticism
- Reports: White House efforts to block Iran pressure generating broad, bipartisan House and Senate skepticism
- As Kerry prepares to present Israel with security plan, speculation swirls over credibility of U.S. security assurances
- As reports mount Hezbollah preparing for war against Israel, leaders blame Jerusalem for overnight assassination claimed by Sunni group
- Buzzfeed: debunked Arafat poisoning story divided Al Jazeera, generated broad international coverage anyway
What we’re watching today:
- Multiple outlets reported yesterday and today on persistent bipartisan skepticism in Congress towards the Obama administration's stance on Iran, with the White House meeting resistance as it tries to convince lawmakers that they should wait for the formal implementation of a recently announced interim agreement - which would subsequently be followed by a minimum of six months of negotiations - before passing any new legislation pressuring the Islamic republic. The State Department last week formally acknowledged that the Geneva agreement between the P5+1 global powers and Iran had not yet come into force, giving Iran a window during it could continue its nuclear activity without regard to the deal, even as the anticipation of reduced sanctions began to ease Iran's economic isolation. Politico quoted Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) expressing frustration over the sequencing and insisting that the U.S. "shouldn't step first." The outlet more broadly described how 'despite nearly two hours of questioning from lawmakers, concerns linger among both Democrats and Republicans,' including over language in the Geneva agreement that allows Iranian scientists to continue expanding their stockpile of enriched material. Foreign Policy Magazine (FP) had earlier in the week noted that "like perhaps no other foreign policy issue, Iran sanctions have pitted President Obama against a sizeable portion of his own party," and revealed that a bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers was "closing in on legislation that would impose new sanctions on Tehran after six months." FP quoted Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) questioning the consistency behind the Obama administration's simultaneous claims that old economic sanctions had coerced Iranian leaders to come to the table against their will, but that new economic sanctions would cause Tehran to walk away from the table by evaporating bilateral good will. Journalists have for weeks been pressing administration officials on exactly that tension.
- The Associated Press (AP) late on Wednesday provided an overview of a security plan that Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to present to Jerusalem this week in an effort to boost U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian talks that the outlet bluntly assesses "have made no progress, despite an April target date for reaching a deal." Israel's left-leaning Ha'aretz had previously disclosed the existence of the proposal, noting that it would seek to address among other things Israel's provision that it be allowed to station military forces in the geo-strategically critical Jordan Valley for an extended length of time. Palestinian leaders have demanded the opposite, and it is widely thought that Washington will attempt to bridge the two positions by offering the Israelis a range of security assurances. The Ha'aretz report however triggered speculation by experts and journalists regarding the credibility of such assurances, with AP diplomatic writer Matthew Lee tweeting that "post-Iran deal [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] can be expected to be skeptical." Obama administration officials have recently faced criticism for seemingly reversing themselves on a range of assurances provided over the years to allies and lawmakers. The White House has specifically been blasted for conceding that Iran will be allowed to continue enriching uranium in the context of a comprehensive agreement, and for misleading journalists who in early 2013 were probing whether government-to-government negotiations were taking place between Washington and Tehran.
- The New York Times today outlined the range of motives for, and the potential cascade effects of, the overnight assassination of Haj Hassan Hilu Laqis, a top Hezbollah figure who the outlet noted was "variously described as running the group's sophisticated telecommunications network and working to procure strategic weapons." The Times emphasized both that Laqis's death was a "significant loss" for the Iran-backed terror group, and that "any of the group’s primary enemies - Israel, the Syrian insurgents the group is battling, or their backers, such as Saudi Arabia or Lebanese Sunni militants - could have had reason to want him dead." Laqis was widely believed to have been playing a central role in Hezbollah's military operations in Syria against the largely Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime, and a previously unknown Sunni group claimed responsibility for the killing. Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, further outlined to Jerusalem Post that "Sunni jihadists... promised long ago that they would kill [Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah]... in this case, it seems they were able to get [his] friend." For their part Hezbollah leaders almost immediately blamed Israel, declaring that the Jewish state would face "all the consequences for this heinous crime." The Christian Science Monitor late Wednesday reported that Hezbollah has been openly preparing for war with the Jewish state, setting up camps across southern Lebanon "which include firing ranges, assault courses and urban warfare sites." The group was described as "training thousands of new recruits to the organization." Hezbollah has seen its decades-old brand as an anti-Israel 'resistance' organization shattered by its participation in the Syrian conflict, and analysts are increasingly concerned that it might seek to provoke a conflict with Jerusalem in order to halt a precipitous slide in its domestic and regional stature.
- Controversy intensified today regarding the degree to which national and global media outlets had been overly credulous in suggesting earlier this year that the 2004 death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was due to polonium poisoning, after the disclosure earlier this week of a new French forensic report debunked the conspiracy theory. Despite there being zero plausible scenarios under which tests conducted in recent years could have detected polonium poisoning dating to Arafat's death, an explicitly inconclusive Swiss lab report describing heightened polonium on some of the terrorist's personal belongings was sufficient to generate broad international coverage suggesting poisoning. Skeptics quickly uncovered evidence that the conspiracy theory was being driven in part by Al Jazeera, as fodder for a multi-year series of sensational broadcasts suggesting that Arafat had been murdered. Buzzfeed today published an expose based on documents leaked from inside the Qatari outlet that reflected 'deep internal concern... with the scientific researcher involved in the [Swiss] report.' One Al Jazeera journalist worried at the time that the station's coverage - which included a story touting the report as a "smoking gun" - "is going to look biased." Buzzfeed noted that the Swiss report nonetheless generated headlines "in most of the Arabic and English-language press." Prominent examples include the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, the BBC, the Telegraph, Salon. The Guardian went so far as to demand a new investigation into Arafat's death, declaring that "the proposition that he was poisoned with polonium-210 will surprise few," that "suspicion points strongly" at Israel as the party which poisoned him, and that "if peace is ever to be achieved between Israelis and Palestinians, the culture of assassination and killing has to stop."